Wednesday, February 22, 2051
What was the intersection of State Road 93 with State Road 71 back in pre-Collapse times is now a ruin of despair. With no government caring for the roads, the pavement has become broken beyond recognition, little more than large chunks of gravel. The intersection has it even worse off – the overpass heading south shattered to pieces long ago, showering the underpass with rubble and creating an unnatural canyon.
The Lazarus team has been following the so-called ‘Pan-American Trail’, a series of roads, trails, and paths that circumvent some of the worst that the Badlands have to offer. State Road 93 is their current path, heading into Rising only a few dozen miles away, but even this ‘safe’ path is rarely trodden – and even rarer does anyone care for it. The pylons holding up the high-speed maglev train high above the grim muck of the Badlands dot the landscape, providing the only evidence of human civilization throughout most of the journey. The Lazarus team has arrived at the intersection of 93 and 71, set on continuing down to Rising – and, from there, their future.
Wormwood stands up in his seat and studies the intersection, through both his own augmented vision and his Valkyrie scope. “Looks like a great place for an ambush, if someone around here was so inclined.” Mac mutters under his breath, counting each one of the pylons as they pass with unerring accuracy. “Who would ambush people who never come down this road, Worm?” Wormwood flips Mac the finger, “Would you rather I didn’t look and we got our tenders caught?” Pacoy mutters under his breath about tempting fate.
Pitbull hums along to Circuit Grin’s “Imminent Shutdown”, a synth heavy, but surprisingly gentle track, as he circumvents boulders and road debris with ease as Mac scoffs. “You’d probably get off on that, Worm. If you look for an ambush, there’s undoubtly going to be an ambush.” Nevertheless, Mac rights his eyes, counting the pylons under his breath without looking at them, his head snaking up to be between Pitbull and Wormwood as he scans the intersection. The only thing more likely to draw an ambush than saying “This would be the perfect spot for an ambush” would be saying “Who would set up an ambush here?” Pacoy thinks to himself as he adjusts the rifle in his lap.
Wormwood stiffens. “Something moved over there! Pits, shut that bloody noise off and stop the car so I can hear.” Pitbull scowls as the music decreases to a murmur. “Whatcha think ya saw?” He growls, with little effort to hide his irritation at turning down his music. Wormwood sends the digital file of the flash of color he spotted to the others’ computers and cranks up the gain on his augmented hearing as the engine dies. “Well I’ll be – that’s quite a thing you’ve spotted there, Wormwood.” Mac whistles through his teeth.
Sighting on the area where he saw movement through his rifle scope, Wormwood listens carefully, sifting out the ambient sounds of wind and moving dust. “Shit!” he curses. “Something is on fire over there, I can hear it burning and someone moving, maybe wounded. I can hear two car engines too, getting closer.” He slaps the roof of the Amur over Pits’ head “Start it up again, bro, and let’s go look.” Mac nods to himself, “If someone’s wounded, we should help them.”
Pitbull shrugs. “So what do we do?” Pitbull says as though Wormwood had suggested that they were out of pickles, as he sets the Amur on autopilot while he grabs another burger from his bag from town. Pacoy briefly considers mentioning that they are on a time-sensitive mission against competitors that have already shown their willingness to murder for the mission, but decides a helping hand might be the right call, and keeps it to himself. Wormie grins into the wind as he answers Pitbull. “Isn’t that obvious? We stick ourselves in the middle and look for the biggest profit. Isn’t that what we always do?”
Mac has spotted something too now – a patch of what could be blood. “Something’s happened up ahead – maybe some Adopters got hit – there’s blood and an vegetable oil spill up ahead, near a disturbance in the rubble.” He reaches into his jacket and checks his pistol. Adjusting his rifle to the edge of the window without being an obvious threat, Pacoy attempts to get a look at what ever is out there while keeping his rifle ready at the same time. Pitbull simply shrugs through a mouthful of burger as the music hums back in, this time with Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” crescendo-ing into the Amur.
As soon as the Amur gets close to the rubble in the underpass, Wormwood levers himself out of the sunroof and leaps from the slow-moving SUV to the ground. “You guys check out Mac’s bloodstain, I’ll go high and keep an eye on the incoming,” he sends as he heads for the top of the rubble, moving stealthily from cover to cover. “Be careful there, Worm – the closer we get, the less I like this!” Mac experimentally tests the door to ensure it is unlocked. Pitbull grimaces. “I saw this in a movie once. They lure some poor saps to help ’em, then they hold them up at gunpoint, take their guns and vehicle, and leave ’em stranded in the middle of nowhere.” “Umm Mac,” Pacoy starts “I think Worm asked Us to go check it out while he plays look-out.”
