File 01: Off the Beaten Path
“Oswald…” I droned over the roar of the dune buggy’s engine. In the back seat, I stood with my back leaning against the protective rail that formed a cage around the buggy. Our vehicle bounced along the rough road as we sped through the wastelands of the former United States. My raven locks of hair fanned out in a wild curtain, and I stared behind us at our uninvited pursuers.
“They’re gaining on us!” I shouted over my shoulder.
“For the love of the stars we no longer see, dear child, I know! This contraption is going as fast as it can! That blasted trailer containing that blasted drunkard is too blasted heavy!” Oswald roared back in response. I could almost see the veins throbbing in his bald head, the furrow of his slightly wrinkled brow, and the twitch in his beard-covered jaw.
“Make it go faster!” I yelled back; the growl of several dune buggy engines joined ours in a chorus that drowned out the roar of thunder overhead.
Not even an entire day had passed since we left the scorched city of Loftsborough on a journey to the coordinates Raze had given us. If the information proved reliable, a city called Uriel awaited us at our journey’s end. I cared little for the town itself, but if it meant tracking down E Pluribus Unum’s top officer Sarge and his lackeys Nomeiko and Izuma, then there was no place on the planet I wanted to be more than Uriel. Those three would lead me to Bradich, and that meant I would follow them down whatever hell hole they crawled into.
Unfortunately, little more than six hours after we began our leisurely drive into the desert, just long enough for Loftsborough’s half-dome top to sink below the horizon, a roaming gang of bandits happened upon us, or maybe we happened upon them. It was difficult to discern the territory borders of the gangs that infested Dusk Territory, and the outlaws cared little for politics or negotiation, anyway.
The bandits’ graffiti-covered buggies screamed through the wasteland dunes almost as loud as the excited hoots and howls of their passengers. The vehicles threw sand behind their enormous tires and sped closer. As they gained ground on us, I realized we stood no chance of outrunning them; aggravated, I clicked my tongue. I hated delays.
“We’re going to have to fight,” Richter gave voice to my thoughts just loud enough to be heard over the engines, and he delivered the observation with all the stoicism I had come to expect from him during the brief time we’d spent together.
“Ihlia,” Elsa tugged on my cargo pants legs from her huddled position in the back seat. “They want to do bad things to us… I can hear them thinking. We need to get away.”
I glanced down at her and nodded, but I knew that “getting away” was impossible. I placed a hand on the hilt of my only remaining dagger and glanced at the broken pieces of my father’s rifle uselessly laying in the buggy’s rear floorboard. Even the idea of fighting seemed an impossible task. No sooner had such desperate thoughts crossed my mind than Elsa’s grip on my pants’ leg tightened. I reached down and tousled her whipping blond hair.
“Don’t worry, little one, we’ll get through this.” I grinned at her.
Richter fished out one of his cigarettes, placed it between his lips, and lit it. From the front passenger position, he planted a single boot against the worn leather seat and elevated himself up through the gap in the protective rail. He scanned the area with his icy blue eyes. His short brown braids flapped behind him like tentacles, and his body’s sleek muscles tightened to keep him erect in the wind.
With the entire upper half of his torso exposed, Richter reached up and pressed a pair of buttons on the pauldrons decorating his shoulders. Several metal plates unfurled and interlocked like clockwork; with a hiss, the osmiridium armor swallowed his pale biceps and forearms before encasing his fingers in individually segmented plates down to his fingertips.
I could almost hear Oswald’s excited expression to see such technology unleashed right in front of him; I certainly heard the audible “by Jove” that left his lips. With his newly equipped gauntlets, Richter reached down and lifted his osmiridium bow from the front seat between him and Oswald. Wordlessly, he pulled one of the black stakes from the quiver on his back and nocked it. When he loosed the deadly projectile, it zipped through the air like silent death.
The arrow’s “thunk” joined a high-pitched scream as one of the bandits standing in the back of a nearby buggy flew from the vehicle into the desert with a new gaping hole in the center of his chest. The stake had driven clean through him and smashed into the ground with a powerful blast of sand. As Richter prepared another stake, the bandits’ wordless shouts of excitement suddenly morphed.
“’Oy, they got weapons! Deal with ‘em, lads!” The driver of the buggy that lost one of its passengers screamed and began hammering the buggy’s steering wheel. A horn blared out over the rocky desert. Its squeaky warble was a testimony to years of neglect and misuse, but it rang loud enough to serve as a signal to the other three buggies. Within seconds, a hail of gunfire ranging from high-powered single shots to automatic spray bombarded our dune buggy.
