chris_icon.gif iago_icon.gif

Scene Title Salvageable
Synopsis After following a path of destruction, Chris and Iago find something they can work with.
Date April 11, 2019

Pine Barrens

Here is a fact: Iago Ramirez demonstrates the most kindness to one creature, and one creature only. That creature is not, really, Charity Thornton, where intimacy and familiarity, amusement and desire, do not necessarily translate into kindness. It is not Eileen Gray, who inspires a deep loyalty in Iago that might in turn inspire others to speculation, but his quiet, steadfast nature does not seem to come from a place of empathy or tenderness either, not brotherly, fatherly, or romantically.

It does not come out with the small crew of men he calls upon regularly as loyal followers, or the British technopath for whom he dropped down into a battle between the last hold out of Humanis First! and the United States military for, or really any of the people he both fights with and protects as a matter of duty.

No. It's Banjo.

The big black Friesian cross is among those that made the long journey from Sedro-Woolley, across to Providence. His mane grows wild and long, almost touching the ground when he bows his head, black hair growing wild, too, over large black hooves that are currently pressing soft but firmly into New Jersey forest floor. Occasionally, Iago utters some verbal cue to the beast, matter-of-fact and intolerant of disobedience, but in all his time travelling with the Horsemen, Chris Ayers has never seen Iago mistreat his horse.

They're riding, now, out through the wilder borders of their territory. Robot sighting. He and Chris aren't the only ones — other men and women have dispersed to cover more ground, both on horseback and on foot, and Chris was otherwise directed to trail behind Iago as they head closer to the location that the gigantically terrifying octopus machine was rumoured to be spotted.

Birds twitter in the trees. None of them hold Eileen's sentry. She's down for the count, since the Yamagato incident.

Iago has his attention forward, dressed in practical garb, denim and linen, dark tones of grey to black. In the stirrups is one dust-stained boot, and the other, a monstrous mechanical clawed foot. Although he has a shotgun strapped to his back, they're under instructions not to engage with the robot creature — the weapon is strictly a matter of precaution for literally any other threat more susceptible to buck shot.

And he does not make conversation. Not right now, anyway.

The lack of conversation is easily accepted.

There’s something comfortable in the subtle thud of hooves against the earth, the faint creak and jangle of tack. The way it mingles with the birdcall and other more distant sounds in the wooded land, leaving no real need for unnecessary human voices. He’s never been one to question unnecessarily, even if his opinion and wit are known to be sharp.

Like the older man, he’s dressed for work, in sturdy denims, flannel, and cotton. Good blue jeans that have been mended a couple of times still have a good bit of life to them, and boots that should last one more season. A denim jacket hangs off his shoulders, as does the dark green plaid flannel work shirt, revealing a black cotton tee beneath. A nearly new pair of leather work gloves, possibly recovered during his journey from Sedro-Woolley, hang from his belt.

He chirps a short whistle at Jester, when the paint steps a little too quick and tries to overtake the bigger black horse. It isn’t the first time it’s happened, not even the first time since he’d joined with the riders years ago, and Chris’ reminder reflects that practice of reining in a little too much spirit and hard headedness.

Iago acknowledges this little moment of excitability with a subtle turn of his head, as much for Jester's quick hooves as for Chris's mastery of him. Banjo, in contrast, doesn't appear to have noticed, or is otherwise disinclined towards leadership among the herd. That is, unless, Iago urges him to do so on his own behalf.

Which he does, now, maybe in the interests of picking up the pace. Maybe Jester knows something they don't. The more likely answer is indulging the beasts of burden, lest they get restless.

So, with a nudge of his heels, Iago spurs his horse on, overtaking Chris and Jester with a smooth transition from trot to canter

Because really, if they're tracking massive robots, it's not for subtle impressions left in the wet earth or the occasional broken stem on a bush that they're tracking. They won't miss it.

And they do not.

Chris hears Iago's woah to slow and stop at the same time as he sees what he's woahing about. First, the brighter light of the sun thanks to an interrupted canopy, and then the sound: a multitude of swarming, buzzing insects that rise through the quiet air. Ahead, a tree has fallen, its bent branches full of early springtime leaves that haven't had a chance to dry or wither or rot or fall. The smell of decay that comes towards them is not that of plant matter, but meat.

