The Dusty Trail


benji_icon.gif calvin_icon.gif dearing_icon.gif felix_icon.gif lucille3_icon.gif rue_icon.gif

Scene Title The Dusty Trail
Synopsis Team Keelut, Lucille, and some guest stars travel west to verify the unlikely, and have close encounters with the impossible.
Date July 2, 2018

Somewhere in the Mojave Desert

They'd touched down in the far side of Wyoming when it was too dark to observe the way the state transformed from east to west. Anyone who cared to look out of the window of the little single-engine turboprop could note the way that civilisation slowly shrank into the encroaching, scorched-earth blackness of the Dead Zone, lights dwindling into nothingness.

The pilot, on the Department of Homeland Security's dime, sees them descend safe and sound into the all but abandoned airport of Rawlins, Wyoming, a harsh wind blowing in from the west, bringing with it fine dust that smudged out the lights, ashy and dirty. Rue Lancaster and Lucille Ryans, longer term members of Wolfhound, might be used to cruising into missions with a little more class and style than this, as they unload their equipment from the plane and into the truck waiting to carry them further into the Dead Zone.

But then, this is a reconnaissance mission, and as the sun comes up on them gathering around a paper map over the hood of the truck, facing down the prospect of fifteen hours of driving, there's a sense of covertness to their little unit, in the midst of the neglected airfield, the sounds of absolute nothingness pressing in all around.

The Dead Zone has a way of inducing a touch of claustrophobia, in all its wide open space.

They drive, and the sun slips by overhead.

Dearing takes point on driving. Not a wholly anti-social creature, he doesn't try to fill the road trip with much in the way of light conversation — to expect that for the whole drive is to invite madness. But it's late in the day when he says, "Always figured I'd see this place eventually, before. Everyone used to have a story. Win big, lose everything, whatever. Bigger stakes, I guess, these days." Before anyone can ask him what he's talking about, and why, he gestures towards the broken-tooth outline than the sunset is showing up as black and gold, the one they've given a wide berth as they drove further west, further south.

He's right, though. What looked like just another blasted, broken up Dead Zone city, looted of its light and life, was once upon a time Las Vegas.

Their final stop is not their last stop. They enter Death Valley under cover of darkness, and drive up gravel and rock towards a light in the distance. The ranch is discreet, rundown, abandoned and repopulated in repetitive cycles, Nevada and surrounding states being the kind of place where territories are won and lost every other day. The first thing they see is an outdoor fire, some figures pacing around it. Dark stables, a farm stay lit from within by more firelight.

Dearing hits the brakes a little ways off, headlights down, but no doubt the sound of their engine already signalled their approach. All around is desert rendered blue beneath the moon, the mountainous ridges of a national park reclaimed by nature. He turns in his seat, and says, to Lucille, "You can handle diplomacy."

“You didn't miss much.” Is a soft reply from Lucille sitting in the second row passenger seat, turning her head to regard the man with a stare before giving Rue and Felix a look as well. “Spent a birthday weekend there, lost big.” Oh yea she did, that was so long ago now she could barely. Classy travel conditions or not, Lucille travels in mostly silence. Rue’s known her longer and more personally but there's a tension in her neck and shoulders. Worry.

While she knows her niece and her best friend are beyond capable of looking after themselves there's a piece of her that's restless and has been since they set off. Aunt Luci will be chill once she sees their faces. Delia might tease her on it but Nicole she's sure would tell her to follow her gut and be vigilant. And vigilant she is, pale blue eyes surveying the scene of decay around them. This was once a place full of so much light.. there's a moment of guilt at down talking the former hub of a city but she quickly shrugs it off as she sees people ahead.

Relief washes over Luce’s features and she gives Rue a look that says Whew, they’re here. she goes to re tie her auburn hair into a small ponytail a few wisps of hair falling into her eyes.

We’re all friends here she wants to say but she's not sure how Calvin and Dearing will get along. Opening the door of the truck, she steps out silently and walks out to the front of the vehicle. Dressed in all black and grey, a asymmetrical blazer hides what else she might have on her person but the grip of a firearm.. and some pouches can be seen as she walks ahead and stops with one hand in her pocket. “Ladies.” A warm greeting for her niece and a gentle tease to Calvin, he's a big boy. He can take it.

“I’m pretty sure I was at that party and don’t remember any of it,” Rue says in response to Lucille’s assessment of Vegas. What happens there, stays there, they used to say. The husk of a city makes the slogan seem haunting now.

While Lucille moves along to play diplomat, Rue sets about shaking her own hair out of the bun she’d previously had it tied in. She slides the elastic around one wrist and lets the curls hang long and loose about her shoulders. Her backpack is left to sit in the vehicle for now. It’s not high on the list of her current concerns.

Felix has been mostly silent, as is his habit. Mutely observing, gaze fixed on the wreckage of Vegas as long as it can be. For a city boy, the waste and desert doesn’t seem to bother him overmuch. He slips last from the truck. If diplomacy is needed, it’s always best that Ivanov keep his mouth shut, and he knows it. He’s got all the verbal delicacy of a tank division.

The sound of hooves tossing soft dust is quiet beneath the engine’s rumble; Calvin converges upon them slowly from the perimeter on a broad-sided chunk of a bay roan mare, her flanks shifting ghost-like against the blues and greys of desert night. He’s a menacing figure in desert camouflage astride her back, more of the same mottled grey, dreads tied back in a scruffy crest, eyes glowing shrill blue in the dark. For Felix, something about him might be familiar at a distance.

Light diffracts blue and orange through the fog of his breath.

“Hullo, Aunt Luci,” he greets from on high, horse reined to a stop. At closer range, Lucille’ll be able to see the cross of the assault rifle up on his back.

“Who’re your friends?”

Dearing kills the bright headlights, equalising out the shadows once all there is to see by is distant firelight and a moon in the sky. The shapes of the buildings stand out sharper, and the contours of mountainous desert are gilded in silver and matte black.

On a delay, further back, a second figure — heralded by the jangle of stirrups and the scuff of boots as Benji Ryans dismounts from her own ride before making her approach. The horse she leads along with her is black in this light, but won't be come daybreak. She is dressed in similar colours and fabrics as Calvin, and similarly armed, a rifle visible at her shoulder, the hand not tangled in horse reins adjusting the sit of it as she approaches, boots leaving only shallow impressions in densely packed earth and gravel.

She smiles, as Lucille calls out to them, but doesn't rush over as she might have done normally — perhaps to avoid spooking to horses, or paramilitary mercenaries, or Calvin. She looks to Rue, and turns the hand at the rifle strap to open a wave to her, palm white. Felix and James are unknown qualities, her attention curious and lingering.

"Colleagues," says Dearing, but tips a look to his first lieutenant for the formalities.

“Keelut, meet my niece Benj and her partner Calvin,” She continues to move forward but slow, Luce pats Calvin’s horse’s side and the man's legs before moving over to Benji looking up at the woman with a small smile. “Riding in style.” A wink given before turning her body to face her fellow Hounds.

“This is Keelut, they’re the experts with gathering intel.” Obviously but intros are important. “Rue..” She gives a slow look over to her friend and the squad leader. “You know, is the squad leader.” Lucille spreads her hands as if to say have at girl. Eyes on Rue as she slides into a comfortable position, hands in the pockets of her dark clothes.

There's a gentle breeze that lifts the wisps of loose hair off her forehead and brow, she momentarily closes her eyes and really feels it. Breathes in the fresh air. It's nice to be this far out, away from where they usually are. The restless and wandering spirit inside of Lucille pleased with the recent trip.

There’s a genuine smile for Benji. The kind that rarely finds its way to Rue’s face these days. Time has caused a lot to fade away, but it hasn’t eroded fondness. “I remember,” she says of the introduction she receives, nodding to Benji and Calvin in turn.

Continuing the introductions for her own side, Rue gestures to her teammates. “Dearing here is my second. And Ivanov there is our newest recruit.” Lucille receives a small smirk from Rue. “We’re pleased to have Aunt Luci joining us for this one.”

Felix watches the riders come up, darting gaze taking in their state and their apparent armaments. His expression is utterly neutral, save for the faintest of squints. Faulty memory is twinging, but how much does that actually mean? The Russian's clad in pale clothing, desert camo fatigue pants that look like they were surplus from Desert Storm, sand colored t-shirt, tan boots.

He doesn't look like 'new' is a word that's applied to him for a very long time - the recruit thus introduced is clearly the oldest of the new arrivals by a long chalk. Gray hair, even. Felix inclines his head politely to the riders. New fish don't speak until spoken to directly, it seems.

