Over the next two weeks, Pickle started to enjoy life on watch. For the first time in her life, she had a routine. While her control was limited, she felt empowered and knew what tomorrow would bring. It was strangely peaceful. Gone were the endless days of darkness, crawling to find nuggets to extend her life, running from place to place, constantly on alert or surrendering to the whims of the clientele and the mood of the night.
Stretching in her bunk, she felt her blanket pull off her as she stretched out a full-body yawn waking her up. Tussling her hair with one hand, she lay in bed staring up at the concrete ceiling with its expansive glass skylights running the length of the dorm. It was a sunny day, and while she knew the winter chill would be on the air in her warm blankets, she didn't feel the bite of it.
She turned her head to see the small hourglass filled with gold dust still had a few minutes in it. She reached over and tilted the finely made but robust device, effectively snoozing it as she stretched. Her internal body clock was good, but running on gold standard time was pretty much required to keep things running. She had a few minutes to wake up. Sitting up in bed, she looked at the brown curtains still pulled tight around her bed.
The tower operated on a pretty strict five and dime shift rotation with three teams. Naturally, the Ball twins were on a shift team because they were brothers, and frankly, everyone found them low key annoying. Though outside of that incident on the first day when Brad was drunk, they were nice enough. They were class clown types keeping the mood light. The Balls did their job well when not showing off.
Still she kept her curtains pulled each night. Sarah told her in all seriousness that if anyone intentionally messed with another person's rest period, then Gunther came down on them like a ton of bricks. The barracks dorm was actually the safest place she had ever slept, but old habits die hard. She kept the curtains pulled and clipped. Pickle also slept with her gas gun under her pillow. Though, to be fair, Leon had advised she always keep her personal weapon close. Her spin rifle was up in the locker.
Leon was assigned to show her the ropes, though everyone helped, which meant they were on shift together. She couldn't hear him moving, but he might already be up. The man slept the least of any of them. His bunk was just opposite hers, but she knew he would be in the kitchen. This left Malcolm and Ka on the third shift. She had been told the shift teams occasionally switched it up, but they had stuck to those patterns so far.
With the curtains pulled, she had no idea where the meter was, but she was confident there would be heat to spare from making breakfast. She grabbed her shower gear and a change of clothes. The girls had done her a solid when buying her equipment, getting only natural fabrics and not ones she would have picked. There were six days change with a mix of outfits in what they had bought her. All-natural fabrics. They also thoughtfully bought two sets of silk pyjamas, an extravagance she would have never purchased herself but a welcome one.
She had packed clothes in her bag before signing up, but more than half had synthetics, which meant they were mostly tossed into storage. Thankfully, Sarah told her to keep the bras and panties as the amount of fabric compared to the benefit was just too great. She also learned that not all synth fabrics were as bad as others. Anything wired with smarts, synthed or meta was a strict no. So bye-bye fancy pants. Apparently, plastics gave off a smell that upsets Wild beasts but only up close though it could rub onto your skin, but it wasn't like a strict no, more of a to be avoided. So she mostly stuck them away not to be worn, though items like her rain jacket and undergarments were too helpful not to wear.
Picking up her helmet from the side table and checked her ears were tucked in. She checked her gas gun safety and the rounds in the revolving chambers before getting up out of bed. Pulling the curtains aside and clipping them open, holding her change of clothes and shower gear. She hadn't needed the top curtain as she had slept natural hours. Today was a dime day.
The rota was four five hour shifts followed by the shorter shift, which was four hours, called the dime shift. The dime was from ten till two, and those days were her preferred shift as you got a nice bedtime and ten hours before next duty. Dime day was followed by hell day, which was on a shift from two in the morning until breakfast. Sleeping the day or not, if things were busy, then doing another shift five till late. She hated hell days, mostly because she needed to do firearms training on her first hell day, and Leon wouldn't let her sleep more than a few hours around lunch.
Finally, you only had a morning shift from seven in the morning till lunch on break days. In theory, these could be the best days, but you had to use the afternoon to do assigned work orders in practice.
The Balls were on watch currently, so their bunks were open and a mess as per usual. After stacking both beds, they had more space than anyone else in the dorm, but their crap spread like a messy invasion throughout the room. Dirty jockstraps, ammunition and magazines spread out. The occasional stray sock drifting out into no man's land. They knew never to intrude on Leon's area with his small rock collection and neatly made bed. Leon's bunk was clear. He had gone running already.
Her neighbour was Ka'Shek, and he kept inside his space like a champ which was impressive considering his bulk and the amount of stuff he had. The bed had been replaced by a wider and taller one from storage now draped with animal skins with his finely embroidered protection charms. Fetish and chimes hung in his space, dancing silently in the still air of the dorm. Ka had lugged up a wooden chest from storage, finely carved which he had carved on a previous visit which now kept all his stuff in. The large orc was currently sleeping with the curtains wide open. He never closed them off, even sleeping through the daylight without them.
