Corn. Fuck corn. Endless fucking corn, as far as the eye can see. I know every goddamn American who has ever crossed the Midwest has said this, but fuck it. So fucking boring I can’t bring myself to give half a shit about originality. Oh, hey, a brown smudge on the horizon in the atmosphere. That’s gotta be it. Soon there will be buildings and mountains and not corn and not corn and not corn! Corn can suck all the dicks. ALL of them.
Rob’s truck rumbled over the highways, on the way to Westward City. His armor and tools lay in the back, covered by tarp. It’ll be fun working on the somewhat right side of the law. His brother said there were four others on this proto team, and not much else. There was Chris, the de-facto leader (poor bastard), Amanda, who was the easiest to mock, Miya, a violent Aztec chick, and Olivia, who had wings. Rob had no idea what Ben was talking about for that last one, and he had provided no more details than that about any of them. Something about…Red Bull? Maybe? But that was all Rob knew. That was verbatim what Ben sent me.
The city came into view. Rob stopped to fill the tank for what seemed like the billionth time since he set out from Pennsylvania four days ago. His brother offered him a job making an underground base four days ago, but Rob made double time when, the next day, Ben told him they needed to visit a Wendy’s when he got there. All of their most serious and important conversations happened at a Wendy’s. Rob knew whatever it was Ben wanted to talk about was important, though Ben told him it had no relation to why Rob drove to Colorado in the first place. So it’s not just because he wants to brag about being the one to kill Freedom Fighter.
He checked his phone at the pump; Ben sent him the address to go to about twenty minutes ago. He plugged in how to get there, then set off again. He eventually rolled up to an abandoned auto shop. It was fairly late, no cars passed by on the streets. He got out of the car and called Ben. Don’t want to make my debut in Westward breaking and entering into an auto shop for no reason.
“Yessah? You just pull up in the BAT? We heard somethin’ loud,” said Ben the moment he picked up.
“Yeah. Didn’t wanna go into the wrong buildin’ or somethin’,”
“Gotcha,” said Ben as he opened a door off to Rob’s right. Ben and Rob hung up simultaneously and started laughing madly. We still got it. Rob punched Ben in the shoulder, who repaid him in kind, then they both entered the shop.
“Rob, everyone. Everyone, Rob,” said Ben, introducing him to the four other people in the shop.
One girl sat at a desk, looking at him with barely restrained disgust. Amanda, if Ben has been doing his work well. A smaller girl, with distinctly Aztec features sat on the hood of a small red car in the shop. Miya. Behind her loomed another girl, who avoided eye contact once Rob looked her way. A feral. There has got to be a fantastic story behind her. Next to Amanda stood a big guy who nodded to Rob. I’m sure he’s always been described as a ‘big guy’, but like I said, fuck originality. I’ve been sitting in a car for four days.
Rob raised his hand in greeting, “Hey, everybody.”
They murmured their various greetings. Rob moved forward, brushing some contraption and accompanying tools off to the side of a desk, then hopped onto the desk. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Amanda grimace and close her eyes for a brief moment. Ben reached some boxes, and called out, “You want anythin’ to eat?”
“I thought you an’ me were grabbin’ Wendy’s tonight?”
“Tonight? Sure.” I made double time up here in a gas guzzling monster for Wendy’s, not to put it off for later.
“I’m not gonna put off Wendy’s, Ben.” Rob then said to the group at large, “Hi everyone! I hear you lot need a sort of solitary fortress of some kind.”
“Yes,” said the guy Rob pegged as Chris. Only other guy here that doesn’t look like me, so hooray for process of elimination. “Ben also said that you would be willing to stay with us in a combat role as well.”
“Yep. An’ you’re Chris, right?”
“Sorry, yes. My name is Chris.”
After a brief pause, Miya said, “I’m Miya.”
“Amanda,” Amanda said. She doesn’t like me already!
“I’m Olivia,” said the girl with wings studying the ground very intently once Rob looked her way. Apparently I’m terrifying.
“Alright, I guessed right! Jackass over here,” Rob motioned to Ben at his side, who snickered, ”told me almost nothin’ about everyone here. Like, maybe half a sentence worth of stuff. Anywho, this is where I tell you what I fight in, right?” This is basically the closest I’ll ever come to a job interview, but now isn’t the time to joke around.
Chris nodded, so Rob continued, “So I’ve got this kickass set of armor. It acts like power armor, but ain’t! It can take a bit of punishment, been shot quite a few times in it. It’s entirely mechanical, and amplifies my movements, so I can punch shit hard. Also, got a nice shotgun and crowbar attached to it, so there’s that. I’ve got a good range of motion, but I ain’t the fastest in it, though I can sprint in it pretty fast.”