Calvin’s eyes fade dim out of their glow, and he creaks in the saddle to grin wolfish white after Lucille’s pat pat at his leg. He’s s l o w to nudge his ride into a pair of steps closer to the group — the mare shifts her weight, warm animal breath drifting off in a great horsey sigh.

From up here, it’s easier to get a sense of the way they stand around each other. Introductions, silences. The aim of his profile lingers on Rue the longest, and stops on Felix last — too little light to read his expression.

“Well,” he says, “colleagues, we move out at your leisure.” A nudge of his heel sees his horse moving again. The pair of them back into a cross step.

“So unload your shit, have a snack and get your booties tied tight.”

"Fort Irwin is maybe a day, a day and a half ride from here," Benji says, on the back of Calvin's rally. "But it's unkind terrain, and, well." She curls the reins around her knuckles in a fidget as she thinks on how to phrase it while they're still standing at a sort of threshold. "More complicated than you know."

Dearing, who has been looking at the horses and their handlers (and, in some ways, Wolfhound's handlers too) with a slightly flatly cynical look of a man who had complained about mountains three weeks ago, says to Rue, "I'll take care of the truck," in a tone that projects that exact sentiment, and by which he means, their stock of equipment too. Peeling off from the group, he heads back those several paces to drive it somewhere secure, with the coast deemed clear.

As the group gathers to walk back towards their temporary base, Benji extracts a fold of paper from her jacket, and offers it out to Rue. "Route plan," she explains, inasmuch as a well-worn paper map marked out with pen carries anything in the way of authority. Though she's speaking to Rue, turning to walk alongside her mount, she's pitched her voice loud enough for the group — which is always effort. "Based on some of the satellite imagery from Homeland, and a little scouting." The map in Rue's hands indicates an unconventional trail, avoiding the valleys between the mountainous rises of the Mojave Desert, and using the environment for cover as much as possible.

There are other marks, but Benji supplies, before Rue can ask, "Patrolling units." She glances back at Lucille and Felix. "Hunterbots. We have a few pre-programmed paths roughed out, to avoid them, but— not nearly all of them. Nothing close to the fort, or under the storm."

A nod given to Dearing as he makes his escape to park the truck and Lucille is walking alongside Rue. Peering over at the map for a few seconds before she's flicking her gaze elsewhere eyes out on the land around them. She trusts the two freedom fighters and that they know the coast is clear. It doesn't hurt to be extra vigilant either.


While they had discussed the possibility of them it's another thing to hear it outright confirmed. A snake of worry curls around her as she searched Benji and Calvin’s faces. “Like the ones from home?” ‘Home’, their timeline, future or whatever the fuck you call it. Brow furrowed, she knows these things must have struck fear in the children from the future when they were younger. To see them resurfacing yet again couldn't be an easy reality for them. It definitely wasn't for Lucille.

Rue dismisses Dearing with a nod of her head and falls in step beside Benji easily, looking over the map and providing a gentle hum here and there to indicate she’s following along. Her face pulls into a frown at the mention of the huntersbots, however. “Can’t seem to shake those robotic fucks,” she mutters with no shortage of bitterness.

“All right. So you’ve got their circuits figured?” The Lieutenant nods her head slowly, eyes narrowed as she considers. “Good. This is good. Thanks.”

Cut Felix’s lack of enthusiasm with a knife. Not that his expression changes much, but he’s got that look in his eyes. The question about home makes his brow furrow briefly; what kind of fucked up ‘home’ do you come from where these things are common?

He’s trailing along last, a little behind and to the left of Lucille. Rue and Lucille are asking the relevant questions, so he’s quiet, for the moment. His gaze is still wandering, trying to take in what he can of their surroundings, even in the dark.

“More of, like, a subspecies? Derivative of units deployed during the war. Not quite as easy to pick out against the terrain,” he says, “unfortunate-ly.”

Calvin’s answer is jostled at its end by his horse lurching hard out of step beneath him upon kicking a bit of wood that might — in a horse’s very small mind — conceivably resemble a snake in the night. What amounts to quite a lot of muscle kicking up dust and scattering bits of stone in close proximity to the group ends in a sidestep and a lash of her tail; she slows back around behind Rue and Lucille’s shared map, ears pinned while Sheridan recovers his nerve. Hello, Felix.

Cal’s still tuned into the conversation enough to cut an incredulous look back to Benji, breath caught tight in his chest. It’s fine. Animals are fine.

Hard to say what prompted the look. Hard to see it at all, really.

When Calvin answers Lucille from up on his horse, Benji's silence beneath it is reflective, thoughtful, her mind turned to dreams and the memories they'd stirred. "Our war," she supplies, in the event of confusion. "The world war."

She glances back towards Felix, but doesn't provide a debrief on that fragment of history and context. If he hasn't already been debriefed on the nature of Keelut's contacts out west, there will be plenty of time to provide conversation as they navigate the desert, by foot and by hoof. "We'll need to avoid detection, which means avoiding the hunters, which means wrangling one to take back east will come last. But we should be able to start narrowing down whoever's behind Fort Irwin's activities once we identify when and where they were manufactured. Ordered by who.

"We have theories," she adds, lightly, before she pulls ahead by some steps to veer towards the stables, and allow Keelut and Amarok to confer amongst themselves and study the map. One last glance at Calvin is a delayed response to incredulity, tipping her head as if to say: be nice.

"We'll need to leave tomorrow," as a parting word. "Before the lightning shifts again."

Whatever that means.

What it means becomes apparent by the time they set off and make the arduous journey across desert mountain and washes. If not for the occasional detours that take them within eyeshot of the occasional crumbling ghost town, it would be easy to imagine traversing a true waste land, or the surface of Mars, landscapes composed only of sand and rock, others of dense, hardy plantlife, winding paths through uphill climbs. Their mounts are mellow tempered, at least, apparently accustomed to the terrain, and they move single file. So it's one by one that they see it, cresting a mountain rise.

A storm, as promised, is a floating island of dense grey cloud, stretching — by an approximate calculation — twenty miles, maybe more. Out of place within the desert palette of blue and gold, lightning flickers within, barely visible, and they're still too far away to hear the roll of thunder.

When they stop to rest and let the horses eat, Benji sits with Lancaster to consult the map. Around Fort Irwin, a circle in pen marks has been roughed out, and Benji illustrates with one pointed finger as she says, "The storm remains static — we haven't been out here long enough to pattern out when it comes and goes but it remains in the same place when it does form, about twenty miles in diameter. The lightning strikes, however, move in a pattern, clockwise, opening up a section about— maybe a mile, two miles? From perimeter to centre. Like the hand of a clock."

It's a far cry from the days they were debating what to name a kitten.

"The rest of the space remains active. So, we'll be coming down from here," she says, indicating with the edge of her sunglasses, "and moving east to avoid getting struck."

They’ve come a long way. Rue watches the storm for a long moment before turning her attention back to the map and the areas Benji points out. “Jesus, Jij’.” Pale, slender fingers work ginger curls free from the tie at the back of her head only so she can smooth the hair under her palms and tie it up again, higher this time.

“Eight years of gym class dodgeball better have prepared me for this,” she jokes, but doesn’t quite manage the grin she meant to go along with it. “This should be fun.” With everything in its place, Lancaster stares out at the horizon again and keeps her silence while they gather themselves to press on.

Nearer to their destination, that smell begins to permeate the air — raw, ozone, rain-churned earth, riding in on cold winds, and thunder is a near constant, quiet hum on the edges of their hearing. The horses become restless, ears flicking, tails tossing, but do not revolt, even their journeys take them, finally, beneath the shadow of stormcloud. Distant lightning strikes bleach the grey landscape in flickers of bright white, and rolling thunder vibrates within their bone marrow. Rain comes down in sporadic silver sheets, and the earth under hooves and boots becomes liquid in places, sticking mud that they have to learn to avoid. This terrain was not made for constant stormy weather.

Nor lightning. Frequently, the eye is drawn to corpses of desert wildlife, some long decayed, others less. Jackrabbits, lizards, birds, and less frequently, coyotes and foxes, all struck dead, feathers and fur and flesh singed from lightning strike. One horse lies on its side, its eye sockets empty, its deep brown hide ruined with a jagged open burn, exposed flesh lack and pink.

And all around, reaching for the sky, are strange constructions. They resemble, in a way, the steel transmission towers that hold up overhead powerlines, but they are free standing, connected to nothing, appendages in a crown reaching for the sky like the spokes of a wind-reversed umbrella. They are immense, some thousand feet tall, indifferent to their passing.

Dearing, unsettled, takes pictures without comment.

Ten miles out

July 2, 2018

1:31 am

The witching hour has passed, and the desert is blanketed in darkness. Mostly darkness. Several times a minute, flashes of lightning in the distance render the landscape in bright silver, followed by a rumble of thunder.

