Hidden 4 yrs ago Post by Shienvien
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He had a minute to ponder over what she had told him as he partook in Kay's meager provisions and she herself was preoccupied with controlling her drone.
How different was controlling a drone by means of screens and external controls compared to doing what she did? He supposed it made little difference in terms of control - a glove, levers, same general thing. He also figured it probably did not make much difference whether a screen was in front of you or grafted into you, aside of it presumably being a bit more inconvenient, should someone manage to substitute whatever input the system was supposed to take with their own feed.
Everything else, though... If it were just her eye, only capable or receiving a signal of one specific type, it would probably have been fine. But "translates human thought into digital signals and vice versa”? Did it mean that a machine - or just someone with suitable receiver - could read her thoughts? See what she saw? Input thoughts into her mind she would not be able to discern from her own given a compatible transceiver? Could someone commandeer her? How far could one with sufficient technical knowledge go? How could she know someone had not? How could he know she was even there, in control of her actions, as opposed to someone piloting a body from a safe distance? She said she should not go near the machines of the east because they could "get into her head", but perhaps it was more akin to "take over" or even "release the owner of this body"? At this stage, he had no damn way of really knowing for certain, unless his helmet had a setting that by chance could pick something up...
He could also not help to notice that she was either purposefully obfuscating the exact functional mechanisms of her brain-machine interface, or she simply did not know. That she had been kept in the same kind of darkness he had been left with most Anderekian equipment. And there was some manner of reluctance in her tone, or apprehension ... she was not telling him everything. She was omitting something, and chances were it was sinister or unpleasant in nature.
He had mostly just been staring dully in front of himself, with an expression that seemed to be neutral for the time being.

He only gave a brief nod once Kay had the little drone return and commented on him noticing the static, and silently held out a hand to accept the bottle Kay offered him.
Twenty kilometers to Eighfour... He swallowed before he spoke up.
"Still, about three hours..." he noted. They will be caught well and good indeed ... hopefully, the trees would provide some additional protection. "Probably four or five, with the cart."
He held the bottle to eye-level, scrutinizing the clear liquid within, then unscrewing the cap and holding the mouth of the bottle close to his nose. Looked like water, smelled like water, if perhaps slightly stale. He took a swig, even as Kay saw fit to ask him another question, and he looked up at her.
"Trenian drones...?" He thought for a moment. "I know ours - Anderekian drones - were not capable of transmitting or receiving during them. They were usually docked to trees when the signal got unclear, and just left there for the duration of the sunstorm. Hopefully they were still there once it had passed. Trenian drones would often stay in air, but would fly higher and just circle over a single place... I think they were just switched to autopilot or something, and likewise could not transmit or receive. I haven't seen or heard of them flying below tree level during that time, at least. Or targeting people, for the matter. Why?"
Well, at least the sunstorm meant they would not have to worry about drones as much, he supposed...
Hidden 4 yrs ago Post by Dark Jack
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Kay stopped what she was doing for a moment when Enn tried to estimate how long it would take them to get to Eighfour and raised her gaze a bit, as though looking at some distant obstructed sky while she thought. “Three or four hours probably sound about right,” she said, trying to map out in her head just which terrain they would have to pass on their way and whether any of it would cause them significant delays. She thought there was probably a steep slope several meters down at one point, but figured that it was not that important. “And don’t worry too much about the cart; it won’t slow us down as much as you think. I built it, so I should know.”
She set to work deploying the solar panels on top of the cart so that it could recharge Aitch and any power missing on its own internal battery, all the while listening to Enn’s description of how the sunstorm could be expected to affect the drones of the ones most immediately a threat to them and Eighfour.
“Just confirming that they won’t have swarms of drones combing through the forest,” she shrugged. “I figure it’ll give us at least a little extra time before Eighfour is discovered, and decreases the chance of anyone noticing us.” Although if anyone even glance in our direction while we’re under open sky, she thought with a grim smile, the solar panels on my cart will definitely get their attention. “But now that you’ve mentioned it, I almost hope we happen across an Anderekian drone! Even if it turned out that I can’t make it work for us somehow, I could at least strip it of some pretty useful parts.”

