"Am I wrong?
Have I run too far to get home?
Have I gone and
left you here alone?"
--Recorded Wisdom of Before, vol. 5, Ch. 2
"So why are we headed towards the smoke?" C'er looked up from the screen that showed the rising column of smoke that they were now headed towards. When there was no response, he continued. "Because I am not sure what our new friend Tank here thinks, but to me smoke usually means bad things."
"Smoke is fire and fire....Bad." Tank nodded. "Wrong way. Not way that Tank wants to take you. Mason makes us take loooooooong way." He was pointing to a screen that showed the blinking blue arrowhead moving over a dark field crisscrossed with yellow lines. When asked about that screen, Tank had said that the ‘Dronies show IT which way is safe when IT doesn’t know the way’. C’er believed that the little devices that had flown off the large vehicle where somehow scouting the way ahead. There were sending a map of sorts to that screen. The blue arrowhead on that map represented the massive vehicle and the yellow lines were the paths or roads that the vehicle could traverse. C’er assumed that the lines were marking trails or roads of some sort. Possibly from Before, same as this vehicle that they were driving in. Tank always referred to that map when he talked about where they were going. C'er had noticed though, that he never consulted it when he chose a new route when the path they were on became impassable. There was not much that had turned out to be impassable for IT. They had run into a few points that required 'rerouting' as that particular screen seemed to be fond of reporting. When that happened the blue arrowhead moved between the yellow lines instead of on them. Still, they seemed to be sticking to paths that lined up with those lines. "Not Tank's fault if it takes too long to get there." The giant continued in his deep yet childish voice. As he spoke he steered IT around some twisted wreckage that was in their path.. It took many turns of the tiny red wheel that was wired into the complex console of the vehicle.
"See Mason? The loooooooong way." C'er imitated the giant's tone and patted Tank on his enormous shoulder. This got a sideways, dark look from Tank as he continued to drive. "I mean, not that we know where we are going,"
"I do!" Tank interrupted in a hurt tone
"I'm sorry big fella." C'er patted the giant again, earning another dark look. "Tank here knows where we are going, but that's more to my point of why aren't we just letting him take us there? I mean since we,” C’er pointed back and forth between Mason and himself, “don't know where we are going."
"It's killing you isn't it? The not knowing. Not Seeing." Mason’s eyes had not left the screen showing the column of smoke. C'er sat back in his chair as a shadow crossed his expression. "That's been the reason for me staying with you, and you know that. It's often better not knowing." Mason looked up from the screen at C'er. "Well, I don't know what's there," he pointed to the screen, "but I know I have to get there. By now I think you’d understand that...so stop asking things you know I have no answer for. This is it. It's what I do." With this Mason leaned back in his own chair.
"Looooong way..." Tank said in a sing song voice.
"For frack's sake, I know."
The smoke was originating from the smoldering ruins of what used to be a small village. It was clinging to the low hills that rose out of the Burning Wastes and ascended into the Range. "Hell of a place to live." had been Mason's dry comment. Tank backed IT up so that it was below the rise of the hill overlooking the charred scene. They headed out the same oversized back door that they had entered the APC through. As they walked away from the vehicle Tank produced the same small piece of Tek from one of his many pouches. He pressed one of the buttons and Mason heard the same Chirp-Beep as before. The lights of the APC flashed twice and then a low hum began to emanate from somewhere inside the vehicle. Mason and C'er exchanged a quick look at this. "I don't think we want to touch IT, unless he does that again." C'er commented. Mason shrugged and drew his hip cannon. He checked that a small light on the side the long barreled pistol was green. Then he began to walk towards the smoke and the village.
They approached the burnt out village using the cover of some shrubs that lined a paddock of some sort. While the cover was enough for Mason and C'er it was ridiculously undersized for Tank's frame. Even still the giant made every attempt to crouch behind things a quarter of his size. As they approached the village Tank would look at either Mason or C'er and hold a finger to his lips and 'Shush!' them. He tiptoed with exaggerated stealth between shrubberies that came to his waist. He seemed to be enjoying this new game immensely.
The makeshift fencing that bordered the paddock had been torn open as if something large had ridden through it. There were no animals in the violated pen any longer. Mason noted the marks where a few larger animals had been dragged into something that had left only large tire tracks. The far end of the paddock neighbored a few smaller structures that were mostly burnt out. They moved across the field trying to keep the structures between them and any sight lines from inside the village. That was when they found the first one.