Coursing through Lucille's veins is amp, wild and electric, like she hasn't felt since the war. The sting of a needle point has been long since drowned out as her senses come alive with her ability. She can feel Benji next to her with effortless ease, from the pump of her heart and the steady tempo of blood pressure, the fine electrical impulses of her nervous system. It seems like it would be easy to snuff the Ryans from the distant, obsolete future with a mere thought, which is probably not completely the case, but amp has a way of making you feel borderline godlike.

Which is why Benji offered it. That, and they want to accomplish this next part with the brutal efficiency of wartime.

From their vantage point, they scope out the terrain below. Five massive steel containers sit in a row together, and through infrared binoculars, they give off a subtle thermal glow of idle machinery. Fifty feet from them sits an ordinary looking trailer with a campsite, currently sealed up against the night. Within, a human figure, and both Lucille and Benji are familiar enough with their own equipment to know that the brightness with which the human figure glows is above and beyond what a human figure should. They blaze like a small sun within the confines of the trailer, unmoving within.

"I don't see anyone else," Benji says, quietly. She, like Lucille, is lying belly down on the rocky ridge, dressed in black, light armor, gloves. She's left her rifle behind, and the sidearm strapped to her ribs is a just in case.

She felt.. yes like a goddess. Her senses alive, the golden glow of her eyes burning brightly. So much so that she's placed dark sunglasses over her eyes in order to continue being more discreet. It was okay though, she sensed her niece’s body near her and followed after the slightly dimmed vision not incapacitating. Lucille’s asymmetrical blazer flies open with her movements forward revealing her light armor. It felt right to be with family out here in the wild. A comfort Lucille leans on as they press forward under cover.

A Banshee, two black felt pouches filled with all manner of weapon and supplies. One mid length blade strapped to her thigh, they move in quietly and she takes in the metal structures in front of her with an raises eyebrow.

Her own nerves spiking with adrenaline not from use of her ability. As the two women lay in the dirt facing the way of that blazing light of a person Luce nods to Benji, “Same,” running a fingerless gloved hand through already tousled auburn hair Lucille gives a soft grin, her golden eyes burning through the lenses of the shades just a tad. Licking her lips, listening for any other movement and feeling with her ability she turns her gaze back on their target. “Nighty night.” She whispers as gaze goes unfocused and she directs her biotic influence of the subject, she's quick and precise with the ad of the amplification drug pumping through her system.

A dramatic lowering of the blood pressure with a twitch of a finger, head tilted Lucille squints as she hits that body with a massive dose of melatonin.

"Shall we?"

They shall, and quietly. They descend a slope that takes some careful negotiation, small rocks skittering out from beneath any ill placed foot or hand; Lucille first, Benji after, once or twice relying on the Amarok officer to guide her down more precarious edges. Once on level ground, the earth is flat, muddy in places, and its only in glimpses and flashes of lightning that they can make out tracks. Bare footprints, fairly large, but otherwise human — no sign of animal, mechanical or otherwise.

As they get closer, the extension of Lucille's influence over the being within the trailer only grows, and she can feel the way their body adapts to consciousness shoved deep, deep under. Benji moves towards the trailer, nimble footed and nervous, going around the burned out campfire and taking care not to knock over anything in the darkness — any number of empty beer cans, some crockery, a rickety lawn chair.

The trailer van itself is old, rundown, like it's been out here for years. More recent is flaking paint decorating the side facing them, which Benji illuminates with a pen light — a mural, of kinds, of verdant landscape, and a giant sun that seems to consume where the sky would be. She turns that light to the door, which she very quietly tries, before offering the light to Lucille. "Hold it for me?"

Picking her way through the rough terrain of the Lucille mind is running wild with the possibilities while being on this drug. It had been a long time she quickly considers why she doesn't it use it more. Then remembers the repercussions and frowns a bit to herself. Goddess for a night it is.

She can enjoy it. And she does. Her movements are quick, minimal to no sound made. Years of trailing after a shadow and Luce has picked up on some things. It's terrifying the thought of Benji and Lucille working together, their abilities working so well together like hers did with her sister. It was a exhilarating reminder of the times of the war. It wasn't all bad. She did revel it in. Benji knows this as does Calvin.

The feelings she gets from the subject as they fall deep under have her buzzing as Lucille scans their body. Yep, out.

Sidestepping another beer can and spotting the mural it gets a curious glance from the Wolfhound operative before she's walking over to take the light and hold it for Benji, “Of course.” They are polite.

While Benji works on the lock with tools she's has many idle hours to practice with, and as quietly as possible, Lucille has the next few minutes to herself to study their surroundings. The five containers continue to glow in a steady, idle way underneath thermal imaging, otherwise featureless, but clearly running hot somewhere within.

Every now and then, the flicker of lightning reveals to her the desert expanse, and she sees those strange, inverse-umbrella-like steel structures as skeletal silhouettes, making a strange land that much stranger.


The door of the trailer gives as the lock comes undone, and Benji visibly tenses in anticipation of some kind of alarm system she hadn't been able to detect — but there is nothing. Just the deep, serrated-edged snores of a man fast asleep within.

Taking her light back from Lucille, Benji puts her back up against the wall of the trailer, slowly pulls open the door — rather certain of only one body inside, sleeping or otherwise, but reflex has her be cautious and defer to Lucille's better training when it comes to entering mysterious, dark places. Any hope of very stealthy entry, however, is immediate undermined by the hanging curtain of beads coming down across the entryway. A gentle manipulation of them aside doesn't stir too much noise, and Benji closes the door behind them after an ever so slightly judgmental second take.

Benji casts about her flashlight, a yellow-tinged eye of illumination dancing over the compact living quarters they've invaded. There is the smell of body odor, of unwashed dishes, of smoke, and then something else — a smell like hot metal, or volcanic rock, or lightning strikes, a metallic undercurrent. The flashlight glow travels over personal effects. A giant kitschy dream-catcher sways in the window, and Lucille hears from her niece a soft breath of a laugh.

The snoring is coming from towards the shadowy back of the campervan, relentless and even.

Skeletal silhouettes in the lighting that flashes causes Lucille to raise her eyebrows. What in the fuck is going on?

The beads get a glare from the woman before she's slowly sliding into the trailer. It can't be helped. Her shades come up to the top of her head and eyes that usually match Benji and the other members of her family still burning that amber gold her gaze sweeps over the home, nose wrinkling at the smells before taking in the dream catcher at the same time that her niece laughs.

A wicked grin crosses the woman’s face as she focuses out around her to make sure they are still alone. Silly boys. “Don't get caught,” is a soft sarcastic joke to Benji before she's padding silently towards the back, the rhythmic pattern of the snores like a siren beckoning her forward. A pale hand lifts to rub her cheek as she walks into the shadowy back with Benji.

"I'll try my best," Benji murmurs back, amusement warm in her tone. She quietly follows Lucille's approach, curious.

The air feels humid and hotter once they close within just a few feet of sleeping body, sprawled gracelessly and fully clothed across the bed shelf set into the structure of the trailer. A man, long limbed enough that even lying down in a heap as he is, they can tell he's on the unusual range of tall. His arms are bare and decorated with a dense collection of freckles over white skin. He is bearded and ginger and a stranger to both of them.

And he is, for whatever reason, baking with unnatural heat. It doesn't hurt to get close, but it's uncomfortable, like standing near a furnace running within this metal box of a trailer while cold rain comes and goes outside.

"Evolved," Benji says, as she ducks nearer. "He must know where he is."

Because as much as this seems like some random guy, his choosing to camp out within the perimeter of the storm, with those five containers outside, his status as a mutant within the territory of mutant-hunting robots, aren't the behaviours of some random guy.

"Can you keep him under?"

Amber gold irises widen a fraction once the two encounter the source of the humidity and heat, hair raising on the back of her neck. Lucille studies the man’s face and appearance with a tilt of her head. Traitor. To your own kind. Those feelings of violence drag back memories of the war. There were people she encountered that worked on the side of Mitchell. If she met them, they would no longer be alive.

An eyebrow quirks and Lucille rolls her neck as she walks forward slowly. Her ability was at work and though she was amp’d.. still touch was stronger than range.

Crouching low Lucille reaches a fingerless gloved band over to gently hold two fingers to the man’s temple. Why in the world would he be helping them? The enemy. She didn't ultimately care.

“I’ve got a nice grip on him.” Her influence snaking through the man's body even more now that skin to skin contact has been initiated. More melatonin and he would never wake (not immediately at least), making sure he stays asleep while Benji does her thing.

