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 a shit about originality.Oh, hey, a brown smudge in the sky on the horizon. 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.
Rob’s pickup truck rumbled over the highway, on the way to Westward City. The tires hit an uneven repair patch in the road, rattling the tools and armor in the bed of the truck. He refocused his tired eyes as the phone in his jeans buzzed, splitting his attention between the straight and empty road before him and the text from his brother.
‘hey, want wendy’s when ur in’
He grinned in anticipation. Only the most serious and important family conversations happen at Wendy’s. The city came into view just as the gas tank edged towards empty for what seemed like the billionth time since he set out from Pennsylvania three days ago.
At the nearest exit, he angled his truck and its heavy trailer into the emptiest gas station. He leaned against the armored flank of the truck as the pump siphoned off his money. What am I walking into here?
His brother said there were four others on a proto team when he confirmed they had a place and not much else. There was Chris, the de-facto leader, Amanda, who was the easiest to mock, Miya, an angry 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 energy drinks? Maybe? Whatever. This is far enough for the heat to die down. I can decide in a couple months what to do. I was kind of hoping Ben would have something a little more solid set up. He moved out here years ago.
Night fell by the time he rolled up to the back of an abandoned auto shop. He got out of his truck and hammered a fist on the metal door with a few bullet dents. What the hell happened here? The hairs on the back of his neck raised, as if he were being watched. He turned around, scanning the surrounding rooftops only to find nothing.
The door burst open, revealing a familiar face. They both began laughing madly. We still got it. Rob punched Ben in the shoulder and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, trying to get him in a headlock. “Yo! We heard somethin’ loud,” said Ben by way of greeting, twisting out with practiced ease and elbowing him in the gut. They both entered, squeezing through the door as they wrestled.
“Rob, everyone. Everyone, Rob,” said Ben, introducing him to the four other people in the shop with one hand trying to hook his fingers into the flesh under Rob’s collarbone.
One girl with a practical and thus cute pixie cut sat at a desk, looking at him with barely restrained disgust. Amanda, if Ben has been doing his work well. A smaller girl, with sharp Aztec features that threatened a scowl at any moment, folded a basket full of clothes at the foot of an Army surplus cot. Miya. Behind her loomed another girl, with a small button nose and a wide mouth. More striking, however, was the fact she was seven feet tall, built like a brick, with wings framing her body. She avoided eye contact once Rob looked her way. A feral with literal wings. Olivia. There has got to be a fantastic story behind her. Next to Amanda stood a big guy who studied him with light blue eyes. He nodded to Rob. Chris, by process of elimination. Only guy here who doesn’t look like me.
Rob raised his hand in greeting as he and Ben disengaged, “Hey, everybody.”
They murmured their various greetings. Rob moved forward, brushing some contraption and accompanying tools off to the side of a desk, then took a seat on it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Amanda grimace and close her eyes for a brief moment. Ben leaned against some boxes and called out, “You want anythin’ to eat?”
“I thought you an’ me were grabbin’ Wendy’s tonight?”
“Tonight? It’s late. Ain’t passin’ out?”
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! Thanks for given’ me a place for a bit. Beats the hell outta motels.” Seems like a secure spot. My truck probably won’t get broken into here. Probably.
“Happy to help,” said Chris. “Ben also said that you had a friend coming as well?”
“Yep. Bri is a couple days behind me. She’ll only be crashin’ here for a day, she’s got family out on the West coast. An’ you’re Chris, right?”
“Sorry, yes. My name is Chris.”
After a brief pause, Miya said, “I’m Miya.”
“Amanda,” Amanda said with forced politeness. She doesn’t like me already!
“I’m Olivia,” said the girl with wings studying the ground very intently. Apparently I’m terrifying.
“I guessed right! Jackass over here,” Rob motioned to Ben, who snickered, “told me almost nothin’ about everyone.”
“If you’re going to be staying here long term we might be getting into combat.”
Rob shrugged. “Cool. Who?”
“Overlord is tracking Olivia and Amanda,” called out Miya. Rob let out a low whistle and cast a side eye at Ben.
Chris nodded and added, “And the local MHU is, while not hostile, not exactly friendly.”
“Y’all ain’t fuckin’ around,” replied Rob with a laugh. I guess they want to know what I can do. He explained, “So I’ve got this kickass set of armor. 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. I’ve got a good range of motion, but I ain’t the fastest in it. Also, got a nice shotgun, crowbar, an’ a couple other gadgets. ”
There was an art to moving in that suit. Move too fast, and it would seize up. Too slow, and it would lack the necessary force to move the slabs of metal that composed the suit.