The man was pinned to one of the posts of the paddock by a spear through his throat. The look of surprise still claimed his dead face as the flies crawled over him. The deader was once a raider of some sort based on his gear and the ink marks along his face and arms. A screw pierced the center of his nose and must have once given him a rather fierce appearance. That would have been before someone threw a spear through his throat. It must have been a powerful throw. That or a perfectly placed one. The spear had cut straight through the man's spine and buried itself deep into the post behind him. Mason tapped the shaft of the spear and watched it vibrate as it was so deeply embedded in the man and the post. It probably did not kill the man immediately. More likely it paralyzed him while he choked to death on his own blood and bile. While it appeared to have been an unpleasant death, it was most likely a quiet one. Mason wondered if that was the intention of the spear thrower or not. Searching the deader's gear he found a few pouches that held ammunition, but an empty gun holster. Pocketing the ammunition, he looked around at the ground and saw that the gun was gone. There were several smaller footprints around the deader that lead away towards the village.
"A good day for him." C'er's voice was quiet, almost reverent.
"He'd disagree with you on that one. Besides I think his 'good day' was yesterday when we first noticed the smoke." Mason looked back at C'er. "Stay with me here. Whatever happened here is already done, but if you See anything try and let me know, 'kay?"
"Doesn't always go that way." and when this got a dark look from Mason, C'er continued "But I will try."
Mason began walking in towards the village along path of the footprints. "Thank you."
The second deader was just on the other side of the small huts that had lined the side of the pen. This one looked like the first in gear and markings. He had several rings piercing his lower lip. His throat was sliced open in an upwards stroke that nearly took his head clean off. Mason squatted down to look closer at the angle of the slice. He wondered how much smaller than this deader the person who had made the cut is. Or was. The blood had soaked in and had turned some of the hard pan into a gruesome sort of clay. There was at least one clear footprint there. It was small. Not much larger than a child's might be.
"Mason," C'er whispered. "Two more."
Mason looked up and to where C'er indicated. Sure enough two more raiders lay dead about thirty steps from the deader with the sliced throat. Looking over the body before him Mason saw another empty holster, and no gun lying around. Again he pocketed some ammunition that was on this deader's belt. As he rose something glinted on the ground and caught his eye. Two steps from the second deader were three shell casings. They had been ejected from a gun that had been shot right here. They were large as casings went, meaning that the gun was a more powerful one. Also that it was harder to be accurate with. Holding the casings up Mason looked back to C'er. "Odd to leave these behind. They can be reused or at least bartered to the right person." He stood again and walked towards the two newest deaders already knowing what he would see. "Our spear thrower seems to have upgraded."
The first of the two had been shot in the face. Mason was right, it had been a large caliber weapon and there was not much left. The second had been hit twice in the center of the chest turning much of his torso to mush. “Not Bad.” Mason whistled. C’er looked down at the carnage. “Glad you appreciate this.” He said dryly. “Look at it. Whoever did this started off with a spear. They don’t know guns, or at least don’t use them regularly. Still they put three shots dead on into these unlucky frackers from that distance.” He pointed back to the last Deader and where he had found the casings. “Her heart would be racing from the other kills, and yet that did not affect her aim. The gun she has is powerful and for someone so little she is handling this kind of firepower like she was born to it.” He tossed one of the casings up in the air and caught it. “Her?” C’er asked. “Oh, you missed those prints in the blood back there?” Mason thumbed over his shoulder back towards the Pen. “They are small. To handle a spear like that and then a gun like this and be that small I think it's a girl. Teenage maybe.” Mason finished. C’er sensed the unfinished thought, “You feel her, don’t you?” Mason looked up at him and then stood and walked into the village. “Yes.” came over his shoulder, as if upon the wind.
The deaders continued to show up either by themselves or in small groups. Each time the shots that had killed them were precise. They found the large caliber weapon empty of ammo. It was discarded next to two more deaders. They also donated their own guns to this avenging angel’s campaign of revenge. After they counted twelve dead Raiders, they found what looked like the last batch. Seven deaders were grouped in front of a larger hut that had not been burnt out. Mason walked to a space about fifteen steps away. He looked at the ground and then placed his feet very specifically. Looking back at the deaders he held up his own large weapon and pointed it to where they lay decomposing. C'er found the behavior odd. When he approached where Mason now stood he noticed the pattern on the ground and understood. About a dozen shells lay near each other and one pistol. "You're standing where she did." It was not a question.
