Deathlands: Local Nonlocality
Last Post 7/13/2015 11:36 PM by Randarchist. 124 Replies.
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Randarchist
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9/26/2014 1:21 AM
    There it was. At the bottom of the dune, their goal was finally in sight- the wind blasted ruins of Fort Geronimo were just peaking above the sand. Klash lowered his pre nuke binoculars, tapping the buggy driver on helmet then pointed to the three large volcanic plugs at the other side of the salt flat.
    "Pico, this look like the Three Lost Sisters from that map to you?"

    The Cuban pushed his helmet back and his dusty goggles up to his receding hairline and yelled "I think so, boss. Close as we seen, ya know? Looks good to me, but it's your call."
    Pico's crooked, squinting smile belied his intelligence. He was an expert tracker, an experienced Sec man who had spent a decade in service of Lord Eduardo Hadron, in the days before the Battle of Juarez. Lord Hadron was Sec Chief of the Milagros Barony when Pico joined the force and helped organize the rebellion to rid Juarez of Baron Milagros and his degenerate family. It was Pico who suggested to name Klash after the Russian assault rifles that had become the symbol of the uprising citizens.

    Pico shut the engine off and pulled the cargo door release. The tan dune buggy offered little in the way of comfort, but its armored shell and forward mounted RPG rack made up for it. Klash was able to score the best vehicle in the motor pool, the royal son had earned the trust of Motor Chief Alvarez on his merits as a combat mechanic in border wars against the mutant tribes in the lands surrounding the embattled barony- he would take good care of the prize prewar conveyance. The first thing Pico did was customize the nose with a shark tooth design and name the buggy "Rosanna", after his first and third wives.
    As Klash pulled camp gear from the back bay, Pico cranked up the telescoping comms dish and plugged the radio power line into the dash electric socket. If the weather and luck held out, the wireless would be picked up by the northern most listening post in the barony. Lord Hadron could have the recovery teams there in less than a week. Klash and Pico would get first finders right to 50% of the loot for the royal house, with the rest being split among the citizens of Juarez as part of Lord Eduardo's shared spoils liberation economy. The Sec force men who were married and raising a family fared almost as well as some small barons and merchant families, and even the field workers had acquired little bits of luxury over time. Word of the good times brought desperate and dangerous enemies with jealous, greedy, murderous eyes.... like the ones watching from the shadows of the ruins.
    Randarchist
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    --
    9/29/2014 4:43 PM
    Pico set the environmental seals on the buggy while Klash set up a steel tube skeleton at the dune top. Below them, the dusty salt flat stretched out like a dried scab, baking in the Mexican desert. After the desert patterned Kevlar enclosure was tied secure, Pico assisted with draping camo netting over the tented platform.

    "Think we gonna have any bitey-crawlies sucking on our veins tonight, boss?
    "No, Pico, I set up the platform at six inches... just like you taught me. Only pest I can't prevent is the one bustin' my balls right now, but that critter is like crabs in a gaudy- annoying but a razor can fix it if need be." Klash smiled wickedly at Pico's astonished expression.
    "Hope you handle a razor better than your pecker, you little piss ant, because this old crab could still chill your ass."
    "You should be careful, amigo, you taught me all I know about chilling."
    "Yeah, that I did... but that don't mean I thought you all that I know, little piss ant. I could still chill you, feed you to the buzzard hawks, any time I choose."
    Pico looked serious as any cold heart merc chiller at Klash, then grinned crookedly when Klash tensed uncomfortably.
    "What, and ruin your investment?" Klash asked feigning nervousness.
    "No, I guess you do have your uses. Even a piss ant has a place in the working of our lord."
    With that, they both chuckled and got back to setting the camp for long term occupation. Klash tied cam-cloth strips on his Druganov sniper rifle while Pico dug small sand trenches around the camp. Once lined with plastic sheeting, Pico would pour pest repelling chemical mix, another product of the ville that Alvarez discovered by accident while trying to create fuel alternatives for the recovered wag fleet. It was a dismal failure as a fuel sub, but it ruled spade aces at driving off the rad blasted crawling mutant bugs of northern Mexico and the southwest Deathlands.

    After camp was assembled, Pico climbed up the eight foot ladder to the flip down watch seat atop the lookout perch. Klash sent a final "All Buenos" code on the buggy's wireless, then waited for the numeric reply from the comms relay. After the "all buenos received" came back, he cranked down the antenna and unplugged the power. As the sun lowered, Pico put dinner on the camp stove. In five days or less, the recovery convoy should arrive, if all went smooth. But at this forsaken corner of the post nuke world, few things went smooth.

    As Klash strode toward the small camp table, the setting sun cast pink to orange glitter cascading across the salty surfaces of the cracked, broken plain below. For just a fleeting nanosecond, Klash felt the hairs on his neck stand up. He jerked slightly, a definite sign of bad winds blowing in. Pico noticed his twitching and pulled his AKM off his shoulder.
    "You getting a mutie twitch, you tell me, ok?" Pico had learned to trust the mutant gift that Klash inherited from his mother, Lady Isabella. It had served the revolution army without fail. So, when it was discovered that Klash had the same power, House Hadron celebrated in style their good fortune with a hundred pinatas, lucha matches and triple tequila rations for every sec man, cook, mechanic and maid. That night led to more than a few births that year- enough for Padre Joseph to declare it a holy sign of El Santos blessing on the newly founded Hadron royal dynasty.
    Pico yelled for Klash to put extra mags in his pouch. When trouble came knocking, they would be ready for it. Chilly vibes like Klash was getting was a sure sign that hell spawned abominations from the badlands were coming soon enough. But until then, they had tacos and black beans to fuel up on.
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    --
    9/30/2014 5:04 PM
    Klash snapped instantly awake, his eyes open wide when the short thick hairs on the back of his neck stood up, vibrating with dread. "Pico, twitching!"
    "Where from, little prince? I don't see nothing but pretty stars up here."
    "I'm feeling a big bad.... something. Now light the battlefield."
    Pico opened up a plastic wrapped parachute flare and jammed it in the launch tube on the watch chairs folding arm. "Fire in the sky, boss, coming right up."
    The flare popped loudly and sailed high. The chute opened perfectly, illuminating the area with it's bright green glow. Klash ran to the buggy, bounding up the hood to the steel enforced roof and landed feet astride the RPG rack.
    "Keep it high and tight, boss." Pico called out as he slipped the dust cover from the end of his AK, swiveling his chair around. "I don't see shit. Sure you ain't just dreaming?"
    "I'm sure, amigo. Keep your peepers moxied, no slouching off."
    "I am, piss ant, but there is nothing out here but purple sky and cacti that I peep."

    And with that came the vibration, first in Klash's neck and then in his head. The parachute was half way down when the sand started crawling around the chemical filled trench surrounding their camp site.
    "Radfire and damnation! What in Santos name is going on?"
    "Pico, the chem trench! Whatever it is, it don't want none of Senor Alvarez's soup."
    "Good, maybe it will just piss off and leave us...."
    Another hair's twitch of warning sent Klash leaping over the back of the dune buggy as the sand exploded in front of the trench. A pair of giant pincers shot from the dusty cloud billowing toward the scout wag, barely missing his boot as it left the armored roof.
    Klash landed shoulder first on the soft dune sand and rolled to a kneeling position, his SVD ready for action. The giant Rad-Scorpion hissed and chittered as it swung its venomous sting over the buggy, missing Klash by a few feet. Klash squeezed off a round ,hoping to hit the poison sack in the mutants tail. The bullet may have chipped the hard chitin armor, but it did nothing to slow the mutie monstrosity as it scrambled over the hood towards him.
    "Holy Mother! It's an iron shell bitch!" Klash cursed, back peddling as he frantically groped for a magazine of AP rounds. Pico brought his AKM to aim and felt the comforting kick as he sent a burst of lead into the monster's side to little effect.
    "Run, boss, I got you covered."
    Klash fingered the mag release and slid a fresh magazine of armor piercing rounds into hid Druganov. "Don't you jam on me today, baby..." he whispered as he yanked the bolt back and brought the SVD's scope to his right eye. The mutant scorpion had turned his attention to the platform where Pico perched like a buzzard as he rained 7.62 rounds on the beast. Klash set the cross hair between two tail segments and fired. The scorpion hissed loudly as the bullet struck its sabre like stinger.
    The monster spun with lightning speed as Klash pumped another round into its enormous tail. Its oily black eyes twinkled from the reflecting starlight as it set its legs to leap. But before the demon could launch its attack, Pico opened full auto on its backside with a full mag of AP ammo, bursting its thick shell in a spray of gore. The scorpion screamed and shrieked in agony as round after round tore through the base of the tail, severing it completely from the body.
    The beast spun around in a half turn and skittered over the sand quickly in a vain attempt to escape. Too late in the game had it realized the deadly nature of its prey, as Klash positioned himself beside the buggy and started sniping at the long legs of the already crippled monster. Pico had quickly reloaded and hopped down from his perch, ready to rip the beast apart with his AK.

    "Finish this bitch, Pico! I don't want it coming back for revenge!" Klash screamed between his carefully placed shots.
    "I got this freakin' down, you just keep your mutie senses sharp for more big bads!"
    With that, Pico strode quickly towards the flopping bug, firing burst after burst into its carapace until it stopped hissing and struggling against death.
    -
    Klash closed his eyes and reached out with his senses.... something,no, someone was near. But Klash felt no immediate threat at the moment.
    "By El Santos, we are gonna have a hard wait if this bug has friends, boy!" Pico yelled to him. But Klash payed no mind to the Cuban, someone was out there. He felt their presence,their curiosity, their desire; but could not discern the nature of it, only the strangest familiarity of something that he couldn't quite define. The harder he tried, the more the presence seemed to withdraw.
    "Ok," Klash whispered, "you play it all aloof if that's what turns you on, but we both know you're out there."
    Randarchist
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    --
    10/9/2014 5:52 PM

    Klash took the second watch. It was uneventful, not that the young man minded. Outside of a small pack of jackalope migrating east for the storm season, Klash seemed to have the whole desert to himself. Even the giant snatch bats wouldn't hunt this far to the Northwest so late in the summer. The recovery expedition would have two weeks to salvage the pre- war loot and then haul ass back to Juarez before the Diabolo Wind besieged the Northern Mexican plains. High winds exceeding 200 MPH shredded structures, sandblasted flesh from bone and dumped chemical poisoned rain on the region for days on end until the middle of winter. Then the desert life would start asserting itself after a few weeks of late winter storms, which the peasant classes celebrated with jackalope hunts and luchadores exhibition fights sponsored by the wealthier houses of the revolutionary council.

    The council houses each operated a different industry or public responsibility. The Alvarez family had been mechanics and auto workers from before the war, their ingenuity had helped the few survivors of old Juarez evacuate to the Milagros cartels controlled lands far to the south and then to reconquer Juarez four generations later. Eduardo Hadron had used his garages in the rebellion period as an organization and planning area, sealing a permanent bond between the families. When the Cubans arrived with their convoy of rebuilt 1950's wags and trucks thirty years ago, it was the Alvarez household that Baron Milagros awarded their seized technology. The Cubans had salvaged four large eighteen wheelers and turned them into mobile weapon and munitions shops. Don Marvin Alvarez was supposed to chill the newcomers after he had gained their knowledge and manufacturing techniques; but the old bastard saw the value of the seventy odd refugees beyond the stolen Soviet tech that they had humped up the Grande after crossing over from their irradiated island home. Any people with the testicular fortitude to attempt such a fool's quest and the toughness to pull it off deserved better than the fate that the back stabbing Milagros intended.

    Somehow, amid the treachery and assassinations, the ideals of a few decent men managed to triumph over the decades of oppression. The human desire for justice had overcome against the savage self-interest and naked greed that held so much of nuclear devastated Deathlands. When time came for Klash to take a wife, his children will be raised in a ville where laws and justice would be based upon fairness and reason. At least, that was the dream that Hadron and his alliance of peasants and technicians were trying to build. Klash hoped, prayed, that his family succeeded in their mission. He was prepared to fight and, if need be, die in order to preserve what the rebel Dons had built.

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    --
    10/10/2014 2:20 PM

    __Texas__

    As the first glowing fingers of morning spread across the bone white dust and radioactive ash wastes, a half dozen Juarez scouts were already converging on the old cement plant. When Dawn Rodriguez reported the scale of her finders claim, they all made haste to be in on the pickings. There would be a bountiful load for each teams spoils box on any items not directly related to the plant. The Alvarez scouts were going to swarm over the wag salvage like locusts, Hadron militia always went for the weaponry and the other noble households had cut a deal for proportional division with the few remaining independent scout teams. It wasn't a perfect system, but nobody had a better idea as yet. Finders claim for an indie scout was a full box and any loot ridden wag your buggy could tow. Independent scouts traditionally would put their earnings back into their vehicles, which meant that the noble families got most of it back anyway.

    Dawn Rodriguez had been planning and building towards her goal, and now it was all about to pay off. She saw what she had been hunting since she signed on with Ramone Parker five years ago, the holy grail, a Winnebago. It was dust crusted and metal bare in places, but it looked like it had gone otherwise untouched in the cluster of wags that had congregated at the parking lot after the bombs fell. Dawn reasoned that many people who had survived the initial attacks had gathered at any structure that looked to be a promising safe haven, hoping that they could avoid the fallout and disease. But the Juarez Bio bomb had unleashed microbial death that carried far to the east, nearly to the Texas coast. These poor souls appeared to be making a start when the abomination descended on their doomed effort. Five poured foundations and two partially complete cement bunkers, for nothing.

    Ramone was looking for his last big score, and this was it. He would make enough jack to spend his remaining years comfortable and quiet. With Dawn buying him out, he was going out on top of the game. He'd been from the Rockies to the edge of the Yucatan as a scout and raider for Milagros and then Hadron before he broke out on his own under the new system. It favored him and his wife, Juanita, and he had rediscovered hope after the uprising. He didn't have to live in fear of Milagros and his predations. Juanita and their children would never again be subject to the whims of that mad family. When stickies killed his partner, Butch, Ramone agreed to allow Dawn on the promise that she would buy him out.

    "Well, chica, looks like you got yourself a scout buggy and a good head start."
    "You know it, old man. And I'm gonna get me a set of those fine Ruskie blasters with the leftovers. And enough ammo to chill an army. And a bottle of tequila... and a new set of chem seals." Dawn smiled wide and lit up a marijuana laced cigar. "I'm gonna get me that pretty son of the Baron in my bunk too. You wait and see."
    "You are a loco bitch, Dawn. I'm tempted to stay in the game for the entertainment of watching you chase that boy alone."
    "Oh no, no, you break our contract and I take your balls, you dirty pig. Juanita will pay me to do it too. You are out of the business, period."
    "Si, yes, I know she would." Ramone sighed and too a deep hit as dawn passed to him
    "I'm mostly gonna miss these smokes you roll. I think it's your best skill."
    "You suck, Ramone. I'm not gonna miss your tired old ass one bit."

    The two partners burst into a fit of giggles and curses as the first of the scout wags pulled up behind and beside them.
    "Okay, let's get to work, Ramone." Dawn checked her environmental hood for bugs and slipped over her head.
    "Wait," Ramone cautioned her "something is going on. Diego and Gomez are on the radio..."
    "Don't care, they get sloppy seconds this time." Dawn said as she raised her middle finger against the side window. "Nothing is gonna mess up my day."
    "We got a mandatory beacon. We have to go back to Juarez and then meet up for convoy escort duties immediately."
    "Say what?? Aw, he'll no!"
    "Dawn..."
    "No! We are not gonna chance losing this score! What if Paso bandits come down and take it? We lose it all, Ramone. So no, I'm not gonna do it."

    Ramone Parker started the engine.

    "Stop it! You shut this wag down, Ramone. You turn off that radio and we tell Alvarez and his boys to go f..."
    "Baby Baron found it."
    Dawn stopped squabbling.
    "He did?"
    "So it seems. Now let's get rolling. Look, the others are already ahead of us. You set the marker flag, we will get ours. Alvarez will not let anyone jump our dibs, chica."
    "Ok.... ok. But if he is wrong, I'm gonna make it hurt when I bed him."
    "Loco bitch!" Ramone chortled as he released the brakes. "I bet you will."

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    --
    10/18/2014 3:56 PM
    The bright red front half of Ramone Parker's scout wag picked up the brilliant pinks and magenta of the setting sun perfectly as it raced across the sand and ash plain. It was without a doubt the strangest combination of old wag parts in the northern Mexico wastelands. The main support frame was built from a blasted in half four wheel drive monster Baja and two other vehicles the Butch and Parker team had salvaged from the fleet of shattered wrecks left over after Baron Milagros had been deposed. Butch had stretched the front to accommodate the twelve cylinder engine that propelled the armored beast at breakneck speed. Ramone had scoured the highways and ruins for the collection of body panels. With the glittering red fibre glass front end and hood of a 70's model Corvette covering the armor protected V-12, a chopped down protective crew cabin from the Hummer and a black iron rear cargo box, the patchwork four wheeled drive was an eye twisting Frankenstein monster. But it's unconventional design did not detract from it's speed and toughness. Even the wrench smart scouts of the Alvarez fleet learned to respect the piecemeal atrocity after eating it's dust on the open salt crusted plains. It not only roared like a lion, it had a lions bite as well in the form of two .50 Cal machine blasters recessed in the front fenders. Two sets of large rough terrain tires protruded from armored wheel wells at the rear for extra power, another Butch idea. The only drawbacks were that it sucked fuel like a drunkard in a gaudy and the absolute lack of subtly in its color scheme made it a first target for raiding Paso bandits and mutie tribesmen alike.

    Dawn never missed an opportunity to drive when Ramone tired of the wheel. She opened up full speed when she pulled onto the newly resurfaced highway running Southwest towards Juarez. As the last colors of late afternoon light shed their neon glow and gave way to the velvet purple veil of evening, she flipped the switch for the head lamps on and sat more upright and alert. Bandits and mutated animals still roamed the territory and Dawn was not about to let her and Ramone get bushwhacked when time was so crucial to getting in on the big score. She guessed that they would reach Juarez around 11 pm. There would be just enough time to file her claim on the cement plant, cash in on the trade goods they had looted in their foraging and refuel before heading out at first light with the recovery convoy. Maybe she could steal away for a decon shower if Ramone was willing to handle the convoy check in and prep work. Oh please, she prayed in her head, please let Ramone do the dull work so I can wash the leopard mites and road stench off before we go back out again. She didn't want to be stinking and bite covered when she showed up to the salvage site, not with Baron Hadron's son being present. Dawn had been saving a plastic wrapped perfume packet from a pre dark woman's magazine for just such an occasion. There was a plan working in her mind: the sweet perfume, leather mini skirt and pork fat based lip coloring she traded two sets of prewar ear rings for weeks ago were the weapons of choice in her manhunt. Klash Hadron had damned well better notice the effort, too. If he looked right past her yet again, she just might take him by force.

    Ramone drifted off to sleep after he'd chowed down a few strips of lizard jerky. With him tripping to dreamland, Dawn slid a music disc labeled Buzzcocks into the dash mounted CD player and wrapped the earphones behind her neck before adjusting the volume up just enough to drown out his loud snoring. The rattling guitar and snare hit the right pitch to counter the nasal barrage of a Ramone Parker nap.
    Cacti and pre dark road signs flashed by on the lamp lit highway. And Ramone sawed logs all the way to Juarez.

    They passed the other scout wags about thirty miles from the Northeastern highway into Juarez. Dawn shifted down as the wag approached the check point. As the buggy pulled into the lot, sec men stepped out onto the inspection lot waving them into the scout cue. It took a good shake to rouse Ramone from his slumber but he quickly became aware of the increased scrutiny from the guards and the tense attitude of the other teams lined up at the sec office.
    "What the hell, Ramone?" Dawn asked as she unzipped their document bag. "Was there an attack by muties or bandits that we didn't hear about?"
    "Shush it, chica. Maybe it was him, the chaos bringer." Ramone cautioned.
    "Oh, by the silver mask of Santo, not that shit again. He's a myth, amigo, a story made up by tyrant barons who don't want to take credit for sabotaging each other or whose people rose up like Juarez did. They gotta have someone to pass the blame onto, because it makes them look like they can't keep control anymore."
    "No, he is real, I heard he is the one who shut down Salvation."
    "Come on Ramone, how stupid do you get? A one-eyed super soldier that never misses and goes around with a crew just wrecking whole villes because he doesn't like the local barons? Really, amigo? They just chill whole armies of sec men and cannie bandits for what, shits and giggles? Don't make sense for anyone to go around playing hero. I mean, life sucks at times, but that shit is just cloud castles, Parker."
    "Well, I believe there is some truth to every legend."
    "Save the false hopes for the hopeless wretches who have to live under those other Barons. We got it good, and if this one-eyed avenging angel and his merry band of gold heart chillers ever did show up at the Juarez gates, then he wouldn't find much to draw his wrath... unless fixed lucha matches and cockroaches are the real reason for his wrath." Dawn chuckled at the notion.
    "Stranger things have happened. We overthrew Milagros, after all. And the lucha is not fixed."
    "Oh, Ramone, for man of forty, you can be such a child. Get the paperwork together. I want a decontamination shower and some lizzie tacos before the convoy rolls out. Maybe you can catch a midnight match with Juanita and the boys if you don't fuck around on the time."

    The sec men ran their dogs along the line of parked wags. Baron Hadron and the council had imposed a ban on jolt and the other more harmful, addictive drugs that had plagued Juarez even before the bombs fell. Marijuana, at least for now, was legal in the ville but some of the big houses regulated when and where you could smoke it in their sectors. Dawn swore she would leave if they ever declared it contra in the growing ville. Civilization is great, she thought, but too much of it could ruin a good time and kill off the trade in the already off the beaten path ville. Juarez ran on salvage and trade, and the baronies to the East and North would be all too happy to take any travelers who found the Juarez rules too strict.
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    --
    10/21/2014 12:36 PM

    ___Juarez____

    The thick wooden gate into the northeast sector of Juarez was faced with salvaged sheets of iron and old chromed wag bumpers. The Sanchez family sector was the center of trade and entertainment, so their construction crews had decked it out to show off their stature in the community and the wealth that they had built over the last twenty odd years since the revolution. Each of the double doors had ancient ball turrets from relic bombers found in a military museum. Don Alvarez had rejected the idea of adding aircraft outright, much to the delight of Don Marvin Sanchez, on several grounds: the resources needed to operate and protect a working landing strip, the fuel requirements, the rebuild plus upkeep of engines, airframes and mechanisms for flight and then there was the problem of nobody having more than the most vague ideas about the dynamics of piloting the huge planes. Reality was that flight was an impossible dream, and probably will be for another hundred years at least. The best use of the resources was to throw it into defenses for the ville.

    The sec men drew straws to see who had to man the turrets each shift. The hot, cramped machine blaster turrets forced a rotation on the duty every four hours. This night Mike Corona and Jen Gutierrez had pulled the shorts. Graveyard duty in the turrets was, by far, a much better deal than the one the poor bastards on day watch had this time of year. However, a cold winter night in those metal and glass birdcages could chill a man if he didn't pay attention or drifted off. Mike lost skin and flesh both when he let his eyes rest his first winter on the wall. He had no intentions to slip up again. He even put his own jack to pay for extra time on the practice turret that Northeast Sec trained new recruits on during their first week. Mike was good, and everybody who fought on that wall had seen it every time he splattered raiders and mutants across the rocks and sand with those twin guns. It was no surprise that he was pulled for convoy duty when Hadron sent for a crew of experienced gunners to bolster the survey and salvage team. But when the wireless called for Jen and Rico Gutierrez as well, Mike asked for a repeat order. Before he could get an answer, three hard taps on the ball turret door interrupted it.
    "Get the fuck out, Corona,you sat on your ass enough here. Get headed to the bottom. Scouts will be here to cart you over to the big garage in a bit." The Sec Sarge yelled as he pulled the door open for him. Mike unhooked from the safety line and slithered up the opening. "And keep your harness on. You're still on shift and you WILL be snapped to a triple R. A third the ville sec forces have been pulled,so everybody else is gonna make time and a half jack until you return, IF you return. So move it. I don't want to fatten these maggots loot boxes, so make sure you don't die and make it pronto, ya heard me?"
    "Yes sir, Sarge. And I'll miss you too," Mike threw back at him with a grin as he slid down the ladder to base of the gates, "Pops."
    Sec Sarge Emil Corona waved and frowned at the young man. "Be safe, Mikey."
    Mike stepped back as the large gate doors swung open for the returning scout teams. There was a Hadron Corporal checking off names and flagging down scout wags to haul them over the Alvarez family garage at the west end of the three mile by two mile enclosed area at the southern edge of Old Juarez. The Northeast Sec members quickly climbed onto and into the buggies and hooked harness as the drivers hastily sped to enter the divided four lane highway clover leaf that the rebuild efforts centered on. The bridges had required some serious repair, but they were amazingly intact when Milagros had the peasants dig them out of the dust and sand. It was as smooth and gaudy soft to drive along, and it quartered the town nicely for sector management under the individual councillors.

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    --
    10/22/2014 12:45 PM

    __Fort Geronimo___

    Pico and Klash had little in the way of trouble throughout the blistering heat of the daylight hours, even the primitive mutated monsters of the Deathlands had sense enough to stay out of the sun in this hellscape. While the Cuban butchered the scorpion for it's venom sack, Klash sat high in the watch chair drawing a detailed map of the ruins and surrounding area. The prewar maps would require a lot of correction. Earthquakes and volcanic activity had reshaped much of the landscape in the first decades after the nuclear holocaust.
    Mountains had been built and destroyed by the tectonic bedlam, volcanic plugs erupting vast lakes of boiling rock and drifting clouds of toxic gas poisoned the land.
    The two scouts took turns on watch while the other rested in the elevated shelter. Every so often, the thick antenna-like hairs at the base of his skull gave Klash a little twitch or tug but no threats emerged from the sand.
    Pico checked in with the radio every three hours. The numerically coded chatter was garbled at times, but Pico knew the routine. The Juarez scouts would be recalled and then the convoy wags would be prepared for the dangerous overland hump to the ruins.
    The council families would require time to roll out the wagon train of large armored trucks and haulers loaded to capacity with tools, weapons, men and excavation machinery. The ville had two bulldozers and a large crane to load on flat bed trailers. Sec would have to be carefully selected so that the convoy did not detract too much from the defenses in case Paso bandits or one of the mutant tribes from the Sonora decided to take advantage of the thinly guarded town. By morning next, the convoy would be prepped and ready for the three to four day journey to the lost fort.

    After the evening meal, Klash took first watch as Pico cleaned out their mess kits with sand and rinsed it with tequila before bedding down. The cooling night air indicated that the fall was coming earlier than usual, winter chem storms from the annual Diabolo Winds would force the survey and salvage effort to work twice as fast to make it back to the protective valley where Juarez struggled to rise from the ashes.

    Danger. Klash felt the twitch near the end of his watch. From the south,two large bodies were approaching in the inky darkness of the overcast night. Starless nights with no moon were ideal hunting time for night creeping predators. Klash shut his eyes and bowed his head forward to allow his extra sensory organs to extend from under his collar length hair. Scorpions. Klash felt their legs on the sand with every closing step. His senses also detected the same iron hard armored hide as the mutant that had attacked the night before.
    He reached down and pulled a magazine of AP rounds from the left thigh pocket of his desert patterned camouflage pants and whistled two short tweets at the snoozing Cuban.
    "Wake up, amigo. Crawlies are coming this way fast. Load armor piercing, Pico, iron shells are sniffing this way...."
    Pico sat up in his bedroll and readied his AK with a mag load of steel core 7.62 mm bullets from his bag.
    "You, young man, are either a blessing or a demon. I still can't decide."
    "Shush it, Pico, or I'll let the scorps eat your balls."

    Klash swung down next to is partner silently and pushed the barrel of his Druganov through the southern facing door flap. He leaned into the stock and out of the tented shelter far enough that his extraordinary mutant hairs could feel the sensory clues that filtered and fluttered on the shifting breeze. The monster scorpions were closing fast, they had picked up the scent of prey and hungrily plotted the most direct path to their intended meal. When the fist one caught a whiff of the Alvarez bug juice, it paused beneath a dune top fifty yards from the camp.
    Klash slowly panned his scope across the dune then closed his eyes so he could better detect the eight legged menace. Sure of what his antenna was telling him, he aimed into the dunes crest and squeezed the trigger.
    The round boomed from its casing and shot through the cooling air. The sandy crest puffed a small cloud of dust as the bullet passed through. The gargling hiss from the beast left Klash with more confidence in his unnatural born ability; but it also let him know that now the giant arachnoid was extremely pissed off and twice as dangerous. The monster chittered and wheezed as it skittered over the top of the dune towards the shelter. Pico stepped out of the shelter to get a clear line of sight.
    "Get back up top and spot for me, piss ant." Pico ordered. Klash obeyed and made haste up the step ladder to the watch chair while Pico positioned himself to repel the assault.
    His black AK cracked loudly and spit high velocity death at the running monstrosity.

    Klash felt his hairs tugging to the other oncoming threat. The twelve foot long scorpion had circled to the right side of the shelter and approached slowly, carefully stalking the men from the shadowy trough between the dunes. It was slightly smaller than the first,but it was also slightly more cunning. While Pico scrambled to get a clean shot at the larger scorpions weak spots, the lesser beast made its attack from the cover of darkness. Klash was ready for this, he felt the simple creature's nerves fire as it leapt to grab Pico in its vice like pincers, and fired two quick shots at the emerging menace in time to quell its desire for Cuban cuisine. Both shots smashed into the right pincer, shattering its hard shell and sent screaming flesh flying from the ruined claw. Pico spun around and hip fired the AKM into the scorpions face, pulverizing the eyes and turning the mouth into a sopping mass of blasted goo.
    "A-M-F!" Pico yelled at the monster as he emptied his rounds in a storm of rage. "That's what you get for back stabbing, bitch."
    Klash saw the first scorpion running at Pico and felt the electrical twitch of it's nervous system sparking the venomous stinging tail to strike. "Duck, asshole!" Klash called out before firing, barely affording Pico a second to duck the incoming shot.
    The bullet sliced the air and struck the very tip of the scorpion's poisonous point. The tails tip splattered across its back. The dripping gore stank of venom. Pico back pedalled and pulled his back up pistol from the brown pig skin holster on his hip. Klash sent three rounds hurling into the ravaged tail as Pico poked .45 caliber sized holes through the segment joints of the scorpion, severing the pincers from their limbs.

    When the adrenaline settled, Pico and Klash celebrated with a shot of tequila.
    "So, guess its gonna be scorpion meat for breakfast again..."
    "No, no, the big one was a female. We're having eggs too."
    Klash snorted at the joke and clapped his hand against his leg.
    "The rate we are using ammunition, its gonna be expensive meals until the convoy arrives. We gotta start choosing our shots with the AP, Pico, or we won't be here when the survey team shows up."

    They used the buggy to drag the carcasses a safe distance from camp. The scavengers would go for the easy meal, leaving the camp alone for the next day or so at least.

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    --
    10/22/2014 2:28 PM
    ___Juarez___

    The Council waited in the northeastern conference room of the reclaimed office tower next to the cloverleaf. A painting of Don Carlos Hadron hung on the wall between to oil lamps at the end of the table. When Baron Eduardo Hadron entered with his bodyguards,the councillors stoop up from their reupholstered office chairs and bowed out of respect to the authority that he represented.

    "Oh no, my friends, stop... I already told you it's not required to be so formal. Remember that we are equals here." 

    Don Alvarez stepped forward to shake his hand. "We know, sir, but you are Baron now. It is the way of the world."
    Dons Sanchez and Guzman shook their heads in agreement. Hadron corrected them with a frown and pointed to the painting of his father.
    "My father, Don Carlos, had to bow and scrape to the Milagros as your fathers did. Even the nobles were as peasants under such hateful oppression. That was what inspired him to raise me to end it. And it is that lesson which guides me still.
    We are fortunate that we remained so isolated, so underestimated by the baronies to the east and north. But it will not be so for much longer. Already the gringo tyrants grow suspect that we have hidden secrets for them to steal. The bandits from Paso take stories with them of their failed raids. They have seen our cornfields to the south, they have trailed our salvage teams and the few odd sections of road Sanchez has restored have served our enemies as much as our own people. To our south are the mutant tribes who with few exception are hostile to every living thing they encounter."
    Alvarez started to protest, but the baron predicted his words.
    "Yes, Don Alvarez, I know that the Gila tribe fight beside our men to defend the cornfields and that a few of them now reside in Juarez. Your lucha is a favorite in the arena. I am not so delusional as to ignore that my own son is a mutant with a gift like his mother.
    We are not bigots against differences here like the paranoid gringos of the Deathlands; but we are not so foolish as to cuddle with stickies are we?"

    The councillors chuckled and raised their glasses to the wisdom of their friend and baron.
    "Now, let's get down to business..."

    The baron and his partners spent the next two hours making small tweaks and adjustments to their preparation schedules then the Dons made the farewell toasts with tequila before descending to their armored coaches waiting in the parking lot at the front of the building. Hadron and Alvarez shared a smoke and watched a dozen or more scout buggies passing on the highway section connecting the cloverleaf.

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    --
    10/22/2014 2:52 PM

    Ramone turned onto the rebuilt highway section carefully as to avoid a brown and white horse hide covered scout wag. It was an open topped Baja style buggy with a top mounted RPK machine gun jutting from a small rotating gun shield colored to match the hide covering. Ramone passed on the left side, he saw the call sign "Painted Pony" stitched in bright blue on the hide covered salvage box.
    "That's a sweet ride, eh Dawn?"
    "It's not as sweet as mine." Dawn said with no small amount of satisfaction. "And they'd never survive deep in the ash with that open cabin."
    The tethered in Sanchez Sec woman in the gun station gave a raised AK greeting to the passing buggy. As the cloverleaf approached, all the scouts slowed to take the clover loop.

    Each of the four cloverleaf loops had a giant concrete bunker tower keep in the center, surrounded by a defensive wall bristling with gun stations. Baron Eduardo Hadron had Sanchez dig large underground rooms for garages and a set of emergency shelters for citizens with enough dried corn in a storage depot to feed five hundred people for six weeks. A last resort Sec command post had been set up in the pre dark storm tunnels beneath the four bunker complex. The council and their personal sec forces could use the hidden passages to conduct a guerrilla war if the ville were over run by mutant tribes or an invasion by another barony. Ramone was relieved to know that Juanita had a place to take the boys if a siege occurred.

    Steering out of the loop, the scout drivers raced westward. The Alvarez garage was at the far end of the long stretch. Hadron Sec men stood in mostly straight rows as they awaited the duty announcement . Indie scouts had a different process for job assignment, first comers get first pick. Ramone pulled his wag up to the western gate and shut the engine down before heading to the scout check in line, while Dawn hit the ground running to file her claim on the cement plant.


    After pulling a forward scouts token, Ramone signed the salvage agreement and hot footed for the apartments where Juanita would be waiting with the boys. A quick kiss and group hug later the family was walking hand in hand to the midnight luchadores.
    "Come on boys," Juanita said cheering "we can make it for the main event if we hurry."
    The boys kept pulling and laughing with each other all the way to the arena, but behaved properly once in the ticket line.

    The Parker family found seating right as the announcer took to the ring.
    "Senors and Senoritas," the yellow tuxedo clad MC bellowed "tonight our main event is a contest between two champions. The winner of this match will wear the supreme champion belt until he is defeated in honorable combat. Are you ready?"
    The crowd screamed and spotted their response.
    "I'm sorry, amigos, but I don't think that was good enough for a championship fight! I said ARE YOU READY?"
    The crowd exploded their vocalization in a thunderous roar louder.
    "Alright! Then let's get ready for LUCHA..... wait," the MC paused and squinted at a white shirted official beside the ring "we have a new twist! The winner of tonight's match will also have the what?"
    The official climbed up to the ropes and whispered to his ear.
    "Ladies and gentlemen,I have just been informed that YOUR champion will also receive the honor of carrying the baronial banner in the Victory Day parade next month! Now, ARE YOU READY FOR LUCHAAAAADORES???"
    And the crowd went nuclear in its joy.

    Two huge robed figures walked down from the arena sides and swung heavy clubs into the copper gong next to the ring, signaling the crowd into silence.
    "Amigos, travelers, neighbors... please show your love for the challenger to the honorable title of Supreme Champion of Juarez Luchadores, the indestructible EL Toro!"
    The left figure threw off his robe to reveal his masked costume. It was all shining black spandex except for red eye borders and two bulls horns stitched in silver on the sides.
    El Toro had a lot of fans in this sector, who cheered and chanted his name as he walked to his ringside corner.
    "Tonight, defending his title for the sixth time, the striped death, the stark fist of removal, YOUR champion: MAXIMO THE MUTANT!!"
    The second wrestler stepped from his falling hood and raised his scale covered arms in a perfect V, his black and orange striped mask and trunks complimented his long mutant physique.
    Maximo pumped his fists in the air as he strode to the ropes and dived between the ropes, rolling fluidly to a stand. El Toro hopped up and over the top rope and thudded heavily with his feet. The two luchadores shook hands and went to their corners. The referee stepped to the center and raised his arm, the bell rang and the two men charged head on at each other. Maximo grappled for a moment with the powerfully built Toro then dropped his mass downward and swung his weight between his opponents legs. Toro decided to not roll with the take down and pulled up with his arms, swinging Maximo up over his head.
    The mutant turned in the air and landed on the shoulders of El Toro with his legs wrapped over the bulkier man's armpits.
    With an enraged roar, El Toro charged backwards into the ropes. The impact caused the mutant to lose his hold and Toro left him behind with them as he charged toward the opposite side. Maximo was stunned but standing when Toro rebounded from the far ropes and ran low for his signature 'Toro Trample'.
    As Toro raised his arms to smash the mutant into the ropes again, Maximo turned toward him and leaped with his legs outward, planting his fists into El Toro's back. Vaulting over the charging masked man, Maximo landed gracefully as El Toro went blindly into and over the center rope, flying into a stack of metal folding chairs with a loud crash.
    The audience cheered, booed and whooped at the spectacle. Toro's fans chanted his name and called for him to get up, but the big man didn't move. When the referee
    started to count him out, Maximo stopped him and gestured for the crowd to quieten.
    "El Toro!" He screamed "Get up here and fight. I don't want a victory as this. You wanted a title match, you got it."
    The crowd cheered at the gesture of good will. As even Maximo cheered for Toro to rise up, a green and yellow masked wrestler in dark red tights snuck into the ring behind him. The crowd yelled for him to turn around, but it was too late. The Verde Diabolo had a folding chair in mid swing as Maximo spun around only to be smashed across his chest. The chair broke from the impact and Maximo fell to the ground holding his chest and rocking in pain.
    If Verde Diabolo had any fans in the Alvarez sector arena, they were drowned out by the jeers and hisses of the disapproving majority. The referee shouted at the wrestler and pushed him away from Maximo while the crowd cursed at his poor sportsmanship. The ref was to busy with Verde to notice his accomplice, King Dragon, sneaking up behind him. The crowd screamed for the official to look out, but it was too late to stop the white and black clad lucha from slipping a canvas corn sack over his head and shoving him face first into the corner post.

    Villain luchadores mocked the audiences outrage and taunted them with rude gestures as they stepped over to the still stunned Maximo. King Dragon grabbed the mutant by his arm and pulled him up so Verde Diabolo could deliver a kick to his mid section. Maximo took the beating as feet and fists fell again and again. The ref had crawled out of the ring and was limping his way toward the fallen form of El Toro. Toro was sitting up but seemed dazed or unaware of the ring. The referee pleaded on his knees and pointed towards the events in the ring. The villains were setting up Maximo for a serious blow, Verde holding the mutant in a head lock while King Dragon started climbing the ropes at Toro's corner.
    The referee and El Toro shook hands then the two of them charged at King Dragon and knocked his feet off the top ropes before he could make his Flying Dragon kick. King dragon fell hard on his rear and rolled out of the ring onto the floor directly in front of the Parker family. Toro and the ref jumped into the ring where Verde continued to punch Maximo about the head and was trying to pull his mask off.
    King Dragon had drug himself up to the barrier in front of the fans, who seized his arms and held him long enough for the referee and El Toro to rescue Maximo from the career ending unmasking. Toro ran into the ropes to gain momentum for his Toro Trample and the referee did a jumping front kick to Verde Diabolo from behind.
    The timing was perfect. Verde let go and bent backwards in pain as Toro slammed his body from the front, knocking him onto his back.
    King Dragon had reached the ring and dove at the referee,who side stepped barely in time to avoid the blow. Dragon hit the corner post. Toro was checking on Maximo when the two villains regained their composure and teamed up on the referee, tossing him from the ring before turning to attack the mutant again. But Toro was already in a full run and clotheslined them both before they could initiate another attack. Maximo had shook off the beating and came in behind Toro.

    The thick scaled mutant jumped in a high arc and landed with his elbows in their abdomens. The villains yelled from the twin blows and started to retreat when Toro trampled them a second time, knocking them face down flat. Maximo had sprung to his feet and flung himself onto King Dragon while El Toro pinned his partner. The ref was in the ring and started a three-count as soon as both villains were pinned to the canvas. The audience counted with the referee. The bell rung on three and the audience screamed with joy at the drama of it all.
    Maximo and El Toro stood together and raised the referee on their shoulders as the MC climbed into the ring with his microphone.
    "Amigos, ladies and gentlemen, the Alvarez Arena officials have made a ruling and it has been decided that the winner of this match is..."
    "Wait!" Maximo interjected as he sat the referee down. "I have something to say!"
    The big mutant took the microphone and raised his hand to calm the crowd.
    "El Toro, we entered the ring as adversaries but we must leave it as friends. You have shown honor and sportsmanship that is the living spirit of the luchadores.You saves me from being unmasked when you could have easily allowed King Dragon and Verde Diabolo do away with me forever. And because of that, I offer you my hand in friendship and my championship belt. You are a true hero, El Toro. You deserve the title."
    Toro stood stunned by the gesture and shook his head as in disbelief.
    He reached for the mic and spoke in a deep tone.
    "No, I cannot accept the full title. But I would be honored greatly to share it with you."
    The audience cheered the gesture. The MC took his microphone back and announced,"Then I guess we have TWO supreme champions this night! The officials approve. Senors and Senoras, ladies and gentlemen and children of Juarez, I am proud to present to you your Supreme Champions: Maximo the Mutant and El Toro!!".

    The audience roared when the two men held the shining belt over head together as they marched up the ramp and out of the arena. The Parker sons were bouncing with excitement as the family made for the door. Ramone lifted them both up to his hips and carried them through the exiting crowd to the street.
    "Let's get you boys to bed," Juanita announced "your father and I want to spend some quality time together before he has to report for convoy."
    Ramone winked at her and she kissed his cheek. Quality time was the best part of Ramone's evening, and Juanita's as well.

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    --
    10/23/2014 10:19 PM

    The Alvarez garage was the single largest structure in Juarez next to the cloverleaf. It had been commissioned by Baron Milagros to house his future battle fleet of armored wags, tanks and super weapons. The only problem with that dream was that the man was a misanthrope and completely delusional about his own mortality. A few generations of severe drug abuse, incestuous breeding within the family and his overindulged upbringing had made a true monster.
    Like so many petty tyrants of the Deathlands, he enslaved norms and mutants alike to his lunatic ambition and fetishistic demand for total control of everything in his power. Milagros had forced the peasants and slaves to dig the old airport out of the shifting sand only to find that most of its structures had been sucked into a sink hole over a half mile wide. Untold numbers of captives died trying to recover enough materials to build just one complete hangar at the planned outskirts of the ville. After the huge structure was assembled and rigged for electricity, Milagros started talking about building a second hangar. That was when his Sec Chief rallied the people to rise up and kill their baron and his degenerative sibling/cousins. Now the Big Garage served the good of those people whose blood and sweat had been spent building it. Wag bays and machine shops covered almost every square foot of the mammoth poured concrete floor. The back quarter was a closed area, off limits to everyone except to the Salvage team and their support crew.

    A mostly intact pre dark hotel across the four lane served as apartments for non affiliated scouts and the villes small contingent of Gila tribesmen (and women) who came to work for Alvarez in his salvage yard. The mutants could take the summer sun longer than most normals. They blended well socially with the wilderness smart Juarez scouts and some had taken up work for the salvage and survey crew. Dawn didn't mind having them around one bit. They were chocked full of useful information about southern Chihuahua and the Sonora frontier. The Gila had turned her onto some very good salvage and a box canyon where a particularly potent strain of cannabis grew like wild flowers.
    Dawn strode to the check in sheet and signed in. She had enough tokens for a decon shower and some lizard tacos from the Alvarez food truck in the parking lot after she got some shut eye. She was happy to see no line for the showers. The time it took for her to file salvage rights on the cement plant was enough for the other scouts to get out of her way. She stripped off the dirty road clothes and tossed them in a burn barrel before stepping into the spray booth.
    After she inserted her tokens, the reclaimed automatic car wash sprayers on the sides started blasting a bright orange soap combined with Alvarez bug repellent onto her slender frame. The hot water stung her skin slightly and clean rinse water showered down from the two nozzles above her head. The machine was amazingly simple, but it freaked out first timers and visitors to the ville who came for the salvage trade. Dawns muscles relaxed as the clean and rinse cycles repeated for ten minutes, washing away the road stink and leopard mites.

    After the last rinse, the machine made a click noise. Dawn pushed the phone booth door ,grabbed a towel and wrapped it around her breasts before exiting. The scouts had no use for modesty in their own building, but Dawn didn't want to show off the goods too much. The institutionalized rape of the Milagros regime had been replaced with a very strict chill on conviction policy by Baron Hadron. That, Dawn figured, was probably his wife's idea. All the women of her generation had been subject to the perverse whims of Baron Milagros, his sons and what few male sibling/cousins that the tyrant hadn't chilled himself. A lot of women who had been subjected to the systematic abuses committed suicide, even years after the revolution abolished the old system, leaving a large number of orphan children to be raised by the survivors.
    Dawn tried not to think of the horror stories. Now, at least, Juarez had written laws and they were posted in plain view at every entrance and public venue. Even the Sanchez sector gaudy houses put the posters up at their doors to remind visitors that this was a civilized town with no tolerance for the kind of barbarism that ruled the Deathlands. Baron Hadron encouraged literacy, he said, so that all would know the written law and understand the price of breaking it. Traders and travelers signed contract promising to obey all laws. If they couldn't read, the Hadron Sec men would read it to them and let them sign it with an "X" before they were allowed into the ville.

    Dawn entered her room and locked the door before shedding the towel. She had a few large T-shirts salvaged from a pre war gas station which served as sleeping gowns. She selected one with a cartoon camel smoking a cigarette and slipped it over her head before flopping on the bed. Sleep came easier when a girl had her own space. Dawn drifted off almost as soon as her eyes closed.

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    --
    10/24/2014 3:32 PM

    The knock came at four in the morning. One hard rap and then three light ones, that was Ramone letting her her know it was time to go prep their weapons and wag. Dawn washed her face in a hand wheeled baked clay basin then dumped the water down the bathroom sink. All wash waste water dumped into to reclamation gutters that Sanchez's people built in every sector. Dawn had no idea where it went and what became of it. It didn't matter to her enough to ask. She had more important things to consider, like how she was going to score enough salvage to turn a certain Winnebago into a salvage wag. She slipped into a set or clean olive drab cargo pants and a black button down shirt with a sugar skull design stitched on the back. She pulled a waist length leather welders jacket out of the closet and stuffed it into a small bag of clean travel clothes. After rinsing her mouth with tequila, Dawn locked her door and jogged down two flights of stairs to the lobby where Ramone was waiting with a very tall mutant. The mutant was long, but of a strong athletic build that filled out the brown and tan tiger striped camouflage pants and black tank top shirt he dressed in very well. He was, by Dawn Rodriguez's standards, pretty hot for a Gila man. He could almost be mistaken for a civilized mutie if he had been wearing shoes of any kind.

    The mutant had the typically tough looking scaled hide of the Gila tribe, but still very human features. Most of the men of his tribe bore as much resemblance to the lizards that was their namesake as they did norms. This one, however, had a more human nose and his cheekbones set high and wide over a strong jaw. The powerful muscles of his body looked like steel cable wrapped in leather, and his coloring ranged from a nice dark honey to a pale orange-yellow in wide jagged stripes.
    He carried a large spear in one hand, but had a Soviet design pistol in a nylon shoulder holster and an RPK slung over his back. Ammo belts for the machine blaster hung from a steel box that was welded to an old pre war Alice pack resting against his leg on the cement floor. He looked like a man to be reckoned with, without doubt.

    Ramone waved as Dawn approached them
    "Good morning, chica, you ready to roll?"
    "I could use another three hours of sleep, but I'm ready. Who's your new amigo?"
    Ramone paused, then realized he hadn't asked the mutant his name.
    "I'm sorry," he said embarrassed "I don't know your name, amigo..."
    "Just call me Max." The Gila mutant bowed with his hand up.
    "Hey," Ramone interrupted "like the lucha! That's cool, bro.. I mean, unless it's not cool. Okay?"
    The mutant smiled politely and said "It's a common association people make. Everybody asks that."
    "Oh, ok, amigo. I apologize. Anyway, this is my gunner and partner."
    "I'm Dawn Rodriguez, Max. Good to meet you. Forgive this old fool, he is a lime short on manners. Nice guns, must've taken a lot of industry tokens."
    "Um, yes," the mutant said "took me years in the scrap yard to save up for these babies, but they are worth every hot day I spent out there."
    "Right on, well, can we get going then, Ramone?"
    Ramone nodded and shook Max's hand. When Dawn repeated the gesture, the Gila took her hand gently and pressed it to his forehead.

