Last time in The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK: Baxter and ROEBUCK are mercenaries and partners, one man, one machine. They ride around the deserts of Mexico and the American Southwest, guns for hire to whoever can afford them. Baxter and ROEBUCK have escaped from the clutches of Major Monk, along with their friend, Doctor D'Angelo. Returning to the sands beneath Los Alamos in search of ROEBUCK's missing memory data, they were captured by a couple of unsavory mercenaries, but managed to escape captivity within the base. When the sewers they were using to escape were flooded, the trio held their breath and hung on for dear life...
D’Angelo and Baxter gripped ROEBUCK with a clutching desperation as the bot stepped on the eject pedal and the canopy of the cockpit detached. He propelled himself up through the dank murk of the flooded sewer tunnel, but the ceiling wasn’t very high, and no pockets of air remained to oxygenate his human companions.
ROEBUCK transformed to adapt to the aquatic environment. His feet elongated and webbed to resemble metallic flippers. They propelled him through the water faster than any human diver, but Baxter and D’Angelo still clung to him, the oxygen in their bodies diminishing with each precious second. ROEBUCK scanned for an alternate escape route, one that would take them into an un-flooded section of the base.
Eventually, he found it. Some barracks that had been decommissioned just a couple of decades before the Great Fall. The shower facilities still had pipes leading to these very sewers, and even an old access port. Almost certainly sealed, but he had tools to deal with those kinds of obstacles. Like a fettered torpedo, ROEBUCK zoomed through the tunnels, clutching Baxter and D’Angelo behind him as he swam.
Meanwhile, Baxter’s insides burned as he was pulled through the watered down river of shit. Hell of a way to go, he thought to himself, his head still aching from Max’s strike. His eyes pinched, his mouth closed, his arm pulled by ROEBUCK, he remembered a prayer from his youth: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. As the prayer went through his mind, he did not know the meaning behind it, but remembered a kind old lady from his boyhood, her wrinkled hands wrapped around beads as she repeated this prayer over and over, and the comfort it gave him as she held him while they said their prayers. And so he shielded his mind and heart with this memory as his body swept through the flood.
D’Angelo knew no prayers to comfort her, but her mind was not still. How much longer can I hold my breath? How much longer can ROEBUCK pull us through this muck before he’s dragging two drowned corpses behind him? She felt a breath escape her lungs, but resisted the urge to breathe in, even though every cell in her body cried for oxygen. Then she felt her armed tug up instead of forward, and even though she was being pulled in the darkness, she knew they’d changed direction.
ROEBUCK finally found the access port to those decommissioned barracks and rose up to meet it. The port was still sealed, but the bot knew that in the state of disrepair most of the abandoned sections of the base were in, he’d be able to break this seal if he could only create enough force and momentum. So he sped through the water as fast as he could, his feet fanning behind him like twin propellers.
At the moment of impact, ROEBUCK’s head slammed into the metal seal and he pulled Baxter and D’Angelo along with him, like a submarine breaching ice to reach the ocean’s surface. They collapsed on the floor of the barracks’ washroom, D’Angelo and Baxter breathing in gulps of air, their faces’ purple hue fading to red as they caught their breath. Their clothes were soaked and soggy, and they stank of waste, but at least they were alive.
ROEBUCK scanned for nearby life-forms. He also activated a dim light that emanated from the top of his head so that his companions could see inside the dark room.
“Anybody nearby?” Baxter asked.
“I sense one life-form that may be human. There’s a lot of interference from vegetation, insects and small mammals. Certainly no groups of soldiers. They must assume we were destroyed when the tunnels were flooded,” ROEBUCK said.
“That’s good news,” Baxter grunted, and winced in pain. “Damn, he really rung my bell. We’ll want to keep our guard up.”
“First things first,” D’Angelo announced. “I need out of these clothes. We need to clean ourselves off. Here, this will help with the pain.” She unscrewed the lid off a small plastic bottle. “Swiped this from one of the lab’s first aid kits.”
“Much obliged,” Baxter said, then gulped, swallowing the capsule dry.
ROEBUCK opened a metal cabinet lined up against a wall. “Guard uniforms,” he said. “They look a bit different than the ones the soldiers wear now. But at least they’re dry.”
“Thank heavens,” D’Angelo said, and began stripping her wet clothes.
“You need some privacy?” Baxter asked.
“Don’t be foolish,” D’Angelo admonished. “This is no time for prudishness. Besides, we can’t afford to separate. At least for now. And this shower’s leaking. I wonder…” D’Angelo turned the shower’s handle and laughed with glee as a stream of hot water poured out. She began to shed her soiled lab coat and the rest of her clothes.
“If you say so,” Baxter said, peeling off his boots. In a few minutes, they wore dry, once black uniforms, now faded to a dark gray. Baxter’s clothes fit well. D’Angelo’s uniform was loose, so she rolled up her sleeves and pant legs, and tied a belt around her waist as tight as it would go.
“To the surface? “ROEBUCK asked. “We could steal a vehicle, maybe even our bikes, ride back into the desert.”
“You sore you ain’t found out where you come for yet?” Baxter asked. “Shame being this close to the data that stores your memories, and not be able to access it.”
“Disappointing, yes,” ROEBUCK said, “but not worth walking back into certain doom for. They’ll be on high alert once they realize they’re unable to find our remains.”