There was an art to moving in that suit. Move too fast, and it would simply block your movements. Too slow, and it would lack the necessary force to move the slabs of metal that composed the suit. One day Rob got bored and decided to paint random sayings and quotes entirely out of context on random bits of it. He had a nice collection going, though he would have to repaint some of the old ones. ‘How do you fuck up a brick?’ is one of my personal favorites.
“Need anythin’ else?” asked Rob.
“Your power itself. Ben said it was ‘old fashioned shit’, but I was hoping you would be a tad more descriptive,” said Chris.
“Engineer, pretty generalized. But primarily it’s metallurgy an’ mechanics.” said Rob.
“What do you mean by generalized?” asked Chris.
“So, take metallurgy. I can only really make something strong or brittle or pliable. There’s a guy working for US Steel who specializes only in metals. He can turn copper into putty, make iron into the closest thing we’ve got to adamantium, and so on. He’s practically a fuckin’ wizard. I can’t do that. But he has no idea how to make a clockwork style machine that can tirelessly dig a substantial tunnel.”
“So I’m guessing that’s what you’ll be doing?” said Chris.
“You got it. There’s some other shit I’ve gotta research, but basically that’s what we’re gonna start out with. So, what can you lot do? I know Ben, don’t know the rest of you.” This goes both ways. If I’m going to risk my neck with these people, I better know what they can do too.
“I turn into liquid, Amanda is an electricity techie, Miya uses magic, and Olivia flies, and is bulletproof,” said Chris. Bulletproof? No fucking way. Suddenly her shyness seemed faintly ridiculous. “You’ll have to ask them individually, it is getting late.
“Gotcha,” said Rob. There were three sections blocked off with jury rigged curtains. Some people sharing beds or something? Rob didn’t judge, he’d slept in far worse conditions. Sleep is precious, sleep is sacred. “Oh, you. Olivia? You got a question?”
“Oh. Um…sorry. No,” she said, still looking at the floor.
“Yes you do. You’ve been shootin’ me questionin’ looks this whole time when you think I’m not lookin’. Then you open your mouth, then change your mind. Spit it out.” If it’s some bullshit emotional thing or dishonesty thing I’m going to be pissed.
She scratched the back of her head (she had claw fingertips, didn’t she), then asked, “Did you…drive a semi here? It sounded a lot like one.”
Rob shot a look at Ben. “Did you not tell them about the BAT?”
“It’s a surprise. Surprises are fun!” They both laughed. The others watched them warily.
“Come on, come on! I’ll show you,” said Rob. He got up, leading the way outside. The others hesitantly followed, Ben bringing up the rear. They reached the outside, and saw Rob’s truck.
“Voila! The BAT, aka the Big Ass Truck!”
The truck was enormous. In fact Rob usually had clearance issues in drive thrus due to the smokestack behind the cabin. It appeared normal on the outside, but underneath Rob welded slabs of metal as armor. It could function as a tank, should he so choose. Need different tires for that, though. He’d modded the engine with a mechanic friend of his, so the thing could actually move at a decent pace. Amusingly enough, this was his personal car, not one used for any criminal enterprises back east.
Painted a dull, matte grey, he’d resisted the urge to slap on some random paint jobs in the same style as his armor. No reason to be obvious, after all. He’d also had to resist the urge to add spikes to the front. And a Confederate flag. And blue flames on the hood. Maybe someday. The windows were heavily tinted, in fact made of bulletproof glass. He knew that the hood of the truck was about level with his chin.
“You drive this?” asked Miya.
“I drive this. I drove it all the way from the east coast to here, in part so you could bask in its magnificence.” It’s true. A very small part, but true.
Chris looked on with a faint aura of amusement. Amanda had rolled her eyes and gone back inside, while Olivia hung back in the doorway itself.
Rob asked Chris, “So do you need anything else from me right now?”
“One more thing. Do you have a place to sleep, or would you be OK with staying here?”
“I’ve just been sleeping in the back of the cabin, if you don’t have room for me in there.”
Ben laughed. “Yeah, tha’s kinda sketchy to do in a fuckin’ truck rest stop. Jus’ wake up, an’ ya got no second kidney.”
“Well how would you know?” asked Rob.
“It would fuckin’ hurt, tha’s how,” said Ben.
“Hey, you don’t know that. Maybe…maybe they used anesthetics or somethin’?” They both grinned now. They knew where this was going.