Allowing Lucille room to maintain contact, Benji gently eases herself to sit on the bed beside the stranger. Balances herself by reaching across him, placing one hand against the interior wall of the trailer, while her other snakes out and touches his bared, freckled arm. Carefully.

It would be inconvenient if they killed this man in an effort to keep him undisturbed.

They'd want it to be deliberate, if anything.

Breathing out, Benji closes her eyes. What precision she lacks by going in in this fashion, she makes up for in being able to remain conscious throughout it. And what precision she lacks, she makes up for with her own dose of amp fluttering through her bloodstream, which sees her ability sink into this sleeping man's mind as cleanly as if she'd taken a scalpel to grey matter.

He dreams. It takes her a few moments to give shape to the usual nonsense of the sleeping mind, especially one pushed so deeply into darkness by someone like Lucille.

For a time, Lucille might feel alone in the over-warm trailer, rain coming down like thrown pennies against the metal shell surrounding her. The man breathes deeply, and Benji might as well be asleep as well for as quiet as she is, the pace of her own inhales and exhales, and then— "Jasper," she says. The man stirs, just a little, but doesn't wake. "Shambrook. He grows gardens from the sun."


One foot in consciousness and the other within the shambles of the dreaming world, she has the presence of mind to say the things she is thinking, but not so much to translate it.

Gardens from the sun. Tilting her head at her niece’s words she makes a mental note to remember that. Slipping a hand into her back pocket she retrieves her notebook. The tiny red one with all her notes. One hand goes again to slip a pen out as well and slowly pushes it down not making a noise.

Keeping her hand down on Jasper she jots down the notes. She hasn't done this with Benji since the war but the familiar exercise is easy to slip into. Like riding a bike, balancing the notebook on a raised knee. Her eyes flick to the windows, the surge of amp still allowing her to push beyond her usual capabilities. Taking a moment to focus on their surroundings again, feeling for any biological signature, neurons buzzing.

Bits and pieces are collected, not all of which Benji comments on as she sees them — a lightning-struck horse with black hide that Jasper remembers finding with some distress, and eyes in the darkness made of blue light that he remembers as silver furred, where lightning flashes show up their steel razor-edged skeleton that she can take to mean the hunterbots, and sun and desert, and storm, and then countryside that resembles the Mojave Desert not at all.

"This isn't his home," she says, after a minute. "He dreams of home. Fields. Farm. Green. Gardens. He dreams of it like it's gone forever."

But this isn't important, not towards their purpose. A soft shake of her head, and she re-centers herself. Influencing his dreams like she's guiding minnows in a lake with ripples. "The garden grows silver. Sharp. Steel." Her head tips. "It's all Wieland's, really. He helps. He helps and the Director doesn't mind if he wanders.

"But he's never seen her. Only heard her. He's not sure she's real."

Scribbling down those words associated with home in a legible but barely script because of the way she's keeping physical contact with Jasper. Eyes flick to Benji’s face, Home gone forever. Well then.. that reminds of Benji, Kincaid and Ingrid’s Home. Was it gone forever?

Sharp, steel silver lake. That gets a rise of an eyebrow as well as the name Wieland, that name is underlined four times but then the Director is being discussed and Lucille stiffens and slowly turns her head towards her niece. Damn it, they are very good at keeping her hidden.

Her senses prickling with biological data from Wieland’s sleeping friend. Still nothing on the outside of the trailer and Lucille feels a bit of gratitude towards her mother Mary. She looks Benji up and down in admiration, in awe. Her sister made a fucking brilliant kid and Luce was reminded of it in every interaction she had with Benji. Dad would be proud of them both.

Around them, informational negative space eases Lucille's mind as she maintains her balance between keeping Jasper Shambrook sunken, and making careful note of cryptic report.

Benji gives a soft hhhn, and withdraws her hands at the same moment that Lucille feels his heart start to race. In the gloom of the trailer, Benji opens her eyes, tipping against where she leans her hand on the wall. Her breathing has deepened, the way someone might when on the verge of hyperventilation but keeping determined control, and she looks across at Lucille, then down again at Jasper.


She reaches and takes Lucille's hand, a gentle closing over the back of where she has her touch maintained. Let's go, is a silent plea.

Nodding her head slowly Lucille moves her hand as she stands looking down on the sleeping man see ya soon. She thinks as she takes Benji’s hand and assured that their way is clear outside of the trailer she quietly leads Benji back to the entrance of the trailer before releasing her hand to quietly hold the door open for Benji.

The beads can't be helped again but she tries her best with a look over towards her niece. She's ready to move.

Three miles out

July 3, 2018

6:31 pm

"You take us to all the nice places, Lieutenant."

The rain has temporarily abated — thank fucking god — and the mountain rock on which they're huddling is more stone than earth, making it slick but not overly muddy. The horses have been left with the rest of the team while Rue and James embarked on an uphill climb that would put them within a few miles of Fort Irwin. There's some light left in the sky, struggling dim through cloud cover by the time they quietly traverse rock and stone.

Shouldering off the equipment he's effortlessly burdened this long, Dearing ducks down on one knee to begin unpacking and setting up the long range camera he's been protecting like a goose egg since they landed. "I hope you and the Major don't consider this kind of excursion a part of our vacation leave," he's saying, voice kept low enough not to carry, giving a bleak squint to the endless expanse of rock and storm weather around them, "but given the circumstance, I'd understand the confusion."

From here, Rue can see it — a military training compound for the United States Army that once housed a population of almost nine-thousand, including family. From here, it's impossible to tell the function and purposes of individual buildings or even whole blocks, let alone evidence of a population.

“Only the best for you, honeybear,” Rue quips back flatly. “I mean, I know this isn’t as exciting as waiting around to see if we can pick something up on the wiretap, but they can’t all be Disney World vacations.”

The camera Rue pulls from her pack isn’t meant for the range that the one Dearing has been protected is, but she lifts it all the same and snaps off a couple shots before she crouches down next to her teammate. “Maybe one of these creepazoids will hide in a resort town one of these times. We can do recon with Mai Tais in hand.”

As Rue crouches down, something underfoot crunches.

Which shouldn't be a surprise, given the elements they're on, but it feels different beneath the dense sole of her boot — sharper, with a soft creak of metal. A quick glance down confirms two things: it's probably not some kind of landmine trigger that she's stepped on, because she can partially see what she's stepped on. The other thing is she has no idea what she's looking at. At first, her brain says bug at the sight of spindly silver insectile legs hooked forward, the rest of it trapped beneath her boot.

Until she notes a metallic sheen, the steely resistance of it under her weight, the absence of soft guts mashed into the dusty rock.

"Then it'll really be a Bond film," Dearing is saying, affixing camera parts together, strap looped around his neck. "And if I forgot the HDMI at the bottom of this mountain or back in the truck, I'm going to shoot everyone and then myself."

For a moment, it’s a bad dream she’s had about a thousand times since that night in the hospital. Did it catch up with her? But there’s no mine and no explosion. No immediate gunfire. Rue’s shoulders sag in time with a heavy exhalation of breath. Fuck.

“Jesus,” she whispers when her brain finally starts to register what she’s stepped on. “What the fuck is this?” And how fucked are they right about now, more importantly. “Save the bullets for saving our asses, yeah?” She does not lift her foot just yet. She would love to be wrong about this. Why can’t it just be some kid’s RC plane?

It was a joke is on the tip of Dearing's tongue, but his brain catches up with itself as something in her tone resonates with his better instincts. He looks to her face, then follows her eyeline down to where—

"What the fuck is that?" is an almost perfect echo. He sets the camera aside, all focus now on the glint of metal peeking out from under Rue's boot. "Hold on." With a scrap of armored knees on rock, he lowers himself right down on his belly to get a better look at the thing she's inadvertently trapped, a black matte knife in his hand — a tool, in this moment, rather than a weapon.

He moves to shimmy the steel point of it between rock and the lift of Rue's sole. "It's not moving," he says, in the tone of someone who is uncertain as to whether it should be moving.

“Well that’s a fucking relief.” Ever so slowly, Rue lifts her boot up off the thing she’s had pinned, ready to slam it back down again if she needs to. Hopefully without getting Dearing’s hand in the process.

When it doesn’t budge, she relaxes again and shifts to the side before leaning down for a closer look. “It’s… They fucking made a metal bug? What the actual…” A whoosh of air puffs out Rue’s cheeks. “Everyone involved in this project is a fucking lunatic.”

And who puts a waterbug in the desert anyway?

Dearing turns it around and over with the tip of his knife, the wind continually coming through from the west, ruffling hair and tossing dust. Another near-constant boom of thunder shivers through their guts after a stuttered flash of white lightning on the other side of Fort Irwin, as if to remind them of where they are.