Gently tiptoeing on the cold concrete floor, she eyed the last bed by the door on her side. Neatly made with no personality, the trim space of the Geek. Everyone called him that now, even to his face. Virgil Northcott was not a personable character, and it's hard to like someone who isn't working when everyone else is.
Walking into the lounge, she felt a bit more comfortable. Malcolm should be asleep in his room, and the Balls were on duty. Sure enough, Sarah was in the kitchen making breakfast. It smelled like eggs. She smiled and waved as she cut through, noticing Sarah turning rice on the wok after throwing in some chopped veg.
Glancing up at the heat meter opposite the dorm door hanging on the lounge wall, she noticed the base was running a little hot. This was normal for this time of day, especially with a hot breakfast. Controlling tower temp was essential but what it meant right now was she could have a warm shower. She didn't understand all the base systems yet, but Fred explained that some stuff generates heat and others use heat. Though most things made heat and most the bleed off was ambient into the ground and air. Taking the right turn into the corridor to the rear apartment, she noticed both the dorm showers were free, so she nipped into the second one. It was morning chilly in here, but the tiles were dry.
The tower had four washrooms side by side. Two for the dormitory barracks, but everyone used them, the officer's washroom then a final one in the apartments. More correctly called the commander's apartments, but Gunther didn't use them, instead of taking one of the two officer's rooms. The apartments were used by Sarah and her dad, Fred, the chief engineer. The design was uniform, but the cleanliness and accoutrements were not. She looked around the few broken and cracked tiles mixed in with the mismatched replacements. Leading up to the strange coral white band that rang around the top of each wall where it reached the ceiling.
The washroom had a sink, shower, and toilet interconnected into a communal greywater system to minimise waste and strain on the recycling systems. The sink water was drinkable, and the shower water less so. Locking the door then undressing, Pickle popped her clothes onto the shelves by the door. Pistol on top. A pull-out glass separator kept the water primarily to one side of the room, which was a meter by two, and changed. Whether or not you could run the shower warm depends on the base temp. Typically, the base ran hotter than ambient in the mornings, trading heat off during the day and finally running a bit cold at the night's start.
The base was never warm enough, and she had been told it was always a bit too warm in the summer. Likewise, the shower wasn't a hot shower that she so desperately wanted but instead a comfortable, warm shower. The cool air just left her a little bit too cold to enjoy the wet. Thinking through the drills Leon had been running her through, she wondered what she needed to get done today.
Every second break day, Captain would take a shift with Fred or Sarah to give you a rest day. So they were on the morning shift every second day as cover. Those sixth days were a thing of beauty and the best day of the six-day week. You were never assigned any work orders on those days, and barring a yellow flag, you didn't even need to be on alert. Securing a few stolen days of peace between risky gigs or travelling from place to place, she had never had the concept of a rest day. The base ran on a twelve-day cycle, at which point the rota would fully loop again. Today was the last of her first cycle. After the second would be a resupply day, which was off rota. That was called a month or session, and when she would next see Scraps.
Other bases had pretty frequent communications out, but Gunther's tower ran dark mostly. He had a tower captain's call every week, but Leon says it's mostly a broadcast. Captain listens in, and he can transmit to speak on the call, but he rarely, if ever, does. He mostly files his paperwork with Scraps on resupplies. The tower is effectively out of contact from the world for about a month at a time. The tower would receive news, weather and little data dumps. People could send through data, but the tower policy was not to transmit.
Lathering up the shampoo in her hair, she tilted her head back to wash her face. She still had some makeup on, smiling, she rubbed some of it off. Sarah had got her dad to take the break shift yesterday so Pickle and her could spend time together. She had some training with Leon in the morning, but she mostly spent the day helping Sarah with the greenhouse and outdoor gardens. Though the gardens were bearing their last harvests for the year before the cold snaps, they still had plenty to give.
After gardening, they had cleaned up made lunch, then Sarah showed Pickle her favourite spot on the kopje at the back of the base. It was a tiny outcrop that looked south, not north. Sarah had a small easel stand set up for painting. Though she wasn't painting landscapes but instead repainting images from holofics, magazines and books. Famed adventurer Vindaloo Vu exploring the depths of temples or wearing a tuxedo to a famous ball. World-renowned grav biker racer Udeksan Nutineen with her flaming red hair a mirror of Sarah’s. King Charlemagne touring visiting his cousin in Windsor. The floating markets of New Hope and one of the seven grand rings of Heaven, suspended in the stars.
Pickle smiled as she turned off the water and reached for her towel. Her mind was all kinds of distracted today. She needed to get to the range and see if she could hit Leon's targets. She needed to pass his weapon assessment before the resupply, or so Gunther had said last week. Leon had set a few different live-fire training exercises, but she couldn't practice long. Leon allowed her only one live-fire training session a day, assuming the flag was blue that day.