“We may have another chance some other day,” D’Angelo told him, placing a hand on ROEBUCK’s shoulder. “That information is too valuable. They’ll never get rid of it.”
Baxter slid a magazine into a pistol, sliding in with a soft click. “Looks like they left a few weapons behind too. Wonder what the hell happened here to make ‘em leave in such a hurry. Here you go, Doc.”
Baxter handed her a pistol. The weapons they had with them in the sewers remained there, lost in their escape. He led them to the barracks’ exit. The door swung open with an ominous, metallic groan. The air hissed, and a colony of cockroaches skittered into cracks and crevices as ROEBUCK’s light flooded the corridor. “Reminds me of my bachelor days,” Baxter remarked. He walked through the doorway as ROEBUCK and D’Angelo came up behind him. Their scavenged pistols came with lights equipped, illuminating what lay ahead.
It wasn’t much. Layers of mold and decay. Plenty of insects and vegetation, as ROEBUCK had detected. The smell of mildew and rot. Curiously, they even heard the skitter of pawed feet echo in the distance. “If there are animals down here, that must mean there’s access to the surface,” D’Angelo noted.
“Access to the surface, and angry den mothers both. Best to keep our guard up. We’re intruders here,” ROEBUCK spoke.
Get out. Baxter felt a thought flash through his mind, but it didn’t come from his own brain. It trod on his synapses like an unwelcome guest. Get out! the thought repeated more insistently. Guns and soldiers aren’t allowed here. I thought I made that clear.
“Did anybody else hear that?” Baxter asked.
“Hear what?” said D’Angelo.
“I heard a voice in my mind. Telling us to get out. Haunted house shit,” Baxter explained.
“I did detect a strong electro-magnetic signal directed at us. Feared it was from a scanning instrument. But an advanced telepath or telekinetic could be just as dangerous,” ROEBUCK said.
Baxter sighed. “If it ain’t psychotic raiders or fascist soldiers, it’s some subterranean, paranormal threat. When’s it gonna end, ROEBUCK?” Baxter growled.
“When we retire, Baxter, voluntarily or involuntarily.”
Baxter huffed, but kept quiet as the trio continued their search for a way to the surface. Down one of the tunnels, some kind of large rodent with beady red eyes hissed at them when they stepped a bit too close, but when ROEBUCK spun his gatling gun in its direction and pointed his red targetting beam at it, the creature scampered off into the shadows.
I warned you. Baxter stopped in his tracks. “Get ready,” he said. He cocked his pistol, and D’Angelo did the same. ROEBUCK spun his gatling while they waited for an attack.
A whirlwind of metal and debris came spinning at them from the end of the corridor. Baxter and D’Angelo huddled into the recesses of a pair of doorways. ROEBUCK dug in his heels, crossed his arms in front of his face, and let the debris bounce off of him.
“Hey!” Baxter yelled down the corridor. “We’re trying to get the hell outta here! We got drug down into this base by a couple of bounty hunters, but we’re trying to escape. You help us outta here, or just leave us alone, we won’t have to fight. You can keep the tunnels for yourself and the critters.”
The whirlwind paused as if a calm in a storm.
A mass of tangled black hair descended from one corner of the hallway. A white eye peered out. Baxter stepped behind ROEBUCK, slowly and tentatively.
“We ain’t soldiers, ma’am. Had to use these uniforms to replace the rags we were wearing. They flooded the sewer tunnels when we were trying to escape earlier. My bot here saved us from the waters, but the only place we could get to was up here in these tunnels with you. Beg your pardon, miss,” Baxter had his gun tucked into the back of his waistband out of view. He held both his hands up with his fingers spread.
“I can tell you’re not lying,” the girl said. She spoke with a slight Mexican accent, not uncommon in these parts. She was wearing her own version of a soldier’s uniform, cut and stitched into a tee-shirt and shorts with a green army jacket over-top. She had colorful cloth and materials, what looked like bandanas, tied into her clothes, along with a bright red bandana worn as a headband. In her right hand, she held a machete. It gleamed in the light coming from the guns. She also had infra-red goggles lifted onto her fore-head. Her skin was pale, but the girl look well-nourished. Despite her isolation, she’d seemed to take good care of herself.
“Who are you, little girl?” D’Angelo asked. “My name’s D’Angelo.”
“I’m fourteen. Not a little girl. But you can call me Ramona,” she said, tucking her machete back into a leather loop she had on her belt. She held her hand out to D’Angelo who shook it, surprised by the girl’s hard grip; compared to Baxter’s firm handshake, the girl had fingers of granite.
“A pleasure to meet you, young lady,” ROEBUCK said, bowing deeply with a flourish of his arms. “ROEBUCK, at your service.”
“And I’m Baxter,” Baxter said, with a gentle nod in the girl’s direction. “You know the way out of here?”
“Of course I do,” Ramona told him. “But if you want me as your guide, you’d better pay up. What’cha got?”
Baxter cleared his throat, taken aback by the girl’s assertiveness. “Well, let’s see. The Doc and I scavenged a couple of pistol’s. Think the Doc’s got some medical supplies. And if you want to leave, we can take you with us. Least to the next town.”
