Ambush at Rest Stop 516
18 September 2086
Mojave Death Zone
Unknown time on a Wednesday
Malachai whistled a nonsensical tune to the wind as he sat by a patch of abandoned highway caught in the last throes of reclamation by the desert. The man huddled in a hooded sun tarp under the shadow of half-a-boat left to rot in dry dock above a formation of bone-bleach rocks. Malachai neither knew nor cared how a halved boat ended up so far from water but the rusting hulk could provide shade in an otherwise flat stretch of wasteland, so it became a known spot amongst his kind. Travelers, renegades, and thieves marked their mapping suites for Rest Stop 516 as a place where deals were made away from prying eyes.
Rest Stop 516 lay in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Death Zone just a few kilometers south-east of an active war front. The same Mojave Death Zone where unaugmented people’s survival was clocked in minutes, and even augmented folk needed to take massive precautions when stepping outside. No one who wasn’t looking to would ever end up there, making the location a perfect rendezvous for those who operated in the gray. Malachai was there because a load of Riker & Kloss TR85G rifles and high-grade fuel fell off the back of a delivery drone and he hoped someone would help him rectify the situation. 516 was so out of the way and located in a hellscape it was uncertain who, if at all, would be there.
That was the chance you took with 516. It was a last resort to move items too hot to process through conventional channels which meant anything could pop up there. Malachai made the effort of lugging 50 gallons of fuel and a few crates of rifles through the desert because he needed to make a sale. In the meanwhile, he would sit in the shade and listen to the sound of silence only the Mojave could provide at mid-morning.
Propped up against his assortment of illicit goods Malachai sweated profusely. His body’s secretions were instantly whisked away by the fabric of his undergarments and rapidly filtered of impurities. Some purified fluids were then fed intravenously back into his system helping keep Malachai hydrated in the 55-degree Celsius heat. The skin-tight garments were known by various names and sold by numerous brands of variable quality across the continent and all offered a basic fluid retention system, however Malachia’s was a higher-end garment which also offered metabolic heat regulation as well as waste capture. Even with his fancy ExcreTeam Life Suit Malachai still needed to drink water every ten minutes.
Shortly before arriving at 516 Malachai disengaged the Augmented Reality setting on his optical implants as a means of unplugging from the virtual world for a few hours. It also removed a tracking protocol from the AR program. Any sort of traceroute or application with a GPS ping was a big no-no at the Rest Stop. No tracking and no quantum-web tethers while on site – because that’s how you get orbital strikes, or worse, high-resolution captures of your naughty activities in the middle-of-nowhere.
Losing his AR meant losing his internal clock forcing Malachai to keep track of time passing through mouthfuls of water. Malachai liked to make it a game. He’d wait until his tongue felt thick and heavy and his throat like it was coated in stinging nettles, before taking another slug of water and would call that span of time “ten minutes”. Disappointingly, the liquid was warm thanks to the ambient temperature, but it still sent electric tendrils of gratification across his parched flesh with each gulp. Each swallow of water reset the timer and the waiting game continued. Tongue swelling. Throat raw. Swallow. Regardless of the actual time that passed, Malachai had been at 516 for twenty gulps and was feeling a bit worse for wear even with the assistance of his ExcreTeam undies. He decided to try and tame the creeping fatigue and sense of dread with meditation.
Breathing slowly through his nostrils Malachai silently counted. Arid and parching air immediately drew focus to his tingling nose nostrils, and then an itch on the sole of his foot demanded his attention. Before long he was adrift in a turbulent chaotic stream of consciousness, battered and assaulted by every intrusive thought his brain could muster before settling on the perennial topic of finances. Exhaling in frustration Malachai opened his eyes and stared out at the empty plateau. The white salt flats reflected the beating sunlight and nearly masked the mountains rising only a few dozen kilometers eastward. The light was so brilliant it created a blinding haze that obscured details and looked like a portal to nowhere. Malachai wished he could crawl into that nothingness and hide.
It was a mistake to even get involved with that Samazon cargo drone. Veer had pitched it like a quick smash and grab and promised his fence could move the liberated merchandise easily. Lies. Well, the first part was true enough, the drone was where it was supposed to be, and Veer’s GPS spoofing caused the cargo carrier to ground itself right on cue. The hack was elegant in its simplicity. Fat bastard belly slid for a quarter kilometer before coming to a halt. Things went sideways when Veer tripped a security protocol on the drone that activated a full area scan. Biometrics, cyber implantation registry, GPS -basically any pertinent information needed to finger who and what brought down the drone were snap-shotted and beamed back to Samazon’s corporate security apparatus.