She smiled at him as she went to the handlebar at the back of her cart, its electric engine now turned on to make pushing it nearly effortless as long as the terrain was not too rough. “Shall we get going?”
Hidden 4 yrs ago Post by Shienvien
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“Just confirming that they won’t have swarms of drones combing through the forest,” the woman shrugged. So she had arrived at the same conclusion he had - this development might just buy them a slight amount of additional time.
"I reckon it might last half a day or so, the sunstorm," he noted. "Shouldn't be the worst of them, either - the worst ones typically don't give that much of a warning. Well, and the sky is overcast, and we're under trees... Suppose it all makes it less likely we'll have our skin burnt off by cosmic rays." Especially the one of them who was not wearing combat armor. "Would still at least mean a pretty damn significant thunderstorm." He shrugged. There was probably no point in telling Kay what she - having lived on the same planet as him for her entire life - doubtlessly already knew herself.
"If you're certain we can safely disable it on the spot," he commented on her hope of finding an Anderekian drone instead of persisting to talk about the weather. "Those things ain't that easy to crack, you know, and for a good reason. The last thing we want is them re-establishing the signal for long enough to pinpoint it just as we march into our base." Assuming they did not manage to regain control of it entirely, or opt for a blind shot, or be made to exact any of those things a military drone could do before being subdued. He did not know how they were built, just what they were capable of. And, in the end, so close to the cliffdrop, they possibly still had to look out for people and people-driven vehicles.
In the face of the complete and utter unknown he was now facing, it was hard for him to maintain a joking demeanor. His old people were "they" now, and his new people ... he knew very little of, other than what Kay had decided to tell him. How much was she not telling? How much she had not thought to tell? How many of her words were true? Hell, he did not even know her, he only put semblance of trust in her - human, cyborg, whichever she more accurately was - because it was his best option. Even though it came with what seemed to be an impossible mission. Watch the world come crashing down around you...
The rest of his meager breakfast was finished in silence while Kay-Gee tampered with her cart. For all his going back and forth on whether or not he expected Kay or her people to backstab him, it surprisingly did not seem to occur him that the food or water could be poisoned. Perhaps it simply had not been his faction's way.
Enn did not look up before he was asked whether they should get moving, at which point he wordlessly returned his helmet to its original position covering his head and got to his feet.
"I suppose so," he finally agreed with the notion. "Is there anything else I should know about your people, before we come face to face with them?"
Comes what comes; this time, no one would be able to say that he had not walked into that mess on his own volition...
Hidden 4 yrs ago Post by Dark Jack
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There was little else Kay could do in reaction to Enn’s cautioning words against trying to tamper with docked drones than shrug and reiterate what she had already told him. “If there’s any doubt I’ll just strip them of as many parts as I can safely remove. It shouldn’t be difficult... unless they have some kind of automated defense mechanism, of course.” That last thought had not occurred to her until now, and she could not help but scold herself a little for failing to think of it until now. If she had made an expensive machine meant for danger and war – her drones, though useful, were regrettably pretty basic and cheap – she would certainly have wanted to make sure that no one did the obvious and scavenged it for parts while it was inactive.
“I could even rig them to explode when they reactivate, I think,” she added after a moment’s contemplation, “but that wouldn’t really serve any purpose. If I had more time...” She shook her head. “Worst comes to worst you can just shoot them, anyway. Can you shoot them? Is your gun powerful enough for that?”

Later on, when Enn asked if there was anything he should know about the people of Eighfour before he met them, Kay first smiled, but then cast down her gaze as her mood faltered and her mind wandered to dark places. The people of Eighfour... I could tell you a lot of stories, if only we had more time.
“Don’t trust them with any of your belongings,” she recommended, a bitter note to her voice lending credence to her words of caution. “Not if you want to keep them in one piece, anyways. In fact it’s probably best if you keep an eye on your stuff at all times; a lot of your gear is really, really tempting to take apart. Even I have considered dismantling your helmet several times already in the short time we’ve been acquainted.”
She paused, thinking. “Also – and I realize that there might be no reason to warn you against this, since it’s pretty much common sense – don’t threaten the others. It’s fine with me, I didn’t really mind, but not everyone’s as reckless as me. At best they’ll refuse to let you stay... at worst, they’ll kill you on the spot.”
Hidden 4 yrs ago Post by Shienvien
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“If there’s any doubt I’ll just strip them of as many parts as I can safely remove. It shouldn’t be difficult... unless they have some kind of automated defense mechanism, of course.”
"Not unlikely," Notrau muttered. Naturally, he did not really know ... he was no tech. Those folks were semi-safely stowed away, much like the drone-pilots (and would most likely be preemptively shot before they could be taken in by the enemy). The knowledge those people harbored was actually valuable, whereas his was supposed to be strictly limited to which approaches worked for a person of his loadout and which did not. He was equipped to relay information that could be used by drones among others, but as far as his orders in regards to handling them went ... do not touch and do not obstruct. "Make the cut off head bite one more time, yeah?"
What would be the point of making drones explode upon startup, over just destroying them right away? Seemed like an unnecessary additional risk, dallying around for long enough to tamper with one, all the while hoping that it did not turn into an opportunistic mine while you were at it... It made a tremendous amount of sense, that they would implement something of the sort.
“Can you shoot them?" Kay-Gee suddenly inquired. "Is your gun powerful enough for that?”
"Powerful enough?" he repeated, sounding almost incredulous. "At mid-range, it can punch through two and half centimeters of hardened steel, and anything less. Tank, APC, those won't care a bit. A human, a flying drone small enough to navigate these forests with ease, some lighter vehicles and craft... If I hit true, it's got a new hole punched through it." One could doubt the usefulness of wearing armor at all, if it were not for the fact that he knew what being hit did to unarmored targets... And the possibility of using bullets with significantly decreased penetration that were geared towards more extensive damage instead. Overpenetrating projectiles did not necessarily have the most stopping power.
Wearing armor was useful or the sake of everyone's moral state, if not for the innumerable other threats present. Fragments, suppression-fire from lighter weapons, ricochets, sound... And in the end of day, humans could - at least briefly while high on adrenaline and who knew what else - take a surprising amount of abuse before they went down for good. Saw that again just yesterday...
Notrau winced to himself.