Tank tip toed out from behind the cover of a post that hardly came to his knee. He had shadowed Mason and C'er as if he was trying to sneak up on them as much as he might be hiding from anyone else. He approached the two smaller men with the same level of stealth he had been employing since they reached the village. Once he was next to C'er he waved his hands at the man, shooing him away. Once C'er was out if the way, Tank bent over and picked up the discarded gun. He held it up and turned it over in his hands. The oversized gun looked like a toy in the giant's hands as he handled it. Tank settled down on the ground crossing his legs beneath him. He began to hum a simple tune. Then, with a dexterity that astonished C'er, his meaty hands disassembled the weapon. He placed the various pieces in the ground in front of him. When he was finished he began to examine each piece in detail. He was completely engrossed by the mechanics of the weapon, and continued to hum his simple tune.
"She doesn't miss." Mason's voice pulled C'er's attention right back to the scene before him. Mason pointed to the hut across from them that had been a backstop for the Deaders. "The only bullet holes in that wall line up with one of the Deaders. Each and every shot found its target." C'er looked at the wall and saw that the only bullet holes were above a Deader. "They tried to trap her and come at her as a group." Mason looked in the direction they would have been shooting. "But they missed and she didn't." C'er followed Mason's gaze and saw a hundred bullet holes peppering the structures that would have been behind the girl. He turned his head back and forth a few times making a visual comparison of the different fields of bullet holes.
Suddenly Mason looked to his left. A cloud passed over his eyes and then he headed off in a sharp walk.
Mason walked down the path which opened into the center square of the small village. The scene here was straight from a nightmare. Deaders were scattered all over the place. However these were not Raiders like the ones they had found up to this point. These must have been the people who once lived here. Many were women and children. A few men were mixed in but they appeared to be older. Several of the Deaders were huddled together as if they had tried to shield each other from whatever had taken them. Just next to that huddled group was a large and powerfully built man who was much older than the other men. His arms were tied to posts that looked as if they were once one single piece and not two splintered halves. His throat had been cut and he lay face down in a pool of his own blood. It was not to this deader that Mason was drawn though. The sucking tidal forces of contact drew him to the small sprite of a girl who lay draped over the large Older's back.
Mason crouched down and looked at the small girl. She was just at that juncture between child and woman. She was short and lithe, with the athletic build of a younger used to physical exertion. Her brown hair was pulled back and braided into a long tail that reached the middle of her back. A graze wound ran over her temple and dried blood covered the side if her young face. While Mason could feel life pulsing from her and pulling at him, he still looked to confirm the small shallow movements of her back as she breathed. Mason reached out and touched her face, wiping some of the dried blood from her cheek.
The small body of the girl snapped into movement. She rolled over, grabbed Mason's hand with one hand, produced a pistol seemingly from midair and brought it to bear on his face. Before he could even blink the trigger of the gun clicked several times as the firing mechanism of the gun landed repeatedly on an empty chamber. Mason stared down the barrel of the gun for more breaths than he could count. The girl too seemed to be frozen in place realizing that the pistol was barren. They both awoke from this miasma at the same time. As she drew the pistol back intending to use it as a hammer to smash her new enemy. Mason grabbed hold of her gun hand and pulled it to the side. It was then that she looked at him and her steel grey eyes locked on his. The world of the burnt out village was instantly displaced and Mason found himself flowing through the life of this girl. His next Contact.
A simple childhood rolled by him; growing into the membership of the community of the village. Learning from those around her, and playing with other children in the village. The flood of imagery and sensations slowed down. Mason recognized the large man who had lain before him dead in that other world. Here, he was alive and vibrant and larger than life. His smile was as bright as the sun itself. His scowl was as dark as night and his disapproval was like the end of the world. Mason felt small before him and felt the sense of learning, of developing under his close watch. The joy and the pride of his approval swelled deep within Mason. A mischievous grin crept onto his face as she teased the man, or played pranks on him. His laughter was like a thunder through the mountains.