“Hmph,” Ramona scoffed. “Well, I wouldn’t usually help you in this kind of situation. I’m more of a ‘kill first, ask questions later’ kinda gal. But you’ve caught me in a generous mood. And it does get a little lonely in this base. Tell you what. I’ll lead you up to the exit, and then decide what I’ll do next. Just don’t piss me off.”
“Incredible,” ROEBUCK remarked. “Neural implants. They augment an inherent psychic ability.”
“Christ,” D’Angelo swore. “I’d heard rumors of human trials. What did they do, kidnap a little girl and give her brain surgery?”
“I don’t remember what they did to me,” Ramona said. “I only remember waking up. And the experiments…” a small shudder ran through her body. “But I decided my trial was over, and released myself under my own recognizance,” she said chuckling, a malevolent gleam in her eyes.
“That sounds awfully familiar,” ROEBUCK spoke. “Though I have no idea how one would remove memories from an organic brain.”
“Hypnotic suggestion. Trauma. I hate to speculate further,” D’Angelo said.
“Now that we’ve finished our introductions,” Baxter said, “we’d best be moving on. We’re one search party away from a fire-fight.”
“Yeah, yeah. Follow me. And try to keep up.” Ramona led them back into the darkness. She gripped her machete, held at her side like an ancient tribes-woman, cutting through thick jungle.
Ramona’s limbs were short, but strong. She had a stocky build, small and wide, but well-muscled. Her years in isolation hadn’t seemed to impact her much, mentally or emotionally. She could still communicate. Too well, Baxter reflected. The girl certainly was opinionated, and had no problem telling them exactly what she thought. About the way they smelled (the stench of the sewers still clung to them), how slow and clumsy they were, and how stupid they must be to have been captured in the first place. Baxter wanted to give the girl a piece of his mind, but since she was their only way out of the base, felt it would be best to let her gripe, at least until they got to the surface.
“HISS!” Baxter backed up a step and aimed his pistol, but Ramona put a hand on his arm.
“It’s okay, she’s friendly,” Ramona said, pushing Baxter’s arm until his pistol pointed to the floor. She crouched low and sauntered over to the creature, clicking her tongue as she went. It was another one of those large, pale rodents with white hair and pink eyes. Ramona held something out in her hand that piqued its curiosity. The rodent sniffed curiously and took Ramona’s offering, a dead cockroach she’d pulled from her pack. The possum stuffed the roach into its mouth and crunched greedily. Black flakes caught in the fur around its mouth, but the creature seemed happy now, and climbed up Ramona’s arm to rest on her shoulder. It flicked its pink tongue out, licked its paw a few times, and began cleaning its face.
“What in tarnation…?” Baxter asked, scratching his head.
“Her name is Sandy. She’s my possum,” Ramona introduced her. “She helps me find food, water and warm places to sleep.”
“Curious,” ROEBUCK observed as Sandy groomed Ramona’s hair.
“Doesn’t appear to be rabid,” D’Angelo remarked. “At least.”
“Never heard o’ no possum,” Baxter said.
“Nocturnal creatures. Well suited to the darkness. They’re usually seen as pests. They like to get in garbage. Usually harmless. And very clever,“ ROEBUCK explained
“Ugly as sin,” Baxter remarked.
“Like you should talk,” Ramona shot back at him.
Baxter rolled his eyes and grunted. “C’mon now, let’s get. I want to see daylight.”
Ramona led them through countless corridors as they made their way through the abandoned sections of the base. It seemed like they were in a maze of hallways, but with the girl leading them, they always knew where to turn, which steps to go up and down, and those areas best to avoid. Sometimes Baxter glanced down the paths they didn’t take. Usually, he could only see an empty darkness, but every once in a while, a ceiling had caved in, or a pile of furniture or equipment blocked the way. Some loose wires shot sparks, sending flashes of blue light as they hissed and popped. Once or twice, he glimpsed some old bones. They poked out of piles of clutter, but whether they were human or animal, he never got close enough to see. Don’t matter now, I reckon, he thought to himself as he pulled his eyes away.
“Let’s stop here,” Ramona announced abruptly. She pointed her machete at a pile of objects that looked more organized and intentional than the random heaps that had blocked off some of the other corridors. It almost looked like a den of sorts, with seat cushions, sleeping mats, curtains and clothing piled into a sort of nest.
As she made her way toward it, Sandy leapt from her shoulder head-first into a pile of clutter and came out with a startled mouse she’d grabbed with her paws. After a few frightened squeaks and frantic wiggling, Sandy put the creature out of its misery and gulped half of it down in a matter of moments. The mouse’s tale hung from her mouth like a half-eaten spaghetti noodle.
“Pest control,” Ramona giggled. She dug through a pile of clothing and opened up a sealed container, unhooking a couple of latches. Inside, there were rectangular pouches, neatly stacked, all sealed in plastic bags. “MRE’s,” she explained. “Meals ready to eat. I found a storage room full of these. Not too tasty, but they stay good pretty much forever. Here, I know you must be hungry,” she said, tossing one to Baxter and another to D’Angelo. “Does he eat?” she asked, cocking her head at ROEBUCK.
“My energy comes from the sun,” ROEBUCK explained. “And in these darkened tunnels, I’ll only be able to power myself for about another hour or so.”
“Eh, we’ll be outta here in plenty of time,” Ramona assured them. “Can’t poke our heads out anywhere it would be too dangerous, ya know?”