A hundred and nine, he idly noted in his head. Some things you eventually learned to know as if by instinct... He suspected that that number might dwindle at a quite uncomfortable rate in the future, with no restocking in sight. Any number was too small if the estimated duration it had to last was "indefinitely".

It was when he had already gotten up to get on moving that Kay-Gee added another disconcerting notion to the mix - though one would be hard pressed to say that it surpassed the sheer lunacy of their little WMD-suicide plan. This one was more personal. This one threatened to strip him of what few belongings he had, and in spite of his insistence that it was not wise to go about looking like a factory-made Anderekian (a disturbingly apt descriptor, perhaps) when he was no longer affiliated with them, going without his armor and the extended senses his helmet anywhere outside his home barracks ... "blind and naked" was probably as close approximation as it got.
Never letting his possessions out of sight (or letting them taken off his person) was probably the best bet he had. Even if it meant he had to sleep atop of his gun and wearing everything. He had halted when Kay had brought the topic up, head halfway turned towards her.
"I used to be a heavy sleeper," he mused audibly. And that had obviously gotten taken advantage of. "I got better."
He turned to face forward again, and began moving forward. He was not marching - it was even, measured strides, not rushed but quicker than the average person's walking. He could probably have kept it up till he either fell asleep mid-motion or passed out from dehydration, whichever happened first.
"And please try not to take my helmet apart ... it's more my eyes than my actual eyes, yeah? Probably quite easy to fuck up, too, get some dust into an otherwise sealed sensor or something... Not even I know how the bloody thing's assembled, but I do know I'd be long deaf without it. And dead. Very, very dead. And it's probably our best chance of picking up others' communications, especially if they just crossed me off, no?" Maybe. At the very least, he was quite certain he was not trackable, or the enemy would have long figured out how to pick them out without line or sight or anything of the sort.
“Also – and I realize that there might be no reason to warn you against this, since it’s pretty much common sense – don’t threaten the others. It’s fine with me, I didn’t really mind, but not everyone’s as reckless as me. At best they’ll refuse to let you stay... at worst, they’ll kill you on the spot.”
"You were alone," Notrau noted, with immediacy and matter-of-factness that suggested that he did not even need to think on the matter. "If it came to firefight, I could probably get away before the rest of your lot showed up. Had I been in the middle of a base, there'd be no getting away before everyone took a shot at me, if it came down to that. I did not know for certain whether that thing of yours could pen my armor, so it was get away without being noticed, or confront and don't get hit, and not knowing how willing you were to draw guns, it was safer bet you wouldn't do so when you'd be certain to be hit first if you tried, yeah? I could last in these woods for a while, probably, but for how long? So I needed to find someone who wasn't definitely hostile. I decided to risk it with you, no shots were fired, so so far, so good."
For a bit, he walked in silence.
"There are still ... customs, yeah? A protocol? Things you talk about, and things you don't ... aside of threatening violence, I mean, since if that is not universal, I don't really know what is. Some chain of command? A person you have to talk to so that they'll maybe talk to a more important person, who will talk to an even more important person, who will maybe be able to contact someone who might actually be able to change something, but most likely won't, and then you'd have to face repercussions for bothering them in the first place?"
He sighed.
"I would not even know where to begin, especially if we're going to go and try make it so that the whole place does not get turned into a smoking crater," he muttered. "I am Enn-Que, bringer of bad news and harbinger of doom. I may have lost the hellbeast I was supposed to ride here, because I'm not too good at this..."

Thunder rolled across the land. Not the thunder or supersonic planes, but that of lightning. It was a common phenomena with sunstorms, along with the sicly-yellow sky, turbulent winds and fell beams of light that could scorch a surface they hit - something the cover of clouds was wont to shield the ground from, though the cover of trees was nearly as effective even on clear days. It was not the worst of them, granted, however it nevertheless remained unpleasant.
But, at least Kay had been right in one thing - most hostile entities were less likely to wander about while it lasted.
Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Dark Jack
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“Hey, I said I’d considered doing it,” Kay chuckled, throwing her left hand in the air in mock exasperation at Enn’s reaction to the prospect of her taking apart his helmet, “but it’s still on your noggin and in one piece, isn’t it?”
But then her smile diminished some, her expression growing more serious and intense as she looked at him, pushing her cart along as she went. “That said, I don’t mess with stuff that belongs to someone else unless it’s salvage. Not without permission. I’m really curious about your helmet because I figure I may be able to adapt some of the technology from it in this,” she pointed to her artificial eye, “or my drones, but I’m not going to touch it if you don’t want me to. I do know what I’m doing, though; I’m pretty confident that anything I take apart I can also put back together.”

