Operation Geopoint, Part II


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Scene Title Operation Geopoint, Part II
Synopsis Wolfhound's Strike Team Keelut investigates a lead on an Institute facility on the border of the Dead Zone.
Date May 8, 2018

“Did you just call Ivanov charming?

James Dearing squints, intensely.


Skies over Colorado

May 8, 2018

9:37 am

“Look, I’m just saying that the dreary-eyed soldier of fortune look is on point, and I’m digging this entire thing you’ve all got going on.”

The private jet belonging to the SLC-Expressive Services Agency bound from the NYC Safe Zone to Boulder Colorado is a comfortable means of travel. SESA, cooperating with Wolfhound, has offered their spare seats to members of Strike Team Keelut bound for a tactical engagement on the edge of what remains of America.

“I mean, you’ve got this whole Irish warrior goddess look going on, and he’s what, your stand in Captain America? I’m all about this.”

But SESA isn’t just sending UN human rights observers out to Colorado, they’re also sending one of their agents with a gift for people: Rhys Bluthner.

With the majority of the 4-hour flight completed, Rhys has taken to sitting down with the members of Wolfhound and enjoying their company by commenting on Wolfhound’s overall aesthetic.

“I’ve always figured I’m more Boudica than a Morrigan,” Rue interjects, “but I really like the way you think.” A smirk pulls up the corner of her mouth. She especially likes to watch Dearing complain about not being the charming one.

“I initially pegged Dearing for James Bond, but…” She frowns thoughtfully, and opts for a more obscure reference. “Maybe Sabin?” There’s a hopeful glance around for a glimmer of recognition. “No? Okay, I did watch him hurl a door like Cap would a shield, so I’m definitely seeing the Captain America comparison.”

"You can only say that because you don't actually know me," Fel replies, bluntly. The last person who could genuinely have thought him charming - and that with an enormous grain of salt - died seven years ago. Bluthner's comments on Dearing have him looking at the other op thoughtfully, then back to Rhys. He clearly has no idea what to make of the SESA agent, and has decided that 'mild bemusement' is apparently the flavor of the hour. Bar the gear he's got on and with him, he's got that air he always used to, even when he was in the FBI, of being an accountant who has wandered into this mess somehow.

“This is…” Dearing covers his face with one hand, slouching back in his seat in defeat. A flutter of laughter escapes Rhys as he watches the Hounds work with one-another. There’s a brief look from Rhys to Rue, then back to Felix. The younger man eyes Felix up and down and raises one brow slowly.

“Mr. Dearing, if I couldn’t see the trail of broken hearts extending out from you I would’ve for sure said you’d find Ivanov very charming.” Rhys waves one hand in the air, dismissively. “You’ve all got some fascinating personal connections, because the world is just a big ball of mystery and love or… something like that.”

Checking his phone, Rhys smiles cheerfully. “Well, it looks like we’re officially in Colorado, my phone just switched time zones on me. Looks like they finally got the cellular situation fixed out here too.” Rhys looks up to Rue, Felix, and Dearing. “We’ll be landing at Boulder Municipal in about five minutes, I’d wager. We’ll take you through our private terminal and you should be able to filter in to the general pop folks easily enough.”

Rhys leans back and cranes his neck to look out one of the side windows of the small jet. “Boulder’s a pretty rural place these days. But don’t make any mistake of it, we’re right on the border of the Dead Zone here. Lots of refugees and desperate people looking for the things they need…” There’s a sad, hopeless look in Rhys’ eyes at that. When he focuses back on the Hounds, it’s with more seriousness than before. “Just remember, folks out here? They just need a sense of normalcy. But I figure whoever it is you’re hunting…” he raises one shoulder in a shrug. “Maybe that doesn’t apply so much.”

The mention of broken hearts has Rue stifling laughter in crook of her elbow, disguising a snort as a sneeze. “We’re very grateful for the escort,” she assures Rhys with a genuine smile. “Makes things a little bit easier on us.”

The mention of the desperation in Boulder does chase the smile away in fairly short order. Everyone’s lost something. In New York, people are starting to get things back together. The same isn’t true in many other places. “We’ll watch ourselves. And we’ll watch out for the people, too.”