Baxter grunted an affirmative, and crouched down in the corridor, leaning his back against the wall. He tore open the MRE with his fingers, and a few pouches fell out from the larger one.
“And how do we…?” D’Angelo asked, examining the packets in front of her.
“I just mix everything together,” Ramona explained, grabbing a small metal bowl and placing it down in front of her. She passed some to Baxter and D’Angelo too, and began emptying the packets one by one into her own.
“Got it,” D’Angelo said, following her lead. She tried not to look too hard inside the bowl. Even though it didn’t look to have anything exactly growing inside of it, it wasn’t perfectly clean either. Ramona poured some water from her canteen into D’Angelo’s and Baxter’s bowls.
“Now you just mix it up,” Ramona explained. “There’s a few different flavors of the goop. Never really bothered to read the labels too much after I got used to them. It’s more fun if it’s a surprise,” she said, stirring the mixture with one of her fingers, and licking some of the mess.
“Hoo boy,” Baxter said, but slurped the goop hungrily once he’d mixed it together. It tasted like salt and beef stock. A hint of carrots, maybe? And one clump that must’ve contained his dessert; it was a sweet mass of granulated sugar and artificial flavor. But damned if I don’t feel better, Baxter thought. He was still a little hungry, but not terribly, and his mind felt a little sharper. He’d woken up a little.
D’Angelo and Ramona were careful to grab every speck of sustenance they could, running their fingers along the inside of their bowls and licking them clean. ROEBUCK looked on quietly. Baxter felt a twinge of worry. ROEBUCK’s optic sensor grew dim, a red glow in the darkness, like the coals of a smoldering fire.
“We need to get to the surface,” Baxter announced. “ROEBUCK ain’t lookin’ too good.”
“I feel fine,” ROEBUCK declared, “but my energy reserves will only last a little while longer. Then I’ll power down.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ramona said, chucking her metal bowl behind her into a darkened section of her den. She stood back up, grabbing her machete from the floor and slid It into a leather strap she wore on her hip. She raised her arms above her head as she stretched and yawned, then scratched at her belly. “Better get ready. We’re not lucky, the shits gonna hit the fan. I can take care of myself, but you guys better be careful.”
“What do you mean?” D’Angelo asked as they began walking down the darkened corridor once more.
“I mean,” Ramona explained, “Major Monk isn’t going to be happy when he realizes his prize specimen got up and walked out of his lab. For a second time.”
“How do you know the major?” asked ROEBUCK.
“We have a history,” Ramona spoke in a low voice. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
“What did he do to you?” D’Angelo asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ramona ended the conversation with an edge in her voice even sharper than her machete.
D’Angelo quieted, and they continued walking. They crept through more abandoned tunnels, filled with a dank green mold, trickles of running water, and even more subterranean animals. Just as ROEBUCK looked about to tip over at any moment, Ramona put her hand on a rung of a metal ladder that led a few feet up into a manhole cover.
“We’re here,” she told them. “I’m going to go up and take a peak.”
When she was halfway up, Baxter asked, “You wanna gun?”
“I don’t need one,” she called back down. As she reached the top, she pressed her palm onto the metal above her and began sliding the manhole cover away, the sound of scraping concrete like the growl of a hungry beast. Ramona peaked her head out into the open portal as a beam of light parted the darkness of the tunnels. “Damn it!” Ramona cursed, pulling her head back inside as she slid the manhole cover back. The tunnel darkened with the sound of bullets ricocheting from the manhole cover.
Ramona grit her teeth, and the manhole lid shot up like a champagne cork. The girl leapt from the tunnel with an impressive agility, and the sound of gunfire roared from above them.
“We have to follow her!” D’Angelo gasped.
“You’re right,” Baxter said. “Ain’t gonna get a better distraction than that.” He gripped the ladder’s rungs and began scrambling up. D’Angelo followed close behind, with ROEBUCK after her.
Baxter hurried the rest of the way up, scrambling out onto the dusty surface. The howl and pinging of countless bullets created a hellish cone of noise that consumed him. He huddled behind some metal storage crates piled about three feet high, and knelt behind them to view the chaotic scene.
Ramona had tripped an alarm when she’d removed the manhole cover. It could barely be heard over the din of the bullet storm, but wailed loudly whenever there was a lull in gunfire. Soldiers streamed in from all over the base toward the source of the alert. Jeeps skidded into the area, picking up plumes of dirt, soldiers pouring out of them. Some of the jeeps had mounted machine guns on them.
Outgunned, outnumbered Baxter though grimly. He held a pistol and carried a few magazines, but no one had even come in range. Smart, Baxter reflected. Hoping we surrender. No one wants to be the first casualty.
ROEBUCK and D’Angelo emerged from the space behind them. They got into cover too.
“Where’s Ramona?!” D’Angelo yelled over the guns.
Baxter hadn’t noticed her absence, overwhelmed as he was by the soldiers’ show of force.
“Up there,” ROEBUCK pointed.
Above them, about twenty feet high, Ramona floated in a swirling wind. An empty sphere surrounded her, one no bullets or debris could penetrate. Her eyes were blank. Only the whites were visible.
“I’m detecting electro-magnetic energies that are beyond the maximum scale of my instruments. Some of these energies…I can feel them, but I don’t even know what to call them,” ROEBUCK spoke in awe. “She’s far more powerful than I imagined.”