When Enn mentioned his uncertainty as to whether her “thing” could penetrate his armor, Kay actually let go of the handlebar of her cart – pushing the small vehicle along with her abdomen instead – and went to the holster under her left breast and got out her gun. Even more apparent out of its holster than while in it, it was an unnecessarily big and clunky weapon for a sidearm, with a disproportionally large bolt that seemed more fitting for large-caliber rifles than handguns, along with a peppering of holes everywhere that appeared to be sockets for missing parts. Even the muzzle on it looked weird, if one examined it properly, as it made up of layered segments that did not appear to serve any real function.
Holding the pistol over her open left hand with her right one, Kay started repeatedly pressing a small button on the side of the gun, causing it to emit a subtle buzzing noise for a second before it started ejecting bullets from the bottom of the – also disproportionally large – magazine sitting in front of the grip, one at the time. What was really weird, however, was the fact that none of the bullets looked alike; two were identical small-caliber rounds, a third was a slightly bigger and longer round, a fourth was clearly an actual rifle-round and a fifth even looked suspiciously like a shotgun shell.
“Not with the first to shots it couldn’t,” she told him once the gun responded with a click rather than a buzz and a bullet at the press of the button, seeing as the two small-caliber rounds came out last, “and by the time it’d loaded the third... heh, I guess I’m just happy I didn’t have to use it.”
She fed the three handgun rounds back into the magazine, earning another buzz as the gun drove them into position within to be ready to fire, but pocketed the rifle-round and shotgun-shell, figuring that it was better to know in advance that she was about to fire those if the necessity arose. Back into the holster it went, then, smiling somewhat awkwardly to herself that she had just demonstrated the “fool’s project”, as the others called it, that was her firearm.
“I call it the ‘scavenger-gun’,” she told him, scratching her neck embarrasedly. “It can take most kinds of ammunition so that I can replenish my supply from any I find, but it’s kinda unreliable and slow... I have a stock for it, too, in there.” She kicked her cart lightly, eliciting a dull thud. “So yeah... ‘sometimes’ it can pen your armor. It’s stupid, but it’s the only gun I have.”

“Protocols?” she repeated a bit later when Enn inquired to such things in Eighfour. “I don’t know... normally there’s ‘don’t mention the nuke’, but we already know that we’ll throw that one out the window. Eh...” She rubbed the back of her head as she thought. “I think most of it’s related to mundane everyday life rather than life-changing impending disaster-situations, so I doubt they’ll be relevant.
As for chain of command, you’ll want to talk to Gramps,” she said confidently. “He’s basically our de facto leader; everyone listens to him even though he’s not officially in charge. None of the others will dare to make any big decisions without his consent. He’s also the one responsible for the nuke, so that’s a bonus. And no, I’m not related to him – not closely, anyway – he’s just been given the name ‘Gramps’ because he’s kinda old and everyone likes him.”
“As for where to begin, o Harbinger of Doom,” she grinned, “I’d recommend ‘let’s chat over a cup of tea’. People tends to be a bit less aggressive when their hands are full of hot beverage instead of guns.”
Hidden 3 yrs ago 3 yrs ago Post by Shienvien
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“Hey, I said I’d considered doing it,” Kay chuckled, “but it’s still on your noggin and in one piece, isn’t it?”
"You've not as much as gotten a chance to touch it with your fingertip, so I'd not put too much weight to that statement," Enn grumbled, his posture visibly stiffening. And then, after a moment, "I think I much preferred when you were only promising to shoot me in the back."
Perhaps he owned some explanations, too.
"Death is a perfectly normal part of life, when you're a soldier like I. But if you're in combat, you're too busy to be able to care, besides flinch and swear in your head when a bullet hits overhead and showers you with shards, and back at base, there is nothing you could do about its eventual probability, so we joked over it to take the edge off it, yeah? But you didn't comment on, or ask questions over, why someone was moved to another location or unit. You learn to keep your mouth shut about things like that pretty quickly, for your own sake. And you don't touch another soldier's things. Losing equipment is severe offense, should an officer pick up on it. So you learn to protect it pretty quickly, too, with your life if need be - failure to do so could mean the latter's forfeit, anyway." Another pause. "...They did manage to do it to me, once. Sort of. They managed to take my gun apart and tape all of its components to the ceiling. Never found out who they were, but luckily I woke before someone further took note and I got in trouble."
“That said, I don’t mess with stuff that belongs to someone else unless it’s salvage. Not without permission. I’m really curious about your helmet because I figure I may be able to adapt some of the technology from it in this,” she pointed to her artificial eye, “or my drones, but I’m not going to touch it if you don’t want me to. I do know what I’m doing, though; I’m pretty confident that anything I take apart I can also put back together.”
"You wouldn't have to be good - you'd have to be better than the entire Trenian faction, or they'd have fielded equivalents long ago," noted the ex-Anderekian. "Yesternight alone probably left them with over a hundred intact examples. I can dis- and reassemble my gun in my sleep, or by touch alone. I couldn't my helmet. It has no obvious ways to do so, either. Even aside of damage from dust and moisture and such, I doubt it's meant to be possible without fucking it up entirely. I'd rather it didn't happen. I wouldn't want to lose half my senses, and risk going blind and deaf shortly after. Just ... keep what I have, and make myself look less like an Anderekian, less like them?"
For they they now were.

