1|| The Dustbowl
The Dustbowl was just getting more and more dangerous the longer it existed, in the opinion of most folks who’d been brave enough to settle it in the first place. Fuckin’ Warlords were getting cocky, trying to expand their power even further than the walls of their Citadels, hardly content with the technology and resources given to them by the old world. The kind of shit the average Dusty or Waster could only dream of seeing in their lifetime. If they dream at all.
Critters were worse too. Coyotes, dogs, cougars, and boars were easy enough to deal with, though not to be underestimated, but here and there new creatures popped up and no one had any idea what they were and where they’d come from, though it was a safe bet that some Citadel doctor or warlord had had their hand in the unholy bastards creation at one point or another. It seems even generations after the Old World fell, those idiots in their high walls still haven’t got the memo that you don’t play God.
Add unpredictable weather, unpredictable locals and the fact that most tech was held together by tape, spit and pure, unadulterated spite, it was no wonder the plane crashed and no one survived.
To begin with, planes were rare. The gift of flight is left mostly with the birds and the bones of the poor fuckers who were smart enough to get men airborne but not smart enough to keep the world together. Most were smaller, holding maybe two to three people in them, including the pilot; they were owned by Warlords or Bandit Kings, maybe the occasional general in the more lucrative Merc groups. The average person will only see one up close when it’s a fiery wreck on the ground, shot down and abandoned.
This one was not small. It was a big bird, bigger than a bus. Not as big as the ones that sometimes were seen in old media, but bigger than the two passenger ones that were common. There were bodies strewn around, dressed in grey uniforms, some with body armour, slouched over like broken dolls.
A skinny Waster circled the wreck, overturning debris and corpses with a morbid curiosity plastered on his face. Tattooed and face full of piercings, he’s the epitome of your average bandit. Dirty, history of malnourishment, armed, and he’s probably killed someone for a square, battered can of meat that would make him sick later. Most people who know him call him Hamstring, and while he may look like a bandit, he technically isn’t.
He paused beside a pile of corpses, four of them, positioned as though the older man in the lab coat had been trying to shield the three others with his body. He’d been shot about three or four times, discounting damage from their unexpected landing. One of the bodies he’d been shielding had curled around a briefcase, clutching it in the moment of death. Hamstring shifted the bodies aside, disturbing a cloud of insects that had been busying themselves on the poor bastards bodies. This close to the corpses, the stench of death left out in the sun was somehow worse, and he gagged a bit, prying the cold hands off the case with a curse.
“Sorry. If y’all wanted to protect it, probably somethin’ you don’t want some random Merc gettin’ their paws on.” He said to the heap. Their expressions were twisted in rigour mortis into exaggerated horror. Whatever had happened here, it had been some fucked up shit even by Dustbowl standards.
The crackle of a radio startled him, sudden in the dull white noise of insects. The clunky, homemade device attached to his kit was ungainly but necessary to keep track of his companion when they separated.
“You at the wreck still?”
The voice was a woman’s, bitchy and gravelled under the crackle of static. He grabbed it to respond, sighing at the loss of peace and quiet he was about to deal with.
“Yeah. Still a lot of shit here, figured I’d keep lookin’.” Hamstring said. “Whoever these folks were, they weren’t fuckin’ around tech-wise.”
“Probably Citadel.” The woman said dismissively. “No one else around here who it could be.”
“Sure, Bells.” Ham said, ignoring her usual attitude of bitchy boredom. “Not like there was a whole fuckin’ planet full of people at one point.”
He could hear her snort without the radio, knowing her well enough at this point. “Still no survivors there?”
“No.” He said, looking around the mess. The area they were in was probably a nice forest, when there wasn’t a drought, near a rocky area and a bunch of cliffs. Maybe a riverbed, again, when there wasn’t a drought, but right now it was dry as a bone and most of the trees still standing upright were little more than very large sticks. The rest of them had been torn up by the planes abrupt arrival, leaving a path of destruction. The bodies were flopped out everywhere, some heaped up like someone had made a lame attempt at cleaning up, before giving up. Or getting interrupted. Most of them looked like crash victims and were older than others, and some supplies looked like they had been salvaged from the wreckage, so some people had survived. And then, someone had come along and finished the job.
“Whatever happened here, Bells, these people got fucked. Bad.”
“Shit happens.” She said. “You getting mad over it isn’t going to bring them back. They’re fleshbags.”
“Nice.” Ham snarked. “You really are an asshole sometimes, Bella.”
“Just realistic.” She said flatly. “Let me know when you’re on your way back. Out.”
“Bye.” The skinny little man said, glaring at the radio like somehow that would make Bella less of a cold hearted nutcase.
It was around that time that he got the Feeling.
When you spend enough time on your own, looking out for yourself so you don’t wake up with another guy’s knife in your kidney over a game of poker or a smile at his woman, you get to know when there’s eyes on you. Hair goes up, maybe you see a little movement that isn’t quite right out of the corner of your eyes. Something triggers you, and while Hamstring couldn’t name why, he paused and began to look around, careful to be casual so whoever or whatever it was wouldn’t catch on that he knew. He kicked over another corpse, picked at an empty case on the ground, picked up a bullet casing off the ground and pretended to examine it. All while looking for anything off.