That was three days ago and none of Veer’s contacts would return his calls. Figuring Samazon was putting pressure on Veer’s contacts and that their own identities were compromised, Malachai and Veer decided to head into the Mojave to lay low and salvage the situation. It was only a matter of time before a Samazon hit squad would trace their location and kill them, or worse, confiscate their persons as indentured staff. If they could move their merchandise, though, even at the extreme discount a location like 516 demanded, they could probably start buying their way out of their current predicament. Maybe. But probably.
At thirty gulps Malachai began feeling lightheaded and gave himself until 40 gulps before he would cut his losses and pack up shop. It was unusual for such little traffic to pass by 516 and Malachai began to worry maybe something was the matter. Maybe a skirmish broke out between Shangri-LA and the Pact and the fighting had drifted close by? Malachai trashed that theory almost immediately because he hadn’t heard a damn thing since he’d arrived, and those two groups always kicked up a ruckus when they met. Maybe the Rest Stop finally got compromised? It has been in operation for over four months which made the spot practically ancient in Malachai’s business. Hell, maybe he was compromised and Samazon was setting him up? Before he leaped down the mental rabbit hole of paranoid theories Malachai became suddenly aware of his hot shins and feet and the disappearing shade snapped him out of his doom-cycle thinking.
To his annoyance the sun had shifted substantially since Malachai first took position under the boat and now encroached on his shadowed domain enough to prevent him from stretching his legs. Bending his lithe lower limbs up to act as elbow rests left dual canals in the baked earth and a rough scratching sound that wrenched the still air. Malachai forced his eyes back towards the glaring vanishing point on the horizon and resumed flirted with walking into the desert.
At thirty-six gulps Malachai felt a subtle reverberation in the earth that he recognized as a moving vehicle and his heart began pounding with anticipation of a buyer. Reaching under his sun tarp he thumbed on the capacitators for the coil pistol holstered on his hip. The warm thrum of the weapon’s magnetic field inhibitors broke the silence and sent pleasant vibrations down his leg. The effect gave Malachai a sense of control to face whatever was rushing towards him from the wastes.
Before long, the rhythmic pounding of an engine caught up with the vibrating ground and Malachai’s own anxious heart. Malachai didn’t know mechanics and couldn’t identify the type of engine, though from his perspective it sounded heavy, voracious - like the driver was stamping the accelerator down as hard as it would go. Then sonic pops rattled off in quick succession momentarily masking the engine. Automatic gun fire. M77 perhaps? Music awfully familiar to Malachai’s ears and an altogether unwelcome track at this moment in time.
Malachai took a last gulp from his almost empty canteen. He poured the remaining contents down his chest allowing the ExcreTeam Life Suit to do its job. Stowing the ceramic liquid container, he remained seated under the derelict boat waiting with his pistol in hand for the inevitable mess coming his way.
As the cacophony drew closer Malachai could distinguish at least three distinct engines, though one was clearly larger than the other two. His ears were also able to pinpoint the gunfire as an M77 – an automatic weapon typically mounted on light vehicles like Badger scout trikes. Badgers were favored by multiple combatants in the region, from the Pact down to repudiator warlords. The small, three-wheeled vehicles were cheap and easy to maintain making Badgers ubiquitous sights in the Mojave.
A great plume of road dust kicked up by the chase materialized out of the sun-haze and Malachai caught a glimpse of the lead vehicle. A boxy Locust carrier painted a faded tan tore out of the blinding horizon. Topped with stowage that leaned as the four-wheeled vehicle zigged and zagged along the abandoned highway. The Locust wasn’t firing back and didn’t have any drone support making for a very one-sided firefight. Whomever was driving that Locust was in a bad position with two angry Badgers nipping at its heels.
More gun fire erupted behind the Locust and Malachai was able to see the impacts of small caliber rounds sparking against the Locust’s armored plates. Ripping through the dust and sun glare was a vibrant metallic green Badger speckled with large, dark spots. A gunner perched in the green Badger’s turret unleashing a steady volley of 7.62mm from the attached M77 made Malachai smile despite himself. The gunner wasn’t a great shot and was spraying down more of the road than the Locust. Malachai had a moment to decide if he would intervene.