Three inches end to end, it's bigger than a waterbug but resembles one nonetheless, with front facing insect arms, wings closed to its back like a beetle — or they would be. Moreover, it looks damaged beyond just Rue's weight coming down on it, with one wing bent out of shape, its structure partially shattered. Tiny panels indicate that perhaps, once, it glowed.

"Cat skeletons and beetles," Dearing says. "We should take this back for someone to look at. Maybe your friends." There's a look that accompanies that word. Your friends are weird, Rue. "I'd say the joke is that it's a bug, functionally, but it's not exactly discreet."

“Yeah… Could bite us in the ass, but this thing looks busted.” There’s an urge to poke it experimentally, tap it with one purple-painted fingernail, but she instead lifts it in her palm and turns it over. “Major’ll want to see this.” She sets it down on the ground in front of her long enough to snap photos, then wraps it in a scarf she’d meant for her hair and puts it into her bag.

“This shit is fucked.” She’s eloquent at the best of times, but now she’s rattled. And mad about that. “Maybe my friends,” he gets a lift of brows at that. Yes, she knows, “will know what it’s for.”

With the little metal insect stashed away, focus returns to the mission at hand. The HDMI cable was packed with them all along, and so Dearing hooks up a small hand-held access screen to give Rue a visual on what he can perceive through the super sensitive lens of the heavy, military-grade camera he hefts and points down towards the Fort. The actual taking of pictures is in her hands too via a small trigger, but for a while, there is little to take pictures of as Dearing fusses with the focus, muttering curses beneath his breath as they slowly lose light, and a gentle rain once again begins to fall.

But the image sharpens in time, if still wavey at the edges as the camera zooms in on details three miles from their position.

From this angle, they can see streets, and buildings, very likely the civilian villages that Rue was briefed about before setting out on this mission. Or so was their purpose, before the war. Now, it doesn't seem to have changed much, structurally speaking. The shaky silhouettes of people moving in and out glimmer across Rue's screen, everyone seeming to move with purpose. The camera finds one flat building that has the lights on as the dusk comes, and in that moment, a procession of human figures emerge.

Children, led by a couple of adults, all holding hands. Tracking them for long is impossible as their movement takes them behind buildings, but they seem to disperse amongst the housing over a period of ten, fifteen minutes.

A half an hour later, a truck pulls in from the south. Figures disembark in an orderly fashion. There are no uniforms, and gender seems to be an even split, leaning male.

“Looks like school’s out,” Rue mutters under her breath as she watches the screen. One hand scrubs across her freckled face, settling in a cage around her chin and mouth, index finger resting against her left cheekbone.

Blue eyes narrow as she watches how things move in a fashion she thinks of as almost too orderly. People’s lives don’t move like this. “What the hell are they doing down there?” she asks out loud while wondering silently at the safety of those children.

She considers opening her rifle’s case, if only for the sniper’s scope. Firing off a shot, even from this distance, would be a disaster. It seems safer for the moment to leave it be. The view on the screen will suffice, as much as she dislikes a lack of control.

It wouldn’t get any better if she were focusing the lens. She can’t make the scene do what she wants or expects it to. Right now, she isn’t sure her expectations should be met.

"Civilians," Dearing mutters, tone dark with disapproval. Or aggravation. Civilians are a complication, at best. "This all seems like a lot if we're looking at security defenses for a settlement, don't you think?"

But who knows — Dearing doesn't. The entire Dead Zone seems to operate on its own rules, and if some toys had somehow managed to survive the EMP blast of years ago, who's to say who could have picked them up again? He mutters something to this effect, but is otherwise occupied on using the last of their light to patiently draw camera focus along the facility. Between them, they capture a healthy array of images of layout and terrain.

By the time its too dim to get anything but grainy nonsense, Dearing is switching out the parts for thermal imaging, borderline having forgotten about the 'insect' stashed in their gear. "I hope command is getting used to all our data about the outsides of things," he says, dryly.

A thunderclap rumbles by. And then another, a slightly more resonant feeling than the last.

“What’s the matter? You’d rather see if we can sneak our way in there?” She’s being sarcastic, but she might actually like to give it a shot. Just not without more information. Can they get that information without trying to infiltrate? A settlement like this, faces don’t just disappear into the crowd. Especially not tall, leggy redheads.

“There’s no way this is just a civilian camp. Not unless they’re a bunch of doomsdayers who stumbled onto a cache.” Which isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility, but a run-of-the-mill group of overzealous civilians would be too much to ask for.

While Dearing changes out the gear, Rue looks out on the horizon. Something about that thunder doesn’t feel right, but she can’t explain it.

By the time the third clap of thunder rolls in, rhythmically in pace with the last two that preceded it, Rue's suspicions start to curdle into anticipation, if still inexplicably.

"Yeah," Dearing is saying, "a couple of hundred warm bodies in the residential blocks, at a guess. We'd have to go nearer to get anything more specific or check out those other facilities." His tone is a little dubious, but what they do next is Rue's call, continuing to manipulate the camera and stare down its view, shifting a little with discomfort in his crouch on the rock.

But Rue may or may not be listening to much of that.

At a distance, she sees lights. Blue lights, fuzzed out by cloud cover and fog-rain, far up the ground — like a glow from a distant mountain, or a beacon on a tower on the other side of the compound, for all that she definitely did not observe any such thing while they still had the light. And what's more, it's moving. A lurching kind of movement, in time with that next clap of 'thunder', which now feels more to her like a very heavy weight slowly impacting the ground.

“We could try, but I don’t like the odds on this one. Something’s way fucky here.” Which is about the time she spots it. “Oh, fuck.” Rue taps Dearing on the shoulder and points off to the distance and those lights. “Can you get anything on thermal?” Every instinct is telling her to pack their shit and run.

Every instinct except for the ones that led her into this line of work in the first place. If they can get something, anything on film of whatever the hell that thing is, it will be valuable. Once they have that, they can beat it.

Dearing looks, and this time, he says nothing — blue eyes sharp and mouth set, wheels turning behind his expression as he attempts to resolve what he's seeing with what he expects and what is in front of him. He moves the camera, angling it, pulling focus out, the screen on Rue's access blurring out enough that she might as well keep her eyes forward.

Lightning flashes, and she sees it clearly for just a moment.

White light paints the landscape silver, touching down near enough that its fork from sky to desert ground is as plainly articulated as the forty-foot tall structure making its way around the perimeter of the town, the fog of the rain rolling out around it. Four legs carry it a slow and ponderous distance, one forelimb and one highlimb lifting in unison, followed by the others. They stem from what Rue's brain supplies as body, slabs of metal, jettisons of steam coming out in drifts, and a long neck extends twenty feet skyward on which rests a disk, where glowing blue light had initially caught her eye.

Darkness descends once more. On the access screen, dotted with rain, Rue can see a hazy version of that same shape, thermal glow centred most brightly on its points of articulation, that engine body, where heat travels through its metal chassis.

Beside her, Dearing expels a breath. Like he's been holding it.

For a long moment, the lieutenant is stunned. Nothing she’s read about the hunterbots of old prepared her for something of that size. The purpose of the construct seems unfathomable to her. A sentinel of some sort?

“I think we’ve seen what we need to see,” Rue murmurs. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Seven miles out

July 4, 2018

4:52 am

With the constant barrage of cloud cover, the pre-dawn light touching the easternmost horizon beyond rocky edges barely makes any difference to the deep grey cast of darkness enveloping everything. Through night vision, however, the Mojave Desert is rendered in shades of deep, dark green.

And the shape they are stalking has eyes that blaze white.

This area used to be training grounds for the United States army — urban terrain training, judging by the mock village that's been erected and long since abandoned. Buildings made of sheet iron and wooden boards create an illusion of city streets, decorated with Arabic grafitti. Weather-tattered laundry flutters wet off wires. Mosques made of plastic, faded blue. Market squares only identifiable as such by old makeshift produce carts, overturned, wood splintered and rotting. Junk cars make obstacles. Some of the structures are half-sunken into the earth. The earth is mud beneath their feet.

The mud does not seem to both the mechanical creature currently lurching through its patrol, down the makeshift streets of the pantomime Afghanistan town. It moves without pause or hesitation, a slow stride of moving parts. Its shape has a feline quality, down to an articulate tail raised for the illusion of balance. Rubber feet sink into the earth and drag out of it again, leaving behind a track of long grooves, filled in swiftly with rain water.

Where cold rain strikes off its metal flanks, steam rises in a near constant cloud and hiss. From its maw protrudes a long steel needle.

