Into The Dead Zone, Part III


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Scene Title Into the Dead Zone, Part III
Synopsis And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, come and see.
Date April 19, 2018

The site of the Cle Elum ambush is perhaps not what Wolfhound was expecting. A narrow two-lane road runs alongside a natural reservoir in the heart of the Pacific Northwest forest, which never loses its greenery except when it snows and the landscape is blanketed in what looks like ash. From what they’ve been told, it was snowing on the night the Yamagato convoy passed through this yawning stretch of pristine wilderness, hoping to avoid the scattered militias that still roam the area.

It isn’t snowing now.

Rain glances off the hoods and roofs of the assembled vehicles instead and forms a mist that hangs heavy and low on the water, making it difficult to see what’s on the other side. More trees might be a safe bet. They’ve passed derelict weigh stations and abandoned truck stops to get here, pulling over only for gas and a quick bite to eat at a rundown diner with rumpled linoleum floors and fluorescent lights that only worked intermittently throughout their meal, which consisted of a venison meatloaf smothered in gravy, locally foraged fiddlehead ferns, and a heaping mountain of mashed potatoes. In the back seat of the SUV there’s a soggy box of cherry pie baked fresh earlier this morning: a gift from their hostess, whose demeanor changed on a time when she learned of their destination.

Cle Elum


April 19th

1:47 pm

These details are ultimately unimportant, however. What matters is this:

“It was around 8:00pm,” their military escort, a lanky hare of an officer with wide set eyes and a pronounced overbite, is saying. “Couldn’t see much, sorta like today but with the snow. Roads were bad so they were taking it slow.”

He points to a set of skid marks on the road that look to be more recent. “Lots of accidents out here in dark. It’s two lanes, yeah? Two narrow lanes for about five miles in either direction. If you wanna catch somebody by surprise, really crowd them in, this is the place to do it.”

He sniffs, using his sleeve to wipe some of the snot from under his nose. When he exhales, his breath leaves his mouth like steam. “We had a few of our guys with them, just in case. It’s like the wild, wild west out here ever since the world went to shit. You’ve got militias, bandits, some Humanis First holdouts, wanna be warlords camping up in the mountains. Lots of folks who might wanna take advantage of a Yamagato supply run.”

Their escort runs his tongue over his front teeth. “Long story short, between us and Yamagato we had maybe sixty guys on the convoy spread across twelve different vehicles. As we’re coming around the corner, they’ve got a couple trucks parked up that way.” He juts his chin in the direction of the curve in the road ahead. “Lights off so we couldn’t see until we were too close to back outta it. No demands, nothing. Just— dead air. Total radio silence. So our guys up front decide to ram ‘em. Why the hell not, right? We’re bigger, better equipped, our truck should’ve torn right through.”

“I’m guessing not? So what did happen?” asks a tiny blonde woman not too far away, lengths of blond hair lay flatter against her head and cling to damp skin. Claire will probably regret not wearing a beanie or something on her head in this cold rain. No doubt after this trip she’ll come down with something new and fun.

Tired blue eyes are hidden behind a pair of mirrored lenses that give her a bit of a cop look, though the overall look seems more militia grunge with her black BDU pants, combat boots, and gray hoodie.

Boots crunch on the gravel of the shoulder as she starts to move toward the direction he motioned for the road block.

“Should’ve,” echoes the Brit, standing just a little behind Claire. “But they had rocket launchers and a helicopter, yeah? Not your usual bandit kit.”

Nick’s blue eyes slide along the skid marks and then follow the curve of the road.

“Well-planned. No way you could see ‘em until it’s too late.” That’s not meant to be consolation, but maybe the rabbity soldier will take it as some anyway. “Obviously not amateur. Even if it was just dumb luck that whoever did this got their hands on the high-end weapons, the strategy behind the ambush feels more professional, doesn’t it.” The lilted question at the end is more the verbal tic than an actual query of his companions.