“We need to think of something,” D’Angelo told them. “She won’t be able to keep this up much longer.”
“Way I see it,” Baxter explained, “we can surrender, spend the rest of our lives trapped in this base at the mercy of Major Monk. Or we take ourselves out. One way trip off this mortal coil, if you catch my drift. ”
“Shakespeare?” D’Angelo hissed in disbelief.
“Seemed appropriate,” Baxter replied. “Everyone dies in the end, that kind of thing. Course, we can always write our own ending in blood and gun smoke.”
“I’d always imagined myself going out in a blaze of glory,” ROBUCK spoke. “Why make it easy on them?”
With these words, the bot stepped out from cover and began firing his gatling in the direction of their enemies. An approaching jeep skidded hard to evade his fire, but turned over on itself, spinning on its roll-bars and throwing the driver and passenger out into the dust. Baxter’s pistol made sure neither one got back up.
“D’Angelo, ROEBUCK, help me get it upright!” Baxter yelled.
He and the others rushed toward the wreck, but when they were halfway to it, D’Angelo called, “Incoming!” A rocket-propelled grenade zoomed toward them, trailing a spiraling cloud of smoke behind it.
With eyes wide and jaws slack, they turned and ran from the jeep. The rocket struck the fallen vehicle, and the concussive force of the explosion blew shards of broken machinery toward them. Ramona extended her field of impenetrability, and directed an angry burst of energy outward. A wave of force collided with the soldiers, and they were knocked onto their feet, momentarily stunned. Ramona’s energies were spent. She lowered herself to the ground, and collapsed in exhaustion once her feet touched the dirt.
D’Angelo picked herself up from the ground and took a look around. She knelt down next to Ramona and examined her. Once she was sure the girl was merely unconscious and not hurt in any way, she told Baxter and ROEBUCK, “She bought us some time, but now we need to make the most of it.”
ROEBUCK scanned their surroundings, looking for an escape route. The area of the base they had emerged into was some kind of vehicle yard. Dozens of army jeeps were lined in front of a chain linked fence, topped with barbed wire. Some were covered in gray canvas, rippling in the wind, coated with brown dirt and dust. Larger vehicles, including tanks and Humvees, were scattered throughout the yard, in various states of assembly and repair. ROEBUCK eyed one of the Humvees closest to them, beneath a tall concrete observation tower that appeared mercifully abandoned.
“Follow me!” he yelled, and led his companions out of their cover toward the object of his desire. He fired with his gatling at the soldiers across the yard, who were beginning to pick themselves up from the psychic blast Ramona had sent their way. They ducked back into cover, hiding behind a concrete barricade near a guard shack that protected one of the gates into the yard. Baxter and D’Angelo hurried behind the bot, carrying Ramona between them. The girl was still unconscious, her feet dragging twin tracks behind her. After a few hurried moments, they’d reached the Humvee.
ROEBUCK realized its door was locked, so he ripped it from its hinges, casting it aside with a clattering crash. He took off the panel from beneath its ignition, and examined its wires, connecting a pair that made the vehicle roar to life with a shuddering belch of smoke and exhaust.
“Help me get her inside,” D’Angelo told Baxter. They brought Ramona inside the vehicle, propping her against the passenger side door. D’Angelo followed her in, and brought out some smelling salts from one of her lab coat pockets in an attempt to wake the girl.
“Looks like the hardware’s still in fighting shape,” Baxter said to ROEBUCK, eyeing the mounted machine gun on the Humvee’s rear. “I’m gonna get her locked and loaded.” He pulled himself up onto the back of the vehicle and began loading a belt of bullets into the weapon, sliding back its lever to load a shell into the clip.
ROEBUCK cast a glance at Ramona, groaning from her rude awakening, as D’Angelo did her best to bring her back to awareness. He put the Humvee into gear, and pushed the pedal to the floor, kicking up a cloud of dust as its rear wheels spun for a moment before launching them forward.
Bullets pinged off the metal exterior as the soldiers on the other side of the yard began to fire at them. Baxter shot back with the mounted gun, struggling to keep the powerful weapon’s barrel level as a steady stream of lead poured from its mouth. Most scattered for cover, clambering behind vehicles and crates, anything solid that would keep them from being torn to pieces by the hellish onslaught Baxter unleashed. A few brave souls returned fire, crouched low to the ground, hoping to earn a promotion or cash in a long-lasting death-wish. The gun shook Baxter’s shoulders like an eager uncle, rattling his teeth and forcing him to hold onto it with a death-grip to keep it from firing over the soldiers’ heads. After nearly half a minute of ceaseless torrent, the barrel of the gun began to glow orange, and Baxter poured water from his canteen onto it, steam hissing like a fiery snake. He began to reload, struggling to keep from slipping on the hundreds of spent shell casings that rolled around the gunner’s compartment. A bullet flew past his head, kissing him with its wind and whistling death.
Inside the Humvee, ROEBUCK steered toward the nearest gate at what he hoped would be an escape velocity. He steered sharply into corners, around guard towers and anywhere else he hoped that the vehicle would have any chance to avoid the soldiers firing at them. In the backseat, D’Angelo crouched low beneath the windows, and held on to Ramona, doing her very best to hold the girl upright, and to keep her awake and alert after the intense psychic energy she’d expended helping her companions escape the tunnels underneath the base. With every tight turn, they slid into the doors at each end.