Was that third person flirting? By the faint wrinkle in his brow, Fel isn't the least sure. So much for Feds being experts in body language. But he leaves it at that. He listens to Rhys's warning with that careful quiet. No dismissal of it - he nods gravely to Bluthner. "I came through here briefly during the war," he says, "On my way out to California."

“It’s changed a lot in the last few years. Survivors of the riots after the EMP hit, they’ve been filtering out non-stop since the war ended.” Rhys rubs his palms over the knees of his slacks, nervously. “Usually families, sometimes the odd one or two individuals. At first nobody could figure out why it was mostly full families coming out of the Dead Zone. Somebody suggested that people who were alone just… couldn’t do it. The psychological toll of being alone out there…”

Rhys shakes his head. Managing a faint smile. “Just… try and remember that everyone out there’s got a reason for the things they’ve done. It doesn’t — shouldn’t — justify some actions, but… well, I find that if people take a moment to step back and think, everything becomes a lot clearer.”

Ward, Colorado Outskirts

8 Miles West of Boulder

May 8, 2018

11:21 am

The interior of a battered 1993 Ford Explorer has seen better days. The cloth upholstery is peeled off of the foam padding of the seats, held back in place by a prodigious amount of duct tape. The interior mouldings have all yellowed and cracked with age, and the ceiling liner has peeled away from the roof and hangs down where it isn’t held up by thumbtacks. A pile of backpacks and climbing gear rattles around in the rear of the vehicle, and James Dearing sits in the back seat with one arm out the window, watching the rocky hills of Colorado pass by.

The immediate presence of the Rocky Mountains was an abrupt change of pace from Boulder, a city overrun by Dead Zone Refugees that rests on mostly flat prairie land. But head west just a few miles, and the ridgeline of the Rockies turns the flats into rambling hills. Further west, the snow-dusted peak of Mount Audubon is Wolfhound’s current destination, with their designated target just a bit beyond the peak on the western side of the mountains.

“Either of you ever hiked something like this before?” Dearing asks, leaning in between the two front seats. “Because… and I’m just being honest here,” Dearing looks between Felix and Rue. “I’m from Los Angeles, and I wasn’t ever really into skiing. So this is all pretty new t’me.”

“Nnnnnnope!” Rue shakes her head slowly, not looking over to Dearing as she answers his question. “I’m from the flat lands. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a mountain.” And while it’s freaking cool, they’re also way, way bigger than she actually imagined. Go figure.

While people obviously climb just fine all the time, it’s not like they have the most convenient places to put hands and feet. Not a ladder-like structure. Not like scaling a bridge. So, this’ll be fun or it’ll be terrible. Maybe a little of both. “I trust we can handle this. The major must trust us to handle this, or we wouldn’t be here right now.” Never mind that every new op is a new test and it’s all sink or swim.

Or ascend or plummet in this case.

Fel’s been frankly rubbernecking the view, unashamed of playing tourist. It’s been a long, long time since he was stationed west of the Mississippi, and he’s never spent a lot of time in the middle of the country - Seattle and San Francisco were it, once upon a time. “Yeah,” he says, not removing his gaze from the windows. “When I was a kid. My grand-dad lived in the Urals, I spent a lot of time with him when I could. My mom thought it was good for me, and she had a point - more time I spent out of Moscow, less chance my ability’d be noticed.”

A moment’s pause, and he adds, glancing back at Dearing, “…you were LAPD. Did I ever work with you when I was out there with the Bureau? It wasn’t a long posting, maybe six months, around ten years ago.” His tone is absented, and his gaze has drifted back to the view.

“I tried to steer clear of the feds, both before I was a captain and after.” Dearing may have tried to dodge the Captain America jab this morning, but he even has the title from his old line of work. “But it sounds like you've got a lot on you. Russia, the Ferrymen, FBI, Wolfhound. Do you knit?”

Dearing cracks a smile at his own joke. Because of course he does.

Shaking her head with a grin, Rue keeps her eyes on the road ahead. “Look at all that experience between the two of ya.” And who’s the leader? might be the jab, but it sounds too genuine of a compliment coming from her.