Fel’s reaction to the first sight of that near-permanent storm was to offer a sickly little laugh, more incredulity than any hint of real humor. “Jesus fucking Christ, Thunderclap. Traveller, here ends Mid-World.” A shake of that scarred head. One’d think he’d be used to living in a post-apocalyptic world, but sometimes the utter surreality of it still gets him, in the gut if not the head.

And now he’s peeled off with Calvin to capture or otherwise subdue one of these things. The former Fed’s found a decent rain poncho as a cover, wrapped close here and there lest it make him that much more obvious….or flap and startle the horse. Not that Fel’s noble steed, a buckskin nearly as rawboned as his rider, named Dusty, seems anything other than phlegmatic. Fel’s been quiet, most of the way, other than to ask bluntly what ideas Calvin has for dealing with their prey, and explain his own ability in as few words as possible.

Fat drops of rain snap and thwap off the waterproof hood of Calvin’s coat, his mare whorled and prickled with muddy water beneath him. She’s stocky, but near invisible against the blue grey crags rising up around them, a lank shake at her tail indistinguishable from off and on runs of silt down the mountainside.

Her name is Peaches.

Peaches sighs into the rain, her broad sides heaved under the hook of Cal’s boots through the stirrups.

He’s been quiet too, subdued by the hour, or the weather, or the years gone by. He’s scruffy and sits in his saddle like his city boy legs ache and he has power over metal. The best idea he’s got is for Felix go in and lure it out close enough for him to tear it asunder, or otherwise run around it in circles until it’s pooped out. There’s an elephant joke in there, somewhere.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.

“What d’y’think, comrade?” he asks, quiet-like, once he’s lowered his own binoculars. The twang on his vowel sounds is more Aussie than American. “It’s slick out here for a run.”

Fel’s expression is assessing, as he looks at down into the town, lips thinned out. “Open stretches are easier on me, but this’ll do. I used to lure and kite ‘em during the war - they’d lock on to me as SLC and they tended not to change targets once they did. Hopefully the AI isn’t much smarter now.” He looks like someone’s cut-rate version of the Pale Rider, dust-colored poncho hood mostly veiling his face, hands spidery on the reins. Dusty keeps nosing disconsolately around his hooves, as if he might find a spare blade of grass.

A glance over at Calvin. God, those eyes are unnerving, even when the metallokinetic isn’t glowing. Memory fragments of similar ones behind a scope….

“We don’t have the raw firepower to take it out ourselves, no time to build a complicated trap. Luring and wrecking it is,” he agrees. “Get its face first. I don’t know what that needle is, but it doesn’t look good. I’m kind of grateful that whoever designed the goddamn things decided to build ‘em off an animal analogue….and a quadruped mammal at that. Imagine those fuckers like tripods in War of the Worlds or something, three-sixty vision and field of fire, no clear forward and back.” Robotic octopodes of of death, because sabretooth terminators aren’t bad enough. A look back over his shoulder. “Let’s let the sun rise, if we can. It doesn’t need better light, but I’m gonna.”

“Yeh, of course, we can wait.” Not like he needs his ass for anything after this.

The sound of creaking leather and rustling gore-tex marks him stretching up into a stand against his stirrups, shoulders hunched in and flexed back until there’s a pop. He keeps the reins resting slack through the fingers of his right hand, reaching back to slip a flask up out of a side pocket with his left before he settles.

“The needle’s primed with a paralytic when capture’s a priority.” He wedges the flask against the horn of the saddle to unscrew the cap one-handed, chin tucked to that end. Runoff drips slow through the tawny bristle of his beard, jaw slung long in profile. “Out here it might be Sodium thiopental. Or worse.

“There was talk back home of units utilizing cytotoxic chemicals to send a message. Rebels staggering back home free only to have their leg rot off.”

He pours a shot or so down his throat and offers the flask over to Felix — teeth shown wolf white in a gallows grin, eyes pale even in the semi-dark. The flask is scuffed stainless steel, unremarkable, beyond stinking like whiskey in the rain.

“Know any good stories?”

Out here, light isn't too far off, regardless as to how many stories Felix knows. A couple more hours brings a grey dawn light struggling in over mountains. Rain is intermittent and so are the lightning flashes, the queasy rolls of thunder.

By the light and out of the veil of infrared vision, that bright white light is replaced with a more moderate blue glow. Its parts are steel and with sharp edges, steam rising in occasional jets, head low with that long needle like a thread of drool. Its path is taking it on a nearer loop, although from their observations, this still seems more like a routine trajectory than sensors drawing it near an SLC-Expressive.

But it won't be much longer until that familiar threshold has passed.

Fel accepts the flask, takes a hearty slug, hands it back. “If it gets me with that thing, and you think that’s what’s happening, shoot me if you can,” he says, taking it at face value. He’s heard worse stories, seen things sufficiently obscene from the war to give it credence.

He doesn’t know any good stories, it seems. None he’s willing to vouchsafe, anyhow. Fel’s keying up, slowly, despite himself. The rain is cold, but he’s going to need that chill to keep from building up too much heat. His body is adapted on so many fronts to his abilities, but it’s not perfect. So he takes off and wraps up the poncho, along with a fleece jacket - if he survives, he’ll need the warmth later. Rolled up behind Dusty’s saddle - he’s down to fatigue pants and t-shirt, goggles to keep mud out of his eyes.

“Light enough,” he says to Calvin. And once he’s got Sheridan’s assent, acknowledgement that they’re both ready, there’s an instant where he’s all but spooling up, pulse gone to a flutter in the hollow of his throat. Squaring his shoulders like a matador about to step into the ring.

Then he’s off, all but a blur, flinging up a roostertail of rainwater and mud, some insane Don Quixote gone to tilt against robotic windmills, deliberately darting across its apparent field of vision.

Calvin watches Felix drink, flask only just back in his hand when he absorbs the order for assisted suicide.

He just nods, once, morbid humor let off in a grim huff of breath through his eye teeth.

Sure. He’ll shoot Felix Ivanov.

Time passes.

Nearer the sunrise, he gathers Dusty’s reins with his own while Felix strips down layers. Supervising.

“I like it,” he says — helpfully — and nudges Peaches in the flank with his heel to set her rolling away down the street, “Kch kch,” with Dusty in tow. “Before you looked like a grizzled old cunt, but now y’look like a grizzled old cunt with goggles.”

There’s a bombed out old Buick that’ll work nicely as a tie off for the horses.

Time passes.

Light enough, and he nods his agreement. Ready. Mud arcs down the street beside him like a fount of projectile vomit in Felix’s wake, much less elegant upon its plplppploploplop landing than it is in its initial fling skywards.

Sheridan has his back pressed flush to the blind corner of a crumbling ‘hotel,’ lying in wait, hood pulled back so that he can lean and squint after the trench Ivanov’s cut through the mud.

Rain drives at brow and cloys at his sinuses, tearing the fog of his breath to shreds.

What’d be really handy is a pair of goggles.

The hunterbot stops.

There's no animalistic tilt of its head, or twitch of its tail. It doesn't even twist its neck to track the path across that Felix blurred in front of it. Whatever calibrations going on beneath reinforced steel don't require that it perform any of them in this moment, save that that blue glow of its eyes — the dawn still dim enough for them to be casting light across the ground before it — turn into an ominous crimson.

It resumes movement. Except instead of not pursuing its loop, it moves with a mechanical urgency, a straight line that sees its metal, rubber-cuffed feet crush through the rotted wood of pseudo-market carts, collapsed from time. Wood splinters underfoot like glass beneath its weight. A roughed up boundary made of tin plywood stands secured between it and where Felix's last pinged on its sense of space.

The hunterbot rams into it without speed — just relentless inevitability. Wood cracks immediately, splits, shreds itself against sharp-edged metal as it strides right through it.

From Calvin's position, he hears rain patter on concrete sharper than the damper percussion in storm-churned sand and mud. He hears the abrupt thump and crack of steel ramming into and shattering rotted wood. Soon, he'll hear hydraulics and steam and the subtle hum of its engine, all familiar.

This is the worst part, ordinary adrenaline bleeding in and blending with the kind that gives him his power. Knowing he’s in the sights of something as relentless as the fictional Terminators of his childhood. And he has to keep its interest, lead it closer to where Calvin is obliquely, like a killdeer wing-dragging to lure a predator away from her nest.

So Fel isn’t a blur, now - he’s poised to let it get another good sight on him, when it crashes through that barrier with the casual disregard of an elephant shouldering its way through the jungle. Then he’s heading for Calvin in a series of slanted lines, kiting it across his path.

The sound of steel in four-legged motion never ceases to turn Calvin’s insides over in a nasty loop, adrenaline lending an extra pulse of light behind his eyes. It fades and takes a dull blueprint of rusty debris and spent casings around him with it, leaving an icy tickle of fear trickling along his heart and lungs, through the diaphragm and down his spine.