Pulling on some olive green cargo pants she had picked out, she pulled the belt strap tight. Securing the gas revolver to her waist, it slotted easily into the quick release holster. She checked herself in the mirror. Resolving to trim her hair the next free day, she pulled and twisted the ends. Grabbing a bit of scented soap, she styled it to stay out of her face. Sarah had told her it was fine. Apparently, the Wild would smell emissions from tech, magic and smell the death or trapped death of plastic over long distances but perfume not so much. Oh, Leon claimed they would smell and track it like any other animal, some better and other's worse, but it was a mundane thing. Not some irritant that would drive the Wild to hunt down the source.
Finishing up with some moisturiser, she glanced at her toothbrush. Remembering the delicious smell of breakfast from moments earlier, she decided to forgo the morning brush in order not to spoil the flavour. Wiping down the washroom with the washrag, she squeezed it out and washed her hands, doing one last check of her helmet before stepping out.
"There is my model. Want me to give me a hand wrapping these breakfast burritos?" Sarah's voice asked from the kitchen as Pickle walked past.
Pickle shifted her clothes bundle under her right arm before giving a thumbs up with her left. "Sure, let me just drop off this and pop on some shoes."
She grabbed some shoes and quickly helped roll the burritos with Sarah. The coffee clicked to warming just as they were finishing up. They nibbled at their burritos, chatting about the day before. The Geek stood up from his note-taking to claim his burrito and a small glass of water before returning to the lounge table.
"Can I borrow that magazine," Pickle asked between mouthfuls. She drank down some water. It was surprisingly better here than the municipal city supply. "The one with Felina?"
"Sure, I will grab it in a second. We should get the boys their breakfast."
"Mind doing top side. It's too early for Balls."
"Yeah, I can do them and Pa. He is down in the vault. You mind doing Malcolm and Captain?"
Pickle had learnt the base layout since arriving and was surprised to discover how much was below ground. They spent almost all their time on the first floor sleeping or relaxing or on the roof watching. The first floor was built around the lounge and kitchen area. The building was somewhere between a plus symbol or capital T in shape. The west room off of the lounge was the bunk room she slept in. The officers quarters were opposite. Then down the south or shaft of the T were the shower rooms and the captains quarters used by Sarah and her dad. The little north tip was a small staging room with the Tube as they called it and some shooting windows.
Neither the bunk room nor officers rooms could look directly outside. The outer shell of the first floor was a narrow corridor built for defence. The surprising part was the armoury being the only room on the ground floor beside the kill room. Then below that, the train station was flanked by two massive warehouses which stored supplies. Enough dry rations, ammunition and supplies for the base to run for quite a while. Months would be her guess. This was also where the waste recycling was located.
Finally, at the deepest level below even the train station was a deeply sunk metal tube. The vault could only be accessed from the Tube, and it was entirely shielded by metal. It contained the base Spin Generators and any high-risk elements like her small box with the fancy pants. It was also Fred's workshop and their last resort. Though it would be an extremely tight space for them to all climb into. It was their own brass burrito coffin buried more than ten meters below ground. Though maybe only two or three meters below the train station.
Shuddering at the thought, she placed the breakfast burritos on a tray with a hot cup of black coffee and a green tea. Grabbing the tray, she walked down the corridor. She came to Malcolm's door first. Holding the tray carefully, she gently knocked on his door first. Maybe she would be lucky, and he would be asleep like Ka.
Drat. Pushing the handle down and opening the door wide to carry in the tray with both her hands. The room should be furnished with strange occult symbols or demonic evil things she felt, but instead, it was rather plain she felt. His bed was the same as hers, but the bedding was expensive and exquisitely chosen to match the furnishing, and he even had some little throw pillows on the bed. She had never seen him in it, or it even creased. The room was bathed in the warm morning sun from the skylights. The floor was layered with rugs of all colours and designs. A modest desk on the left wall was flanked by bookshelves with a tall dresser in the corner. All were made from fine wood and show fine joinery and detailing, emphasising their crafted nature. A master carpenter had made them as a set probably to order. As always, Malcolm was seated at the desk, reading a book.
"Breakfast burrito and some tea, Sir." Pickle said in her flattest voice. She gently placed the plate and tea on his desk off to the side.
"Ah, how delightfully robust. Thank you for the tea kitten." He gently tapped the cup with a gloved finger.
She nodded, turning out of the room. That man still gave her the creeps all the time she was there. She had not seen him sleep, eat or even remove his wrappings. She had once joked with Sarah about it, and she had just shut down the conversation. Since then, she had been too afraid to ask anyone else about it. What was he? He hadn't performed any great works of magic since the train ride. He sometimes did a short cleansing spell though it was always a brief thing with no visible effect.
Her head still lost in thought, she knocked on the Captain's door.
Gunther's room was something else entirely. The bed was trim and military with no furnishing and the same blankets she had on her bed when she arrived. The Captain sat at his much larger desk immediately to the right of the door. The desk was always a mess of official documents, war books, maps and reports. The floor mainly was unadorned except for a small rug. The rug was under the desk and chair, placed more to protect the floor from wear than any sense of decor. He quickly made some space for her to set down the plate and coffee.
"Wonderful, grab a seat, will you. I have some questions for you."
"Of course, sir."