“I’m telling you, Dearing, you do the costume for Halloween? Knickers will drop.” Theirs is not strictly speaking the most professional of relationships, but she likens it to locker room discussion. It isn’t a chip on her shoulder, per se, but the fact that she’s much younger, inexperienced, and a woman isn’t lost on her. Her tendency might be to overcompensate. Ivanov is about to discover what kind of ship Lancaster runs.

The retort is nearly instant, "I wasn't Ferry." Fel doesn't seem offended at the idea, but he's quick to correct it. "We were allies in some cases, but…." He trails off. The joke seems to sail right past him. Man may be fast on his feet, but he's apparently slow on the uptake, these days. He slants a wry look at Dearing, then turns it on Rue. "I guess," he says, slowly, with a curling hint of a grin, "If he's Cap, then that makes me the Winter Soldier." A shake of his head at Rue.

"I was never a real soldier. I was either a cop or a government agent, but I was never part of the armed forces. You both have vastly more experience than I do, on that front, no mistake." ….not a soldier? What was he doing fighting out West, then? Then he adds, lazily, “And I left Russia when I was eleven. More accurately, we fled Russia when I was eleven.” He has been back since, but….

“America’s full of people who weren’t ever real soldiers,” Dearing notes as he leans back from between the two seats, spreading his arms across the top of the back seats. “School-age kids with assault rifles, fighting because their genes make them different. Parents fighting to protect their children’s lives from psychopathic bigots…” Dearing turns and looks out the passenger side window, squinting at the ever-escalating hillside passing by.

“It’s hard not to be a soldier when you’ve gotta fight a war just to live.”

Blue Lake, Colorado Rockies

1.91 Miles to Destination

May 8, 2018

12:47 pm

The hike out this far from the Mitchell Lake Trailhead where they left their car has been easy. A steady, roughly 2 mile, gradual ascent first through forest, then through a craggy mountain pass. A cool wind whops across the barren land, sending gentle ripples through the azure platter of Blue Lake. It’s a small body of water, nestled between low peaks and surrounded by green scrub vegetation. Though the sun is warm and dominates the sky high overhead, the wind coming from the west over the mountain is cold and brings with it a reminder in contrast: while the distance left to go is small, the land between is not.

With a clunk, Dearing drops his backpack down beside the lake, taking a knee and unfastening a pouch to remove a bundle of climbing gear. “Nothing but up past here,” he notes with a motion to the craggy mountain rising up between Wolfhound and their destination. “That low point there,” he motions with one hand, “looks like we should probably be able to climb it without ropes? But I’m putting on some fucking crampons anyway. Being strong as hell doesn’t help me from falling down a fucking mountain.”

“No, it does not.” Considering Rue looks like her frame’s built from brittle twigs, she’s not too keen on the notion of falling either. She’ll gladly bulk up with safety equipment if it keeps her from the possibility of a bad landing.

A look is spared to Dearing, a quick sweep up and down before she does the same with Felix. “What about you? All that speed let you run up a cliffside like it’s just another uphill climb?” While she doubts it’s the case, she bets it’d be a spectacular sight to behold.

“I can’t run up it. But I can speed climb it, if needed,” he says, taking his share of the gear and starting to bind it on. That’s gotta look weird, watching a human zip up a rockface like a frightened gecko. “I’ve done it a time or two for sport, back in the day. Used to have a friend who insisted on taking me rockclimbing back when.” All that up doesn’t seem to dismay Felix much. But then, he seems to be given to taking things in stride, figuratively and literally. The question is if it’ll stay that way when the shit hits the fan, as it inevitably will.

Crampons secured, Dearing double-checks the straps and looks up and over to Felix. “According to the satellite photos they’ve got a wind farm on premises. Based on our orientation when we get over the mountain, they’ll be on the opposite side of the enclosure. We won’t have a lot of cover if we get off of the mountain.” Reaching into his pack, he pulls out a pair of digital binoculars and hands them out to Rue.

“You’ve got better eyesight than me,” Dearing admits, though he seems like his eyesight would be fine. After handing them off, he tightens the drawstring and closes the top flap of the backpack. “We don’t really know what to expect. Satellite imagery out there only shows so much of the story. So…” he actually seems nervous, “I know this goes without saying but, let’s watch our asses?”