The Locust looked like it was Pact aligned but it was missing its escorts. The green-spotted Badger was probably some warlord’s muscle hunting for supplies or scrap. As the machine came closer it was clear the spots were giant rust patches, indicating the warlord was probably strapped for cash. Malachai had dealt with both warlords and the Pact, and of the two the Pact was more predictable and less likely to renege on their deals. Still, if he missed or didn’t plug the Badger’s gunner quickly enough Malachai would be on the receiving end of an M77 which no payday could undo. On the other hand, the Pact didn’t give a rat’s ass about Samazon’s sanctions and they had the resources to maybe still save Malachai and Veer’s hides. Malachai made his decision.
Standing quickly and raising his coil pistol Malachai tracked the green Badger for two breaths before depressing the trigger. Even with his integrated recoil dampeners the kick back was massive, and his aural implants, triggered by the sudden air pressure change, momentarily shut down to avoid the sonic boom erupting from the pistol’s barrel. The pistol’s slug struck the Badger’s turret missing the gunner but obliterating the ATGM missile tube and pushing the turret ring 10 degrees to the left. Spalling from the impact washed over the gunner causing a crimson mist to explode around the turret. The gunner’s body fell lifeless into the Badger’s interior. Malachai watched this brutal display play out in absolute silence, lending a cinematic quality to the ruthless violence.
Sliding the coil pistol’s hammer back loaded another slug into the chamber which Malachai heard the tell-tale “thunk” of as his aural implants came back online.
The green badger swerved hard to the left hopping off the highway and onto the sandy shoulder as it executed a wide, high speed turn. Malachai aimed his pistol at the fleeing Badger when his attention was interrupted by repeated dull thumping vibrations in his chest and the bone splitting crack-crack-crack of heavy weapons fire tearing through the air. From his peripheral vision Malachai saw a flash of burnished yellow before a second Badger bolted into view.
“Idiot! There were three engines!” Malachai rebuked himself and swung to draw a bead on the new target.
Barely recognizable as the same chassis as the green Badger, the yellow beast was a motley assortment of heavy plate and jury-rigged parts grafted on to a Badger frame. The yellow hues of the paint varied in places suggesting patchwork occurred at various times and with various paint hues. Heavy rust mingled with the paint in places to create mosaics of oranges, browns, and reds. Given the environment it almost looked like intentional camouflage and not simply weathered neglect. Modified with a reinforced ram-bar on its front, the yellow Badger also carried a larger-than-normal turret with dual .50 caliber machine guns jutting from its thick hide. Both heavy guns were belching fire and tearing up giant clods of earth and ancient asphalt in a destructive line which bisected the Locust and blew apart the stowage secured to its upper hull.
Malachai noted the yellow Badger’s gunner was as poor a shot as the green gunner, but unlike the M77 the dual .50’s only needed a clean hit or two on the Locust before they’d cause trouble. Malachai was unsure if his pistol would have any effect on the up armored Badger but fired anyway.
The world went silent and his slug found its mark but did little more than kick up a plume of sparks and rust as the armor plate held. To his horror the yellow Badger’s turret began swinging towards him, the gunner never taking their thumbs off the triggers.
Rounds tore up the desert clay in a wide swath as the gunner tried to acquire his target. Malachai dove to the ground as the searching fire impacted all around him. His aural implants kicked in just in time to hear screeching metal as the boat’s dry dock support struts were sawed through by supersonic projectiles. Even though the rounds flew half a meter over his body Malachai could feel the force of their passing tear at his back and he screamed in terror as the Badger continued pouring fire into his position. The boat began tilting as the support struts failed and the relic watercraft slid down and over Malachai, crashing heavily onto the rocks and hard packed earth just a meter from his prone form.
Face pressed firmly into the radiating desert clay Malachai waited for the kill shot that never came. The shooting had stopped but the yellow beast’s engine howled and sounded as if it was driving toward the boat wreck. Scrambling and crawling, Malachai tried to hunker behind the boulders and larger rocks scattered about the area.
The twin .50 cals opened fire again and Malachai braced for impacts but none occurred. Poking his head up from the rocks Malachai saw the yellow beast veer to the right, its turret swinging as it fired wildly into the air over the highway. It was then that Malachai saw the Badger’s target – a Pact hover tank about 100 meters above the highway on a descending trajectory. Tracers from the Badger’s heavy guns leaped toward the tank, some finding their marks on the sloped tan armor but those simply impacting and failing to penetrate.