Banjo tosses his head in what could be interpreted as distaste, and Iago moves, swinging his leg up and over to dismount and investigate.

It isn’t a race.

Jester seems to think it is and, even though Chris has given him a nudge to pick up the pace a little bit, the paint tugs at the reins for more freedom. It’s a typical lesson in patience, for both rider and horse. It’s also a minor battle of wills that the young man claims victory of. Iago and Banjo keep their place in the lead.

Until the Friesian is pulled up short. Jester gets several extra steps forward even as Chris calls a sharp but quiet, “Hey,” at the beast. He earns a snort in response.

A face is made at the smell, and Chris moves to follow Iago on foot. Jester has twisted his ears back and sidles sideways once his rider’s boots are on the ground and stamps a hoof twice. He probably doesn’t like this place. Ignoring the horse’s discomfort, the young man follows only long enough to pull his rifle from the boot strapped to his saddle.

Two feet on the ground, Iago moves with his rifle cradled in his hands, approaching the tree and the sunlight coming down through the parting its absence has made above. He is both headed towards the nearest strange thing in his sights, the sounds of those insects, the stench, all leading them down the same path.

Ahead, the tree's collapse is nothing by nature, plain as day. Something of great force and weight has shattered it almost three, four feet above the ground, its stump splintered and cracked, with clinging shreds still attached to the fallen trunk like shreds of flesh to a tooth knocked loose. Evidence of wild trauma, in the form of deep lacerations sheared into the wood, breaking darker park away from paler flesh. Black burn marks, but not the uncontrolled bruises of wild flame.

As Chris gets nearer, he sees it first. On the other side of the tree, an antler, jutting at a peculiar angle.

Like a tree branch itself, the elk antler rises up, and fat flies glint in in the sunlight as they zigzag around it. It's attached, inevitably, to the massive creature lying on the forest floor, but Chris sees what looks like butchery more than an animal, its back end entirely mauled into unrecognition, and swarming with feasting insects, blanketing and rippling.

With the butt of his rifle resting comfortably, relaxed into the meat of where pectoral joins shoulder, Chris follows Iago. The smell and swarming insects hold his attention more than the destruction of trees, although the more noticeable details are gathered internally.

That tree wasn't felled by lightning or rot.

His steps become more cautious as he gets closer to the smell of spoiled meat and death. A quick look to the side allows him to mark Iago’s location. The younger man eases around a thicket that temporarily takes him out of view.

He appears again within seconds, further ahead and even more slowly approaching the antlers — which had looked like a branch or young tree from an earlier position. What he finds makes him sick.

There have been plenty of scenes to leave lasting marks on his psyche since the start of the war and after. Sarcasm has become a buffer against the horrors and rarely has there been a time that he's lost composure. But the slaughter on the ground and gorging insects writhing en masse upon it turns Chris’ stomach violently. He turns suddenly, without explanation, and retches into a patch of ferns.

Chris hears the sound of snapping and leaves shifted underfoot as Iago moves, then, to see what the younger man saw. Boy, in the scheme of things, but at 22, Iago was no stranger to moving with a sense of purpose and a rifle in hand either — and seeing sights that turned his stomach. He is braced, now, against the possibility of churning bile as he looks to the infested corpse, the orgy of feasting insects making it difficult to detect the nuance of the butchery.

But he can imagine. Something tore through this animal with machine-like strength, metal edges whorling, and took away its pound of flesh before moving on.

Iago turns his head, exhales hard through his nasal passages, like one of the horses who are wisely keeping their distance, as if to get the smell of rot clean away. Utters something to himself — disparaging, by the sounds of it — and moves back for the horses. "We have a trail," he says. He's right, and Chris can see it by the time he brings his head back up for air, the way smaller greenery, thickets, ferns have been all but destroyed in a path leading away from the carnage, grooves slashed into the sturdier trees that have managed to withstand the assault of whatever this thing is passing them by, to and from.

Determining which way it went would be the next task.

The click and scuff of leather and metal follows as Iago climbs back onto his horse, but he is also watching Chris. Maybe doing him the dignity of now vocalising concern, but Chris can likely feel what seems like impassive attention from the older man, having eluded it so much by following, up until this point.