Epstein has been quiet while the military escort shows them around Cle Elum. Nestled between mountains as it is, the town feels like something from another era. Avi’s squinted review of the location comes over the frames of his sunglasses, ones pushed up the bridge of his nose once it’s clear the escort is done with the rough walk-through.

“Yeah this… isn’t surprising, really.” Epstein motions in the direction of the chokepoint. “Normally I’d say this was a trained ambush, but we just fought a few fucking years of insurgency warfare, everybody knows somebody who understands this shit. If it weren’t for the pictures that made it back east, I’d say this was just some fucking loonies who didn’t know the goddamn war was over. Survivalists, some kind of fucking militia.”

He quiets down again, looking back to the escort for the second — and likely more brutal — half of the story. But the fact that he’s here to tell it at all says something about what happened. Or rather, what didn’t happen.

Richard brings one hand up, thumb and forefinger pushing up the mirrored sunglasses as he rubs against the bridge of his nose. “Let me guess,” he asks, “It exploded when you hit it? Or did they go for the whole ‘parked in front of big-ass cement barrier’ trick?” There’s no judgement against the men who made the ram, he’s just considering how he’d pull off this particular ambush.

“I mean, you’re probably not wrong about some kind of militia,” he notes, tone dry as he slants a look over to Epstein before letting the aviators drop back into place on his face.

Their escort produces a tablet, so outdated that it might as well be an arcane piece of forgotten technology. It looks heavy and unwieldy in his hands. Raindrops bead on the screen. “We got dashcams on the front of every vehicle,” he explains, “just our version of a plane’s little black box, I guess.”

His thumb squeaks on the glass as he locates a file labeled by its date and time: “Give it a second.”

They give it a full fifteen before it loads. Darkness washes over the screen and those assembled around the tablet can vaguely make out the shape of the blockade their escort described. The truck’s windshield wipers tick back and forth like a pendulum.

An engine revs in the background. “Count of three,” the driver’s voice says, distorted by the quality of the recording. The file judders. As he’s about to put the accelerator to the floor, a solitary light winks on in the middle of the road ahead between the truck and the blockade.

It’s a stationary figure on a motorcycle.

“Seriously?” says the soldier in the front passenger seat. “What is this? Chicken?”

The driver snorts and slams on the gas. “Their funeral.”

As the truck barrels forward toward the motorcyclist, the motorcyclist accelerates toward the truck and enters the spill of its headlights, illuminating a full suit of Project Horizon Full-Spectrum Combat Armor with glowing orange lights in its helmet in the instant before the collision, which sounds like a small explosion and sends the motorcyclist smashing through the truck’s windshield. Glass shatters. Flurries of snow are sucked into the empty space left behind.

The motorcyclist should be dead.

Because the dashcam faces outward, the Wolfhound team can only make educated guesses about what happens next inside the truck’s cabin as the driver pulls hard on the wheel, swerving sideways in a wide arc that sends the vehicle skidding off the road and into the trees. He lets out a strangled scream as the truck rolls over once, twice, three times.

As it comes to settle, steel groans, and the soldier in the passenger’s seat can be heard sputtering, choking for breath. “Fuck,” he cries. “Fuck.” Glass tinkles down onto the dashboard as he frantically tries to loosen his seat belt and free himself from the wreckage. “Please don’t. Please please please—”

His pleas increase in intensity and pitch until they reach a squealing crescendo that thins out into a sharp gasp, and then—


The whisper of falling snow and heavy breathing filtered through a helmet fills the cab. «Águila,» says a voice that doesn’t belong to either of the dead soldiers. «Light them up.»

As gunfire erupts in the distance, the motorcyclist’s gloved hand comes into view, followed by the rest of their armored torso as they heave themselves out of the wreckage through the windshield’s remains. They pause on the hood of the truck, neck craned to look up at the sky toward the churning roar of a helicopter’s rotors.