    The scouts hurried to the briefing lounge of the garage where the Motor Chief went over their routes. Their weapons were cleaned and ammo restocked by the barony. Alvarez had his crews fuel and repair every vehicle in the fleet. At first light, twelve motorcycle scouts raced out the western gates and started a circular path around the Juarez walls. Another quarter hour went by and the buggies headed out on the western road, which only extended fifteen miles from the ville. Two eight wheeled APC trucks with RPK machine blaster ports along the sides escorted a custom salvage big rig pulling a bulldozer on a trailer. After one hour of the motorcycles circling the area for three miles in every direction, the Alvarez salvage wag pulled out towing a small crane with four armored escort wags following. The last set of four wags exited the gates ten minutes later escorting another big rig hauling a train of two trailers. The first was a mobile command post with a 30mm canon turret on top and a ball turret on each side, like the ones on the Sanchez sector gates. The second was a flatbed with a smaller bulldozer and a tracked digging machine. The escort wags were open backed truck and jeep types with RPK's on standing pivot mounts. Sec men manned the guns held in the nests by their safety harnesses, the larger wags were doubling as troop transportation.

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    --
    10/25/2014 1:01 PM

    ___Ft. Geronimo___

    Pico sat in the watch chair cleaning his AKM while Klash shook out the filtration system on the buggy. The morning sun was reflecting in prismatic waves across the salt flat surrounding the relic structure.
    "Hey, did you see this when the sun rose yesterday and leave me out? Not nice, young piss ant."
    Klash shoved the filters back into the housing and closed the vent cover.
    "What?"
    "The light show down there, man! It's beautiful."
    Klash pulled the dust cover from his SVD and started towards the elevated shelter.
    "No. That's new. Let me get up there."
    Pico ignored the request and peered through the pre nuke binoculars at the glimmering brilliance below the dunes.

    Klash noticed that the air was starting to warm around the camp. It was definitely confined, according to his mutant senses, to just that small area.
    "Pico, hey, don't you feel the heat?"
    "Huh? Yeah, it's pretty, man! I can't believe we are gonna tear it up like that. It should be protected, amigo. You know, right?"
    Klash stepped into the door and up the ladder beside the occupied watch chair. He looked through the scope of his Druganov SVD at the shimmer of refracted sun. The ground had changed. There was a suggestion in his mutant senses that let him look away before getting caught up in the dazzle inducing pulses of color.
    "No, that wasn't there before. Look at me, not the light."
    Pico shot him a dirty look but complied. His face was flush and dripping sweat.
    "Let's climb down, okay?"
    "Yes.." Pico agreed and turned the chair "Thank you. I think I should."

    The two men climbed down and Klash suggested moving the shelter to a dune of similar height a hundred yards to the east. Pico was in no frame of mind to disagree. Much to Klash's worry, he was also in no frame of mind to break down, move and reassemble the camp site either. He seemed detached from the events around him. Klash sent a coded message on the wireless but was unsure if it was received. Their radiation counters were in high green and the antenna hairs on the neck of the younger man detected no aggressive threats.

    The new spot gave Klash a better perspective on what was causing the light trick. The ground had sprouted some kind of crystalline growths. It must have started as soon as they arrived. It was a slow process, designed to go unrecognized by his mutation. Bastard clever, Klash thought as he wrote down his observations on the pages of his map book. The dazzled look on Pico's face gave way to one of depression as the afternoon passed. Klash had to keep him in the camouflaged shelter and remind him to take water to avoid dehydration several times. The Cuban was not himself until after the sun went down, and was obviously affected by the experience. It was like he'd been drugged and was shaking the comedown.

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    --
    10/25/2014 2:50 PM

    ___The western border of the Juarez Barony___

    The first convoy truck had reached the end of the resurfaced highway and had to slow down for off road travel. A few miles ahead of the big rig and it's escorts, scouts were on the peep for raiders and other dangers. The armored APC's kept slowing with the rig as the terrain became more difficult for the towing vehicle to navigate. It wasn't long after that the other large vehicles caught up with the bulldozer. The Juarez Sec teams in the armored wags were ordered to check their weapons. The convoy slowed to a ten mile per hour push.
    Max stoop up from his chair in the command trailer and climbed up to the turret platform next to Motor Chief Alvarez. The thirty four year old was on the chubby side but could still meet the physical standard that Baron Hadron demanded from a city Sec man. He wore a Makarov automatic pistol on his right hip, the standard issue sidearm of the Juarez Sec, a PM-63 RAK sub machine gun slung over his shoulder and a clip board under his arm.
    "This is going to cost us time, Max. And one of the forward scouts picked up a partial code from Kalashnikov Hadron saying he had some trouble. Giant scorpions and something about lights incapacitating his driver. Your people ever come across anything like that?"
    "No, not many of my tribe has been up that deep in the area, and none came back that did. We have always avoided it."
    The heavy man looked over the list of indie scouts on his board.
    "Ok, I want you to take a squad wag to get ahead of this. See what's going on with with that report. I'll get you a scout to guide you."
    "Can I use Ramone Parker? His wag is tough and has a lot of power. Might come in handy if the squad gets stuck in the sand."
    "Good idea. Take some food supplies and two shelter kits. I'll get Parker back here pronto."

    Ramone Parker was two miles from the convoy when the numeric call came across the radio. Dawn was catching up on rest despite the rough traveling conditions.
    "Wake up, chica. We got a call back from the Chief to head back to the command wag."
    "Wha', huh?" Dawn looked at the dashboard clock. 2:30 PM.
    "We gotta head back, Alvarez said make it pronto."
    "Yeah, wake me up when we get there." Dawn grumbled and pulled her welders jacket over her head to block out the harsh desert sunlight.

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    --
    10/25/2014 8:29 PM

    The ride to the convoy was a bumpy one, but Dawn managed to grab a few minutes extra shuteye before Ramone pocked her arm.
    "Don't poke the bear, Ramone. I hate that and you know it."
    "Aw, I'm very sorry but its time to pretend that you are working, little bear."
    Dawn pulled the leather jacket down and stuffed it back into the top of her bag.
    "Hey, check it out. It's your new friend, Max." She pointed to the tall Gila mutant who was directing Sec men who were prepping and loading a troop wag.
    Max waved the Parker buggy over. Sec men were loading a couple of digital camouflage canvas shelters and 7.62 mm ammo boxes into the troop wag.
    "Ramone, Dawn..." the mutant greeted them "we got a situation with Hadron at the site, perhaps. You are going to be escorting my squad to provide the support until the main convoy can get there."
    Dawn smiled gleefully and bounced in her seat. "Yes! This is perfect, Ramone."
    "Shush it, chica," Ramone scolded her "this isn't a courtship dance. Radio said some stuff about mutie scorpions and some weird shit out there."
    "Indeed, my friends," Max continued "and we lost his signal just after the report came in. We may be walking into a buzzard hawk dinner party or it might be nothing. Either way, Motor Chief said to give you these."
    "Hot pipe! Ruskie blasters!" Dawn exclaimed with wide eyes as Max passed two Juarez built AKM's and a box of 7.62×39 mm steel core ammo through the window to her.
    "Consider these you pay bump for the hazard duty, agreed?"
    Ramone and Dawn nodded their affirmation. Max pulled a map out of the thigh pouch of his tiger striped camo pants and showed them the route. The baron's son had reported a few hazards and mutant tribes in the path they were going to take. It was too rough and too narrow to risk getting the big trucks stuck and ambushed potentially, but a heavily armed and alert group could navigate the course in a day and a half if they put the pedal down and kept moxied for trouble.
    "What about this river?" Dawn pointed at the pre dark map.
    "Report says they think it went underground. My tribe has been up that way before. Stickies have been seen in small group there abouts. But its the mutant scorpions that own the territory west of there. Gila people avoid it, especially this time of year. Everything that chills and creeps is fattening up for the storm season. There are a lot of caves where the demons winter all over the region, and the jackalope herds will be migrating through there. The mutants will be on the hunt, so stay triple red, as you say, because there is going to be a lot of bad territory to tread."
    The mutant barked at the Sec men to button up the transport and climbed up beside a man Alvarez selected to man the twin RPK's on the swivel stand.
    "Are you Corona?" The mutant inquired.
    "Call me Mike. Only my dad calls me by my last name."
    "Okay then, Mike. Motor Chief said you are a dead eye with a double blaster, so I'm gonna let you do your thing. You can call me Max. Only everybody calls me Max."
    Mike smiled and snapped his harness to the tethers hanging from the gun post as the wag fell in behind the Parker scout buggy. Max waved for Ramone to head out and the two wags left the convoy behind.

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    --
    10/26/2014 1:26 PM

    While the clumsy rigs of the convoy crawled at a snail's pace, the Sec wag and it's more agile escort wound through the broken landscape with relative ease. The late afternoon glare was cut greatly by the greenish white chem clouds that drifted in serpentine coils across the sky. The entirety of the ecosystem had been pushed and stretched to it's breaking point by radiation, poisoned and battered by the upheaval of the land and oceans. New species of plants and animals had appeared, some vanished like a firefly's flicker while others took to the conditions and learned to exploit them.
    The brittle tubewood bush thrived in the toxic rainy season. But the jackalope chewed them , as they migrated back and forth between the gulf and western coasts, enough to keep them in balance with the surviving natural flora. An adult jackalope was equal in height to a pit bull. Their twisted horns resembled the jagged branches of the tubewood that nourished them. As a great stroke of natural selection, this did give the grazing herds a bit of camouflage in the tubewood thickets themselves. The tubewood bush used the opportunity to attach their inedible spike seeds in the thick fur of the hiding jackalope.
    Evolution had taken the opportunity of mutation and it paid off for everything that ate jackalope. Everybody loved jackalope, Max was no exception.

    Max leaned down to the Sec wag driver and tapped the cabin top twice.
    "When Parker gets back, stop the wag."
    The mutant was not going to risk using the jackalope trail they were following into the rocky hills after dark. It would be more wise, he thought, to make camp here and try to conquer them at first light. The giant scorpions didn't like a fight with armed men on an open field, they liked to sneak from the shadows and ambush their prey. A jackalope path made it even more likely to have an encounter with the predators.
    Max encoded a numerical message and sent it to the scout buggy. The return order was affirmed. As the scout wag came into sight, the Sec man driving the troop transport pulled to the north side of the jackalope laid trail. A slightly elevated slope provided a solid park and camp spot.
    Dawn had never been this far west and had little comment, but Ramone Parker had. He agreed with the Gila tribesman on waiting until first light to attempt crossing the rocky bad lands between themselves and the ruins. If they could get through the treacherous hills before sundown, they had a good chance of reaching the location by midnight.

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    --
    10/28/2014 2:53 PM
    Max helped the sec team set up their shelters in relative cover between the two patchwork vehicles. Of the six, only the driver, Gomez, had been more than a few miles from Juarez. These men should not be here, in the opinion of the long bodied mutant. The scouts were respectable to the Gila man, however. Max had seen Parker in the old hotel lobby many times in the two years since he had been living in Juarez, and had judged him by his gear and manner instantly as an experienced warrior who knew the ways of the desert. The Gila respected any normal who could survive the deep ash wastes of Old Mex.
    Max's assessment of Dawn Rodriguez was complicated by his well hidden dislike of her loud personality and his admiration for her frame. She was a tall girl for Juarez, over six feet in height. She wore a pleated black mini skirt with camouflage pockets sewn into the front over fitted iguana skin pants. Her waist cropped brown welders jacket was tied above her hips, which caused the strategically cut up T-shirt to pull its faded eagle design tightly across her chest an shoulders. She was too flat chested according to most of the Ville Juarez men, who preferred their women a lot thicker. However, there were a few men who saw her angelically delicate features and felt the tug of lust just as Max was now. But once they saw the arsenal of hand guns that the lanky young woman had strapped to her every limb, even the roughest trade thought twice before a second look. For Max, the attraction ended when she opened her mouth to speak.

    Dawn had a set of .38 recovered police revolvers on shoulder holsters under each arm. On the right side hip, tied to her thigh was her gun belt holster. There hung an ancient .44 Colt that she had taken from the body of the first man she had killed, five years before- a Paso bandit who had snuck into the Alvarez sector to settle a score with Parker. Dawn had spotted him drawing the vintage blaster to shoot Ramone in the back, according to the story told in the scout hotel, so she stepped up and put a .22 Derringer to the base of his skull where it met the spine. The small bullet dropped the bandit, the bandit dropped the gun and Dawn claimed it as her first legal salvage. She still had the Derringer in the top of of her left motocross boot. The only blade she carried, as far as Max could tell, was the machete on her left hip.

    Other than the two AKM's Ramone Parker had slung across his back, Max was hard pressed to find a weapon. Sly bastard, the Gila man thought, probably has that homespun armored duster lined with guns and grens. He wasn't wrong either. Ramone Parker, indeed, wore a coat of many secrets. In addition to a sawed off shotgun in one of the inside a special sewn-in holster on his left side, the trail experienced scout had a half dozen grenades in hidden pouches and a 9 mm machine pistol secured on a Velcro strap under the right arm. The thick duster had Kevlar and light steel plates riveted over vital areas of the torso and upper shoulders. The grey hair in his beard spoke to the wisdom of his road rough practicality. A weapon for every place, a place for every weapon. Max had no doubt of this man surviving this adventure, that much was obvious.


    Max assigned the sec men their watch duties and shelters after evening MRE's were distributed. Dawn and Ramone decided to sleep on the Corvette hood of their buggy, preferring the canopy of stars and open desert air over the cramped quarters of the elevated camouflage tents. The green and yellow Aurora Mexicali, as the people of the Chihuahua region called it, was casting its eerie glow on the desert. Max did a check around the camp before climbing into the rear of the sec wag to bed down. Gomez took the first shift in one of the elevated watch chairs. Max had shown the men how to load and operate the parachute flare launchers, which would light the surrounding area in the event that they did come under attack. Which did help the ville sec feel less anxious about the exposed position they found themselves in.

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    --
    10/30/2014 1:39 PM

    ___Fort Geronimo___

    "How you doing, Pico? You got enough AP in your mags?" Klash asked as he poured the last of their bug repellent into the wide, plastic lined trench that enclosed the thrice relocated camp site. The prisms growing from the salt flat surrounding the ruined complex below had tracked the two scouts each time they moved the shelter. The strange passivity of the solar attack left Klash dumbfounded. Pico grunted and shrugged as he thumbed rounds into the spare AKM magazines. His blank expression told Klash more than the grumbling affirmative. The man was touched, and that would bring the big chill to them both if shit hit the fan.
    Stepping behind the shaded wall of the six inch high platform, Klash pulled a leather bound card stock cover binder from an old medical satchel. He checked the tip of the pencil sandwiched between the tubewood pulp based pages before putting his thoughts to record.
    If the suns light and heat could be focused as a weapon in this manner, he noted across the brown paper of his journal, then why not choose to burn us to ashes? I am unsure if the salt is itself alive, or if it is just a tool for defense controlled by a mind within the ruined fort. Is this some attempt to communicate, these lights and heat cones that follow our every movement? I do not understand this place. What I have seen here is strange, frightening. But I cannot bring myself to abandon this place.
    Pico is still not all there, and drifts between mild usefulness and being a liability. I have never seen him so before, even when drunk. Every time I have had to break and set the camp, he has to be watched. He spaces out for minutes at a time and doesn't seem to be aware of the danger his episodes put us both in. Twice I have had to stop him wandering too far away from base, I think it will be wise to secure him to the shelter for the night. I thought he had recovered from the light show this morning, yet every time that the crystals have twisted their form to direct the ray to our camp, Pico is more unreliable .
    If we are attacked by more scorpions or some other horror from the Deathlands to the north that has wandered into the valley, I'm in a lot of trouble. We have used Alvarez's bug juice up filling the trench. I have set up the shelter to block the hypnotic beam that I am certain will be pointed us come sunrise.
    Father,

    Pausing to consider his next words, Klash gave a glance to check on his Cuban companion. Only the AKM and a half dozen abandoned mags sat next to the ammo boxes in the center of the riser.
    "Santos on the ropes!" Klash cursed, setting down the stiff note book and yellow pencil. He had wandered off the camp site and was starting towards the ruins! How had Klash not felt something from his mutant senses of the fat man's departure?
    Again, the young scout had to drag his mentor and partner back to the platform. This time, Klash made Pico sit in the repositioned watch chair at the southeast corner of the shelter and used a bungee cord to tether him to the platform by his battle harness.
    "Do NOT attempt to untie this, Pico. We are in the shit and you are gonna get one or both of us eaten by muties if you don't pull it together." Klash vented unintentionally.
    "I'm sorry," Pico apologized "really."
    "I am as well, amigo. I am tired."
    "You are right... I should leave. Can I go home now?"
    The realization hit Klash like a brick bat. Who ever, what ever was directing the crystals was indeed trying to send a message. Klash climbed on the hood of the scout wag with his Druganov. It was going to be a long night.

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    --
    10/31/2014 3:59 PM

    ___Eighty-six miles northwest of Juarez___

    The main convoy followed the trail of wireless relay beacons left by Pico Martinez and the baron's son through the upended landscape of the eastern Sonora. The big rigs and their escort wags paused at the base of a mesa to set up camp on a large strip of surviving highway that Hector Munoz and his Painted Pony buggy crew had stumbled upon. The curved on ramp allowed the wags to sit above their surroundings in a semicircle, the open end faced toward the looming red and brown streaked mesa. Motor Chief Alvarez ordered sec men to set up sand bags for RPK machine blaster nests in an even spread around the camp to allow a healthy overlap of kill zones. While the sec men filled and set the defensive line, tech crews from the salvage team assembled a row of platform shelters. The scout teams patrolled perimeter for muties.
    The Sanchez construction workers unloaded the small earth mover to dig a temporary sewage trench behind a half buried billboard that had somehow managed to stay upright despite a century of shifting sands. Whatever advertisement it once wore on its front had long since been stripped away by the blasting winds and chem storms of the wasteland, leaving a corroding steel skeleton behind as a ghostly relic. Some of the steel looked like it might be useful, and if there was room on the return trip on one of trailers then perhaps the crew would have time to cut it up for transport back to the ville for reforging. The big stashes of prewar goods were fewer and farther flung with each passing season, the Council had concluded eight years before, and the race for raw materials and recyclables would soon begin between the despot barons of the Deathlands to the north and east.

    Don Guzman had advised his Baron that the time to start locking down as much steel, iron and aluminum as the ville scout teams could root out of the desert was now. Get ahead of the game beforehand, he had insisted, because the limited production shops of Juarez would be a target for the petty tyrant kings when the last salvageable hordes of old tech and consumer goods went away. The people of Juarez would have to fight even harder in order to hold on to the freedom that they had won. The stronger that they become, the better their chance to continue rebuilding a civilization of just laws amid the anarchy and murder of the north.
    Secrecy and stealth were hard for a ville to maintain, however. As careful as the scouts were, there had been severe threats to the ville because scout teams and their equipment had been captured by the enemy. When that happened, Baron Hadron sent out his Special Tactics Recovery (STaR) team out to deal with the issue. If possible, the six man sec team were to rescue the scouts- and many times they could. But, their primary mission was to recover the buggies and tech in order to prevent their secrets from being turned against them, which did create a level of resentment towards the STaR members themselves. That's why they started wearing masks to hide their identity, as the Mexican Narco squads did before the war. It let the men do the necessary deeds without anxiety over their and their families safety. Sometimes, it was required to chill the scouts if they could not be rescued. They also worked within the ranks as a military police, rooting out corruption and spies in the sec force. The knowledge that there were secret eyes watching for corruption or dereliction was enough to keep most people honest and on the ball. Treason was met with a quick but horrible death. The last two spies from Paso that STaR discovered were staked out at the northeastern most end of the recovered road about twenty miles from Juarez, a roving band of stickies had zeroed in on their scents and stripped them flesh to bone the second day. Needless to say, the Paso bandits were horrified and outraged.
    When the bandits learned of the huge convoy departure, they loaded up every motorcycle in the gang stable with as much juice, shells and homebrew explosive as they could scrounge. They road for broke all the way to the Sonora. If a bike broke down, the pack picked up the rider and left the cycle burning. When they saw the convoy camp setting up on the wind exposed highway, they cut their engines and waited for the sun to go down. The plan was to walk their bikes in as close as possible before detected, then they would ride in and blow them straight to hell.

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    --
    11/2/2014 2:24 AM

    The Motor Chief sat in the reupholstered executive chair in the command trailer, his brown eyes reflecting the amber glare from the row of computer monitors. The system that ran the engine optimization services program was old for Mexican army surplus even before the world caught fire. The trailer had a few cameras on the sides, but none of them had night vision or long zoom capabilities. If it had, then the Paso bandits would have been spotted in time, before they were able to slink in behind the camp.

    Hark Danby led his men silently through the dry creek bed. His gang lost eighteen bikes in the mad stampede to catch the hated Juarez convoy. An acceptable sacrifice if it meant paying back in blood for the six years of frustration the gang had endured since first discovering the booming ville. They had almost three hundred men on bikes back then. Now, they had sixty men, eighteen riding bitch the last hundred miles. Those men were the angriest of the lot. They volunteered to night creep in to play the part of saboteurs. It would have been great to create as much confusion and fear as possible. But as the bikers wove through the deeply cut trough, Hark caught something out of the edge of his vision and raised his hand thumb down to signal the gang to drop to their bellies.
    "Sam. Sam, get yer' ass up here an' gimme the scopes." Hark whispered "Now, you feeb shit droolie."
    A biker in a leather vest and prewar denims crawled next to the newest club prez and slid him the long night scope. The miscreant leader surprised the other gangers when he put it to his eye and pointed it at the mesa instead of the camp.
    "Well, don't that beat all.... "
    "What, Hark? What y'all see o'er there?" Sam asked as he squinted at the dark.
    "My new favorite mutie."
    "What's that?"
    "Shut up, you triple stupe. Fetch me that silver box what Ol' Jim got from that iron jawed freak he was dealing with 'fore he got butt raped by them scalies. I think I know what Jim wanted with it."

    Danby led his gang up the creek bed as far away from the camp as he thought was needed. He sat on a large rock and flipped the latch on the small case and opened the lid. Sitting in the special molded foam designed to protect against shock was a device that was as beautiful as it was mysterious to him just a week before. He had played with it a few times in the six months since he took on the burden of leadership. He thought it was some kind of noise machine meant to annoy dogs. It amused him, but he could not figure out why Ol' Jim had put it under guard until this moment. Jim had spoken to him about bats and how the strange creatures used sound to see in the dark. But Jim was always talking about unfathomable odd trivia after dealing with the freak. Now he understood the shiny gadget and its awful purpose.

    Hark called for Jim's daughter.
    "Mouse, come sit with me a sec. I want to talk at ya."
    A young woman in black BDU pants, a blue denim shirt and black leather vest quietly slid in next to him.
    "What ya want me to do, prez?" She cooed in his ear, "You got an itch I can scratch? Want it here now?"
    "No, darlin', this is about your dad and the freak. He had us do a lot of chillin' to get the doodad in this box. And I want you to have the honors, so get your night dress from out the bag and wash off all the war paint so you look more your age. Need you sweet and pure lookin.' for this run."
    "Where to?"
    "Right into the arms of your rescuers, girl, now get to it."
    Hark slapped her across the ass and winked at her.

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    --
    11/2/2014 1:05 PM

    Hector Munoz pushed the rubber sheet he'd been using as a hatch cover into a jackalope hide saddlebag on the Panted Pony's cargo rack. He checked the action on the RPK machine blaster and adjusted the brass catcher. The hundred round drum magazine was loaded with tracer and armor piercing 7.62 mm rounds in case some big hardshell mutant decided to pay the convoy a dinner visit. Hector had seen his share of big bugs and lizards in the seven years he'd spent combing the Chihuahua for useful salvage. The steel core AP bullets could punch through hide, shell or light armor. If any mutie scorp was rock dumb enough to poke its ugly face into his line of fire, he was going to get ground to paste.

    "Pony checking in, Chief" Hector said into his radio head set, "and all clear mesa side."
    "Copy. Stay peeped, Painted Pony." Alvarez answered on the short range comm channel.
    "Roger that."

    Hector gave the ring bearings of the rotating gun mount a few squirts of fat based lube and slowly turned the mount from side to side. Smooth, he thought, and worth every token. It was his discovery of a double trailer rig full of steel "I" beams that paid for the Baja style buggy's rebuild. The scout wag had style and it was all his, the gunner was just a hired hand who got twenty percent of the haul. Munoz was twenty three and owned his own life, even if most of it was tied up in the scout buggy. His father would have been proud if he had survived the rebellion against Milagros. He would have loved the Painted Pony too, Hector thought.

    The four hour watch seemed to drag time at a snails pace. A small band of what looked like pure strain coyote got only close enough to satisfy their canine curiosity. Hector saw their eyes reflecting the camp fire light for only a moment before they skulked away into the dark expanse of the Sonoran night. Two and a half tedious hours passed with no sign of life other than the the occasional coyote howl. Hector was chewing on a slice of barbecued iguana when he spotted a slender female form in a white gown stumbling out of the shale dark shadows between the crumbling supports of a nearby highway ramp.

    "Heads up, we got somebody over by that 'crete riser to the southwest." Hector reported over the short range. The spot light on top of the next scout wag lit up and turned its beam toward the ruined concrete columns some 70 yards from the convoy ring.
    The girl in the dirty, torn night dress clumsily staggered and then tripped over her own ripped nightgown hem. Hector heard her scream and that was enough for him to judge.
    "Need some back up! We have a rescue situation here!" He yelled as he hopped out of the gun station with the old AKM slung over his shoulder.

    The screaming girl pushed up from the ground and turned in the direction she had come from. Hector saw that the young woman had some kind of pipework blaster in her right hand, which she pointed into the shadows between the fallen highway risers and fired. If the bullet hit anything, it gave no cry. Hector unslung the AKM and pulled the bolt to chamber the first round of the thirty round banana mag.
    "Down! Down!" He yelled in Spanish and English, but the young woman was too out of it to register the warning.
    Suddenly from the black cover of the highway structure, two half naked men in dirty jeans blundered out after the girl. They carried home made long blasters in their hands and were bleeding from their faces and necks. The fat pipe gun she was packing must have been loaded with shrapnel, both men were gurgling blood from holes in their throats. When the two attackers saw Hector track the business end of the AKM in their direction, they screamed in rage at the young woman in the long white dress.
    "Oh no you don't." Hector said as he fired a short burst of thundering death at the lead assailant. The bikers head tore away from the jaw up and his body folded under to the rocky dirt. The second one threw down his gun and spun on his heel to attempt a retreat. He didn't get the first step down before a second burst from the Juarez/Cubano AKM exploded through his torso, ripping him almost in half on a diagonal line from his hip to his shoulder.
    The girl turned her tear streaked face to the approaching scout and dropped the crude scatter blaster on the desert floor.
    "Please don't hurt me!" The girl pleaded in English before she fell onto her side and curled into a sobbing ball on the sand. When Hector reached out to help her up, she whimpered and jerked at his touch.
    "It's okay. I won't touch, no touching, okay?" Hector said as he kicked her pipe gun away.

    Jen Gutierrez was in the group of four convoy sec who came running to the scene of the short fight, not that it was much of a battle. Hector waved her over to talk nice to the traumatized coil of weeping flesh that was rocking fetal in front of him.
    "Hey, it's safe, chica." Jen comforted the girl "Nobody here wants to hurt you. Hector and I, we are friends, okay? We won't let nobody touch you if you don't want, okay? But we can't stay here, coyotes are all over."

    The girl nodded and sat up, knees pulled up to her chest.
    "Can't feel my body. They took my shoes. My feet are cut up." The girl said quietly.
    Jen helped her stand but the shaking girl was not fully in control of her body.
    Hector scooped her up in his arms and instantly smelled the violation that the two dead men had visited on the girl.
    "I... I am so sorry for what they done with you." Hector whispered to the girl, who began to cry into his shoulders as he carried her back to the convoy camp.

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    --
    11/3/2014 1:56 AM

    Hector laid the girl in the soiled dress on a med cot in the crew tent. She was done shaking, which was a relief. The medic came in, grabbed a pair of latex gloves from a cardboard box before dismissing him.
    "Back to your post, I got this."
    The ville doctors trained all the combat medics to smile through even a hopeless case. It gave the patient comfort and made them easier to manage, they said.
    Hector patted the girl on the hand before heading out the door flap.
    "Thank you, Hector." The girl said softly.
    "Okay, hon, my name is Rita. I'm a medic for the convoy. What's your name?"
    "Mouse... Mamma said I's cute as a mouse when I's birthed. But she chilled. Chilled Daddy and baby Andy too."
    The medic smiled with her mouth only.
    "I don't see any cuts. Looks like they beat on you. Mouse, can you tell me where it hurts most?" She could guess the answer, but asked just in case.
    "Hurt me down there. They done same on Mamma. They said birthin' too much had ruined the prize." The girl said emotionless.
    "How long did they have you?"
    Mouse paused to think before answering. "Since last mornin'. Daddy traded all our ammo boxes for them to take us across the Sonora. They said was a place with no muties, no rads, no problems with raiders."
    The medic had heard of this practice. The con was simple: tell people there's greener pastures and offer to take them there in exchange for all they had scrounged, then put them on the last train west. It worked because the people in the Deathlands had nothing else to hope for. Rita opened the medicine box and took out what looked like a corn muffin in a plastic sandwich bag and a bottle of very clear (by modern post apocalyptic standards, anyway) looking water.
    "Here," Rita handed her the bottle and muffin, "this has marijuana in it. We use them to help those in pain."
    Mouse nodded and accepted the gift.

    The medic pulled out a set of BDU's from her shoulder bag and a pair of prenuke flip flops. She asked if the girl would like to clean up.
    "Yes, but I don't have a wash basin."
    "Oh, I have a treat for you. Put the shoes on and follow me."
    "Yessum." Mouse replied sweetly. The girl couldn't be more than sixteen, Rita thought, and already so damaged.

    Rita and Mouse were met by Jen Gutierrez as she was stepping out of the curtained phone booth next to the crew tent. Small orange blue hoses ran from the top of the booth to one of the multicolored nozzles on the side of the trailer.
    "Those guys might have had leopard mites, but the decon shower will get them off. Now don't swallow the waters, you will get sick. Just relax and turn around so the sprays can get all sides. I am not going anywhere, Mouse. We are safe here."

    Rita waited patiently as the girl washed the stink of the experience away, then passed her a towel and the change of clothes.

    Hark Danby watched the interactions as his Trojan horse played the Juarez convoy staff for the fool.
    "These stupes are even weaker than I thought." He told his second in command.
    "They sure are, Hark, you sure got them scoped."
    "Shut up, Sam. These lily nate greasers, I don't know how they got the drop on our boys so many years now. But oh y'all wait. Tonight is gonna be just the start of our payback. Because once we got these feebs out of the way, we are going to make sure that the rest of Juarez burns for their offenses."
    The bikers grunted and nodded at the thought in unison.

    After the shower, Rita took Mouse back to the tent to rest.
    "Mouse, I have to do my watch shift, but don't worry. Jen will be in the next tent. We are departing in the morning, so our chief will probably ask you what you want to do. Don't decide now. Just rest. Everything is going to be better now."
    Then the medic walked out to relieve one of the tired sec men on the watch.
    "Triple stupe whore." Mouse said a minute later before she rolled off the cot and silently untied the back panel of the shelter. She slid down the pants the medic had gifted her and pulled out a plastic wrapped device from beneath the shorts underneath. It was a bit warm from being taped to her thigh, but seemed no worse for it.

    Hark had crawled into a nice thick bush to get a good view of the spy in action. He only caught glimpses of the clever young daughter of his former mentor. What he saw impressed him. Mouse rolled under the canvas wall panel and set the device on the underside of the command trailer, then rolled back silently with seconds to spare before one of the sec patrols passed though.

    "She done it, boys. Now get to your bikes, prep charges and wait until the watch is all engaged 'fore you start your engine." Hark ordered. And each obeyed, their eyes dilated and red from the dope Danby had lined out for them. The biker meth steeled their aggression and spines.


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    --
    11/4/2014 12:25 PM

    ___Fort Geronimo___

    The reflected chemical green glow of the Aurora Mexicalis on the salt flat was an almost mirror image to the midnight sky. The sandy and salt infused ground was visible only in the largest of gaps between the crystals. After another wandering episode, Pico was sleeping peacefully from the drugs that Klash had slipped into his dinner. The medkit in the buggy had several boiled down concentrates of painkillers and sleep aids in its stores, Klash chose a tranquilizer powder and sleeping oil combo according to a symptom flip chart in the lid top of the box. The pestle imbedded in the top had hard plastic liners -a mold originally intended for cheap knock offs of American toys - for mixing ingredients. The drug took four minutes to hit the Cuban, freeing Klash to return to the watch.
    Another mated pair of mutant scorpions passed near enough to register with the younger scout's sensory hairs, but the neurological impulses did not carry the usually violent intensity that Klash was expecting. They didn't seem to care about avoiding or attacking the camp. The two beasts clambered through the furrowed dunes west and then out of the range of his senses without skipping a beat. Klash soon realized why.
    "The salt!" He said to no one but himself.

    Klash had avoided looking directly at the refractive light show on the salt flat that surrounded the prewar ruins, but now he turned himself toward the strange outcroppings. He slung his Druganov over his back then loosened his short collar to allow the antennae like hairs at the base of his skull freedom to slowly push out of his black, shoulder length hair. When he let his full senses open to the reflecting auroras, he understood that the lower intensity lights in the night sky were what was allowing a more clear message. The intelligence behind the structures had not meant to cause harm, the heat and overpowered glare was an accident.
    The dancing colors swirling on the flats were not the only communication the young man was taking in, his sensor hairs felt a gentle humming recognition of a shared curious nature in the meeting minds. Klash allowed his memories to be browsed, the historical particulars were less important to the entity than the emotions and motivations behind them. It shared with Klash as well. Images and sounds of screaming white coated men and women running through a hallway, fear and panic attacks as a set of thick bullet proof glass doors slam shut. A middle aged man with square glasses carrying a girl child in his arms pushing against the flow, aggression and hope blending in a desperate shove to a frightened group of people into a too small elevator. Relief, the sensation of a quick descent, a sense of urgency to get a security door code entered on a slightly worn keypad.
    3-6-2-2.
    A room filled with glass cages, feelings of guilt. A powerful resolve to complete the work, insects, beetles, roaches. Centrifuges with vials of transgenic viruses, vials of hope. Klash was able to focus his mind again and filter out some of the noise. He saw a set of hands prepare a hypodermic needle, fill it from a bottle with only a bar code label and inject the frightened nine year old. Through the girl, Klash saw the man smiling in the mannerisms that Juarez medicos were trained, only there were tears in his eyes as he kissed her forehead and told her to lay down in the metal and glass cylinder in the center of the room. Hope and dread weighed on the visions as the man in glasses slid the chamber into a stainless steel sleeve.
    Run.
    Run for the biomechanical lab.
    Hope.
    The lab door open. RUN!

    The other project, the nano tech. Change, change and survive!

    Klash shook with the overflow of emotions as the man with glasses drug a large canister to the elevator. A hallway of weeping souls sitting against the walls, despair and then resignation in most. A few adrenalin rushed soldiers beating against the doors with chairs. The people in the hallway stared at the man with the square glasses in disbelief of his intentions. Anger and shoving blows are exchanged before a series of loud booms, a steel door rolling down just as a blinding flash erupts in the distance outside.

    "Do it." The voices sound off.
    Protect. We will protect.
    Regret.

    Hope.
    Forgive. Please forgive us.

    Klash felt the hand turn the nozzle open. He felt the air warming up as the escaping mist entered the lungs of each man and woman in the crowded hall.
    Their bodies burned and itched. The pain was excruciating.
    Darkness.
    We will protect. Penance.

    Klash awoke hours later, the sun was rising. He was still sitting on the hood of the scout buggy. He felt like he had slept in his own bed despite the position he found himself in.
    When he turned his attention to the ruins, he saw that the crystals had flattened out and shrunk in size.
    "Charging your batteries. I understand." He answered to his own question before it had time to form.
    The feeling of connection then closed off.

    As Klash stood up to survey the camp site, he saw a trail of footprints leading into the dunes.
    Pico was long gone, and nowhere in sight.

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    --
    11/5/2014 1:30 PM

    ___Sec Camp___

    Light and sound discipline had to be strict for a small camp in the deep deserts of the new Sonora. Mutant and human predators from the northern wastelands constantly raided and migrated into the chemical and biological altered environment. Some of the invaders managed to get to the few remaining native enclaves, but the overwhelming multitude didn't. Their bones littered the desert from the Grande to the sunken Baja coast. Some of the survivors were captured for display -Ville Juarez had a mountain lion with six legs, a pair of runt stickies and some smaller mutant animal breeds in a public zoo- while others were rounded up for study by the scientific and medical staff in their subterranean laboratory beneath the cloverleaf. Max had been there for the medicos to take samples of skin, blood, feces, urine, tears and nail clippings when he started work for Casa Alvarez. The request for a semen sample was withdrawn after the long bodied mutant picked up the scientist by his white lab coat. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding and quickly forgotten by mutual agreement.

    The cloudless sky allowed an unobstructed view of the Aurora Mexicalis to the northwest, but it also meant that the camp was less likely to go unnoticed. Max had checked and cleaned his belt fed RPK before he started his patrol. Juarez produced ammo left a lot to be desired when compared to prewar rounds. It was dirty smelling and you had to clean your face and hands as well as your weapon after a fire fight. The powder banged properly, the sec men said, but keep a soap block in your last mag pouch for after. Max carried extra ammo instead of soap. His mostly dark honey skin didn't attract the sooty residue as much as the normal humans he kept company with, the thick armored octagonal scales blocked out all but the worst chemical rains.

    All the Gila mutants shared identical traits, the ville scientific team hypothesis stated that the chemical allele which controlled their altered genome was artificial but stabilized the mutagen the tribe were exposed to because of the war between the great powers. There were several tribes of mutants distinct to the northern Mexican territories that had similarly synthetic chromosomal markers in common. The proteins that gifted Max with the protective barrier against the poisoned and acidic environment also afforded him and his people some limited resistance to radiation as well. All of the Gila possessed an extra eyelid that kept sand and dust off their eyes, but only a few expressed prehensile tail in their first few months of development after birth- and fewer still possessed the dexterity to manipulate simple objects with the extra appendage. Max was grateful for his lack of a tail. It was not that those who had tails were considered lesser among the tribe and their human allies in Juarez, it was the fact that the tail made most chairs and wag seats inaccessible. The Motor Chief had to redesign all of the seating in the command trailer to accommodate the few mutants on his salvage crew, and sometimes they got in the way of booted feet if one wasn't careful.
    He was also grateful, doubly so at the moment, that everyone in the tribe had a quick ear and eye for details too.

    There was a rumble in the sand beneath his bare feet, instantly recognizable as the trampling thud of a lot of feet moving very fast. Max stepped further away from the camp in order to get a bearing on the source of the approaching stampede. Jackalope herd, but one larger than the mutant ever heard his people speak of. It wasn't a few hundred, this herd numbered in the thousands. The horde was closing on the migration path where the team had camped. And the mutant rabbits were definitely in a big hurry to get away from something.
    Max heard the thunderous feet and then the echoing "eep, eep, eep" of their terrified screams. He turned back to the camp and fired a single 7.62 round into the air to alert his comrades of the danger.
    "Jackalope stampede!" He yelled as loud as he could. "Flares!! Launch flares!"

    The sec man in the watch chair atop the shelter pulled the firing pin on the tube launcher, sending a bright green flare high above the raised ground where they had set camp. As Max looked over his shoulder at the hills of sand and rock behind him, it confirmed that the herd easily numbered in the low thousands. The mutant rabbits appeared as a great furry tidal surge flowing over the dunes toward the camp site.
    "Get under the wags!" Max commanded the groggy men as they exited the elevated tents. But it was drowned out by the rhythmic cascade of thundering paws on compacted desert soil.

    "Get under the wags!"
    Rodriguez and Ramone Parker rolled over the sides of their scout buggy and belly crawled underneath it for protection, they didn't need to be told what to do. The same could not be said for the other members of their party. Mike Corona tripped while exiting the shelter he had been resting in, but corrected himself and sprinted towards the light RPK machine gun mount. He hopped cleanly to the gunner station, locked in a 75 round drum and pointed the gun into the oncoming storm of fluffy destruction charging the camp. A couple of the sec team were emboldened by the action, shouldered their AKM assault rifles and opened fire in unison with the brash gunner.
    Max dove headlong into the sand, slithering beneath the scout vehicle next to Dawn.
    "They are gonna get creamed, Max," The young woman yelled at the mutant, "there's too many!"
    "I told them," Max screamed to be heard "but they couldn't hear me!"
    Corona was pacing his bursts correctly so as to not overheat the Soviet designed blaster, but all he accomplished was spending precious metal and powder. Ramone scooted to the rear and tried to signal the sec men to stop and take shelter under the armored car, but it was too late. Only the driver, Gomez, had the right idea and crawled under the heavy duty front suspension of the sec wag. The rest of the confused or frightened men had fled away from the jackalope trail in hopes of making it clear of the giant stampede, but the overwhelming numbers in the herd made the effort pointless.

    Parker watched them turn and fire defiantly before they were caught in the rush. The first man who stopped to make a stand was simply bowled over, his gurgling cries quickly stomped out of his lungs as one after another the pit bull sized mutants pounded across his body. Ramone winced in empathy as waves of long eared death pounded the poor kid into the dirt.
    The other men fared no better in the open. Some died as the first man, pummeled and crushed by the trample. One baby faced guard threw his spent rifle in a final futile gesture in time to be impaled on the twisted horns, the stone hard tips piercing his torso and face before the animal threw him in front of a pouncing wave of its kin.
    Mike Corona was splattered with blood as leaping jackalopes impacted the two who had joined him on the back of the escort wag, only the sturdy support post saved him from a large bull jackalope attempting to go over the obstacle. Realizing the impossibility of turning back the giant herd, he slid over the side and rolled into the cover under the rear section. Gomez pulled him forward to the space beneath the front wheels moments before the rear suspension collapsed.

    As the unfathomably vast herd thumped and bounded by, the Juarez scouts and the remnants of their now decimated support squad cowered in the dark for safety. The high pitched "eep" of the jackalopes as they passed drowned out any noise that the dying might have made. The dust kicked up by the herd filled the air, causing irritation to eyes and lungs. All of the survivors cursed and coughed as the last stragglers crashed through the battered camp site.

    The canvas walls of both shelters were shredded by the razor sharp horns, hanging in limp tatters as dozens of the large beasts jumped in succession. The steel support framed was battered and shook with each impact, punctuated by a panicked "eep". The post mounted RPK on the armored escort was broken after taking a dozen hits from the densely muscled jackalopes. The vehicles were rocked and impacted repeatedly. Fiberglass cracked and Dawn saw a few shattered chips of sparkling red Corvette fender flitter to the ground. The jumping bodies collided midair, one of which landed hard enough to break the Parker wags communications dish from its mountings. Gomez watched helplessly as the bodies were crushed into a paste before he was forced to look away.

    The epic herd finally passed, leaving the smashed remains of men and equipment in its wake. Max was the first one to poke his head out to survey the damage.
    Everything was smashed, including the wireless array of the escort car.
    "Sound of by names!" The mutant yelled into the settling clouds.
    "Gomez here!"
    "Rodriguez and Parker here!" Dawn called out as she helped Ramone up to his knees.
    "Corona here!"

    Max pulled himself up onto the scout buggy hood and called for the others, but no answers came. They would have to wait until the air cleared to locate the bodies.
    "Parker," Max yelled "you ever seen the likes of this before?"
    "No, never, not even in nightmares would I have dreamed such a thing."
    "Any idea what caused them to charge like that?"
    "Only one thing, Max," Ramone answered as he spit dust from his mouth, "scorpions. Must've caught them sleeping, and when panic set in there was nothing gonna stop them. Nothing any of us could have done..."

    "That's not true." It was Mike Corona, from between the wheels on the armored vehicle, "I shouldn't have tried to turn them back like that... and I got both of those men chilled. I did that."
    Nobody corrected the admission because nobody disagreed.

    A loud pop and flash sent them all diving into cover, drawing weapons as the settling detritus was bathed in an eerie orange glow from above.

    "Vasquez here." One quiet voice muttered. The five looked up to see the young sec man still hanging by his harness in the watch chair.
    "No. Fucking. Way." Dawn said in disbelief at the pure dumb luck.

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    --
    11/7/2014 10:37 AM

    ___Salvage convoy main camp___

    Mouse found a flare gun and several surgical scalpels in a white box and an emergency flashlight with a hand crank power generator on the side underneath the cot. The blue plastic had degraded some, but it had an AM/FM radio receiver. She stuffed the radio in the duffel bag Rita had pulled the change of clothing from an hour before. With the radio and a few rolls of bandages, there was enough room for the box of flares as well. Mouse ripped the wax paper wrapping off and loaded the flare gun. Tucking the signaling device into the front of her pants, she stuck her head out the door and waited for a sec man in a khaki shirt and desert camouflaged cargo pants to pass by.

    "Señor? Is that right? Its señor, ain't it?" The smiling girl raised her eyebrows and spoke in her best farmers daughter drawl. "Um... Y'all got an outhouse, hon? I don't want to distract y'all, so iffin' you could perty please point it out I'd be mighty grateful."

    The guard pointed to the temporary latrines tent a few yards past the crane trailer.
    "Thanks, darlin'," she cooed sweetly as she skipped down the slope, duffel bag on her shoulder. "I sure 'preciate y'all."

    Hark Danby watched his little actress work her magic con with throbbing admiration.
    His men were in position and knew what targets to hit or spare.

    Mouse stepped slowly past the latrines at just enough distance to see if any feet were showing under the stretched heavy plastic over aluminum tube doors. The narrow enclosure was divided into individual stalls that shared a plywood and post base that sat six inches above the the ground. Mouse saw no shoes dangling and toes tapping in any of them. She chose the farthest end stall, flipping the latch on the green plastic door after stepping in. She took a scalpel out of the plastic pencil box on top of the loot pile inside the bag and cut a slit down the back panel large enough for her to step through without any hang ups. She sat on the stainless steel seat with the cover down and started pushing the scalpels sideways through the cargo pockets folds for quick access.
    As soon as she secured the loot duffel strap across her chest, Mouse stuck her left hand out through the sliced green plastic and waved it up and down three times. The camp had calmed down since the excitement of the faux rescue earlier.


    Hark saw the signal and pushed the button on the cylindrical remote. The bandit leader had no idea how long it would take, if the device worked as he had believed, but he felt his anticipation and expectation burning hot in his brain the way gamblers minds heated when betting high stakes. Danby was ready for the big payoff.
    "Come on out, you bloodsuckers. Hope y'all like Mexican food." He whispered through a devils grin.

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    --
    11/8/2014 12:47 PM

    Hark Danby and his sociopathic gang of misanthropes had not scouted the mesa before hatching and implementing the plan. Hark just went for it. The gang had suffered the years of grinding their noses on the rock solid fortress ville, and there was a single minded madness that drove their quest for vengeance on the people of Juarez. The last few raids barely subsidized the bikers and it had degenerated their faith in Ol' Jim's successor. Hark couldn't sweat the details, so he faked a zealous fanaticism and just did what he felt Jim would do in the situation. WWJD.
    His haste deprived him of a few critical bits of information that might have changed some of the details of his plan. He probably would have placed the gang further out if he'd been aware that the crumbled face of the two mile wide mesa held four migrating colonies of the giant snatch bats. The fissure made by the tectonic chaos following the apocalypse split off a top to bottom column of the sedimentary stone, exposing a natural atrium that had been reshaped and sculpted by human hands thirty centuries before the American/Russian war. The spacious galleries and large communal halls made it a perfect hotel for the migrating giant vampire bats. It also allowed interbreeding for the different familial groups, which contributed to the stabilization of the mutant gene pool.

    When the ultrahigh pitched alarm clock went off, it took less than a minute for the sound to reach the hidden city. Hark saw the first irritated occupant flapping out of the crevasse, a black leathery nightmare with a wingspan no less than twenty feet. The sight of the monster bat froze the blood in his veins for a brief moment, and then a second mutant flew out and up from the deep shadows. After a group of five burst out into the night, the jagged face of the mesa erupted with a stream of black flapping rage.
    "Oh, shit, Sam..." Hark looked to his right hand man. "There are hundreds of 'em."
    The bandit stared at his leader and asked "You knew, right?"
    Hark blanked for a half second and replied, "Yeah, course I knew! Shut up, Sam. Be ready to go pick up Mouse and bring her right back here when I tell ya."
    Hark Danby was fighting twice as hard as before to keep up the poker face, he knew that he had bet way too much.

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    --
    11/9/2014 12:29 AM

    Mouse peeked out of the sliced heavy plastic wall in time to see Rita standing at the convoy perimeter. She had a black finished AKM slung over her shoulder and was wearing a desert khaki military cap now, her back to the latrines. Mouse slid quietly as possible through the slit, palmed a scalpel in her right hand and crept slowly behind the foot patrolling medic. Rita turned left slightly, but Mouse side stepped right and stayed in the blind spot until she was within ten yards. The cold heart relaxed her shoulders and pinched her fingers on the razor sharp blade in her cupped hand.
    "Hey, Rita. "
    Mouse was already into the step. As the raven haired medic turned, the swing was half executed. Rita had time to see the faux refugee smiling as the fingers released the metal missile.
    The scalpel point squished cleanly into Rita's left eye, causing her body to drop straight to the dirt. She was paralyzed and unable to stop staring at the starlit sky. She could hear Mouse looting her body but felt nothing, could do nothing.

