Guiding star: Touching the underside (Part 3)

You may check out the second part here.

The turret of the combat-deady grenade launcher turned towards the rusty armoured car. The shells broke out its black barrels with a predatory whistle, and a few seconds later there was an explosion — a tsunami of fire and shrapnel swept across the deserted range. After glancing at the flying tire, Seeker Ochre listened to a rumbling echo. There was no need to worry that the noise would attract someone’s attention — the Nomads chose the most remote places to test their weapons.

— It’s been a long time since I saw you working, Jeff. What do we have here? Rate of fire, running caliber, perfect handling at medium range… Have you really reached the top of your craftsmanship?

Ochre approached the figure wrapped in a faded robe. The chief gunsmith of the Nomads was already standing on the proving ground next to the experimental target. He concentrated on studying the gaps in a half-destroyed hull, assessing the firepower of the development.

— Not for me to judge— Jeff didn’t react to the question right away. — The device is not ready yet. I’ll make it lightweight, reliable and quick to manufacture. And I will send such weapons to all the wandering Sanctuaries. Then the Lunatics will stop bothering us, I hope.

Ochre looked back at Jeff’s development — a double-barrelled grenade launcher patiently waited for the master’s hand in position.

— What do you mean? Did you run into any of the gangs?

— There was one... incident, — Jeff muttered. — The truth is that the Nomads have become more vulnerable against the uninitiated. All we want is to preserve the peace of the disappeared world, and sometimes it makes us forget about the danger.

Ochre curiously listened to the gunsmith. Very few managed to learn anything specific about the way of thinking, the worldview, and especially about the fears of Nomads. Apparently, Jeff decided to make an exception for the Seeker, but instead of gratitude, she suddenly felt anxious.

— How bad is it?

— The Lunatics are not our main problem — the gunsmith shook his head. In the end, their pathetic life is just a short leap from hatred to oblivion. That day we repelled the attack, forcing them to turn around. Much worse is what turned out later.

Jeff turned his face covered by a gruesome leather mask, toward the Explorer. It washed the human traits away: from beneath the folds of the shabby turban, it looked like a glance of a dried-up millennia-old lizard. An eye with a thorn was visible through the crack of the mask — he stared at Ochre without blinking.

— I’ve known you a long time, child of the Fallen Star. And I understand what your mission means for everyone who survived Crossout. I think you should be prepared for the upcoming events. Come with me.

Following Jeff, the Seeker headed for a complex of nearby buildings. Apparently, it used to be the range’s control centre, and now the Nomads have stayed in its empty walls. Inside, Ochre slowed her pace: the barred windows barely provided any light, and the equally sullen corridors were twisting ahead. Nomads with shapeless shadows slid over them, as if not noticing the guest.

When the door of the former control room appeared ahead, Ochre’s eyes already got used to the darkness. Having barely crossed the threshold, the Seeker saw the square workbench of another weapon — it looked naked without the crowning barrel on top. There were two craftsmen working on the shutter mechanism.

— This is the first prototype,— Jeff nodded, intercepting Ochre’s gaze. — We never liked to spill blood. But there is nothing more important than our purpose, and we will protect the ruins of civilization from the encroachments of the fools until the very end. The new weapon will serve us well. But it’s not why I brought you here.

Having passed the tables with piles of blueprints, Ochre found herself in the center of a hall. Here, under the bright lights from the lamps, separated from other things and tools, laid the fragments of a strange design.

— Do you know whose drone it is? — Jeff asked.

Ochre shrugged, studying the remnants of the device.

— We took it down a couple hours before the Lunatics’ attack. No one would have remembered this incident if one of us hadn’t gone missing. He didn’t die of visceral anger, didn’t hide in the Wasteland, but perished right in the thick of the battle.

Jeff became silent, but soon continued in a nonchalant tone. His voice, muffled by the mask, vibrated hoarsely.

— Poor brother had not lived to see the Ascension. But thanks to this machine, we know how his journey ended. The drone, of course, was damaged by the hit, but it could still be operated with the recording device. We’ve recovered the last few minutes. Do you want to take a look?