The tank moved swiftly despite its non-aerodynamic frame. Malachai marveled that the brick-like machine could fly let alone move at the speed it was traveling. With its angled armor and rectangular shape, the tank reminded Malachai of a component in the ancient step-pyramids he learned about as a kid. Perched atop the initial “brick” the tank had its own turret that bore a large cannon and a smaller secondary turret which housed a missile system. Malachai was well versed in small arms but knew jack-all about military equipment. Regardless of what the weapons were called, they outclassed anything the yellow beast carried.
As if coming to the same conclusion the yellow Badger ceased firing and turned hard, hopping off the decaying highway to evade the inbound tank.
Leveling out its descent at roughly 15 meters from the ground the hover tank continued following the highway but turned its turret to track the fleeing trike. Then, the tremendous cannon shook and disgorged a shell. Even from two dozen meters the concussive force of the blast awed Malachai and he instinctively pushed his head down behind the rocks. The tank fired again and Malachai heard a distant blast which he assumed was the yellow beast dying.
When Malachai got to his knees and peeked over the bolder he saw a plume of dark smoke in the distance where the yellow Badger smoldered. Road dust swirled further down the road and the familiar rumble of the Locust’s engine caught Malachai’s attention. Returning over the bullet riddled patch of highway it had fled down only moments before, the tan cargo carrier looked haggard but operational. Fresh metal glinted in the sun – exposed from the M77’s wild spraying. The upper hull’s stowage racks were severely damaged and Malachai noticed several rile cases which were riddled with large caliber bullets -the contents inside clearly ruined caused a glimmer of hope to rise in Malachai’s chest.
Standing fully, Malachai waved his arms to flag down the cruising Locust which swerved off the highway pulling up to a stop near the boat wreckage. Malachai dusted himself off and holstered his coil pistol. Malachai tried smiling as naturally as he could given the events of the last few minutes, but his heart was still pounding furiously, and he felt light-headed from the adrenaline surge. As he cleared the boulders and got a better view of the boat wreck the two Pact Locust crew members were disembarking their vehicle. Their uniforms were patchwork, a bit thread bare and worn in places. Malachai was embarrassed for them. They were wearing junk likely procured from a surplus site.
“Appreciate the assistance your large buddy gave me with that yellow waster – my pistol wasn’t having much effect!” Malachai jumped in with a joke hoping to break the ice.
One of the crew held up a hand as if to silence Malachai before nodding a moment later.
“Sorry. Had to kill the quantum tethers – we didn’t want to break the rules here during our first visit.” Malachai must have had a shocked look on his face because she followed up with, “What? Isn’t that correct? The posting on this place made it explicitly clear that you had to cut any tethers before dealing.”
The crew member’s voice was soft and young sounding and Malachai wondered if she was one of the hundreds of activist fighters who flocked to the Pact in recent months. Drawn to ‘the Cause’ of stopping Shangri-LA’s expansion, recruits as young as 16 had been found fighting in some Pact units. Malachai envied the crew’s passion then felt momentarily ashamed when he realized there wasn’t anything he would fight for other than living another day. Maybe Veer, too. And how did some punk kid know the rule to 516? Malachai felt himself getting irritated but caught himself before the emotions moved to his face.
“Uh, no, I mean, yeah, you are absolutely correct,” Malachai stammered trying to get his expression in check. “Sorry, I just didn’t expect the protocols here to be common knowledge with Pact personnel.”
The other crew member spoke up. Her voice was deeper than the first, but her tone was inflected with youthful enthusiasm.
“I just gotta say your first shot was brilliant, my man! Well, they both were at those speeds, but that first one? Wow! Oh, I wish we had been recording! The way you geeked the lead Badger would have gone viral it was so unexpected – didn’t even notice you hiding out here until your coil gun discharge pinged on our scanner!”
Malachai’s ego fed, he suddenly felt hopeful and smiled genuinely while allowing a laugh.
“Glad I had better aim than them. They owe the road an apology with all that ‘spray and pray’ crap, right?” Feeling like he had the initiative and not wanting to lose momentum he took a chance.
“Say, it looks like your cargo got the worst of the exchange. This might be both our lucky days because I have some R&K TR85G rifles that I really don’t want to drag out of here. I am willing to cut a really good deal for ‘the Cause’ and all, but mostly because I am turning into jerky out here and want to get out of the sun. Interested?”