“One, even if they did, there’d be a huge fuckin’ scar on yer back. Two, what kinda organ thief uses anesthetics?”
“The decent kind. I mean, what kind of person would subject their fellow man to such pain?”
“Organ thieves. Tha’s who. They’re not known for compassion or empathy.” Miya and Chris stared, Olivia having gone back inside with Amanda a bit before.
“They’re still people, not monsters. Besides, if your victim wakes up on the operating table an’ starts thrashing in pain, they could get killed while you operate.”
“What? Why would they give a shit if you die? They’re already slicin’ out a bit of ya.”
“If they die, the organ might be useless before you get it out. See? Economic benefit as well.”
“So they don’ use anesthetics. They hit ya over the head or somethin’,” said Ben in mock exasperation.
“That isn’t a surefire thing. That could still kill someone, an’ now were back to where we started, aren’t we?”
“Anesthetics are expensive.”
“So are organs,” countered Rob.
Ben didn’t respond. Did I win? I think I won! Then Ben said, “Chloroform. It’s a lot cheaper than medical grade shit. Keeps em under so you can get yer merchandise too, but does nothin’ for the hurt,” We both know nothing about actual medicine, so we both could be, and most likely are, completely wrong.
Rob sighed. “Point” He turned to Chris. “Yeah, I’ll just sleep in the BAT for tonight. We can figure out this shit in the mornin’.”
Chris blinked, mouthed ‘what’ silently to himself, then recovered enough to say, “You sure?”
“Yep, me an’ Ben’ll be out late, got some catchin’ up to do. How long’s it been, three years? Four? Yeah, four,” he said, opening the door to the BAT.
“Alright,” said Chris. “Have fun, you kids.” Rob and Ben snickered, then left. Chris and Miya headed back inside the shop.
“So where we headin’?” asked Rob, once the engine started.
Ben told him, and Rob set off. “Fuck, man. It’s good to see ya,” said Ben.
“No kiddin’. This’ll be fun. Even on the somewhat right side of the law an’ everythin’.”
“Yeah, the fuck happened to you lot out east?” asked Ben.
Pricks. Pricks happened. “Wasn’t my choice. Jimmy an’ Sean’s egos eventually grew so large they couldn’t be in the same room together, an’ they basically said ‘it’s me or him’ to the rest of us. Me an’ Bri talked about maybe going together, but that kind of fell through, so here I am.”
“Sean? Tha’s that guy who called me cracker, right?”
“Yep. Same prick,” said Rob. Dammit. I just realized that without Sean I can’t say racist shit and then say it’s OK because I have black friends. It’s so fun to piss people off with that.
“Sucks,” said Ben.
Rob nodded. “So yourself. What is the average day in the life of a Ben? Take up skiing or somethin’? I hear that’s what Colorado people do.”
Ben chuckled. “I don’ have the fuckin’ money for that. Nah. What I’ve been doin’ is mainly just work at the donut place for a bit, dick around for a bit at my apartment or the local gatherin’ places, then patrol. Things have been fairly quiet since a bit before Christmas, so I’ve been bored anyway. An’ sleep, that too.”
“You still havin’ trouble sleepin’ too?” asked Rob.
“Yeah,” said Ben. Rob grunted in agreement.
To fill the silence Rob said, “I gotta ask, what’s with the feral? I’m expectin’ nothin’ but the most amusin’ of stories, by the way.”
“Name’s Olivia. An’ there’s no good story, actually. She kinda jus’ showed up one day. She doesn’t remember anythin’, so if ya do make a quip ‘bout her intelligence I’ll beat the shit outta you.”
Note to self: do not insult the intelligence of Olivia. “Fair enough. You said absolutely nothin’?”
“Nah. We’ve, well, I, have instituted movie night, cuz she hasn’t seen any of ‘em.”
“Huh.” Rob thought for a second. Doesn’t remember anything? “Which night?”
“Every night. Me an’ her an’ Miya have been fuckin’ bored, seein’ as we’re somewhat unemployed. Amanda’s been doin’ her own thing, Chris’s been gettin’ some stuff set up, but they show up every now an’ then. Gonna wanna turn here. I do still got a job, but it’s part time, an’ we’re goin’ for low profile right about now, so no real patrols.”
Rob turned onto the indicated road. “OK, even if there’s no good story behind it, how do you…just…how? She seemed fuckin’ terrified of me.”