The village dissolved again and he felt her crawling through the scrub of the hills. Her spears were slung comfortably upon her small back. She felt light and small and she moved with absolute silence, leaving no trace behind of her passing. There was a sudden sense of alarm as she heard a deep roar echo from the left. Up and running Mason felt her small body respond and accelerate to a full sprint. She weaved through the brush easily. The roar echoed out again and she made a fast course change without slowing. Her hands went back and steadied her spears. She selected her favorite and started to free it from the sling without losing a step. Then she saw him. Her mentor and trainer, laying in a small opening, his leg twisted beneath him in a bad way. He had slashes open and bleeding across his chest and shoulders. Over him, standing on its hind legs, was a massive black furred creature. The fur was broken by patches of scales. While Mason could not see its face he somehow knew its eyes would be yellow slits full of malice. Freeing the spear, he ran to a tree that was at the edge of the clearing. The lower limbs were cracked off and withered and made a perfect ladder up the trunk. With spear in one hand, Mason scrambled up the tree one handed to a branch that extended out into the clearing. Without any pause Mason saw her feet run along that branch as both hands took hold of the spear. She felt the branch start to sag under her weight and she risked a glance at the man on the ground. The man saw her and his eyes went wide in alarm. “No!” erupted from him and he reached out towards her. As the branch started to crack, she leapt.
Mason felt something incredible at that moment. The world slowed down and sharpened. The back of the creature zoomed into a level of proximity and clarity that would have made him lurch back. But she did not. Her spear came up over her head, gripped tight in both hands. Its metal tip, which had made it her favorite, was pointed down with deadly intent over its target. She saw the exact point where the tip of her weapon would pierce the creature’s hide. Mason drove her hands down with a force seemingly impossible for her small frame. Mason looked the tip of the spear down straight into and through the creature’s back. She felt it slam home, driving through the outer layers of flesh and muscle like water. The metal tip struck and ripped through bone exactly where she knew it would. Mason felt her legs curl under herself so that they connected with the creature’s body first. Coiling like a compressed spring Mason felt her body tense and then push off. She released the spear. Her body stretched out again and Mason watched as the world inverted and then righted again. She felt ground beneath her feet and her legs coiled in again, absorbing the impact with the ground gracefully. Mason felt her sense of confidence, of knowing, as she moved to the man. The man who had been her teacher, her trainer. Who had given her meaning to her life. Who now lay before her, hurt and broken. She heard the creature thrash about for a few seconds and then fall to the earth. Mason knew she did not need to look to know that it was dead. The man looked at her in a new way… with fear.
Mason closed her eyes and then felt the warm breeze on her face and smelt the smoke on the breeze. Her eyes opened. The scene of the clearing and her crippled mentor were gone. Now she looked down into the valley below to see smoke rising from her home. Realization struck that this was not a storm, but rather fire. A fire that was burning her home away. Before Mason knew it her legs were running down the hill and her hands again were on the spears of their own accord. At a full out run down the hill Mason felt her legs pumping and letting the slope carry her towards her home. Fear and concern boiled in her guts as determination steeled itself in her mind. The burning in her legs and lungs started to become unbearable from the breakneck run. Then Mason saw a familiar sight as the paddock came into view.
The raider was unaware of her, even though she was not making an attempt at stealth. Mason could feel the man's movements and almost see how he was going to turn a bit to his right, exposing his neck. That newly familiar sensation of things slowing down and zooming in took over. He watched as the small hairs at the base of the man's neck moved in the slight breeze. He counted the rhythmic pulses of blood pumping through the arteries in the man's neck. Mason saw where the spear point would pierce his flesh and then her body took over. Her feet shuffled and planted and her spear arm came up, retracted and then swung forward like a whip. She released the spear at the perfect point of velocity. The trajectory and strike of the spear was a foregone conclusion. She did not focus on its outcome as she continued her run to close the distance with him. When she reached him he was alive but gurgling out his last breaths. The only thing holding him up was the spear that had impaled him, perforating his neck and spine. She looked at him for a moment taking in the fear in his eyes as his life drained out of him. Mason could hear voices approaching from beyond what was left of Ezrin’s hut. She saw the gun that was slung in the holster on the deader’s hip. She drew the weapon and looked at it in her hand. It was heavy, much heavier than the knives or shorter weapons she was more familiar with. It felt incredibly comfortable and in her grip, same as her knives and spears. It was an extension of her hand and therefore of her will.
Mason drew her knife with her left hand and edged around Ezrin's hut. The crunch of something under foot betrayed the proximity of the next man. Looking down Mason noted the shadow that the man threw in the late day light. She exploded out and swiped the knife upward and across where she knew his throat would be. At the same time her right hand raised the pistol of its own accord. Looking around the man whose throat she had just cut, Mason saw two more men looking in her direction. Or more likely in the direction of the man whose blood was now pumping from his neck where her knife had done its work. As they began to notice what had happened, the slowness and clarity of it all swept over Mason. The world sharpened into the bridge of the first one's nose. Mason felt the trigger squeeze, the explosion of the gun and its kick back into her hand. At the same time that absolute focus and clarity leapt to the center of the next man's chest. As the first one's face exploded in a shower of gore, the trigger was pulled twice more. Mason never felt the effort of realigning the weapon after the kick of the first shot distorted its aim. Yet the second and third shots ripped into the exact point of focus that had filled her mind. Again there was no attention to the success of these strikes. Or even the deadly effects of the knife cut. The results were known, they were understood before the acts were committed. Confirmation was redundant and unnecessary. The knife was wiped clean in the dust and sheathed and another pistol in a holster was taken from the two new deaders.