His head turns a fraction when he hears Iago approach, but Chris doesn’t straighten immediately. There’s little left in his stomach to empty, and he needs a minute to make sure what remains stays that way.

“Fuck.” It’s muttered, and followed by him spitting a final time. “Fuck.” Again muttered, this time as he straightens and stalks away from the sight. He doesn’t look back.

His rifle finds its way back into the boot once he’s reached Jester’s side. The horse snorts and shakes his head to remind the young man of an earlier displeasure. The smell, likely. A hand rests briefly on the horse’s shoulder to calm the beast and eyes look up at Iago.

Taking the paint’s lead in hand, Chris walks a short distance along the track, this time actually studying the destruction that was made. He crouches near the broken tree, eyes going from the rents through the earth to the unnatural break through hardwood. “Looks like we’re following it,” he decides as he straightens. He hooks a foot into a stirrup and swings himself back into the saddle. “I’d guess a day easy, by the smell.”

Iago is watching Chris as he collects himself, studies the problem in front of them, pronounces a direction. It's at this pronouncement that he regards the savaged path they're followed, a hint of disdain colouring his expression. In Argentina, the war machines they had at their disposal could prowl the jungles without leaving indication of their passage, save for the most adept of trackers — these messy, barbaric, demon-things strike him as arrogant and thus reflects poorly on their creator.

And as for its purpose— "We know it will hunt people," he says, thoughtful, "and we guess it will hunt the Evolved. But an elk."

Not exactly a priority threat. Doesn't strike him as a very focused directive. He can imagine some kind of automated weaponised machine, or many machines, designed to thin out the food supply of a territory — they'd talked about that, once, back in the day — but this thing seems too large, too noisy, too messy for such a task, and they've have heard about it by now.

Iago's feet shift in the stirrups, urging Banjo on in the direction indicated by Chris. "We follow, and turn back before the sun sets." If they don't find anything but a trail to take note of and report back on, anyway. If they find something else, they'll have to improvise.

“The elk either got in the way,” Chris points out as he reflects on what he saw of the savagery, “or the machine was controlled. Could’ve been killed for sport I suppose, and the machine just did its thing.” He adds the third possibility after a beat, as his head turns in the direction of the carcass.

His grip on the reins shifts, choking the length to keep a firmer control over Jester’s head. Heels tap against the horse’s sides after Banjo and Iago have passed, eyes following the older man’s back and matching the pace set. He’s not in a rush to see that mess again.

“Good thing neither of us have to worry about being tracked,” is a muttered aside, made when Chris finally lets his eyes wander to the track cut into the earth. They may not have to worry, but he knows a lot of others do. Especially among their people. It’s not a happy or even sarcastic aside.

At this first part, Iago issues a grunt of acknowledgment — and dissatisfaction. They're fine guesses, and he would not mind cutting the throat of whoever might be controlling these machines, if there is such a person, but his brain volunteers counters too easily for them to sit right. But he has no better offer to Chris's suggestions, and more or less files them away to offer to Steel when they return. If they had a vehicle with them, maybe they could take the carcass back for study.

Wouldn't have that have been fun. Too bad.

"Good thing," he agrees, dispassionately.

Horse hooves press firmly into churned earth as they follow the path, Iago choosing a moderate pace that is as slow as he knows horses are comfortable with traversing for longer stretches of time — a little jolting for the humans on board, but both men are accustomed to it well enough. Eventually, their path takes them to clearer landscapes, as the sky is beginning to darken.

Chris sees it at the same time as Iago whistles and slows his horse, a fairly standard sign: eyes ahead. The churned earth leads the eye forward something like a hundred feet, and they see it — an unmoving ruin, a structure that has been utterly destroyed, but there in the midst of it is shining metal, all tangled up in torn up caravan. No lights, no movement, but the unmistakable arc of a metallic tentacle flung wild and resting in place.

"On foot," Iago suggests, quietly. Too curious, then, to merely turn back.

Man and horse alike respond to the whistle. Jester stamps to a stop without much guidance from Chris, whose head is drawn to the alert like a hound. His eyes narrow against the failing light, but unfortunately it doesn’t change the shadows or shapes. It’s no illusion that’s casting the glint and sheen of metal, and that’s not a tree bent at a strange angle.