Elsa curled into a tighter ball and threw her hands over her ears. Oswald immediately began swerving the vehicle to evade the projectiles, and Richter calmly nocked his second stake even as a few bullets clanged off his armored arms. My eyes shot wide in a combination of shock and concern. The bullets that didn’t harmlessly zip by or ricochet off Richter’s gauntlets penetrated our trailer that housed the sedated Crelyos.
“Shit,” Richter suddenly hissed, “one’s got an RPLK.”
A rocket propelled Little Kid, as the name implied, was a miniature nuclear warhead strapped to a small rocket engine. Unlike its timer-based counterpart, an RPLK followed its RPG ancestors and exploded when the warhead made contact with some unfortunate object. Much like its timer-based counterpart, an RPLK tended to instantly vaporize its surroundings in a white hot flash.
“I can hit it,” Richter assured me with his monotone voice. “I’ll detonate it before it reaches us.”
I shot Richter a conflicted expression. On one hand, I had met him only a day prior, and the notion of putting all our lives in his hands based on his matter-of-fact declaration left a vile taste in my mouth. On the other hand, I had spent the better part of an afternoon convincing the old codger that allowing Richter and Elsa to travel with us would benefit us. Those words would turn hollow if I didn’t trust him in a pinch. No, Richter was our comrade; I wanted to trust him.
“Right!” I nodded firmly. “Take it out!”
I turned my gaze back to our pursuing assailants and quickly found the brute toting the RPLK launcher just in time to see the hiss of smoke jet from the launcher’s rear end. I activated my Cognitive Accelerator the moment the warhead shot from the muzzle, and time slowed to a crawl.
I focused my enhanced vision on the jettisoned Little Kid. The thugs had all but duct taped it to the rocket tube. Their makeshift RPLK left much to be desired in terms of efficiency, but I grimaced when I realized that such a detail actually made the warhead more dangerous. The jagged, ill-crafted fins at the end of the rocket tube caused the warhead to wobble, a motion that became painfully exaggerated after the launcher’s initial gunpowder blast ended and the rocket took over the propulsion.
Still, I wanted to trust Richter. I wanted to trust him all the way until Oswald hit a harsh dip in the road during his evasive maneuvers. When our vehicle bounced into the air, Richter slowly flailed to one side, and his stake skewed toward the far right when he released it. I didn’t wait to watch it sail off into the desert. I reached into the recesses of my mind and activated my newly acquired Synapse Augment. Like pulling my limbs free from a gelatinous sludge, my muscles suddenly felt limber, and I felt lighter than air.
I pulled myself over the top of the padded rail and vaulted across the small gap separating our vehicle from the trailer. Though my muscles responded to my thoughts hundreds of times faster than standard neurons firing in my brain, the moment my feet left the rail I hung in the air for a few seconds as though bound once more by my own snail-like perception. The moment my
feet touched the trailer’s roof, I zipped across the top of it with short,
explosive stomps to keep from being ensnared in my slow perception again.
Like a wraith cutting through the air, I reached the trailer’s edge before any eyes could track my movements. I crouched low and clutched the trailer’s edge, and with a powerful grunt I swung my legs out in a wide arch to meet the fast approaching Little Kid. With my enhanced vision, my Synapse Augment, and my Cognitive Accelerator, I was able to distinguish the warhead from the rocket engine, and I guided my swinging legs toward the non-explosive rear tube.
When my boots made contact, the rocket’s forceful momentum created brief resistance, but my kick eventually cut through it and sent the Little Kid turning warhead-over-rocket in a random direction somewhere away from our trailer. The seconds passed like hours as I curled my body inward and flattened myself against the trailer. The warhead hit the ground, and a sudden, intense burst of heat and flash of light knocked me out of cognitive acceleration.
Elsa screamed, Richter grunted and fought to regain his balance in the front seat, and Oswald struggled to regain control of our bouncing vehicle. All those sounds faded as quickly as they reached me. The Little Kid’s cacophonous boom swallowed them all, and the pressure behind the explosion rocked the trailer so violently that I lost my grip on the back of it. Even as I rolled across the rocking metal box, I noticed it tipping dangerously to one side. It kicked up on a single wheel and pulled the dune buggy to one side with it.