She grabbed the wooden chair against the wall. It was next to a glass cabinet that ran the length of the wall. Inside were various photo frames, small trinkets and ornaments. Medals and memories from conflicts, along with a few old guns and weapons. Gunther's large chem rifle from the train hung on the wall just above an enormous looking gatling gun. It was THE gun of legend from which the company drew its name. The weapon which the legend had held back the night with for four days alone on the wall.
The Captain sipped his coffee and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. The twin skylight which ran the length of the roof showed the bright morning sky outside. He looked lost in the clouds. Pickle started worrying, could this be bad news? Was she not learning fast enough? Had she broken some rule? Unconsciously she felt her right foot bouncing slightly.
"Today, you finish your first cycle."
"You haven't had to kill anything yet, correct?"
There hadn't been anything to kill. The tower was barely attacked, a few critters had come inspecting, but there were only a handful of incidents other than the Wisp Cat attack. Most were harmless wildlife that would move on. The few actual Wild creatures that came to investigate could often be deterred by wounding rather than killing. Leon had spotted a snake on their watch once and without preamble had shot it dead, kill shot. Leon told her to raise the alert, and once Ka was there to cover, he had gone down to collect the kill. They had launched it from the catapult, more akin to a flat ballista than the medieval sort she thought of typically with the word. It was strange, Mars tower was attacked almost daily, and the Medpoll tower was assaulted three out of five days.
Gunther cleared his throat, and she was immediately pulled out of her retrospection.
"Not yet, sir."
"Leon said you are coming along okay. Your weapons training needs to continue. Your accuracy is below what I would like with a Spin Rifle. I'm tempted to send you off base for intensive training with Leon. Can't spare you, though. I want to see your numbers up."
"You feel like you got the hang of a routine."
With one hand, he dug through some papers to retrieve the one he wanted. Reading it over before asking another question. "How do you feel things are coming along? Can you do this for the long haul?"
She paused, knowing the Captain preferred a well thought out answer.
"If this cycle is typical, then yes, sir, I think I can do this job."
"Duty, not job. I'm not your employer, I give the orders out of the mutual agreement, but you are a stakeholder, not a freelancer. You have invested in this tower, and we have in you." Looking down at the page he had picked up, he continued. "Leon has good things to say, mostly."
She waited for the Captain to continue as he stared directly at her. She tried to hold her calm.
"Says you a below average shot but take orders well and the training seriously. You don't let your mind drift on watch and are attentive. He does worry you're a bit too distant and says he worries about how you will do under pressure. Do you agree?"
"Agree he is worried, sir?"
"Can you deal with the crush?"
"Think so, sir."
The Wisp Cat had frightened her, almost as much as that Six Stalk on the way here, but if those were the great horrors of the Wild, she was confident she could handle it. She had taken worse in the city.
"Well, I hope it is a long time before we find out. Any nightmares?"
That was a lie but those she had brought with her. Old memories and fading pain. In truth, they had been getting better since she got here. She found herself anxiously rubbing the metal plate which signalled her membership to the company. Gunther noticed and smiled.
"Well good, and nothing strange or unexplained? Leon told you the moment you see something even a little weird. Don't doubt your eyes or ears. Tell us immediately."
"Okay, I'm keeping you on your own time. Report to Doc. You are overdue for a full physical. Should have been done week one, but she said that she wanted to wait till you had settled in."
"Yeah, today, before your duty. Dismissed."
She nodded and got up to leave. She felt awkward without a salute. The company was pretty informal in many ways, but the Captain ran a tight ship. He was grabbing his burrito as she closed the door behind her.
Bugger that Doctor's appointment with Sarah was going to eat into her free time. Not that she could complain much since she had her day off yesterday. Walking into the lounge, she heard the shower. Leon was back from his morning run. He tended to run out back behind the base. Said he needed the grass for it to feel like a real run.
In the kitchen, Malcolm was wiping down his plate and putting it away in the cupboard. She excused herself, gently sliding the tray back into place before turning to face the Geek.
"Geek, have you seen Sarah come back?"
"I believe she is down below with her Fred."
"Drat, want a quick game?"
With that, the small man shut his book with both hands as she grabbed the folded go board from the shelf in the lounge. It mainly was board games and a few books, but this old go set had seen a lot of use since the Geek had arrived. He had asked the Captain to a game. The Captain had lost, but it was clear from watching even her novice understanding of the game that they were both excellent players. So she had started to learn the game from Virgil whenever she had a moment.
She was still playing with all nine handicap stones and losing every time. Though she felt like she was learning and with the full handicap, she had taken a game off Ka when they played. She felt a natural affinity for a game where you needed to watch all parts of the board and forever be aware of your liberties. You attempted to forward your goals always while monitoring your escape, only capturing when you had control and the ability to escape. Partway through the game, Leon returned from the dorm fully dressed.
"You gonna take much longer, Pick?" he asked in that thick Afrikaans accent.
Without pause, the Geek piped up, "This game is done."
Sighing, Pickle stood up, "Yeah, you got me again. Thanks. Mind grabbing the board?"