Enn's interest seemed piqued when Kay unholstered her gun - as much as one could tell from him turning his head and falling in line with the woman. It was certainly different from most things he had encountered.
“Not with the first two shots, it couldn’t,” she concluded, “and by the time it’d loaded the third... heh, I guess I’m just happy I didn’t have to use it.”
Was she right? On short distance, maybe, depending on the precision of her aim ... and if he had to make it do by himself in the wild for a while longer, being even slightly injured - and reeking of blood - would be quite the hindrance. Never mind if he had to engage again...
“I call it the ‘scavenger-gun’,” he was informed. “It can take most kinds of ammunition so that I can replenish my supply from any I find, but it’s kinda unreliable and slow... I have a stock for it, too, in there. So yeah... ‘sometimes’ it can pen your armor. It’s stupid, but it’s the only gun I have.”
"If it works for your purposes, then it works," the renegade soldier shrugged. "You said you're a scourer, not a gunner. So you mostly would just retreat when there is a danger of confrontation, and otherwise just use it to let the beasts know attacking you is not worth it, yeah? Soldiers need specialist guns because we are often meant to shoot at skilled, armored targets, not too uncommonly at some range; we go in to kill, not to defend ourselves as a last resort."
Without as much as breaking stride, the young man produced a magazine, and released a round from it, only to hold it up between his index finger and thumb for Kay to see. It was larger than a regular rifle round - a bit longer than Enn's palm -, and faintly greenish gray in color.
"Two and half centimeters of hardened steel mid-range, and anything less," he reiterated his earlier point. These do a bit less damage than expanding ammo, but will pen more. It's the core, mostly; the coating is to protect the barrel more than anything. Wouldn't recommend trying to shoot one of those with your gun, even if they fit, especially without your stock - your arm'd be in splinters. And yet, they've learnt to counter them, somehow - the Trenians, that is. Shoot an armored soldier, you'll hit through, but if you don't get them in the neck or head, there's a high chance they'll stay up, the resilient bastards, for a while at least."

“Protocols?” Kay repeated when he asked. It seemed she was ... surprised. Enn thought she was, at least. “I don’t know... normally there’s ‘don’t mention the nuke’, but we already know that we’ll throw that one out the window. Eh...I think most of it’s related to mundane everyday life rather than life-changing impending disaster-situations, so I doubt they’ll be relevant."
Protocols were perhaps restrictive, but they were also nice. They made the lives of people like him easier. It was the unspoken rules that were difficult. And he knew nothing but Kay's words about what he was walking into. Should he simply continue observing the old rules? He did not know, and that was deeply disconcerting...
"As for chain of command, you’ll want to talk to Gramps,” Kay continued confidently. “He’s basically our de facto leader; everyone listens to him even though he’s not officially in charge. None of the others will dare to make any big decisions without his consent. He’s also the one responsible for the nuke, so that’s a bonus. And no, I’m not related to him – not closely, anyway – he’s just been given the name ‘Gramps’ because he’s kinda old and everyone likes him.
As for where to begin, o Harbinger of Doom, I’d recommend ‘let’s chat over a cup of tea’. People tend to be a bit less aggressive when their hands are full of hot beverage instead of guns.”

A leader that was not a leader yet not a dissident or a traitor?
No, he asserted in his mind. No, you don't understand the depth of my problem at all. I don't do "chatting to people that are not my fellow soldiers" ... I didn't, at least. And those fellow soldiers were quite frequently shuffled around, so it was best to not chat too much with them, either. Anyone else, I report, I answer questions, and I obey commands, yeah? This was my life. Thinking too much was unhealthy. The decisions that were mine to make involved choosing which rocks to hide behind and which enemy soldier to shoot - and even those not always.
There were no real civilians among Anderekians, so the most he had even seen had been Trenians. Out, on missions. The chain of command had been absolute, with little to no upwards drift. He had never truly known who was more than a few steps up... You were better off assuming that you could be interrupted at any moment, and that your any action could be seen and reviewed at will. Not that they often bothered to - unless something you did marked you as potential threat, the officers had better things to do than to observe what their pawns were up to during their off-time. Answer, don't question, is safer. But you cannot remain blind forever, so you observed even when you did not speak. And sometimes trouble found you regardless of your entirely reasonable efforts of being wholly, entirely unremarkable.
Not everyone had taken his approach, however risky it was.
Some things were laws, like the barrier for knowledge between the people of differing status. It made sense, too. Knowledge was a weapon beyond bullets, one that was only dangerous in certain hands. Do not arm those who did not need it with it, and your entire faction was much safer for it. It did not even matter how loyal your men were - you could be loyal with not a thought of defection, but how long would you last while your fingers were removed knuckle-by-knuckle? What about needles in your eyes? Some manner of truth serum? Sophisticated brain-scanning? Sometimes, there was nothing you could do to protect what you cared about. (Would Kay's Eighfour one of those things?)
Other things ... were not truly law. You were not to inquire about anything confidential, you were not to disobey direct orders, you were not to enter places you were not supposed to or otherwise break protocol. But there was no true law against having an informal conversation with officers, or having relationships. But it was not generally done. It was more or less an unspoken rule. You did not voluntarily engage in interactions where one person had all the power, and the other had none.
"You might find Death is a poor conversationalist, for the dead rarely speak," Enn noted, and then sighed. "You're the first civilian I've spoken to, you know. I know nothing about how you go at things. What you consider fully self-explanatory, I might not. I did not have parents, or relatives - or at least I don't recall any. We are not supposed to wave our hands around when stopped at gunpoint - just stop completely and answer questions. And that applies to officers, too."