I released a frustrated roar as I strained to gain control over my body. Just as I tumbled across the last few inches of the trailer’s steel and was nearly hurled onto the rocky dunes, I snatched my remaining dagger free of its sheath and plunged it into the top of the trailer. The metal groaned sharply when my dagger impaled it and carved a long gash through the steel. For a few seconds, my body whipped about in the wind like a banner extending from the trailer before gravity reclaimed me and snapped me back against the metal box at the same time our vehicle snapped back onto all its wheels.
“Richter, make sure Ihlia is okay!” I heard Oswald yell over the howling wind.
The bandits never gave Richter a proper chance to respond; all at once they resumed their volleys of gunfire. There was a slight difference from the previous attempts, however. Most of the bandits made it some kind of personal game to see whether or not they could hit me as though I was a target at a gun range. I was relieved that the lion’s share of the shots had not been aimed at the trailer. Some part of me understood how morbid it sounded to feel that relief, but the greater part of me was too concerned about Crelyos to give a damn.
I twisted the best I could to protect all my vitals, but my voice still cracked with pained howls as several bullets thwacked into my limbs, torso, and back. Many of the shots passed clean through me. Others would be ejected through Panacea’s natural healing, but all of them hurt like hell. I scowled; as long as they possessed a speed advantage, we would never be able to outrun them. I choked back my pained cries and stared out across the rocky landscape.
All at once it hit me.
“Oswald!” I howled, “The rocks! Get off the road! If we can’t speed up, we’ll have to slow them down!”
“Dear child!” Oswald shouted back, “The trailer! One wrong move and we could tip over and–”
“Then don’t make any wrong moves!” I yelled. For a time, Oswald hesitated in silence, but when a bullet bounced off the trailer next to my face with a metallic whine, I growled. “You can do it, Oswald! Remember Egypt? You’re the best damn driver there is!”
With a sharp motion, Oswald turned the vehicle off the road. The tires screeched as they fought to keep traction on the sand, and the trailer fish-tailed in the wake of the shifting momentum. When my eyes next adjusted, our vehicle violently bounced and rocked along a sea of treacherous stones. The trailer moved and swayed completely out of sync with our buggy, but Before I could concern myself with that, the sound of screaming tires mocked ours as the bandits turned to pursue us.
Only three of them completed the turn; the fourth, the farthest from us, tipped over and rolled across the dunes like a giant steel tumbleweed. The storm of gunfire resumed as soon as the bandits’ three buggies stabilized, but I grinned as I dangled from my dagger’s hilt over the trailer’s edge. The whine of the bullets echoed all around me. Most of the bandits’ shots missed us completely. With both our vehicles precariously bouncing across the rocks, their accuracy suffered along with their speed. Several minutes passed like that.
“It’s all up to Richter now,” I thought as I prepared to swing up onto the trailer’s roof.
I thought wrong. Suddenly, a rather vicious rock in the road caught the wheels on the opposite side of the trailer. The pressure from the RPLK’s explosion had threatened to tip us onto our side, but the way Oswald struck that rock left no doubt in my mind. We were going over, and nothing could stop it. I widened my eyes, confused by Oswald’s carelessness. It wasn’t like him to make mistakes in a pinch.
I slowed my perception of time as the trailer began to roll, preparing to leap from it and face down the deadly horde of bandits, but the other side of the trailer suddenly wrenched as though hit by a heavy impact. Though I blinked a few times in confusion, a sense of relief washed over me as whatever force acted on the trailer settled it back onto its wheels. With a grin, I used the momentum to hoist myself onto the trailer’s roof. When I came face to face with what had caused the impact, my grin melted, and my sensation of relief turned into alarm like a twisting knot in my stomach.
Staring directly into my face with a pair of solid black eyes, a growling hyped lumbered onto the trailer’s roof with me. Its disfigured, stretched muscles tensed as it sank into a combat stance, parted its lips, and roared directly into my face. The bloody, musty stench of its breath was almost powerful enough to blow me off the trailer again. As it stared at me, I stared past it into the rocky outcrops and miniature caverns that jutted from the ground in the distance.
An entire pack of the beasts had emerged at the prospect of a good fight and good food; they bounded, leapt, and sprinted toward us and the bandits indiscriminately. There was only one stark difference between the murderous bandits and the crazed hyped: the hyped moved much, much faster.