With that, she got up and went to the iron door by the kitchen. Two iron doors were just by the kitchen. The right one led to the kill corridor surrounding the dorm but the left one led outside. Stepping around the lift down to the station, they came to the second door with its big metal bar. Lifting it out, they were in the open air behind the base.
The back of the base was butted up against a kopje. The mix of large boulders and dirt formed the petite mountain like a handbuilt diorama. The formation was unnaturally trimmed with large boulders pushed down or broken up in places to avoid providing easy access to the roof. They were technically behind the wooden fence and firing lines. Still, the system was designed with that being breached in a heavy assault.
The train tracks were not visible for about a hundred metres till they broke out of the underground tunnel and onto the surface. Even then, after the tracks surfaced, raised dirt on either side ran for about a kilometre. Making the tracks hidden from sight unless you had a birds-eye view providing a stealth approach or a covered line of retreat.
Towards the back of the plateau, Leon had set up a few sandbags and some shooting positions. It seems he had already brought out her spin rifle and a few of the other weapons. They both slipped in the small ear protectors. Unlike the sophisticated digital versions used by Bruno back at the club, these weren't radio linked smart headphones she was used to. They were crude miniature wooden carvings that fit snuggled in your ears. They had some magical runes inscribed, which Malcolm assured her wouldn't upset a Wild bee. Though it was hard to hear anything with them in as they quickly dampened sound, the effect, while quick to start, was slow to wear off, which meant you often missed anything said after a loud sound.
"Gunther wants me to give you a score on all the weapons. You want spin first or last?"
She eyed the weapons he had laid out on the blanket. On the left-most was her spin rifle. He had encouraged her to mark it and make it her own. In curly red letters, she had written Get Fucked. Next to her weapon of choice was a chem rifle, gas launcher and a crossbow. Not every type of weapon the tower stocked, even ignoring the mounted turrets but most of them.
He nodded, "Personal C"
Without pause, she drew the revolver from the quick draw holster. Sighted downrange at the stone target, it was marked a red circled letter C. Breathing for a moment, she steadied before firing a single shot. The pistol was surprisingly quiet but had a hefty kick. She quickly managed and sighted down the weapon again, confirming her hit. It wasn't the centre, but it was inside the circle. She held that stance for a moment before Leon acknowledged the success.
The gas revolver had eight rounds, and so the cylinder was oversized for the weapon. All eight chambers were loaded at all times as the safety mechanism was reliable. The gun didn't take chemical rounds, which were ejected, instead the entire cylinder was replaced to reload the weapon. It made partial reload impractical. Each chamber had its own pressurised reaction gas, which would expand rapidly when slammed firing pin. In truth, it was a combination of compression and a small explosion of cold gas. Meaning unlike the chem rifles, the gun didn't run hot and was relatively quiet. Even if it was a pain to reload and had lower velocities, it was a solid choice on the wall. Unlike her needle gun, which was truly whisper quiet, this was a muffled whomp with each shot.
Holding his hand scope to his eye, Leon examined her hit. He was less than impressed but not upset. He rattled off seven more target letters. Sometimes pausing between them and other times chaining a few. The targets were all down range but set up high, low, and to either side of the train tracks. Some targets were small. Some large. They were all red circles with letter markings painted on stone.
He had driven home day one that hitting inside the circle was all that mattered. She should try to have margin, but he wanted the quickest shots that didn't miss. More interested in her reaction time and adequate accuracy. It was tough to balance the speed required the confidence of hitting the target. Given enough time, she could hit almost any target with any gun, bar a few outliers like the distant targets with her gas revolver. Though if she took too long, he would declare a miss.
After the revolver, they did a more extended crossbow session. Thankfully training with wooden training shafts, so Pickle didn't need to retrieve them from the range. Leon preferred training on the crossbow and gas guns because they were low risk. Honestly, Pickle had selected the gas revolver as her personal weapon because it was most similar to her needle gun. Still, the low emission of the weapon was a strong motivator. She was a decent shot with the crossbow, though, and if it was more compact or had a powered winder, she could see herself using it.
The gas launcher and its cousin, the gas canon, were beasts of weapons. They both required bracing on the ground or a mounting point. The launcher slung a projectile, typically explosive or chemical in nature, though they used differently weighted wooden balls for training. Leon threw random balls at her before calling out the target. She was expected to judge the weight and adjust. The weapon had two dials for weight and pressure. A simple looking glass tube was filled with a two colour solution. By dialling the weight, it changed how much fluid was in the Tube. Then based on the angle of the weapon, you could see minor markings on the Tube, which would indicate approximate launch distance. You could then tweak the pressure to dial in the range. It wasn't perfect, but it let her get much closer than she would without it. Temperature and wind were the most prominent things the simple glass computer couldn't account for with its coloured fluid. The gas canon was somewhere between a sniper rifle and the cannon of a ship. It was truly terrifying, but like all the gas weapons, reloading was a pain making them a great opener that wouldn't escalate the Wild too much. Still, they didn't have the staying power.