    Mouse noticed the tears streaming from the eye.
    "You're one lucky girl. You know that?"
    Rita heard but could not express her disagreement.
    "You are, baby girl!" Mouse said, leaning into Rita's frozen viewpoint. "You ain't gonna feel what comes next. Hell, you might even escape gettin' chilled."
    Mouse wiped up a tear with her finger.
    "Not that you'll probably want to, seeing how you're gonna be a little brown potato from here on. You know what I mean?"
    She leaned in and kissed Rita on the brow.
    "Look, you can keep that scalpel. I got enough to spare. Besides, getting it back would end it for you... and I like you, Rita. I couldn't have done it without you and made out so well. So, thanks for the clothes, and the fancy guns and knives... oh, and thanks for your boots. I put your sandals on your feet for you, so good lookin' out. Bye hon."

    Rita could hear the steps moving away, but saw only stars and the few small clouds over her head. Her tears ran down to wet her hair, but there were no sensations.

    Rita started loosing her anger. She experienced a moment of calm. A black silhouette flew over her head, but it passed through her fixed field of vision too quick. Another dark shape passed far over her head.

    Rita herd a man scream from what felt no more than 50 yards away. The anger returned, but in a different hue than before. She was angry at herself. She heard another scream and the first eruption of automatic weapons firing. She screamed and fought in her mind, but there was no getting around what her medical knowledge told her. She knew the path the blade had taken, but couldn't put the right words into place in her mind. She saw. She heard. Rita only imagined what the sounds meant, but recognized some voices between the rattling machine guns of a ball turret, then two. The smell of blood was recognized, but in amounts greater than she wanted to imagine.

    She heard the tearing of metal, one ball turret ceased barking, then what sounded like a giant flag flapping in a strong wind. Puffs of dust and the stench of ammonia. The sky started to move, then her vision rolled to the right. Rita had a sideways view of the rock and pebble covered ground. The view moved again, dragging her gaze further into the sparse surroundings outside of the convoy ring.

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    --
    11/9/2014 1:43 PM

    Simon Alvarez leaned down and rolled into his cubicle bunk. The seven long by three feet wide bunk afforded enough head room to sit, but the Motor Chief was done with that for the day. His joints ached from too many hours of sitting in a chair. He was a more hands on leader in style than other heads of ville industry. He had to share two machine presses with the Hadron weapon smiths, Casa Guzman communication techs and then there were the Sanchez community projects. It was a very imperfect system of time sharing, but it kept people who had skills going and gave the people of the ville a much healthier life than those miserable revenants to the North.
    The cubicle walls were aluminum gray riveted panels. The Motor Chief hung his PM-63 on a set of squarish wall hooks and laid his head back on the pillow. The refugee Hector Munoz rescued was squared away until morning, Simon would give her the options after breakfast.
    He closed his eyes, they still hurt from monitor glare.
    Sleep.


    The camp had calmed, but the watch patrols kept a steady eye on the scrubland at the perimeter cast by the campfires. The coyotes must have cleared out, most animals wanted nothing to do with a large band of humans. Sec men with guns back lit by camp glow were barely visible to the bikers surrounding the circular on ramp, who were busy enough prepping pipe bombs for when all hell broke loose. The majority had torches ready to set, but nearly a third had scavenged Bic or cheaper cigarette lighters in the pockets of their vests and jackets for the festivities to come.
    Sam, Hark Danby's right hand man, knelt next to his Harley sport bike looking for the retrieval signal from his boss. He wasn't as droolie stupid as everybody in the gang thought, everyone except Hark and Mouse anyway. Sam had no desire to be gang Prez, that's why his boss put the large man in such a position of trust to begin with. Sam knew he wasn't a leader smarts man, but he had enough brains to follow orders.
    Sam stared from the shrub cover as one of the sec patrolmen walked his beat. The desert camouflage and khaki uniform matched the theme of his fellows. Sam smiled at the thought of getting his hands on one of the sturdy AKM assault blasters, or even the well maintenance Makarov pistols that the ville sec carried their hip holsters. His own Colt Navy revolver was a prewar replica, but six shots was a limitation he hoped to overcome soon as Hark let the gang take their spoils.

    Sam heard the flapping that Hark told him to expect, glanced skyward and nearly rabbited for the hills as a mass of dark brown to black wings went over his head on a direct line at the big armored box trailer with the twin RPK mounted ball turrets. Sam turned his attention back to the sec man between him and the convoy ring in time to witness the fury unleashed by the device Mouse had smuggled onto the armored command trailer. A snatch bat ,with a wing span of no less than twenty feet in width, dropped feet first onto the guard as he was reaching down to his belt canteen. As soon as the man started to scream, the thirteen inch wide mouth of the mutant vampire bat clamped around his head and neck, muffling the yelp as it tore the head from the body. Spitting the capped head to one side, the giant took the neck into its mouth and gorged on the hot blood pouring from the ragged stump coming up from the torso. Sam tried not to move a muscle, hoping that he didn't attract any of the descending swarm.

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    --
    11/10/2014 12:18 AM

    There were a few minutes of blissful nothing for Motor Chief Alvarez, his muscles were relaxed and joints decompressed, before the shooting startled him back to the horrors of the deep desert. He rolled out of his cubicle bed with his PM-63 in hand. The machine pistols were designed originally for vehicle crews, the Cuban weapon smiths had told, and commando elites. Simon Alvarez was definitely NOT a commando. He was the best mechanic in the ville and a talented fabricator, but his combat skills were scraping the bottom of average. Before he was able to stand, the trailer was rocked by a series of impacts- he counted seven.
    "What's..." Was all the Motor Chief was able to say before the explosive chatter of twin RPK turret guns cut him off.

    The communication and monitor systems were fritzing, but the mechanicals of the mobile command center guns were holding true for the time being. Venus Delgado was manning the command station, flipping power switches off then on in an attempt to reset the bashed together control systems. It wasn't working out for her. Chief Alvarez stumbled to her side and yelled for his seat. When she stood, the trailer was once again impacted. The RPK's paused only seconds for cooling.
    "Take the other gun! Go!" Simon ordered. The woman nodded once and ran to the inner facing turret. It would take precious seconds to get the door open, climb in and get the twin machine guns fire ready. Simon dove in under the control desk and started turning the knob locks to remove the access panel.

    The dual turrets roar thundered with the chattering of RPK and AKM automatic fire in the camp. The trailer rocked again, only with enough force to smash the front from the ball turret that the Motor Chief had sent Delgado to station.

    A moment later the computers rebooted, but it was too late. Already the deafening gun fire was giving way to a chorus of death cries. The trailer thumped again and sparks showered from the power controls. The outside facing turret kept barking, so the terrified Motor Chief kept working. When the short range radio came back online, the external camera system followed. Simon Alvarez turned around to see the blood blasted inner half of the damaged turret.
    He put the radio headset over his ears, but the black and white image on the monitor told him enough.
    "Mother of God.... no."

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    --
    11/10/2014 9:21 PM

    Even when things turned out good for Hark Danby, there was always some kind of karmic bitch slap soon after. He was bored by the ville life as a boy, so he considered it a lucky break at the age of thirteen when he landed a job with a well heeled scavenger crew. It was a great life, he was skinny enough to fit into the closest spaces. Two years of fighting off rats and mini mutant freaks in the rubble piles had him living with some style. The downside came on a winter crossing of a crumbling rail bridge. Hark was sent across alone, tied to a rope, to see if it was safe. When the group got halfway over the twisted structure, a horde of slobbering, fuzz covered stickies came swinging up the deteriorating supports. The gibbering mutants fell on his friends and coworkers and there was nothing he could do to save them. The gummy slime on their feet and palms was more thick in the cold, but they peeled the scavengers like onions- layer by excruciating layer- to the bones. Since they had all of the loot, Hark truly lost everything he had. His life became a series of repeating adventures: make new friends, kill stuff, scavenge loot, watch friends die at the fangs/claws/acidic farts of the mutie of the week and start over. When he met Ol' Jim and was recruited to ride for the Paso Park trailer ville, he figured the road gang was the turn in his luck. It wasn't long after that Ville Juarez was discovered by one of their raiding parties and started the slow whittle down of the membership. Tonight, he realized, it was his own karmic hammer that put the last nail in the coffin.
    As he watched the black winged mutant bats stream across the camp, he felt his confidence level out at rock bottom. It was too much, there were too many for the armed camp to fight off. His heart started pounding hard enough to make his head throb. The device remote in his left hand, he forgot about his ability to turn it off. He could only lay there under his road blankets on the sandy scrubs and watch the flock of predators dismantle the convoy crews and their armed protectors bite by skull removing bite. His pants got a little warmer and wetter when he saw the gang members, who he thought would be safe in the shadows near the light perimeter, were getting head snatched too. It brought back an old memory of scavenged juice packets he'd found on one of his scavenger outings, the kind where you had to stab the straw through a divot on the top... except the juice boxes were people with necks for straws.
    "Oh fuck me!" He exclaimed when he remembered the remote control. Hark flipped power switch to turn the ultrasonic dinner bell off, but it was far too late. Already the snatch bats had zeroed in on the source of the painful siren. A group of the larger adults, early a dozen, were battering into the ball turret covering the camp core. It took down a fair number as it thundered deafeningly with its twin on the opposite side, but that only made the enraged beasts focus their efforts on getting at the tasty morsel inside. They pried and tore away the outer half of the sphere, dragging the gunner out by her legs. Her white buttoned down shirt streaked with red as one of the beast tore her head off and feasted on the juices spurting from the neck. Three other crew from the trailer tried to make a run for the scout buggies parked across from the door they exited from, sub machine guns blazing at full auto. They were loading fresh magazines in a perfectly timed rotation while they moved, stepping as one unit, covering the next as he or she reloaded. Hark could see how these people had taken down the Paso gang now. They fought like a pack of wolves, like hero soldiers in old action vids, but it wasn't enough. They were almost to the desert outfitted wag when they ran out of mags for the stubby machine blasters, so they pulled out their pistols and knives. A pile of eight bats dropped onto them, and that was the end of the line.
    Only one thing mattered to the ville malcontent turned scav turned road ganger, getting out of this feeding frenzy with his head still attached. Or, so he thought, until he spotted Sam pop up on his sport Harley with Mouse sitting reverse saddle on the back. The blonde haired evil imp was firing flares at what appeared to be the mother of all snatch bats. Hark pocketed the remote and rose up to draw his 1911 model .45 handgun. He flipped the safety and took aim. He would wait for the right angle and only squeeze the trigger when he knew that the shot would not hit the girl.
    The bike had been crisscrossing to avoid the triple huge mutie, the flares streaking by the monster gave it plenty reason to dodge, but it was only putting off the chill that was about to come. Hark exhaled and inhaled, held his breath. The shot lined up and he fired off a single round. The .45 caliber bullet cracked loudly and hit the bullseye.

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    --
    11/11/2014 10:37 AM

    ___The remnants of the Rescue Party camp___

    Dawn Rodriguez and Ramone Parker surveyed the damage to the wags with Gomez. The scout buggy could be field repaired, but the armored escort car was beyond repair. The sec team would have to ride on the top and rear using their harnesses to tether themselves for the long haul. Max was aided by Vasquez and Mike Corona in taking an inventory of the weapons that weren't crushed by the trampling jackalope herd.
    There was one RPK light machine gun with 280 belted rounds in the ammo backpack, with another seventy or so in a box magazine. Three AKM with four full magazines each. And enough Makarov pistols salvaged for all, ten full magazines of 9 mm Makarov bullets for each.
    After setting up a makeshift sleeping platform from the two wrecked shelters, they divided the weapons. Corona would take the RPK/backpack rig, with Gomez covering him with an AKM while helping carry two heavy belts and box mag. Max had his spear and his Makarov. Parker and Vasquez were assigned the other two AKM's, and a pistol. Dawn opted to take a pair of the Russian handguns. At first light, they would try to get across the sea of dunes between them and the salvage site in the battered scout buggy. The short range was now useless, probably from magnetic interference and bad weather Max and Ramone agreed.
    There was a moment when Max thought he heard thunder, but it was too distant to worry about as yet.

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    --
    11/11/2014 12:26 PM

    ___Ville Juarez___

    Before the war between the great powers, Juarez was a thriving city that had sixteen local broadcast television channels. The city boasted more than forty AM and FM radio stations. The reclaiming effort managed to build a working communication system in the top floor of the Ville Juarez government building. While El Paso took a nuke strike which destroyed the northern edge of old Juarez and the three connecting bridges between the cities, the extreme lower end of old Juarez had minimal damage and radiation thanks to weather and relatively good fortune. The other atomic tipped warheads hit off target north and east of the border, but in a line that carved out a two hundred mile long canyon of still irradiated shattered craters between the binational metropolis' northern and southern ends. The surviving population on the southern most Mexican end was besieged by a Russian biological weapon. The desperate and frightened refugees fled to the south, circumnavigating the rad blasted capitol and population centers of the state of Chihuahua, led along back routes and off road by a police captain and his officers to a remote ranch laden valley in Durango owned by a drug lord named Juan Pablo Milagros.
    It is said that the cartel leader and his people were remarkably happy to see the SUV, jeep and APC police convoy. The valley was spared the radiation, but not the chaos. The police captain and the drug lord made a pact with the survivors, a majority of which had been skilled auto workers, for the sake of survival. There were paramedics, engineers and a small group of scientists from a joint US/Mexican lab that had joined up during the journey.
    The educated class were tasked with preserving and passing on their knowledge by hand writing it all out; when they were not busy making those skills useful, that is. Some died, leaving unfinished volumes on biology, electrical engineering and mechanics. Others, the American lab managers, deliberately omitted their specialized knowledge from the encyclopedic texts being compiled. These volumes still sat on the shelves in the steel barn converted into a library at the Durango ranch ville, but copied versions were taken along when the bulk of the descendants were forced by the last Baron of the Milagros family line into the dangerous task of reclaiming the southern end of the sand covered lost city. But it was the personal diaries of the scientists that Baron Don Eduardo Hadron had his three archivists searching for any and all references to Fort Geronimo.

    "Is there anything, ANYTHING, that gives a clue about what the Americans were doing there?" He begged of the scholar in the brown vest and silver framed bifocals.
    "No, my lord," the bookworm said, shamefully bowing his bald head, "not yet. My apologies..."
    "Damn your groveling, man. Just keep looking." The worried father was showing the signs of fatigue. Communication had ceased, and when the motorcycle scouts were sent to check out the electronic relays, they returned to report that bikers of the Paso bandit gang had smashed the housings. One of the bikers had been captured; but he only spit a steady stream of curses and bigoted epitaphs when questioned by the elite STaR interrogation officers of the ville.
    "My baron," a young woman in a jacket with leather elbow patches called out with raised hand, "I found something that might be useful."
    "Well?? What, my dear lady, does it say?" The baron was red faced and looked as cross as she had ever seen.

    "It's a letter from one of the doctors... It says, 'Dearest Carol, I pray every day that Saint Gerome's has survived in spite of the mushroom cloud that we saw from across the border. I beg that you and the others forgive us for not coming. I was voted down by Doctor Hammond and the others. Our Mexican Army escorts insist upon joining a police contingent we ran into after we abandoned the new lab south of Juarez. Every time the earth shakes, the only thought I have is for you. Are you safe in the testing bunker beneath the medical center? Has it too been destroyed by the bomb, or collapsed by the earthquakes? Not knowing your fate is too much for me. I don't want to live like this.
    The Captain assures us that the prisoner he rescued from his jail is a valued member of the cartel whose compound we are trying to reach, a cousin of the drug lord. They both claim that the remote stronghold should be a safe haven, but already we have seen barbarism and anarchy in this aftermath. I still don't know what or who started the war.Damn them! Damn us! Whoever! It doesn't matter now. I don't care. I only know that our work played into the arms race, and my shame grows more painful. Already, insects with deformity are appearing. I wonder if our mutagens are responsible, if the viral agents are responsible for the mutations that have appeared in the month since the war. Hammond and Marquez's constant obfuscation of what kind of doctors we really are has only added to the mistrust and blame that our Mexican friends are feeling towards us, rightfully so. I have taken sick, it feels like I deserve whatever this disease does...' The rest is a lot of descriptive about the journey and more apologies for abandoning this Carol and then he writes 'I hope that Maria and the other test children are in your and Angelo's care, and I pray that something from your work on gene expression will spare their lives in the hell that we helped create.'. That's all there is, my baron." Then the woman sat down and put the letter to the side of the three ring binder it came from.

    "Marvin, report, do we have any bikes that could make it to the fort and..." Eduardo Hadron lost his words.

    "No, Don Eduardo." the older Don answered. "The only vehicles capable of making the trip are all with my Simon and the convoy. There is nothing to do but wait and pray."

    "I understand. Then we will send ten bikes to your son, we can rescue him at least."

    "I'm sorry, my friend. I will not send them, not even for my own son. Too many dangers surround us and we need them to be our eyes. Bandit saboteurs attacked our listening posts with improvised explosives, and the fall magnetic storms have come early... the radio channels are all static once you go a mile from the walls. All of our resources are stretched to their limit." Don Alvarez said with the weight of loss in his voice.

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    --
    11/11/2014 3:13 PM

    ___The Convoy Camp___

    Sam looked over his shoulder for any kind of signal from Hark, but saw only dried brush and cactus forks where his Prez was watching from. He was sure good at ambush, Sam thought, just follow orders. The thirty-one year old biker was a full six years older than his boss, but he gave total loyalty to the only man besides Ol' Jim who didn't talk to him like a child. He used to get picked on by the other guys, and most of the women, before Prez Danby made them stop by decree. He could even get laid free in the gaudy trailers in Paso Park. Hark gave him the big responsibility, which triple plussed his feeling of importance, of keeping the double wide Prez trailer orderly. Hark and Mouse were always in the master suite anyway, so it was not too much cleaning. There was a solar system on top to charge the battery set for the swag lamps come dark, and a PlayStation with kids games that Ol' Jim had scored for Mouse when she was a little girl. Mouse gifted it to Sam when he started and told him he could play in the afternoon after his important duties were completed. Sam loved his bosses, and they treated him good. There was nothing he wouldn't do for them.
    That's why he didn't hesitate to kick on his "hog" and run straight and fast when he saw Mouse waving her arms. The meth Hark gave him made him feel a strange calm despite the nightmares he was watching moments before.
    "Plan change, Mouse!" He yelled, but the noise of the bike and all the guns going off drowned his attempt.

    Mouse ran to the bike and rider backwards while firing at the juvenile snatch bats that were chasing her. She had never fired an AKM before, but was getting the hang of it quickly. She emptied the magazine clipping their wings right as Sam pulled up. Mouse slung the newly stolen weapon across her back and drew a flare gun from under her shirt. Sam shut off the engine to tell her the news.
    "Hark said change of plan, bring you back!"
    "No shit." Mouse laughed as she reverse straddled the rear of the seat. "Go, Sam! You done great! Go!"


    The squeal of the juvies alerted a very large elder bat, who closed fast on the two humans zig zagging through the scrubland on their machine. The human on the back leaned well with the turns to stay upright. As the great mother bat got almost close enough to bite into the skinny blood bag, the human held a cylinder in the air that sent a bright green fireball toward her face. The burning star of blinding light hit right between her eyes. Searing pain sent her head first into the dirt, but she was up and giving chase in a few heart beats. The cylinder wielding human was doing something with its hands. The elder female swooped down from higher angle, this time going feet first to the desert sand when the humans slowed and then turned in another direction. She was airborne and flapping her great wings faster, level to the ground and gaining speed.
    The noise of the feeding colony and the thunder of the prey fighting back filled the air. She hated the stink of the weapons these things used, especially the burning smoke that the skinny human fired at her again. This ball of burning pain missed but forced her to pull up, robbing her of the momentum. She circled wide this time. There was a third human, the prey was going toward it, who had been hidden before. As she closed, the new human pointed a hand at the others and something boomed loudly. The larger human on the front of the noisy machine jerked and fell over. The blood smell came, strong and hot. The new one jumped on the machine as the skinny one turned around. The machine roared once again and left the human who was bleeding from the skull. It was not going to be wasted on the dry rocks, the snatch bat decided to take the meal for her troubles. The skinny one didn't have enough blood to feed an adult anyway. It was the humans problem now, let that foolish one dodge the fireballs from the poor meal. The heart of the fallen one beat still, its body was hot and healthier than most of the humans at the edge of this herd.

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    --
    11/12/2014 11:44 AM

    Hector Munoz and Jen Gutierrez were bunked in a tent with four other ville security men, and the two women in Sanchez brown cover alls who had operated the digging machine to dig the camp latrines. The steel tube supports crisscrossed through pinned in brackets. The stacked bunks were sturdy steel rebar and canvas construction, held tight and secure to the corner posts by the same bracket and pin system that kept the heavy duty shelter together. There were thick plastic sheets with closure snaps on the outside walls and roof, in case of acid rain. The green bulb in the hooked in shop lamp cast a dim glow to see around, but it didn't keep anyone awake. It shed enough light for Hector to clean the AKM, it got a bit sooty when he rescued the farm girl from the two dirty savages earlier. It wasn't too bad, but Hector knew how the ville ammo could stink up a weapon. After a few days, the carbons and pig fat smells would build up and cause jams in the action. Hector preferred his .38 cal S&W police side arm and scavenged prewar rounds to the 9 mm pistols that the ville issued to sec men and work crews. The revolver was a simple design compared to the slick looking Soviet guns, a lot easier to maintain and clean.
    Jen had been the one he hauled to the Big Garage the night before, he recognized her now. She wore a patch on her sleeve of a ball turret gunner, and that won his respect instantly. It took a lot cajones to climb into those death traps, Hector knew. He smiled and nodded, then reassembled the cleaned and oiled AKM as quiet as possible before bedding down. Jen was already asleep like the others. Hector soon followed. The canvas had enough leg room to really stretch out. Hector slept face down, his legs and ass were sore from the long hours of driving. He felt a few twitching cramps, but it took only a minute for it to stop.

    The rest was short lived.


    Twenty minutes? A half hour? Jen could not tell how much time had passed- she was hard sleeping when the booming AKM's of the Juarez camp started exploding from one side to the other- but she knew it wasn't enough. The four sec men left her and the scout driver to look out for the two construction workers, who were only packing the industrial orange handled model Makarov. Hector was quick, AKM ready and kneeling in front of a closed window flap. Jen got her act together quick, shouldering hers to cover the door.
    "What's going on, scout?" Jen demanded of the only person in the tent with perspective on the fight.
    Hector wore the mask of a funeral mourner, the flashes of the inward facing turret gun reflected on his wide cheekbones.
    "Don't move, don't speak," he said only loud enough, his eyes revealed the seriousness of the situation, "and do NOT fire your weapons or we are dead."
    Hector pulled the chem shields and drew the three women slowly to the center of the diamond cut pattern paint dipped aluminum center board. He put his finger up to point at the blankets on the bunks. He nodded and grabbed it, gesturing toward them. They quietly pulled the blankets, one of the Sanchez workers started to tear up because the screams between the auto fire told her who was winning. The scout took the blankets one at a time and hung them on the eight cross sections that met at the center pos of the boxy shelter.
    "We have to try not to be seen, or heard, or smelled." Hector explained the rules. "Calm down, sweat has a smell like fear. They can smell blood, piss and your body odors. We all had showers?"
    The women nodded the affirmative. Hector sniffed their hair quickly and then produced a leather pouch about the size of a deck of cards.
    "I grew up in Durango, in Rancho Ortega, our ancestors called them Camazotz. We have a few weeks of the year when snatch bats come. Never this many, it's as if every one in all of Mexico has arrived. We burn the powder from ammo with this, equal parts." He said as he pulled out a clay incense burner with a plastic bag full of dried plant leaves.
    "Is that sage?" The teary eyed woman asked as she wiped her cheeks.
    "Si, and dried guano from the iguana farms. It will mask our scents." Hector almost spoke too loudly, one of the ball turrets took the last train west with the gunner right behind. The gunfire decreased by the time he dumped a handful of the herbs into the burner. The screams continued, the other turret barking still and then there was the smell of blood finally growing strong enough to be noticed in with the filthy gun powder smoke.
    Hector pulled a pair of ringed tools from the pouch next and used it to carefully twist open bullets from the canvas ammo bag over his shoulder. It didn't take many.
    He produced a purple and white lighter with a faded sticker from his pants pocket.
    Setting the plate next to the post, Hector waved the women closer.
    "Take a deep breath and hold it until I say." He said before inhaling deeply. The lighter flicked twice before the little blue and yellow flame appeared. He touched a piece of paper, which flashed briefly and ignited the mixture.

    The herbs and powder burned quickly, sending up a billowing grayish white cloud. Their eyes watered at the irritating smoke and the smell of the sage stuck strongly. After ten long seconds, the Durango born scout opened the blanket wall before exhale.
    Jen wiped her eyes with a finger.
    "We don't go out unless they come in. We stay silent, we live."

    The last ball turret ceased thundering. A few moments later they heard the flapping more than the guns. There was what sounded like a motorcycle approach, but the rider must have turned back upon seeing the massacre going on.

    The automatic gunfire stopped soon after, only a few pistol shots and AKM bursts interrupted the death cries. Then there were only flapping noises, liquid sounds. The wind carried the smell of battle away, leaving the stench of blood to fill the the night air.

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    --
    11/12/2014 10:26 PM
    The monitors screens shook in time to the twin RPK's beat. Motor Chief Alvarez took in the flickering images. He saw the expedition crew and escorts being torn apart, heads from shoulders. He recognized the foes. He had hunted and killed them before, when his father took him to Rancho Alvarez as a teenager. It was the unbelievable number of the mutants that shook his courage. There were just so many!

    There was a report he had read in the baronial almanac, published on wood pulp paper in newspaper format on a museum piece press, that a team of three neo-biologist from the small Durango ranch villes had done a study three seasons ago. Based on trader reports and iguana rancher accounts, they theorized that there might be a few colonies of thirty or more that migrated from the western Yucatán up to as far northeast as what was once the U.S. /Mexican border. Nobody had witnessed anything close to what was playing out on live feed vid. Simon saw a few scout buggies being picked apart by the swarming mutants, the poor souls inside torn limb from limb by the feasting monsters. The left side turret was drowning out the screaming when it roared, the camera showed bats swooping into the rolling path of fire torn open as the twin RPK's unzipped their thick fur.
    The feed from the right side CCTV system had been mostly cut, save for the front right view. Simon could extrapolate from what he saw well enough. He watched the Juarez fighters run out from shelters, guns blazing at the overwhelming giant snatch bat hordes, only to get pummeled by the diving predators dropping on them from the dark desert sky. He saw their courageous last stands, and their terrified faces as the large maws closed around their heads. He pushed the send button on the short range comms mic.
    "Get out of here, get to a wag, just go! Anyway you can!" He announced over the convoy general channel. Then he turned to the two trailer crew that were loading ammo for the turret guns. "Who's in the bird cage?"
    "The new guy from the Sanchez gates, Gutierrez, Chief." The young man answered.
    "Jimenez, right?" The Motor Chief walked swiftly to him and started pounding on the turret door. "Hold fire, Gutierrez! Hold fire! Out, now!"

    The man in the turret stomped the pedal lock and leaned the seat back, Alvarez and the crew tech helped pull the gunner out.
    "Here, take my gun. Take it!" The Chief said, shoving the black PM-63 into his hands. "Trade ya, brother. Look, squeeze once lightly for burst firing and hold tight for full auto. You gotta cover one another, burst fire only, and get to the scout wag in front of us. It looks undamaged. Get back to Juarez, don't stop to rest until you get there. I'm going to cover you from the turret, use my line of fire to get out." Simon handed the gunner his magazine pouches. "Go!"

    The two crewmen and the wall sec gunner, their weapons at the ready, stood in front of the exit. "Tell my father that I'm sorry." He added before throwing open the door.

    As soon as they were out, he slammed it shut and sprinted to the ball turret. It wasn't easy for him to get his chubby frame through the door. He didn't bother with the safety harness, just in case he had to get out. His foot flipped up the lock brake pedal and began firing at the snatch bats, it was hard to miss so many. He could hear the bursts from the three PM-63 RAK's, the higher pitch 9mm Makarov rounds chatter was unmistakable with the louder, deeper report of the 7.62×39mm cartridges of the RPK and AKM that the sec men and scouts were issued before the convoy left home. The Motor Chief could tell by the sounds that they were executing his instructions with precision timing.
    He could tell they were close to their goal, so he leaned back to get a peep at the camera feed. They only had about ten yards to go. He felt like it had been worth it, if they made it. A pair of leathery wings wrapped around the front of the turret, Simon turned his head in time to hit the triggers as the monster tried to bite down on the RPK. The head exploded with blood and teeth flying as the light machine guns tore through the brains and thick boney skull.
    "Yeah! Come and get some!" The chubby mechanic howled with delight. His celebration cut short when he leaned forward in the bubble. He saw the trio pulling their pistols and boot knives.
    "No," he screamed at the bats as he tried to walk his fire to cover them, but they wete just out of reach. "come after me, you bloodsucker mutie freaks!"
    He could see the dog pile cover the three in mere seconds, knew that they were lost.

    Alvarez pushed the triggers and strafed the few bats in his view. Then there was a shrill squeal of metal behind him. They tore away the door and were trying to fit through the narrow entry. Simon drew his Makarov and started firing from the turret hatch as a juvenile tried to squeeze into the trailer. The 9mm bullets punched neat holes in the nose, eyes and head of the blood thirsty mutant, spraying gore on the electronic panel behind it. It did not dissuade the half dozen that came in behind it. He slumped down into the chair and pulled the hatch closed. He had one round in his front pocket. It had been stamped by his own hand with the letters 'VCD'. He pulled it loaded it into his pistol magazine and chambered the special round. The young bats were trying to open the round cage up, but they had not nearly the strength needed.
    He could smell ammonia in their fur, the fetid blood on their breath.
    He started to pray for forgiveness, for his past sins and the one he was considering now.

    He put the barrel to his forehead.
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    --
    11/13/2014 1:14 PM

    The crack of the .45 made Mouse jump. She felt Sam jerk behind her, his body sliding off the bike. Her legs compensated for the weight of the bike while she turned her head to the right. Hark Danby holstered his Model 1911.
    "I'm sorry, Sam." The bandit said as he straddled the bike. "I truly am."

    Mouse turned around once her Prez had the sport bike secure. She looked down at the wound Sam took. "Oh, baby! That was so sweet of you, he won't even know the way you brained him. You're a kind heart, Harker Danby."

    The bullet had done an effective lobotomy, Sam had left the building. Hark kicked the engine over as Mouse admired the shot one last time. "I'll miss you, Sam."

    The bike took off as Mouse glanced over her shoulder. The angry snatch bat took the sacrifice, breaking its pursuit to feed on the blood pumping from the big heart in Sam's chest. A heart so big that he would have volunteered to be the bait, she figured, but Hark didn't want the man to suffer. That was a hard call, and she was glad that her man was hard enough to make it. It made her love him more.
    The Harley sped away, with Mouse wrapping her arms around the hips of its driver. His stomach felt warm to her hands, and she couldn't help the arousals stirring in her as the bike engine growled beneath her seat. She kissed his shoulder and bit his leather jacket. Her fingers crossed his pelvis and then felt along his fly.

    "Baby," she yelled over the engine noise, "did you piss your jeans?"
    Hark didn't skip a beat in answering, "Yeah, to throw off the muties from our scents."
    "Of course! Want I should do it too?"
    "No! No, darlin'. I think we shook 'em off good."

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    11/13/2014 5:54 PM

    In the claustrophobic confines of the ball turret, Simon heard the metal mountings of the trailer walls popping. Riveted panels groaned and creaked, reverberating inside the mobile command center. Within the bouquet blending of ammoniated body odor and blood tainted halitosis from the bats, the chemical smell of burning plastics rose slowly to prominence. The juvenile and young adult bats had done a real number on the electronics racks of repurposed prewar home computers and televisions. The radio system was severed from the power grid when the passenger side turret was torn in half. The Motor Chief wasn't too worried about the fire, the fire retardants in the overhead pipes were run on a segregated power supply. The invading mutants, however, soon picked up on the scent.
    The three snatch bat juvies stopped picking on the turret when sparks turned to flame, their fearful screeches crying out as the first licks of fire started peaking from the control panels behind them. The large adults outside started flapping about, ramming the hung plate armor from outside. Simon started to smile.
    "Yes, come get your kids before they cook!" The chubby mechanic and engineer warned."What kind of parents are you? Don't you hear..."

    Chief Alvarez stopped when he saw the black talons of a pair of bats tapping and scratching the edge of the turret oculus.
    "The mounts! Hold on, let me pull them!" He yelled through the steel vent next to the twin RPK light machine guns. "Why am I talking to bats? Santos on the ropes!"
    Simon pulled out a ratchet from his belt and a socket set that he had in the right side cargo pocket of his desert camouflage pants. He leaned the gunners chair back and crouched with his lower back and rear jammed against the birdcage front. There was a bolted down steel plate with yellow and black diagonal line paint at the chair base. The juvenile mutants were pushing one another to get to the door as the smoke and vapors from the cooking electronics irritated their eyes and noses. The colony adults tore at the antenna recesses and vent covers on the roof, smashed the armored trailer and started to tear open the seams of the rectangular enclosure. Simon found the right socket for the bolts and put his considerable strength to the ratchet. The bolt gave and he it had out in only a couple of seconds, moving on to the second one immediately. That moment, the heat from the smoldering media racks set off the fire alarm and suppression system. The foam rained out all sides of the old elementary school sprinkler heads sticking down from the ceiling pipes. The young snatch bats stopped squealing for a whole two seconds, about the same time that Simon had pulled the danger striped cover plate free. The chem and soapy bath made the trapped mutant adolescents shriek in deafening disapproval.
    "Relax! I got this!" He assured them.

    The red tag on the steel ring was crumpled up as the Chief wrapped his fingers around it. Simon got his other chubby hand into the exit assist bar and pulled with all of his might. The thick mountings around the turret all released with a loud ping. The ball slid and squeaked slightly, every bat on the roof and drivers side of the ravaged trailer scrambled over one another get at it.
    "Ok... Ok, take it easy! Pull the ball out! Pull the ball out, yes!" He could have sworn some part of them understood he was trying to help them. He really hoped that they did.
    A group of four big elder female bats gathered around the turret and grabbed the edges of the trailer walls, a full grown male -it had wings that Simon guessed were bout twenty five feet from tip to tip- dropped onto the turret, clamping its clawed feet through the gun ports. As the the big male used his great leathery wings to pull up, the even larger female snatch bats shoved the ball until it flipped off its attachments and rolled out from the wall.
    "Wait! I'm not strapped in!" Simon pleaded in the chair, bracing himself just before the turret went face down onto the wind exposed highway ramp with a loud thud. The impact threw him from the chair, but he held on to the head supporter with his arms. The shifting weight sent the spherical birdcage rolling out, a few feet away from the trailer where the juvie monsters came blundering from the hole. One of the younger bats crashed into the ball turret with enough force to send it spiraling over the edge of the raised ramp, its occupant cursing angrily as it rolled down the steep slope and into the dark desert night.

    The colony stomped around on the the bodies, pushing blood from headless necks and torn off limbs. The juveniles who had been in the trailer rolled and bathed in the last squeezings of life. The camp was strewn with decimated corpses and wrecks of the vehicles, some of the frightened salvage team and scouts tried to hide from the enraged giants. The colony of snarling mutants left a few tent shelters standing, one of which had four terrified survivors crouching behind a barrier of smoking herbs and expertly hung blankets, as it took wing to return to the lost city hidden in the mesa crevasse. Their flapping take offs kicked up a cloud of dust and other particles, like a fog billowing up all around at once. In minutes, the last stragglers were following save for the largest of the females.


    The great mother of the colonies picked her claws along the underside edge of the destroyed rectangular box. She remembered the spot where the painful sounds came from, she was able to sense where it was when the colony arrived. The screaming stopped shortly after. There it was, her talon picked it out of the hiding spot and it lay on the ground. The great mother slapped it away in disgust, sending the wretched little thing skipping into the dirt. It was dead, perhaps killed by one of kin when the frenzy began. She spread her massive wings and flapped up with a leap, back to the comfort of the colony roost.

    A few minutes later, a lone figure in a hooded long, brown robe stepped out of the scrubland. The man was tall, six feet and then some, and took long strides as he walked to the device that the bat mutant had been poking at before. His face remained in shadow except for his jaw, which reflected the setting moon along its metal edge as he bent to pick up his property. The sleeve pulled back from his hand, revealing a row of three round scars on the wrist with metal plugs sprouting from their centers.
    His nails looked thick, plastic almost, as he examined his toy for damage. Outside of a few scratches were the snatch bat picked at it, it looked no worse for wear. The man put the white and silver gadget into a pocket inside the robe and turned back to the spot where he had come from. There was a black disc with a dim red light on top sitting an inch above the ground, just large enough for the imposing hooded man to stand on. He stepped onto the platform and the light brightened. If anyone in the tent had bothered to look, they would have been stunned at the sight of the man disappearing as if he had fallen straight down a jackalope hole.
    The smell of the bats kept all the other predators away for the rest of the night. Even the tiny brained scorpions had the good sense to not screw with the bats.

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    --
    11/14/2014 2:58 AM

    ___Forty miles North, an hour and a half later___

    The desert was getting the cool air at night earlier than usual this year. Hark Danby had always wanted to try going South with the birds, but getting caught out in the open by the chemical and acid rains was very likely. He also heard about thick bands of radiation, poisoned ash wastes and cannibals. Nope, not on bikes, Hark decided. He'd been hoping to hijack some traders for their covered rides; but it seems that those people were in an arms race with the bandits, pirates and bikers of the Deathlands the last few years, and purely motorcycle riding gangs were getting their asses handed to them. Not that hitting the big villes was any less suicidal. Fire Talkers also carried the news of a one eyed man and his merc crew who wiped out bandits and barons alike. He wanted to get the hell out of the hellscape. Maybe, he pondered, if they could loot some rain and chem gear, a good tent perhaps? Just him and his psychotic pixie?
    Mouse interrupted his gear turning with a scream.

    Hark saw him, The Freak, impossibly there. Even from Mouse's point of view the man stood up out of no where. Hark turned away to avoid him, passing a good ten yards to the left of the tall man under the brown hood.
    "Where in the shock did that asshole come from?" Hark yelled. He picked his speed up.
    "He wasn't there then he just was, baby," Mouse said, arms wrapped around his waist, "I don't know what that was, but it ain't right."

    Mouse glanced back over her shoulder, but saw nobody there.
    Then Hark yelled "Hold on!" and made a hard turn to the right. Mouse saw a gloved hand pass inches from her face. It was the Freak! She watched him drop out of sight as the bike crested over a dune.

    "Hark, what's going on? How'd he do that? What is he..."
    "I don't know and we ain't gonna stop to find out." Hark asserted.

    Life, Harker Danby knew all too well, was full of weird moments that were best left alone sometimes. This was one of them, of that he had no doubt.
    "Not tonight, freak," he yelled with a chuckle, "not tomorrow and never again!"
    The cacti and other scraggly growths had a divide through them, about the width of two cars, cutting in an even line on a roughly north/south axis that Hark saw despite the darkness. A road! It was overblown by sand and rough from a hundred years of neglect, but it was a road no less. Hark was about to tell Mouse to hold tighter and open the throttle when he saw a gray and white blur ahead of them coming head on, then two more behind it .
    "Radfire!" He managed to yell before he had to brake to turn. The bike went into the scrubs and Hark stopped the engine. "It's a 'lope trample, and there's a big herd coming. You got any flares left in that bag?"
    "I got two." Mouse said while pulling out a wax paper wrapped flare with a parachute symbol on it. She tore the paper open and slid the flare out. The red and orange painted launcher was loaded in a split second. "Here comes the sun, darlin'."

    The flare popped, flew straight up, then the parachute opened and the desert lit up with an eerie green luminescence in all directions. Hark saw the ears of the herd now, maybe a dozen total, and they were heading south on what he had assumed was one of the lost highways of the wasteland. The large grazing mutants were coming fast.
    Hark drew his .45 and shot one round into the air, warning the jackalopes of his presence. The ploy worked. The herd gave them a comfortable birth as it passed.

    Hark decided to head due North, they would use an old canyon robbed of its river by the tectonic changes brought by the big chill a century before. He had herd tales of a trader group who used a cave there as a fuel and ammo storage.
    "There's a trading outpost about a days ride north." He told Mouse in a very sober tone. "We can trade that AK for enough fuel and food to get us somewhere better."
    "We ain't gonna go back to Paso Park? What about our double wide, baby, and our stuff?"

    Hark thought about it for a few seconds before the gears started turning.
    "Okay, we will have to go back and get it after dark after most of the ville is asleep. Creep in quiet and creep out quiet."
    "Quiet as a mouse, baby." She promised.

    "Bah! Your idiot banter is nausea inducing!" A deep voice boomed loudly behind them. The startled bikers fell over each other trying to get away, but he was right on top of them. They both drew on the robed man, but he swatted the guns out of their hands with amazing speed. His hands struck like steel and both of them winced and cried out as their guns flew off into the dirt.
    "You have my remote. Give it to me now!" The Freak demanded, his black eyes shining from within the hood. "Give it to me or die!"

    "Whoa there, alright? I got it here." Hark cautiously said as he reached into the pocket of his leather riding jacket. He quickly handed the cylinder over and asked "You want the box? It's in the saddlebag of the bike."

    The Freak nodded and Mouse pulled out the silver toned case to give the terrifying figure what he wanted. " Here, we don't want nothing to do with it. What ever deal you made with my dad, that's all..."

    "Almost completed." The deep voice told her. "The test was successful. You may go for now. I will tell you when I find need of you again."
    Hark tried to let the man down easy, but the Freak told them in plain terms that they had no choice in the matter. He informed that they would be going to a place a half days ride west of their current location in the salt flats. When Hark asked about fuel, the Freak told him that he would be provided for. The hooded man produced a fuel can of alcohol based fuel for the bike. Hark and Mouse knew not to argue, that would get them both chilled. It was unhealthy to go against the Freak, Ol' Jim had been clear of that before his untimely demise.

    The robed mystery man reminded them what failure to obey would mean and stepped away to the shadow of a forked cactus. Then he was gone again.
    "Do what he says, baby, please." Mouse begged. "If we do then we can get it over with."

    Hark looked east at the first glowing auras preceding the sun started to show.
    "That's what I'm afraid of, darlin'." Hark said softly. "That's what I am very afraid of."
    Mouse clung to him as the sky started to glow at the horizon. Hark wished he knew the details of what Ol' Jim had agreed to before, and what his plan was, as he filled up the fuel tank . Mouse retrieved the tools of their trade and discovered that the Freak had left three magazines for the empty AKM hung across her back and a plastic wrapped box of prewar .45 rounds for Harks Model 1911. The sooner this was over, she opined, the sooner the two of them could go back to humping like jackalopes in the master bedroom of the Prez trailer.

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    --
    11/14/2014 1:50 PM

    ___The Parker wag___

    Vasquez and Max were topping off the row of temporary graves with crosses of wire bound aluminum tubing. The survey team would probably send one of the technical sec wags to return the bodies to their families in Juarez, after the convoy arrived at the Fort Geronimo site. The torn canvas shelter walls were used to wrap the heads and faces of the fallen comrades, their bug juice soaked bedrolls served as burial shrouds. Dawn Rodriguez wrote an exacting location report and drew a detailed map to the graves. Gomez and Ramone used the tow chains on the buggy to pull the escort wag to the side of a steep dune before covering it with camouflage netting, the back filled with broken weapons and equipment. The salvageable platform pieces were laid across the hood in sorted stacks, the people of the ville were taught from birth to waste nothing.

    The sun had been up for two hours, and the cooler northern winds were ahead of schedule. It was a bad sign, they all knew. They needed to get ahead of the problem, pronto. Vasquez said a prayer for the dead and then it was time to move out. With the space in the rear of the passenger cabin increased by the- now useless- shelter being left behind, Vasquez and Gomez could sit on the floor against the storage boxes and ammo crates. It was better, Peter Vasquez agreed with Juan Gomez, than being tethered to the top of the salvage box cover outside with the gunner and the mutant. The old Humvee cabin had been low rider chopped, but there was plenty of head room if you were on the floor.
    The cracked passenger side front fender had a chunk missing, smashed out by the glancing impacts from panicked jackalopes, large enough to see the welded iron plate underneath the fiberglass Corvette shell. The group had recovered enough food tins and fuel from the broken axle escort wag, hopefully enough ammunition as well. They would have to ration the water carefully, but Max and the scouts told the other men that the desert cacti held water if it came down to it. The Gila mutant cautioned them, however, that there were was a carnivore cactus that fed on blood. Parker and Rodriguez confirmed the frightening description with details about circles of drained corpses around the mutant plant/animal hybrids being the warning sign to look out for.

    After going over the route a final time, Max climbed up on the iron covered cargo box and gave Mike Corona a hand up. Peter and Juan passed the RPK and ammo pack up before climbing into the rear of the cabin. Ramone took first drive duty, with Dawn spotting for trouble from the front passenger seat. After snapping a short bungee to the light machine blaster, Mike Corona sat down facing the rear and hooked up a tether to his harness. Max sat facing forward with his spear across his lap then hooked his safety harness to an iron ring that was welded to the vertical roll bar that protected the rear of the loot storage access if the wag over turned. A heavyweight plastic tarp was rolled up and tied along the thick tubing, which provided the long bodied mutant a more comfortable back support than expected. Mike gave the roof a double tap. Ramone turned the ignition and they were soon headed West into the sea of dunes.
    They kept the jackalopes trail on their right, averaging thirty miles an hour. They saw a hunting pack of six giant scorpions feeding on jackalope in a large depression. Dawn wanted to hit the mutant bugs with the top mounted RPG-7, but she was over ruled. There was one mission, find the lost scouts. Revenge was not on the menu.

    The double set of off road tires powered through the dust fine sand, throwing up a wide cloud behind them. The sun was still working its way upward when they came across a comms relay left by Klash a couple of days before. The plastic housing had been cracked open and solar battery had been pulled, the antenna was ripped off and there were a lot of knife or tool marks on the boards. Saboteur, something the barony was used to. What stood out of the normal was that the footprints started from nowhere and went back to the same spot of nowhere.

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    --
    11/15/2014 12:10 PM

    Mike stood lookout from on top of the heavy cargo cover of the scout wag. The bashed together vehicle looked ridiculous, he thought, but it motored through the terrain of the desert better than any of the Baja style trucks and buggies built by the Alvarez garage. The Motor Chief had been meticulous in keeping the uniformity of the baronial fleet because of the scarcity of quality metals and limited production ability of the ville. The technicals, barely armored small trucks with raised suspensions and large off road tires, and the Baja style scout buggies were easily serviced by design. Most structural parts (including the body panels and armor plate) were designed to be interchangeable, making repairs in the field a lot faster. There was a stack of battle reports, from the ville combat mechanics who participated in the border wars with hostile mutant tribes and bandit camps, that lauded the uniform system for making their job a lot easier. Mike looked down at the Parker Special and felt an almost dread when he tried to imagine having to repair the wag in the middle of a fight. Still, it had a lot of power and survived the beating from the stampede.
    "We are so nuked." Mike said to himself. The sand and dust was growing more pale by the mile, and turned to a white blur in the direction the buggy was headed. It was close to noon and the desert sun was beating down like a hot iron fist.

    "So, anybody else think that is crazy?" Dawn asked, but didn't allow time for an answer. "So, okay, you are talking Led Zeppelin One? An airship? Really, bros?"
    The dark curls of her hair swung in the breeze as she cocked her head sideways and stared at the disappearing tracks. "Like some shit from that Jules Verne book at the library? You guys got into my stash when I was making the map report. Airship. Get the fuck out of here with your airships. Who the fuck in this rad blasted world has an airship? You idiots may as well said space aliens."

    Max defended the theory that Vasquez and Ramone had concocted. "It is better than birdmen. They are just a legend."

    "What's better, chica?" Ramone asked of his partner. "Do you have a better explanation?"

    "No."

    Juan Gomez piped in. "What if it was a... Like the... Helicopter? I think they could do it with a helicopter, right?"
    Everyone looked at him for a second and considered the explanation.
    Max shook his head and pointed at the foot prints. "Those are from a very large man, a heavy man," the muscular mutant explained, "but a helicopter would kick up sand enough to bury the tracks. The tire and foot imprints from the scouts are still visible. A hot air balloon is feasibly possible, a baron in even the most backwater ville could pull that off."
    "But," Peter Vasquez interjected, "a balloon couldn't hold position that long without a crew of men on the ground to hold it."
    "Exactly! So that means an airship." Ramone reasserted.

    "Hey." Mike Corona called to them.

    "Okay, so Jules Verne it is." Dawn conceded to the middle aged scout. "We will go with that. Now, we are left with the motive. Why do this?"
    "Maybe somebody hates technology." Peter suggested.

    "Not if they have an airship, be kind of stupid." Dawn shot the idea down.

    "Hey." Mike repeated louder.

    "I think," Max told the scouts and sec men, "that it is somebody who doesn't want anyone poking around in their yard."
    Dawn smiled at that before responding. "So, like a grumpy old man, but he has a zeppelin to cruise the chem filled skies in. He doesn't like cellular radio tech and..."

    "Hey, assholes!" The machine gunner yelled again. "Get up here now!"