It’s fine. He’s ready. Pressed back wet against the wall, breathing stifled down at the pitter patter of Felix’s feet closer, closer — and past.

Sheridan pivots out into the open, slipping, staggered, one hand raised to rip the robot up off its rubber paws and into pieces with all the momentum of a vehicle obliterating itself against a concrete barrier. Armor butterflies away from metal bones with an aluminum shriek, sparks spitting from the body case after a shoulder torn asunder. He rends it apart in midair, raw power wrenching limb from limb, staving in ribs, spilling oil and water and an arterial spray of hydraulic fluid that slices a line in the mud.

It’s quick as it is violent, wreckage dropped steaming into a puddle. The red eyes sputter and fade dark.

Calvin’s keep burning bright.

A few small fires kick up in the mud, fuel taking up bluish flame against the rain.

Fel comes skidding to a stop only a few paces away, managing to neither wipe out entirely nor cover himself or Calvin with mud. Heat bleeds off into the cold rain, leaving him momentarily wreathed in his own cloud of steam, and he’s panting lightly, shaking and standing with an almost drunken, loose-jointed cant, for a moment.

“What parts do we actually need?” he asks, scanning the wreckage, before adding, belatedly, “Nice work - wish we’d had someone like you around during the war.”

An uneasy, sidelong glance for those glowing eyes, and there’s a shudder that has nothing at all to do with the chill water running down his spine. But only one, and then he’s scanning, senses still on high alert.

For the beat they’re both standing there in silence, Calvin has to think to close his mouth, and to funnel heavy breaths in and out through his sinuses. His adrenaline burns off at roughly the same rate as the fumes that’ve taken light in the mud, smouldering low until they’ve snuffed out entirely.

“Head, bodycase, spine.”

The question seems to snap him out of it; he looks to Felix, eyes like brands against the stormy creep of dawn, teeth scissored out again into a grin at the shudder. No mercy in this creep zone.

“I never stopped fighting.”

Dreads dripping, heavy with the rain, he turns to ford back through the mud for their horses. The vivisected robot’s core jolts behind him as if on a tow line, darkened skull trailing the engine block and spine. Mud mixes in a wake behind it.

“Anyone ever told you you ’look like you belong in a cologne advertisement?”

“Only if you mean an ad for Eau de Drowned Rat,” Felix replies. He’ll be shivering in earnest, if he doesn’t get the layers back on. So he’s heading back for the horses, slopping through the mud with a kind of grim resignation. The poncho and the fleece will be enough to keep some warmth in him, hopefully.

He’s keeping an eye out, nervous as his namesake. Hunters don’t usually patrol in packs, not ones that size, in his experience. But this whole place is freaky as it is, nevermind the ghosts of Deckards Past trailing in his wake.

“They’re all about the grungy war hero in the wilderness look now, personally I think we might be onto something with the rain and the mud and the robots thrown in.”

A scrap of dislocated hip ‘bone’ snaps off the spine of the hunter Calvin is dragging and is sucked away into the mud — a bit of debris to flag the twin swaths they’re cutting through the desolation. Ahead, Peaches and Dusty are huddled together in the rain, scruffy grey humps with bowed heads in the grey dawn in the grey desert.

Sheridan has his head bowed too, eyes drilling cold through the spatter of rain in the craters of their footsteps frozen in the opposite direction. Every step is work, brown water swirling into fresh impressions sunk in behind them, the weight of the hour and the stress without a solid night’s rest riding heavy in his shoulders.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Not a fucking clue, beyond you being partnered up with someone who’s got a relative in Wolfhound,” Fel admits, without hesitation. “You look too young for me to have arrested you back in the day, so….” He shrugs. “Should I care?”

Back to the horses, first, and he’s hastily unrolling and pulling on first the fleece underlayer, then that camo poncho. Much better. He leans himself against the horse’s side, for a moment, as if to absorb the warmth of the beast’s hide. Not mounting up, yet, in case Calvin needs some sort of help. Though by the look of things, Fel’s really been supernumerary all along. Well, if they just want to give the old coot something to do to make him feel useful, that’s apparently fine with him.

The next roll of thunder washes over them, a staccato flash of lightning shuttering in the distance. By the time the echo of storm has died down, another sound has lifted and taken its place.

It sounds like a fog horn, lifting towards the sky.

It's difficult to get a sense of distance, but directionally, it sounds southwards, in the direction of Fort Irwin. Is long, persistent wail has a familiarity to it — for anyone who encountered the larger sentinel robots that galloped over battlefields with its long, equine legs. It encroaches only on the edges of their hearing, and so even with jagged mountainous ridges and buffeting wind and rain, it must be carrying far.

Calvin grins into the rain, breath wrought out at a foggy grunt for the exertion. Spritely as they are, even the Hunters aren’t light, mud bubbling through the cracked carapace to weigh everything down all the further.

“S’probably not important,” he says, maybe a little too easily in keeping with the tune of Felix’s assessment.

At the horses, he brings a loop of rope down from the saddle and sets to binding the bot up fast while Ivanov layers up. The rain and mud make that a beating too, the rope slippery in his hands as he threads it through tented ribs and around knobbled vertebrae. He’s still polishing off the last knot when the wail of the siren lifts over the ridges around them, and he spooks upright, hood flopped down low over his brow.

“Someone’s been made.” No shit, right?

Sheridan stands there at a loss and is rained on, breathing with his mouth open while he does the math on whether it’s anyone he’s likely to care about. At a glance, it’s easy for papi Ivanov to see he’s compromised.

…And very probably about to climb back onto his horse to ride for the sound, rather than the rendezvous.

There’s only an incurious grunt in reply to Calvin’s comment about his identity. The edges of that old razory curiosity have apparently been tumbled dull in the intervening decade.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Fel’s voice is conversational, rather than heated. “That’s one of the bigger ones calling out there. Your power enough to let you take it down single-handed?” It might be possible - he doesn’t know the extent of Sheridan’s capabilities - but his tone is utterly dubious.

He’s looking at Calvin, hand on Dusty’s bridle, gaze level. Not angry, not surprised, merely tiredly patient…and not gazing in the direction of the Hunter. “You feel the urge to go off and play Don Quixote with one of those bastards, then maybe gimme the horse with the pieces so I can actually finish the mission.”

Only then does he look in the direction of that terrible voice. “Because you’ll be too late to get to whomever it’s sighted in on,” he adds, with a kind of flat assurance.

Cal’s head swivels smooth to the sound of Felix’s voice, makeshift monk’s hood dripping over his nose. He opens one hand without answering, and a scrap of muddy metal flashes to his palm, slinging grit across Dusty’s hooves.

It’s sharp enough for him to turn and rip it through the saddle end of his rope — a few saw-toothed strokes enough for him to break it off and sling the split end up Ivanovwards. He can catch it or not, makeshift dagger tucked away before Calvin heaves himself back up and over Peaches’ broad back.

“I’d rather find out and die cold than live piss warm in m’saddle.” He reins around and tosses his hood back with a hard shake, eyes slitted snakey mean in the stormlight.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a hero or something?”


He gives Peaches a smart kick in the ribs, and they’re plunging off down the street to their certain and ridiculous deaths, leaving Felix to fall in or return to base as he sees fit.

There’s that little chuff of laughter from him, scoffing. Maybe at himself, maybe at Calvin’s comment.

“No, not really.” Fel’s voice is mild, matter of fact, as he takes that burden, binds it to his saddle in turn. Then he’s mounting up with an ease one might not expect in a life-long city boy. Sits a beat, watching Calvin charge off.

“Death’s not so bad,” he informs Dusty, who is cocking his ears forward, bemused. Why are they letting his herdmate get away? “Hurts for a minute, then it’s over.”

A shake of his head, as he urges the buckskin into a canter to catch up. “Fuckin’ retard.”

Whether that means the younger man or himself isn’t specified.

Seven miles out

July 4, 2018

6:01 am

The driving rain is getting to be maddening. Even under cover, as it drums against stretched tarpaulin in a constant white noise, and its what Lucille is greeted with when she wakes up from her latest power nap. At first, she'd be forgiven for thinking that it was the rain and thunder alone that roused her, but something else ekes into her sense of her surroundings. Low dawn light outlines the seams of her little tent, and something else.

A sound.

For a moment, what she experiences is beyond vision or memory, but in her half-awake haze, it's a borderline temporally altering experience that recalls the days of the civil war. That familiar sound, deep and resonant, like a fog horn. Warning and call for reinforcements both — and not on her side of the battle.