He was about to give up when he saw it. A flash of something that could only be humanoid, a black helmet similar to ones he’s seen strewn around the crash site peering over the edge of a rock. It almost blends into the shadows, but theres a shine to it thats too smooth for rock and once he sees that, the rest isn’t hard to make out.
He knows he’s careful, and they just sit there, watching him shuffle around. After a while, he wonders i maybe it’s just a helmet or another dead guy, set up by whoever massacred the rest of them as a fucked up joke for whoever happened to investigate. But then he takes his eyes off of it for a minute and when he glances again, it’s gone.
So, a probably a person, or at least a person-ish thing.
Ham wonders for a minute if she should go look for it. If it was a survivor they could be injured, definitely scared. But it could also be a scavver, or, whoever had finished off the rest of the victims.
He’d want Bella for this. He pulled the radio out again, hoisting the case he’d retrieved from the pile up, ignoring the dried blood in the handle.
“Headin’ back, Bells.” He said. “Got some goodies today.”
“And the only person who’ll care is Savant.” She growled. Her distorted voice was worse over the radio, all gravel and static.
Ham sighed, deciding that a response would probably come back to bite him in the ass. He began the trek back to their camp, making sure his knives were ready to be grabbed if his friend in the helmet decided not to be friendly.
They’d set up in a little circle of rocks and scrub, which offered a bit of shelter against the sun. Tarps were strung up as cover, and concealed with bits of sticks and other shit so it’d be harder to tell that it was a camp. They’d been there a day or so, and so far they haven’t had any problems with anyone stumbling on them.
While Bella wasn’t there in the actual camp, he knew she probably wasn’t far off. She often disappeared on her own, which was fine. She kept herself busy, leaving Ham to his own devices and the peace and quiet of the evening.
He stowed his kit and went to pull the supply cache down from his tree, humming tunelessly as he searched for something to eat quickly. He paused, though, when he noticed scuff marks on the ground. Boot prints, two tracks, since one pair was smaller than the other. The treads and the spacing were different from his and Bella’s, and he probably wouldn’t have noticed them if there hadn’t been some deeper scuffs near where he usually set up his bedroll, like someone had slipped.
Hamstring sighed, pulling a knife out again and going for a quick walk around, looking for more sign of whoever had been here. There hadn’t been any sign the day before when he and Bella had decided to set up camp here, and nothing this morning either.
It wasn’t hard to imagine his watcher from earlier deciding to check out the new neighbours, and that made Ham uncomfortable. He didn’t like the kind of sleep he got when he was paranoid, it left him feeling just as shitty as when he’d gone down.
The boot prints showed up here and there again, thankfully nowhere near the shitter he’d dug last night. He enjoyed what little privacy he had, thank you, ma’am.
Satisfied that the strangers were gone, for the time being, he went back to camp and settled down with some jerky and a cup of water.
He grabbed the radio, chewing on the tough mule meat loudly while he tapped the ground with a nervous foot. “Hey, Bells. You busy?”
A pause. Then; “What do you want?”
“Not much. Just thought I’d tell you that we had some company at camp today while we were out.” He took another bite, chewing a bit more obnoxiously to piss her off. “And I had an admirer at the site today.”
“I’m surprised it took you this long to notice.” Bella said. “You’re slipping, tough guy.”
Of course she knew.
He snorted. “Fuck you, Bells. We can’t all be fuckin’ machines.”
“I’ve only picked up the one. I think he’s a man, though it was faint when I saw him.” She said. “He was in between camp and the crash when I saw him.”
“He’s got a friend. There’s two sets of prints here that ain’t ours.”
She was silent for a few seconds, then she chuckled. “I’ll bet he thinks you’re the only one in camp, and he was keeping an eye on you.”
It was a fair bet. Bella hadn’t been in camp much since they’d arrived, needing to let off steam frequently. She wasn’t programmed to sit around and sleep, too set on hunting.
She never went far, just in case her partner ran into trouble, but she still didn’t return as often because she didn’t need to. Didn’t sleep as much, didn’t eat as much, just went and went until she felt like sitting down.
If someone wasn’t observing at the right time, they’d only have seen Hamstring.
“I don’t like it.” Ham said, looking out past the camp to the bare trees and bushes, the rocks and the growing dark. Soon, he’d have to light something to keep the varmints away, and settle down for the night.
“I’ll come back. Don’t need you having your throat cut in your sleep.” Bella said. “I’d never hear the end of it from Sav.”
“I feel so loved.” He chuckled darkly. “When do you think you’ll be back?”
“Soon enough. You can go to sleep, Ham. I’ll be nearby. Just don’t try and stab me.”
“No promises.” He said. “Can’t trust anyone.”
She actually laughed. Or at least the closest she ever got to laughter. A snort, but still, he could imagine the tight lipped smile.