    Max was the first to the buggy, his long torso and limbs gave him a climbing advantage and he was able to help the others up quickly. The cargo cover got crowded with Dawn and Ramone joining them.
    "What is it?" Vasquez asked.
    Mike Corona pointed to the west, passing the binoculars to the tall mutant. Max peered through the lenses and handed them to Dawn. Dawn squinted, her expression was hard to interpret for the two sec men on the ground. Ramone had a telescoping spy glass of his own.
    "Carrion birds." Mike said. "Something or somebody got chilled out there."

    "Alright, let's go make sure it's not who we are supposed to rescue." Max told the comrades in arms. Everyone nodded before hopping down and taking their spots. Max snapped his tether and nodded to the gunner, who double tapped the roof near the RPG-7 mounts. Ramone checked the dash indicators before putting the buggy in gear, the double rear tires dug in and away they rolled.
    The sun was hitting the mid day mark, and soon the group would have to start looking for shelter from the afternoon heat.
    Brightening sands reflecting the light blurred the horizon where the birds had been spotted, they were just black specks in the binoculars. As the buggy ran over the dunes, kicking off dust plumes to the air, there was a bit of salt in the breeze that only Max could taste for several miles. It took time before the others detected it.
    "Salt?" Mike asked. "We near an ocean already?"
    Max shook his head. "No, but the ocean took a vacation inland during the war, it left plenty of salt behind as a gift."
    "That was nice of it." Mike joked.
    "Not to the locals. Word is the steam and water flash boiled on both coasts. Some said it was the bombs, others said it was volcano lines under the water." Max leaned back on the thick plastic tarp as he spoke. "Either way, it killed most everything and made whole areas unlivable. Rads, chems all mixed into the salts, no crops grow."
    "Yeah," Mike understood. "I can imagine."



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    --
    11/16/2014 12:51 AM

    ___Ft. Geronimo___

    Klash jogged with his SVD slung over his back, carrying the AKM that Pico left sitting on the shelter deck. The prints were hours old, already half covered by the dust and sand blown by the desert winds. The prints started off going east and then there was a second set of prints that appeared next to his. Klash slowed to a walk, shouldering the AKM at the ready. The two sets of prints continued for another sixty yards, up to the top of a flat dune.
    The man who followed must have said something or made a noise, Pico had stopped and turned. There was no sign of a struggle. None of it made sense to Klash. How long, the young man wondered, had they stood there talking friendly before the stranger felt confident enough to approach the Cuban scout? Why did Pico accompany the stranger only six more steps before both sets of footprints stepped into nothingness?
    "Where?" Klash said to himself.
    He pulled out his prewar binoculars, put them to his eyes and started scanning the desert for any other new tracks. There was no sign of his missing friend or the mystery man who had spirited him away. The eye gave him no more clues, but there were his other senses too. It was time to let his hair down, as his mother liked to say.

    Klash closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, letting his chin drop down as he relaxed the mental wall that he used to shut out the powerful signals that the thick sensor hairs on the base of his skull constantly picked up. It could get you chilled, the baroness had taught her son, if you let all the neurological impulses of everything that creeps, flies or slithers distract you too much. As he opened his mind to the unseen, he felt a twinkle in the air that reminded him of the static haze that he felt during and right after a lightening storm. People who knew of the powers of the mother and son mistakenly called it a second sight; but it was more akin to a smell, but bioelectrical in nature.
    He could partly interpret the impulses, distinguish where they came from and even judge the intentions behind them in simpler creatures. Humans too a lesser degree, they were a complicated mess of neurons and it was hard to tell sometimes their state.
    Klash tried to keep his mind clear, but he still lacked the discipline that his mother possessed. He filtered out the neurochemistry of the lizards and insects, easily done. His antennae rose and fell as the wind shifted, then a scent all too familiar to him: chaos.

    There was no mistaking the neurological anarchy of stickies. They came in a wide range of colors and adapted their form quickly, even for mutants, to the hostile ecology of the Deathlands that spawned them. They were like little balls of violence and destructive urges with legs. They stank of madness, aggression. But there was something else going on in their mutant nervous systems, they were only a couple of miles north of the ruin and there was a desperation in their signals. He could feel that they were slowly moving southward. They were going to the ruined fort, and they were probably going to pick up his scent soon.
    The search would have to wait. There was chilling to be done. Klash closed off his mind to the full world of the extra sensory processing in his antennae hairs and traded the AKM for the Druganov. He would use the watch chair atop the shelter stand if he could get back in time. He wrapped the shoulder strap of the SVD and started for the camp site.
    Two hundred fifty yards to cover in the sand and morning sun.
    Salt grains and silicates gave under foot, robbing both speed and power, but Klash adjusted his jog. He stayed down wind of the mutants and below the dune crests until he had the ruin between the stickies and himself. The open flat would make a hell of a stickie graveyard, he'd draw them to the kill zone with flares -the chittering beasts loved fire and explosions- then pick the drooling maniacs off
    with the SVD.
    The watch chair was well hidden behind the blinder, Klash had configured it using a canvas wall panel, that blocked the hypnotic refractions of the crystals the day before. Using the dune buggy to escape was not an option, he never considered it. The RPG-7 on the roof top storage rack was another story. Klash shoved the Druganov into the open window as he leaned through it to his waist. The key for the U lock was in a console box, next to the gear shift. He left the rifle in the passenger seat while unlocking the launcher. The rocket grenades were behind the driver, in a flip topped metal box with foam inserts to protect the warheads from impacts. Klash chose the incendiary grenade, painted all red, and then one yellow and green HE rocket. The other four were anti-armor warheads that had special shaped cone charges that could punch a hole through
    armor, like a hot knife through butter.

    Klash loaded the incendiary first, hanging the high explosive tipped rocket propelled grenade from a D-ring on his belt. He retrieved the long rifle from the scout wag and checked it over, then grabbed three thirty round banana shaped magazines for the AKM before scaling the ladder to set up for his ambush. He sat the RPG-7 on his lap. The AKM hung on his right shoulder, waiting to be unleased. He checked the horizon with his binoculars, cradling the SVD with his left arm.

    The sleek weapon was his most prized personal possession. Juarez's version of the Druganov rifle was made with cultivated tubewood, from a baronial farm in the north western corner of what had been the great Mexican state of Durango, for the stock, covers and grip. New tubewood shoots had been pressed and manipulated, like bonsai trees, to wide and flat tapering planks. The hollow tubewood was as strong as iron, light weight and the only thing that ate it was the chisel toothed jackalopes. There were only enough produced for the baronial security forces, and it was a punishable offense to possess one in the ville and the southern ranches. It was a weapon of unusually elegant beauty compared to the mass stamped look of the AKM's. It had another, more practical advantage over the Russian assault rifles: a 4× magnification side mounted scope that did not interfere with the iron sight of the rifle, allowing the user to switch between the two. It was effective at ranges just over a thousand yards, but would probably get another two to three hundred more if the ville could produce better quality ammunition. As well crafted as it was, it couldn't do this job alone.

    Klash loaded a green signal flare in the launcher next to the watch chair and lowered aim to an angle that would give it the longest travel distance possible. Hopefully, the mutants would be distracted by the trick long enough for Klash to chill them all with the SVD. If the flare failed, the fire bomb warhead was on hand to give the stickies something to dance to while he blew their grotesque heads off. If that didn't take enough of them out, then he would blow them into sticky stickie bits.

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    --
    11/17/2014 1:18 AM
    ___Convoy Camp___

    There were more than a hundred headless husks stretched out under the morning sun. The stench of the snatch bats clung to the corpses, the buzzards flew right on by as soon as they caught a whiff. There were too many, Hector realized as he surveyed the wreckage from the roof of the command trailer. He recognized their clothing style and bikes. Paso bandits, they must have run their engines in the red to catch up with the convoy. It looked like they were sneaking up to attack the camp when all hell broke loose. He had never seen such a large contingent of them at once. They usually harassed and raided traders in wolf pack of ten to twenty bikes. They really hated the Juarez scouts, who had chilled hundreds of the nuisance bandits over the last few years. Hector had seen small villes that they extorted protection tribute from and caravans that the raiders had ambushed. He assumed that they were simple bullies, like so many of the northerners, but this would have been a daring raid had the snatch bats not come along. Now their decapitated bodies lay in a semicircle around the camp, crumpled and broken.

    The giant mutants pissed out a huge volume of urine on and around their victims as they squeezed their bodies, leaving a mostly bloodless sack of meat behind. The scene was phantasmagoric. Hector had to stop looking at the faces, frozen in fearful expressions with wide unblinking eyes, before he lost it.
    "Focus on something else." He told himself.
    The Sanchez construction workers were still asleep, Jen Gutierrez was guarding the shelter. Hector was glad that he had told her to not come out, more so with every minute that passed as he stood there.
    "Hector?"
    It was Jen, the other two women must have woke up.
    "Hector?" She called for a second time.
    "Do NOT come out. I'm coming back to you." He replied.

    Hector climbed down a service ladder by the hauler. The smell of death was only going to get worse, he knew, once the sun really started cooking the bodies. He walked past the shredded medical tent on his way back, curious as to the fate of the refugee he had rescued the evening before. She was gone, no sign of her. It appeared that somebody in a sec uniform had tried to hide in the tent, but the snatch bats took his head. He wondered if the man gave his life fighting for the girl, or if he was only running for his own life. The terrible thought crossed his mind that the farm girl had made it out only to be taken by a retreating biker. He saw so many foot prints that making hers out was impossible.
    The shelter where they had hid, until well after sunrise, was one of the few to survive intact. Hector whistled before he tapped the door and stepped through the flap.

    "The smell is going to be worse soon. Take these," Hector told them, handing the construction workers a duffel bag full of gas masks foraged from the now ruined camp center, "and check the seals."
    The two women dove right in, happy for something useful to do. Hector knew how Don Sanchez's people prided themselves on how much they helped their community.
    "I think we are the only ones left," Hector said grimly, "and it looks like all of Paso Park showed up to night creep us right as the Camazotz hit us."
    Jen's brow wrinkled slightly. "The Cam at what?"
    "Old tongue, Camazotz, the snatch bats were an ancient legend. A myth before the darkness and death came to wipe out the old world before the old world." Hector explained. "The rads and bios created this breed, though. The pirates down south that got wiped out, they called them Camazotz and celebrated their coming every year by sacrificing children and virgins."
    "How do know this stuff?"
    "A family of refugee peasants that fled the violence and infighting after the king loon got chilled down there. They wandered into the valley, had no idea how far they come or where they were, but they talked a lot of fire about the pirates and their crazy superstitions. My parents moved them into my old room for a time. They work in the corn fields now and will have their own adobe soon. Good people, Mom says, hard workers too."
    Jen had heard of the Xibalba Empire, the Durango ranchers and farm villes had spent decades under strict protocols to stay off their maps. Not even those who Juarez traded with had a clue to the existence of the hidden valley. "Santos! Those poor folks down the Yucatan...."
    "Yeah, they said that the bats could have flocks-is it flocks?- that numbered in the dozens, but what hit us was something all together different. Those monsters shredded the command trailer, tents, wags... almost everything. I never saw this behavior before, the destruction."
    "We gotta get out of here. What if they come back?"
    "Yes, we do, but first thing is that you and I should scavenge the camp. See if we can get a couple of wags that aren't too damaged to take us home." Hector looked at the two women sitting on fold down cots. "How are those masks coming along, ladies?"
    The women held up six masks between them. "We got two extra," the older woman told him, "but the rest of this mess is recycle only. Cracked, torn, filter busted..." She pointed at the bag of ruined masks, "or the head straps are ripped up. Some are stunk up with ammonia. The bats pissed all over them."
    "Disgusting." Jen remarked, scowling.
    "Ok, I'll toss the bad ones." Hector nodded to them. "Thank you. These will save our lives."
    He handed a mask to Jen. "Come on. Let's get on the snap for food and water. We have to get out of here before noon unless we want to stay another night hoping they don't come back to finish us off." Hector slid the leather and cloth face mask and pulled the straps tight enough to make a seal around his forehead and neck. Jen had a hood type mask, made of soft goat skin.
    They waved goodbye before stepping out into the white glare of the morning sun.
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    --
    11/17/2014 5:36 PM
    The last thing that Simon Alvarez remembered was the world spinning topside down when the ball turret went over the highway ramp edge and down the steep, rocky hillside. The birdcage bounced off several rocks and fell eight feet into a rain cut trench where it became wedged firmly, the twin RPK machine guns pointed down. He went face first into one of the steel plates when the ball slammed to a stop with enough force to knock the already disoriented and battered Motor Chief out cold. By the time he woke up, the sun had been up for three hours and the bubble he had gone off roading in was heating up. The light hurt as he opened his eyes, he could feel the dried blood around his eyes and nose, his joints growled at him as he tried to lift his head. He felt the sun, the light painted his closed lids with warmth. It was reassuring, the warm rays told him that he was still among the living.
    How many people, he wondered, had lost their lives to the mutants? Why did they attack the convoy so furiously, and in such great numbers? The faces of his crew flashed in his mind, men and women who had put their lives in his hands. The weight of his guilt pressed heavily on his heart. Then there were the support teams he had asked the Dons to send, sec men and laborers, and the indie scouts who had been drafted for the convoy. He had seen how deadly the enemy was, odds were that they had all become bat chow.

    His head ached, throbbed in time to his heart. He rolled over on his back, his Makarov poked painfully beneath his shoulder; but it was nothing compared to how much his head hurt, however. He could feel that his ribs were bruised, but not broken. He had to get out or get cooked.
    The bruises on his arms and legs screamed with pain when he sat upright. The turret was less stable than he believed, it slid an inch as he shifted his weight to straighten up.
    "Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit...."
    The ball started to roll, so he shifted to the other side of the gun ports to stabilize the turret.
    He exhaled slowly and relaxed against the inverted seat. Going out the hatch was not an option. The window, he would have to remove the guns and their mountings first, was the safest way out of the rapidly heating ball of steel. He pulled a screwdriver from his leather tool pouch and an adjustable wrench. The guns were on a shared 4-axis pivot held in place by eight bolts. His head hurt when he stained to loosen each one. He felt weak, light headed as he lifted the RPK's and the pivot up and into the birdcage. He was able to wedge them along the back of the upside down seat, against the hatch.
    Now he had a little more room for his elbows.

    Five screws, two brackets and one hard stomp later, the curved window fell free and thumped into the dirt. The Motor Chief judged it to be about an eight foot drop.
    "You can do it." He told himself as he holstered loose Makarov. The birdcage creaked as he set his feet on either side of the opening. "Don't you do it. I'm gonna get you out too, baby."
    Simon squatted slowly, minding how he distributed his weight, then placed his hands on the steel framing. His shoulder popped as he put his body mass onto his palms and fingers. He let his feet down one at a time, straightened his elbows and let his arms fold up as he dropped. He bounced off the rock face and landed in a roll out. A very awkward stumble to get up followed, then the Chief started walking out of the deep spillway.
    The dirt and rock opened up after seventeen yards. As his view improved, he caught the stench of the bodies and snatch bat urine.
    He also was able to see the headless iron horsemen of the Paso Park bandit gang, their pale screaming faces locked in horrified expressions.
    "Mother of God, what is all of this?" He prayed, but there was no angelic messenger.
    Simon ran to the closest one and his jury rigged bike. It had been bashed together from the parts of at least four other, but similar, bikes. It didn't have much fuel. These men must have been planning to wipe out the convoy and take the fuel, he thought. There were dozens of them all spread out amidst the scrub brush and tumbleweeds.
    "What were you idiots thinking?" He asked the decapitated husk.

    He didn't wait to see if the dead biker had an answer, he kick started the dirt bike and put on a filter mask hanging in a clear plastic bag zip tied to the handle bars. If the bike made it here, he thought, it will get to Juarez with a couple of fuel cans and light tune up. He saw a bag full of pipe bombs laying on the ground, but decided to leave them. There was a locked rack of rocket propelled grenades and launcher units in the armory tent. It was probably of no interest to the snatch bats.
    He had tools, he would get something together. He let off the hand brake and gunned the engine, winding his way back up the incline to the camp.
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    --
    11/18/2014 1:54 PM
    ___Ville Juarez___

    The glowing pinks and yellows of first light crept into the ville. Adobe houses with their painted shutters put on their daytime colors before the night watch was relieved from their wall duties. With a third of the security forces out with the convoy, everyone pulled extra hours in order to fill the gaps left behind. Some of the sec men and women worked an extra half shift, some pulled double duty, but the wall and street patrols didn't skip a tick off the clock on their rounds. The fifty odd outsiders in the district managed by Don Sanchez never had cause to suspect that a full third of the baronial militia was gone. The traders, farmers and traveling caravans were going to be leaving soon anyway, soon to be followed by a significant portion of the population who wintered in the southern lands of the barony. When the fall and winter acidic chem storms blew in with the Devil Wind, the trade and tourism seasonal workers would load into well armed buses for the four day drive to the Ranches of the hidden valley. There was harvesting to be done, production work at the noble houses industrial shops and dozens of community projects. Baron Hadron knew that idle hands were, indeed, the devil's plaything; so he and the council hatched a scheme to keep those hands ALL busy enough to avoid Mischief's beckoning whisper.
    'From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.' Was one of the many slogans that people who were raised in this new society heard a lot. It sounded fair enough to the hard working citizens. There was a job roster for each house industry, all of the the ville citizens had a contribution to make. The work hours were divided as fairly and evenly, leaving the people of the Juarez Barony with a little bit of free leisure time. Luchadores, mariachis, gaudy brothel workers and farm hands had parts of the year when things slowed down, but they had tokens for goods and services to get them through the off seasons. Sec and industrial workers had year round work. The ville was a front for the hidden valley rancheros, the source of most all of the food and other resources, a way to misdirect attention from those barbarians and despot kings of the formerly "civilized" world.

    Civilized? Not to the eyes of Lady Isabella Hadron, Baroness of Juarez and the four Rancheros. So civilized that they destroyed the world, she was quick to point out to those who became overly nostalgic about the Old American Empire. The history books stored in the free school and library, where she spent so much of her day, were limited to prewar reconstructions -created by taking the best preserved sections of duplicate copies stuffed into three ring binders- and the personal journals of survivors of the apocalypse. The Baroness had been running the school for nearly twenty years, her husband made basic literacy for children and adults a civil right at her request and she personally taught the first classes. It took a few years for him to agree to start paying people to teach, but it paid off with this new generation of young people in spades. Even the basically educated peasants had improved the quality of their work and their lives compared to their parents. Hope was not a carrot tied to the end of a stick in her school, it was the primary focus for her teachings. None of the children in her class saw anything strange about her being a mutant, most of their parents had been her students.
    She was a near saint to the people of the barony, most especially because she discouraged such praises or comparison to religious figures. Humility was unheard of in the post nuclear ruling classes of the poisoned modern world, but her gentle smile projected it most when she was talking to the children and peasant adults of her literacy program.
    She wore her thick black hair up when teaching, so that no one missed her antennae. There was a bright blue bandana holding her ebon tresses in place, it matched the sash around the waist of the white sundresses that made up the bulk of her wardrobe. Her husband still slept while she and her assistants, Gina Flores (nicknamed G-1) and Gina Sanchez (G-2), walked out of the Hadron bunker door. There was a lot of planning and packing to be done. She detected the migrations of herd and flock heading away from the eight hundred mile wide storm front cutting across the resculpted Sierra Madre, the neurological impulses of their biochemistry carried the scent of fear. The Devil must have set his alarm early this year.

    "Gina 2," Lady Hadron addressed the teenaged daughter of the Don, "I'm putting you in charge of my office today. Each child, tell the teachers, is taking evacuation notices home to their parents at two o'clock. Then the teachers must pack their class supplies and books by five."
    "Yes, my Lady." The young woman said with a slight wobble in tone, drawing a raised eyebrow from her boss.
    "I'm giving you the job because I KNOW that you will do it as well or better than myself, G-2," she told the girl, that patient warmth returning to her smile, "and you have my total faith. Now, Gina 1."
    "My Lady." The assistant answered, pencil and clip board of notes ready.
    "Let us see..."The baroness stuck out her thumb and licked it before flipping the page on her own schedule notebook. There was only one item to check off. "We are going to the zoo and then the greenhouses. You and my guards are going to lend me a hand loading the orange tree planters on flatbeds with the citrus farmers."
    "Yes, my Lady."
    "Okay, ladies," she concluded the meeting, "let's show the men how to do it right."


    Gina 2 stepped quickly on her way to a donkey cart waiting by the heavy iron covered wooden gates, excited by the chance to prove her administrative skill. The smile on her face glowed as the sun started to come up over the ville walls, chasing the shadows back to their hiding places. The Baroness and her other secretary strolled around the keep to the parking lot where her carriage waited, flanked by the six female warriors of her personal guard holding PM-63 RAK submachine blasters. They wore identical blue, black and gray urban camouflaged pants and shirts with blue and black Kevlar vests over the uniforms. Each wore a bright blue military cap that the First Lady of Juarez had personally embroidered with a black thunder bird logo, her husband's coat of arms. The symbol represented his family's history of serving as instruments of law, but now it was also the emblem of justice as well. Baron Eduardo publicly credited his wife for much of that, and privately told her that his heart had belonged to her from the first seconds that he laid eyes on her.

    She stepped into the carriage with Gina 1, who told the driver their destination. The horses pulled the royal blue stagecoach style conveyance out of the gates, guards standing on the runners with their black PM-63's slung over the outside shoulder. They all knew that going to the greenhouse meant that the odds were that they would be using the guns soon. Some of them smiled at the prospect.
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    --
    11/19/2014 3:59 PM
    The gate closed behind the coach after it passed the sand bag and cement highway divider enclosed security stations. The machine gun defended posts had heavy canvas sun covers, two man teams on each of the four post mounted RPK's that guarded the entrance to the bunker perimeter walls. The carriage pulled onto an access road for the loop that led to the Sanchez sector of the walled ville. Like the outriders, the driver wore a PM-63 over her shoulder on a strap. The codriver also wore a submachine blaster, but she sat next to an AKM by the seat in a long leather rifle holster. She was the oldest in the team, and had the striping of a sergeant on her sleeves, below a baronial patch on the left upper arm and a white and blue AKM embroidered patch on the right side.
    The ride was fairly smooth, the stage's springs had been replaced recently by the Motor Chief. Lady Isabella had the family friend install a few extra hidden surprises, kept off books and paid for with a palette of steel ingots that her son had found on a sand covered truck near the wind blasted ruins of Old Juarez. The early spring cleaning of the ville had been delayed that year, reports from a Guzman scout team confirmed Baroness Hadron's warning that the one eyed man was in the region.
    Eduardo Hadron ordered the annual dig out of the town to stop, the recovery teams and security forces went to ground in the four sand covered bunkers, until after the chaos passed. The Cyclops Protocol, as the Dons called it, was a quick evacuation for the citizens and a plan to bury the town in the shifting sands as best as possible. The legends left behind by the One Eyed Man were spread around the Deathlands, in the form of trade caravans and Fire Talkers (men and women who make their living traveling from settlement to settlement and entertaining the locals with tall tales mixed with actual news) who visited the booming trading post. The stories about this man all had one thing in common: death and destruction followed the man, no matter if he was painted as hero or villain. The people of Juarez and the Rancheros were better served by staying out of his way, of that she and her husband had no doubt.

    As the stagecoach was pulled by the horses through the waking ville, workers and shopkeepers were walking their children to the school. She waved at the ones that she recognized through the window, her security detail watching in every direction for any threat to their Lady. Gina 1 lifted the opposite seat and set the slide bracket on the jointed swing arm to hold it in place. The hidden locker under the seat had fold out racks of sectioned off storage trays full of loaded magazines for pistols, sub guns and AKM's. There was also a rack of guns in the bottom, a long box of fragmentation and smoke grenades.
    "G-1, I want you to tell Ginas 8 and 6 to head over to the Big Garage. They should tell Don Alvarez that one of the evacuation buses sprung a leak in the fuel supply. Tell him that the leak is fixed but not before the tank was emptied. Borrow a wagon and bring it to the greenhouse loading dock." The Lady of Juarez instructed, "Send Gina 7 to the our woman imbedded with the motorcycle patrol, tell her to call in a report that the one eyed man was seen to the northeast. You take the coach back to the keep, tell my husband that I was gathering plants for a lesson when I had a vision of the Chaos Bringer. The other Ginas and I will wait in the greenhouse until you all get back."
    "Yes, my Lady, it will be my honor..." The secretary was cut off.
    "Oh, stop it. Just make sure you don't over
    o the vision tale, I want the Dons and my husband to concentrate on the protocol, not me. I need room to work, okay?"
    "Yes, ma'am."
    With that, the Baroness stepped out of the coach and started walking up the path to the greenhouse, the remaining Ginas falling in behind her. The Sergeants striped woman in last place, carrying a black and silver brief case in one hand, stepped to her Lady's side after the group entered the repurposed prewar open courtyard mall.
    "Lady, I am sure you don't need any reminder" the elder sec woman told her, "that this is the second time since the last real sighting of the bogeyman of the Deathlands that we have pulled this."
    "Yes, G-3," she answered, "but if I told him the truth, there would be more problematic questions that we don't have time for."
    "Isabella, I'm your oldest friend, so I am speaking more than as your bodyguard now: You are going to have to tell the truth eventually."
    "Gina Dominguez, you know good and well that now is not the time. Too many lives and livelihoods depend on what we have to do. So the merchants lose a few weeks of sales, it's the end of the summer anyway- they won't be out that much for being out of the storms."
    "No, they won't. Don't pretend that I don't know what you are really so afraid of, my friend and most loved sovereign. Before my powers failed permanently, I saw the hooded man too. I know how his evil grows unchecked still. I may not be the wild eyed girl tormented by terrifying visions anymore, but I don't need those abilities to see where this is all going to get us."
    "Yes, I know you are right. Thank you, Gina, only you could understand the nature of this war, and I can't think of anybody else that I would rather have fighting beside me in such an impossible battle with fate."
    The two women exchanged nods. The smell of citrus filled the air inside the courtyard as they entered. The women walking casually as the Lady of House Hadron smiled and waved to the farmers, who were noticeably pleased to see the most powerful woman in Ville Juarez strolling in their midst again. Her white sundress and blue accoutrements brought the young workers back to the very best of memories from their childhoods, to the inspirational way that she taught them to feel and think about their own lives.
    But she, and the over the prime precognitive, knew something that they did not: that a devil more destructive than any wind or fire story legend was coming to devoure the collective hopes and dreams of the good people of Ville Juarez, forever snuffing out yet one more candle in the darkness that had been thrust upon the world.
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    --
    11/20/2014 3:57 PM
    ___Convoy Camp___

    Hector Munoz and Jen Gutierrez were dragging a half empty fifty gallon plastic drum of Alvarez bug repelling chems out of the command trailer, their progress hindered by the slippery fire retardant foam that was still settling down on the aluminum diamond plate floor. The sun was heating up the blood drained corpses of their fallen comrades and the few snatch bats they managed to take with them into the shadowed valley of death. Clouds of green and yellow poisoned water vapor raced across the desert horizon, rolling toward the south, their wisps and columns folding onto themselves from the northern wind dragging them over the rising thermals of the sun baked Sonora.
    "Look," Hector said, pointing at the toxic mists brewing to the west, his voice muffled by the gas mask he had over his face,"see the green reflected in the clouds?"
    Jen wiped the dusty lenses of the leather and plastic protective hood, her head tilting to the side. "Yes. Ok. Clouds are green from chemicals. They blow in every year about this time."
    "No, not this early, they don't. We should not be seeing this for another month almost, until a week after Revolution Day." Hector told her as he went into his shoulder bag to consult the baronial almanac, folded and stuffed into the middle of his scout's map and journal. Hector folded the pulp paper guide over, checking the compiled weather statistics of the last two decades. "The ville will know too, and they..."
    "They will start packing up, and we will be left behind if we aren't back in time."
    "And there won't be a rescue party since every vehicle, except the cycles, is already out here. They will be short handed enough trying to move the migrant workers back to Durango." Hector shook his head and refolded the almanac. "They won't have a choice."
    "Then we better get back to Juarez, quick like." Jen said, the seriousness of their situation sinking in as she spoke. "There is no way we will survive the winter out here on our own."
    Hector searched for encouraging words, but his train of thought was cut short when he heard the sounds of a motorcycle engine starting outside of the camp perimeter. The engine noise started moving around the bottom of the slope below the curved highway ramp, sputtering loudly as it circled around.
    Jen's eyes widened with fear as the sound of the cycle's growl grew louder, closer. "Hector, it must be one of the bandits come back to loot!"
    "Get back to the tent, now! And keep those two quiet!"

    The motorbike pushed up the hill leading to the highway curve, kicking up dust into the blackish exhaust belching from the pipes. Motor Chief Alvarez turned into the camp ring behind the trailer that carried the bulldozer and small excavation machine, taking in the destruction left behind by the mutant bats. The battle was short, but vicious, and the humans never stood a chance. Their bloodless faces, many with open eyes and mouths, were staring in all directions, leaving nowhere to escape from their accusing gaze.
    Simon was tempted to pack up as many guns and fuel cans as possible and make a run for Juarez, but the men and women here deserved better than to be left open to the elements like that.
    He started planning how to best deal with the bodies. He could haul them all home on the large flatbed, but the decapitated state and their horrific expressions would be traumatic for the families. Burning would take fuel and time, and who knows what that might attract. No, he thought, best to use the digging machine to make a few mass graves. It might take a day or two to accomplish the task. His mind was distracted, too much, so he didn't noticed until too late the butt of Hectors AKM swinging at his chest. The impact knocked him off the bike, which careened over a few yards later, and he went down flat on his back. The air was already knocked out of his lungs as the ground rushed up to meet him.
    "Oh shit! It's the Chief!" A voice yelled, but it seemed distant as his world shrank to a pin point and went dark for the second time in a day.
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    --
    11/21/2014 1:42 AM
    ___The Harpy___

    Pico had no bearings. No point of reference with which he could make sense of what he was looking at. The world he saw -dancing dots of soft multicolored lights that blinked from one place to another, some spinning into existence and then out again, others seemed permanent and all were floating on top of an infinity black fluid that rippled with the perturbations of the faintly glowing dots- was beyond his comprehension. His body felt like it existed; but there were no senses of touch, hearing, taste or smell.
    He tried to speak, it felt like he said something, but there was no sound. He screamed, felt that he had, but the result was the same.
    Was this death? No, but maybe he was in a coma, he thought to his utter terror. What a horrible state that would be... but, no, he was awake. Awake and staring into the void. Turning his head was not possible, but his eyes worked out the edges of his vision on their own. He could close his eyes, block out the infinitely dark liquid and the pixie lights playing on its oil like surface, he felt like he could even sleep. Maybe if he slept, he speculated, he would wake up where he belonged.


    The hooded man sat in his foam padded, aluminum chair. He smiled when Pico tried to speak and then screamed, but did not stop typing on the keyboard held in front of him by a thin, chromed robotic arm projecting down from the ceiling. His white lab gloved fingers clicked and tapped the keys rapidly, the words displaying on the four foot wide video monitor on the wall. After typing a coded command, he pulled a long connection cable from the side of the keyboard and attached it to a clip on microphone. He typed 4-1-1 into the numeric keypad and started dictating into the mic.
    "The Laszlo field is working." his words appeared on the screen as he spoke, "So far, the test subject has been exposed for 6 hours with no noticeable synaptic damage. Subject was acquired without incident, responding willingly to simple commands. Subject's companion showed no reaction to exposure to the Glass Men's hypnotic attack. Further observation of the companion indicated some kind of communication with the humanoids, but the nature of the communication remains a mystery.
    Subject has shown somewhat limited return of mental faculty since emersion, but is secured in the field. Muscle control has been successfully overridden by the neurological implants, and sensory rerouting chip is functioning perfectly so far: the subject experiences nothing without permission from the subdermal control board implanted at the base of his skull. All visual data is being recorded for UNICOM analysis upon return to El Dorado facility."
    The man unplugged the mic, typed 1-1-4 on the keypad and rewound the cable before returning it to the recess on the keyboard.

    He walked over to the rippling black pool of energy, stretched within what looked like a large metalwork picture frame on the floor, where Pico hung face down on nearly two dozen thin steel cables, half submerged.
    "I wonder, my friend," the Freak said as knelt down and then lightly tapped the turgid manifold surface once, "if you can comprehend what you are seeing."
    The robed man looked sad in his body posture for a moment, then stood up and returned to his chair. He leaned over and touched a switch on the mechanical arm that held the keyboard to turn off the overhead lights, leaned back in the chair, closing his faintly glowing eyes. The foam padding grew larger and softer in reaction to his posture, increasing comfort for its occupant enough for sleep.
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    --
    11/21/2014 3:15 PM
    ___Fort Geronimo___

    The crystals -now flattened out into two by two foot octagonal plates, clustering together in groups of three to twelve- leaned northward on the open salt flat. They had soaked up enough energy, Klash received a single blink of a reflection carrying an electrochemical warning. It was a lower powered version of the last exchange, only causing him to lose a few seconds of time; as opposed to the hours he lost while his mind processed the complex neural transmission sent the night before. He felt the same level of having been at rest, in comfort, as after the long exchange.
    "Thank you." He whispered, knowing that they would detect the intention of the act, as he raised his goat leather wrapped prewar binoculars.

    The stickies were two and a half miles away. And they were, as best as his antenna like sensory hairs felt, preoccupied by six late migrating jackalopes warren: neurological signals of their violence, the owl like hoots of joy and their prey's fearful attempts to escape. The raw meat from the herd wouldn't fill them up, not that it would matter if it did, so they would still be looking for food to fuel their chaotic roaming when they got to him.
    Klash bowed his head forward and relaxed his shoulders, inhaling deeply. He held the air in his lungs, counted down from 10 to 0, then closed his eyes while releasing the breath. He allowed the thick sensory antennae to stand out from the rest of his thick black hair and imagined a pinhole in his mental wall. He willed the tiny opening to pan from the stickies clockwise. There was scorpion fleeing the smell of the stickie pack, headed east. A second herd of ten jackalope moving south of him.
    But the west was nothing but a billowing wall cloud of electrostatically charged dust, particles of radioactive ash and poisonous acid rain blowing south.
    It was a small relief that the hell storm was not yet traveling east. Klash had a modified rain suit and gas mask with good filters, and the Rosanna had been recently changed chem seals; but he was in no way eager to use them. The rain suits got hot fast and sweat gathered in the thick chemical proof boots, making the protective gear stinky after a half days use. No, Klash understood the warning. The stickies were coming, hyped up with adrenaline and recharged by the healthy mutant rabbit flesh.


    Only stripped bone and sinew remained of the jackalopes. They had taken a hard nap under the ground, and the stickies were looking for buried treasure as soon as they caught up their musky scent. The whooping horde caught them as they tried to break a run from the common sleeping area. The stickies dragged them kicking and eeping, wresting them down with superior numbers. It was a hard fight even at the five to one advantage, the tufts of thick jackalope fur had been a challenge and several stickies took hard double kicks before the figured out to use their clawed talons and teeth instead of the adhesive suckers along their three fingered hands. If the odds had been more even, the mutant rabbits might have carried the day. Klash had closed the pinhole camera in his mental defenses, the animals were suffering the worst kind of chilling that the Deathlands vomited over the old border.
    It didn't take long before the crystals started changing size. The octagons sank beneath the surface and disappeared from view.
    "What the shocking hell, guys?" Klash asked his hosts. "I hope you know that I can't do that trick. They will smell me like they did the 'lopes."

    No answer.

    Klash felt the signal approaching, a mass of discordant twitching nervous impulses and compulsions, before he spotted the stickies. He could smell their complete physicality. They were creatures purely in the moment, one shared mad cult of sensation addicts. He had a very different understanding of these creatures than any normal human. More so than even the ville neobiologist, Doctor Lisa Hammond, who studied them in the baronial zoo. Klash understood that their crazed systems shared a beat, it had a pulse pounding constant thump that ran on a constant loop when they frenzied. The most base instinctual drives HAD to be indulged, which is what made them nigh impossible to civilize.
    They got to less than a mile away before they picked out his scent on the breeze. He could tell by the excitement that pumped their heart rates up and got them whooping as they scurried from dune to dune. The beat thumped and pounded, their heads bobbing to the drum in their own head. Klash felt their hunger, even with the walls of his mind up.
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    --
    11/22/2014 2:13 AM
    Buzzard hawks and vultures knew a mass chilling was brewing, the animals understood that armed humans left big parts of carcasses to spoil more often than not. They had already started circling when he started loading up for the fight. Maybe they had evolved a bit in their game, because they were definitely betting like it was a sure thing. A small, juvenile buzzard hawk swooped down and perched on the scout buggy cargo rack. Klash read no intention directed toward himself in the act.
    "Thanks for the vote of confidence, brother." Klash spoke at the bird, which cocked a long look at him before returning its eye back to the dry salt flat. "You know what I have planned, don't you? You want the scraps? You and yours are welcome to whatever is left."
    Another of the carrion feeders joined the first on the rack, three more circled far above the open flats, rising and turning on a thermal current. Klash could see the stickies as well as the birds now, their tan to white mottled skin was blistered from the sun but the beat of the biological drum machines had them bouncing and head bobbing as they trilled and hooted cacophonous fills between the thumping bass of heartbeats. They had not yet pinpointed him, sitting above the ground in the watch chair next to the tall blinder, their beady black eyes were too squinted by the blinding sun to pick his desert camouflaged canvas hiding spot. It felt like the right time to open up the bait for his trap, so he pulled the switch on the flare launcher.
    The pop was loud, but the ruins defused the noise of the rocket flare perfectly. The mutants turned up their blank, inhuman eyes on the flaming red star as it sailed over the top of the dunes and came to rest in the middle of the ruins. Klash herd the collective whistling as the gruesome muties reacted to the little ball of fire. His extra sense caught on to the fringes of their unashamed circle jerk of delight, they all wanted some of that fire action. The creatures sometimes skipped, sometimes ran, sometimes rolled as they flowed down toward the remains of Fort Geronimo. One of them had the ears and torn scalp hide of a jackalope wrapped around its head and had enough self awareness to make a joke of hopping along and eeping loudly, a mockery of his last meal. It was just stupid enough to be grotesquely funny to Klash, who let out a surprised chuckle.
    "I must be losing my beans from the heat." He told himself, trying to keep focus as he looked through the scope of his Druganov SVD and chose his first target.

    There were eighteen of the gibbering stickies in the main cluster and nearly a dozen spread out stragglers that were lagging behind. The desert had thinned out their numbers greatly, but they still acted like a hundred strong mob. As they drew closer to the cluster of broken cement walls, Klash set the reticule on the lead mutant's head. This was a new one for him, stickies with tusks like like a boar. Their eyes were not just squinted by the sun's scornful glare, they were smaller than normal. Their heads had a curved taper similar to that of a gourd, with a twin slit nose and a wide mouth full of oddly spaced fangs between the knife shaped tusks. This one was dragging a jackalope's foot, smashing it against salty, cracked desert floor as it skipped towards the ruin. Klash pulled the Druganov's tubewood stock tightly to his shoulder and flipped the safety off.
    The 7.62×54 mm R cartridge boomed, the gourd exploded like a pinata. The steel cored slug passed through the the erupting skull and the body was trampled over by its kin, who were single mindedly fixated on the sizzling flare at the center of the ruined structure jutting up from the ground.
    Klash shoved another flare into the launch tube, then lined up a shot on the tallest one as it was knocking a smaller stickie out of the way. Klash put the bullet between the nose slits and the back of the head popped like a boil. The body folded down into a seated position as blood flowed from the holes in a slow trickling stream.

    The Freak watched the video link, a birds eye view from a vulture that had been used in a previous experiment in cybernetics. The vulture made a perfect spy drone, people tended to accept their presence without scrutiny. He hit a button on the remote control and zoomed in on the action as the second glowing red flare flew into the middle of the ruin, landing only a few yards from the first. The stickies had yet to notice that they were being picked off. The idiot beasts hooted and danced to pulsing sizzle of the fire.
    "And the beat goes on, the beat goes on..." He sang in a whispered baritone as the mutants started hooting and dancing around the clever distractions.


    Klash popped another stickie in the face, the bullet hit the mutant behind it in the chest and pulverized the the knee of a third. His next bullet punched through the throat of another thrusting and gyrating monster, nearly decapitating it. The body fell. The bunny eared hopper noticed the dropping corpse. It must have been smarter than the average sticky, because it froze for a moment and turned around.
    "You're next, bunny." Klash muttered before firing his fifth shot; but the rascally, rabbit ear wearing mutant hopped out of the way, allowing the bullet to slam into the torso of one of the stragglers as it arrived. "Oh no you don't!"

    Klash saw the first flare was going out. Bunny ears picked it up and screamed in pain from the burning of its hand. A pot bellied stickie with long arms pointed at him and shook with laughter right as Klash sighted its head. Bunny ears eeped and ducked to punch the laughing stickie in the crotch. The impact on the genital region coincided with the Druganov round bursting the ribcage of its recipient, and bunny ears was astounded by what it perceived as a new trick that it had learned.
    Klash let the SVD hang freely as he pulled up the RPG-7. It was time to get the party into full swing.
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    --
    11/22/2014 3:02 PM
    INTERMISSION
    Music: "I wanna be your dog" by Iggy and the Stooges
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    11/22/2014 3:36 PM
    ___The Parker/Rodriguez scout buggy___

    "Fish People?" Mike asked the long bodied mutant sitting across from him on the cargo cover.
    "I have no idea," Max admitted, "never heard that one." He was tightening the grips on the hunting spear, ready for whatever those vultures were in line for.

    "Oh! How about the Bug Men?"

    "Yes. You ever heard of the Scorpion Men?" Max asked.

    Mike looked puzzled for a second, then asked "Fake, right?"

    Max looked disappointed. "I was hoping you knew. Okay, ask me another one if you want."

    Mike was about to say 'Centaurs', but he was stopped by a sudden braking of the Parker Special, as Max had dubbed it. Ramone Parker never gave vehicles names, he went through a number of them over his career. If Ramone had called it anything, he would have named it Butch's Cleaver, after the man who designed it.
    The buggy came to a stop and Dawn Rodriguez stuck her head out the side window. "Flare!" She yelled, pointing at a red signal flare trace a low arc above the dunes.

    Ramone hit the accelerator and turned left toward the source of the rocket. Max let his tether line out enough to allow a kneel or crouch. Mike slipped his arms through the heavy ammo pack for the RPK light machine gun, on loan from Max. Gomez and Vasquez had their AKM barrels pointed out the smaller rear windows on either side. The back half of the passenger cabin had been chopped at a curved taper and covered with intact Corvette rear window. The window tinting that the prewar owner was long ago ruined, but Butch paid out the nose for it to have recoated as dark as possible and still see through on a hot summer day.

    "MAX," Dawn yelled out, "YOU GOTTA STEP OVER TO THE DRIVER SIDE. RPG's gonna fry your scales..."

    Gunshots echoed in the dry, salt kissed air as Max complied, shifting the spear to his left hand while drawing the Makarov from the holster. The compacted dunes made the thundering rifle shots rebound in the furrows, but the loud cartridge had to be a Druganov, Mike knew. The baronial heir, he thought, he is the only one firing.
    The Frankenstein wag swerved to the right and coasted to a halt on a large flat dune top. A large salt flat was exposed in front of them. A series of shattered and sand blasted walls stuck up from the hard ground, and it was difficult to tell how many there had originally been. The vultures circled over the center of the ruins, where the flare had landed. They were soon joined by a pair of buzzard hawks.
    Mike looked to his left in time to see a man pop out of cover with a shoulder fire rocket propelled grenade launcher. The warhead arced at a high angle and landed in the middle of the ruins. There was a loud but small concussion inside the tight cluster of ruined structures, humanoid shapes were blown out from behind tall remnants of walls, followed by a pillar of flame that rose up from the center of the blast.
    Incendiary.
    The humanoids got up quickly, raising their thin arms and hooting madly.
    "Stickies." Max said and then spit, "Go! We gotta take them down!"

    "Stay snapped, young man!" Parker told the Gila mutant then put the wag over the crest, charging down the fine sandy slope.
    As the buggy leveled off, Dawn reached across for the wheel to fine tune her shot. Three RPG's back blast blew past Mike and Max as the explosive warheads streaked from the launch tubes. A group of stickies had clustered together next to the wall where the RPG volley struck. The HE grenades worked great against the old cement construction, blowing jagged fragments through the bodies of a dozen of the now enraged -but regrouping- whooting abominations, shredding them as it blew most of them into the fire.

    The remaining twenty odd stickies started hooting and came charging through the dust cloud towards the patchwork scout wag's roaring large block engine. Ramone flipped the switch for the front facing guns, but nothing happened.
    Oh shit...." He yelled and started smacking the dash board."come on... what is going on here?"
    The red light next to the switch flickered on.
    "Guns are down!" Ramone yelled as he took a gentle right turn.

    Dawn slapped a line to her harness and stood up out of the passenger side window, both hands wielding Makarov pistols. "Give 'em hell, Corona!" She screamed as she opened up with both pistols. The 9 mm rounds exploded from casings, tearing into a fast moving stickie's head and outstretched sucker covered hands. Pieces of the fat fingers flew off as the bullets passed through, smashing into the face of the tusked mutant.

    "Call me Mike!" The machine gunner yelled as he pulled the RPK trigger, unleashing a thundering stream of lead at the heads of the front row of howling stickies. The light machine gun chattered like a jack hammer, 7.62×39 mm rounds tore away heads and limbs as he tracked his fire across the group of four. A fifth stickie, wearing a jackalope's long-eared crown as a hat, ducked low quick enough to dodge the hot death.

    Max chose to make more strategic shots with his 9 mm. He spotted a group of three break from behind a five yard wide wall of fissured cement. The leader had long, skeletal upper arms, elbow tusks and frightfully over muscled lower arms. The stickie trudged forward using his arms to run. Max took aim at the left knee cap and put a Makarov slug through the center as the creature swung its legs forward. The beast went down screaming, the two behind it plowing into it.
    He put his second shot into a stickie that wall climbed to get above the second sweep Mike did with the RPK. The bullet hit the mouth, blowing out the left tusk and surrounding tissue before it hit the wall in a spatter of stickie blood and flesh. The mutie shrieked, grabbing the wound as it fell twelve feet onto the hard salt ground.

    Gomez and Vasquez were side by side in the triangular window behind Ramone, who was cursing at the wag, firing short burst into the chests of the group of six that Mike tried to decapitate. Two had ducked in time to get chilled by their AKM's ear pounding outbursts, the other four had their gourd shaped skulls blown off above their beady black eyes.


    Klash recognized Ramone Parker and his crazy piecemeal wag as soon as he saw it powering down the dune toward the ruins.
    "I'll be nuked! Parker, you are the man!"
    There was a tall Gila mutant with a spear crouching on the cargo cover. Klash knew about him by reputation. Max was the best trained warrior on the Alvarez payroll, Simon must have sent him with a sec crew. The uniformed RPK gunner didn't look familiar; but if he was chosen by the Motor Chief for an rescue party, odds were he was a well hardened fighter.
    Klash flipped the bolt back on his Druganov and watched the buggy charging at the ruins. He couldn't detect the crystals electrochemical presence, but he could sense Dawn Rodriguez reaching for the wheel. Before he could decipher the impulses, the top mounted RPG battery sent a tight cluster of high explosive warheads into the cement wall. The stickies had reacted to the fire in their typical manner, rushing to the fire in order to thrust and bounce to the beat of their own drumming hearts. The exploding concrete shrapnel took quite a few down.
    As Ramone charged the settling cloud, Klash sensed the scout's frustrated dash pounding. Something was going VERY wrong. The lightly armored wag veered north as the vehicle crew unleashed a hail of rage and lead at the waves of stickies, removing a third of the monsters from the land of the living.
    Klash smelled the moment when the pack started moving to get ahead of the scout buggy as it circled around the ruins. They wanted to get ahead of the turning wag to ambush it.
    "Not today." He said aloud as he loaded the HE warhead into the RPG-7. Klash checked the range finder and adjusted the targeting sight of the launcher. He could read the intentions of the pack to swarm the passing rescue party from the cover of some tangled I beams. As a group of nine piled up on the south side of the twisted steel skeleton, Klash sent the rocket arcing into the middle of the largest grouping.
    The red sparkling hood caught the blazing sun, reminding him of the light show put on by the crystalline prisms that had been there the day before.


    Dawn loaded two fresh magazines into the twin Makarov pistols. She was liking the way the guns timing worked as a pair, but she needed to adjust her own. She had been too eager, used twice as many rounds as needed for one chill. It isn't a contest, she reminded herself, be more selective. The auto guns had gone off line with the least convenient time possible, and now Ramone Parker was improving a quick plan B.

    "Want me to go wide, partner?" Ramone asked.

    "No way, bro," Dawn smiled and rose back up through the window, standing on the seat as she snapped her tether line onto the top weapons rack, "two of us are packing short range."
    She let out a shrill laugh and fired a shot at a stickie, who was standing on a square pillar of steel enforced concrete until her bullet struck it in the shoulder. The spindly limbed mutant hopped down.
    "Hey, is it me," Dawn yelled at the outriders, "or are these stickies triple smart by stickie standards?"
    "You be surprised how crafty they can be," Max called over his powerful shoulder and noticed as he spoke his next words that she had ditched her leggings and battle kilt look for a tight micro mini, "if they are smart enough to get this far.... They don't... Is that prewar?"

    Peter smacked the ceiling. "Stay snapped up there! Santos on the ropes!"
    The banter was ceased in time for the comrades in arms to catch an RPG streak into a twisted hulk of support beams. Sticky strips of stickie skin, meat and bones exploded skyward from the explosion, mixed with splinters of salt and wind corroded steel.

