0054 – Leftenant Faulkner: A Good Man, Part 7

By Faulkner’s reckoning, Pak’ton was working with an eight hour head start. Pak’ton was one man, alone without maps or other navigational tools, in a hostile and alien environment. Faulkner, on the other hand, had been sent out with a squad of seven Auxiliaries to apprehend him. Captain Perrin’s logic, seemingly, had been to set a foreigner to catch a foreigner.

Eight men have more brains between them, but on the other hand, they couldn’t actually move any faster. If the search went on for multiple days (and it likely would, given the similarity in pace between pursuer and pursued) they could at least sleep in shifts to keep watch, but they would still have to stop for each man to get his rest.

This was integral to Faulkner’s plan to sabotage his own pursuit. By not allowing his men to rest simultaneously, he would ensure that his party had to stop for longer than Pak’ton each night, the excuse being to stay watchful against threats which he felt almost sure were nonexistent.

There was, however, one factor which cast a significant shadow over the whole affair.

Scribe Cassius’ requisition paperwork for the resupply of breather mask air filters had finally cleared less than an hour ago. Both Faulkner and his Auxiliaries were sporting freshly supplied masks, with air filters that would last for two weeks of continuous use.

Pak’ton, who had fled the night before, would have less than forty-eight hours left on his filter.

“Sir.” The huge, gruff Auxiliary with the mismatched pauldrons signalled him. He was the man who had broke the news of K’Pale’s escape – right in front of Captain Perrin. His name, Faulkner had learned, was Qifu.

“Yes, Auxiliary?” Faulkner answered, keeping up formality for once. His nerves were on edge, and the thickening undergrowth in the dense forest of bioluminescent mushrooms was snagging at his every step.

Qifu tapped his mask. “Just a thought, sir. The breathers.”

Faulkner’s heart sank.

“We’ve got new filters, sir. Pak’ton doesn’t.” Qifu seemed to have read Faulkner’s mind.

“That’s right!” Remarked a young, wiry Auxiliary keeping step behind them. His name was Mahaux.

“Good thinking.” The serpentine, raspy voice of Ku’eh chimed in, in noticeably worse English. It was fortunate that the breathing masks blotted out this man’s smell, Faulkner had thought when they first entered the Shroud weeks ago. “He have two days at top to get out of the Shroud, or he will dying.”

“And he knows it.” Qifu nudged Faulkner’s arm in an insubordinate gesture.

“Keep your hands to yourself, Auxiliary.” Faulkner’s tone was icy.

“Sir, surely you must act on this information.” Qifu admonished him without a second thought. “Only one route will lead him out of the Shroud in time. The one we came in by, in the first place.”

Faulkner closed his eyes in frustration. His mind raced, rapidly trying to think of a way to debunk this idea. It was the one thing he’d hoped none of them would notice until it was too late.

“We’re heading the wrong way, then.” Mahaux’s voice had an urgent tremble.

“Yes.” Qifu nodded, reaching behind to gesture approvingly to the young soldier. “Northeast, Sir. We need to change our heading.”

Faulkner had no choice. He drew the party to a stop.

“Very well.” He acquiesced. “I can’t refute the logic of it. Commendable thinking, Qifu.”

After taking a few minutes to ensure their bearing was correct according to Regula’s woefully lacking maps of the Shroud, the squad resumed walking. Every agonising step seemed to take them into thinner and thinner brush through which they could make faster ground. Faulkner could only hope that Pak’ton had found it similarly easy going.

Hours dragged by. The slight increase in breathing difficulty inflicted by the masks did nothing to dampen the rowdy chatter of the Auxiliaries. Most of them communicated – and sang the odd bawdy marching song – in Agarthan. Qifu, Mahaux and Ku’eh spoke the best English, and were the only ones who used it as their lingua franca. Ku’eh, an Agarthan native speaker, used the language only when addressing the other two, but Qifu and Mahaux, both from far-flung lands, had no choice but to chat in a language their Leftenant could actually understand.

“Have you ever been on a manhunt for a traitor before?” Mahaux asked excitedly.

“Once.” Qifu told him. “Only once in my twenty years in the Army.”

“Really?” Faulkner could almost hear Mahaux going wide-eyed. “Did you catch him?”

“There’s a reason I was only on the one manhunt, boy.” There was malice in Qifu’s outwardly sombre tone. “People don’t desert from Regula, because it’s suicidal. Of course we got him.”

Qifu told the tale, blow by blow, despite having already revealed its ending. Faulkner, if he caught Pak’ton, would have to end his life with a bullet through the brain. Qifu’s old superior (for whom, it seemed, he held rather more respect) had not been so merciful.

Finally, night fell. The virtually impenetrable, soupy black darkness, thick with spores, gave them no choice but to stop and make camp.

“I’ll take first watch.” Faulkner said. It would give him time to think.

“Why set a watch at all?” Asked Qifu.

It was the question Faulkner had been dreading. Please, not this too, he thought.

“There’s none of those Lurker things out here, sir.” Qifu’s slow tone, dripping mutiny, drew the attention of the whole band. Silence fell.

Ku’eh broke the spell. “None. Not in this part of Shroud. Agarthans from nearby, we tell you this when first you come in. Why Perrin picked this way.”

Faulkner swallowed. He had half a mind to insist on setting a watch anyway. But then he met Qifu’s eyes, and saw the expression in them.

He knows. Faulkner thought. Somehow, he knows. Is he playing with me? Or does he want me to cross the line to traitor openly, in front of all of them, before he makes his move?

Resigned, afraid, Faulkner set no watch.

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