Jeff turned to the blinking panel and played the recording. A blurry image of a sand quarry flashed on the screen. The camera shaking in the wind captured the kevlar pods of the Nomads’ wandering “isle”. Despite the digital noise, the neon armoured car and a fighter located nearby were clearly visible.

— The vehicle of the eastern clan... The Syndicate, isn’t it? — Ochra squinted. – Were they following you? How did they figure out the route of the Sanctuary?

— My job is to keep the peace in the Wasteland and hide the underside of reality from prying eyes. Yours is to gather information about everyone living in the Valley. I thought you were going to tell me why the Syndicate knows our secret paths and how they dare to use us in their attempts to access the wisdom of the world.

Ochre waited silently.

— The Syndicate tortured one of us, — the gunsmith was indignant. — Our brother’s pain echoed in every Sanctuary. When we contacted the kidnappers and demanded his release, he was already dead. A nomad can’t be forced to part with his essence.

Jeff stepped back to the table and straightened out a large blueprint. Looking over his shoulder, Ochre distinguished the scheme of the frontal machine gun’s steel barrel box.

— The truth is, child of the Fallen Star, that the Syndicate is upsetting the delicate balance. It wishes to touch what is inaccessible to the mind of a human, — the gunsmith concluded. — Even the “Dawn's Children” didn’t go that far: they always kept the boundaries that we have outlined. The Syndicate is stubbornly invading the sacred territories. Teasing the true inhabitants of the Wasteland…

The last sentence sounded quiet, but firm.

— The Nomads will not allow another disaster.

— I also have something to show you, Jeff, — Ochra replied. — I’ve heard the Syndicate recruits mercenaries and sends them south. And I talked to those who participated in these raids. They described horrible things, and I had to go there myself before I believed them…

The Explorer wrapped herself tighter in the folds of a gray robe.

— What I found there is truly disturbing.

After the gloom of the corridors, the dim sun in the clouds seemed to burn out the retinas. Ochre led the gunsmith to a powerful armoured vehicle parked in the far corner of the range. The Seeker's car resembled a majestic land liner. The steel-lined ark clearly survived more than one journey through the lifeless desert.

Ochre opened the cargo bay doors hidden between the huge wheels. She pointed her hand at the burned out cabin.

— Just your normal tin can, right? If it weren’t for the distinctive oculars. This is a Ravager module, no doubt. But I’ve never seen them paired with hovers. Especially with such cunning weapons: check out how the manipulator works.

The Explorer was waiting for Jeff’s reaction.

— I didn’t have time to study the find. But, according to the mercenaries, even a single copy can be deadly to survivors. I have to admit: the Order has no data on the modernization of the Ravagers. Didn’t the Engineers deal with the lair on the Foothold?

— It’s time for survivors to stop pushing their fate, — the gunsmith cut off. — It’s no wonder they’re suffering hoping to change things. I guess you captured Lloyd’s toy… Another reckless fool who can’t accept the rules of the game!

The Explorer bitten her lip thoughtfully.

— Former member of the Dawn’s Children? What does he want?

— Lloyd’s been acting alone for a long time. We no longer do business with him — after he decided to pave his way into the heart of the Wasteland with our hands. Obviously, the hopeless idea does not leave him... Once we’ve retaken the borders from the Syndicate’s clutches, all that’s left to do is take care of the scientist and his creatures.

— But aren’t Looyd’s experimentations a bigger evil? — Ochre said in a distrustful way.

Jeff looked at the Seeker’s figure with a disapproving glance.

— Lloyd’s gonna have to face reality. The laws of matter can’t be changed by an ordinary man. Even Ulysses has no power over the wonders of the Wasteland — and he lived near the Mortuary from an early childhood.

The gunsmith raised his hooky finger up.

— Remember: anyone who tries to touch the underside must pay a decent price. In their desire to go the way of the Nomads and save what we have lost, they condemn themselves to misery. Soon the insane ones will pay for their foolishness. Believe me, child of the Fallen Star, you’ll see it.


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1 June 2021
Stories