    Ramone jerked the wheel hard, everyone in and on the Parker Special screamed profanities, but it had corrected their path.
    They had adapted their strategy on the fly, and the stickies almost got the drop on them. There was a humility that hit them all when they realized that the man they were sent to rescue had saved their bacon. The last wave of stickies proved it as they erupted from the edge of the ruins. If Ramone had not been forced to turn by the grenade, they would have been plowing through the mutie ambush.

    Klash shouldered his SVD and brought down three more stickies with shots to their heads.
    It was hard to miss them against the dark cloud of smoke.
    The injured, stumbling remnants had regrouped and come whooping and whistling from the dusty killing field. The ape like stickie with the bulging fore arms was walking on hands alone. Around it were seven more of the gibbering menaces. They seemed to be confused about the losses, where were the others?
    Klash sensed that they were going to charge the wag head on, so he swapped the sniper rifle for the AKM and started firing bursts to attract their attention. They spotted him and charged. Klash let the emptied magazine fall away and slid a full one into place. He smiled at the pulsing chaos as he fired a couple of burst at the palm walker with the busted knee.
    He detected the neurochemistry of the rescue team approach. He stopped at the edge of the salt flats and fired two bursts into the fastest one left in the pack.

    The scout wag drove between the mutants and the young man at the bottom of the large dune. Gomez and Corona blasted away the last mutants, who fell next to one another on the heat cracked salt crust. Dawn was sitting cross ankle on the roof, her nervous system crackled with her intention.
    Klash laughed and shook his head as the vehicle passengers climbed out. Max told the ville sec men and Dawn to fan out and sweep the perimeter. Parker drove the buggy up to the camp after Max hopped down.
    Klash nodded to Max, who saluted and shook his hand. The two of them walked up the slope, talking in the hand sign battle speak of the mutant tribe.
    "No," Klash hung his head, "I don't know anything about any scorpion men."
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    --
    11/23/2014 4:11 AM
    ___The Harpy___

    The Freak watched the events of the battle on his screen.
    He was getting annoyed. Danby was running late.
    "Damn him!" He hissed at the map box, the red signal blip from the tiny transmitter he had planted on the motorcycle was stationary less than ten miles from the ruin.
    "What in the hell is that little snake trying to pull now?"

    The hooded man rose from his padded aluminum chair. The microwave oven on the other side of the lab chimed to let him know that his lunch was ready. He walked past the stainless steel surgical tools and operating tables to the appliance.
    "Pizza rolls... " he muttered to himself, "gotta get more pizza rolls soon."

    He pulled a covered plate from the microwave and walked over to the Laszlo field generator and poked Pico, who jerked and screamed in response. He cackled as he walked back to his chair, pushing a golden brown rectangle stuffed with tomato paste and cheese into his mouth.
    He would have to demonstrate to Harker Danby that noncooperation had harsh consequences, teach him that he still had things to loose, painfully.
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    --
    11/23/2014 3:16 PM
    ___The Convoy Camp___

    The first thing that the Motor Chief saw when he opened his eyes -he had feigned unconsciousness for several seconds -was the back lit ceiling of the elevated platform shelter that he'd been moved to. His vision was a bit blurred, his muscles didn't want to do any movement yet. There was the smell of black beans cooking, barbecued iguana and cilantro leaves filling the tent. He wasn't restrained, curiously enough, and he saw his own holstered Makarov (his had been one of ten made bearing a pressed brass thunderbird logo for the tenth anniversary of the uprising and given by Baron Hadron to the sons of the Dons who managed the ville and rancheros) hanging from a peg next to his head.
    "Chief," a female voice, comforting, softly spoke to him from across the tent, "take it slow, sir. You're safe."

    Simon didn't recognize her voice, but he saw her uniform and patches and instantly felt a great relief. The young woman was one of the ball gunners from the northeastern gates. She looked sharp despite the hell night the they had been through. She was, typical for birdcagers, a bit shorter than most sec guards. The turrets were claustrophobic and made the gunner a visible target in battle. Her soft demeanor was surprising given the iron nature of her job. The Motor Chief knew by the way she had her tether lines snapped to the harness -in tight folds tucked into the straps- that she worked for Sarge Corona. It suddenly occurred to him that he had sent a rescue team with his son attached to the sec escort crew.
    "What's your name, soldier?" Simon asked, rolling on his side to sit up.

    "Gunner Jennifer Gutierrez, sir."

    "What in the shock hit me, Gutierrez? It felt like a brick bat." Simon rubbed his back where he impacted on the ground.

    "That was Hector Munoz, Chief. And he feels terrible over it. We thought you might be one of..."
    "One of the bandits who was about to hit us before the snatch bats swarmed us, yes" the Chief finished for her, "I don't blame him. Is it just you two left?"

    "There are two heavy machine drivers, Sanchez construction ladies. They are pretty rattled by, well, everything that they heard. Mister Munoz saved all three of us, but he thought it best to keep them in the other tent given the state of the corpses." Jen reported the facts about how the Durango born scout masked their scents from the mutant bats and the morning events.
    Simon looked at his boots, thinking about what to do next.

    "Okay, Gunner Jennifer Gutierrez," he stood and grabbed his gun and tool belt, "We got work to do."
    He had to sit down right after he spoke. His head ached and vision blurred.

    Jen stepped to his side and bent over to check out the large swell on his brow.
    Hector and I have already cleared bodies from the camp ring, sir. He is going to ask one of the machine drivers to use the dozer to cover their remains after lunch. They are soaked in bat piss, nothing is going to eat them for another day or two yet."

    "Ok," Simon agreed, "it's what I would do. I'm going to rest a bit."

    Jen nodded her head and smiled, her deep brown eyes looked even darker under her military cap. "I will bring you some lunch as soon as it's ready, sir."

    Simon leaned back and shut his eyes. The last thing he heard before drifting off was the young woman stepping out through the door flap. Sleep came easy, and it was fast. The aching Motor Chief was badly beaten, but he knew that he would heal.
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    --
    11/25/2014 12:40 PM
    Hector unhitched the Painted Pony's heavy tow chains from the ragged canvas panel that he'd been using to move the blood drained bodies and heads to the north side of convoy ring. The pale husks still wreaked of the highly concentrated urine, he had to wear a gas mask to protect his eyes and airways from the heavy ammonia fumes. Some of the faces of the dead had scratches and claw punctures in their cheeks, others were merely locked in pristine visages of undeniable horror. Hector covered the heads with cot blankets and torn sections of shelter canvas.
    All but three of the elevated tents had been destroyed by the attacking snatch bats, the kitchen tent and two barracks shelters. The latrines had been partly collapsed by a dead snatch bat, but two of the enclosed stalls on the end were still standing secure. Hector found the squeezed and broken body of the survey team combat medic, Rita, and her head, less than thirty yards from the busted up toilettes. She had been dragged into the brushy scrub by her ankles, her body already limp. Hector discovered her head resting a few feet away facing the body.

    Had she, he found himself asking, watched as the bat crushed the blood out from her neck? A morbid question, more so given the stainless steel scalpel sticking forth from her eye socket. Her feet had recycled soft plastic flip flops on them, over her socks, and her holster was empty. There was no sign of her Makarov pistol. Somebody had murdered her before the attack, and Hector had only one suspect: the 'helpless' damsel that he, himself, brought into the camp.
    Hector followed the foot tracks of Rita's assassin back to the latrine stand, saw the slit wall panel. He could see where Mouse, if that was her real name, had planted her foot to throw the blade. He saw where Rita had fallen and her footwear hijacked. This would not go unavenged, he swore to himself after saying a prayer for the pretty young medic, for her peace and her forgiveness.

    It had taken hours to haul the remains of the human casualties on the makeshift sled, Hector was not as respectful with the remains of the dozen or so mutant carcasses; he dragged them by their ankles in groups of three to a ditch between two fallen billboards, planning to burn the stinking beasts later. But that would have to wait. Hector needed to take a break from this grim duty, clean up and eat, maybe take a short rest before finishing up.
    After he put the hooked tow chains back in their storage box, Hector Munoz drove back to the camp, parking near the kitchen tent. He went straight to the pile of supply boxes on the platform next to the bunk shelter, found a clean uniform box then selected a generic khaki short sleeved shirt and desert camouflaged BDU cargo pants. His own clothing was swamped with sweat, and death stench of the decapitated cadavers. He put them in a plastic bag, they would be burned later with the mutie monsters in the ditch.

    Jen was already portioning a healthy plate full for him when he entered the cooks tent. There was a second plate, covered with an upside down soup bowl, on the two foot wide counter. Jen turned, smiled warmly upon seeing him then held up the plate.
    "You deserve to eat first after all you have done, Hector." She said.
    Hector smiled, barely, and sat on a stool after taking the plate.

    "The MC woke up, but he is not able to walk yet." Jen said.
    Hector nodded and started wrapping his beans and iguana up in a corn tortilla with a spoonful of the salsa.

    "He understands, he said you did what he would have done. I explained everything else to him," Jen smiled at him as she spoke, "and also how you saved us. You are a hero, Mister Munoz."

    "No, don't say that," Hector told her, spooning more salsa onto the wrap, "please. Doing what you should, being a good person, is not heroic."

    "No, Hector, not in a place like Juarez," Jen said, "where we have it soft enough to be that way. But out of the walls, out where you have been, you know it's not soft. It's easy to not be kind, or decent for that matter, in the tooth and claw wilds; but that is when it matters most."
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    --
    11/26/2014 2:11 AM
    ___ruined adobe ranch house___

    Hark had found canvas corn sacks in a storage closet, a sealed twenty count of .45 shells for his Model 1911 in a kitchen drawer and a plastic cartoon mouse toy in a child's room. The two story adobe home had been a happy home. The home was obviously prewar construction, but he had never seen the likes of it in a civilian structure. Civies didn't build it this way, he knew that much history. No, not with steel plate enforced concrete walls and cemented in industry grade air ducts. It was like a bunker that got shoved into a house shaped mold.
    The main house had been a three level six bedroom palace, but the third level had collapsed into the rear of the second -the second floor walls were still holding firm. The multiple car garage was locked up from the inside, or there was some secret switch somewhere. He could have tried to crack it, like he learned to do in his scavenger days, if he had brought along the bag of pipe bombs. This place might just be good to keep in his mental map for later, he thought, as a fall back spot. The two other structures inside of the walled in fortress like courtyard were burned down long houses. Hark knew a bunk house when he saw one. Whoever lived here had around twenty men from the look of the remnants of the bed frames. Either this had been a prewar drug baron digs, or it was a bastard genius secret military camp. Either way, that garage was probably untouched.

    Hark stood in front of the garage door, his looted scraps at his side stuffed into a corn sack. He touched the heavy steel door, tapped it. He hit it hard with his palm, the door was definitely more than six inches thick, maybe even a foot. He thought again of the explosives that he had chosen not to bring, they could not punch through this. Maybe he would get Mouse to help with finding out if there was a hidden switch once they had rested up, she was good with puzzle games on that old game box in Paso. Maybe he could get everyone to relocate. Maybe start a legit operation again.

    "You thinking of setting up house, Danby?" A voice said from behind him. Hark spun on his left and drew his .45 with his right hand in a blur of speed. His arm movement was singular, fluid. The barrel was pointed into the face of the Freak.

    "You think I didn't know you was there, Freak?" Hark said, "You don't know who I am."

    "Oh no," the hooded man smiled and let out a sigh, "I suppose you really got the drop on me. Please, don't shoot me, not when we have been getting along so well. My friend..."

    "We. Ain't. Friends." Harker said, keeping his arm straight, the business end of the 1911 pointed directly at one of those coldly glowing eyes.

    "I beg to differ, young man. Why, you have made quite an impression on me, Danby. You and Jim's tasty little daughter there. How'd you break that sweet little box in without her old man stringing you out for the stickies?" The Freak let his teeth show through his satanic smile as he said the words. Hark knew he was trying to push his buttons.

    "I don't have patience for your shit, say your piece and go." Hark said.

    "Harker Danby," the dark robed devil half laughed with his words, "I want to give you something, a gesture of my good will. I want you to got back down to the basement of this house. You saw the water heater, I presume, so simply kneel down and turn the little red knob to the 'OFF' position. Then push the top of the heater down. I can wait."

    "You can go. Now." Hark told him, not backing down an inch.

    "Very well, Mister Danby," The Freak resumed his mocking tone, "have it your way. I will go. Just walk out of the gate and wave when you are ready to talk business."

    "Not gonna happen," Hark spat at him "so fuck off!"
    The Freak bowed slightly, backing away with his hands open palmed so Hark could see the strange circular plugs mounted in his flesh. Harker Danby heard about 'borgs from old vids and games, and he knew that the human parts behind the eyes would die from a bullet just like a natural man.
    After the demon stepped out the gates, he turned to his left and stepped out of sight. Hark didn't bother checking, knowing the Freak and his disappearing act well enough from the few things Ol' Jim let slip while drunk sometimes.
    "Stay fucked off!" Hark yelled after him, then walked back into the house. He immediately closed and barricaded the door behind him with old, dried furniture.
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    --
    11/26/2014 12:23 PM
    The upholstery on the prewar furniture was long rotted, leaving only the treated wood and metal frames. As Hark shoved the heavy couch skeleton against the door, the dust puffed off with each noisy push across the bare floor. He tried to lift it, but the wood felt like it was made of rock when he raised up one end.
    "Must've taken," Hark grunted and strained to wedge it against the door frame, "two men."
    "Baby," Mouse slightly echoed as she called from the industrial air duct over the table, "I can't turn around in here! What do I do if I crawl into a dead end?"

    "Crawl backwards, darlin'." He yelled back to the vent cover.

    "Okay." Mouse echoed back after a long pause.
    Hark upended the matching chair frame backwards and shoved it under the large L shaped knob. The table was too heavy to move, made of the same type of wood, and it had a thick granite slab on top. There was no way he was going to try.

    The bare bones of the decor were left. There was a millimeters thick accumulation of dust on every surface. But Hark knew it was beautiful once upon a time, in some lost golden age. There were ghosts of paint at the intersecting corners, still, in the spacious living area, clustered at edges -their wisps reaching out for the spectral brethren that still clung to the surface imperfections in the grey cement void. Three of the walls were yellow, pale sunflower; but the fourth, the one with the wall stairs, had been coated in a starburst orange.

    Happy with the door, Hark turned his attention to the windows on either side of the entrance. The glass had shattered in the earthquakes but the bars held up despite a bit of corrosion. He yanked on each, testing the mountings and cement.
    Satisfied with their security, he sat down on the table and linked the corn sacks together at the corners, with a set of plastic coated wire ties that he found when he dumped Sam's saddle bag, to make a sleeping palette on the floor. Sam had a bedroll consisting of two thick horse blankets and a prewar children's bed cover printed with a black and white checked flag pattern. It was far from cozy, but it would due for a few hours rest.


    "Hey baby," Mouse yelled from deep inside the rat maze of interconnected airways, "I think I see a car or something through this vent."

    "Okay." Hark yelled to her, then climbed up to the vent, using the table against the wall to stand on, "push the vent out and see if it's got good tires."

    There was a loud metallic clang followed by several seconds of silence.

    "Baby..." Mouse's voice was barely carrying through the ducts, "um... Hark! Hark!"
    There was terror in her voice as she kept calling for help.

    "What's going on in there? Answer me!" He yelled, pulling the Model 1911 from his gun belt. He was already trying to figure out if his lanky frame could make it around the ninety degree T intersection he saw ten feet down the narrow passage. There was no way he could make it in there.

    "Stuck!" She answered.

    "Stuck how??" He called down the metal vent system.

    "Half way!" She screamed in frustration, "Now you come get me, Harker Danby! You get me outta here right now!"

    Hark holstered the .45 and went back through the kitchen to check the basement again.
    The roll down steel shutters over the sliding glass door to the backside of the house was half way up, allowing enough light to see down the stairs. Hark remembered the water heater, but at the time it was just another hunk of salvage to him.

    "Damn your eyes, Freak." He whispered as he followed the instructions laid out for him by the hollow voiced abomination. When he pressed the top of the metal cylinder, the block of stone it was mounted to sank six inches into the basement floor and clicked in place. There was a mechanism of some kind, Hark heard the unmistakable clinking of chain and gears. Probably a weight and balance design, he thought.
    There was a corroded rack of rusted garden tools on the wall nearest the garage that clicked and swung forward an inch, then the whole wall section spun on a pivot at the center. He heard Mouse in the distance, through the dark hallways and walls, her sobs bouncing off the plaster. Hark held up his mag light and looked down the musty smelling passageway, then started following the echoes.
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    --
    11/27/2014 9:07 AM
    __Ville Juarez, The Greenhouses__

    The coverall wearing farmers, warehouse and loading dock workers were just arriving for their duties, casually chatting about breakfast, the last luchas they watched, the upcoming anniversary celebration. The white shirted supervisor stood on the first of the landings, making a check as each man and woman passed through the bay door.
    "Meeting." She said to each one as she checked a box by their names. She didn't have to tell them, it wasn't a surprise, they all saw Baroness Isabella Hadron from the gate as they arrived. She came to the food and botanical greenhouses often, encouraging them, asking about their families and making sure that the workers knew that the work they did was of great value to the barony's success. She praised the laborers as the saviors of civilization, they loved the pride that her words filled them with -pride that showed in the care they put into the work. Productivity and promptness to duty increased ten percent for several days after the Lady of Juarez visited, it was an effect that never ceased to amaze the management staff -even the plants responded.

    As the workers filtered in for their morning meeting, Baroness Isabella and the three Ginas strolled to the greenhouse complex devoted to mutant flora. All of the fruit and vegetable greenhouses had been built with reclaimed office glass and sturdy aluminium alloy, on the leftover foundations of an unfinished prewar warehouse complex -only one had been completed when the atomic, biological and chemical bombs fell, unleashing destruction on the old world.

    At the far end of the security fenced complex, past the food production gardens, was the rainbow striped neobotanical greenhouse. Light filtered through the stained glass walls and ceilings of the segmented structure, each room illuminated with a different color; except for the center gazebo, it was like a cathedral to botanical pursuits, a multicolored geometric design on each wall and roof section depicted corn, orange trees, a number of vegetable types, fruits and flowers. Wicker furniture, surrounded by clay potted ferns, flowers and elephant eared plants adorned the raised platform at the center of the sixty foot wide octagonal room. The areas next to the walls had recovered school cafeteria tables with microscopes, centrifuges and glasswork tubes and beakers used by the white coated laboratory scientists who worked with the variety of new post apocalyptic strains, looking for ways to use the mutated plants.

    Don Alejandro Ortega, Professor Samara Indigo and Doctor Lisa Hammond were already busy with their morning routines in the neobiology lab. Don Ortega was sitting on a stool, peering into a microscope and taking notes as the two ladies in white coats explained as simply as possible what the magnified image meant.
    "The toxin chemically unzips from the oily molecules." Doctor Hammond said.
    "And," Samara Indigo added, "if we had more powerful centrifuges, we should be able to better separate it from the heavy oils."

    Don Ortega stopped writing and looked up.
    "I knew, yes," he shook his head slowly and said, "somehow, something like that was coming up. I knew it when you two asked me to be here so early, but I came anyway. Now, I wish I'd stayed in bed. Guzman is still being paid for fixing up the computers that I bought you. I will have to trade my ass to have his people fabricate the parts."

    "Don Ortega," Professor Indigo plead her case, "the industrial sector Dons would be hard pressed to find a better machine oil than this. Doctor Hammond talked to a mechanic at The Big Garage, he is willing to build it for nine thousand cornies. Guzman would charge..."

    "Twice that, yes." He interrupted, holding up his hand. "And how much will Sanchez charge for disposing of the neurotoxic wastes? There goes an arm and a leg."

    Doctor Hammond was about offer a suggestion that she, herself could use it in the neobiology lab of the baronial zoo; but Lady Isabella Hadron stepped up to the platform, seemingly from nowhere, with one of her bodyguards -the other two were standing next to the door -startling her into silence. Unnatural thing, Hammond thought, how does she do that?
    The baroness smiled as she put her arms out to hug Don Ortega, who was already rising to welcome her. "Al, my dear boy," she warmly hugged him and asked, "may I offer a suggestion?"

    "My Lady," he bowed and said, "I welcome your council, always. Please."

    She smiled at Hammond, hiding her mutual feelings perfectly. "House Hadron will take care of disposal. It is a baronial responsibility to maintain the safety of our citizens. The oil will pay for itself in a short time, and the economic benefit for the barony justifies the expense."

    Damn her, Doctor Hammond thought, she knows.

    "Lady, I would be forever in your debt...." Ortega tried to thank her.

    "No, no, Alejandro," Isabella said, "my husband and I are in YOUR debt, always. Just have Samara write a protocol for handling this poison safely. I will make sure that Eduardo has our hazmat crew follow it to the letter."
    Lady Hadron smiled at the white coated Doctor even though her antennae detected the unnaturalness of the wires and circuits attached to Hammond's nervous system along her spine.
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    --
    11/29/2014 5:00 PM
    ___The Convoy Camp___

    After a lunch of corn tortilla wrapped iguana and black beans, grown on the Durango farms and rancheros, the Motor Chief was able to move and walk again. Hector showed them the scalpel recovered from the medic, Rita, and shared his suspicion of the rescued girl, Mouse, being the assassin.
    "I didn't find a body for her, but there I followed the tracks to a dead biker who had been shot in the head by a third person, probably a man by the boot print size. The bats got to his body too." Hector said.

    "Most likely," the Chief agreed, "but I doubt that they make it far on whatever was left in the other bike's fuel tanks. We have other problems to deal with first."

    "I know, Chief," Hector said, "and again, I am very sorry for that hit."

    "I understand, Mister Munoz. Let's forget it and move on to getting us out of here." Simon told him, patting him on the shoulder to show he bore no grudge.

    Typical to his "hands on" ethic, he spared the construction workers from having to drive the bulldozer to cover the long stack of bodies of the lost expedition team. Seventy-three sec men and specialist crew, consigned to the sand and dust from which they came, crushed and squeezed to feed the devouring horde. But even with the five foot high mound of yellow to pale orange desert dirt piled on the corpses, the stench of the snatch bat urine still slithered up between the silicates and ash particles.
    Hector's apology did help with the sting of the AKM stock shaped, blue-black bruise across his chest; but Simon Alvarez knew that it was going to be days before he fully recovered from the violent forced dismount. Certainly wasn't the first hit the mechanic and engineer ever took, but it was one of the hardest. The hot sun was bearing down in the late afternoon,so the survivors resigned themselves to the tent, taking turns on watch while the others rested.

    Jen knew her brother's fate, and the Motor Chief related his heroic effort to save the command trailer technical crew, careful not to be unnecessarily graphic about the details. It did not take away the pain, but it was inspiring to know that he lived up to the ville sec pledge of sacrifice, valor and honor to the end.
    "I am proud of him. Sarge always said he had more heart than anyone else on the wall, and he proved him right." Jen said before taking her siesta with Hector in the tent, "Thank you, Chief."

    The afternoon drug by without event other than the passing of jackalope herds, who avoided the smell left by the bats by a wide range -the mutated rabbits wanted nothing to do with the super sized predators. By three o'clock, all well rested and ready to hear Alvarez's plan.
    Jen would accompany Hector to track down, and recall the rescue team and missing scouts at the salvage sight. The Chief and machine operators could drive the three battered big trucks, hauling as much salvageable wreckage and the smashed wags as the trailers could safely carry back to Ville Juarez. It would take the whole of the next day and half of the day after, the Chief estimated, to get the damaged big trucks back; but it should be, they all agreed, a fairly safe journey since the Paso Park bandit gang would not be there to make trouble. Hector and Jen spent the last daylight hours searching for sage to burn on the camp fire later, to keep the bats at bay. Alvarez supervised the recovery of the ball turrets and busted escort technical trucks and scout buggies.

    Dinner consisted of beans and iguana meat, the staples of the ville diet, with a green chili sauce. As the sun set, the scout set fire to the pile of snatch bat carcasses in the ditch between the fallen prewar billboards before returning to the, now smaller, camp site for the evening. The smell kept everything else away from the area, mutant predators and prey animals alike. Hector and Jen took the first two watches, as a precaution, but nothing was coming near that ammoniated death stench.
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    --
    11/30/2014 12:47 AM
    ___Fort Geronimo___

    Dawn Rodriguez led the two ville sec on a sweep around the still burning ruins, policing the spent brass shell casings along the route for reloading at the ville munitions shop. The incendiary warhead of the RPG had set something in the ground ablaze, a column of twisting smoke rose high and to the East as it dissipated on the wind.

    "That's going to be very visible, for a long way. Boys," Dawn said to Pedro and Juan, "better stay snapped tight."
    "The only loose one I see is this bitch, Pedro." Gomez whispered to the younger sec man.
    "Peter, bro. My granddad was Peter. Honoring the name, okay Juan?" Peter asked.
    "Oh, cool, Peter. No disrespect. And call me Gomez, there's like twenty Juan's in West Juarez."
    "Shut up and keep your eyes peeled," Dawn snapped at them, "droolies. If another pack of stickies sees that smoke, we are gonna be in the shit again, and I am not a babysitter for green horned ville brats."
    Peter and Gomez both flipped out their middle fingers in a synchronized double eagle salute at her back, but kept quiet as they followed her around the jagged walls and rubble.
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    11/30/2014 11:53 AM
    Ramone pulled up next to the shelter/blinder, opposite the Rosanna buggy, and shut down his wag. The sun was burning yellow, and so was his rad counter on the dash. The four inch wide, half inch thick device had a color divided indicator wheel that turned the warning level to a clear plastic window on the face. It was prewar tech, sold to the Mexican military on the cheap by the U. S. Army -who had upgraded their own radiation measuring equipment in the mid 1990's.
    Ramone Parker had never been this deep in the Sonora. He, and most scouts, wanted nothing to do with the region because of the tick bands of radioactive ash and dust that snaked from north of the border down to the former Mexican state of Durango. Only a few explorers had dared push this far into the Sierra Madre, even fewer returned. The ones who did make it back were sick from radiation poisoning and told horrific stories about the monsters who prowled the edges of the fallout zones. Ramone pulled out his log book and checked the glued in map on the inside of the back cover.
    He estimated their location and made a notation of the yellow zone before folding it back in and tucking the log back into the leather and canvas pouch hanging over the head rest of the passenger seat. He had no intention of going this far again, ever. He could see the edge of orange at the bottom corner of the indicator, this was not a place to settle in for a long stay unless you wanted a batch of flipper babies for your next generation.

    Max and Klash were sitting on the platform exchanging notes on the stickies. Neither of them could account for the strange behavior of the bunny eared hopper, or where it went.
    "I sensed it, then I didn't." Klash told the long bodied mutant. "I thought it was one of you who chilled the little freak."

    Max shook his head in the negative. "No," he said, "I saw it. But it hopped behind a group of the larger ones before Corona zipped them off with the RPK."
    "That's one hell of a trick." Klash said and shrugged.

    "I got an idea about this." Ramone announced.
    "Parker!" Klash greeted him by raising the AKM in salute. "You saved my ass, Ramone. I owe you big time. So, what do you think happened to Mister Bunny?"
    "Not what, who," Ramone told him, "and it's the same who that has been sabotaging the communication relays you set along the way."

    Ramone related the discovery of the smashed and stabbed electronic signal relay and the mysteriously appearing then disappearing boot prints.
    "And whoever left it," Max added to the report, "he was a big man, heavy. Those prints sank deep."
    "That is some tale, gentlemen," Klash said, "but I think I got an even more unbelievable one for your crew when they get back."
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    12/2/2014 10:44 AM
    After the sec patrol returned from their sweep with the recovered brass, Klash told his rescuers of the strange crystal beings(?) and the reappearing/disappearing prints. Peter Vasquez volunteered to prepare food, almost insisting on the duty, while Max and Gomez reconfigured the shelter to accommodate the growing crew. Klash and Ramone spent the afternoon making repairs on the Parker Special, cleaning dust from the filter systems and then trying to bring the wag's forward machine guns back on line. The jackalope impacts had shaken loose the trigger switch connection, but it was an easier fix than either man expected.
    Dawn Rodriguez stood guard on the roof of the Rosanna buggy, occasionally taking peeks at Klash. She couldn't help herself, she'd had a crush on the baron's son since she was ten years old. He was olive complected, well muscled and had a blend of his parents' best features: strong jaw, dark eyes,a nose that spoke to an aristocratic Spanish heritage going back centuries. The man could be the son of a pig farmer, for all she cared, and she would have felt the same. But, she painfully admitted to herself, he was the only son of her baron and would probably end up married to somebody like Maria Guzman, Carla Alvarez or some other daughter of a great noble house. Knowing the cards were stacked against her romantic aspirations made her ache in the deepest part of her being. She knew that he shared the power of his mother to read the unseen, to feel the intentions of others; so she made herself stuff down her longing, her heartbreak, so as to not cause herself even more humiliation and pain. She prayed in secret, saved her tears for those private moments in her one room apartment suite and tried to project a tough bitch attitude whenever she was around others. Ramone and Juanita were the only people who knew the truth behind her facade of hostility, but swore to never reveal that pain to anyone. To most people, she was just a loud mouthed bottle of piss and vinegar; and that was fine by Dawn. Better that than people knowing the truth.
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    --
    12/2/2014 1:00 PM
    Gomez took the late afternoon watch atop the shelter after lunch. Peter shined as a camp cook, his lime juice salsa made the iguana jerky taste like a slice of heaven on their palates.
    "Damn, Vasquez!" Dawn exclaimed after the first bite. "You must be a Durango boy, cooking like this. You are gonna make a good wife for some lucky bitch."
    The sixteen year old blushed with sheepish shrugs as the rest of his comrades grunted and stuffed their faces in agreement. "I learned it from Padre Ignacio, at the Rancho Ortega orphanage. He took me in after my parents died, taught me cooking and English."
    Klash swallowed his mouthful before speaking. "I remember Ignacio's cooking from the few times I visited when I was a boy. Pico said that the Padre could make a feast fit for a king out of stickie meat if you gave him a few limes and a chili...." He stopped himself and looked away before he let the emotion take the conversation further.
    They all looked down uncomfortably. It was not usual for a nobleman to express strong emotion, even in such an intimate setting.
    "We will find him," Max pledged, "my lord, and his kidnapper will pay for his crime."
    "Si!" They all said in unison and the conversation shifted to the mission at hand. Ramone told them that the convoy would probably take two days to catch up given the travel conditions, only Max disagreed.
    "The sand dunes will have to be bulldozed, it may be as many as four days to get those heavy Dina haulers through the sand and ashy dust."
    "Oh yeah," Gomez called down from the watch chair, "the command trailer is heavy as a prewar tank. Motor Chief will have them unload the big machines to cross the wastes. And that is going to be slow going, for sure, amigos."

    All around the smouldering ruins, buzzard hawks and vultures stripped away the flesh of the slain stickies to the bone. More had joined every hour or so until they numbered over thirty. The carrion birds left little to rot behind them. They all filled their gullets and left with pieces of the mutant flesh in their taloned feet to take back to their nests on the high walls of the volcanic plugs.
    The late afternoon sun eventually sank behind the black cloud wall in the West. The early evening winds were cooling fast, a bad sign. Max took next watch. As the sky darkened, Klash finally gave out from the unnatural high that he'd been on all day. Ramone and Dawn sat on the cargo box of their wag, comparing observations on the topography and weather, while Peter inventoried the food and water supplies. Gomez had taken out a prewar western adventure book, called 'Jack of Spades', and read it out loud to his comrades after the evening meal. It was a riveting tale of revenge and violence set in the Old, Old West. Max particularly enjoyed the cowboy language and frontier talk of the characters.
    As they settled in for the night, none of them noticed that one of the vultures still lingered, perched atop a wall of the ruin below. The creature stared at the shelter, the slight aura of electronic red glow behind its eyes obscured by the camp fire glare reflecting in the dark pupils. Even when Klash woke up from his hard rest, he did not detect that the vulture was not quite normal.
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    --
    12/3/2014 12:21 PM
    ___Ruined adobe house basement___


    There was a stink in the air. Hark Danby had crawled through enough old bomb shelters and basements in his teenage years to recognize the smell. It was the prewar occupants of the ranch house. The salty rot told him the story of how these poor bastards had died. They ran to the shelter of their fortified bunker, hoping to escape the nuclear exchange and fallout. Had the underground rooms been fitted with the right filters, they might have had a chance to survive the holocaust. But this was a drug baron's lair, meant to defend against police or rival cartels; it was not a military installation. Each room he passed contained the tools of that trade: wire rack shelves lined with plastic wrapped prewar ammo boxes, gun racks of corroded military style assault blasters, tables of scales and plastic freezer bags. The pantry filled with long ago spoiled food cans, packaged candies, tequila bottles and soda cans. The last room, next to the cement stairwell, was obviously a game and media room. There were the rotted cloth wrapped bones of the lost, laying around on remnants of the couches and chairs, a large screen video and two separate game consoles -all ruined by a century of slow decay.
    He could hear Mouse kicking her feet inside the ventilation ducts, grunting, cursing. "Almost there, baby girl. You hold on."
    "I'm not the one holding on, it is," Mouse called out to him, "and kinda pinching on my ass, Hark. Hurry up, 'kay?"

    Hark pointed his Model 1911 ahead as he made his way up the stairs, holding the light in his left hand. The stairs were heavy cement underneath the decayed carpet, another mark in favor for the place in his estimation. The walls of the garage were lined with rusted away tools, metal cabinets and more useless weapons. This man, Hark thought, must have had serious enemies.
    Mouse was hanging from a slender rectangular vent above a dust covered white sedan, wiggling around like an animal in a trap. There was nothing left of the tires or upholstery in the cabin. Hark walked around the vehicle to get a better look at the second vehicle.
    "Motherfucker, I know you ain't gonna start scavin' 'fore you get me out this fuckin' vent!" Mouse said, her eyes narrowed to enraged slits.
    "I'm checking for mutie bugs!" Hark retorted instantly. "Hush it, girl."
    A lie, but it shut her up long enough. He saw the prize of prizes in the next space, and it was raised up.
    "Comin' right up, darlin'." Hark beamed and stepped up the sedan's bumper to the hood. The metal popped and creaked under his boots as he walked up to the roof to help her down.
    "Here, baby," Mouse said, "I just need somethin' solid."
    Hark positioned himself under her shoulders and put his feet apart. She was able to push back and up with him giving her arms the extra support.
    "Relax your ass, girl." Hark advised. "It'll go easier that way."
    "Wish I had a bullet for every time you told me that lie, Harker Danby." Mouse grunted as her hips lid free of the vent.
    Her feet slammed down heavily on the hood as she landed from the assisted flip, then the car dropped at least an inch.
    "Whoa!" Hark told her. "Don't stomp it, this thing is long passed on stability."
    "Yeah no shit." Mouse growled. "The fuck is with this house? Is it Mex army from old west or somethin'?"
    He shook his head and told her his theory on the original owner of the home as they carefully stepped from the hood to the floor. Hark gave her a long, apologetic hug and held her head to his chest. After telling her the shopping list of what to pull from the shelves, he went to work on the locked metal cabinet with a decent quality hammer from the rusted tool rack on the back wall. It only took six whacks to punch the stainless steel lock face through, the cabinet was rusted thin as poster board.
    "Holy mother of the bomb!" Hark announced as he stepped back.
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    12/3/2014 11:42 PM
    Stacked up from the cabinet bottom to the top were ammunition boxes. A wall of green metal cases with Mexican army labels. The words were all Spanish, and Hark couldn't care to translate. The numbers required no translation to understand: .50 BMG.
    "It's glorious," he whispered, "sealed, wonderful, made in the USA perfection."
    A tear misted partly in his eye, then reconsidered the idea. Never in his life had he hoped to see this kind of luck.
    Then it hit him, the panic. He remembered his own history.
    "What?" Mouse asked.
    "Nothin', baby," Hark said, closing the cabinet doors, "nothin' you wanna see. Believe me."
    "Is it the kids?" Mouse wrinkled her brow, frowning. "I don't want no part of dead kids."
    "Fuck this room, girl." Hark said, his voice had a wobble. "Let's grab a couple hammers, they are holding up pretty good. We can only carry so much anyway."
    Hark crossed the corner to the stairs and took Mouse, gently, by the elbow.
    "Baby," she giggled, "not now, there's dead kids in this room."
    Hark tugged her arm. "No," he said, "let's head down stairs. They had plastiwrapped bullets that looked like they might be good."
    "How about a nap first?" Mouse yawned.

    Hark thought about it for a second then agreed. As they started down the steps, he thought about every big score and the cosmic revenge that followed each, the inevitable pile of steaming misery and bodies of his friends. Not this time, he told himself.
    The media room had two gun racks, but Hark skipped it. Mouse looked in as they passed. Hark stepped up his pace when he saw the secret door into the basement, fear was welling up in the back of his chest. He pointed to a wrapped package of 7.62 rounds on the wire rack next to the exit.
    "Grab two and get up the stairs." He told her, then contradicted himself. "No, wait, touch nothin'. We don't know what is on this shit, but I suspect it ain't good for us."
    "Hark, you are scarin' me. You're talkin' like a doomie and I don't like them freaks."
    "This is a set up by a worse freak," he practically was pulling her through the door, "and we are not gonna take the bait."

    The basement air was stale, but far less oppressive than the drug bunker. Hark took long strides to the water heater and knelt to turn the gas switch back.
    "I would never known to try that, Hark. You are amazing." Mouse smiled and kissed him as he stood up.
    "No," he said, "I've been a damned fool my whole life, but not anymore."
    "What in the fuck are you saying, baby?" She asked.
    "I'm done bein' a damned fool." He told her, "And I love you too much to let myself to be a fool again, so we are getting out of here after we rest up."
    "Okay." Mouse said.
    Hark kept his hand on her all the way up the stairs. The hidden door slid into its place and clicked loudly. Mouse skipped happily to the pallet and laid back on the blankets. He laid next to her, grabbed her hand and kissed her fingers.
    "Sleep, darlin'." He told her. "Just rest. We are getting out of here at first light."
    "But it's light out now. Suppose I get bored, what we gonna do then?"
    "Mouse," Hark said and kissed her hand, "I am sure we'll find a way."
    "Oh, yeah." She replied, a pixie grin creeping onto her lips.
    "Yeah." He stroked her hair with his fingers. "Gnight."
    "It's daytime, Hark."
    "I know. Sleep." He closed his eyes, holding her hand to his chest as she pushed closer.
    "Ok, baby." Mouse yawned as her lids dropped.
    Sleep followed for them soon after, deep and peaceful.
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    --
    12/4/2014 12:33 PM
    Black, dreamless sleep was the best thing that Harker Danby could hope for. Those nights without vision and sound, the sweet nothingness of sleep was his refuge from the world gone wrong. He was a man shaped, molded by the violence and horror of the Deathlands. There were some lines he wouldn't cross -like rape, cannibalism or child murder -no matter what the world through at him. There was a wild streak a mile wide running through his core, yes, but he knew in his own heart that he wasn't a monster. He had made a career as a bandit with the Paso Park gang, men who were too often absent of lines, without turning to mindless savagery. That ability to reel in his own demons was why Ol' Jim picked him up, he needed a man that could be counted on to help keep the unruly bikers inside the lines.
    But the lines started shifting from the moment that the Freak entered the picture. The gang had fleeced a score of small communities and farmers for three generations, yes; but they also provided protection from far worse gangs that roamed the pan handles. Their proximity to the old El Paso crater kept a lot of problems from showing up on their own front door. But, every year, roaming gangs trespassing on their turf had to be put to the dirt. The Paso bandits had increased the taxes on the microvilles, leaving them just enough to survive, so that they could wage the guerilla war on the Ville Juarez scouts and anyone who traded with the Mexican boomtown.
    Subconsciously, Hark was sorting out the last few years of violence. Why did Jim keep up the losing campaign, throwing lives and bullets at the fortified walls? What was the point when it was obvious that they had no hope of winning? The only thing that had been accomplished, other than the decimation of the gang, was that Juarez had been corralled for a few years. Maybe that was the point.

    Hark was startled awake, aware of a presence in the room. The shadowed recesses of the house had been checked, but the steel roll down shutter over the broken sliding glass door in the kitchen was still open halfway, he remembered.
    "Idiot fuck." Hark cursed himself and slowly reached for the .45 at his hip.
    "Wha...huh?" Mouse barely audibly mumbled before he put his left index finger to her lips.
    "Shush." He whispered, eyes scanning the darkness for movement.
    Nothing made sound, nothing moved. Mouse closed her eyes and opened her lips, wrapping them around his finger, her pink tongue teasing sideways on the underside of the tip. It was not the time or place for a poke, but the little blonde was never one of those women who cared.
    Hark couldn't help his body, it was automatic, but his mind stayed focused. He pulled out the finger and gave her an impatient glare as he sat upright, flicking the safety off on the pistol. Something clicked on cement, a hard pin point of sound. Mouse stiffened and rolled on her side, smoothly pulling a scalpel from the pile she had set beside the bedroll blankets earlier. The girl who grew up with blades and bullets also had developed an ear for the softest creeping beasts that plagued the deserts.
    "Mutie." She whispered.

    Two more clicks sounded off. Then a series of eight of the pin point taps and a sliding noise. Hark and Mouse rose into a back to back squat, their bodies had learned to work together beautifully since Jim put them together -he saw the potential, like breeding good fighting dogs. Hark slowly pivoted to the left, she silently followed the turn. The next set of clicks betrayed the intruder, it was in the kitchen. It was aware of them now, and it was plotting, bastard smart whatever it was. Hark reached into his pocket and pulled out a bullet, pinched it between his fingers and thumb, then sent it arcing through the arched doorway to impact against the ancient refrigerator.
    There came the clicks again and then they saw it. It was a true freak of the poisoned earth, about the size of a six year old child, part insectoid and and part... They had no idea.
    "What in the fuckin' name of Xmas is that?" Mouse whispered. The creature poked at the .45 bullet, twisting the bulbous eyestalks around to view it from every angle possible. It had three sets of legs that supported it upright, centipede like segments divided the body into quarters. The head was a hard black bulb of chitin, with sharp pincers on either side of the slit mouth full of flat teeth. It had two appendages below what must have been a neck, but no shoulders.
    "No clue, darlin'. But it is not interested in us, yet." Hark said. The mutant bug-thing looked at the two of them now. Its eyes reflected the dim light, black glossy orbs rolling on the stalk tips as they flexed to odd angles. It turned to face them, rubbing hands together as it crouched over the bullet.
    "Shoo, bug!" Mouse told it. "Get on out of here now."
    The creature made a purring sound, like a cat, and blinked the stalk eyelids.
    "You heard the lady, mutie, git!" Hark yelled.
    The bug-thing hopped back, bounced off the refrigerator and skittered out the sliding door.
    Hark was about to start laughing when it reappeared with two of its kin. The mutants stared at the bullet, made purring noises at each other, then turned toward the arched doorway to face the two rude humans. One of them started stomping foot on the floor, making a loud click.
    "Oh shit, that's never good." Hark said.
    He was right.
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    12/4/2014 3:33 PM
    The other bug-things followed suit, tapping in time with their pointed feet on the cement. Hark kept his .45 pointed at them and told Mouse, "Put everything on the bedroll and get ready to run."
    "Good idea, baby." She whispered and started tossing what little bit of loot they'd scrounged onto the blankets.
    He stepped toward the bug-thing and bared his teeth like a wolf, growling a warning. Cats were always backing off dogs, he thought, maybe growling would fake them out. The creatures stalk eyes widened and they took measured steps backwards, arching their backs. Mouse was folding the blanket and corn sack pallet over.
    "Almost there." She said.

    There were four more of the mutant freaks coming into view now, clicking in time. Hark heard another set of clicks coming down the wall stairs. Two bug-things were trying to creep around on his flank. Another was inching along the wall next to the arch. Purring cat sounds echoed between the clicks, growing louder as a dozen more of the beasts lined up in the kitchen behind the rest. Precarious didn't come close to describing the edge of violence they all, mutants and humans, stood on at that moment. Mouse hefted the bundle over her left shoulder and drew the stolen Makarov with her right hand. She pointed at a bug-thing on the steps and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.

    "Pull the slide back, it's a Ruskie odd job." Hark told her.

    The 9 mm clacked as Mouse obeyed, and she liked the sound of it. "Kinda like cocking a hammer, neat." She said then pointed it back to the mutie. The insectoids didn't have to be smart bugs to figure out that they were being warned, and crouched lower.
    Hark kept his eyes on the leader apparent. It stared back, tapping the foot.

    "Backing out now, boys. Don't want to spend ammo." Hark said and Mouse followed his lead, stepping backward towards the front door.

    The couch and chair frames had it solidly blocked. As Mouse took her aim, Hark lowered his free hand to grab the chair.

    The bugs stopped tapping.

    "Nuke me." Hark said as he wrenched the heavy chair free and pushed it aside, scraping the leg on the floor. The bug-things froze for a fraction of a second, then leaped forward. Hark put a .45 slug in the segmented body of the lead bug, who popped open like a zit, spraying greenish yellow entrails and mutie blood out in a cone behind it. The bullet hit another in the head, puncturing the chitin shell in a splatter of gore. It dropped to the floor behind the leader.
    Mouse fired her new toy twice in succession and two 9 mm rounds smashed the bug-thing hopping from the stairs. The abominable thing screeched like a pissed off cat and fell dead a few feet from her boots.
    "Go!" Hark yelled as he forced the door open against the heavy wooden couch frame. Mouse ducked under his line of fire, and turned behind him to the door. He sent three closing mutants to mutie heaven, yellow gore exploding as the Model 1911 barked death commands. The rest charged en masse, meowing and hissing their anger.
    Hark shoved the couch frame and slid tightly out the door as he fired more rounds at the insectoid feline hybrids, who came bounding after him. He felt teeth, wide and flat on his hand and yelped as he jerked his arm back. His knuckles bleeding and stinging -it felt like a horses nip.
    "Son of a bitch!" He yelled and fired from the hip, bullets blew chips from the cement and the bug-things paused. His arm and hand were growing numb.

    "Hark!" Mouse yelled. "Come on!"
    He heard her kicking the bike over, but continued to fire at the door until the magazine was empty. He felt dizzy, off center.

    Mouse got the bike started and throttled through a quick turn, then pulled up next to Hark. He had a dazed look on his face, the bugs were pushing and tugging at the door to get their wide heads and jaws through.
    "Get on the bitch seat, baby!" Mouse yelled.
    Hark swung a leg over, almost falling over. He leaned against her back and nodded for her to go. The first bug-thing hopped up and missed its jaw pincers when the bike took off. The howling pack of mutants chased the sport bike all the way out of the gates. Hark rested his numb right hand, still clutching the .45, and wrapped his left arm around her waist.


    The bike tore through the sandy dirt, heading southwest into the sea of dunes and rocks. Mouse saw three points on the horizon, as good a landmark as any, and pointed forks at the middle one.
    "Hark?" She yelled. "Hark, baby, hold on."
    He couldn't speak to protest her choice of direction, couldn't find his equilibrium well enough to do anything except hold on tight as Mouse rode them deeper into a sea of salty sand.
    "Hold on, baby," she told him again, "I am going to get us to those three mesa up yonder. Gotta have a crevasse or cave we can hole up in for the night."
    Hark grunted undecipherable noises, and she could feel the drool from his mouth on her shoulder. He was triple stupe from the bite, but his head felt cool against her neck, probably wasn't a lethal poison if he was still holding on from her experience. The ground opened up after a few miles onto a broad, flat salt plain.
    She could see the three ancient volcanic plugs growing steadily as they rode. Shining patches of hard ground reflected the late afternoon sun.
    It was a smooth ride for the bike, Hark had no problem holding on. After two hours of delirium like stupor, he was trying to get his head back, he was able to speak.
    "Where are you taking us? We need to go North." He told her.
    "Where my gut tells me. Just hold on." Mouse said.
    Hark caught sight of colors refracting from the salt flat. It was comforting, warm. He was feeling like he didn't want to argue. The bug toxin was fading, but he was still not at his best. The sun was setting behind the western clouds, it would be dark soon and anything was better than no shelter. The motorcycle made excellent time, reaching the base of the mesa only a few hours after dusk.
    Mouse pulled the bike between two house sized boulders and stopped. Hark stepped off the back of the seat and slumped against a rock face. Mouse set the tied off bedroll on the ground and unfolded it on the sandy dirt.
    "Lay down," she said, taking his arm and leading him to the blankets, "you need to sleep it off."
    Hark nodded. She had to help him sit. But he quickly laid down and was out as soon as his head touched the ground.
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    --
    12/4/2014 11:10 PM
    ___Ville Juarez, The Greenhouses___

    Doctor Hammond eyed her Baroness from outside of the greenhouse glass. Lady Hadron had feinted almost after her antennae stood out on end, grabbing onto one of her Gina guards for support. Lisa Hammond had studied her for years, from a distance or in a large enough crowd to hide the Deep Brain Enhancement (DBE) systems from her mutant abilities, and knew a fake episode of precognition when she saw it.
    The Baroness of Juarez was no doom seer, but both she and Gina-3 -the original Gina despite her numbered call sign -personally made sure that the few who had served Milagros were shot during the uprising, then recruited the next generation as they were born for the Gina guard. Lisa knew to fear the woman even before she agreed to be wired by the scientific collective in Catatumbo. Her parents had served Milagros when he made a pact with the white coated men from Venezuela before the revolution. And both had died with him. Lisa was a teenager when the new Baron came to power and, though treated fairly, had kept the knowledge of El Dorado until she found a way to reestablish contact with the hidden enclave of scientists. Only the top scientific minds knew that the secretive researchers existed, but the Hammonds killed them all to keep Hadron and the other traitors from knowing.
    Lisa watched Lady Isabella more carefully since the change. Now she was immune to her subtle manipulations. Her intellectual ability had been boosted by the microwire stimulaters in her brain. Her reflexes even improved after the implanted technology came online. But now, she thought, the winking witch of Juarez was exposed. She smiled as the thralls fawned over the mutant woman who had instigated the change of regime and the death of her parents. They would all know the truth soon enough. They might even have time to be angry before they were harvested for the El Dorado facility's body banks.
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    --
    12/5/2014 12:23 PM

    The streets of Juarez were full of citizens and security personnel by noon. The Baronial criers called out to clear the road for the carriages as the royal guardsmen waved their AKM's overhead, the Juarez salute. Baron Eduardo Hadron stood up in the back seat, guards bracing his legs so he could hold up his own silver and turquoise decorated version of the blaster. Citizens waved their blue bandanas or pumped their fists and cheered spontaneously as the baronial procession passed by. He had a familiar relationship with a good number of his people, calling their names when he recognized them.
    "Anna, I see you, my dear." He called out to a woman of forty who was carrying a basket of tomatoes on her head. "Hernandez! Leopoldo! My bros!"
    The two old men playing dominoes under the blue cafe awning waved once and returned to their game.
    "Jimenez! Good to see you!"
    The middle aged merchant smiled then continued sweeping the store entryway.
    "My Baron," a young woman with a blue dress shouted from a gallery, "is your son ready to take his wife yet?"
    "What? I don't hear you." Lord Hadron said, holding his finger next to his ears.
    "You're son!" She shouted. "When will he settle down?"
    The crowd grew quieter when Hadron held his palm out..
    "What was that again, please?"
    The girl took a deep and breath and yelled, "Your son needs a HOT wife, like ME!" She winked and shook her hips to a flurry of cat calls and whistles.
    The Baron raised his eyebrows, pretending to be shocked, then responded by telling her "Okay, I will keep an eye out for a hot wife for you as well!"
    Her jaw dropped as the cat calls and laughter roared up around the carriage.