Mac replies to both: “Then did the next group have to pay it forward and mug the next people? I know he’s looking out over us, Pac, but we have the luxury of these nice walls and mobility, and each other, and all the guns in the car.” He thumps the side of the Amur affectionately. “All our bo’s got out there is a rifle and some rocks.” Pacoy smiles inwardly at preparing the quick-release protocol on the roof for the Harpy. That, at least, is reassuring.
Wormwood makes it up to the top of the rubble-strewn overpass, allowing him to look down on the scene below, his rifle cradled in his arms. Wormwood can see a bit more detail in the rubble of the overpass – there, the bloodstain Mac noticed earlier; there, five feet away, a makeshift cradle of rubble holding up a large piece of the overpass, probably enough to create a shelter large enough to hide several people in in relative comfort when lying down. He can even see the path whoever left that bloodstain took, leading out to the opposite side of the overpass.
And that’s where he sees the wreck – the remains of what was once a dune buggy, probably crashed here no more than five minutes ago. Its fuel stores are still on fire, but its engine must have been pretty strong (if small), because the thing has a set of bolted-on armor panels and what looks to have been a spot for a gun turret behind the driver, though no weapon can be seen. Out in the distance, Wormwood can see two more dune buggies of a similar make racing towards the intersection, skirting around a section of ground marked with makeshift ‘skull-and-crossbones’ signs. The wrecked buggy’s tracks go straight through that area, and there are several scorch marks along its trail.
“Hey, Keep an eye out for the Early Bird while you’re up there, Wormie.” Pacoy says with a smile.
Wormwood swiftly relays what he sees via the team data-net. “What do you make of this, guys? Looks to me like the guys in the buggy hit some mines, but were trying to make a move on whoever built the shelter.”
As the Amur closes in, Pacoy launches 2 Buzzbots – one towards the wreckage, one skulking towards the dune buggies.
Mac sends, “Typical – used to see this sort of thing all the time before the Gems moved in. The roundheels figured the Adopters for easy targets, but bit off more than they could chew. So there’s more on the way, at a guess.” Mac readies his pistol as he tries to see if there is anyone remaining in the makeshift shelter. Wormie replies, “Mac, check out the shelter I’m seeing – I think that’s where the wounded sounds I heard came from. Pac, can you send a bot to look at where I saw that movement so we don’t get blindsided?” With that, he zeroes his scope in on the lead incoming buggy for a closer look.
Mac nods, realizing only too late that Wormwood can’t see him. “Sure thing pal.” He gently eases the door open, stepping out, savoring the chance to stretch his legs as the graveled asphalt crunches beneath the hard soles of his shoes. He approaches the hideout, hand away from his gun, taking pains to keep his hands visible. “On it,” Pacoy comms as he diverts the buggy-bound bot back to investigate the movement “Keep on eye on the buggies, I got eyes on shelter and searching for the initial movement.”
Wormwood watches the feeds from his team-mates out of the corners of his point of view as he zeros in on the lead buggy. “Two per buggy, guys, trashyard armor, big gun in back. Want me to shoot one?”
Eris steps out with Mac, her own cambots swirling overhead, making sure to get good angles of everything. “Are you boys always so quick to help someone?” Mac smiles, “Ma’am, everybody’s somebody, and sometimes those people need help. It’s only proper.” He keeps trying to get an eye in the hideout, keeping the other aware for any surprises. Pitbull snorts. “No.” He grunts incredulously at Eris. “Well… I guess we are, but I’m not. I’ve had my fair share of being screwed after helping.”
Mac clicks through his teeth, subvocalizing to Wormwood between the noises. “Do we have any idea if they’re hostile? Don’t want to plug an innocent.” Pacoy then chips in with, “Have a message we want to broadcast, guys?” Pacoy asks as the drones close in on their destinations, “I’m open to suggestions.”
The Buzzbot moves into the rubble-strewn intersection, bobbing down to look around the area, the soft whirr of its blades churning the air the only sound until the desert stillness is interrupted by the loud ‘bang!’ of a close-ranged rifle shot, echoing out from the sheltering crevice formed from the rubble and the overpass. The last image the Buzzbot sends is the barrel of a gun, peeking out from the shadows inside the crevice, the barrel shaking – but not enough for the shot to be off-target.
“Sumpain!” Pacoy curses “To late on the messages for their tastes, I guess!” Pitbull’s eyes widen. “I think that qualifies as hostile!” He yanks out his Urban Fox, and races his brain for something resembling a non-suicidal plan.
An answering fusillade of fire comes from the approaching dune buggies, though it doesn’t appear to be at any particular target – the shots sprinkle the hill of the overpass, mostly centering around the wrecked vehicle, but none come anywhere near to Wormwood, and the others in the Lazarus team are protected by the hill.