Mason moved into the village of her childhood home as an angel of death. Wherever she encountered the men who invaded her village, she killed them. As one gun was empty, she picked up another. There was no shortage of guns on the deaders she left in her wake. The new guns had the same immediate and familiar feel to her. Each time the small battles were the same. The world slowed and resolved into tight focal points and her shots found those points unerringly. She moved past each man before they hit the ground on her way towards the center of the village. To her they were dead the moment she saw them.
She closed on the village’s smoking center when the shots came from her right. A bunch of these dead men burst out of a woman’s hall where she had spent much of her childhood being cared for by the woman of her community. The deaders where firing wildly at her. Without even a thought for it she dodged to her right, and then turned on them with guns in both hands. Mason could not even follow the progression of focal points and shots. He lost track of her own hands as they did their thing of lining up on what she saw, killing it and moving on. It was unconscious the way it was done, and in the space of a few breaths the men were as those before them, dead. One of their shots had been close and now blood was streaming down the side of her face. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. That gun had clicked empty the last shot she had made with it, so it was dropped where she stood.
Mason could feel the effects of the blood loss as she came into the village center and saw the carnage there. Her feet were not lifting as she walked and she only had the one pistol now. Yet somehow she knew that she was done. There would be no more men her for her to kill. At least not here. Mason looked down and saw the large Older who she had saved from the beast. Now this man who had meant so much to her lay at her feet, his blood pooled around him from the cut clean across his throat. Anguish broke over her now, and the world dimmed and faded as a word…no a name, rang in her mind.
The world of the burnt out village resolved again into Mason’s mind and he heard his voice as if from far away speak. “Do you know me, Diana?”
“Yes Mason.” Came the hoarse voice from the girl whose face he now cupped in his hands.
“Do you know what you need to do?” Mason listened to his own voice speak again.
“Yes” Diana said and then a haunting look of cold resolve came into her grey eyes. “I am going to kill them all.” Mason closed his eyes for a moment and an involuntary shiver came over him. He let the rolling tide of Contact recede from him. H tried to push the thoughts of other Contacts that came bubbling to the surface of his mind at Diana’s words. He tried not to think of what often happened to those who worked his tasks with him.
“Come, little one. There will be time enough for that. We need to get your head fixed up and get you some food.” He said this as he scooped the girl up in his arms. She was light and felt weak in his arms. “Wait” She said and then produced a short knife from somewhere. She reached behind her neck and cut the long braid of dark hair. She held the braid to her lips and then dropped it so that it draped over Ferrin’s once powerful shoulders. Then she laid her head upon Mason’s shoulder and did not move again. When he turned to walk back the way he had come into the village square, Tank was standing in front of him. The giant reached down and, looking askance at Diana, gently took the empty gun she still clutched in her hand. She let him take the empty weapon without resistance. When he replaced it with another, fully loaded weapon, she smiled weakly at the brown eyes that looked at her so openly. Her weak smile was infectious and Tank returned it with his own mischievous grin.
C’er watched as Tank straightened and moved aside letting Mason pass with the small girl bundled in his arms. Then the giant reached down and picked up a sack that was at his feet. C’er heard the sound of metal on metal as the sack lifted off the ground. Looking more closely at the sack, C’er could see the barrels of several guns poking from the opening. Gauging the size of the sack, and the various bulges protruding from it, C’er estimated that Tank had picked up every weapon they had come across. At first it struck C’er as to how heavy that bag had to be, and how easily Tank hefted it. Second, he realized that it was a rather large arsenal.
“Hey there big guy, that’s a lot of guns, isn’t it?” C’er asked nonchalantly as they fell in behind Mason who was walking back towards IT.
“Pretty girl likes guns. Tank will fix them for her.”
It was a simple assessment. The kind you would get from any younger. Still, it sent a chill down through C’er’s spine that came to rest in his belly. It was a chill that he knew would not leave him anytime soon.