    The street was cleared now, so he sat down and the driver was given a nod. The carriage and horse carts of security escorts picked up their pace.
    "That's enough screwing around, you guys," Eduardo Hadron yelled, doing his impersonation of Sarge Corona, "let's get the Baron to the greenhouses. Pronto, boys, and stay snapped."
    The sec men snickered as he poked the driver in the back. He was still their comrade captain of long ago at moments like this, and the loyalty they felt couldn't be bought or beaten into a man; it had been built by his own loyalty to them and the honor he treated them with. There was nothing these men wouldn't do to protect him.
    The gateway to the Ortega garden sector and greenhouses was coming up. The Baron had received very conflicting reports that morning, he needed to find his wife and discuss the contradictory statements made by the scouts and a traveling Deathlander who carried new stories of the man with one eye, the Chaos Bringer. As the glass houses came into view, the sec men sat up straight and their Baron put his AKM back in the storage case under his seat.
    "Gentlemen," he held up a stack of written pages and addressed his advisors, "let's go find out what my wife can make of these reports."

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    --
    12/6/2014 10:00 AM
    As the royal carriage passed the high fences into the greenhouse complex, Baron Hadron waved politely to Doctor Lisa Hammond in passing. The colored glass gleamed in the sunlight, gardeners and farmers intermingled with the few white coated scientists as they lined up to pay respect to their leader.
    "Thank you all," he dismissed them for work, "but no need to make a fuss. I'm sure you're all busy enough without having to cater to me. Please, go back to what you were doing."
    The small crowd dispersed.

    He saw his wife, laying on a sofa in the gazebo, when he entered with his guards.
    "Everyone listen up." He announced. "If you have other things to do, go do it. I wish to be alone with my wife. So, unless your family name is Hadron, clear the room."
    There was no hesitation or argument, even the Ginas knew that it was time to take a break. Lady Isabella sat up, surprised and more than a little bit unnerved by the arrival of her husband.
    "Eduardo," she said, "I had a..."
    "I am sure." He interrupted her and said, "We have multiple reports, see?"
    He shoved a set of four hand written reports to her. Each was from a different motorcycle patrol, three from the Northeast said that the Chaos Bringer -a name given to him by the Baroness herself - was rumored to be heading North from the Rio Grande after leaving yet another wrecked tyrant in his wake. Then the last report, from a lone rider who had come in from the East (the fake she had ordered), claimed that the One Eyed Man was on the Texas side of the great river, but further downstream by several hundred miles.
    "I see." Lady Isabella said. "Ah, I think that the fourth may be out of date. The lone scout biker says here that she merely HEARD of his presence, that may have been many times passed along. The ones from further up river are more direct."
    "I know," Baron Eduardo told her, "but where is he now?"

    Isabella paused and thought it through before speaking. Threads of her plan were unraveling, the game was dangerous, and now there was the strange unnatural Doctor Hammond to consider as well.
    "The Ginas," she told him, "I will need their gifts. I must be left alone with them. Make sure that we are not disturbed, Eduardo, and I will get to the bottom of this."
    The Baron felt relief, calmed, his suspicion abated by her presence. He had no idea that his wife was electrochemically affecting his emotions; but Doctor Lisa Hammond saw it.
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    --
    12/7/2014 12:50 AM
    Doctor Hammond reached to the pocket of her long white lab coat and pulled out an old tin that originally held mint candies. The green and white tin boxes' lid popped open easily and she removed a single, cocoa bean sized gel cap before quickly snapping it shut and returned it to her pocket. As she turned to walk, she slid the pill under her tongue then walked away from the greenhouse towards the facility latrines and showers behind the northern row of glass enclosed citrus trees. These fruits traded well in the baronies to the north, allowing the motorcycle scouts to curry favors with locals and traveling merchants, to buy information and generate good will the more civilized mutants of the Sierra Madres' southernmost end -Lisa Hammond couldn't wait to get her hands on a Gila Mutant to experiment on, part of her deal with the white coats of Catatumbo.

    The latrines were too small for her needs, and they might be occupied by by farmers, gardeners or a neobiologist. The showers building was sure to be empty until shift end, and that was hours away still. The doctor slipped through the industrial plastic curtains without notice. The recovered linoleum wrapped adobe half walls and stainless steel fixtures had been scrubbed at the end of the last shift, so the boxy structure smelled clean as the dusty environment allowed. Lisa Hammond hated the dust. She hated the chemical storms that wracked the town six months of the year. She hated the bands of radiation carrying ash that fell like snow in the deep winter months. The only thing that she hated more than the people of Ville Juarez was the manipulative charlatan mutant who had them wrapped around her finger. She was going to love watching the Lady Isabella Hadron and her son vivisected, dissected and harvested by the El Dorado scientists.

    She looked quickly around the shower stalls a final time, pulled a shower chain, let the water run for several seconds, then spit out the gel cap onto the drain. The bright orange blob glowed as it flattened out into a foot and a half wide disc. The water flowed underneath it and down the drain. The disc raised two inches and floated silently in place until she stepped up on the center. The gel dropped only an inch under he weight. She closed her eyes and held her breath, then dropped straight down through the glowing membrane. In less then a half second, the orange gelatin like disc dissolved into base molecules and flowed down the drainage system.
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    --
    12/7/2014 12:31 PM
    ___The Harpy___


    Pico, still hung in his wires, stared out the wall of windows before him. Ebon clouds circled below, lightning arced and stabbed through the rotating currents, flashes of plasma bloomed and spit balls of electric colors as the howling winds stretched and compressed the toxic stew outside. The metalwork picture frame shaped device around him was clear now, the liquid blackness had withdrawn from his sight to reveal the top view of the hellstorm. He had his senses again, both mental and physical, but it did him no use. There was no muscle that he controlled, no motor control. His heart beat, he breathed without effort, he felt cold air on his face and fingers.
    He watched the raging tempest through the glass. This, he thought, is above the Devil Wind, at the heart of it.

    "Don't speak. So, you were found out?" A deep male voice asked.
    There was a silence for a moment.

    "Don't look so worried. You lasted far longer than your agreement required. I didn't believe that you would have gone this long undetected." The voice was hollow, cold, but rational and bore an accent of a type that Pico was not familiar with. "You have exceeded, greatly, in your agreed tasks and earned your place here."

    Pico heard footsteps coming towards the left side, where the voice originated, then a metallic click.

    "I have plans for this one," The man said, "and you may observe if you wish."
    There was almost no pause, and Pico felt the fear as the hollow voiced man continued. "You are eager to learn, doctor. You'll find a clean speed suit in the room across. There is also a warmer lab coat and gloves in the top drawer of the cabin closet. You may use the bed and dry shower, it is a sonic, the ear plugs dispense from the wall box."

    There was a light creaking, metal hinges, then a much lighter set of foot steps before the hinges whined again. The door, Pico guessed, was metal, like a heavy armored buggy or military personnel carrier hatch.
    "I know you are awake and hear me. I will be with you in a moment."

    Pico heard a flopping noise, rubber on wood, then a click, then nothing. On the glass pane, he caught the faint reflection of movement behind him. His finger twitched, he felt it.

    "Good, my friend. You are going to recover quickly. Yes, you will be able to get back to walking around in no time. Now, try moving that finger on your own."
    Pico concentrated and then felt the finger move slightly, but it was painful.

    "Good. That's enough."

    Pico felt the numbness return and then his vision returned to the black void and dancing multicolored specs of spinning light points. He screamed without sound, cried without feeling the tear that he knew must have run on his cheek.

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    --
    12/8/2014 3:56 PM
    Lisa stared in disbelief at the captive. She had known him more than two decades, ever since the day she became an orphan. He was Eduardo Hadron's most trusted man. He was one of the Cubans that Milagros had ordered put to death, but Hadron had hidden away from view while he built his secret arsenal.
    "You know that one, I can see it in your eyes."
    "Yes," she said, "that's Pico. He is Hadron's top man."

    The cyborg eyes glowed from under the hood as they met hers. Her tight blue speedsuit and white lab coat felt suddenly warmer, her heart rate had taken a healthy dose of fear based adrenaline.
    "Tell me more information." He said.

    Her palms sweat, the gloves were thick enough to absorb it, as she ordered her thoughts.
    "He is a Cuban, was a teen when they were captured by our raiding crews. They almost bumbled their way straight through into the El Paso dead zone. They had truck loads of weapons and the machines to build more. Milagros told Hadron to learn their secrets then kill them, but he hid them away instead and betrayed us all. This is the one he trusts most, the one who looks after that mutant son of his." Lisa smiled and asked "Is that helpful?"

    The monstrous eyes flashed brightly enough for her to see the face beneath the hood. It was beautiful to her, soft featured. The cybernetic enhancements to the eyes, jaw line and ears had been designed for aesthetics and purpose equally. The chrome finish could use some polishing, but it was well maintained.
    His hands had been altered, with black sensory pads on his finger tips, connection ports for some kind of electronic attachments above the wrists. These people, she thought, hadn't spent the last century scavenging through mutant dung and contaminated ruins for the scraps of a lost golden age; they had been learning, evolving into something better. Under the dark robes, she saw that he wore a speedsuit similar to hers, but it had what appeared to be thin black armor strips and plates with embedded electronic displays.
    "My eyes are up here, doctor." The hollow voiced cyborg said.
    She twitched when he waved his hand in front of her.

    "I'm very sorry." She apologized and instinctively pulled her hands to her chest. "The enhancements are amazing... I am a bit overwhelmed by how much more advanced you are."

    "Thank you, Doctor Hammond. Tell me, have you explored the full limits of your own neural prosthesis yet?"

    "I have used it in my observations and in experiments with the mutants. It also has rid me of having to use those relic computers for statistical data calculations. I am very pleased, thank you." She replied, beaming with pride.

    "No," the cyborg raised his black rubbery finger tip as he spoke, "not like that. Have you explored the sensory processing capabilities, physically."

    She was struck by the thought, it stirred a perversion she had not considered. She had been so single minded in her utilitarian view of the enhancements, she never considered physical enjoyment of that nature.

    "I had not...." She paused, taken aback. Was he propositioning her for sex? "I never thought of that. I didn't try."

    The cyborg pulled the hood back and she saw his full face. His chrome enclosed eyes and jaw line were part of the face, perfectly grafted to the flesh. His skin was tanned, but healthy, even at the cybernetic seams. The black short cropped hair had a shock of white over the left temple. She was aroused, and he saw it with those darkly perceptive electric eyes.
    "Come with me," he told her, dragging the slick finger pad across her shoulder, "I have a stateroom under the bridge with a better view."
    She followed him out through the door hatch silently.
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    --
    12/9/2014 1:55 PM
    Pico saw the first filtering of sunrise through the storm, green to brown currents twisted, lightning flashes chased the conflicts of chemical and radiation saturated clouds.
    "South," he whispered, "going south for winter?"
    The cyborg, he remembered now, had offered to help him regain his mind. Pico had agreed. How could he not agree in that condition?
    "Hello," Pico said, his throat was parched and soar from screaming, "I think it worked. Can I have some water?"
    After several seconds passed without a reply, Pico tried to get his bearings.
    He pulled at the thick wires, but they afforded him no movement. He did, however, feel his fingers and toes move when he wiggled them. At least he had that much going for him.
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    12/9/2014 11:49 PM
    Doctor Lisa Hammond still lay naked and unconsciously twitching periodically on the forward stateroom sofa when the dawn light crept up over the clouds, through the windows. Her full, sun blonde hair hung over the edge of the cushions. The cyborg looked down at her mature, healthy form and smiled. She may have been born in Durango, but he could see that her lineage was all American.
    Her tanned skin, beach body, the hair, her bright eyes: she reminded him of the California girls from before the war. She definitely had been sculpted by the desert hardships of post war Mexico, but there was minimal damage to her genome by the radioactive materials she had been exposed to in Ville Juarez. She would be able to repair the molecular alteration of her DNA, he knew, once she gained access to a proper lab.
    He had planned on killing her, initially, but her abilities kept impressing him. Her experience with the mutant freaks of the Chihuahua and Durango regions would prove invaluable when the El Dorado collective started harvesting them for experimentation. She had laid bare the secrets of the Juarez Barony, their defenses and their weaknesses. And in a few more days, they would all be rounded up and cold stored in the body banks.

    His linked in nervous system detected that his patient was finally awake. His body had not rejected the control enhancements that were now wired to his brain and nervous system. If it had, he wouldn't be alive, his body would have torn itself apart -a most painful death. Now that the Cuban had pulled through, the only thing left to do was to get him back to his friend. The dormant systems wouldn't be so easily detected by the hybrid mutant, or his mother for that matter.
    The Glass Men had driven off the scientists from the collective when they had tried to explore the buried structure; but this Trojan horse would finally get them a set of eyes inside, hopefully undetected by the mysterious crystal guardians, and some idea of what secrets they protected, once he was recovered.
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    --
    12/10/2014 11:35 AM
    ___The Middle Sister___

    Hark Danby was visited by the faces of the dead all night. In his dream, he and Mouse were sitting at a cafe table, eating the disembodied heads of the Paso Park gang. A bat faced server sat a new plateful of steaming faces in front of them as soon as he remembered them, their names, their deaths. The table stretched as each plate, platter and tray was placed, increasing the distance between them. More plates were added, hundreds of accusing eyes, expressions of fear and betrayal directed upward to the blood splashed umbrella over the table. They talked about the weather, but had to speak louder as the feast of friends grew longer -pushing her further away.
    The smorgasbord of fallen allies was increased as a furry stickie in a smart looking chef hat wheeled out an ice filled cart of limbs. The mutant gourmet pulled a familiar severed arm from the ice with a set of gold rings on the fingers. It had once belonged to Will Sweeney, one of the men who taught him the scavenger trade. The hooting freak pealed the arm like a grape using its sticky sucker hands and fed chunks of the flesh to Mouse, who delighted with each bite.
    More plates were added, the table grew.

    More trays, more torn and chopped bodies were laid on the table.

    More plates.

    He could barely see Mouse.

    A dinner bell clanged and then two scalies in ill fitting tuxedo jackets drug a charcoal grill as large as a casket. The bat faced waiter bowed to him and parted its hideous lips.
    "The main course is ready, sir." The nightmare beast said, then threw up the grill cover. Ol' Jim was impaled, mouth to tail, on a spit and stuffed with the victims of the Paso bandits who had been stupid enough to fight back. Mouse waved her hand and shouted for a loin cut. The scalies smiled and went to work.
    Hark could not look away or run from the table, he could only eat. He remembered a man who he robbed and killed for a pair of mismatched cowboy boots.

    Another plate, the table stretched more.

    Mouse was not visible anymore.
    Ol' Jim had a big set of Rocky mountain oysters, the scalies plucked them out and put them on a bed of white sauce with a dressing of steamed finger sausages.

    The table grew. More plates.

    The robed man, the Freak, stood next to his chair.
    "Mister Danby," the hooded cyborg said, "desert is complimentary. Enjoy."
    The staff brought out a covered dish, proudly presented with toothy smiles, their mouths oozing and dripping wet with drool. The cover was ornately engraved silver, patterned on the human skull with flowers and pistols crossing the forehead. The chef hatted stickie lifted up the cover.
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    12/10/2014 4:11 PM
    He woke up alone.

    The sun was not up yet, but the pink tongue of first light was tipping the eastern horizon. Deep brown shadows covered the salt flat around the large chunks of crumbling cliff where they had stopped to rest. The bike was still there, and almost out of fuel. There was a set of pictograph codes left by Mouse next to the motorcycle, the message said that she was out to score food. The marks were fresh, perhaps an hour old. He had his .45, but Mouse had taken the AKM. The bite from the feline hybrid bug-thing had really done a number on his head. Still, his vision was a bit fuzzy, his limbs stiff. His hand was swollen, the area of the bite was pinkish color and stung when he moved his fingers.
    She had made a camp fire out of tumbleweed, but the lack of fuel starved the flame down to a few hot coals that were on the verge of being ash now. If the girl came back with anything edible from this desolate patch of crusty wasteland, it would be a miracle. The mesas were even salt blasted, nothing could survive out here; and if anything could, it was going to be small and probably eaten up with leopard fleas. The whole northern Mexican desert was crawling with every variety of pestilent as far as he was able to tell. Leopard fleas were the hardest to get rid of among the nuisance pests, and one of the most easily recognizable. Juarez traded a hand sliced soap that killed the tiny bugs off, but only with people who were on good terms with the ville. Hark led Sam and the Kimble brothers to hijack a shipment when a raiding party had come back with yellow to black pots all over their bodies. The idiots had spread it to the women of the gaudy, so most of the gang ended up itching and scratching from the nasty little crotch critters by the time Hark rode back with the bright orange soap bars.

    He looked around the large boulder for an easy way up top to get a better view of his surroundings. A sloping pile of heavy rocks gave him a quick path up the rock. Once he worked his way across the jagged slab of compressed volcanic stone to the end, he could see her stretched out on a dune several hundred yards away. She was definitely stalking something. She pushed up on her knees and raised the stock to her shoulder. Hark could not make out what she was tracking, his view blocked by the dune crest, but he heard the shot echo across the rock salt enveloped landscape.
    She stood up and jumped excitedly, then took off over the crest after her prey. After a couple of minutes, she appeared again, dragging a jackalope by the hind legs behind her. Already, a few buzzard hawks and a vulture had been attracted by the shot. Hark watched them circle on the desert thermals for a moment, then he noticed smoke rising lazily into the sky from the other side of the miles wide open flat. There appeared to be a couple of buggy style wags and a tent.
    Mouse spotted him and waved for him to come to her, the jackalope was larger than he initially thought, she would need his help to get it back quickly. And the quicker they butchered the mutie rabbit, the quicker they would be able to investigate the smoking campfire to their south. Maybe he could trade some of the mutie bush meat, unless they were hostiles, or cannibals. Hark jogged back to the spot he had climbed up and hopped down with only one slip, but he recovered his balance and ran out of the rocks to assist Mouse.

    "'Bout time, baby." She told him, throwing her arms and a leg around him as he kissed her. She felt warm, alive, against him.

    "Yeah," he responded, "let's get this cut up and head south. I saw a camp smoking up south from here. The bike is pretty tapped out on juice, so we will have to go on foot after a couple miles. Maybe we can trade meat for juice or a ride, looked like they had wags."

    "Trade with the Mexies?" She asked, sneeringly, "What if they's Juarez Mexies? They won't be happy to see me, baby"

    Hark frowned at her. "No," he said, "the only ones who saw you are bat turds by now. But we are gonna have to play it smart all the same. I gotta plan, let's get this first, darlin'. Come on."
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    12/11/2014 12:23 PM
    ___Convoy Circle___

    The two big Dina hauler's trailers were tough to get pointed around in the sandy, uneven scrubland. The dust filled washouts along side the broken highway bogged down the Command truck, but it was able to motor through. The double engine super truck was cosmetically trashed, tattered cabin shell remnants still hung on their bolts, armor plating had been ripped off mounting pins, the Motor Chief had to wear his gas mask and a plastic rain suit -dangerously hot given the end of summer sun -because the iguana hide seats were infused with the snatch bat urine.
    It would take him twice the time as the other haulers, even with the added weight of busted wags and buggies on them, to tow the load all the way back to Ville Juarez. The other two drivers were sent ahead, Chief Alvarez told them that he would catch up in the evening, even if he had to drive until midnight. Each driver had a cab full of weapons and ammunition, magazines, grenades and water bottles for the first leg of the trip.

    Hector and Jen took the Painted Pony out when the predawn glows began. They would have to cut across some uncharted territory, but they were loaded out heavy with as much extra fuel as the Baja scout buggy could store. The Chief had spent his watch fixing up a set of PM-63 RAKs for each of them. The tough little SMG showed that it would take a beating and come back spitting. Hector stuck them in a console satchel between the seats, figuring that they were perfect for close defense and tight spaces.

    The bats had been spotted, but they never attacked. The five humans were not a large enough meal, according to Hector, the big colonies were looking for a herd to feed on. He was proved correct a few hours later when the Painted Pony reached a dried up watering hole littered with decapitated cadavers of about two hundred ammonia soaked, crinkle crushed jackalopes.
    "Santos, so many. Oh the smell!" Jen said when the wind shifted the stench their way. "Go, Hector, please. Dayum, whew...."
    "Oh, yeah," he said as he hit the accelerator, "gag a vulture! Sorry."

    It was late afternoon when they came across an even larger herd of the mutant rabbits, Hector and Jen watched in silence as nearly one thousand head of jackalope thundered across the sandy dunes in front of them.
    "Magnificent!" Jen gasped and stood up through the gunners hatch t get a full view.
    "And nutritious." Hector added.
    "I could bag one for lunch, if you want." She said, tapping the shielded RPK light machine gun.
    "No, I'm getting paid by the job, not the hour." He told her. "We ate good before we left. They would probably turn on us anyway."
    "Yeah," Jen agreed, "you're right. Okay."
    Hector laughed and said, "Don't worry, you will have something to kill before long out here."
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    12/11/2014 8:39 PM
    ___Fort Geronimo___

    Peter Vasquez was on watch when the sun came up. He had spent little time outside of the baronial territories, and this was the first time he had been selected for such an adventurous mission since joining the ville sec force six months before. Despite his youth, he excelled in his basic training class, winning two medals -for marksmanship with the AKM and RPK -and was voted Best Cook by his peers. It was rough, at first, because he was two years younger than the others. He absorbed the squad support skills and combat agility training like a sponge, it became instinct almost overnight.
    They practiced with grenades and RPG-7's. They learned map reading and foraging in both natural and urban environments. They had all been tested on basic information about dangerous natural and mutated plants, animals and things between. But nobody ever said a single word about what to do if you were over run by a thousand giant rabbit mutants with saber tipped antlers sticking out of their heads. Not one word.
    There were two words that came to his mind that night, 'Stay snapped'. The phrase was like a mantra in training, the thing to do if you didn't know what else to do. It worked for him that awful night.
    "Sun up," he yelled,"and all good South!"
    Peter looked at the yellow and white dunes from the watch chair, then turned the seat to the right, facing the ruins.
    "Sun up," he called again, "and all good North!"

    Klash was immediately awake and aware that Dawn Rodriguez had managed to get the cot above his. She was dead to the world, but slept with her harness (two pistols in the shoulder holsters) on. She wore it loose but with lots of odd and end pouches, short tethered D-rings and sharpened hooks in all the right places: the same way that the murderous raiding crews used to in the Milagros days. He knew that was Parker education at it's most terrifying, the man knew all the nastiest tricks. He crept up and touched Peter on the boot, then tugged his pant leg.
    "Hop down, Vasquez," he told the young man, "I want to take a turn. You mind doing the breakfast? I got a mini camp stove and enough gas for a good spread in the Rosanna, behind the passenger seat."
    "Yes sir." Pete said, happy to get down to terra firma again. "Would you like your rehydrated egg whites with canned chicken breasts or jerked iguana?"

    Klash shrugged and said, "I'll go with whatever you and the others decide. Get the others up and tell Parker to break out his spelunkers hat, but give Max a few minutes to warm up."
    "With all due respect, my lord," Max said loudly, startling everyone else who was starting to stir from their slumber, "I am not a true reptile. I am quite fine to move and was fully awake before you. I was meditating and praying."
    "Bullshit, bro," Klash chuckled and said "I know you all too well. You aren't cold blooded, but you are a lazy bastard in the mornings."

    Dawn groaned loudly and turned on her side to face the shelter wall. "Is it really morning already?" She asked.
    "Yes, and what made you decide to come inside?" Klash said.
    "Ramone was snoring loud enough to wake those dead muties." She told him. He knew that was only part of the truth. He felt the impulses she put off when she looked at him, and he was not opposed to her desires. It was the intensity of her attraction that put him off. His mother had warned that their genetics predisposed them to intense passion, and that he should be very careful about making a strong attachment to a lover before he understood himself better.
    "Yeah, my father says that about him too." Klash said as he climbed up to the watch chair. He could see that a single crystal hexagon had sprouted up near the ruined walls. The structure blinked, for a fraction of a second Klash was in contact, an understanding was agreed upon: they could enter, but only with him.
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    --
    12/13/2014 2:56 PM
    Peter found a selection of dried peppers, red and green, as well as other ingredients in the Rosanna. Between the two groups food stores, there was enough to make machaco con huevo for all seven of them. That one communal act, a civilized meal together, eased the general anxiety of Klash's revelations about the crystal beings, and his plan to deal with the 'native' occupant's terms.
    They all agreed that the last thing anyone wanted was to alienate a potential ally. Juarez was in a constant threat from bandits and monsters from the north side, and an uninterrupted conga line of ambitious tyrants from the east, all the way to the Texas coast. These creatures were too powerful to anger, the barony too thinly stretched to defend the western frontier. Max reminded them that his own tribe was only able to keep the southern territory from invasion by ancient death cultists and hostile mutants with backing from the Hadron surpluses, and another border to defend would likely cause the abandonment of Ville Juarez to the shifting sands.

    "All true," Klash told them, "yes. Now, I'm going to enter after we map the ruin. Ramone is top indie, Max is an Alvarez rep, so they are going in with me. Corona, you and that RPK are going up the nearest wall to cover the northern approach -spike it and snap in, it might take a few. Rodriguez and Vasquez walk a wide patrol. Gomez gets the high chair. Fill up your supply from my water tank, it was charcoal filtered in Bunker Three. Ok, get to it."

    The morning sun was coming up slow and cool, they all felt the northern breeze, the western Deathlands were in for a cold winter, and earlier than usual. While Ramone and Max assisted Klash in mapping the ruins afterwards, Gomez sat up in the watch chair, scanning the horizon for trouble. Mike Corona cleaned up the camp stove and mess kits before going over to assist Dawn with sorting through the damage to the comms dish on the Parker Special. Peter Vasquez rested in the elevated canvas shelter, stretched on a fold down cot.

    Ramone and Klash stabbed long rigid wires into the ground ahead of them, with Max taking notes on the depth of the soil. There was a single structure, not a set of buildings as Klash had believed he would find. He had a hard time understanding what was buried at first, but it became clear that the structure was half hexagonal and covered an area the size of a football field. When they reached the RPG blasted hole, the smashed and melted rubble yielded a few clues. Hospital beds, computerized medical equipment, heavy walls and doors. Strange, salt sealed skeletal corpses lay in the diffused light of the sun for the first time in over a century. They looked like children and young adults in size, but altered. Some had elongated arms, claw fingers and lumpy tumors. Others had extra limbs, mostly not human. The fact that they were all strapped to the beds told Klash one thing: this place had been a nightmare factory.
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    --
    12/14/2014 12:59 AM
    "My lord, this is no military base. This is a white coat hell hole." Ramone said.
    Klash knew that the old scout wasn't going into the crater. Parker vibrated with revulsion as he stepped backwards, pulling his gas mask from the bag. Max read differently, but his eyes were wide with fear.

    "I don't think that the entities want to harm us." Klash told them. "I understand that much."
    "I trust you," Max said, "I will go. But Parker has a point. He signed on for escort, and the jackalope herd busted his profits below bar."

    "Screw the wag and the bar, I was cashing out after this haul anyway." Ramone interrupted. "I served your father, and the baron before. So if you order me in, I will go."

    Klash thought for a moment, looking into the thirty foot wide hole. A few charred remains of the stickies lay here and there around the area, but the buzzard hawks and vultures had picked them almost clean, scores of tiny beetles scrounged over what little bits of meat and sinew the carrion birds had left behind. He thought about Parker's wife and kids. Baron Hadron had told his son that making a man choose between loyalty to his lord or loyalty to family was a doorway to being a tyrant, and an invitation for a knife in the back.
    "Gentlemen," Klash clapped his hands once and said, "I definitely think that masks are in order. I will only take two volunteers. Let's reassess a few things at the camp first."
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    --
    12/14/2014 4:01 AM
    The sec man on the elevated watch chair didn't see Hark and Mouse walking in the wrinkles between the dunes. They had used their Paso Park vests and the stolen clothes to wrap up the guns and other supplies looted from the disastrous attempted raid turned massacre. Mouse carried two tied canvas sacks over her left shoulder, one held the bedrolls and the goods from the deserted ranch bunker, the other was counterbalanced with large cuts of roasted jackalope meat.
    Hark knew how to clean and quarter an animal for trade, and how to dress the part of a scav hunter. Two of the flour sacks had been cut up into strips and laced through strategic slices in their clothes. He stuck tumbleweed twigs and sage into some strips, explaining to Mouse how walk, the body language to project and how they were going to blend in with the Juarez scout team.

    "You remember," Hark warned her, "you don't know about Juarez. We come down from the Rockies game hunting and scavin'. We got cut off by a chem storm front, lost our way. We been running for a couple weeks trying to get ahead of black rains. Remember the game about if a mutie type is real or myth? Them scouts, they are going to want to trade turns, keep it real. You soaking all this, darlin'?"

    Mouse groaned and nodded as she struggled with the sand. Hark had made her a set of sandals out of pieces of the rear bike tire, cutting up the rest of the tires to make shin and shoulder guards for them both, tied with leather seat cover thongs and rubber engine tubing. He carried the battery in a sack tied across his chest.
    When they reached the closest dune that still gave decent cover, Hark sat down the battery sack and drew his .45 from his belt holster. The original finish had been protected very well by previous owners, but the grips were replaced a decade or two before Hark picked it off Ol' Jim. His first act as Prez was to hunt down the scalies, make sure that it was the last meal they ever took.
    When Mouse dropped her burden, she flopped down into the soft sandy dune side next to Hark, the twigs snapped and clicked.
    "Oh shit!" She said.
    "That's good. Looks like you have been in it longer. Wait here, follow my lead" Hark told her, then knelt down and snapped a couple of dried up sticks on his jeans.

    Mouse took a small sip from a water bottle and pulled a small piece of cooked meat off. Her sandals fit too well, she didn't like them, but it made her look more the part. Harker Danby didn't have to pretend, he had lived this, and it showed when he scrambled up the dune like a lizard, on his belly. He even pushed himself partly under the fine sand at the crest. After a few painfully quiet minutes observing the camp, he waved for her to come up beside him.

    "Stay low," he instructed, "take a deep breath, blow it out your nose as your push your head like a shovel. You want to get it on level when you look forward, ya hear?"

    "I get it, baby, so I won't stick out like a three titted gaudy." She replied, then pushed the dusty sand with her head.


    Three of the Ville Juarez men headed back to the camp, they were soon joined by three more men and a tall woman. Some kind of discussion went on, then the female and the older male stepped away to argue.
    "Love spat?" Mouse asked.
    "No, that is either business or family matters." Hark told her. "And I think the big one is a mutie of some kind. Dark Day, they sure keep some company. Look at that, he's even got those oddball Russian hand blasters. Givin' a mutie guns... I never seen the likes. Must be near normal brained."
    "Triple smart for a mutie, baby, we best watch him." Mouse whispered.

    After a few more seconds of observing, Hark reasoned out the group was heavily loaded up for only two small wags.
    "They usually ride in two man teams." He said. "This place must be important to send a full squad like this. And look at the kid in charge, he is no more'n twenty one. Must be hell of a chiller with that sniper scope. The other has a heavy gun. We do NOT do anything aggressive."

    "Hell no, baby. I got eyes."

    "That crazy wag with the red sparkle nose has a mean crew, some of the boys run in with them, said they fight like dirty coldhearts. We definitely don't want that kinda hurt, they hooked and drug one of the new guys from Dewey's Rock last year. The woman, I believe that was the one."

    "Maybe we can get her to swing over to play, baby. You like that, ya think?" Mouse asked and teased his leg with her foot.

    "Darlin', you are all I want, ever. Don't forget that." He reached his hand over to grasp hers.

    The group seemed to have worked out whatever difference was there before and were nodding in agreement. It was time, Hark figured.
    Hark pulled out the small circular bike mirror from a belt pouch and started flicking it up and down to signal friendly intent, four times fast and and a long flash, an old scavenger code, hoping that the scouts would recognize the rhythm and return it.
    The older man did. He signaled two long flashes, it was the old code shorthand for 'stay there'.

    "What's goin' on, Hark?"

    "They didn't expect guest. They are talkin' about whether to offer us a drink or blow our heads off."

    "Shit, these Mexies are pretty soft from what I saw."

    "Don't expect this group to be."

    The camp signaled the welcome reply. Hark stood up and waved.
    "Don't be over friendly, 'member the game. Mind your words and movements." He reminded her yet again. "Let's go make a trade."
    Mouse stood up and walked with Hark toward the two men in sec uniforms sent to meet them half way.
    The older of the two was in his mid twenties, but the other could not have been a day past seventeen. Both carried black finished AKM assault rifles and had automatic pistols on their web belts.

    When they got within twenty five yards, the older one held up his hand.
    "You folk want some 'lope?" Hark asked and grinned ear to ear. "We got a whole one quartered up and cooked fresh today. No stink meats, my friends, good chopped fresh this mornin'."

    The younger man watched Mouse carefully, he was not letting his poker face drop.
    "That is up to my superior." The lead sec man said.

    "Well alright, then take me to your leader, sir." Hark told him, hands held above his shoulders. Mouse held the same pose as they allowed the sec men to escort them into the camp site.
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    --
    12/14/2014 9:46 AM
    "You walk, I'll run
    and follow right behind you.
    You call, I'll come
    and I won't remember where I come from.
    Over there, at the end of the bar
    This fish keeps swimming in a jar
    I feel a tug on the line
    Which end will I be on this time?"
    -Stan Ridgway, Don't Box Me In
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    --
    12/14/2014 12:19 PM
    The northern wind whistled through the twisted rebar and remnant walls as Klash led them back from the ruins. The window for exploration was shrinking because of the early storm season. Mexico didn't blow up the world, it didn't get nuked to ash; but every winter, it got a cold blast of toxic rain and radiation from the Deathlands. Klash thought about the images that the collective memory of the crystal beings had shared now: they had been merged into a group mind by the mutagen agent, each one a repository of the others feelings of guilt and hopes. They were overdubbed recordings of the scientists, administrators and military personnel, as individuals, but not bound to a single form. They had guarded the site for one hundred years, driving off every thing that came onto the salt flats, man and mutant and beast. It was a pact they had made, a psychic bonding of collective will, to save something of all that they were.

    Klash thought about the lab at the bottom, was the child alive in that tank or had her life support burned out long ago? Something on the breeze caught his attention -two electrochemical jumbles of noise, on foot, circling around the open flat -while he crossed the dry salt encrusted ground towards the camp. If the crystalized sentinels were guiding them away, it was smart to let them do their thing, he concluded.

    Klash called the group to the front of the shelter, but told Gomez to keep watch. He spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, informing them that the site was a bioscience lab and that he would only take volunteers into the buried structure.
    "Parker, you two are relieved." Klash added.

    Dawn looked at Ramone and pointed her finger at him, not able to express her anger yet.
    "Dawn," Ramone explained, "we still meet contract, no losses. Once Alvarez arrives, Lord Hadron will have him write a voucher for the contract."

    "I'll go in." Dawn said, lowering her hand. She was not going to miss out on the big score.

    "No, you don't have to. I am going to retire off the cement plant we staked anyway." He said, gesturing for her to step aside. She walked a few steps away with him.

    "You can stay topside, Ramone, I don't blame you. But I can score big if any electronics or computers are preserved. If Klash is right, there may be a sealed lab down that hole, man! Biotech shit is like, is like THE big ticket salvage."

    "I know." He said.

    "And it's not just about the pay, asshole," she leaned in and said, "not at all. I want to know why we had to come out here, what those things are guarding. And.... Um...."

    "And you got a dog in the fight, I know." Ramone conceded with a smile.

    She squinted her left eye angrily, leaned over to his ear and whispered, "I am not letting him go with one of those stupes. I have to do this. Like the same reason you can't do it."

    "I know, but full chem gear, no taking chances, okay?"

    "What kind of a stupid assed question is that?" she asked, then said, "Of course I will take chances. That's how you get what you want in this world, Ramone."
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    --
    12/16/2014 10:28 AM

    The currents carried back the discordant scent of two human nervous systems to Klash's senses, twitching neurons related the biochemical tells of caution, anxiety. The strangers were as jumbled a mess as every other human being, but he detected no overt intent of violence. While Ramone and Dawn hashed out their difference, the two newcomers had held position, watching.

    Klash could tell the male was the more focused of the two, the most calm. He was the calculating type, Klash decided. The female was more scattered, a birds nest of impulses and raw instincts. To his antenna like hairs, she smelled like fire -adrenaline pumped in her veins, aggressive and hot.
    The two were bonded, he felt the lust/love chemistry underneath the confused layers. More than that, Klash smelled that they were running from something, fear drove them to approach the camp, they may be seeking help.

    When the two independent scouts rejoined the group, Klash called Gomez down.
    "We got company," Klash said, "but don't let on we know. They are frightened, only two of them out here alone."

    Max leaned on his spear and asked, "They norms?"

    "Yes, as norm as any Deathlander can be." Klash answered, then remembered that Parker was originally from the North. "No offense to Ramone."

    "None taken, my lord." Ramone smiled. He had been with the Mexican community so long that neither he or anyone else considered him an outsider, he had served almost as long as Pico as a raider and scout for the barony.

    Dawn folded her arms, close to her shoulder holsters, then asked, "So what are they waiting for, fucking written invites?"

    "No," Klash told her, "they are probably scared of us... wait, the male is ready to talk."

    Gomez and Ramone spotted the signal mirror flashing. The middle aged scout recognized the message.
    "That's old scavenger code, free traders use it still too." Ramone announced and pulled an ancient compact mirror from his front shirt pocket. "Want me to answer? Tell him to come in?"

    "Tell them to wait there." Klash told him.

    Ramone sent two long flashes at the dune top where the scavengers were laying.

    "Vasquez, Gomez, you two go out and see what they want. If they want trade, we will see what they got; but this site is claimed." Klash ordered. "Ramone, tell them to come out, let's talk."

    Ramone flipped the mirror up and down, the man on the dune stood up and waved before he and the young woman with him started walking towards the camp.
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    --
    12/16/2014 3:15 PM
    As the two scavengers met the sec men, Klash tried to read their impulses. The male disclosed in subtle ways the professional attitude of a trading scout, the right mix of curiosity and caution. From his electrochemical presence, Klash could sense that he had his head together, but very much aware that he was in over his head. His female companion was the obvious less experienced subordinate, jumpy, on edge -understandable given the territory they were in.

    Peter was nervous, though he managed to disguise it from the normal senses. Gomez handled it like a true soldier, his nerves were like tightened cables of steel, but relaxed, confident. As the scaving traders raised hands and walked into the camp site, Klash could detect an underlying fear in both of them. They both wore restructured prewar denim jeans, cut and tied with canvas strips, outfitted with natural plants to give them better camouflage for the desert scrubland. The man sported a worn cowboy hat, western boots and a denim shirt that had been patched and repatched several times. The female wore a simple button down shirt, tied at the waist, and sandals cut from an old tire. Both had tire slice guards on their shins and lower arms. They must have recently stripped their vehicle for the armor, pro scavies typically wasted nothing if they could avoid it.

    "These are some downtrodden looking bastards." Dawn said.

    "Be nice, girl. There but for the grace of god, ya know?" Ramone scolded her and pinched her arm lightly.
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    --
    12/17/2014 12:53 PM
    "How do, strangers." The man in the old cowboy boots and hat said. He wore an old, but well kept, Model 1911 .45 pistol on his belt.

    "How do." Klash greeted him. "You are a long way from the Deathlands for people on foot. Mind us asking who you are and how you got all the way here?"
    The strangers were nervous, not unusual, a lot of people in Mexico blamed Americans for the war.

    "Don't mind at all, sir. I'm Hark Danby, from Dewey's Rock. This is my wife, Mouse." He said. "We come down from the Rockies to hunt game with our group. Then that blasted wind and chem storms started up and cut us off, chilled most our crew. Mouse 'n me, we got lucky, hid from black rains in a wag wreck. Rest of 'em wasn't lucky, all melted fat 'n bone by the time it passed. Saw more storms blowin' down, so we started runnin'...... jus' been runnin' since. No idear where we are, to be truthful."

    "Sorry to hear about your troubles, Mister Danby." Ramone said. "I been up to Dewey's, but that was twenty five years ago. Nice little ville then."

    "Look, we got little time, so I won't waste yours." Hark told them. "I hate to admit, but we're in a desperate need to trade for a way out of here. We got jackalope to offer, and we ain't 'fraid of hard work to pay it back. Y'all scavin' and huntin' too?"

    Hark could tell his question caused some discomfort. Mouse grabbed and squeezed his hand.

    "Baby," Mouse said sweetly, "none our business. Sorry, y'all, we don't got 'tentions on takin' a claim. We're just tired, scared, want to be safe, ya' know?"

    "Oh, we understand," Ramone said, "sure. But this ain't a claim any sane body would want part of, trust me. It is white coat evil shit and.."

    "That's enough, Parker." Klash interrupted. The tension between them manifested as an eye on eye silence.

    "Yeah, Ramone," Dawn added, "you are not in charge here."

    Klash shot her a look that stopped the two indie scouts from carrying the conversation to a bad spot. He then asked Dawn and Max to join him in the elevated canvas shelter.


    After several minutes, they emerged with an offer: the two lost newcomers would have a ride back to civilization if they would help with security.
    "We lost some folks too," Klash told them, "sec men; but if you want to help, we can get you to our ville, after the rest of our people get here in a few days with our convoy haulers. My father is a fairly well resourced man. If I get this pulled off with your help, he will get you close enough and provide some weapons from the family armory. It will give you both a chance. We got a deal?"

    Hark looked at Mouse, who smiled and nodded. "Okay, Mister Klash, you got us for the ride. Any chance is better than no chance, I say." He said, then spit his palm to seal the deal with a handshake.
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    --
    12/19/2014 1:47 PM
    The sun was at high point over head when Klash and Max lowered Dawn into the crater hole, the natural light was optimized, casting a feinted glow to the four corners of the medical ward. As her feet hit the floor, she drew the twin 9mm Makarov pistols from her shoulder holsters, pointing them to either side as she quickly scanned the room for threats.
    She saw the nurses, four of them, flash preserved mummies. Like the other bodies, they resembled insects in amber, but coated with salts and silicates.
    One of the white dressed women had a red and white key ring in her hand with a large magnetic strip card attached. She looked like she had been caught up in whatever happened here midway through swiping the security box for the large steel doors in front of her.
    Nothing moved, not even the particles of silicon dust in the air. The masks were definitely needed, she thought, and maybe Ramone had a point after all.

    "By the four Donnas, this is some freaky perverse shit." Dawn called up from beneath her gas mask, earning a dual shushing from above. She looked around the room again and shrugged. "There's nothing alive down here, guys, but everybody should be masked for this."


    Topside, Harker Danby and Ramone Parker patrolled the northern end of the ruin while Mouse and Peter Vasquez walked the perimeter lines on the east and west sides. Mike had climbed up to a corner floor remnant on a tall ruined wall section, giving him a full coverage crows nest above the pit. Gomez was sitting on the hood of the Rosanna buggy, guardian of the camp.
    Juan Gomez didn't give much thought to the vulture that circled over the ruin, it was not a mutant, just another scavenger waiting for somebody else to do the dirty work. He watched the bird land on a high jutting I-beam, gracefully for such a large bird. He watched the bird for only a moment, then turned his attention to the colored flare rockets he was putting together. Turned out Pico, the missing mentor to the baronial heir, was also a first class fireworks tech. Gomez felt like a kid at the carnival. Down south in the Durango rancheros, he grew up mixing bowl after bowl of colored powdered dyes in Rancho Alvarez before the holidays and festivals. The charges were prewrapped in color coded paper, he only need mix the pigments and stuff them into thin tubewood sleeves.
    "First class, my lord." He said out loud, pleased with how fast the assemblage went. He was just about to stick a cork board nose cone on the flare when he felt a drop of moisture on his neck.
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    --
    12/19/2014 4:04 PM
    Ramone pulled the soft plastic stopper from his canteen. Hark saw the gleaming, like new sheen of the PVC water container, jaw dropped in shock.
    Ramone Parker had seen the expression on his face before, it was the scavie stare: the look every scavenger had when he found a prewar good in mint condition.
    "It's new." Parker said to the newcomer, then held it out to him. "Here, take a look. Have a drink, it's pure water, zero rad."
    Hark took a long swig of the water, then put the stopper back in. A tear slid down his cheek. He had not tasted anything so clean in the years since getting mixed up with the Paso Park gang.
    "I forgot what clean was." Hark found himself blurting out.

    Ramone put his hand up when Hark tried to hand it back. "Keep it. I have a couple to spare. All new. Everything we are packing is factory new, even the ammo. Our baron isn't a tin pot Deathlands butcher, though he's a hard man as they get, and we are manufacturing in our ville. We have allies going all down through the upper core of Old Mex. Pure water, untainted food crops, even some of the convenient items from 'fore the world went to shocking hell in a blast. We fought tooth and nail to try and build something pure, and we aim to keep building."

    Hark nodded.

    "Hold on to the pure things in life, Mister Danby, and accept them with grace as they present themselves." Ramone Parker smiled when he spoke those words, but there was a warning tone to his voice.

    "Wiser words, sir, and I appreciate your warning earlier." Hark said. "And please, sorry if I was a bit too eager earlier. We been runnin' on fumes for days. I just wanted to get her safe."

    "I'm a husband and father too, I know that feeling." Ramone told him. "I also know that Dewey's Rock don't usually send out that far for meat. Plenty of game up in the hills and mountains."

    Hark almost thought about going for his Model 1911, but he was aware of what it would bring down on him and Mouse. He had always been fast enough to get by on quick wit alone when the need arose, today was not going to be an exception.
    "It was more'n that," Hark said, "we were merc scouting for a mystery man. He had my chief under threat, used his daughter, my Mouse there. Said we all do it or she and our ville would pay the price. I never knew what the point was, who and what the man pulling the strings was. Not until her papa was killed. He sent us out, said go to the ruin or else. I don't know why. Please, You gotta believe, I just wanted to keep her safe."

    Ramone Parker stood with his hand out. "That's what I hoped you'd say. Now, hand over that blaster and we are gonna work this out to your favor."

    Hark thought before he acted.
    "Why you want to help me? You don't know what I done to get here."

    "And you don't know what we have to get here. Hand it over and you might even get back to Paso Park."

    "How did you guess?" Hark asked, slowly pulling out the .45 with his finger tips pinching the handle.

    "I was with the raiding party that hit Dewey's Rock twenty five years back. We took the children and traded them as slaves for iron ore from an old mine they had in their territory. We had a different baron back then. She is young enough to be a Dewey kid, but you are not. You would have been killed by our raiding crews if your parents were caught holding out. After the first family was taught the lesson, every one of the others got in line real quick."

    "Rad fire..." Hark said.

    "Some of us got a second life when the new baron took power. Some men couldn't turn back after the things we had to do, Mister Danby. You have a chance, so does she -if you want it."

    "I'll need to talk to her. Can we wait for that? Soon as they come up and we can explain it all, I give my word."

    "Your word," Ramone said, "ain't good jack. I'm gonna need more'n that to get you slack. There was a smashed signal relay west of here, footprints from it disappear into the air."

    The pale look on Hark's face answered before another word was said.
    "It wasn't us." The outed biker told him.

    Ramone pulled the slide bolt of his AKM back and said, "You don't get a third chance to get out of this alive, son. Those idealistic kids may settle for your half truths, they won't torture a man; but I don't have a problem making men wish they were dead when it comes to my family. Ville Juarez is my family. And I don't mind leaving you or that girl tied up in a bow of your own intestines for that mystery man either."