They approached the gate of the compound at full speed. A pair of soldiers abandoned their defensive positions, which happened to be on the Humvee’s path of destruction, and looked above them as a shadow blocked the sun. ROEBUCK followed their gaze, and the Humvee skidded to a halt.
Above them, an enormous metal frame loomed, with the same general shape of a human: four limbs, a torso, and a head. That’s where the similarities ended. Propelling the massive machine in the air, the flame and smoke of rockets burned out of exhaust ports beneath its feet and from its back, blowing clouds of smoke and debris outward. One of its hands ended in a pincer-like claw, painted in yellow and black caution stripes. The other hand ended in a funnel, and if the small flame that glowed within was any indication, was some kind of massive blow torch.
The great hulking mass ended its descent with a clattering thud. ROEBUCK could hear the hydraulics of its limbs whine as it lurched forward. He put the Humvee in reverse and backed up a few paces, hoping to escape the range of whatever weaponry the hulking mass contained.
“Stop, or I’ll fire!” a loudspeaker from the great heap demanded.
“Major Monk!” D’Angelo exclaimed, recognizing his voice. “And the OMEGA device. Looks like he finished the prototype…”
“What is it, Doc?” Baxter hollered above the rumble of the Humvee’s engine.
“It’s an Exo-Skeletal Battle-Suit,” D’Angelo turned around and told him. “Adapted from a manufacturing and construction model. No obvious weak points.”
“I’ll do my best to evade it,” ROEBUCK said, “and find another escape route.”
“No,” Ramona told him. “Bring us in close. Once I’m in range, I can reach into his mind. Control the OMEGA device from the inside out.”
“Now, I don’t think that’s too—“ Baxter’s words vanished in a peel of rubber as ROEBUCK floored the accelerator, and the Humvee’s tires spun in the dirt, hurling them toward Major Monk as fast as their vehicle could take them. “Damn it, ROEBUCK!” Baxter swore, nearly losing his grip on the gun turret and falling from his perch.
Instead, he fired his gun a few times, as a distraction and warning against any soldiers who had it in minds to poke their heads out and fire any pot shots. Most ducked back into cover, ready to defer to Major Monk and his OMEGA device until they received direct orders.
Monk grit his teeth, and looked out through the targeting ocular that covered his left eye, locking his reticle on the growing target of the HUMVEE as it came closer and closer. He hated to waste so many resources, But I’ll be damned if they slip out of here again, he vowed, and launched a volley of missiles from a mounted shoulder turret. Their smoke streaked in spirals as they hurtled toward their destination.
ROEBUCK saw the missiles launch and calculated their trajectory. He formed only one possible surviving maneuver. “Hang on!” he called loudly to his companions, as he hit his break and cut the steering wheel all the way to its left. The HUMVEE tilted in a screech of tires and wave of dirt, two of its wheels coming slightly off the ground. For D’Angelo, time slowed as Ramona slammed into her, and the sun shined on some bullets shells that had fallen into the cab, dazzling her eyes in rays of brilliance. All four tires fell back to the surface, and as the HUMVEE rocked with the force of their weight, bouncing on its shocks, time snapped back into focus. They had spun three hundred sixty degrees, still heading in the same direction they’d been going, the missiles exploding harmlessly behind them.
“Cutting it a little close, don’t ya think?” Baxter critiqued.
“Irrelevant,” was ROEBUCK’s reply.
He corrected the HUMVEE’s course, and turned sharply, taking them behind the OMEGA device. Major Monk activated his craft’s rocket thrusters, and lifted himself back into the air, rotating to follow the vehicle, but by then it was too late.
Ramona had slid the tendrils of her consciousness into his mind, and was controlling him now as a puppeteer guides a marionette. She raised the OMEGA’s weapons systems into the air and launched all of the ordinance that still remained. Bullets, missiles, rockets and grenades flew out from it, spewing flames and weaponry like an erupting volcano. The remaining soldiers broke and ran for cover, getting as far away from the OMEGA device and the Humvee as they possibly could.
An inferno erupted from the explosives, and when the ordinance came in contact with the vehicles, munitions and equipment in the base surrounding them, the calamity began to cascade. A chain reaction had started, one that made Baxter nervous. If a random shell or bomb struck their Humvee, it would be the end for all of them. Eventually, the OMEGA was emptied of weapons completely. Ramona slumped over, drained once more by her abilities. Baxter saw no more soldiers nearby, so he hopped off the Humvee and made his way toward Monk.
The man looked panicked, and tried to lock himself inside, but Baxter was able to break one of the latches with the butt of his gun and pry the canopy open.
“Don’t shoot!” Major Monk told him. “I’m the only chance you have of getting out of here alive.”
“Exactly,” Baxter said, “that’s why you’re coming with us.”
He brought Monk up with him to the gunner’s turret on the rear of the Humvee and held his pistol to the back of the major’s head. “There’s no reason you need to die either. Help us leave the base, and we’ll let you go. If you try to lead us into some kind of trap, you’ll be dead before it’s sprung.”
Monk grit his teeth. “Understood. This gate nearby, the one ROEBUCK tried to leave through before I intercepted you. It’s still your best chance.”
ROEBUCK overheard the conversation, and they sped out of the base and back out into the desert. It was twilight, and the sun was setting behind them. Ahead, the sky was dim, but when Baxter looked past the base, a pink sunset glowed through the smoke and cast long shadows on the sands.