The next sound she hears are footsteps, running, boots sinking into mud as someone moves by at a hurry.

Outside is rock and mud, and a sheer crest of stone that rises abruptly from the grey desert ground. Keelut and friends had chosen this spot to camp out and await Felix and Calvin's return, nestled in against this rocky rise, using it as partial cover both from visual as well as the constant storm. Two tents erected, where Lucille had retired after her last shift, another where Rue is going over the photograph she and Dearing had managed to collect. Dearing himself has taken a position up on the rocky rise, outfitted in his rain poncho and keeping a long sight in the direction that Calvin and Felix had trekked off to.

At the sound of that low, deep wail, he lifts his head, and transmits his voice through to Rue down below in her tent: "«Keelut-1. You hear that?»"

Rue also hears: running, and then a jangle of leather and metal. Outside, rifle slung over her shoulder, Benji has scared her horse just a little as she slides to a stop, boots sinking in mud, hands latching onto the horses reins with a rude tug. Silver water glances off her jacket, plastering black hair across her brow, her cheekbones, skin pale in the low morning light, something like panic in the way she goes to get her horse free from where they'd tied them.

“«Copy. I hear it. Look alive out there.»”

And stay that way, Rue pleads silently for them all. Gathering the important things - the photographs stuffed into a bag, and her own rifle at her side - she pulls up the hood of her coat and hurries outside to get a look. With nothing immediately on fire, she ducks into the other tent. “‘Cille! I need you up and ready now.

She doesn’t need to ask her twice. Seeing that the other woman is rousing, she changes course. “Benji!” She wasn’t expecting trouble in their little huddle, and looks to her friend for answers. The eyes aren’t wide and terrified like they would have been in years past. Lancaster is prepared to fight for her life if necessary, instead of merely run for it. She calls over the radio back to Dearing. “«Keelut-2. Do you have eyes on anything?»”

Eyes snap open at the sound and then there's Rue’s voice and Lucille is already up and out of the tent with her pack and other things being stuffed inside as she jogs forward. She rested enough and the potential of danger also with Felix and Calvin not being back is a little stressful for the woman, head tilted she swiftly ties her auburn hair up into a tight ponytail and is slipping her own hood over.

Patting herself down, uzi there, Banshee. Her other gadgets and weapons strapped around her waist and sitting in various black felt pouches. A lone ebony metal blade is strapped to her back and she's giving Benji a quick look before making her way towards Dearing. Not coming all the way up to his vantage point but just below it, muscles constricting, tensing.

She's coiled and ready to spring, her senses alive as Luce snaps her biotic influence around them.

Benji finally wrests the reins free, backing up as she ushers her horse out into the open and the rain with a kind of nervous energy she is obviously attempting to conceal so as not to spook her mount. Said mount doesn't appear to be having it, tossing her head back in skittish resistance, ears twisting as that siren call reverberates across the sky. Benji looks to Rue with bright eyed— well, not guilt, per se, but something near enough.

Acting impulsively, outside of her little guest spot in Keelut's order. She moves around to grip the saddle, to pull herself up.

"I'll find Calvin," she says, attempting a tenor of reassurance, failing, the clear translation being I need to go find Calvin, even as she appends that with, "and Felix." Up on the horse, Benji clumsily kicks a stirrup onto her other boot as she gathers the reins, something like panic making her motions jerky and imprecise. "We'll regroup and go. We have to go."

Visibility is miserable,»" Dearing grouses through the radio, just audible from where Lucille is standing. "«Hold up. Lights, due south. Can't make out the details.»"

Felix and Calvin were last seen headed west.

Benji.” This time it isn’t a question, but a prelude to a command. “It’s no good wandering in this mess. Calvin and Felix are capable,” Rue insists over the drone of the pouring rain. “I need you here. We need to be prepared to act.” Even if that act is GTFO. If her friend splits off, and the rest of them have to bolt… Rue doesn’t like her team splintered as it is. She doesn’t want to make it worse.

Lights from the south. Rue presses her radio receiver against her ear like that might give her more details somehow, trying to remember the patrol pattern off the top of her head, against the sounds of nature and her heart slamming against her ribcage.

“«Copy. Be ready to move.»”

They do need to go.

Lucille is silent as she rechecks her person and bag on her back before sliding her gaze around from the bottom of the hill, looking. There’s nothing yet. Turning to the south with a whip of her head. Luce readies her weapon, eyes narrowing. She doesn't like this. None of them do but her nerves are screaming at her. Go go go.

Benji remains where she is, seated astride the agitated horse, conflict and tension lashed through her shoulders while that reverberating siren drones through the air. She sweeps a look over partial strike team, and makes a decision. She kicks, and the horse launches with motion, steered around, spurred into a gallop through the driving rain in the direct she knows Calvin and Felix to be.

It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Rock and dirt come skidding down the hill as Dearing makes his descent down the slick incline. From their position, the variable terrain doesn't provide a clear line of sight to see very far south without getting back up to his vantage point, but only a moment later, something crests a hill with a sudden burst of motion.

Sandy-grey and black, a vehicle comes roaring over the edge, headlights ghost-white, four wheels spinning in the air before slamming back down on muddy, rocky earth. Another, and a third, and a fourth all thunder over the edge and come sliding down the opposite side, apparently well adapted to storm-churned desert earth. They aren't wholly uniform, as if made from scrap and innovation, but follow the same structure — a skeletal, open-air frame, wheels set wide apart, room enough for four bodies. Mounted weaponry.

In amongst them, metal figures gallop alongside. Four loping legs, long necks with skull-like heads hitting 8, 9 feet in the air, glowing blue from steely eye sockets. That bellowing horn drops into a bass harmony. A war cry, of kinds.

"Rendezvous?" Dearing asks of Rue as he slings his rifle up onto his shoulder with urgency, making for his horse. The question implies the other alternative: a northward retreat.

'Cuz no offense, but they'd be leaving behind two wild cards and a superhuman speedster.

A sound of frustration emits from the back of Rue’s throat, drowned out by the cacophony of everything else that’s bearing down on them, rain and foe alike. It feels like the war again more than her previous missions and it smacks of her recurring nightmares. There’s no time to dwell or to plan. It’s time to go.

She shakes her head with a frown and motions for Lucille to move as she heads for her own horse. “We’re not leaving the others behind,” she calls out above the noise. They’ll follow after Benji and find their allies. They’ll all get out of this. Together.

Rue’s frustration is echoed by the tightening of Lucille’s fists as she the enemy’s cavalry arrives on the horizon. No/, they won't be leaving anyone behind. Specifically, Lucille will not be leaving her niece to go it alone. Luckily Rue is of the same mind and as Luce goes to grab at the reigns of her horse, sliding into the saddle she straightens her back and as Rue gets on hers the auburn haired woman guides the horse in the direction of Benji and her horse.

“Ah!” with a cry the animal is bounding ahead, Lucille leaning down on his mane as they race towards Benji and the others.

Benji's path on horseback is not as wild and unpredictable as the urge that set her on it — the weather of a hundred years has written paths through sharp desert rock. She directs her horse down these, the vague, pre-dawn light only just enough to see by as each loping gallop makes her teeth click together and her bones jostle.

Unaware of Keelut's pursuit at her tail, but they nevertheless keep up, Dearing bringing up the rear with his hands white knuckled gripping to the reins, swearing under his breath. The sound of the vehicles has only empty space to travel and rock-face to bounce off. An intermittent fog horn calls for blood.

A soft whistle follows a sudden eruption of mountain rock as a rocket slams into the ledge that Dearing's mount clears barely a few seconds ago, and it's a testament to the war that still ravages this half of America that the horse does not buck or go tumbling down loose sand and pebble. "«I'm okay»," Dearing wheezes over the comms. "«Go.»" A quick glance over Rue's shoulder that Dearing isn't trying anything noble, spurring his horse on as the dust cloud of the explosion hangs in the air behind them.

The trail of Keelut on horseback, led by Benji, come spilling down a steep rocky decline with a clatter of hoof and rising of dust, small figures just seen by where Calvin and Felix are likewise closing in, thundering together across the dusty washes with the skeletal remnants of their hunted robot trailing close behind.

On sight, Benji doesn't slow, even as that telltale whistle of something soaring overhead shoots cold adrenaline through her system. Rue and Lucille will see it better, from their positions — the rocket coming in hot, on a deadly trajectory. And no longer, as it hovers in the air, caught in unseen magnetic force, before its thrown upwards, detonating in a harmless fireball in the cloudily brightening sky.

The team forms back together like a closing zipper, curving north and beating their retreat to the sound of wailing horns, the slowly diminishing growl of engines, and the ever present thunder, rolling out after them.

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