“What the shit.”

The words are breathed out, a whisper with just a hint of vocal vibration. Eyes snap from one harsh line to the next, tracing carapace and wreckage in search of those tell-tale red lights. Until Iago’s query pulls hasty scrutiny off the ruin and onto the older man.

“Getting dark,” Chris points out. Probably unnecessarily. He directs another look at the structure and its tangle of metal. It’s getting dark, but he hasn’t seen anything that would imply that machine’s still operable. He hasn’t seen anything that would imply it’s actually destroyed either. He pulls a leg over and slowly lowers himself onto the ground, while casting another look at Iago.

Iago glances at the sky, obligingly. There's still a solid amount of time to work with, and whatever happens next, well — Iago does not expect it to take very long.

Leather and metal clink as he lowers himself to the ground, resettling rifle in hands, held crosswise, and making a slow approach. Metallic, clawed foot seems somehow well-equipped to the terrain as much as he avoids where the robot has torn so thoroughly into the earth as to produce mud, with a day's worth of sporadic rainfall gathering as puddles in the strange gouges in the earth, yet to sink through or evaporate.

The metal cephalopod does not so much as twitch. Its mud-spattered carapace is most prominently visible, having attacked the caravan tentacles first, rending it apart to make way for its own crushing weight and the tearing teeth at its super-heated centre. Iago's eyes go to where one of its tentacles lies in gathered water, noting the lack of steam.

"It's cold," he says, just loud enough for Chris to hear.

With his rifle in his hands again, Chris follows Iago toward the machine. His attention stays on the body of it, certain that if there's forewarning of any danger, it's going to come from the center mass. Whirring gears and motors would be housed there, likely.

He flicks a look at the older man, then lowers his gaze to the sprawled mechanical limb.

“Think it's actually dead then?” It's a lot to hope for. Maybe too much.

Cutting a path closer to the cephalopod still seems less dicey. Chris picks his way around a puddle to get to the far side of the robotic beast. Seems unlikely there'd be survivors — why anyone would choose to stay close to one of these after witnessing its destruction is unknown — but he feels compelled to check all the same.

Maybe the elk being attacked and butchered was a sign of malfunction, but Iago doesn't voice this out loud. Speculation can come after the initial hypothesis is proven: if it is, as Chris put it, dead.

Which can be a few things. Catastrophic mechanical failure being a preferred interpretation, but not the only one.

Iago is close to calling it good — they have a location, they could send more men in the morning, take it to pieces if it's still in its current state, or call in overnight scouts to take over and ensure it doesn't do anything or warn of it wandering nearer to their settlements. However, details catch his eye that draw in his curiousity — the way the metal structure of the shattered, collapsed caravan is blackened, torn, suggests more firepower than crushing tentacles and general battering.

It's then that Chris sees it from his angling around — a human leg.

Just partially, and his mind might be forgiven for tricking him into thinking it's been dismembered until he sees the way it disappears with ruined metal. Bare foot, mud-coated pant. Then, he watches as it sharply draws in, concealing itself completely.

“Seems like some of it’s salvageable.” The younger man is more talking to himself, a way of thinking out loud. He’s not expecting an answer and doesn’t even look in Iago’s direction. He lets his wandering continue, even half squatting for a few seconds to get a look at an oddly angled panel. Whatever he’s seen gets a huh which could mean literally anything. He doesn’t explain it but straightens and moves again.

The next stop comes when the failing light catches an angle so perfectly that he sees a limb that belongs to neither tree nor machine. His head turns for a better look.

Two things happen when Chris’ eyes find the leg, and the first is the abrupt stop and careful study. Is it really just a leg — which is a horrific way of thinking but also very realistic. Or is there more attached. He reacts at nearly the same instant as the answer comes. When the leg is shlorped into the carapace, he dives after it. His offhand takes the weight of his rifle as his chest hits the ground, the other hand reaches desperately for the foot, ankle, pants leg… anything that would provide purchase.

Chris has the advantage, a visual on the leg, momentum, aim — his hand wraps around one skinny ankle before it has the opportunity to disappear. In response, the leg twitches, and there's a slam of knee against tilted metal, and there — a muffled, masculine yell, vaguely incomprehensible. In the scheme of things, that might be reassuring.