Rue takes the binoculars from Dearing, but lets her hand linger on his for a moment, her brows hiked up in silent question. Are you okay? She won’t question him openly in front of their other teammate. Their front is united, and she trusts that if there was something big enough to compromise his ability to pull off this mission, he’d tell her. He’s always struck her as responsible enough for that.

“In that case, I better go first, huh?” Rue flashes a grin and secures her equipment before beginning the climb.

“Roger that,” Fel replies, to that request. No protest from skinny and nervy there. Fel seems content to take drogue….and he seems easy enough, though he has the benefit of Rue’s pathfinding up the mountain. If he noted that nervousness, there’s no comment on it. No impatience, either. Perhaps conscious of the impression he needs to make on the already established team.

Paiute Peak, West Face

1,207 ft. to Destination

May 8, 2018

2:20 pm

The hike was easy enough, given the gear, the favorable weather, and the relatively easy terrain of the Rockies. From Paiute peak Strike Team Keelut was given their first glimpse of their destination, a connected series of hexagonal-celled domes halfway covered by the mountains nestled in a lightly forested valley beside a small lake. Surrounding the facility are tall stands of wind turbines, spinning silently in the strong airflow.

From the peak, the descent to optimal observation range was easy enough. A thousand feet downhill along a rocky slope with easy footing and no cover. By the time Keelut reaches an outcropping jutting from the west face of the mountain range, they’re less than a thousand feet from their destination. At this distance, the Geopoint enclosure looks like something out of an optimistic science fiction story. It is a biosphere enclosure that appears to have sat long-abandoned judging from the condition of its exterior. There are streaks of dark green algae running down the sides of the domes interior, blocking light and clear view of the insides. The algae has yellowed the remaining non-opaque surfaces, though some external lights suggest that the facility still has power.

There are no vehicles, no signs of activity. Nothing to indicate that anyone is here, which may be exactly what the survivors of the Institute want to convey. This close now, Dearing takes a knee and looks over to Rue, then sets down his backpack and begins unpacking a hard plastic case. “It’s funny,” Dearing muses, “I hadn’t heard word one about the Institute up until the civil war.” Laying the black case on the rock face, Dearing opens it and reveals a disassembled sniper rifle.

“Now, it feels like I can’t throw a fucking rock without hitting something they had their hands in.” As he talks, Dearing begins assembling the rifle. “Place looks as abandoned as the satellite photos indicated. Part of me is wondering if Gilmore is feeding the government bad intel. Old sites, just to throw us around.”

“They kept a lower profile, I guess. Maybe shell companies. They used to have a lot more cover, too.” Speaking of companies. Rue sinks down to the ground, balanced carefully on the balls of her feet. “And if she is giving us bad or outdated information, that’s intel in itself. Either she’s smarter than we expected, or she’s further out of the loop than she realizes.”

A wry smirk quirks the corner of her mouth upward at one side. “Looks like something out of a fucking Asimov book down there.” She snorts after a glance to the rifle. “All those windows. Almost gives me the urge to shoot them out.” That might work with an abandoned house. This all ought to be made of much sterner stuff.

Raising the binoculars, Rue tries for a better look at what’s below. “Maybe it’s more like 28 Weeks Later than Asimov.” She hopes not. “Makes me even more curious about what’s inside. What’s below especially.” That they’re not going to get from the surface, whether those windows are clear or not.

“Could be chickenfeed. See what we react to. What warrants actual boots on the ground,” Fel opines, quietly. Apparently he agrees with Dearing. A glance at the rifle, then at the binoculars. He waits his turn to request the latter, long hand held out for them. There’s only the dimmest glint of that formidable, obsessive curiosity in the pale eyes. But then, no one’s dragging the plastic rabbit in front of him. Not yet.

Rifle assembled, Dearing raises it up and starts scanning the hillside the Geopoint Enclosure sits on. “Perimeter has cameras, about four hundred feet out from the main structure. Those gray posts,” he calls to Rue, “probably closed-circuit, doubt Hana will be able to tap into them unless we get a physical feed going in somehow.” Squinting, Dearing looks up at the windmills. “Twelve windmills, that’s a decent power draw. Might have geothermal, too. Lot of the Institute places have.”