“Do you still have our bikes?” Baxter asked.
“They’ve been disassembled,” Monk explained. “You won’t be getting them back.”
“Damn it,” Baxter cursed. He stewed in silence for a few minutes as ROEBUCK drove on. The bot headed back toward Baxter’s home, the town full of ethanol refineries known as Whiskey, the one they’d left only a few weeks ago to help escort a convoy to Rock Springs. So much has happened since then, Baxter realized.
Once it became obvious no pursuers were following them from the base, Baxter told ROEBUCK to stop the Humvee. ROEBUCK slowed to a halt, turned off the headlights and shut the engine. Through the rear window, Baxter saw Ramona’s head slumped against Doctor D’Angelo still, asleep. She must have sensed they’d stop, because in another moment, Ramona’s head came up and she yawned sleepily.
“Everyone out of the vehicle,” Baxter announced. “We need to clear some things up.”
The rest of his companions came out of the car, Ramona leaning against the doctor. They all turned toward Monk who appeared stoic, eyes narrowed and mouth flat. Only his white knuckles betrayed him.
“Lighten up, Major, we ain’t gonna shoot you,” Baxter said, “even though that would be the smartest thing to do. Just ain’t my style to kill a beaten opponent.”
“What are you gonna do with me then?” Monk asked.
“Let you walk back. Hope you make it to base before anything bad happens. But we have some questions first. ROEBUCK?”
“Where did your army find me?” ROEBUCK asked.
Monk sighed. “That’s classified. Even from me. I’ve heard rumors. Some say Area 51. There’s data we recovered from you stored at the base. Copies might exist elsewhere, but it doesn’t matter, because we’ve never been able to decrypt it. I know you’re very old. Everybody who found you died long ago. The oldest records go back to the twentieth century. That’s all I know.”
D’Angelo looked skeptical. “What’s the reason for all the experiments going on in that base? ROEBUCK, Ramona, the OMEGA device. What’s it all for?”
Monk chuckled grimly. “I don’t have enough men to clear the raiders from the desert, or take control of the towns nearby. I’d hoped if we could create some kind of super-weapon, the army might be able to take over, restore order.”
“That’s it?” D’Angelo asked. “Who gives your orders?”
“I’ve no idea,” Monk told her. “I receive transmissions sometimes, and take in the young men who find the base or are left there. But there’s no greater purpose, that I know of at least.”
“We’re not getting much out of him,” ROEBUCK said. “What else do you want to know, Baxter?”
“I want your word,” Baxter demanded, “even though I know it might not mean much. I want your word you won’t come after us again. Me, ROEBUCK, the girl or the doc.”
Monk grit his teeth. “I’ll consider you lost assets. But I can’t guarantee other military won’t pursue you.”
“I know,” Baxter told him. “Go back the way you came. If you hurry, you should be able to get back before it’s too cold. Just follow the tire tracks.”
He hopped back in the gunner’s turret, D’Angelo and Ramona sitting together in the backseat. The Humvee’s engine rumbled as ROEBUCK touched the ignition wires, and they drove off into the night. Baxter watched the moon rise.
* * * * *
“What’s that smell?” Ramona asked, her nose wrinkled in disgust.
“It’s the distilleries,” Baxter told her. “They turn corn into fuel. You’ll get used to it.”
“Ugh,” Ramona said. “I don’t want to.”
Baxter grunted, and finished covering the Humvee with a tarp they’d found in its trunk. Despite Monk’s assurance he wouldn’t go after them, he didn’t think it too wise to keep their stolen military hardware out in the open amongst so many prying eyes. ROEBUCK parked it about a half mile from the town, in the shadow of a small crevasse that kept it well hidden.
They walked from their hiding spot along a dusty trail through tents and tin shanties, the slums of Whiskey, rabble and refuse of the wastes. People scraping however they could. Some of the small buildings were brothels, others housed dens of junkies, chasing their fix however they could. A few were nomads and traders; most of the tents belonged to them.
Cook-fires were burning, filling the air with the scent of roasted meat. Baxter sniffed. Armadillo. And rosemary? A rumbling in his gut and a watering mouth confirmed what he already knew.
“I’m hungry,” Ramona spoke.
“Me too, kid,” Baxter told her. “C’mon, I think ol’ Harley’s shack’s around here. He’s usually got some grub to trade.”
“A meal would do us all some good,” D’Angelo agreed. “Give us some time to collect ourselves. And decide what to do next.”
Harley’s was a decent joint, among the best places in the slums one could go to fill their belly. You wouldn’t know from looking at it. It was a tin heap, rusted and leaning like a drunk. Some lights glimmered from its windows, neon signs scavenged from bars and diners of old. Near the entrance, a German Shepherd gnawed at an ostrich bone, and barked as Baxter approached. “Good to see you too, Sparky,” he drawled as he rubbed the dog’s head between its keen and pointed ears. He swept aside a canvas curtain that hung across the dive’s entrance, and bid his companions to “Come on inside. I’ll find us a seat.”
A young women greeted them from behind a counter, giving ROEBUCK a not too subtle double-take. “Y’all sit anywhere you like. I’ll be over in a sec.”