Thunder rolled over the land. Real thunder, produced by a massive release of electrical energy in turbulent weather, not the roar of aircraft breaking sound barrier or the crack of a shot. The wind had once more quieted, the sickly brownish-yellow sky deceptively still.
There was naught but a glimpse of the heavens above visible, even as the conifers overhead began rolling the young tips of their branches up, not unlike some manner of inverse growing ferns. Some measure against sustaining radiation burns, perhaps. "Don't you fear your skin being scorched off, walking around so far from your base partially bare-skinned?" he inquired from Kay with a sideways glance.
Soon enough, the sky was riddled with flashes of light, the air felt heavy, buzzing, and all ranged communications were rendered impotent, machines brought down to more primitive forms of communication or restricted to their own thoughts in their shielded shells.
It would be four more hours until Notrau Qure, now aliased Enn-Que, would be walking through the gates of Eighfour, still adorned in full (albeit still slightly damp) Anderekian combat armor and with his gun slung over his shoulder.
That is, assuming they had gates. Would be hard to keep the beasties out without a dedicated armed force otherwise.

The Aftermath

Somewhat gingerly, Ezek settled down in what was one of the five most comfortable chairs within at least a dozen kilometers' radius. In stark contrast to the hard outer shell of the mobile station that turned it into a viable surface bunker, the insides were almost ... cozy. This room in particular had been designed much more like a fancy living room than a military compound. If one ignored the reason why the windows were but long, narrow slits and carefully avoided analyzing anything displayed on the screens in front of you - which, incidentally, would have looked uniformly dull matte black to anyone noninitiated peering at them with naked eye - one could probably almost forget where one was, and why. Almost.
Edrik Marax had evidently arrived quite some time before him; he was seated in the chair by Ezek's left hand, leaned back with his eyes closed. It almost appeared as if he were asleep. Only the occasional twitch of muscles between labored breaths and his pallid countenance betrayed that the man was most likely just trying to regain some semblance of a passable state. His helmet was on a table behind him, gun propped against the armrest of his chair with its strap wrapped around his left arm. "As much as he is able," Igna had said... The two commands - one female, one male, both quite young, not impossibly on their first severe mission - looked semi-expectantly at the two of them. The chair to Ezek's right was empty.
He should probably pay a visit to Aidren... Not necessarily to question him; while he was quite certain Aidren would be at least as interested in where some of his men had disappeared as himself and Igna (provided he had the presence of consciousness), his older female counterpart was probably also correct in trying not to stress their fellow commanding officer any further than necessary. The man had been through enough already (if anything, Igna had understated his condition), and it was not like he was capable of much if he wanted to.
"Once more, drivers are who will save us all..." he muttered.
"Pardon?" one of the commands inquired.
"The drivers of the utilitarian vehicles, and the surviving artillery," he noted. "A good half of those who are still in one piece are drivers."
"Ah. Yes."
Nevertheless, they had two injured people and a third of a dead one (sometimes literally) for every intact one. Support - cut off. Communications will probably drop entirely in an hour from the impending sunstorm, and stay down for six to eight.
They will not be able to more than blind-shoot the artillery at anything out of range of sight during that time... Unless they set out someone with beacons, that was. He was not going to send his men and women out on death missions on a whim, but he could set up a trap of sorts. Artillery fire was not ideal for defensive purposes, but for as long as they remained stationary - and they were not going anywhere at this rate -, they could be used to land shards at any designated location within the range of sixty kilometers, and slugs and powered projectiles more than twice as far. When it came down to very close ranges, the artillery were more than capable just rolling over lesser enemy units. Igna and Uwe had had similar ideas, but before the sunstorm, they could rely on drone sight over relying on manned beacons. Not that they had had many people to spare while everyone was still busy trying to save who could be saved...
No one knew whether their new ally was really trustworthy, or even whether it - as the forces sent appeared unmanned - would remain responsive for the duration of the sunstorm, so he could not put much consideration into its units' participation. He could try making suggestions, but ultimately, it operated autonomously.
"I'd say wired beacons in these thirty-eight locations, twelve watchers," he commented, his words sent by the fingers of his left hand moving over the table and lightly touching a few spots, lighting up markings on a map on one of the screens. His arm remained rested against the edge of the table and his armrest; each of his fingers was mapped to its own pointer - the thumb manipulating options and switching modes, and the other fingers handling selections and markers. Once he was done, he simply curled his hand into a loose fist and left it to lie right where it had been when he finished manipulating the map. The pointers corresponding to his fingers disappeared as soon as his gauntleted fingertips were no longer pointed at the table.
Edrik remained motionless, but opened his eyes enough to see what he was doing.
"AP paired here and here," commented Ezek. "And send the drones out ... whether we live or die, the records would still be useful. For the common good and all that."
"Four of them; we need to make sure we still have sight even if they scour the place under the cover of the sunstorm and manage to take them out," appended the second commanding officer. Edrik's voice was weak, his speech much slower than usual, with unnatural pauses. It seemed he had to take great effort to pronounce the words clearly. "So, you agree with Igna? That they'll mobilize what's left of the base northeast of here and come after us again?"
"I wouldn't know. But they've already moved to attrition us, and it'd be quite like them. Besides, what are we to do, just wait and see whether they strike us while we're down?" The question was rhetorical. They were duty-bound to be as ready to retaliate as possible at all times.