    Hark looked around nervously. "Okay. We call him the Freak. He comes and goes like a ghost, but he is part 'borg, he has been forcing us to raid on your scouts for years. Every time y'all tried to push north, he put a stop to it. Ol' Jim, our Prez, he said we had to keep pushing your scouts to go west. Not north, not east. After a while, the more of us died, the more the gang wanted revenge for the ones we lost. The Freak set us up to die, he wanted y'all here, I figure, no idea why... Shit!"

    A single black drop of sooty water struck his hand like a bullet. The acidic chemistry of the drop stung his skin. They both looked up, no clouds were visible but the sky was hazy and the sun was the color of bone.

    "Vapor, it's been blown up so fine and thin it couldn't make clouds. Cold air from the Devil is contesting it," Ramone Parker explained, "it should be ok for a while. Keep talking!" 


    "No. He knows now! He is going to chill us all... Mouse... Oh no. We better run."

    Another drop fell nearby and sizzled when it hit the salty crust under foot. The haze grew more thick. As Hark jerked his head skyward, a lone vulture flew over his head. There was a cold red dot in the carrion feeder's eye as it swooped by, a dim light that Hark had seen before. The damned thing was a Freak tool, he thought.
    "The vulture!" Hark yelled out. Before his better judgment could stop him, Hark leaped the distance between himself and Ramone, just as the scout was looking up. His hand struck out and snatched the .45 with lightning speed. His shoulder hit Ramone in the sternum, knocking him back.
    Before Ramone could react to the rush attack, Hark Danby was tracking the large bird with the pistol.
    "The hell, Danby?" Ramone said, raising the AKM to his shoulder.

    Hark squeezed off a single round, which struck the vulture at the shoulder joint of its left wing. The ugly avian dropped like a stone, Hark charging after to finish the job. "It's got his eyes! Come on!" He yelled behind him.
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    --
    12/20/2014 12:43 PM
    It took a little effort for Max and Klash to pry the salt corroded door open with their crowbars, the steel scraped loudly as the hinges turned.
    Dawn reached up and flipped the L shaped flashlight clipped to her harness on.
    "Go." Klash pointed to the left.
    Dawn crossed the hall with her guns out front and pressed against the wall, Max following after with an AKM slung over his shoulder, then Klash stepped out to cover the rear with his Makarov -the SVD across his back.
    Dawn side walked along the row of closed doors on the right side, Max on the left, peeking through the coated windows for threats.
    The mutant was surprisingly graceful, silent, Klash noted, like a predator stalking a herd. His muscles tensed and shifted under his thick hide with each step. He stopped at a large broken plate glass door and waved his hand for Klash to look. Dawn Rodriguez covered them from the opposite wall.

    The office space was as large as a basketball court. Steps led down from the shattered door to rows of desks covered with computer screens and keyboards. A millimeter of dust had settled on every surface, long undisturbed by the presence of any living thing, not even cockroaches.
    "Shock me." Dawn said, muted by the gas mask on her face.

    "Over there." Klash directed their attention to a set of elevator doors across the room. "We found the way down, move it."

    The dirty blue commercial carpet clicked and puffed with their steps, leaving slight footprints behind the explorers. The wooden desks and dry rotted chairs stood silently as they wound their way through the small maze of work spaces. The ceiling tiles looked like a breeze could disintegrate them, yellowed by decay, only held up by the spectral layer of grime that coated everything in the space.

    The metal doors were easy to jimmy open, Max and Klash shoved them to the side without much effort. The mechanisms for the elevator, pulleys and cables, hanging in front of them were coated with a clear chrysalis of melted silicates; but they had been preserved very well. Max grabbed a tight cable and gave it a hard yank.
    Trickling fractures spider webbed up and down the baked on layer of sand, then the protective shell shattered and fell down the shaft, tinging quietly as the ripples traveled down the line of steel.
    "Smooth, Gila boy." Dawn sniped at the big mutant as he looked at the flakes descending like snow.
    "Give it another hard yank," Klash told him, "see if it can take weight still."

    "Good idea." Max replied, and then gave the cable a hard tug. It held.

    "Tighten that harness, Rodriguez," Klash advised the young woman, "it's a long way down if you slip out. We are going all the way to the bottom, that's where the answers are."

    "Yeah, no shit." Dawn agreed. As she looked over the edge into the shaft below, there didn't seem to be a bottom. There was only darkness framed with ancient concrete and steel.
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    --
    12/20/2014 3:14 PM
    Max was starting to hate the gas mask already. Sweat was gathering in the edges of the goggle section, stinging his eyes. Though the mask had been restructured for the broad Gila mutant features, his nose was too long for the bridge support, causing the field of vision to be slanted upward and he was having to lean his neck slightly to compensate. The end result was that the sweat from his brow slowly streamed into his eyes. It was too dark, even with the three flashlights' illumination, for him to close his protective secondary lids to cover his eyes.
    Dawn and Klash fared much better, they both wore custom fit masks- Dawn had a restored goggle style, prewar relic; Klash had a new full face clear shield attached to a belt filtering box. After ten floors of repelling down the elevator shaft, they were finally able to see the top of the elevator roof. It was definitely old world state of the art, security clamps on the maintenance hatch, digital camera at the corner. Max realized that while this place had not been a 'fort' in the conventional sense, it was absolutely some kind of military facility. There were mummified soldiers in the office space where they had entered the shaft, Mexican military police by the look of their uniforms. And now the heavy duty security system for the elevator showed all the signs of a very expensive budget. Whatever they did here, they had a long credit line to do it with.

    "Hey," Dawn said just audibly, "you want me to test it out for weight?"

    Klash locked his gaze on the doors beside him. "Wait, but yes. Max, see if that set of doors opens up. I don't want anyone taking a fast trip to the basement levels."

    The long bodied mutant unhitched his combat harness from the elevator cable and swung on the anchor tether, clipped to a steel support beam four stories above them, to the narrow ledge next to the exit. He had his crowbar on a D-ring hanging from his heavy uniform pants.
    The doors popped, then squeaked loudly as Max pushed it open.

    "More white coats and sec men... All cocooned in that weird glossy crusty stuff." Max reported.

    "Everyone in," Klash ordered, "look for something to tie or clamp the next anchor line to."

    Max unhooked the tether then proceeded, drawing his 9 mm Makarov. Klash swung to the door and put a hand down to help Dawn up. She was heavier than she looked, slender and solid, but swung herself up with her own strength easily. Klash could see her figure better, now that her t-shirt was clinging to her because of perspiration, and she caught him admiring.
    "Thank you. Enjoying the view?" She asked him, putting her hands on her hips.
    "Right, sorry." He spoke, feeling a swell of heat beneath the mask as he blushed. "Let's get focused."
    "Soon as you get out of the door." She said.
    Klash saw her eyebrow lift and then stepped back out her way.
    "Check your filter, my lord." Dawn told him as she stepped by. "You look a little red."
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    --
    12/21/2014 9:36 AM
    Max stood in front of the mummified child, arms and shoulders slumped. He could see the features, the small fingers, the wide eyes. It was like a photograph, a final moment of frozen fear. The clear layer of silica and salt glass over the boy was thin, like a smooth enamel finish. The hospital gown was blue, pigments unfaded by time, with a pocket on the chest. A small toy, a military themed action figure, was riding the pocket in front of a set of plastic cards on a lanyard made of white synthetic blend cord. The four and a half inch tall figure had a yellow reptilian face, wore a black and orange camouflage painted vest with a red cobra emblazoned on the chest.
    The blue plastic card behind the toy soldier was an identification tag. There was a thin black magnetic strip across the top over four bold type letters: MRSG.

    He reached out a long finger and plucked up the cord. The thin glaze over the lanyard disintegrated as he lifted it over the boy's head, but Max was able to get it clear without damaging the mummy. He flipped through the card set, six in total, looking for a patient name; but there were only alphanumeric characters next to color glyphs and bar codes.

    The toy hung out over the perch until Max tried to put the card in place. The cloth had slacked without the rigid card stack to keep it in place, and dropped the plastic toy out. The hard plastic clicked on the floor tiles. Max knelt and picked up the dislodged soldier to examine it. The snake skinned toy trooper wore combat boots and blue cargo pants with molded pockets and crossed straps with painted representations of knives, grenades and a pistol. Max stared, mind wandering for a few moments before he heard Dawn Rodriguez step into the room behind him.

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    --
    1/4/2015 3:13 PM
    "Hey," Dawn Rodriguez whispered "Max, you jacking it to mummy kid's toys? That's fucked, bro."

    Max was transfixed by the action figure in his long mutant fingers, answering the foul mouthed scout was unimportant. He had seen old prewar toys before, but never one that bore so much resemblance to himself.

    "Dude," Dawn said louder "a fucking little respect to answer wouldn't kill you,you know?"

    "Snap it closed, Dawn." Klash said as he pushed her aside and approached the long bodied Gila mutant slowly. "Max? You ok there?"

    "Sure, yeah.... I'm just a bit surprised. It looks like me." Max replied, holding the toy up by the boots.

    "No fucking way," Dawn blurted out "it's totally your ancestor."

    Max was starting to feel self conscious about his reaction to the toy now. He couldn't help but wonder if some ancient toy maker had prophetic visions of the coming storm, or dreams of the future, or maybe it was coincidence and he was over thinking things again. Why would a child have such a toy in this place?

    "That was probably his last Xmas gift before the bomb, Max." Klash speculated, it was almost as if he could read what the mutant was feeling, "But I see the resemblance too. I bet the kid would think you were cool."

    "Shit. I bet the kid would wet his pants if he saw you, Maxie." Dawn laughed and bent over to look at the mummified boy. "Poor kid. At least he didn't know what hit him."

    Klash put his hand on the mutant's shoulder. "Take it. He'd want you to have it."

    "No," the mutant shook his head, "she's right. He would be terrified of me, like most human children when they see us for the first time."

    Max put the toy back in place and turned for the door. His long legs carried him out of the door in half as many steps as it took the others. Klash followed him into the hall next, then Dawn grabbed the toy and stuffed it into a snap closed pocket on her harness belt.
    The hallway was marked with exit signs pointing away from the elevators. Klash recognized the passage from the vision -the left corridor at the end led to the place where the staff had crowded together in the last moments, where the white coated scientist unleashed the silver cylinder.

    "This was originally the ground floor." Klash informed them. "We're almost there. Tie off the lines on the fire hose pipes, they will hold our weight well enough."

    Max and Dawn tied C clamps to the last set of ropes and looped them around the red fire control pipes. The sagging ceiling tiles crackled and dropped dusty salts when Max yanked hard to test the strength of the pipes.

    "It'll hold, my lord." The mutant announced.

    "Better hold." Dawn remarked before snapping her harness to the lines and beginning her descent to the elevator car.
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    --
    1/4/2015 8:02 PM
    ___The Harpy, Main Bridge Deck___

    Doctor Lisa Hammond was writing the last paragraph of her report on the Ville Juarez defenses when the cyborg entered the bridge area. Her detailed description of the central bunker complex was total, the El Dorado scientists would find no surprises when the attack came. The Juarez walls were thick, meant to repel the worst of the Deathlands' raiders and baronial sec forces; but they afforded zero protection from the airship bombers of the Catatumbo enclave. She finished her report by click-dragging the memory drawn map of the bunker ventilation system and the secret tunnels that Baron Hadron's engineers built to hold civilians and supplies in the unlikely event of a prolonged siege.

    "Are you ready to send the data, Doctor?" The hollow voiced machine-man asked.

    "Oh, indeed." She answered back, almost giddy with excitement. "Will I be able to watch? May I?"

    The cyborg chuckled at her enthusiasm. "My dear lady, your hatred is almost as inspirational as your research on mutant biology. I am sure that we can arrange for you to get live feed, if you wish."

    "If I had my wish, I would be there to witness their expressions in person." She said, smiling widely, wickedly.

    "In all likelihood, they won't know what hit them until too late." He told her. "They will be kept under sedation all the way to the body banks.... Then their individual identities will be erased by the conversion process."

    "What about Hadron and his witch?" She asked.

    "He will be converted into a service drone eventually, given his age. His wife, however, will be taken for dissection after were core the marrow from her bones. That will be excruciatingly painful." The cyborg said.

    "Good. I want to be there for that, if at all possible. When will the attack happen?"

    The cyborg looked at the row of monitors and swept his finger sideways to the countdown application on the desktop icon, pinched his fingers then pointed to the main video monitor. "Tonight, after sundown."
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    --
    1/5/2015 9:07 PM
    ___The Painted Pony, BFE___

    Jen Gutierrez rode the bumps in the road all day in the Pony's navigator seat. Hector was not surprised at how little she seemed to be bothered by the cramped quarters of the hide covered Baja Bug, she was a turret gunner by profession and the old customized VW had comparably more leg room than the glass covered birdcages that guarded the Sanchez gateway. But after a sun up to sundown trek over the Eastern Sonora wasteland scrubs, even a seasoned scout like Hector started to get a little stir crazy.
    "Hey, Jen," He asked, "want to set camp before we lose light?"

    She looked at the dark green sunset through the western horizon. Nothing but broken earth, cacti and tumbleweeds filled her view. Nothing in the way of human occupation was visible.
    "We may as well." She told him. "Skirting around those big 'lope herds this afternoon put us miles off course anyway. Yeah, let's call it a day."

    "Alright then.... We got maybe forty minutes of decent daylight left. Keep an eye for a big rock or maybe a depression." He told her, "I'd feel better if we could have a fire without being too conspicuous about it."

    "Yeah."

    Another ten minutes of driving was all it took before Jen spotted a half ruined adobe wall sticking up out of hard broken ground.

    "Over there," Jen pointed off just northwest. "That looks like our best bet."

    The crumbled structure offered three partial walls and plenty of dry brush for a small camp fire. The crack in the wall resembled lightning, streaking across the ancient brown clay in long jagged forks. Desert sands had long since wind blasted any paint pigment that may have colored the ruined walls. If there was ever a place that fit the title 'Ass end of
    nowhere' more, neither Jen or Hector Munoz had any recollection of.

    "So," Hector said after spraying the area with Alvarez bug repellent, "I figure that we can catch up to Parker and the sec team by mid day if we are up by four. It looks like there is pretty flat territory from here on out."

    Jen smiled and nodded, then rolled out a large plastic tarp in the corner over the bug proofed area. She couldn't remember the last time she had been so tired from just sitting, but the rough terrain had taken a lot more out of both of them than she had expected. Hector, however, knew the trials of open scouting and what a toll that many hours of bouncing over rocky desert ground took -and his own personal limits as well. He could have driven all night, but saw no point in risking the Pony puncturing a tire or driving over a drop off in the dark.
    Another night would not change the fact that this expedition had turned out to be a major blunder for the barony, one that left Juarez far worse for the effort. The more he thought about it, the more he dreaded the duty of informing Klash Hadron the price of his discovery; though he would, by far, rather have to tell the younger Hadron than his father of this most ill-fated venture, to be sure. No, the young indie scout had absolutely no envy of the Motor Chief when it came to being the bearer of bad news.
    It was a triple fucked deal all the way around.
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    --
    1/5/2015 10:43 PM
    ___Fort Geronimo, topside___

    Mouse heard the shot from the ruins' northern end and broke immediately into a full run. She didn't think about the safest route through the rubble, and it never entered her mind that the ground could swallow her in an instant as she leaped over the two foot high wall section; but down she went all the same.
    "Fuckin' shit!" She screamed as she sank to her arms in the loose sand. She couldn't feel a bottom, but there was thick dust enveloping her legs from all sides. It would pull her down and suffocate her in minutes if she went under, and there was nothing close enough to get a grip on, nothing to pull herself out of the death trap she hopped into this time, she knew that.

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    --
    1/6/2015 6:59 PM
    Peter Vasquez was the first one to reach Ramone Parker and the newcomer, Danby. He almost dropped the AKM when he tripped up in the loose sand, but recovered in two fumbling steps. Hark was running, with Ramone close behind, toward a black flapping mess of squawking feathers a few yards away. When the scavenger got to within a few feet he took aim and yelled some words in English that Peter was unfamiliar with -the priest who taught him the basics of the tongue had deliberately left out the swear words, and his contact with native speakers was limited since his arrival in Ville Juarez.
    Ramone Parker sided up next to Danby, and after a brief exchange both men took aim, then both men started emptying rounds into what appeared to be the large vulture that had been hanging out since the fight with the stickies. Blood and cartilage exploded across the cracked salt crusted earth.

    "Hey! Guys?" Peter yelled as he unslung the assault weapon from his shoulder, "Um.... Why are you blasting out vultures guts on the salt when we have a full spice rack at camp?"

    "It's complicated, kid." Ramone said. "But it seems our new friend is going to be telling us one hell of a camp story tonight."

    "C'mon, we can jack off at the mouth when we are clear of the black rain comin'!" Hark spit out as he took off around the right side of the ruined structure. The dirty cowboy hat blew off as he passed them.

    "Black rain?!?" Peter's voice cracked with fear of the words.

    Before Ramone could say anything to clear up the teenagers confusion, two large drops of acid rain hit the ground and sizzled on the hard ground nearby. That was more than enough to convince Peter that it was time to high foot for shelter.
    "Run! Go to Corona, tell him to get shelter fast!" Ramone called back as he set out after Danby.
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    1/6/2015 8:35 PM
    Mouse screamed for help, but the second wave of shots rang out.
    "Shit, shit, shit..."
    She realized that screaming and thrashing was only serving to weaken her position. The dust filled hole sucked her in another inch thanks to the cavitations created by her kicking.
    "Okay, it's like quicksand..." She told herself. "...arms only, point toes.... Arms only."

    There was a storm of fear building in her chest. Mouse felt her pulse pounding, her heart racing from the horrible prospect that no matter what she did, the ground was going to swallow her whole and Hark would never find her. She had not been so close to death before, her father had kept her safe growing up, by Deathlands standards anyway. Hark, too, never allowed her to take on unnecessary risks. She was aware before that others took risks, even died for her to live the life of relative comfort as the only daughter of the Paso Park gang's Prez; but the consequential reality of death was only now a real thing to her.

    Fear, terror, mortality were actualized for her in these few moments at long last. Is this, she wondered, what all those people who had sacrificed on her father's orders experienced? She had never considered it, but the suffering of others had paid for her pampered existence for the last seventeen years. It was the strangest irony, and a painful one to boot, that it was in this moment that she gained a little insight on her own character and understood how narrow her view of life had been.

    "God, no, not this...." She prayed, streaks of tears lining down from the corners of her eyes. "Please, I get it now.... I am sorry, so sorry."
    It shocked her to find herself pleading for her life to the sky.
    She was going to die, alone, with the only man who she had the slightest amount of what she understood as respect for yards away and unaware of it.

    The deep exhale at the despairing thought created enough slack in the dust to pull her down another quarter of an inch. The particles were puffing up from her breath now, collecting on her lips as fast as she tried to spit them out.
    Mouse stiffened her arms and tried to push up, but couldn't gain any leverage. As the dust shifted again beneath her, a drop of moisture struck her arm. It burned like a match head on her skin.
    Black rain, the curse of the chemical demon that was unleashed in the final world war, she knew that it was going to strip her to the bone if the sink hole didn't get her first.
    She wanted to scream, but knew that it would just push her closer to the Reaper's chilling embrace.
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    --
    1/10/2015 11:04 AM
    The elevated concrete corner was pitted by a century of sand and chemical storms, a decayed zombie finger segment sticking up out of the sand, pointed skyward from the center the ruin. Mike could cover the crater and all approaches, but his raven nest was just as open to the chemical poisoning black rain as the open ground. He saw the snaking ribbon of ebon precipitation winding across the southern sky, but didn't have time to sound a warning before the loud report of a large caliber pistol rang out on the north side of the shattered rubble piles and wall of remnants.
    He saw the distant figure of Juan Gomez scramble into the Rosanna buggy, but the odds were slim that the ville sec driver would be able to get them all back to the elevated shelter before the billowing sheet of liquid death skinned anybody that rode on the side rail, exposed to the air. No, he thought, not going to make it. Without a thought, he jumped to his feet and shouldered the heavy ammo box pack, then slung the RPK light machine gun across his chest.
    There was burst of gunfire echoing from the north again, but Mike was too busy with getting down from the exposed perch to think about what it meant as yet -he could interpret it AFTER he got his feet on Terra firma.
    "Santo's silver mask!" He said when he saw the blonde mop of hair sticking out of the sand. The newcomer girl was in a dust trap, not the best timing on her part.

    Mike caught a brief flash of light from below him, and then an idea, an impulse. His eyes quickly traced out a path to the ground along the rubble wall tops and twisted steel beams.
    "I can do it!" He blurted and broadly grinned as he took two steps backwards.
    He suddenly charged forward, taking three running steps and jumped out with all that his legs had in them. As he sailed across the gap, his right leg kicked forward and he listed his head forward, eyes concentrating on where his next steps needed to go. His right boot contacted with the solid poured wall top, then his left, he let his forward momentum carry him along the slope, down to a flat piece of diamond plate steel that was angled steeply, but wide enough for him to run down to the ground.
    He ran out of the bulky ammo box encumbering him and shucked the RPK from his shoulder when he saw the young scavie starting to sink further down the hole. His muscles pushed him towards her faster, closing the distance in seconds.
    Her head was going under when he threw himself into a flat, skidding dive. Her arms were just beginning to fold up, the dusty pit was on the verge of success; but his focus stayed on her hands. Mike slid on his belly, arms in front. His fingers clamped around her pale wrists, gripping tight.
    His body weight was spread out enough, just, to give him a solid hold, and he pulled her arms straight up.
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    1/11/2015 12:25 PM
    Peter ran between the cement walls, over piles of fallen blocks and chunks, around rusted beams. His head was starting to hurt, he had no idea what was going on with the scavie and Ramone; but it did not matter. Staying alive mattered.
    "Mike! Mike!" The teen age sec guard yelled as he ran. "Corona, we have to get to shelter. Mike??"

    "Over here, kid." Peter heard from his right side. "Over here, help me!"

    As he ran from behind a large slab, he saw the gunner stretched across the sand. Mike was arching his back, straining to pull the scavie girl out of the ground.
    "Holy mother! What happened to her?" Peter asked.

    "Dust! Grab my legs and pull, damn it!" Mike ordered.

    "Oh, oh yes, ok" Peter said as he slung his AKM behind him, then dropped to his knees and looped his arms around Mike's ankles.

    "Pull! Harder!" Mike grunted, straining his shoulders as he pulled up the girl further.

    Time was running out, more drops of rain impacted, sizzled on the salty sands. They had Mouse out halfway from the death trap hole.
    "Almost.... There. Relax, girl, don't stiffen so much!" Mike told her. "Pull, Peter, or we are all going to be acid soup! Pull!"

    "I am!"
    Peter was able to get his feet down now, so he pushed back as he pulled his comrade by the ankles. The angles were all wrong, but it worked. Mouse slid up and out, but exhausted from the struggling. Mike pulled her back from the hole.

    "Mouse!" They heard Hark Danby calling. "Mouse!?"

    "Over here! Watch out for dust traps!" Mike yelled back.

    The scavie appeared from behind a pile of broken structure, Ramone behind him. The newcomer looked like he was on the verge of a stroke when he saw her laying limp.
    "What the fuck happened to her??" Hark demanded as he fell beside her and took her face in his hands.

    "A hole in the floor, dust trap.... No time, get to the crater." Mike replied, coughing dust up.

    "Yeah, he's right. Pick her up, guys, we have to... Ouch, shit!" Ramone Parker said, wincing as a drop of black rain slapped his cheek. "Now, now! Snap it!"

    Hark and Peter lifted the girl by her arms and half drug, half carried her as the jogged behind the others. Mike snatched up the RPK and ammo pack as the group stumbled over a pile of broken cement.

    "To the crater," Ramone ordered them, "we gotta move."

    Ramone led them to the crater just as the black sheet of torrential acid rain approached. He took Mouse over his shoulder and sent Peter down the rope with Danby behind him. Mike and Ramone slid Mouse down the hole into the arms of her man, then helped Mike Corona down before handing him the machine gun and heavy pack of 7.62 rounds.

    "Gimme room, boys, Coming in hot!" Ramone warned, then leaped into the hole. "Geronimo!"
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    --
    1/19/2015 9:42 AM
    Ramone only slightly misjudged the landing, slamming hard into a salt corroded bed frame, but managed to escape physical injury. The loud metallic clang echoed down the hall through the open door at the end of the ward.
    "Always wanted to do that." He said with a boyish grin, but nobody paid much attention, everyone was focused on the slightly built newcomer.

    Hark was cleaning the dust from her nose and eyes as she coughed fine puffs and spit. "Mouse, I got you. Your safe now, darlin'. It's gonna be ok.... just spit it out."

    A loud sizzle, like a skillet full of bacon fat, was coming from outside of the hole above. The sheets of acidic black rain had reached the ruins and would soon be streaming through the opening. Hark looked up in time to see Peter staring up through the hole.

    "Parker," Hark yelled, "get that fuckin' kid back 'fore he gets a facefull."
    Ramone turned around and yanked the young man away by the shirt collar right before a steaming trickle ran into the hole, followed up shortly by a steady torrent.

    "Everybody get back." Ramone ordered, without argument from the others. "This room is gonna get fumed and soaked, it ain't safe. Danby, she alright to walk yet?"

    "I can do it." Mouse piped in, then spit another gob of salty dust. She was sitting upright on her own, but it was obvious that the close call had taken a lot out of her.

    "Ramone," Mike Corona called from the large steel door, "Klash and the others went this way. We can close this door and wait it out in one of the other rooms."

    "Good thinkin', man. Let's get to it."

    The chemical fumes from the rain stank like a cracked rotten egg, the salt on the floor crackled and hissed upon contact with the corrosive liquids. Mike and Ramone shoved the heavy ward door shut behind them with a loud squeak of metal on metal.
    The hallway was almost pristine, except for the salty film that covered every surface. Old pictures, mostly landscapes and medical safety reminders, still hung in their frames on the aged white walls. Old furniture and plastic plants lined the passage between office and ward doors. Mike, Peter and Ramone had flashlights clipped to their combat harnesses, providing enough light to follow the trail of footprints on the dusty commercial carpet.
    "This way." Mike said, "Max left big prints, thank the Lady."
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    --
    1/19/2015 10:18 PM
    ___The Harpy, Lab___

    "Dirty pig fucking Deathlander scum!"
    Lisa Hammond heard the aluminum furnishings smashing against the monitor, the walls, and the incoherent rage unleashed from the cyborg's screaming voice emulator from across the hall. Hell hath no fury, she thought, like a cyborg scorned.
    The clatter of metal instruments being thrown continued for nearly a full thirty seconds more, but she decided to give her new mentor thirty more before crossing the hall. It was a terrible idea to consider, that a man of such physical power and calculated logic was still susceptible to being governed by the more primitive emotions of Man. On the other hand, it was a comfort to know that there was some weakness still that she could exploit if need arose.

    She gathered her courage and straightened up her lab coat collar before rapping on the light door.
    "Is something wrong?" Lisa asked.

    The cyborg turned and stood facing the door before answering.
    "Yes, come in."

    As Doctor Hammond pushed the door open, she could see the anger in his human features. "I didn't anger you, did I?"

    "No, Doctor." He told her. "I have been betrayed. I apologize for my outburst. One moment, please."
    The cyborg waved and slid his fingers in front of a small flat computer screen, then snapped them twice. A white plastic wall panel slid open on the floor. From the recessed compartment, a small mechanical octopus climbed out and set about clearing the broken glass.

    "That is amazing." Lisa said, eyes wide with fascination. The robot was only one foot tall, but the tentacles were five feet in length, their black and white plastic ring sections over and underlapped as they snaked across the floor, carrying the bulbous central body/head. "I never imagined that such things... I mean, I never hoped to see in my lifetime. I thought maybe in a hundred years time..."

    "A hundred years is nothing." The cyborg interrupted her. "Come, it is time to send your friend on his first mission. Pico, follow."

    Lisa looked over at the Cuban, his expression was blank, emotionless, cold even.

    "What is wrong with him? He looks like he has been though a heavy regiment electroconvulsive treatments." She remarked, still staring at his eyes."

    "Oh, please, my dear. We have much better methods than that. No. Our friend here is one of us now." The cyborg almost seemed to smile as he spoke. "And I have great hopes for him."

    "I don't understand." Lisa said.

    "You will, Doctor. And I believe that you will find this most entertaining." The cyborg laughed.
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    --
    1/22/2015 7:06 PM
    The cyborg seemed very pleased with himself as he lead the way to the Harpy's main bridge, humming an upbeat tune as he walked up the six step riser to the command chair. The off white plastic walls were lined with flat screen display monitors and computerized work stations.
    "I meant to ask, before we were... distracted," Doctor Hammond said, "if your airship was originally intended for a larger crew. It certainly looks like it was."

    "Yes," the cyborg told her, "normally the Harpy would have a crew of two pilots, an engineering specialist, a communications tech and two weapons operators in addition to a few field scientists. But I am capable of each of those tasks, and the collective has been spread thin for years. Our slave drones have dwindled down to less than one hundred, so I decided to forgo any assistance in order to assure that the El Dorado facility had sufficient security and workers."

    Lisa looked again at Pico, who stood just as blankly emotionless as before.
    "Why, then, have you not acquired new slave stocks from closer to Catatumbo? Wouldn't that be more convenient than coming all this way?"

    "A very good question, Doctor." The cyborg said. "We have made that mistake before, thirty years ago, and with disastrous results. We discovered that there is too small of a number of harvestable compatible genotypes left South of the Yucatan peninsula -a very small number too easily exhausted by our harvesting needs. The majority ended up useless blobs, unable to perform jobs other than menial labor, if they survived at all. The people of Durango, and thus Ville Juarez, on the other hand, have been exposed to the correct transgenic viri and remained isolated from the WRONG phenotypes until recently. Your hidden valley shielded your people, like an umbrella, from the unpredictability of the North America stocks. The Deathlanders of the former United States are too unstable, genetically speaking, and resistant to the Tabula Rasa process. We ended up with uncontrollable monsters."

    "So," Lisa said, "we are the just right porridge from the story of Goldilocks and the three bears?"

    The cyborg shook and laughed at her metaphorical comparison. "Oh, yes indeed, Doctor! Just right! I continue to be surprised and impressed by your grasp of the situation. Now, lets get our new friend suited up with some rain gear. I wouldn't want him to melt before he completes his mission. He has a lot of loose ends to tie up for us before the assault on Juarez begins."
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    --
    1/24/2015 12:50 PM

    ___Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela___

    Even from six miles away, the Catatumbo lightning was an intimidating sight. Before the world wide cataclysm, purple to blue flashes of arcing plasma lit the sky for up to ten hours starting after dusk from April to November. But for the last hundred years, the storms raged year round. The secretive El Dorado facility had been built, originally, to study the phenomenon and investigate it's potential use as a high energy source; but it would not be until nearly a decade after the war that the surviving science teams found the means to harness the lightning -far too late to be of use to the half dozen energy companies that collectively provided the two billion dollars in shadow funding.
    Nearly five hundred scientist and engineers participated in the project, living in the subterranean micro city with their families for two years before the bombs fell and the world went black. Despite tectonic upheaval, climatic chaos and general nightmarish realities of the post apocalyptic world, the facility came through virtually unscathed. The megastructure had been built to withstand the primal destructive forces from within and without, surrounded by a large particle collider buried two hundred feet below the surface. Natural resources in the immediate area were plentiful, including uranium. Indeed, every basic resource to survive and live well was present. But survival was not enough for the facility administrators and scientists. The three way marriage of corporate ambition, unrestricted scientific curiosity and gradually increasing militarism had produced a monster.
    The first generation of residents born in the collective had adopted a militant philosophy after their initial attempts to reach out to the ravaged communities near the Columbia/Venezuela border drew crews of pirates and other reavers to the Maracaibo basin. Hundreds of people had gathered and formed refugee communities along the lake shores, all hoping to make a new start for a better society, only to be butchered by the cold hearted raiders seeking plunder and slaves. The white coats and white collars agreed, the world was beyond saving and they would have to clean the slate in order to bring the world to right. But the more information that they had gathered about the state of the world, the more they realized that the dream of restoring it was a lost cause. Instead of struggling against a poisoned world that may never be tamed, a theoretical physicist named Professor Vittorio Laszlo proposed, they should set their sights on starting civilization anew on a new world. The administrators and scientists found the idea inspirational, revelatory even, and put it to a vote to let the people of El Dorado decide. It was an almost unanimous affirmative, and they collectively decided that no matter what the cost, they would succeed.

    There were barriers to overcome, the greatest one being manpower. In order for the collective to devote themselves to the project, the citizen scientists must free themselves of manual tasks like food production, facility maintenance and security. The solution came in the form of slavery. The slave labor force needed to accomplish this, however, would have to be controlled completely lest they overthrow the collective. They would have to remove the ability to rebel from the slaves, wipe away their sense of individuality and will.

    The clique of biology focused scientist provided the means: the Tabula Rasa process. Slave subjects whose family lines had been exposed to certain bioweapons could be genetically altered, their minds cleared, memories wiped away and then rewritten to suit whatever assignment was at hand that day, as many times as needed. The only problem with the plan was that there were too few potential slaves with the correct transgenic signature; or so they believed until one of their scouting teams found the hidden valley in Durango ruled by the Milagros family. Luckily, the baron was more than willing to sell his own people out. A most fortuitous turn of events for the El Dorado collective. That was, as it happened, until those people overthrew Baron Milagros. 

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    1/24/2015 8:03 PM
    Within the next twelve to thirteen hours, all of those issues would be put to rest, and the rebel soon to be slaves would be subjugated by the fleet of five cigar shaped, rigid airships anchored inside the aerodrome. The blue and white Kevlar backed skins of the Kraken, Manticore, Hydra, Medusa and Hades could resist the small arms fire of any Ville Juarez defenders not rendered harmless by the sleep gas bombs. If the Harpy did manage to make it for assault, all the better, the collective would be able to carry even more captives back for processing into biodrones. The psychologists predicted that the leftovers would try to make it back to their Durango hideaways. They would be gathered up later, after the first batch of drones was combat ready in a few months.

    Inside the hangar, biodrone ground crews were loading light weight, eggshell thin bomb casings onto the outboard drop racks in preparation for the coming battle -not that there would be much resistance if all went as planned. The unsuspecting people of Juarez would most likely never know what hit them until it was far too late. The collective had a spy for the past few years setting the groundwork for the late night invasion. The Catatumbo collective victory was definitely a given considering that just over a third of their security forces, the best of them at that, had been sent out to be slaughtered in a trap that Administrator Crawford - a cyborg scientist who had been given command the Harpy to conduct espionage against the rogue ville - had sprung upon them. The drones, of course, were unable to appreciate such details and planning, but the few hundred citizens of the collective absolutely delighted in the reports Crawford wrote.

    The drone pilots and security crews were the last to load into the wide cargo bays, they would be ordered into sleep mode for the journey. Each was issued a blue light body armor suit, a tranquilizer dart rifle and tasers capable of knocking down even the largest, toughest mutants that the Juarez Barony had allied itself with. Featureless, metallic blue helmets covered their heads and faces even when they were not going into combat -the blank, colorless faces of processed biodrones upset the younger children, and made even their master's skin crawl at times.
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    --
    1/25/2015 11:31 AM
    After the armored biodrone soldiers strapped themselves to their seats, the ground crews crossed the beige colored plascrete floor of the aerodrome to a large platform elevator shaft at the rear of the hangar. The steel grated elevator lifted up through the opening with ten white armored overseers aboard. Each had tasers on their belts and tranquilizer pistols in shoulder holsters. The El Doradans all wore open faced blue and white helmets that were more ornate than those worn by the drones, with gold tinted mirror goggles to protect their eyes on a thick elastic band, each numbered one through ten.

    The ground crew drones made a slight bow as their enslavers passed. It was a programmed response, unnecessary given that the biodrones were genetically incapable of anything but total subservience, but it made the masters feel more in control.
    "You are dismissed." The lead overseer told them. "Report to reprogramming."
    The coverall clad drones nodded and filed onto the elevator platform.
    The overseers strode confidently to their assigned airships and up the loading ramps, which folded closed behind them.

    The nine-hundred foot long behemoth crafts detached from the moorings once the overseer teams took their seats. The wishbone shaped rear cargo gondolas wrapped around the bottoms of the cigar shaped, sectionalized lift bags creaked softly then settled on their mounting clamps. Though none of the overseers would admit to anything less than total confidence in the engineering, each had held their breath as the floating airships balanced and adjusted to the newly created cargo pods. There had been only minimal testing of the attachments, and this would be the first long distance operation. There was no way of knowing what would happen once the bays were loaded with their human cargo. Questions about the stability and balance would have to be addressed when they arose. Virtual training for the overseers had been used, the biodrone pilots and soldiers had been programmed to the maximum capacity with scenarios and contingencies: if A happens then B, if C happens then D or E, and so on. Mathematical models, strategic alternatives, all possible reactions had their own algorithm for coordinated response.

    The Hades was the first vessel to clear the aerodrome hangar, followed by the Medusa, then Manticore, Hydra and finally the Kraken. The five giants rose slowly, deliberately, maneuvering with their enclosed
    turbofans to comfortable distances, at different altitudes so that they had plenty of room to avoid collision. The Hades took the point position of the staggered V formation, leading them northward. The flight path would take them over the Gulf of Mexico at high enough altitude to make ground based attacks useless and detection unlikely. As Administrator Crawford had told them in his report, there was no community in North or South America capable of mounting a defense against high altitude bombardment. Victory was a forgone conclusion.


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    --
    1/29/2015 6:57 PM
    ___Fort Geronimo___

    Max held the nylon ropes steady as Dawn centered herself over the elevator roof three stories below. The beams from their flashlights crisscrossed down the shaft, diffused by the heavy cloud of dust in the air.

    Klash gave the anchor line a hard yank one final time and then asked Dawn, "You snapped, bro?"


    "Yeah, lower me already. And stop looking at my tatas." Dawn told him with a wink, drawing a muffled snicker from Max.

    "Don't flatter yourself," Klash told her, "I was making sure your harness wasn't too slack. Ok, let's do this."

    Max let out the rope slowly, steadily lowering her down to the roof of the car until her full weight rested on her feet. The access hatch security bolts were heavily corroded, but strong despite a century of neglect. Dawn unhooked the short handle bolt cutters from her belt. She closed the hardened blades on one of the bolts and tried to squeeze the rubber coated grips together, but it did nothing except scratch the black and yellow striped paint. She tried a second time, pushing with one foot against the cement shaft wall. No dice. The bolts were tougher metal than the sharp cutters. She looked up and shook her head side to side.

    "It is not regular steel, amigos." She called up to them. "This is definitely military grade."

    "Titanium maybe?" Max asked.

    "Maybe the bolts are, but the rest looks standard predark." Klash said.

    "I bet it isn't Max proof." Max said and handed the rope to Klash. "Hold this for me, I got this." The mutant grinned and hopped up to the doorway just above the beam they were standing on.

    "Hey Dawn," Klash yelled downward, "step over to the concrete ledge. Max coming down the hard way."

    "Wha..?" Dawn started to ask then realized what was happening.

    "I mean NOW!" Klash yelled to her.

    "Oh fuck you guys!" Dawn cursed as she jumped to the narrow ledge.

    "Mutant Mash!" Max screamed as he ran three steps and leaped high.
    Max dropped straight down, legs straight and ready. He dropped like a stone towards the hatch door, his safety line trailing behind him like the tail of a comet.

    Dawn cringed and held herself against the wall as close as possible.

    Max impacted feet first with a thunder clap like BOOM, the sound echoed like a bomb up the shaft accompanied by the squealing of tearing metal. Dust billowed up the shaft, reducing visibility to mere inches.
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    1/30/2015 7:46 PM
    Up through the cloud of dust particulates, even through the baffling effect of her filter mask, Klash could hear Dawn cursing a steady stream of the most rotten tongued profanities, common and uncommon, in both Spanish and English. He also heard Max laughing when she was forced to stop for breaths.
    It took nearly five minutes for the blinding cloud to settle down, but by then Max had the elevator door open to the sublevels. Thanks to his mothers training, Klash was able to 'see' well enough to climb down, pausing momentarily once he was close enough to detect that Dawn was silently weeping behind the thick layer of dust that coated her head to toe. Shit, he thought to himself, I am such an asshole.
    "Dawn?" He asked, as he swung to the ledge next to her. Her mask was white from dust, her eyes invisible. "I'm sorry, ok?"

    "No," her voice cracked, "it isn't ok. You don't get it, and you never will."

    "Dawn," he started to apologize, but was cut off by Max.

    "Sweet silver Santos!" The long bodied mutant called up to them, "You gotta see this! Get down here!"

    "Just a minute, bro." Klash answered, then began to wipe the dust from the lenses on Dawns mask. "Dawn, listen, I know. I get it, believe me. And I am sorry for everything, not just this. I... I know how you feel, about me."

    "Then why do you act so fuckin' clueless??" She said, voice still shaking. "Why do you never even..."

    "Because I have to be careful. I will explain why, and I will listen, but right now we have to do our job, ok? I promise, ok?"

    Dawn nodded and took a deep breath. "Ok. I'm good, let's do this."

    Klash could see where Max had landed now, the security hatch and bolts held, but the elevator roof didn't. The hatch was laying on the floor, covered in debris. Max's safety line hung down through the impact busted hole less than a foot, the mutant had judged it perfectly.

    Whatever momentary lapse in bitch attitude Dawn had been exhibiting quickly dissipated. She elbowed Klash in the ribs as she stepped to the edge of the elevator roof, her eyes tightened to angry little slots again. "Move. Asshat pretty boy."
    Klash couldn't find it in himself to be offended, he knew that he deserved it.

    After she unhitched her harness and dropped to the elevator car floor, her heavy boots clopped loudly on busted out hatch. Klash followed her down, but with less dramatic flash, he was content with the knowledge that there was still a human being inside the tough, hell on wheels indie scout. The harshness of their world had a nasty way of stripping away people's humanity, twisting them into self serving sociopaths over time and turning them into the worst versions of themselves. But, Klash had seen, even a Deathlander could be brought back from the degradation and barbarism if given the opportunity and right environment -Ramone Parker was proof of that.

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    1/31/2015 1:49 PM
    The glass walled hallway looked almost exactly as in the visions, except for the spiderweb of cracks on the surface of the triple thick panes. Every room was full of esoteric stainless steel scientific appliances and computer rack systems.
    "By the four Donnas..." Dawn said, her look of astonishment hidden behind the gas mask.

    "I think Parker may have had a point." Max announced. "We might be out of our depth on this, Klash."

    "Don't you start that too." Klash told him. "As long as we are careful, we have nothing to worry about. Follow me, I know where to go. The visions told me."

    "Oh," Dawn said, "well that makes me feel safe. You first, pretty boy."


    Klash took the lead, with Max behind him and then Dawn. As they worked their way around the small maze of corners, past labs and computer rooms, the flashlight beams glittered on the fractured glass. The biocontainment vault was at the far end of the sublevel from the elevator entrance, left at the end of row one, right at the large lab, right at break room, then left after the wash station, Klash remembered the route perfectly. When they arrived at the security keypad, Klash pulled a large battery pack from his shoulder bag.

    "I will only get one shot at this." Klash told them. "The magnetic locks will use the whole pack."

    "We can go up and get more batteries." Max said.

    "Not if the security system activates." Klash replied.

    Dawn and Max watched nervously as he pried open the heavy plastic facing, attached two alligator clips to the two large power wires, then pushed the keypad sequence: 3-6-2-2.
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    --
    1/31/2015 5:24 PM
    Juan Gomez drove the Rosanna buggy over the edge of the dune top and up to the edge of the ruins. Visibility through the chemical downpour was next to nonexistent, the jagged walls and decaying struts looked like dark blurs. Even with the environmental seals filtering the air, the industrial stench of the rain was nauseating. It seemed like everything that could go wrong had gone wrong so far. At least the survey and salvage recovery convoy would arrive in a few more days, he would be able to wash the road stink off and have a change of uniform, he hated smelling like a gringo Deathlander. Once the site was looted and the salvageable goods loaded, they could all go back to Ville Juarez -probably just in time to pack up for the annual pilgrimage to Durango for winter. If the haul was large enough, he might even have enough trade tokens to take a month or two off from sec work, provided that no other major threats to the valley came up.

    He had yet to take more than a week off duty in the five years he'd spent in the baronial service corps, not that Baron Hadron, Don Alvarez or the Motor Chief were slave drivers. His skill as a driver had won him a significant pay bump the last two years, which had helped his family in Rancho Ortega. His cousin Lupe was even talking about attending the Guzman technical school next season, she had a gift for computers.

    Like so many families in the rancheros, they worked out in the fields and dreamed that they might one day have a bigger piece of the pie. Juan, like little Lupe, differed from his family on exactly what that dream was. Most of the family were born farmers with a talent and passion for agricultural work. Juan wanted to learn about wag and truck mechanics, he dreamed of the day he could scrape enough industry tokens to trade for the tools needed to begin an apprenticeship under one of the Alvarez mechanics.

    While the rain popped and sizzled, Juan sat and waited, hoping that the freak storm would pass, daydreaming about how he would spend his share. He had already guessed that the rest of the group was sheltering in the ruins somewhere. They were mostly seasoned professionals at their jobs, except for Peter Vasquez, but the others would look out for him well enough.

    No worries, he thought. Gomez figured nothing would be triple stupe enough to walk around in the acid rain, so there was not anything to watch out for. He didn't notice the rain suited figure approaching the Rosanna from behind. Boredom had set in, and sleep was definitely not far behind it.
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    1/31/2015 9:17 PM
    The cubicle maze was amazingly well preserved thanks to the thin, salty crust that had sealed the room from the elements. Ramone Parker and Hark Danby cleared the room of the few dried mummies while the others scavenged for furniture cushions. There was a good number, surprisingly enough, that had foam core stuffing and synthetic fibre covers, plenty to give everyone a soft place to rest. Hark let Mouse rest for a while, enough to recover from her brush with the big chill of the Reaper's claw, then took her aside to explain the facts as directly as possible.

    "So we are gonna flip and join the Mexies?" Mouse asked. "Freak ain't gonna like that."

    "Darlin' girl," Hark told her, "the Freak was never gonna let us go anyway. And sure as Nuke Day, he would chill us dead once he got what he wanted. Maybe worse than chill us. At least we got a chance if we do the straight and narrow with these people, tell them everything we can about his comin' and goin', help them throw a wrench in his engines."

    "And you think that we won't end up on the bastard end of a noose in Juarez after what we done? Where you get that notion, Harker Danby?"

    "Parker, the other Deathlander. He done worse, so did a lot of 'em under their previous baron." Hark answered. "I love you, Mouse, and I am gonna make sure that damned machine man can't hurt you. I'll die first."

    "Oh, Hark. I love you so much right now. Daddy chose right for me, I know that for sure."

    "C'mon," Hark said and took her hand. "we got stuff to deal with our new friends. Parker says that they are the best folks he ever could have hoped for, and that is better'n we deserve."
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    2/1/2015 8:33 AM
    The keypad beeped once. The LED light flashed green. There was a set of simultaneous clicks as the locks on the vault opened.

    Klash stood up and gave the door a push. It swung open.

    They all stood silent for a long moment, waiting for any sign that the century old security system had activated. They all felt the tension melt as seconds passed without event. Nothing.

    "Okay," Max finally spoke, " I think you did it right. Now what?"

    "Come on, it's this way." Klash said as he stepped through the door.

    There was no dust, no fine layer of salt in the vault. Steel tube racks on either side of the room held cylindrical tanks labeled with faded bar code stickers. Klash walked to the rear of the room, eyes fixated on the large cylinder bristling with hoses and wires.

    "It looks like a freezie tank," Dawn observed, "only bigger. What is this thing, man?"

    Klash wasn't listening, he was completely transfixed by the shiny steel cylinder. He felt the presence of the crystal beings, though they did not show themselves. There was no power going to the device. Klash would have felt the electromagnetic field, even through the insulation covering the wires.
    He touched the tank with his hand, he sensed something familiar, something like a reunion of long lost family. He froze cold and stiffened at the thought.

    "Oh no, no, no..." He whispered, hand trembling as he slid his palm over the surface.

    Max took a step back.

    Dawn stepped forward.
    "Klash, what's wrong?" She asked.

    "This is all wrong." Klash said. "The power is off."


    Max didn't have the kind of mutant sense that Klash possessed, but he could tell that there was another presence near by. Several creatures of great power surrounded them, he could feel it in his bones. He also felt a familiarity, but in a more removed manner than Klash. This place of mystery held more than one secret, but that was as much as he could tell. He felt the minds of the crystal beings focus on him, they seemed pleased with him, he knew that but not why.

    Klash was muttering beneath his mask to himself, both hands shaking now as he knelt beside the control box and flipped the red switches up, one after the other, from the left to the right.

    Dawn had no idea what was going on, but she knew it was not right. She turned to look at Max, who was now backing up toward the door.
    "You guys are freaking me out. What is going on, you guys? Klash? Max? Hello?"

    "I'm okay," Max told her, "but we are not alone here. THEY are watching, waiting."

    "Who?? Dude, you both are talking some deep shit that I don't get. You guys are creeping me out. Klash, what is going on? Klash, talk to me." Dawn spoke strongly, forcefully. "Klash, pull it together!"

    "No, this isn't right." Klash said, then he pulled a screwdriver from a cargo pocket and jammed it into the seam of an access panel next to the switch on the left. The metal access plate clanged loudly on the white ainte cement floor. There was a disconnected power coupling in the small rectangular shaped space. Klash pushed the male and female six prong plug ends together, the steel cylinder made a long low pitch tone followed by a four second humming sound.