Mac ducks at the sound of the rifle report, motioning for Eris to get back. He draws his pistol as he continues heading towards the hideout. “I think that qualifies as hostile, Wormwood – I hate killing, but I hate us getting killed more.”
Wormwood sends, “I’m calling the incoming buggies hostile, guys – they just sprayed and prayed, so this is no rescue party.” “The shelter might just be defending themselves,” Pacoy warns “Give me a second.” Pacoy remotely shuts down the damaged Buzzbot while the other Buzzbot still searches for the cause of the initial movement. He launches a kestrel and sends it on a protected/indirect arc towards the makeshift shelter. “*Stand-Down. Repeat, Stand Down. Welcome Wagon Inbound! ¡Retirarse! ¡Retirarse!*” The kestrel’s speakers broadcast as it makes it way at great speed.
“Wormy, I’m giving you full permission to drag out your rifle and waste these fuckers! I would, but I’m driving!” Pitbull roars as he’s still coming up with a driving plan.
Wormwood lets out his breath and squeezes the Valkyrie trigger, sending three big rounds towards the lead buggy. He misses twice, as the buggy speeds across the crosshairs in his HUD, but the last shot hits the buggy’s driver just beside his ear. The bullet mushrooms as it enters the brain cavity, shockwaves rapidly flowing out from the impact point. It takes only milliseconds – milliseconds that are covered in excruciating detail by Eris’s high-speed professional-grade camera drones – for the skull to completely shatter, with bone, blood, and gray matter exploding outwards in an orgy of gore. When the residue clears, the only thing left of the driver’s head is the stump of his neck – and the bits of brain matter covering the gunner in the seat behind him. Wormwood sees his round hit and immediately ducks down, then begins to work his way towards a new vantage thirty feet away. “Scratch one bad guy.”
As he’s moving forward, Mac winces at the sound of the gunshot. “What the heck are you saying, Pacoy? Why are you calling the guy a fannypaddle?”
The lead buggy, now down one driver, slows to a stop; once Wormwood is once again looking down his scope, he can see that the gunner has pulled some kind of a handbrake, stopping the buggy from cart-wheeling him to his doom. The gunner fires off a few shots, but stops after it becomes clear that Wormwood isn’t in the same location any longer. Instead, he pulls out a heavy pair of binoculars, and begins searching the overpass. The other buggy continues onwards, now 300 yards and closing. The shelter doesn’t fire any more shots; the Kestrel is unhindered in its approach.
Wormwood switches to the second buggy as he sends “Pits, we’re committed here. Grab your Reaper and support Mac.” This time, though, all three shots go wild and he ducks then moves again.
“No more fire from the shelter, I’m running under the assumption Buggies + Baddies, Shelter needs Saving. If anyone has another plan, toss it out,” Pacoy comms as he repositions the kestrel to a protective position above the shelter. Wormie replies on the team net as he moves, “Makes sense Pac. Let’s deal with the biggest obvious threat then see where we go from there.”
“Wait, support? They’re getting past you, Worm?” Swearing in Russian over the comms, Mac fumbles to get his pistol out of it’s shoulder holster while still trying to move towards the hideout, his free hand extended in that direction. Wormie sends, “I’m one guy with a rifle and they’re in armored cars with mounted weapons, Mac. Miracles take time.”
Gunfire begins to hit all around Wormwood. It doesn’t appear to be aimed at his exact location, but it’s streaming in around him from the machine gun on the parked buggy. The gunner appears to be attempting to suppress Wormwoods movement, being unable to get a direct fix of his location but enough to know he’s somewhere in the area. Wormwood comms, “Shit, that’s heavy fire. I could do with some help if you’re done picking your nose, Pits!”
Pitbull goes from a grimace to a snarl. “Ah, fuckit. Over-analyzed…” Pitbull growls as he slides into a parking position and snatches up his Reaper. Mac picks up the pace to get towards the hideout, “You doing okay up there Worm? You ain’t behind the eight-ball, are you?”
Wormwood tries an acrobatic flip-over down the rocks, intending to get away from the incoming machine gun fire, but inadvertently exposes himself to that fire for an instant. There’s a scream of pain over the net as a heavy bullet goes clean through Wormwoods right hand and spangs away off the grip of his rifle. “Aaaah, Sonofabitch!”
Worried, Mac tries to suppress the stress in his voice at his comrades’ outbursts. “Wormwood? You hurt, bo?” Obviously in pain, Wormwood sends back “I’ll live, got me in the hand. I’ll head back towards the SUV and cover home base left handed.” “One of your flippers? Those damn rats! Pitbull, don’t you get yourself lit up either, hear?” Mac tries to make his way towards cover near the hideout.