The motorcyclist spreads their arms as bullets rain down, pinging off the truck’s exterior until one gets lucky and blows out the camera, plunging the tablet’s screen back to black.

Play again? the notification box asks.

The appearance of the tablet has Claire glancing at Nick behind her, before she backtracks and moves to where she can see the tablet screen. Though she has to go up on the balls of her feet to remove the glare…. Being short sucks sometimes. The sunglasses are, also, pushed up so that she can see the darkened image better.

Brows lift high as she recognizes the armor, it is one of those things you never forget. She looks at Avi and Richard especially, “Didn’t all of the Frontline soldiers quit or get captured? At least the ones that lived?” There is a tick before understanding hits. She ends up answering her own question, “If the Institute had them back East, it stands to reason they’d be here, too.”

The confusion is still there, however, cause that doesn’t really explain the connection for her.

Nick tips his head to watch the tablet play out its drama. His brows draw together, furrowing his forehead, when the soldier within the cab decides to plow through the motorcyclist — even though he knows this doesn’t end well for the driver.

A brow lifts at the images as they grow more strange, before he glances at Claire. “Could be stolen or one of the guys gone rogue. Don’t think all the suits got accounted for in all the chaos after the eighth.” That he doesn’t have to say which eighth, given the infamy of November 8 in particular, speaks volumes.

“The fuck happen inside that cab. We got anything on an Aguila?” He glances Avi’s way, brows ticking up. “Means eagle — could be a codename or a real name. Betting code.”

Epstein takes a few steps away, rubbing one hand over his strubled mouth. When he circles back, he fires a look over the frames of his sunglasses at Richard, then levels a look on Nick. “I didn't think any suits survived the war,” Epstein notes, and when he reaches their escort he makes a gesture to take the tablet momentarily, and replays the video, freezing the frame on the armor. It takes Avi a few times to get the angle just right, and it still doesn't show much. But it shows enough.

“See that?” Avi motions to the helmet. “Some kind of light-up sensors, those orange points there. Might be thermal or infrared sensors. The Mk I armor that the public-facing FRONTLINE used didn't have that. I'm sure Richard could tell you if the Institute’s private kill-squad had that, but I'm doubting it.”

Motioning down to the rest of the armor, Avi points out the arms. “No visible hydraulics, the armor plating looks like the AEGIS body armor we use.” A look up to Richard again, at that. “These might be some kind of prototypes that survived the war, or… another manufacturer has started building new suits.”

Epstein hands the tablet back slowly. “Two corporations out west could afford that; Praxis Heavy Industries and Yamagato. Since I doubt Yama’s interested in spiking their own football, my money right now is on Praxis funding this. Maybe some kind of proxy army, trying to dig into Yamagato’s space.”

But then, looking over to Nick, Avi seems to have reservations. “If that's the case, how’s this tie in to our walking dead friends? Because I have a hard time believing any major corporation wants to resurrect dead Vanguard.” He sighs, heavily, and scrubs one hand at the side of his head.

“Only other option I can think of is the Institute…” And it's clear by the way Avi is even reluctant to say that, he hopes it isn't the case. “We still know fuck all about how they're still being financed or what it is they're doing now that management is all dead.”

“I’m… unfamiliar with that model,” is Richard Ray’s observation at Avi’s question, staring down at the picture being shown off, examining the little details that demonstrate its difference between it and the suits that he’s seen. The public FRONTLINE suits, the 00-squad suits, Warren’s prototype Arkham-class suits… it doesn’t match any of them. All of Avi’s observations are right on the money.

Ordinarily, he’d be full of theories and ideas right now. Instead, he’s just staring at the display for a few moments in silence, listening to Epstein’s own ideas as he theorizes about what corporation or group might have built them. Then he’s turning to take a few steps away, one hand raking back through his hair as he mutters under his breath, “Fuck.” Whatever his thoughts are, it appears they’re not very good.