    "Klash," Max said, his hand reaching for the Makarov n his left shoulder holster, "there is something going on here. Your new friends may have left you out of the loop on the details."

    "I know, Max," Klash said, "but this is often the case with allies, is it not?"

    Dawn looked at them both and asked, "What is that supposed to mean, Klash? What the fuck is going on with you two?"

    "Ask HIM!" They both answered in unison.

    Dawn felt a cool streak of terror creep up her spine as the cylinder tank hissed. The overlapping containment plates slipped away from the thick glass tank inside, she held her breath instinctively. The curved chamber was full of white mist, she guessed that it was a cryogenic mixture. Klash grabbed the handle nearest the control switches and tried to force the lid open. It wouldn't budge. He jammed the screwdriver under the lip and tried to pry it open, but it made no difference.

    "Max, give me a hand. The cover is stuck." Klash explained, "I think some moisture got trapped at the edge."

    Reluctantly, Max stepped up to the side and grabbed a second handle. As they both strained, Dawn could see the bulging muscles under Max's thick mutant hide swell with tension. The glass cover creaked, then there was a popping noise like the opening of a wine bottle, the seal released and they both jumped back a few feet to avoid the out rushing gases.

    It was empty.

    "I understand now. I know what they were trying to tell me." Klash said to Max. "It was right in front of me, obvious to the point of unbelievability."

    "What does that even mean? Max, do you know what is going on? I'm fucking lost here." Dawn begged, "Would somebody explain this shit to me, please?"

    "Dawn, hush. Max, go to the glass cabinet over on the end and look at the bottles. Take a good look." Klash said as he picked up a medical bottle on the table next to the cryonic chamber.

    "Glass bottles, rows of them. Some are missing, but they have labels with pictures of animals: bugs, birds, this looks like an octopus and," Max paused and his shoulders slumped, "and reptiles. The Gila. Great Mother!"

    "Exactly!" Klash said.

    Dawn shook her head quickly. "What?"

    Klash held the bottle up to Dawn, it had a picture of a small beetle over a biohazard symbol next to a bar code. "See? This is what they were doing here. This species of beetle is resistant to radiation, even more so than the dammed roaches. This is what she was given. She was put in cryosleep long enough for the transformation to complete. And then she went out to seed the desert, the survivors, before returning to the chamber for long cold naps."

    "Who? Who are you talking about" Dawn asked.

    Klash stuck the bottle a thick cargo pocket on his belt. "My mother."
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    2/1/2015 7:38 PM

    A thump echoed up the elevator shaft, out the open doors where Klash, Max and Dawn had descended. Peter Vasquez barely heard it, but it was definitely not a good sound as far as he was concerned. Ramone had told him to sit on his foraged cushions and keep an ear out for any sound of the scouting party's return, as he told him, 'while the adults were talking'. Somehow, the female outlander qualified as an adult, even though she couldn't be more than a year older than him -a fact that did cause him to feel a not small amount of resentment. But it was what it was, and Peter wanted to be a team player.

    "Hey," Peter called out across the cubicle maze, "something weird is going on. Mister Parker, sir, I heard something loud down there."

    "Okay, son," Ramone answered, "be right there. Good job!"
    Ramone turned to the two Deathlander newcomers and put his hands on their shoulders. Peter couldn't hear what he said, but the two of them nodded and handed their guns over to Mike Corona.

    Ramone Parker was a bit of a living legend in the ville, every bit as respected as any officer in the sec force. Now Peter could see why. The man was not just an experienced scout and warrior, he also exuded the authority of a leader when need arose. He had taken charge of the situation, despite his own misgivings about the burried white coat facility, as soon as the chemical storm had hit, making sure that even the strangers were safe before he jumped down through the hole. He was definitely a hero, even if he would never consider himself such.
    "What's going on, Peter?" He asked.

    "I heard a thump from way down, like maybe from the bottom, I think." Peter told him.

    "Was it like an explosive thump, or a cave in thump?"

    "It wasn't explosive, it was hard to tell, but was a crash sound like metal, kind of like a wag crashed into a wall. Are we gonna go down after them?"

    Ramone looked down the shaft and shook his head. "No, we are already pushing the limits of Klash's deal with the locals being in here."

    "But," Peter said, "that's not our fault. If not for the black rains we would be topside still. They gotta know that, right?"

    "Yeah, kid," Ramone told him, "and from what Klash told, it's probably why they are tolerating us being this far in their territory. So unless circumstances dictate otherwise, we are going to stick to the letter of the deal as Klash told us. Cross that bridge if we get there, if we have to, but you sit tight here, keep your ears open."

    "Yes, sir. I'll do my best." Peter promised.

    "Good man, Peter. Good lookin' out."

    Ramone gave him an approving pat on the arm and went back to discuss whatever business he had with Mike and the scavie couple.

    Randarchist
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    --
    2/16/2015 10:35 AM

    Klash sealed to steel sarcophagus and disconnected the power couplings. The LED's blinked out. Dawn and Max waited quietly at the elevator, ready to begn the climb back to the upper floors. The laboratories had yielded a number of salvaged treasures for them: stainless steel backpack cases with laptop computers still in their plastic packaging, medical kits full of basic first aid supplies, small medical and scietific electronic devices that none of the had a clue as to their purpose. Klash had told them to take only what they could climb with, but to choose carefully because there would be no coming back. Not for them, not for anyone. The survey and recovery mission was a scrub. The site was occupied, protected, and the natives would tolerate no further incursions.

    Klash exited the main lab and started for the exit, then he felt the presence of the crystal beings close in. His sensory hairs tugged slightly, then his ears picked up a crackling of footsteps behind him.

    "I know you are there." he said, turning to face his hosts.

    Along the corridor, in the glass walled clean rooms and in the break room they stood silent, unmoving, like statues. There was a horrific quality to their strangeness, but also a beauty. They looked like cut, clear, faceted crystal in the general shape of men and women -as if a sculptor had left them rough and undefined. In the center of each torso and through the limbs was a wet looking, pinkish tangle of what appeared to be nerve tissues, winding and twisting ther way to the head, to a dimly glowing brain wrapped in pulsing tendrils.
    "Santos on the ropes..." Klash stuttered, his voice weak from the shock from seeing their impossible, alien physiology. "What are you? How do you exist?"
    He felt their answer: We are, we protect.

    They spoke to him again without words, he understood the electrochemical pulses. They would allow his companions to take what they had and go. They wanted him to return again with his mother. But nobody else. Never again.

    "I know." he said, "I understand. I will ask her."

    No, they imparted to him, she was to return.

    "You already know her," he told them, "and you know there is no making her do anything. But I will try. If she won't come, I will return and we can work something out."

    There was a long series of fast communications between them.

    They answered him: Yes, go and return.

    "I will. Thank you."

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    --
    2/19/2015 5:02 PM

    The climb back up the shaft took a lot longer than the descent. Twice along the way they had to stop, pry open a set of elevator doors to rest. Max brought up the rear, collecting the light climbing ropes along the way. As they reached the last set of climbing ropes, Klash sensed the presence of Ramone Parker and the others who had taken shelter from the black deluge of acid rains. He also sensed the faint impulses of the glass men, ever watchful, always close enough to make their wishes known to him. It was not a threatening presence, not menacing, just a reminder that they were aware of his movements and actions.

    "Parker and the others are in the cubicle room." Klash told Dawn and Max.

    "Ramone?" Dawn asked, pausing to lift out the bottom of her mask and allow some of the accumulated sweat to drip from under the chin. "What the fuck are they doing in there?"

    "Maybe," Max told her, "muties attacked, those scorpions. It is the migration season for them."

    Klash looked at him and shook his head. "No. They all seem pretty relaxed now. And I doubt that they would have led the monsters down here for a fight. Parker knows enough to not get into a close quarters with the iron shells. Something else drove them into the pit. Let's get up there and find out."

    Max and Dawn nodded and then the three of them continued up the last leg of the climb. Klash spotted the head of Peter Vasquez peek over the edge, who quickly disappeared again.

    "It's them! Mister Parker, they're back." He heard the young Sec man cry out. 

    Ramone leaned into the shaft and waved a few seconds later. 

     

    "Hey down there." Ramone called down to them.

     

    "Parker," Klash yelled back, "I thought you said that there was no way you were coming down here? What changed your mind?"

     

    "Black rains, my lord. Came out of a cloudless sky." Parker reported, "And there's been a new wrinkle in the plan, boss."

     

    "You don't know the half of it." Klash said.

     

    "What?" Ramone yelled.


    Klash lifted his mask after taking a deep breath and called back up the shaft, "Just hold on. We'll be right up."

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    --
    2/28/2015 1:42 PM

    After the three elevator shaft spelunkers had the above ground situation explained to them, they took time to rest after the nearly thirty story climb from the sub level labs. Hark Danby and Ramone Parker were in a side office for nearly a half hour, having a private confessional of their own. Klash had selectively edited his explanation as to why there would be no salvage operations, to only a few grumbled complaints. As soon as the storm passed, he informed them,  they were going to pack up the camp site and back track to the convoy. That was when Ramone and Hark sprang the news on them that they convoy was, in fact, not going to make it. They all listened in stunned horror as Hark explained his (mostly) honest history with the cyborg mystery man that the Paso Park bikers called 'The Freak', of the giant bat attack, the destruction of their friends and the motor fleet of wags and buggies. 

    "So, give me one good reason," Dawn said as she started to pull a pistol from her shoulder holster, "why we don't blow your fucking brains all over this salty assed carpet right now."

    "Put it away, Dawn." Klash ordered as Ramone stepped between her and the bandits. "This is not the time."

    "What?? Are you fucking kidding me?" Dawn protested, "If there ever was a time to kill a mother fucker it's..."

    "No," Ramone interrupted, "Klash has a point. They didn't have to come out to us this way,they could have stuck to plan. Besides, it's not like worse things have not been done by the Juarez sec in the past."

    "Dude!" Dawn yelled at her partner, "That was a long time ago, and it was under Milagros, before the revolution."

    "Snap it, Rodriguez." Klash ordered, the time for informal tones was over in his mind. "Hark, Mouse, you are going to be confined for now. You will be taken back to Juarez, as prisoners."

    The bikers nodded sheepishly and complied. They knew that there was no fighting their way out alive.

    "Ok." Hark agreed.

    Klash found an empty office with a heavy wooden door, then ordered Peter and Mike to confine the two bikers inside until after the storm passed. "Take shifts of four hours each until we can climb out of this hole. They will be taken back to Juarez. My father and the council of Dons will decide their fate."

    "Klash," Ramone tried to reason with him. "We might need them if there are any more mutie problems, and there are things about this cyborg Freak that still might be learned from Mr. Danby. Important things."

    "I am sure of that, Parker. And that is the only reason I haven't had Vasquez and Corona take them in a back ward and execute them. I need you to keep the others in line and doing busy work for now, Ramone, so that nobody kills those two idiots before we get home. I know you have seen and done the worst. I have heard everything from my father about what you, Pico and the other older men of Juarez did. Everything. That is why I am protecting those two from the others. The days of ad hoc justice in Juarez are long over, my friend, and there is more that I can't go into right now. I am tired, all of us are, so let's just keep the lid on it until we get out of this cluster fuck."

    "Yes, my lord." Ramone agreed, then asked "What do you think your father will do to them?"

    "That depends," Klash told him, "on how much information they can supply us."

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    --
    3/20/2015 7:15 AM
    (note: this post was originally lost during the server migration, but recovered here)

    The hours seemed to drag by at a snails pace. Klash forbade a deeper exploration, but there was plenty of medical and office related loot for everyone to fill up their pockets and packs. There were four closets full of packaged pencils, paper clips and staples alone, but most of the electronics had heed ruined by the salt coating. Ramone and Max found two laptops in secure cases, still in their plastic, much to their delight. Klash, however, was uninterested in any personal slavage. The revelations he had uncovered in the sub-level labs weighed heavily on him, and no material consolation was going to relieve him of the heavy burden of the truth: his mother had played them all for years.

    Was any of it real? All of the moral feeling, the civilized behaviors, the manners and idealism that they had felt... was it all a manipulation, a cover for her own social experiment? He couldn't help but wonder if any of that sense of community was genuine, their own choice, or if it was just a neurochemical glamour imposed upon the people of Ville Juarez and the Durango ranches? It was a seed of doubt, gnawing at his brain like an invading parasite.

    Dawn, who was already carrying a full load of scavenged electronics and medical kits that she had pilfered from the labs, was the only one who noticed that he had withdrawn to one of the empty cuicle spaces and was ony pretending to write on one of his tattered notepads. She poked her head up over the flimsy divider and watched him, she couldn't help but want to reach out and tussle his shoulder length black hair.


    "You got a lot on your shoulders, amigo. Making you look like an old man." She said, trying to tease him into a smile.

    "Yeah," Klash responded with a nod, "I have a lot to consider."

    Dawn walked around the divider and sat on the floor next to him, leaning against his shoulder.
    "Klash, you think too much about things you can't change. You worry too much about everything you should have or could have done better. You feel things, I know, things that most people learned to turn off in this world and you sense things that nobody else can... it's a gift, a beautiful gift."

    "It's a curse, Dawn. I don't just watch something die, I feel it die. Every mutant monster, evey bandit and Deathlands cold heart that I have seen shuffle off to the grave. Mother taught me how to push past it, but now I question why she did any of it."


    "Well, you are going to have to ask her when you see her. But for now, we are stuck in a hole in the ground and I think you should find something else to think about for a while..." Dawn smiled and grabbed his hand, it shook at her touch. "I am not going to bite you, idiot. Just hold my hand for a bit, see how that feels."

    And then it happened. Klash looked at her with all of his senses and wasn't able to resist what he had held back for years, what he was afraid to show her. He leaned in, and she leaned in too, the kiss that he had always wanted, that she had hoped would come, and it was electric.

    Dawn raised her hand and put it to his cheek. Here he was, one of the deadliest snipers in the barony, a combat mechanic and scout who had faced the worst monsters that the northern wastes had spit out, and a kiss filled him wih so much fear. She understood his fear, however, because the world was tooth and claw, bullet and blade; a world that left little room and gave no quarter to the deepest kind of loves. This was not mere physical attraction, what he showed for her, not like the dozen or so grubby hands that had pawed at her before, eyes only on her body or her angelic cheek bones. No. He looked her directly in the eyes, with understanding of who she really was underneath the black boots and tough demeanor. She could tell that he saw into her on a level that went beyond her beauty and her body. This young man had been loving her and afraid of that love for a long time, she realized. Finally, it was expressed in one warm, hidden moment.

    Klash pulled away slowly, embarrassed almost. "We should check on the others..." he tried to excuse himslef.

    "Okay," Dawn whispered and smiled, "but we are not done with this."

    She didn't need to tell him, she knew, she fellt; they didn't need words for both of them to understand just how powerful that moment had been for them both.

     

    "Sadly then I knew the answer. All her life she was a dancer, but no one ever played the song she knew." - The Residents
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    --
    7/7/2015 4:20 PM
    The killing rains eventually subsided, Hark Danby and Mouse were cuddled in a corner where they had put two salt crusted desks and a table together to form a makeshift bed. It wasnt the worst place that Hark had slept in his years of wasteland raiding, but it was a far cry from the down stuffed oversized matress that he and Mouse had shared since he took over leadership of the Paso Park gang. Didn't matter now, he knew, in all likelihood he and Mouse would soon be spending their limited days in the Ville Juarez jail awaiting justice. Hark had no illusions about Klash being able to stave off his fathers fury and the collective vengeance of the people that his gang ad been at war with for years now. Maybe, just maybe, he could throw himself on altar of sacrifice, own his crimes and sins, exchange his admissions and plead the mercy of the baron to spare Mouse- fates willing.

    "Hark," Mouse whispered in his ear, "I hear them soft-talkin'... the rain stopped. They sent the youngest up with Hadron and that skinny bitch to check it out."

    "Shh, now." Hark squezzed her close to him and kissed her forhead. "Keep your ears on 'em, baby, and your yap shut."

    Mouse nodded and cocked her ear towards the office door to the main foyer where the Juarez warriors were packing up their loot, readying to climb out of their shelter.
    Hark stared at the aged ceiling tiles. All of his thoughts were starting to gravitate towards survival, to think of a way to talk or fight their way out in case the barons son changed his mind. Of all of the company they had taken up with since arriving at the ruins, Ramone Parker was the one that he feared, the one man that he knew would not blink an eye. Parker had made that all too clear. The road hardened soldier also could their salvation too. It was typical of his life, the one who he was most threatened by was also his bet shot at survival. A good, bad man.

    About half an hour had passed before Mouse heard the returning soldiers. "It's them, they ain't sounding happy... woder what's..."

    "Danby, you two get out here now. We got a question for you." Ramone Parkers voice came through the door.
    "Shitfire..." Hark muttered under his breath, "that ain't the voice of a happy man."

    Hark slipped his boots on, then stretched before walking to the door. "Gather the bundle up before you come out, grab anything else that looks pretty. We might use it to trade later."
    Mouse looked at him like he was a few rounds short of a full magazine. She was no fool, this was probably going to be their last day alive, but she complied.


    As Hark opened the door, it was obvious that something was very wrong. All of their faces were dark, a definite sign that their situation had gone far South. He surveyed them carefully, quickly. They were not in an angry posture, but their body language was broadcasting something dire.


    "Klash, Mr. Parker, what ya'll need to know?" Hark asked, trying to sound as sincere in his concern as possible.

    Klash Hadron stepped toward him and spoke plainly, without emotion. "We need to know, are you sure that nobody else in your gang survived, maybe followed you here?"

    Hark tilted his head in genuine confusion. "What? Of course I'm sure. I watched them all die. Mouse and I were the only ones who got out of there alive."

    "Okay, now," Klash responded, a serious look on his face, "time for bad news. We went topside and found a skeleton on the ground. It was pretty melted down, but the dog tags showed it was our man. His chem gear was torn up and whoever did it drug him out into the damned rain. There was shattered plexiglass pieces on the ground and the Rosanna, my buggy, was gone. The Parker Special has also been sabotaged. Engine wiring yanked, batteries busted with a hatched or tire iron, fuel pump smashed... it is not going anywhere either. The shelter had also been raided, the chem proof panels were shredded."

    Hark was legitimately stunned. "What does that mean?"

    Ramone Parker spoke up, "It means that Freak fella' has stolen the only way we had out of here and left us to the mercies of our hosts. And, seein' as how they wanted us gone yesterday, that means we are all cluster fucked together."

    "Maybe not." Hark said.

    "What do you mean by that?" Klash demanded.

    Hark quietly smiled for a moment then said, "I couldn't help notice that wag o' yours is based on a Humvee chasis, right Parker?"

    "Yes, the main cabin, the undercarriage and some of the parts for the engine were modfied to fit with that big 12. Why?" Ramone asked.

    "Was the fuel pump from a Humvee, by any chance?"

    "Yeah... but I don't have a spare and the nearest store is 100 plus years out of business." Ramone said, disgusted.

    Hark grinned like a stickie in a hen house. "Well, you only need one, not a whole store. Mouse and I know where one is, but gonna need some of your fuel and a lttle trust to get to it."

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    --
    7/7/2015 10:22 PM
    ___Ft. Geronimo, Topside___

    Klash was the last one to climb up from the hole. Despite protests from Dawn and Mike Corona, it was decided that the newcomers weapons would be returned to them. Peter and Mike assisted with burying the remains of Juan Gomez, with the younger reciting a short prayer for the dead that he had learned growing up at the orphanage.
    There was no time for a long funeral ceremony, survival would count every second and would be unforgivingly cruel if too many were wasted on lamentation for their fallen friend. Harker Danby and Klash were gathering supplies and food stores from the camp. Those, at least, had been spared from the murderers wrathful attentions.

    It was mid-morning already and the sun was only partly obscured by the chemical green and yellow clouds blowing in from the western desert. After taking inventory of the supplies and ammunition, Mouse sat down with Hark and Klash to plot routes for the log hike to the abandoned ranchero. Hark did his best to describe the malformed horrible cat-bug-things.

    "Sounds like coyote pack tactics."" Klash commented. "Circle and nip."

    "Yeah, sorta," Hark agreed, "but one bite and you got moments before you go all looped to moon. Two nips and you are done."

    "I hate them lil, shit stains." Mouse added, "We should burn the bastard things out."

    "No, last thing we wantis to drive them into the dark recesses, they might come at us from shadows when we think we got 'em gone. And we sure don't wantthem cornered and desperate. We need to draw them out into a killzone we can control, then mop up the remains before we get ourselves into a box trap." Hark corrected her. His years spent as a scavenger had taught him a few things, hard lessons of blood and death.

    "Good thinking, Danby." Klash affirmed. "Now, best I can tell, it will take us two days to track our way there, another two back, plus salvage time. We'll be stretching rations thread thin."

    Hark shrugged. "No offense, partner, but I think that it shoud just be me and the mutie. Your people need you to keep them together and I think he is gonnabe the best bet for all of us."

    "None taken," Klash conceded, "And I think you are probably right. OK, Danby.Let's run it by Max then."

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    --
    7/8/2015 1:48 PM
    ___The Painted Pony, Six hours previous____

    Jen Gutierrez had slept on rough canvas cots in poor quarters during training. She had slept in washed out gullies on beds of uneven rock slabs on a few salvage runs. She even slept sittting at post during a two day seige by mutant tribesmen her first year on the wall. But sleeping sitting upright in a buggy during a chem storm was the worst. The storm had blown in on them fast, barely affording Hector the time to thow a set of fitted, silicate treated plastic sheets over the horse hide covered Baja before the onsought of black acid rains engulfed heir makeshift camp site.
    Every inch of her back was sore, her legs felt like cold dead wood.

    Hector was leaning against the leather wrapped wheel, snoring quietly when the rain subsided and the first light of golden yellow morning tipped over the eastern horizon. The view through the whitish plastic sheeting obfuscated the world into splotchy blobs of color, making the sunrise look like a faded old print of some pre-war oil painting. The creases of their protective tent still had a few drops of black rain clinging to them, creating tiny orbs of rainbow colored dew when the early rays shone through from behind them. It would all evaporate soon and the parched ground would soak the chemicals in. This is why nothing grows normal up here, Jen thought, this human corrupted filth poisons everything.

    "Hector," She said, poking him in the shoulder, "Hey, caballero, wake up. Sun up and rain gone, and I gotta pee!"

    Jen started to push on the plastic to climb out of the buggy. She had held her bladder through the storm and now it was becoming painfully heavy in the cramped up cabin of Hectors buggy.

    "How do I get out of this? Hector, I gotta go, bro. BADLY."

    "What? No, wait. Wait a sec." He warned, "You don't know what you are doing..."

    She shot him annoyed look. "Nature calls, man!"

    "Me too," Hector told her, pressing the realease for the starter, the engine rumbled to life instantl, "but look down, chica, look at the mud!"

    Jen pushed the plastic sheeting out with her right hand and poked head out through the window to peek at the ground. The mud crawled and oozed with tiny opaque splotches.
    "Oh, Holy Mother! What are they??"

    "Leopard mite colonies, stirred up by the chemicals. You go stepping into the mud and track them inside my buggy, we will both be spotty in a day. And since we are out this far in the bush, we don't have enough Alvarez bug juice to get rid of them if we got infested."

    "Ugh, gross! Hate those things. Had them once as a kid. Momma had to have Sanchez crews sterilize the house. They burned the furniture in the yard." Jen bounced slightly in the seat and complained, "Seriously, though, I REALLY gotta heed the call, Hector."

    The engine was warming up now, so Hector engaged the clutch and put thePony in low gear. "Yeah, me too,but hold up a little bit longer so I can get us up on that high ground."

    "Okay, then do it, pronto." Jen grunted at him.

    The chemical soaked mud was already starting to firm, so the Painted Pony had no trouble at all pulling out and up onto the rocky flat hill. "Look first!" Hector warned her a second time. "Is the ground dried up here yet?"

    Jen pushed the plastic out and away and checked before climbing out. "Yes,, but not for long!"

    Hector chuckled then started pulling the protective cover away on his side. It had been a long night for both of them.


    After they had both found relief, they took a few minutes to stretch their legs and shake off the stiffness of sleep. Hector was used it, so recovered quickly. Jen took a bit more time, which didn't bother Hector. Wall Security, especially turret gunners, had the unwavering respect of every memeber of the community.
    Hector pulled out a yellowing map of Old Mexico from the small backpack behind his seat and checked his compass.. He had a good idea on his bearings, but it was good to check when possible. As experienced as any scout or traveler may be, over confidence could lead to a mistake in navigation. Over a short distance, it was not so bad; but the longer the distance one traveled, the more that an error mattered. It wasn't just the time lost, it was the waste of fuel that could get a traveler stranded in the desert- a certain death sentence for even the best scavenger or scout.

    "How much farther do you think we have, Hector?"

    Hector pulled his pencil out, checked his time piece then opened his small notebook out to make a few calculations. "We are close. Hop up in the turret and look north to northwest then west, see if you can spot anything. I've got the position right, I think."

    Jen climbed up the small hand and foot pegs on the passenger side of the Pony to the turret. There was a fine quality set of binoculars in a hide pouch next to the spindle mounted RPK machine gun. She pulled the lens covers off and raised the to her eyes. As she scanned across the horizon, the growing light made picking out landmarks a bit easier.
    "Hey, you're right! I got something west by northwest of us.... it looks like... three bumps, barely there... but I see them alright. What is it?"

    Hector smiled at the left corner of his mouth. "Three sisters. We are almost there. Keep looking, watch what happens."

    Jen kept her eyes on the bumps."What am I looking for?"

    Hector marked notations and leaned into the Pony, adjusting a set brightly marked rings on the dash navigational compass.

    "Oh wow! Hector..." She started, but was amazed at what her eyes beheld.

    "Keep watching, describe it to me." Hector smiled broadly now. He already had a good idea of where they were, but it kept her busy and allowed him to make a few last minute notes and adjustments.

    "The ground is turning white, Hector. And the bumps are... they are starting to blur out! Oh, wow! This is amazing! How did you know?"

    "It's the old legend, chica. The Three sisters. They only come out just before sunrise, and before the sun clears the horizon, they go back into hiding from the light and heat of day."

    Jen wrinkled her brow as she stared through the tubewood binoculars. The sunlights glare reflecting off of the salt covered ground and the heating of the desert floors mirage effect quickly obscured any sign of the three bumps.
    "That was amazing!! Hetor, they just disappeared! No wonder nobody was able to find this place before!"

    "Exactly. Klash said that he thought that the stories were more than a myth passed down, and he was right about why the Sisters disappeared when the sun came up. Light, heat, it blocks the horizon out here, blurs vision except for at short ranges." Hetor sarted packing up his map and notebooks. "He found it and now we have too."

    "So, we can get them and go home now, great!"

    Hector then remembered the other part of the legend, "Scorpians guard the path to their door, with iron shells and stinging tails."

    "What was that?" Jen asked.

    "Uncover that RPK and be ready for trouble. We might have to fight the way in if the rest of the legend proves true." Hector ordered. "Stay snapped, gunner."

    "Oh, yeah!" She grinned and yanked the dust cover back on the Ruskie machine gun. "Talkin' my language now, boy. Let's rock n' roll!"

    "Yeah, keep your eyes open for big bads." Hector called up to her as he slid into the drivers seat.


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    --
    7/9/2015 3:42 PM
    ___The Harpy, two hours before sunrise___

    Lisa couldn't disguise her fears from the cyborg, he seemed to see through her.

    "Relax, Lisa," he said, his voice had a new, baritone, less hollow quality to it, "I already told you that you have nothing to fear from the Collective, or from me. Why are you so pensive?"


    "What..." her voice trailed off to half-whisper. "What did you do to your voice? It changed."

    The cyborg turned in his chair to face her. His skin tone had also changed, only slightly, to a more natural tone.
    "Yes, I'm sorry if it is putting you off. I thought you would find it more appealing."

    "Yes, I," she paused and smiled, "like it. You sound more human, more relatable. But why?"

    "Because I forget how I must look and sound sometimes. And now that we are close to the end phase of this operation, I need to adjust to the success. Also, we will be meeting up with the rest of the fleet in a few minutes."


    "Already?" Lisa said, "I must have over slept. I apologize."

    "No need. Please, come sit. We can watch the show on the main screen," the cyborg invited, gesturing to the navigators chair next to his, "your timing is impecable."

    The white cushioned chair was comfortable, and the foam was firm. Lisa was finding this new life of hers to be all too easy to adjust to. Soon, she would have the resources to explore her intellect to a new level, free, her lifelong quest for revenge put behind her. It was all she could do to choke down an exhilerated chuckle.



    The wide curved screen was divided by two dozen section boxes, each displaying a different feed or function. She had spent weeks planting hidden cameras all over Ville Juarez, one by one. She recognized the views, remembered each placement and angle. All that planning, all that work, all worth it.

    Lisa saw the wall security walking their carefully timed routes, the Councils main command room in their bunker, the Alvarez big garage where the crews of the Motor Chief and his mechanics were working around the clock to repair the shredded Dina rigs that had arrive the day before.
    The town was on alert, not that it mattered.

    Inside one of the other sectional boxes, Lisa saw the main bridge of another great airship similar in design to the Harpy, only larger. The uniformed drone crews in their face covering helmets were busy at their stations, cooly pressing buttons, aligning target areas, obeying with mechanical efficiency their Overseers every order.


    "Are those what the people of Juarez will become," Lisa asked, "even Baron Hadron and the Council of Dons?"

    "Yes. Soon enough, except for the mutants. You will have charge of them for your work."

    "Wonderful. Can I see them? I think it was camera fifteen-seven."

    The cyborg swept his fingers over a sensor plate.

    There they were, the Gila mutants, all camped and cozy in their open roofed ruin atop the scouts apartments near the rebuilt hangar. They were already starting to wake up, but they would be sluggish until they had more sun to warm themselves. They were not fully cold blooded, but they did not adjust quickly to temperature differences. The thick skinned tribesmen were too well adapted to the warmer climates further south, however. Their strange physiology was not fully understood because the science teams were not allowed to disect and explore their anatomy. But that would change soon. All of their biological secrets would be laid open for her.

    A high pitched beep sounded on the Harpy bridge.

    "Harpy, confirm status. This is the Hades."

    The cyborg turned his attention to a smaller flat screen to the left side of his command chair and lightly pressed a square button on the arm of his command chair. The screen displayed the smiling face of the Hades Overseer.

    "Hello Brian," the cyborg said, his vocal tone more human sounding than even before, "They gave you the flag ship after all, I see. Good for you, young man."

    "Thank you, Harpy." The Overseer smiled. "But please maintain protocol."

    "Of course, how informal of me. This is the Harpy, our status is green. We are en route to the target zone and should be there in time to provide transport assistance, Hades."

    "We are in position over the target zone, Harpy. And how is our newest addition?"

    The cyborg turned to Lisa and smiled, then said "She is going to be a very productive member of the community, Hades. I have vetted her and she is an exceptional mind. Her upgrade has taken well. Proceed when ready, Hades. We are enjoying the communications feed."

    "Affirmative, Harpy. See you soon. Hades out."

    "Harpy out."

    As the two of them sat watching the encrypted feed on the large display, Lisa felt his hand on hers.
    "Watch this, Lisa. Do you remember the box that we had you install to the Council Bunkers computer and communication system? That wonderous little gem is almost ready to spring its surprise. Comme, press this button," he said, pointing to a bright yellow rectangular square on the control pannel in front of her, "it's only fitting that you do the honors."

    Lisa put her finger out and let it fall gently onto the button, then turned her aention back to the display box showing the command bunker. The entire command and control system of Juarez blinked off, then the power went out. On the other camera feeds she saw what looked like giant white balloons falling gently across the village. As they came closer to the rows houses, apartments and ground, the ballons stated spraying thick white streams of misty clouds from all sides as they sowly sank.


    Only a few of the sec patrolls had time to react before they were rendered unconscious by the sleep gas. One the few occasions where one managed to get a shot off and actually hit their target, it only served to burst the balloon in a wide and sudden explusion of the white spray. It was futile to fight, but still some did.

    Lisa recognized some of the faces in the feeds from the wall and main gates. Sarge Corona was running along, clutching a gas mask to his face, pistol drawn and firing into the air, trying in vain to rally his soldiers to protect themselves. Perhaps a dozen or more were able to get their masks on, but it was too late. As the gas spread through the streets, flowed down into the buildings from their roof top gardens, these brave few rushed towards the cloverleaf bunker complex- which was overflowing with the white clouds, the thickest cncentration of the bombs raining down from some invisible space in the low hanging clouds, thousands of feet above their heads.


    The Council of Dons had no time to reach their safe holes. Lisa saw each of their homes, their personal guard laying about on the grounds of their fenced in mini compounds.
    "Yes!" She called out, "Hadron! Show me Hadron and that witch! Camera... camera thrity-fourtyone! That was the one I placed in their balcony garden, it faces their bed."

    The feed was clear, except for the cloud of white jetting out from a balloon in the far left edge of the cameras field of vision. Lisa recognized the female bodyguards laying on the floor. Good, she thought, they were caught up in the gas before they could get them out. There was the Baron as well, his hand clutching the hem of his fallen wifes dress o the bed.
    "We have them now! We have that witch and her thralls all in ne place!" She said and exploded in a fit of deep cackles.

    "Did you have any doubt, Doctor Hamond? I told you, our plan is perfectly planned to the last detail, to the nanosecond of precision timing." the cyborg said, his voice full of cold satisfaction.

    "It was not doubt of you and your peoples ability, no." Lisa responded and shook her head twice, "Not at all. But, I have seen even the best laid plans go awry from human failures. Somebody has an oversight, somebody has a moment of slack, a failure in duty because of a distraction and throws a wrench into the whole thing."

    "Human failure, my dear, is what the biodrones were created to eliminate. Speaking of, watch the feed, you can watch them in action."

    Lisa watched in awe as the nine-hundred foot long airships desceded from through the clouds, one after another, five lozenge saped vessels with wishbone shaped bodolas clutching to their bellies.
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    7/10/2015 2:27 PM
    ___Ville Juarez___

    It was almost sundown when the tattered remnant of the salvage convoy had come limping back into Juarez. The large gate next to the Big Garage was quickly swung open to allow Motor Chief Alvarez and the other two survivors to pull directly into the rebuilt aircraft hangar. The torn metal and broken fiber glass shell of the main truck drew horrified shrieks from the mechanic teams and the waiting family members the instant they laid eyes on it.
    Word traveled fast of their approach, and the Baron, his wife and the Council of Dons were left in shocked dismay at the story of what befell the survey and salvage operations crew and security teams. The grief was only consoled b the hope that the advanced scout team and the two man crew in the Painted Pony would be able to retrieve those few who were fortunate enough to have avoided the night of the snatch bats.
    Don Alvarez ordered his son to get some rest, then to immediately start patching together as many vehicles as he could from the salvage yard. There was no time to waste. Already, half of the town had started migrating south on rebuilt buses and passenger fitted cargo haulers by order of the baron. The surviving rigs would be needed to finish the exodus. The Dons planned and argued, but the Baron kept order between them long enough to formulate the best course of action. The mechanic crews would work all night if they had to, but they would have the rigs ready by mid morning to start evacuating the civilian population to the Durango ranches.

    Don Sanchez volunteered his people to stay behind with a small contingent of Baronial soldiers until the straggling Scouts and security team returned, with Sec Sarge Emil Corona taking control of the entire defensive wall. No one could argue the wisdom of that, the man was as hard as stone and demanded commanded the respect of every member of the Ville Juarez militia. As soon as it was decided, the Baron asked to see Corona in his bunker for a personal briefing. The proud traditions of the Mexican military ran back to far before the great war in the Corona family, there was no question that he was the best man for the job. That his son was one of the missing would not affect his performance.
    That is how the facts were related to him by Don Sanchez, anyway, while they were riding to the clover leaf bunker complex.

    "I hope you don't mind, Emil." The Don said, apologetics ready in case he did mind.

    The Sec Sarge shook his head and checked his uniform shirt for any imperfections. "Marvin, my boy is still out there. He is alive and he is coming home. I would be more offended if you ordered me to leave without him."

    "Would you, if I asked, ordered you to?"

    Emil looked only forward and said, "I would, but we would settle later."

    Don Marvin Sanchez chuckled and folded his hands uncomfortably. "Yes, I know. That is why I agreed to do this. The Baron knows this too. Try not to bust his balls while we are in there, okay? We all go way back, but it sets a bad example for the younger men."

    "Of course. I respect the Barony, as always."

    Don Sanchez smiled and relaxed. "Yes I know you do."

    The Sanchez carriage stopped in front of the main bunker entrance. Already the news had spread of the massacre in the desert, and few had any illusions about the devastating blow would mean to the Baronial militia. Their enemies would figure it out soon enough, and then all hell would break loose. The only consolation was that the Paso Bandits wouldn't be harassing them again, or anyone else for that matter. Even though the trade season was almost over, there was still plenty of time for some of the hostile mutant tribes from the east to make trouble. And with a bit of clever planning, a mutie tribe could, in theory, put a real hurt on the now hobbled ville security forces, maybe even breach the wall defenses. There was no room for error, no place for questioning orders or hesitation. For the first time in over a decade, there was an existential threat to the future of the Barony from outsiders.

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    7/10/2015 11:01 PM
    ___The Baronial Bunker, Conference room___

    As soon as the rest of the Dons joined them, Baron Hadron ordered the security teams to leave. Aside frm the Dons, only Sec Sarge Corona was allowed to stay. The Baron sat in his usual spot, flanked by Dons Sanchez and Alvarez.The Baron sat up stiffly, wearing his combat fatigues. His face was emotionless, an expression that was a sure sign that his blood was boiling. All of the men in that room knew what that meant: the odds were that they would be at war, soon.

    "My friends," The aging Barons voice almost cracked, a sign of his distress, "by now you have heard the news, you know the details as well as anyone is going to. We have lost most of our best, and others are still misssing. We are at a disadvantage, to be sure. We have lost most all of the scout buggies, we have lost transports, weapons.... we have lost technical workers, skilled essential citizens all. And it will take us years to replace those good people."

    The room was silent.

    Baron Hadron rose and walked around the table to Corona. "Emil, I hope that Marvn told you that your son was sent to find mine. He did, yes?"

    "Yes, my lord Baron." The SecSarge stood at full attention.

    "Stop, Emil, not withthe formality right now." Hadron ordered, and Corona reaxed. "Klash will get him and the others back, I have no doubt of that. But in the mean time, we will be moving every citizen back to Durango, starting at dawn. Until we have everyone in Durango, and I mean everyone, we will be vulnerable. My wife has also warned me of a great threat from within. We have been betrayed byone of our own, Doctor Lisa Hammond."

    The Dons began to stir, gasping and murmuring.

    "Listen, please," he continued, "there is more. I am not surprised by this, sadly. There is a great secret that Emil and I have kept these years. When we overthrew Milagros, her parents were, as you remember, his chief science advisors. I was privy to some secrets, as was Emil. There is a technologicaly advanced group, white coats who have reained hidden from he world since the war, who were conspiring with Milagros for those last few years. We had no contact from them and no trouble after the revolution, so I assumed that their interest was gone. My wife believes that Hammond was in contact with them, which would explain some of the strangeness of her behaviors over the years. She has recently disappeared, and we suspect that she has perhaps joined with this group. I do not know how my wife senses these things, but she has told me that they may be involved. But she has been mistaken once or twice in the past. I am also concerned, more realistically, that without our patrols and scouts keeping our frontier, that mutant tribes from the east will soon figure out that there is something amiss- if they have not already."

    The Dons all sat in stunned silence.

    "So," the baron said turned to Sec Sarge Corona, "Emil will be given run of all village Sec forces. He is to assume authority starting now. we need to be ready for anything. Now, let me tell you about my plan...."
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    7/12/2015 9:39 PM
    ___Ville Juarez, The Main Gatehouse, Two hours before sunrise___

    Emil was spent when he hit the bunk, but woke up feeling refreshed. Five hours sleep, it was probably more than Mike was getting out there in the sand, he thought. Luckily Corporal Hernandez was ready with a cup of Push, a mild stimulant thatSanchez chemists had come up with a decade before. It tasted like an old tire, but a single cup was like drinking half a pot of coffee, and that was exactly what the aging Sec Sarge needed if he was going to get through this day. 

    In a few hours, the continued evacuation of ville Juarez was going to start back up. Some families had been evacuated, but it was going to take days with so many of the vehicles lost in the disastrous salvage operation. Motorcycle riding scouts were already preparing to head out at first light. He could hear them eating breakfast in the ground level of the gatehouse below.

    "Hernandez, how did the men take the news?" He asked before taking a sip of hot Push.

    "They are not happy, of course, but thee was no back-talk. They know that there is no point to it."

    Hernandez was a good man, already seasoned at twenty-five. He kept fit, never questioned orders (a trait which bothered Emil as much as it assured him) and could clean any gun in the arsenal and have it back together in half the time as most of the young men and women that ever had served with him since the revolution. Hernandez was not the best shot, to be sure, but he was snapped from the moment he opened his eyes until he hit his bunk.

    Emil looked around the Spartan furnishings of the bunk room. There were few momentos of his personal life on the desk, but Emil had never been a senimental man outardly. Hernandez had set his Makarov and PM-63 RAK on the small table next to the door. His combat harness was hanging on a wooden peg nnext to the door.
    Emil pointed to the harness, "Let's get going. I want to see those patrols off. The baron said that as soon as the first Dina rig is repaired and ready, he wants them hitched to the passenger trailers and gone. I want those civilians seeing us all on top game, it will make them feel safe."

    Hernandez stepped quickly, handed him the harness and said "But we are not at top game, Sarge. We are all stretched to the thin and it won't take much to break that."

    "I know that, but they don't need to. Half of the ville was already shipped out. The first wave of women, children and older folks are probably arriving in Durango by now. We can expect those evecuation transports to drop them off, refuel and be back in another twelve hours or less for the remaining civilians." Emil recounted the barons' plan. "Then we get the technical crews out, one section at a time. Sanchez sec and services are last to evacuate. We gotta do the sewerage purge and final lockdown by ourselves."

    "All the dirty jobs."" Hernandez chuckled.

    "Exactly.. Marvin is staying with us until the end. He said he will personally lock the gates."

    "Sarge, I don't understand that. So who is gonna hold down the fort over the storm season if not Sanchez sec?" The young Corporal asked, his frown creeping with his realization, "We are not just abandoning the whole ville to the muties and creeps, are we?"

    Emil buckled the belts of his harness across his chest and hips before replying. "Yes. We are all going to be needed in Durango. Baron Hadron has decided that it is better to concentrate our people in the valley, where we can rebuild from these losses. Maybe in a couple of years we can come back, reclaim what we have built."

    "What about the machine shops? The labs? We gonna have to haul alll that back to Durango too?" Hernandez was showing agitation. He had never questioned orders, but it was understandable.

    "As soon as the last truck is repaired, Alvarez and his mechanics start tearing them down for transport." The Sec Sarge told him.

    "Santos! That is gonna take a week, maybe more."

    Emil loaded his Makarov PM, holstered it and then slung his RAK over one shoulder. "Most likely. And we better be ready for the eastern muties and those Deathlander Barons over in Texas to hit us hard if they find out we are so weakened. We beter be ready for war, my boy."

    Befor either of them could speak, a loud pop from an AKM sounded from somewhere down the wall. Emil guessed that it was a good hudred yards away or more. They both froze for a moment, then a series of shots began to erupt along both sides of the main gate.

    "We got trouble. No, not ready for this yet. Let's go!" The Sec Sarge yelled, pulling his wireless from it's pouch as he headed toward the door. "Command, we have...." He stopped before he wasted another breath. The system was down. How the hell could the system be down? "No... no, no, no!"

    Corporal Hernandez grabbed two AKM's from the wall rack and handed oe to Emil. They both started stuffing magazines and loose rounds of 7.62 ammunition into their pockets. "Sarge," Hernandez said, "look out the window. What he hell, are those balloons??"

    Emil turned his attention to the view to the air over Sanchez sector. From the cloudy night sky overhead, hundreds upon hundreds of small white spheres were descending on the town. As the reached just above roof level, jets of white smoke or mist began to pur out of them and down onto the village. He had read about such horrors in old books as a young man, the first war to end all wars had told of horrors that seemed unbelievable at the time.

    "Gas." He muttered as it sank in to his thoughts. "Quickly, put your chem mask on, it's gas!"

    Hernandez rushed to a foot locker under one of the bunks and yanked it out. There were ten stacks of four, but he only grabbed two. Emil was already grabbing one. In all of his years, he had only ever used them to deal withh chemical storms. As unbelievable as it must have seemed in that distant time, it felt more so now. Who had the technology to produce a bbastard gas attack, he wondered, and how did they get these balloons to fly over Ville Juarez like this?

    More shots began to echo across the gate area and down along the defensive wall that had protected them for so log. Hernandez tightened his mask down and returned to the window.
    "Men are dropping in the central part of town, Sarge! They are just falling down where they stand! Great Mother!"

    The panic in his voice was something that Emil was not in a mood for, not at this time. "Stay snapped, soldier. Let's get these masks to as many of our people as we can. There will be an assault when it clears enough if history serves any example."

    Hernandez reacted like his normal self. "Right, yes." he answered then started grabbing up as many gas masks as he could stack in his arms.
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    7/13/2015 2:42 PM
    Sarge Corona sent the young corporal down the stairs to hand out mask to the motorcycle patrol. They were tough and were more experienced with independant fighting than the average Juarez sec troopers. Hernandez would instruct them on how to get to the secret tunnel system if they were over run. The enemy may have caught themwith their pants down, they may even have had help from the traitor, Hammond; but there still were some secrets that only Sanchez sector soldiers and the baronial elite guard knew.
    Emil ran up the scaffold ramp to the wall top, handing out masks and instructions along the way. Using the cellular communication system was impossible, but that didn't mean that there would be no leadership on the ground. He coud see that the main concentration of white balloons was on the clover leaf and bunker system. Nothing could be done about that right now. To make matters worse, when the wall defenders fired on the balloons, it only served to dump the gas down in more concentrated form.
    "Hold your fire!" he kept yelling orders while handing out masks, "Take a mask and follow me! Hold your damned fire! Come on!"
    Some of the soldiers were too frightened by the unfathomable technology to be of use, so he only gave masks to those who were keeping a cool head, saving two for the gates' ball turret gunners. In all, he had been able to mask ten men before the gas balloons started descending along the wall. Some of the guards started jumping from the wall to get away, not knowing what the gas was not lethal.
    When he reached the ball turrets, the gunners were already climbing out.
    "Jiminez, what the fuck are you doing? Get back in that turret! Here, take a gas mask and get yourself ready for a frontal assault!" The aging Sec Sarge bellowed at the gunner. "They gotta get through this gate, and you are going to cut them to ribbins when they try!"

    The gunner snatched the mask and started to slip it on when a white balloon reached the top or the catwalk. He widened his eyes in disblief and pointed at the slowly falling mist jetting from all sides and screamed through the filter, "It's coming from above, Sarge!"

    "Yeah, they brought balloons to the party, but we are..."

    "No! Look up, Sarge!" the gunner interupted.

    Emil turned and tilted his head to look up. "By the four Donnas," he said, "what the hell is that?"

    Past the spraying mist of the gas balloons, dropping slowly through the clouds, he saw THEM. Five giant, rounded rectangular bulbs with wishbone shaped structures clinging to their bellies. Airships.

    "Come on Jiminez," he yelled, pulling the gunner up by the collar, "we are going to blow them out of the sky!"

    It was too late to grab the other turret gunner, he had already taken a dose of the gas and hung limply in his harness behind the twin RPK machine guns. They jogged down the ramp toward the nearest bunk house. There were RPG-7's in the armory, and plenty of rockets.
    As they reached the entrance, Jiminez didn't even bother with the knob, he threw his weight into a front kick that sent the wooden door off its hinges and flat to the floor with a loud thump.

    "Good man, gunner!" Sarge yelled, "Grab the high explosive, the yellow ringed rocket tips, as many as you can carry."

    Jiminez wasted no time. Within seconds, he had a dozen rockets shoved into an iguanna hide carrier and a launcher over his left shoulder. He also picked up one of the wall stored RPK light machine guns and a box of belted 7.62mm ammunition. Corona picked up a smaller load of rockets and a launcher, then he yelled, "Okay, we got these bastards right where we want them! Stay snapped and stick by me!"

    The gunner nodded and clipped one of his harness D rings to the strap of the hide carrier to prevent it slipping, grabbed an AKM and nodded. "With you all the way, Sarge."
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    --
    7/13/2015 11:36 PM
    The white mist was rolling over the tops of buldings, winding through the streets of Juarez in an ever widening circle. Sarge Corona tossed Jiminez the end of a tether with a light aluminum piton clamp on the end.
    "Snap it, kid," he told him, "we can't risk getting separated in this mess."

    Visibility was quickly reducing as the cloud of gas thickend. The ground was litered with fallen security and other support workers. Emil kneeled next to one of the fallen soldiers and started pressing on his chest and neck. He was breating, his pulse was normal.
    "It's sleep gas," he concluded, "they want us alive."

    Jiminez cocked his head sideways then asked, "Why? Why not wipe us out?"

    "Does it matter?" Emil knew there was no time for guess work. Whatever the reason, it was for no good.

    The two of them made their way silently through the foggy streets of Juarez, with caution enough to avoid stepping on any fallen comrades. Emil knew that they had to get to the only place wide open enoughfor the long airships to land: the cloverleaf. If Hernandez was true to form, he had gathered a handfull of soldiers, masked them and had them into the emergency tunnel that ran under the length of Ville Juarez by now. He would have to trust the corporal.

    (to be continued)


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