That yell has now curved off into swearing, something along the lines of, "— fuckin' manners. Let go've me, you fuckin' cunt— "

It's very impolite.

Chris's awareness of Iago is the sound of heavy footfalls as he moves back towards where the younger man had circled before diving, the dull sound of boot and metal in packed mud.

“Fuck you,” is Chris’ immediate retort. “Get the fuck out of there before I crawl up after you and kick your ass back into the mud. Fucking asshole.” The kicking and cursing, from both himself and whoever’s holed up in the carapace, only makes his hand tighten around the ankle.

The hand with the rifle braces against the metal opening. It’s leverage. The person connected to the leg is coming out whether it wants to or not. His back curls and he pulls his torso back, trying to work his weight onto his knees.

What Chris learns quickly is that it's quite a lot of human, in spite of narrow ankles and gangly proportions. Chris is also a decent amount of human, however, and as he hauls backwards, out comes his prize.

A tall white man is dragged out onto the mud, maybe in his thirties, maybe younger. He is dressed in denim frayed up around his knees, and a shirt whose colour is impossible to discern, soaked through with rainwater and filth. His face is half dredged in it, but Chris can also see where blood is freshly seeping from some long-healing cut at his brow. Hair long, wild, brown and copper, the same colour as the beard grown in down his long face. Expression is horsey, grimacing, white teeth.

"Fuckin' A, man," he exclaims, twisting as as to be on his back, and — wisely — showing off his empty hands. His accent is harshly Irish, more clear now that he's out in the open. "Can you not just mind your own business?"


As if it is ordinary business, to be hiding partway inside and under a robot.

Behind him, Chris hears Iago issue— a sigh. It is long-suffering, half-growled. He does not lower his rifle, but he relaxes his stance behind it, the hands clasping it. It's then that Chris's discovery switches a look to Iago, and his expression changes — something like recognition. He moves to curl up and get to his feet, but the step in closer that Iago emphasises seems to encourage him to stay where he is, hands hovered.

“It is my business.” Chris’ voice is an annoyed snarl. Who the fuck climbs into a robot? Who fucking climbs into a robot then bitches when they get caught. Obviously he — whoever this dirty, gangly man is — heard them coming or he wouldn’t’ve been trying to hole up like some trash panda.

A shift of his gaze lets him — the younger man still kneeling, rifle in hand — check Iago’s position.

“It’s my business,” Chris goes on, “and you better fucking start explaining what the shit you’re doing in that machine.” His eyes snap back onto the filthy man on the ground, and he pushes himself up to stand properly. “And it better be a damn good explanation.”

The man on the ground is switching a look back and forth between the two standing figures, a hint of urgency as his focus lands on the older of the two. "Hey," the man says. "Hey, big fella, you know me, right? You gonna— you wanna put your gun down— we can't keep meetin' like this— "

Iago answers by way of angling his rifle down in a precise manner, depressing the trigger, and firing off a line that barely avoids pulverising the man's bare feet, sinking instead into mud as dirty rain run-off and dirt spatter under impact, mostly on the man on the ground. The cost of this demonstration is the ringing of ears only.

"Answer the boy's question," Iago advises, once he is certain he will be heard.

Trash panda has all but flinched into a resentful ball, but unfolds enough, now, to once again show his bare hands. "I was just," he starts, at a slight whine. "Look, it trashed my fuckin' trailer, right? Tore it down while I was still in it. And my fuckin' garden— " And a broad gesture indicates a patch of land further back, which, in the gloom, indicates some attempt at cultivation, now churned through by writhing metal. "Would've killed me, but I took what it had and it shut down."

Now, with a hand hovered out, he starts to get to his feet. "Came back to salvage what I could salvage. Didn't want to mess wit' anyone. Hope that's good enough for you, bright-eyes."

While his new best buddy is writhing around in the mud, Chris rubs at one of his ears. And slides a look to the side, to where he can make out Iago’s form. He’s not mad. He’ll probably laugh about the way the man on the ground is writhing later.

“You what?” Chris puts a disbelieving look on the man he’d dragged out of the machine, one eye half squinted and the other brow raised upward. “What’d you take? How’d it shut down?”