“Couldn’t tell you where they got the armor,” their escort says, powering down the tablet to conserve its remaining battery life. “Can tell you there are four of ‘em. Out here the winter’s dark, long. People got overactive imaginations and they get scared. You hear all sorts’ve stories about cannibals and post-apocalyptic cults, wendigos and shit. Maybe some of it’s true.”

He looks out across the river into the impenetrable swath of fog. It floats over and through the trees, which create layer upon layer of strange, jagged shadows. “They call ‘em the Horsemen. Like outta the Bible, right? Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Lots of rumours, can’t substantiate,” he draws the word out, sub-stant-cheeeee-ate, “a fuckin’ thing. Story goes like this: One fights for power, one for money, one for vengeance, the last for his own absolution. Real Spaghetti Western trash.”

Another sniff, and he’s reaching into his pocket for a soggy package of cigarettes and a lighter. He does not have the courtesy to ask if anyone else would like a smoke. “They first showed up last year, September or October, maybe. Consolidated a lot of the smaller rogue militias real quick. We think they’ve got maybe two hundred or three hundred guys with wartime experience further west, round Issaquah, Whidbey Island, could even be as far out as the San Juans if they’ve got boats.”

He struggles to get the flame to take, even when he cups his hand around the cigarette, sheltering it from the wind. “Lot of people don’t wanna talk specifics with us. They like ‘em. Got this misguided notion in their heads that they’ll offer ‘em protection from the real bad hombres, that they’ve got a colony with solar power and clean water and shit. Anybody’s welcome so long as they swear fealty, blah blah blah.”

The talk of the Four Horsemen has Claire’s blonde brows lifting a little… a glance going to each of her travel companions. “Worse than Vanguard?” Claire asks curiously. Trying to flood the world with a nuke is pretty high up on the woman’s scale of really bad shit. She might be a bit biased though.

“Feel like we’ve stepped into a Stephen King novel…” Claire shakes her head and looks back up the road where the road block was. There is something she wants to ask, but she seems a little hesitant to ask around the others.

Can’t be that weird of a question since they had potentially two or more dead people running around. “Swear fealty? To them? Or do the Horsemen have someone they answer, too?” She has a particular name in mind, but she doesn’t voice it.

Nick nods at Avi’s corrections, scowl etched even deeper into his face as the guard talks of the rumors of the Horsemen. “The fuck is it with fours,” he says, small, humorless smirk tossed Avi’s way.

“Definitely not a surviving suit, even refurbished, if they got four of them,” he adds. “So, one — is there any connection between Vanguard and Praxis? Probably not on paper, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.” This isn’t a question he thinks will be answered immediately but serves more as food for thought or future research.

His blue eyes settle back on the guard. “No names or descriptions of the Horsemen? Even if it’s just gossip. Aside from Aguila? Do you know anyone who might share some information if they were persuaded a bit?”

“Yeah I'm sure twenty bucks and a Kit-Kat bar are going to coerce folks into snitching on the four fucking horsemen of the apocalypse.” Epstein takes one hand through his hair and starts to walk away, though it's clear he's going to circle back. “This is some hot bullshit. Volken was a Grade-A Vaudeville motherfucker and this…”

Epstein doesn't finish his sentence, he just looks at Claire with visible concern. “All this rain and fog is making me remember Madagascar just a little too vividly for my fucking comfort.” Avi shoots a look over at Richard and Nick. “Our contacts further west might know more.”

“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see,” Richard recites in response to that, some memory from the days that he’d spent in the orphanage being raised by the nins. A deep breath, and he turns back towards the others.

“Yeah. We need to get in touch with our contacts to the west,” he agrees, seemingly distracted by the entire situation — and worried, as well, from the shadowed expression on his face, “Maybe they’ll have some answers for us.” His gaze cuts to Avi, “I don’t like this, Epstein. I don’t like any of this.”