“Don’ worry. She ain’t a huge fan of new people, tha’s all. I was actually the first to report her. Then Cyrus had me, Chris, and Amanda, who were in the MHU at the time, track her down. Then F.F. attacked, an’ she goes an’ kills a bunch of people.” Rob remembered something in the news about that, though overshadowed by the fact that a Central American terrorist was attacking a US city. They still didn’t know why, or at least if they knew they hadn’t announced it yet.
Ben continued, “Don’ piss her off, by the way. Gets all scary an’ hissy. But if ya do manage to get her inta that state, you deserve whatcha get. But anyways, she broke down once she came to, we took her to my old apartment to figure out what happened. Marcus says we’re workin’ with F.F., so we tracked F.F. down, an’ I killed him to prove Marcus wrong. Now you gotta come up with somethin’ awesome to do.”
He’s right. Their little game of one upmanship began when Ben found and raided an Overlord lab, and got his rifle to show for it. Then Sam sent them a picture of a loose feral he and his unit had killed while in Brazil. Then Rob and his gang looted the house of the state governor, tying him upside down to the refrigerator before making good their escape. Now Ben had killed a terrorist leader. What to do, what to do?
They pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot, taking up two spaces. It’s fun when someone tries to key the side of an armor plate. Although yes, they are fully justified in attempting to do so. I just don’t care. Ben and Rob got their food and sat down a discreet distance away from the other two people eating. Wendy’s was the one place they choose their words carefully, Ben would tell him what was up when he knew how to say it. They munched on in silence.
Eventually, Ben said, “You hear from Sam recently?” Uh oh.
They had lost contact with Sam about a year ago, he said something about being deployed to the Middle East. Probably doing some black ops shit there. Small wonder he isn’t talking to us right now. Probably still angsting or something, too.
“No,” said Rob.
“He sent me this.” Ben pulled out his phone, tapped the screen a couple times, then passed it to Rob.
Rob took it. It took him a moment to comprehend. “This is nearly gibberish. Is taauth even a word? An’ somethin’ about the underground?” Random letters of the text were capitalized, and a couple English words had spaces in the middle. The fuck? At the end it said ‘donT wOR ry’. “A code, maybe?”
“Not one that I can figure out. An’ that ain’t our style anyways,” said Ben.
“So either someone stole his phone an’ is screwin’ with us for some reason, or his fingers are all broken an’ he tried to type this with our characteristic attention to detail,” said Rob. I really don’t want to have to track you down, Sam. Because our best lead is Lock Corp. and I don’t think they’ll tell us willingly where you are. Or care. Which means we’d have to mess with a very scary organization.
“Tha’s what I thought. I wanted to check an’ see if you’d heard anythin’.”
“Nah, nothin’. He did say don’t worry at the end, so I’m guessin’ he’s got it under control. You text him back?”
“Yep. Three days ago. Hasn’t responded. Called ‘im too, also nothin’.” Ben sighed, and rested his forehead on his hand. “I’m thinkin’ he’s jus’ lettin’ us know he’s alive. We can jus’ keep doin’ what we’re doin’.” When they split up they had an agreement not to interfere with each other’s work. Should their paths cross and be opposed, rock paper scissors would decide who would go home. Anyways, this meant unless one explicitly asked for help, none would be provided or offered.
“That’s about what I was thinking. He said don’t worry, so let’s not worry,” said Rob reluctantly. I said that’s what I’m going to do, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Ben grimaced. “Right. Still don’t like it.”
“Point. I hear you, don’t worry.”
“Blurg. You’re right. Since you were coming up anyway I wanted to check it with you.”
“Thanks. You done? I’m done.”
“Yeah.” They got up, threw away their trash, and left in silence.
In the truck, heading back to the lair, Rob smiled said, “So now that we’re face to face, you actually want to give me some info on who those other fuckers are?”
Ben laughed. “I figured you’d hate goin’ in with no info whatsoever.”
“Yeah, fuck you. Get on with it.”
Ben snickered, then composed himself. “Alright. So ya got Chris. He’s the leader… guy? That little issue hasn’t been brought up yet but I don’ think anyone else really wants the job, so he’s stuck with it. I call ‘im Blondie. He did jus’ bury his girlfriend of… five years, I think he said.” … Ouch. I should probably figure out if condolences are needed or something. Never been too good at that the whole ‘emotions’ thing anyway.
Ben continued, “He’s alright now. Say whatever you like to him, within reason. It’ll be water off his back. Stoic fella. He’s alright at his job, so far as I can tell. The feral, Olivia, she’s fairly quiet. She’s super hesitant, so be patient.”