Looking out from the scope, Dearing looks over his shoulder to Rue. “Do we go closer, or just hunker down here for a while?” Looking up to the sky, Dearing squints at the sun. “We’ve got at least five hours before the sun goes down, if we want any cover before we hit the trees.”

The information is listened to and absorbed, a quiet sound from the back of her throat indicates that she’s listening while she continues to survey through the binoculars. “I’d like a closer look,” Rue admits. “Unless you see something I don’t that’s telling you we should stay put.”

Spyglasses lowered, Dearing is fixed with a look. It’s not challenging, but requesting, after a fashion. Talk to me. He’s seemed off about this one, and she needs to know why.

“Spider senses tingling?” comes the dry voice from behind them. For once, Fel is not arguing charging forward into the guns. Wisdom comes with age. Perhaps. Dearing was LAPD, and Fel was NYPD, but it’s really only subspecies of a certain kind of bastard….and he’s quite content to listen to and abide by whatever Dearing’s gut might be saying. “You’ve got the look. Spill, please.” Couched as a request, if only barely. He’s the new guy, he doesn’t give the orders.

“Just a bad gut feeling,” Dearing admits as he shakes his head. “Every Institute place we’ve hit since I joined’s been active on the outside. Even the Dam, it looked inhabited. I don’t know if it’s just…” he draws in a slow breath, then exhales a sigh. “I don’t know if it’s just nerves, or what, but I’m getting a weird feeling about this place. Like… like… I dunno. I mean, it looks safe enough but…”

Shaking his head, Dearing comes to stand and slings the sniper rifle over his shoulder. “We can get a closer look. We need to deliver something actionable rather than just confirm old satellite data. I can come down with you or cover you from up here, boss.” Dearing looks to Rue at that.

The new recruit is given a long look after he finishes speaking. Open assessment. Then, she responds to Dearing’s explanation. “Stinks to high heaven, doesn’t it?” Rue grimaces. Not because of the situation, but because she sounded a lot like her mother just then. “I don’t think Gilmore’s full of it, either. This is way too apparently empty to look like good intel.” Could be that she’s looking to see how high they’ll jump, but she has her doubts.

“I’ll go down there. I trust you on the rifle if it’s necessary.” Keelut’s leader slides on a pair of sunglasses and clips the binoculars to her belt again before she begins to make her way. As she walks, she drops her hair from its bun and reties it. She isn’t sure whether she’s actually hoping to find something worth being concerned about down there or not.

He takes it for granted he’s to go with her. Not even asking. Fel falls into step a pace behind and to the left, all but heeling like a hound. “You may wish to let me go first when we get up on the perimeter,” he suggests, tone neutral. “With my reflexes, I’m usually better at dealing with traps, things like that.” There’s an odd sense of tension winding up on him - spooling up his ability, though he keeps speech and pace within human normal. It’s in the way he moves, strangely fluid and deliberate, a hint of springiness.

Raising his brows in a you’re the boss manner, Dearing lays out on his stomach across the rocky outcropping and perches the sniper rifle down on its extended bipod. “If I need to start shooting, we extract back this way,” he notes with a jerk of one thumb back toward the mountain. “And… try not t’die down there.”

Leveling his attention through the scope, Dearing watches as Rue and Felix begin their descent down the mountain face toward the facility. The terrain down is rough and treacherous, loose stone underfoot forms fields of scree that make each and every step a potential sliding hazard. Like surefooted goats, the two members of Keelut make their way down this rough terrain and into the sparse pine forest that borders the placid lake adjacent to the Geopoint facility. The trees provide only minimal cover, spread out as far apart as they are, with many looking scorched and half dead as though they’d been struck by lightning in the distant past.

Through the treeline the multi-dome facility comes into clearer view. The habitant looks intact, with no visible breaches into the enclosure. Though the streaks of yellow and green algae running down the interior give it the appearance of a forgotten fish tank left to moulder. With Felix in the lead, moving with a sinuous grace between the trees, Rue takes up the rear with attention afforded to what lies beyond the treeline. To the wind farms, to the rocky hills. To —

Animal tracks.

Just next to one of Felix’s booted heel prints, in the somewhat firm soil in the sparse forest, Rue notices the impression of a heavier paw print. At first glance it looks like it might belong to a mountain lion or some other large predator, but it’s then that she realizes the pads on the bottoms of its feet aren’t natural looking — they’re hexagonal. The claws, too, leave deep furrows in the earth where it walked.