Her performance with the launcher wasn't fabulous. She just didn't have a feel for the calculations involved.
Next was the chem rifle. Checking her ear protectors, she saw Leon pulling out coloured tokens. The protectors worked a bit too well after a loud shot. Unlike Gunther's unique rifle, this chem rifle didn't have nearly as many compensators. She had since learned that Gunther's rifle was an ongoing project of Fred's to improve the stealth nature of it. The rifle she now used had a much earlier version of the design and was still way more efficient than a traditional chem rifle, softer too. Unlike the versions she saw in the city, there were no spent cartridges expelled from the weapon. Instead they dropped into a well, built for the purpose.
Leon threw down the first token, J. She aimed and fired, feeling the power of the explosion as the round tore into the target. He quickly threw down three more letter tokens before tapping her on the shoulder. So not the entire cartridge. She was grateful for more than just an escape from the loudness. She wasn't as fond of the chem rifle, and worse, you were expected to load your own rounds. Leon had said it was to do with magic. Though she still hadn't heard a decent explanation, it frustrated her.
She was not going to ask Malcolm. Two weeks and he still called her kitten. At least Gunther had stopped calling her girl.
Finally, she picked up the spin rifle, the weapon of choice in the tower. She clicked it onto idle. Checking the gun. The spin rifle had three modes of operation: dead, idle and hot. Dead was basically just its active-duty state despite the name. When you pushed it into idle, the spin drive got the wheels turning, and it started to pull a vacuum. A slow whirr built up in pitch and volume before the pitching continued to go up. It became quieter as the complex mechanism created a near-vacuum, dampening the sounds coming from the weapon.
Idle speeds were still manageable. You could move the gun around easily enough. Flicking it into hot, the whir grew in intensity, but it was still dampened. The weapon could run like this for a few minutes before needing cooling off or switching back down to idle, but the real issue was the sticky effect. Fred had tried explaining it to her. The drums spun so fast that the gun didn't want to move. You could easily make minor adjustments, but you were constantly fighting the weapon's desire to stay.
Leon quickly listed off-targets. She had practice bolts loaded, wooden shafts with no core or head, and they quickly shattered on impact with the stone targets. You could dial up and down the speed of the rifle. It allowed you to fire with greater power and distance but shortened the life of the weapon. She was expected to hit every circle three times with the rapid-fire rifle. It required her to refill the gravity feeder with new bolts twice, an easy and fast process that support in a pinch could do.
It was exhausting, and this, more than anything, was why she picked it as her last. By the end of the training, she put the gun back into idle. Feeling the warm glow coming from the drums of the weapon. Checking the spin drive which powered the gun. According to Leon, the rifle was complex, but it was the most refined version of this weapon design. The original version had been developed by Fred on the army RnD budget. After the military dissolved, he had spent his life refining the design among another low emission tech.
Not only did you need to manage the heat, stick and ensure it could pull a vacuum. You needed to spin up the weapon to a state of readiness, and it was powered by a spin drive that needed recharging. The spin drive drum could be hot-swapped with a new one, but for the same reason as making her own ammunition, she was told to keep using the same two drums as much as possible.
"How did I do, boss?" She asked in her cheeriest voice, trying to mask her anxiety.
"So so, Shumba. You need to exercise your arms more. The spin got you wobbling at the end there. Also, your launches were sloppy. You're good with gas but not enough strength for me to assign you a cannon. Chem okay. You sure you don't want to switch to crossbow?"
"You got an auto winder?"
"Eh, talk to Fred. He likes a challenge."
"What you going to tell the big boss?"
"So so we not feed her to Dark Dogs." He smiled at the last, showing his teeth to reassure her of his dark humour.
Laughing, they packed up the weapons. Pickle went down the range to retrieve the launcher balls. Thankfully all the bolts today were practice shafts which mainly had shattered. Pulling out the metal javelins was a pain, never mind resharpening or heading them. Going back inside, they went through the lounge and out the front door into the kill room. Concrete stairs lead down to the main front exit but also the only door into the armoury.
There were weapons in other places, small lockers and the like. But the bulk of the weapons and ammunition were stored in the room below the dorm. It included a few work tables for repairing weapons or reloading shells. Though all the powered tools and spin rechargers were down in the vault shielded from the outside.
Placing the weapons back into the proper cages, Leon oversaw her reloading some chem rounds. The required stretching, to remove the little metal footplate of the round. The plate contained most of the hot gases from the chemical explosion. Then cleaning and drying before she used her own personally assigned powders to mix new propellant, which she poured into the round. She then took a bullet, thankfully shared, which she seated on the same footplate before settling it into the cartridge and pressing it back closed. Too much pressure, and the round would stick and explode in the barrel. Too little pressure and the floor plate would fly out or buckle. Which could ruin the cartridge or, worse, jam up the gun. It was a much more complicated system than the chem guns she had seen before, which fired their bullet then ejected the shell.
"Leon, why can't I just make a bunch of these? And why do I have to make every one of them?" In truth, she had a small box of ammunition she had prepared herself but only about 30 rounds.