“Eugh. So she actually puts thought into what she says before she says it? That takes forever.” Patience. Meh. Ben and Rob knew they were anomalies as far as people went. That didn’t mean they couldn’t have some fun at peoples’ expenses.
“I know. Other than that, she’s jus’ a normal chick. I call ‘er Little Bird.” If Ben’s calling her Little Bird it’s not sounding like joking around will be a problem.
“She can fly?” How do the physics of that work? People aren’t the most aerodynamic of things.
“Yep. Been kinda cooped up with Marcus huntin’ her still, but I’ve seen it. She’s got fuckin’ super hearin’ and smell, too, so don’ assume she’s not there.”
“Ouch. I heard that there were some water restrictions going on here, an’ it didn’t look like you lot had showers in there,” said Rob.
“Nah. They’re still fixin’ the water treatment thingy, so water’s been tight. We’re drinkin’ outta water bottles, cuttin’ down on showers…” Ben trailed off. “Ooops. I know Amanda’s been lettin’ her use the shower an’ stuff at her place. Though in my defense, she never complained or anythin’.”
“You do know that I can already tell that she isn’t the type to speak up, right? An’ I’ve known her for all of ten minutes.”
“Yeah, well, hindsight’s a bitch,” said Ben.
After a moment, Rob said, “An’ the others…”
“Right! Miya seems normal at first glance, but scratch the surface somehow an’ she’s a raging homicidal maniac! You’ll probably get a chance to see it soon enough. She got caught by some of Overlord’s people, an’ so far as I can tell the only thing that got her through was revenge. On the flip side, me an’ her raided a slaughterhouse kinda thing for bones yesterday, cuz tha’s what she uses for her voodoo shit. Tha’ was pretty fun, actually.”
“Yessah. I think she was born an’ raised in ‘merica, doesn’t have an accent or anythin’. An’ Amanda,” Ben trailed off with a laugh. “Thank you so much for tellin’ me tha’ techies hate bein’ called techies. She fuckin’ hates it, takes it way too seriously.”
Rob laughed. “I try.” What’s the point of making shit if you can’t have fun with it?
Ben continued, “She also hates bein’ called hon, so do that. An’ mess with her stuff, make minor inconveniences, she starts gettin’ all pissy, it’s great! It was great when she had to let me drive her car, too.”
Rob nodded. Ben was one of the better drivers Rob had met by dint of his powers, but he really didn’t know how cars worked. To quote Ben: ‘a car is jus’ a metal box to get ya from point A to point B, preferably as fast as possible’. Sacrilege I say.
“So how long do ya think it’ll take ya to make the lair of lairs?” asked Ben.
This had been at the back of Rob’s thoughts since he started driving to Colorado, but it was difficult to do any planning without any information. But he had a rough idea. “How long? About three months after we break the ground, on my own. If you lot help with grunt work, maybe two, then we start on the interior. But first we gotta get materials, find a good place to dump the dirt, and so on.”
“I’ve always wondered how ya know how to do this? It ain’t armor or shit like that.”
“I think of it as armor, an’ try to keep all the dirt out. We’re gonna need a lot of metal to do this my way. I’m not gonna go for economical, unlike every other structural engineer, so I figure more support is better than less. An’ in my googlin’ before I got up here it mentioned something about soil expansion here, so that’s somethin’ that’ll take a bit of work,” said Rob.
“Gotcha,” said Ben. They continued driving and talking.
“…and given those circumstances, it’s morally acceptable to kill baby seals until they die,” said Rob with a huge grin as they pulled up to the auto shop. They had driven around a bit before returning, catching up. Totally worth the gas.
Ben sighed and banged his head against the dashboard, not saying anything. Rob continued, “So, am I right? Am I right?” Fuck yeah! No worming your way out of this one.
“As much as I hate to say it, yer logic is flawless. Congratulations, yer kinda awful,” said Ben after a moment.
Rob did a small fist pump. “Fuck yeah! Also, we’re here.” Sleep time!
“Sleep time,” said Ben. “You good in here for tonight?”
“Yep. How ‘bout everyone else inside?” asked Rob.
“Amanda an’ Chris’ve got their own places. Miya an’ Olivia are probably sleepin’. Ya don’ fuckin’ wake up Miya, I’ll tell ya that for free.” Or the bigass feral. She didn’t look particularly scary in comparison to some of the ones that popped up, but ferals provoked that knee jerk ‘threat’ reaction from anyone. It’s like being concerned about a tornado.
“Alright. Get the fuck out of my car so I can sleep.”
“Bueno,” said Ben. “G’night.” He left. This’ll be interesting. Now: sleepy sleep time!