“Vanguard’s way above my pay grade, honey,” their escort tells Claire, “and I ain’t read that stupid book.” He’s finally gotten his cigarette to light, and takes an extra long drag through the filter to ensure it continues burning after he’s put the lighter away.

To Nick, he says: “We’re pretty sure two of ‘em are the same two in that picture that’s been making the rounds.” Which is what started this investigation in the first place, even if he doesn’t know it. “That Latino motherfucker with the bum leg is mean, and his buddy? The guy with the hella shitty tattoos? He’s worse. Acts like he’s some kinda god.”

He blows out smoke through his nostrils and open mouth. “Don’t have much on the other two, sorry. We’ve sent two teams out to gather intel and nobody’s come back yet, so we gotta expect the worst.” He fixes Richard with a stare, and he’ll see for the first time that his eyes are bloodshot, puffy, with sagging black circles underneath. Avi could probably count on one hand the number of hours of sleep he’s gotten in the past forty-eight. “Look,” he says. “I’m gonna be real with you fellas for a second. The only reason this matters? The only reason anyone back east even gives a shit about any of this is because Yamagato. They could kill hundreds of our people in one shot and it wouldn’t even be a fucking blip in the news. But money?

“Money talks.”

He rolls his shoulders, working the kinks and sore spots from his tired muscles. “If you’re thinking of going out there, out past Snoqualmie, my official recommendation to y’all is don’t.

There are no words from Claire, no…. Correction to the guy as to why they were there. The look that Claire angles at Avi, says that she might just be thinking that too. It reminds her of things like mad scientists and shotgun to the head. She doesn’t say it outloud, just flips down her sunglasses covering her expression, and turns to pace up the road a little; hands shoved into the pockets of her damp gray hoodie against the cold.

With a little distance between her and the others, she continues to listen. The suggestion not to go has her turning back to look at the other three. “We are going… right?” She calls back, asking them. Claire almost sounds concerned that they will say ‘No.’ Only way to get answers is to keep going. Brows lift above the line of her sunglasses. “We came out this far….” She trails off… giving a little shrug. Despite the fact, she might be facing the very thing that still gives her nightmares… the tiny woman seem determined to see it through.

Nick rolls his eyes at Avi. “No, but safe passage to the fucking Safe Zone might. Think bigger, Cap’n Crunch.”

To Richard, he just tips his head while Ray recites from Revelation. “Fuck, that’s not creepy at all, Raytech.”

This road trip has gotten a lot less fun — and it wasn’t fun to begin with.

He quiets to listen to the guard again, filing away the descriptions, giving the man a nod of thanks for the advice. He doesn’t answer Claire when she asks her question — he’s not the person in charge here.

“Alright next fucker to quote the Bible who isn't a priest gets left behind.” Avi grouses as he adjusts his sunglasses. He eyes the escort next, frowning. “I think we've seen enough here. When I get back east I'll send word up to see if we can get some kind of fucking relief out here for you because this,” he motions all around, “is just un-fucking-tenable with the Sign of the Beast bullshit going on.”

With that he walks over to Claire and claps a hand on her shoulder, giving her a brief of course we’re going look on his face. Then, squinting, he looks back in the direction of the Katsch. “We gonna mount the fucking roof gun first, though.”

“Thanks,” their escort says, a little flat like maybe he’s heard that before.

He probably has.

“Good luck out there, friend,” he adds. That’s flat, too. “One last thing I want you to keep in mind. These people, they’re good— like Black ops, MI6, KGB good. They know what each other’s thinking before they’re even thinking it. Tight, right? You somehow manage to take one out, the other three are gonna be all over you like dogs on an old shoe.”

He reaches out and clasps Nick’s hand in a limp farewell. “If you get a shot,” he says, leaning in so that only the CIA operative can hear, “best you think twice before you pull the trigger.” He glances over at the Katsch, the corner of his mouth pulling up into a smirk that makes the cigarette hanging there wag.

“Even if it’s on top of that.”

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