"They go bad."
"Did you never think why most people use plasma guns in cities?"
"Not really, aren't they just better?"
"In some ways, yes, they are, but they are expensive and complicated. Much simpler to use gunpowder."
"But why do I have to make them."
"You make your own stuff to give it protection."
She made a face to which Leon just shook his head.
Leon continued, "Look, I don't like the guy, but he is reliable. Gunther trusts him, and he is the only mage I've seen survive by the Wild. Not including Wild tribes."
As they cleaned up, she tried shifting the conversation to Leon's scouting missions into the Wild. He had spent days and sometimes even weeks in the deep Wild on scouting missions. Sarah had said he was one of the most experienced rangers on the wall. He looked at most in his late thirties, but she knew he had been alive much longer in standard time. Sometimes Leon let things slip that just seemed too bizarre. He was evasive when talking about the Wild, trying to focus on the dangers and downplay all the things he saw. Still, he downright shut down if you asked him personal questions.
Heading onto the roof, they checked on the Ball twins. Brad and Brian were always on watch before them, so they had gotten used to it. The boys were nice enough when they weren't being arseholes. They hadn't tried to impress her again since the Wisp Cat incident with any acts of bravado. Still, they constantly told stories about their previous jobs and campaigns. Boasting of huge payouts and successes.
To hear them tell it. The Balls had operated in all the Free Cities of North America, worked with European royalty and even dropped in with New Hope strike squads. They weren't brash enough to have claimed to pierce the veil in Asia, but oh yeah, they had been deep into the Wild on corp missions. Seeing strange beasts the size of houses and entire fields of waving black tentacles. Never mind, no corp team would take on mercs except as cannon fodder.
They switched watch and settled into their quiet watch. Leon didn't like to talk much on the watch, which suited her. The first few days, she had been distant with the crew, but that first day had cracked open her shell a bit, and over the last two weeks, she felt a bit more comfortable around them all. Leon's quiet watches with no questions or enquiries and just time with her thoughts were a big part of that. They were relaxing. Even here waiting on the border to the dangerous Wild, she couldn't help feel at peace.
True, the nights were cold, and the darkness was often terror-inducing. The moon had been approaching full, which gave her more comfort. She always liked the moon. Today's watch was lunch to early evening, so no moon watch. Though out here, the moon seemed ten times bigger nestled among the stars, she never knew the sky was so detailed. Always a muffled black in the city with the moon a hazy haunted sight.
About an hour into watch, Sarah came up from the stairs. Generally, they tried to avoid opening the Tube top when they could let out too much from the vault despite being sealed in stages. So the lounge ladder was the usual way up. She dropped down a container with some fruit and buttered flatbread. Sarah looked a bit upset.
"Pickle, you were meant to report for a medical inspection. I was waiting for you."
Pickle's response was sheepish, "Oh sorry, forgot, Leon had me training."
"Do not give me that. Did she tell you Leon? Captain ordered a full inspection."
Leon quietly raised his eyebrow before going back to looking at the tree line through his hand scope. Sarah took this as confirmation for her point.
"You are coming down straight after shift to have a full inspection. Got it?"
"Yeeeees, doctooor," Pickle answered, elongating her words with compliant sarcasm.
Satisfied, Sarah climbed back down and went back into the base. Pickle couldn’t but help smile as she left. She felt in many ways Sarah was her best friend. She had friends and allies in the club or with Jack Jack's boys, but almost everyone had an angle. You worked with people because goals aligned. Sarah was so obvious in her moods and without guile. Her friendly attention seemed genuine, and while Pickle was still on guard around everyone, she felt like she could at least lessen it around Sarah.
Nibbling the fruit as they watched, she saw Sarah had slipped the magazine she had asked for under the fruit container. Staying attentive for five hours straight without some pretty extreme exhaustion is almost impossible. So when on blue status, or all clear no fear as Leon sometimes joked, they took turns. They both watched, but one person would really watch eyeballs on and scanning the treeline until they tapped out and the other person switched in. There was no fixed time for this, and they just felt it out. Her first few watches she had tried to show she could do it for long stretches. Leon relieved her without asking, and even then, she was exhausted from stretching herself.
She hadn't mentioned to Gunther, but that snake that Leon had killed had been on her watch. She had missed it until he had spotted it. Still, a point of shame for her as she was meant to be the one eyes on. Now she was more willing to tap out sooner and stay more alert when she was on.
The magazine was an interesting gossip rag mostly. The guys and gals and the club were always slinging them around and joking about bedding princes or trust fund kids with their private shuttles. The fantasy for most back then had been a wealthy patron, in her experience, that was a trap. Still, the fun what-ifs and celeb gossip flew through the changing rooms.
From the Madame to Vindaloo or even the darker characters like Winston Surrey, the bad boy of British royalty, gossip and speculation were always hot commodities. She didn't know any sim heads, but one of the club girls had gotten wired for some stim porn work. She said all the celebs had finely tuned and edited sims, but the real sim heads hunted leak master recordings. Unedited stims. Illegal as hell, of course.