"I figure they'll wait. At least until they can send in some additional forces from the nearby bases. Attack us with the proper force and then for the amount of units they already know we have fielded here. Reckless and and uncaring though the Ardeks are, they would not have managed to stay an existential threat for as long as they have were they also pathological morons. If they manage to clear any and all drones and watchposts, they'd leave us as blind as the sunstorm, all the while retaining their comms and coordination."
"Ever the optimist..." That possibility gave them much worse odds ... that kind of fight, he did not think they could win. They would try, though. And even if they fail, the others would at the very least have a better fighting chance. But that was far future compared to the usual timeframe of a combat scenario. Until then, there would be preparations ... and waiting. All too much waiting.
"I call it realism. Besides, I'm willing to bet you agree with me now that I've brought the possibility to the forefront of your mind."
"You're not helping, Marax. We can at least hope they make more, rather than fewer mistakes."
"They say that if you want something broken, you don't just hand it to intellectuals and task them with breaking it - you'll also want to hand it to an idiot and tell them to just use it," murmured Edrik. "A rational person simply would not come up with ways to fail quite as spectacularly. It can throw one off."
Ezek raised an eyebrow, but realized Edrik had closed his eyes again. "What?"
"We can only prepare for what we expect. So I propose we play a game, see how ridiculous a battle plan we can come up with for the good old Ardeks. There is little our shift can do; should help pass some time. You two are free to take shots, too."
"Sir?" one of the commands inquired hesitantly. Ezek appeared to have turned his focus onto something on his personal screen. The second command was handling drones.
"Yes?" Edrik replied in his newly-acquired drawl. "Go on, ask. I'm only half as likely to bite someone's head of as Igna on a good day, and currently I'm still not entirely sure my brain won't start seeping out of my nose if I move my head too much."
"I..." the command began, but stopped, eying Edrik's limp form. He was about the same height as Ezek, but more sturdily built, and about eight years younger. The same pitch-black hair- and eye-color. More almond-shaped eyes and rectangular face, framed by straight hair that reached just barely past his shoulders. The armor he was wearing was impeccable - chances were, not the same he had been wearing last night. "Are you OK?"
"Negative. If it isn't visually apparent enough after watching me for the better part of two hours, feel free to check my status file, I don't mind. But judging by the fact that I can still mostly form coherent sentences if I focus on it, could be worse."
"Yeah. Stupid question." The command seemed to consider for a moment. "A game, Sir?"
"Why not? Between the four of us, we should have enough shared attention to keep an eye on things, and short of making sure each individual watchpost is properly in cover, there is little we can do at the moment. I can't go out, you're supposed not to."
The command did not seem entirely convinced. It was indeed the first time they were on a severe mission - and incidentally also the first time they had hit an off-time during a mission. A calm between storms. There was little reason to doubt their skill and training, however it appeared at least one of them was quite timid when paid any not strictly formal attention to by one of the highest ranks in vicinity. The other appeared focused on what little he had in the ways of tasks.
"I guess... I'd like to do more, now. It feels like all I do is watching."
Being a command was a bit of an unique position. They were voices and observers, not deciders. On one hand, they had tremendous responsibility. On the other, they technically ranked below line-soldiers, and in the absence of any higher ranks, were supposed to take orders from them. Perhaps it was a fair price to pay for being of the few whose job description did not specifically include going in the thick of it all and getting shot at.
"Trust me, I know the feeling," Ezek commented, dully looking through his screen. The missing people were somewhere on the lower plateau, that much could be deduced. Drones A1 through A4 were in position. Beacons were being dealt with.
"We could bring a few of the stable severely injured people here," figured Edrik. "The ones who the meds are done with, and who are mostly sane. It's a safer place than the tents here, bit nicer than the APCs, too, but still mobile like them if need be. Company is up to everyone's own judgment."
"But we cannot leave."
"Exoding's against the terms, yes. Repositioning isn't. Not providing more obvious targets than necessary isn't. Neither is cycling too injured people out in favor of operative soldiers." They also had more vehicles than people to pack into them.
"And we cannot bring in anything or anyone. Unless someone tears down the watch. No salvager, no converter, no repair vehicles, nothing. Terrain's in the way of artillery fire. And we are ... well."
"They did set me loose. That alone should be enough of a hint on our condition." There was a brief pause. "They've a reason to fear us, though. There are most likely a few more bases within range of us, which, if revealed, are effectively done for. And once the weather clears up, we might be able get a few flighted carriers over if Ederen Naught can lend support fire and we and the AA can move to meet them."
"That assumes many things fall in place, it'd not lend to immediate firepower ... and that's also when you expected a second strike."
"Yes. But we'd be able to do something, and it's a better chance than zero. Any chance is better than none." And Ezek said he was not the optimist?
"Do you reckon you'd be able to handle it if something was needed here?" Ezek interrupted.
"Sure," figured Edrik, once more looking over the screens rather than appearing to be out. "Feeling restless?"
"Something of the kind," the other sighed, and just like that, he was getting up again.
"For all our talk, we cannot afford to be reckless," Edrik reminded his fellow commanding officer, briefly halting him. Oddly harshly, too. The six - now five - of them were all of equal standing. Nevertheless, between pain and longer experience, some part of Ezek wanted to snap at the other. He knew.
"I'm aware," he noted, and continued with his departure.
"Good. Igna seemed to suspect otherwise, and she's known you longer than I." The door closed behind Ezek a moment after the man was certain his fellow commanding officer was done speaking. "Now, any proposals? Any tactic you can come up with if you disregard common sense for a while?"
"What?" the female command seemed momentarily confused. "Ah yes." Pause for thought. "Can their drones physically carry people?"
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Dark Jack
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Dark Jack The Jack of Darkness