“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 armor.”
“So I’m guessing that’s what you’ve made?” said Chris.
“You got it. 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, giving Rob a sudden view of hook claws on her fingertips, then asked, “Did you, I don’t know, 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. “Behold! It’s a BAT! A 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. He’d modded the engine with a mechanic friend of his, so the thing could actually move at a decent pace.
Painted a dull, matte black, 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 resisted 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.
“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.” I read that phrase in a book once.
Chris looked on with a faint aura of amusement. Amanda rolled her eyes and went back inside, while Olivia hung back in the doorway itself.
Rob asked Chris, “So do you need anything else from me right now?”
“Not from me. Ben has you covered, I’m guessing you two want to catch up, or you want to sleep somewhere besides a truck stop.”
Ben laughed. “Yeah, sketchy fuckin’ truck rest stops. Just wake up, an’ you got no second kidney.”
“Well how would you know if it’s gone?” asked Rob.
“It would fuckin’ hurt, that’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 your 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. That’s who.” 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 thrashin’ 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’t 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 where back to where we started, ain’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. “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.
Chris blinked, mouthed ‘what’ silently to himself, then recovered enough to say, “OK. 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 you,” 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 kinda 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 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 just showed up one day. She doesn’t remember anythin’, so if you do make a quip ‘bout her smarts 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?”
“Most nights. 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, just how? She seemed fuckin’ terrified of me.”
“Don’t worry. She ain’t a huge fan of new people, that’s all. I was actually the first to report her. Then Cyrus had Chris, and Amanda, who were in the MHU then, track her down. Then the local gang attacked, an’ she goes an’ kills a bunch of ‘em.”
Ben continued, “Don’t piss her off, by the way. Gets all scary an’ hissy. But if you do manage to get her into that state, you deserve whatcha get. But anyways, she got arrested, the local MHU head went insane an’ the second in command decided Amanda an’ Chris were rats. We all got together, wiped out that gang, an’ got Miya outta there. She had some weird Overlord thing in her head. You gotta step up your game, man.”
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 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 helped to wipe out a city mob. 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. Ben and Rob got their greasy burgers and sat down a discreet distance away from the other people eating. Wendy’s was the one place they chose 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 broken an’ he tried to type this anyways,” 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 want to fight that nonsense.
“That’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’.”
“We goin’ down the warpath? If we gotta, we gotta, but Lock Corp ain’t small.”
Ben sighed, and rested his forehead on his hand. “Nah. I’m thinkin’ he’s just lettin’ us know he’s alive. We can just keep doin’ what we’re doin’.” They had each stood on their own for years after splitting.
“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,” asked Rob.
“Yeah,” replied Ben. “You hear from Mom?”
“Pft. Nah. You?”
“Nope.” 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 away from ‘em, 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 you got Chris. He’s the leader guy? We never had a vote or anythin’ but I don’t think anyone else really wants the job, so he’s stuck with it. I call him Blondie. He did just break up with his girlfriend of three years, I think he said.” Ouch.
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 gunnin’ for her still, but I’ve seen it. She’s got fuckin’ super hearin’ and smell, too, so don’ assume she’s not there.”
“You like her?” Rob asked with a grin and raised eyebrow. You’ve been chatting a lot about her.
“What?” asked Ben, taking a second to catch his meaning. “No. She’s like a little sister.”
Rob blinked. “She’s seven feet tall.”
“A really big little sister.”
After a moment, Rob said, “Alright, 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 that’s what she uses for her voodoo shit. That was pretty fun, actually.”
“Bones? Bone magic?”
“Yep. 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, “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.”
“Gotcha,” said Rob. They continued driving and talking as the night dragged on, in no hurry to break their stride in conversation after years apart. I missed this.
Holy shit it’s Rob time
Rob-bros in the house tonight
Thank you very much, Syphax, I really appreciate this!
Seasons Greetings, a little early though it may be.
Let us hope it finds you well.
This story-line is different than the first draft, and in my humble opinion, probably much better, now that you’ve had time to think about the story your telling.
We can all but wait humbly for you to have some free time between now and over Xmas, to see if we get another page to tide us over.
Thanking you buddy, and may your coming Xmas be a very merry one.