It’s not an animal.

It’s Hunter tracks.

There’s an instant of regret in leaving Dearing to cover them, but it’s not dwelled on. Not until she sees that print in the ground. “Son of a bitch.” Rue takes in a deep breath through her nose. “Ivanov, you might want to head back up with Dearing…” As much as Rue doesn’t like the idea of doing this alone at all. Just because the Hunters track the SLC-Expressive doesn’t mean that they don’t attack others if they’ve been programmed to.

“Maybe not as abandoned as it looks.” She keeps her voice down as she talks, looking to see which direction the tracks lead and wondering just how recent they are. She hazards a glance back toward her — toward Dearing, angry with herself for a fleeting moment of emotion. “Fuck,” she hisses under her breath.

That was couched as a suggestion, so he doesn’t have to obey immediately. Nor is Fel inclined to. “Might be coded to pursue any human shape,” he points out, hopeful. “And I’ve dealt with them before. Most of them weren’t fast enough to stop me.” Most. “We’ve got Dearing up there as cover. If you want to withdraw at this point, I won’t argue it. I will, however, strenuously disagree with any suggestion that you go in there alone.” He can’t refuse to obey an order she hasn’t given yet. But letting the boss go off on her lonesome while two Evolved fighters sit up on the mountainside and play cards isn’t in the least palatable.

“It might be,” Rue agrees. And while he seems to find that a comfort, it shouldn’t take a telepath to know that it isn’t to her. She can send him for the hills with some chance of success if it turns out there is a functional bot around. If that bot’s programmed to attack either of them, then protecting the pair of them suddenly gets a lot more difficult. And she knows in a game of Lancaster vs. Hunter, Hunter wins in nearly every scenario this situation can spawn.

“Next time I tell you to go, though, I’m going to mean it. You go. You don’t argue with me, you don’t protect me. You just go.” As she says this, she slides her sunglasses down her nose so she can meet his eyes properly. She may look to be built of matchsticks, she may be young, and she may lack in a SLC-Expressive ability, but Rue is still capable of plenty. One of those capabilities is keeping her people alive.

She doesn’t wait for a promise of compliance before she begins to move on, more alert than she was moments ago. Frequently glancing toward the ground for more than just her own footing.

Poor Rue. This is her first real exposure to the glory that is Felix Ivanov’s temper, or his utter mulishness. He has learned just enough respect for hierarchy in all his previous years as a government servant not to express defiance. Orders are orders, and if he’s going to let that persistent cowboy complex run things, he’ll be shooting his career in Wolfhound in the head before it’s even properly born.

But she can see the skin around eyes and mouth tighten, as he nods. “Understood,” he says, crisply, gaze level. It’s also….brutally accurate. He might be able to outdistance a Hunter by himself. Not if he has to defend someone normal from one, or try to carry her.

In the distance, there’s a noise that carries through the trees. Subtle at first, but the second time it crops up within the span of twice as many seconds it’s much easier to recognize. It’s a machine noise, a high-pitched whine that never really abates. There’s a hydraulic push and release sound that comes with it, along with a low-frequency metal-on-metal vibration. The sound comes from the direction of the domes, and it’s about then that both Rue and Felix can see the source of the noise coming into view — though far enough away that the danger feels less palpable, and more remote.

It’s a Hunter, ostensibly, but its design is not one actively seen during the war proper. Only those who had gone with the Ferrymen into the Institute’s arcology below Cambridge had ever seen one of these before. Stories made it out, of machines worse than those given to the US government, of a second generation of Hunters and Striders and other horrible machines originally conceived of by Hector Steel and innovated on by Warren Ray.

But this machine stands nearly four feet at the shoulder, moves with all the sinuous grace of a bengal tiger, and has the body mass of one. It doesn’t look new, for all the mud and dirt that is caked between its once sleek and now bullet-riddled armored plates. One side of its face is broken, mangled metal welded together in a patchwork repair, one eye missing and the other, surviving optical lens glowing with a pale red light.