Although now on his feet, the stranger remains slightly half-curled, and maybe you can see why — gangly as he is, he is also markedly tall, with a good few inches on Iago, who just keeps his rifle levelled coldly on his centre of gravity. Naturally given to make himself look smaller when weapons are levelled on his person, probably. Again, a look is tilted from Irishman to Argentinian, who seems impassively content with Chris's line of questioning, awaiting answer.

"I took its energy," he says, sullen. "Was runnin' low already, I reckon, so I focused what was left out of 'em, and spent it. Set the rest of everything on fire, but it's better than, you know."

Dying. He doesn't say that. He just swallows.

"Why are you so fuckin' pressed anyhow? Is it one of yours?" and that is more pointed towards Iago, now. "Your mate's, I mean. He likes his creepy tinker-toys, now, don't he?"

Iago lowers his rifle, finally. "No," he answers. "It's not. You're talking about your ability. You can shut these machines down, just like that?"

"Aye," the man says, then splays his hands. "Well. Maybe. There wasn't much t'take. Takes time to do the taking and when one of those things are attacking you, there ain't a lot've— "

With a barely vocalised grunt of impatience, Iago swings his rifle back up to rest against his back, moving then to shadow back around Chris with the soft falls of boot and metal footprints in the earth, beginning a trajectory that will take him back towards where their horses are waiting.

This trash panda can drain the robots’ energy. That is something. “Fucking…” Whatever that thought is, Chris doesn’t complete it. His dubious expression remains. He didn’t see the man take out the machine, only the man squirreling up into it. A tilt of his head allows him to watch Iago head for the horses.

A few seconds pass and he looks at the man again, considering. A guy who can drain the robots’ energy. He doesn’t yet shoulder his rifle, but he also hasn’t moved it into a more offensive hold. Feet shift on the ground, another look is given over to Iago and the pair of horses waiting. Then, to the Irishman, “You got a horse?”

Folding his long arms around himself, trash panda squints at Chris, before swiveling at the waist enough to look at the wreckage that was his improvised home. As if maybe to indicate his lack of horse, but also — making a decision about whether or not this obscure invitation is one he wants to take, what with the rudeness and all. But unless he wants to try to make camp inside the carapace of a monster cephalopod robot for the evening—

"Name's Shambrook," he says. "You know, for starters. Interestin' company you keep. I don't got a fuckin' horse, no."

Iago has paused in his walking back at the sound of questions, half-turned to watch with his usual baleful neutrality. No protest given, if maybe projecting some small amount of doubt about whether one more mutant matters to them in the scheme of things. Or whatever other ex-Vanguard-ish sentiments one might care to project onto him.

The next breath out has enough emphasis that steam carries along with it, and he retrieves his receiver from his belt, though doesn't immediately make use of it.

Shambrook is saying, "And who're you, though?"

“Fucking embarrassing,” Chris’ mutter carries a hefty weight of derision. Who lives in the middle of fucking nowhere without a means of transportation? “You know what I think is interesting?” He doesn’t wait for the guy — Shambrook — to answer, but plows right on ahead with what he things. “I think it’s interesting you call that tangle of rat-shat cardboard a home.”

He motions to the horses, intending for the man to start that way. He’s sure there’s a couple of people that would be interested in meeting this fellow back at the factory. “Let’s go, Shambrook. Nothing left here for you except a mudhole and a slow death. Unless another of them robots comes by when you’re sleeping.”

Shambrook's shoulders hike up defensively, but issues no protest or argument. He spends a look towards Iago, particularly as the chirp and mutter of activated radio retriever just makes itself known, who has resumed his roam back towards the horses, a hand going out to take up the reins of the big black one who has taken to nosing at the grassy earth.

"This ain't my home," Shambrook mutters, but with no particular expectation that Chris will respond, care, or even hear.

This means he is free to follow, anyway, using the back of one hand to rearrange some of the blood-tingled mud from his face, apparently impervious to the way his bare feet sink into the earth, all soft mud and sharp gravel and scratching grass. Agreement to Chris's offer articulated only in the squelching, laboured strides behind him.

Ahead of him, Chris can make out some of the logistical details being transmitted: they found another machine — disabled, depowered — and a survivor — known, barely.

Bring a vehicle around.

Inform Gray.

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