Concerned over Wormwoods injuries, Pacoy readies his rifle and keeps an eye out for the buggies, while simultaneously sending the kestrel in to flank the lead buggy. Pitbull comms the team. “I’ve found a vantage point. Someone with a gun take up Wormwood’s position! Mac, tend to Wormwood’s wound!” Pitbull stalks his way to a concrete wall near the fallen overpass, putting himself on a relatively unseen path to a position to flank their attackers. Mac spits out of frustration. “I wish I knew my way around a bandage, Pitbull, but I think I might just make things worse.”
Wormwood heads towards the SUV, there to dig into the medical supplies and patch up his own hand. He digs through the stores until he finds the Pocket Medic. Clamping it to his wounded hand, he waits as it dispenses bandage spray and an anesthetic, sighing in relief as its tiny robotic arms stitch up the wound. The little unit can do nothing about the shattered bones in his hand, however, and he grits his teeth every time a movement jars them.
The second buggy continues to come closer, now less than 100 yards from the intersection. It’s beginning to slow down, the gunner becoming ever more vigilant, firing off staccato bursts at anything and everything that seems to move. The stationary buggy remains on overwatch, out in the distance, just waiting for something to spring up.
Mac glares at the hideout, pistol readied in the direction the buggies are most likely to come from. “Hey, durachit, are you alive in there?”
Pitbull finds his firing point and searches for a target. Shit-shit-shit The little Kestrel flies down the line of the road, coming upon the same concrete barricade that Pitbull is hiding behind. The diminutive bot pops up from behind the barrier, then immediately moves down to hug the ground as it zooms towards the incoming buggy. The gunner, looking towards the intersection and away from the Kestrel, misses the small bot entirely until it pops up from behind the buggy, gaining enough altitude to shoot down into the seats, avoiding the head-on direction the buggy’s armor plating was obviously intended for.
Pacoy takes over the kestrels gun controls, and opens fire with a burst on the buggy’s driver from behind. just as Pitbull takes aim at the gunner and fires off three rounds at him, Reaper bucking in his grip with each shot. The combination of attacks, both from unexpected angles, ensures that the hostiles aren’t able to dodge out of the way, and all six bullets fired hit their marks. The powerful APHEX rounds pierce right through the buggy’s armor, penetrating into the meat and bone of the buggy’s gunner, who slumps to the ground, out of the fight – and bleeding heavily from a myriad of wounds. The driver isn’t quite so lucky; the Kestrel’s small bullets didn’t damage a lot of tissue, but one of them ripped right through the driver’s chest and straight into his vital organs, making a mess of his right lung. Now he sits in his seat, a sucking chest wound gaping for air as the dust of the Badlands begins to settle into the new bodily orifice. The driver may survive the blood loss, but the environment, and lack of decent medical care, will ensure a slow, agonizing death from infection.
Returning the kestrel to it’s own devices, Pacoy scrambles down to see if he can help Wormwood with his injuries. Pacoy’s kestrel hugs the terrain, making itself as small of a target as possible while racing towards the remaining buggy. Meanwhile, Wormwood curses at his useless right hand as he straps his rifle over his right shoulder and draws a single Prowler pistol left-handed, then rushes back towards where he knows Mac is stationed.
Pitbull lets off a war whoop, as he changes targets to the gunner off in the distance, his augmented sight still having difficulty drawing a bead on him. The distant gunner looks a bit panicky in Pitbull’s scope as he realizes that his entire team has died around him, and he begins pointing his mounted machine gun towards the latest source of agony – Pitbull, no longer quite hidden and without proper camouflage gear, is silhouetted against the desert sky. The gunner pulls the trigger on his machine gun, and the gunshot can be heard even the 300 yards away that Pitbull stands – but it sounds distinctly off, with a very metallic ‘clang’ at the end rather than the more-common ‘pfft’ as the bullet goes whizzing by.
Pitbull returns fire almost instantly; when the bullet hits, right on the gunner’s sternum, he still has a look of astonishment in his eyes, looking down at his gun. He slumps backwards in his seat, that look frozen in his face for all time. Pitbull lets off another whoop as he raises his Reaper. “Now, where’s crevice dude at?” He wonders aloud.
Watching the feed from the others, Wormwood sees that the assailants in the buggies are all down, taps Mac on the shoulder, then heads carefully into the crevice, augmented vision compensating for the gloom. “Now to find out if we’ve a victim or…a victim…in here.”
As Wormwood speaks those words, the rubble blocking the entrance to the crevice slowly falls back with a crash. A bruised and battered hand reaches out of the hideaway, grasping for the light. As the sun moves past its high noon position in the sky, shadows play upon the face of a young woman crawling out into the daylight, blood covering her hair. She looks up at Wormwood and Mac, fear stark on a strikingly beautiful face, marred only by the fact that one side of it has been ripped off, revealing a shiny metal surface under her skin. One pale blue eye, one flat metallic gray, stare up into the sky and blink.