Most notable about this machine is that its face is slathered in blood. So much so that it is practically dripping in thick, stringy streams from its face. As it moves, Felix and Rue notice something else about it that stands out — it is dragging a deer behind it. The machine stops, at least a thousand feet away from them if not more, and hunches forward as it begins to chew through the deer carcass. Bone crunches, meat tears, and the machine begins to eat.

Rue stops like, well, a deer that’s heard a branch snap nearby. Her eyes search for the source of the noise, and when she spots it, her breath leaves her in a slow, steadying exhale. It’s with horrified fascination that she watches the machine tear through flesh and bone.

Why is it doing that? Who in the hell is repairing it? Why is it eating?

Unless the damn thing’s been programmed incorrectly and assesses any living thing as a threat to the structure - Rue somehow doubts this to be the case - then this is something they’re not yet prepared to deal with. “…Go,” she tells Felix in a whisper. “Now.”

First test of his obedience to orders, and while the temptation is to go from zero to cowboy in .6 seconds….Felix suppresses it. “Fucking Sentinels,” he says, under his breath. And then he’s on the link with Dearing, reporting what they’re seeing, as he starts to retreat. He does not turn on the speed and zip back up towards the sniper; fast motion has a better chance of attracting its attention. But he does retreat, carefully, keeping a wary eye on it. Still in contact with both of them, but keeping the commentary to a minimum. That image is just too disturbing. Eating. Robots don’t eat, unless they’re the Iron Giant….and whatever form of long-range death Dearing is wielding, it’s not .50 cal, and not likely to do much more than irritate the Decepticon having a snack down there.

The eating becomes more disturbing the moment Felix breaks away. The Hunter’s jaws unhinge, revealing a four-by-four set of rotary saws that spin up with a high-pitched whine. The machine returns to the carcass, spidery forelimbs around its mouth grasping the deer’s head and dragging it in to the open maw like a wood chipper. There's a spray of viscera out the sides of the robot’s mouth, but not enough to be the entire carcass. The majority of the kill is ingested.

As the feeding process reaches its maximum intake, there's a hydraulic hiss sound as four ports open up on the Hunter’s back and orange hot carbon rods extend up from within, radiating light and heat. These rods sizzle noisily as blood sprays on them, and the machine goes through some sort of carnivorous cooling cycle. It can, and does, appear to truly be eating.

Up on the ridge, Dearing is frozen down his sights in disbelief. «Keelut-1, what the fuck am I— No. Get the fuck out of there! Keelut-3 is en-route to my position!»

Felix passes his test with flying colors. Rue listens to what he has to say on the radio while she lifts her camera and starts snapping picture after picture. Her hands are shaking by the time she’s done.

«Keelut-2, I’m en route. Stay safe up there.»

But she doesn’t make her way back up just yet. She isn’t precisely frozen, but she’s waiting for her stomach to stop doing flip flops before she attempts to move. The last thing she needs is to alert the damn thing to her position because she’s tossing her cookies. Next time, she adds anti-nausea medication to her regular preparation routine.

After what seems like far too long, but has really only been about a minute, Lancaster finally turns and begins to make her ascent.

Okay, good. She’s not going to loiter. Felix sure isn’t. Instinct and his own form of hyper-adrenaline have him all but jittering his way back up the hillside. And instinct is definitely telling him that this is about to go vastly wrong, even as conscience is lacerating him for leaving someone nearer to it than he is. The Hunters he encountered back in the war were bad enough, and that thing down there is definitely worse.

He looks back over his shoulder, and when he realizes Rue has lingered to snap pictures, bites back a curse. Then he’s up at Dearing’s side again, from the presumable safety of that high point, dropping down to present a less obvious silhouette against the mountainside.

Pressed flat beside Felix, Dearing is as silent as a ghost as Rue begins her ascent back up the mountain. Distance and the clearly damaged condition of the machine plays well in her favor. It neither notices the sound of her movement nor catches her in its blinded periphery as it finishes its meal. What dawns on Rue as she makes her ascent is that this thing has hunting grounds less than ten miles from a city. Someone would have noticed it if it ever came over the mountains.