Felina was supposed to be different. She doubted the famed singer with her cat-like features and tail would be releasing raw stims, but her whole brand was about being authentic. Sarah was obsessed with this stuff. Having grown up mainly on the wall, even every day sounded fantastical to her at times. Pickle laughed at some of the strange ideas that lady had. It was adorable.
The thing that had really caught her eye when they were flicking through them yesterday was the interview with Felina. Apparently, she had just done a concert with PsyCow, and that was an underground name. No one knew their true ident because they always appeared at shows in holosuits, but the rumours were rampant. She had been obsessed with this shape-shifting DJ musician and his crazy shows. She had attended a virtual as one of the flesh dancers when she was much younger, young enough for a particular crowd. The job was awful, but it was her way into the club and to escape Jack Jack. That night she had gotten lost in the music.
She had since listened to all of his electronic heavy metal psychedelic mixes but never again had she quite captured the energy of that night with the live performance. The interview, unfortunately, was not much about PsyCow. The interviewer was going after the meta-human angle. Full-on fluff piece talking about meta-human rights and her story of growing up as a shifting meta and not part of a tribe.
The interview followed the same boring tropes of self-discovery, changing body and empowerment that riddled these puff pieces. Pickle found it disgusting to read. She had known a few shifters growing up, and they were all dead or gone now as far as she knew. Sure she had met a few tribals in the club, but she could count on one hand the number of adult shifters she had met. They all had dark tales. Even if they didn't share them, you could see them in their eyes.
Annoyed, she closed the magazine and stood up. She tapped Leon to let him know she would take watch. She started pacing between the two spin turrets on either side of the tower. She didn't like sitting in them, especially after relieving the balls as they spent their entire shifts mostly in those chairs, and the stink from their fat arses just grossed her out. She grabbed the central ballista and swivelled it, scanning the treeline.
Those damn journalists and paparazzi. What did they know about anything, writing their little glam pieces? Printing their edited photos and sim all clean and pure. God forbid they talk about the agonising pain of bones cracking or the looks from strangers. Sure, most people shifted a little. Eyes, or marking or strange hair colour or skin. But no one talked about the day or sometimes week blind and the strangeness of the world afterwards as your sense of colour or light shifted. No mention of wanting to rip your skin off as it itched night and after night. The horrid nightmares of ripping out your own body. Fucking arse holes.
She wished she could drive a ballista bolt right through them. Bloody airheads like Sarah just going, isn't it so exotic. Fucking no clue.
Just as her rant started spiralling into a maddened fury of disjointed rage, her train of thought was derailed. She saw a few trees shake. From behind a trunk emerged a strange dark grey shape. It lumbered not on all fours like a cat or dog but with a peculiar gait. It looked about the size of a large child or small adult. Walking with a crouch but using the nubs folded wings. Not leathery or feather but scaled and interwoven. Its head on the end of a long snaking neck sniffed the air, forked tongue flickering out to taste it.
"Leon, one O’ clock ground. Small and alone."
Leon jumped up and sighted the creature. Barely pausing before saying in a steady voice, "Center mass. Kill shot now."
Feeling the rage wash away from her, she breathed out and refined her aim of the oversized crossbow. The ballista was narrow in design but powerful. She wouldn't need to account for wind or much drop at this distance. Putting the sight slightly above its centre mass, she fired. The large iron clay javelin flew fast and true. Spearing the creature through its centre.
The large shaft pinned it to the earth, and it writhed and screamed for a second, burning smoke emitted from the wound. It looked foul and toxic, like it was staining the air.
Leon confirmed the kill, but before it was done writhing, he flicked the tower to red status and tapped out a message on the keyboard. Sending before returning to watch and sitting in the right turret seat.
"Reload and watch."
She quickly complied. The ballista used a small auto winder powered by a spin drive to pull back tension. She pulled off another ironclad javelin and placed it in the firing position as she heard Leon bring the turret up to idle, then hot. The first time the turret had run hot since she arrived.
Before she was back in position Gunther was climbing out of the Tube with his gatling gun. Followed by the Ball twins, one of who quickly moved to relieve Leon so he could pick up his rifle. Ka emerged onto the roof with Sarah. Only Fred, the Geek and Malcolm were missing. Wait, Malcolm was combat. Why was he missing when even Sarah was on deck?
The Ball twins were swearing under their breath as Gunther clicked his gun into a mounting point and ready it. It was then she noticed that while Gunther and Leon were scanning the ground like she was. The Ball twins were watching the sky.
"What did I just kill?" Pickle asked with her voice shaking slightly.
"Adolescent Wyvern," Leon answered in a calm tone.
Then in a much quieter voice dripping with fear and frustration but not quite enough, Brian muttered under his breath, "Baby fucking dragon."
This is an ongoing web novel updated every Thursday. I really hope you enjoy it, this is my first attempt but I've spent a lot of time in this world, over two decades. Running roleplaying campaigns, writing comics and creating stories so it feels really natural to tell a story in this world.