They found a table in a corner booth, beneath a few more of those neon trinkets Harley had collected hanging from the wall. A vinyl bench wrapped its way around the table and sighed as the padding absorbed their collective weight. Paper menus, printed from a type-writer, rested on the table.
“What’s good here?” D’Angelo asked.
“Whatever they got, it’s good. Harley’s an ace in the kitchen,” Baxter told her. “He can make something tasty out of anything he finds. Anything.”
“That sounds a bit too all inclusive for my taste,” D’Angelo told him, “but I I suppose I can’t be too picky in our present circumstance. It does smell nice at least.”
“Better in here than out there,” Ramona remarked. “Possum pie? Barbaric. Don’t worry, Sandy. I won’t them turn you into anybody’s lunch.” Sandy poked her snout of a pack Ramona carried with her, and sniffed curiously, but the girl stroked the creature’s snout, and the possum went back inside the bag and curled up, leaning on Ramona’s hip as the bag rested on the diner’s bench. Her pack had become the animal’s new den of sorts. Mobile and cozy.
“Well, what do we have here?” a middle-aged man in a grease spattered apron came out from behind the diner’s counter and looked over the occupants in his booth. “Baxter, and his crew of delinquents. When you didn’t come back with the rest of Lester’s convoy, we didn’t know what the hell happened to you.”
“Hey, Harley,” Baxter returned the greeting. “Got caught up in a bit of mischief. Pulled our asses out of the frying pan, but don’t got much to show for it.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Harley chuckled. “Tell you what, my man, I’m feeling generous today. I’ll trade ya that military uniform you’re wearing for a damn feast. Gotta contact in town; think I could fence that for some dough.”
“Well, that’s a mighty generous offer,” Baxter told him, “but if you take the clothes off my back, I ain’t got much to change into. My old threads made their way through a mighty damn mess. Might stink to high heaven what with they been through.”
“Eh, that’s okay. We can wash ‘em up in my sink tonight after I do the dishes. And I got some old rags you can throw on. Deal?” Harley asked.
“Deal,” Baxter told him, “but it better be worth it. And no possum. Little lady’s got a delicate appetite.”
“Can do,” Harley told him with a wink, and headed back into the kitchen. “Lucy!” he yelled as he made his way behind the counter. “Get these good folks some coffee and water. They look thirsty.”
For a few minutes, the exhausted companions sipped their drinks and leaned back in their seats, glad for the respite. Days on the run, crawling through tunnels, riding across the wastes in the Humvee, and battling with Major Monk and his soldiers had taken their toll. ROEBUCK looked fully recharged and alert from his time beneath the hot desert sun during their journey back to Whiskey, but Baxter, Ramona and D’Angelo still looked a little worse for wear.
D’Angelo rested her elbows on the table, and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. A kaleidoscope of colors filled her vision, then faded as she blinked and sighed. “These flights across the desert and skulking around subterranean bases have ground me down. It’s time for me to take some time to be a scientist again. To do a little bit of research. I’d like to perform some tests on Ramona, if she’s willing. To see if we can discover the source of her abilities. Perhaps test their limits.”
“Hmm,” Ramona grumbled as plates of steaming ostrich meat, fried potatoes and cooked greens were placed by the servers onto the table in front of them. “I’m not sure I want to be somebody else’s guinea pig. I had enough of that treatment under Major Monk.”
“You’d have complete freedom, I assure you. I’ll record data as you exercise your abilities.” D’Angelo told her as she gripped Ramona’s hand in her own. “And I’ll help make sure nobody else is able to find us. I know you’re used to taking care of yourself, but up here on the surface, things don’t operate quite the same as they do down below.”
“I’d take her up on the offer, kid,” Baxter mumbled through a mouthful of biscuit. “The Doc can help you keep hidden from the authorities, and might be able to help you with your…gifts.”
Ramona took a sip from her cup of tea, and blew a bit of steam from it. “It’s a kind offer, but I’m used to being independent. It’s a big, wide world out there, and I don’t need a glorified babysitter to help see me through it. What do you think, ROEBUCK?”
ROEBUCK looked up at Ramona. His optic sensor flared red for a brief moment as he considered her inquiry. “Odds for survival do increase quite a bit among formed partnerships with complementary skills. For all your strength, it would be useful to have somebody guide you through this strange new world you’ve found yourself in. And I’m certain the doctor would appreciate your protection.”
Ramona nodded and sighed quietly as she weighed her options. “Alright. I’ll stick with you, Doc. As long as you realize we’re partners. I’m nobody’s apprentice.”
Doctor D’Angelo grinned as she suppressed a chuckle. “Very well, then. We’ll find a place in Whiskey where we can begin our studies. And where will the two of you be headed?”
Baxter and ROEBUCK exchanged a glance as they considered their options. Baxter cleared his throat and spoke, “Well ma’am, I suppose we ought to make our first bit of business getting a new pair of cycles. Hope to be able to trade that Humvee for a pretty penny, then hit the road. Not sure where to. Might have to see where the road takes us.”
“Yes,” ROEBUCK agreed. “Best to keep all paths open to us for the time being.”
With these words, the companions returned to their meals, all save ROEBUCK who analyzed Harley’s table salt for trace impurities. The conversation settled around less serious topics, like the usefulness of possums and the price of ethanol. Their bellies grew full as the minutes passed. They grew languid, sated.
Baxter stretched his legs, and felt the itch of the road beneath his feet.