It's only when Rue has finally reached the outcropping where Felix and Dearing are that the latter of the two seems to breathe again. “What… in all the name of God’s fucking green earth is that?” Those who didn't fight with the Ferrymen in the Arcology never saw the “Generation 2” machines. Rue saw the wreckage of one, the very one that damaged Avi’s leg so badly. A mangled chassis taken down by machine gun fire from four people.

What the fuck is the Institute doing out here?” Dearing breathlessly asks afterward, eyes wide in disbelief.

It’s only once she’s back among her team that Rue feels she’s learned to breathe again. “Fuck,” she utters with a heavy exhale. “I have no fucking clue what they’re up to,” she admits with a shake of her head.

“But whatever it is? We have to put a stop to it.” It’s much too close to people - people who never asked for any of this fight - for her comfort.

Fel offers no opinions, no guesses. “I don’t know about you,” he says, quietly, “But I want to be back on the other side of that mountain come sundown. Let’s get out of here.” It may be for Rue to give the orders, but he’s all but jittering with impatience to get out of there. Not perhaps the easy shakedown rookie mission he’d hoped for, but on the other hand, that’s clearly info that needs passing on to command as soon as possible.

Getting up from his stomach on the hillside, still staring down the scope of the sniper rifle, Dearing watches the machine as best as he can through the sparse treeline. When he finally lowers the scope, once he’s certain it hasn’t turned to follow, he starts to make movements back and away from the ridge and toward the path Keelut had originally hiked across the mountain. There’s a dead-eyed look leveled at Rue, color drained from Dearing’s face. He’d ostensibly seen a lot during the war, but he’d never seen anything quite like that.

As the strike team retreats from the Geopoint facility’s outskirts and ascends the mountain once more, Dearing trades his rifle for a satellite phone. Bringing it up to his ear as he walks, pausing to look back at the green-stained domes on the horizon, he calls for a name with uncertainty in his tone.

Nambiza,” Dearing invokes, inciting the connection with the umbrella of data collection that is Hana Gitelman. “This is Keelut…”

“Mission complete.”


Flickering electric lights sputter and stutter overhead in the otherwise dimly lit concrete corridor. Old, dark blood stains mark the walls with past signs of violence. Bullet holes pockmark concrete and spent shell casings still litter the floor. Moving down the corridor, a dark-haired woman in a black windbreaker keeps an assault rifle trained on the partly-closed double doors ahead. Behind her, a flank of four men in black BDUs and ballistic vests survey the hall front and back.

As she reaches the door, the woman shines her underbarrel flashlight on the stenciled image divided by the door’s opening. The astrological sign for Gemini. With one hand, she motions for her support team to move in, and they swiftly part around her and move to either side of the door. The first to try the keypad is met with an electric shock, followed by another man placing a piston-rod hydraulic device in the gap. The third figure sets a backpack connected to the device by cabling down at his feet and clicks on a noisy compressor, and the machine begins to force the nearly-sealed doors apart with grinding progress.

As the doors are forced open, they reveal a lab ruined by a hail of gunfire. The dark-haired woman keeps her assault rifle trained on the doorway, breathing steady and shoulders frozen with tension. A man at her side says, “I’ve bypassed power, bringing the lab back online…” Inside, there’s a gutter of light as rows of strange machines are illuminated by the glowing blue cables attached to them. In that light, bullet-riddled corpses in lab coats are scattered across the floor.

Swallowing audibly, the woman in the lead takes her first step inside. She sweeps to the right, spotting a demolished robot laying in the lab, torn apart by concentrated gunfire some time in the past. She sweeps left, finding the long-decayed corpse of a scientist slouched against a blood-spattered computer console with his bloody handprint smeared across a palm-print reader.

Finally, she focuses on the end of the long lab, where the wall is charred black. Motioning with a closed fist for her team to hold position, she advances between the lab machinery and their glowing blue tubing, closing in on the burn mark on the wall. Her eyes narrow as she shape of the burn comes into crisp focus against the back wall. Some ten feet tall and nearly as wide, the scorch mark has clearly defined borders as though it were stenciled on the wall like graffiti, with only the faintest wisps of smoke damage protruding out from the crisp lines. The black mark is in the shape of an enormous triangle.

Lowering her assault rifle, she team leader breathes in a slow breath and reaches up to tap a button on her earpiece. “This is Dunlap. Geopoint is back online…”


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