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There were a lot of questions that Kay wanted to ask about Enn’s helmet, about where they came from – did his old faction make them, or did they simply have a stash of them that they obtained from somewhere? - and just why the Trenians had not fielded equivalents to them if they ended up with intact examples every time they won a battle, but she ultimately decided against it. Chances were that Enn did not know anything about it anyway, and even if he did it was not relevant to their current situation. Even so, his arguments did little to abate her desire to get her hands on his helmet, and even less to lessen her curiosity. What was it that made the helmets so advanced, she wondered? And why did the Trenians, with access to technology like automated drones and “hell-lasers”, not have the ability to make those helmets themselves, let alone simply copying designs made available to them?
In truth, it only made things worse that Enn practically turned the helmet into a challenge. “You’d have to be better than the entire Tenian faction,” he said. Well, who was to say that she was not? Granted, it was not all that likely that she was – she was not even the best from Eighfour, and not even a specialist at that – but it was possible. How exhilarating would it be to prove herself better than all the tech specialists of an entire faction combined?
She was not sure what he had in mind concerning keeping what he had but making himself look less Anderekian, either. If the helmet was indeed so unique and impossible to replicate, did that not make it the single most easily identifiable feature about him?

Enn’s apparent handicap in normal conversation did present an unfortunate problem, even ignoring how thoroughly sad the reason for that handicap was. No civilians, no parents, no relatives? She had no doubt that his old faction was big and powerful enough to go to war and actually stand a chance, and that they had a lot of fancy toys and resources… but what was the point of it all? They fought, killed and took to… be able to fight, kill and take even more? They made themselves strong just to be able to get even stronger?
It sounded as though it was normal for Enn, but also like he somehow knew that it was not how it was everywhere else. The implications of how he had any experience with the concept of civilians and such when he had never interacted with such personally was… disconcerting, at best.
“I’m… sorry about that,” she told him, wincing uncomfortably at how awkward that sentence felt in her mouth. “That sounds horrible. I’ll help you get on their good side… or, well, at least try to convince them that you can be trusted. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

And so, turning around to wave her goodbyes to the spotter-birds – presuming and hoping that they would not follow – Kay lead Enn through the forest, heading back to the faction she had actually intended to leave behind with her new acquaintance. It was a long walk, though, and even with thunder up above and the looming threat of aggressive, warlike factions potentially combing through the forest, Kay could not stop herself from chatting enthusiastically with her companion.
At first she figured she would educate him on Eighfour a little, and talked at length about just how her faction worked. Their primary defense was the forest itself, naturally, which made reaching Eighfour by land with anything larger than a small cart difficult and made it virtually impossible to spot it from the air. She confirmed his unspoken suspicion of the settlement having gates, describing the ten meter tall wall of rock and wood they had erected around the entirety of their land, on top of which their best marksmen took turns patrolling, armed with their own choice of gun for the work. She went on for some time listing the people on the list for guard duty, ranging from boys and girls barely into their teens to some of the factions more capable elders, and their favored guns, which in turn ranged from improvised pipe guns to high-powered sniper rifles, assault rifles and machine guns, though more of the former than the latter. None of their guns were likely to stop the hulking war-machines she had seen last night, but they counted on the dense forest itself to stop those. She also described their flak-turrets in greater detail, pointing out that they had not actually been used to shoot down anything in her lifetime, were manned and manually controlled, and were basically 130mm semi-automatic cannons… a far cry from the anti-air “hell-lasers” his old enemies apparently deployed, but enough to punch through the armor of anything she could imagine being capable of flight.
Then she went on to talk about the daily life in Eighfour, and how they actually lived as opposed to functioning as… whatever his old faction could be called. They had farmers, obviously, but not nearly as many as one would expect for a faction their size; out of the thousand or so people calling the settlement home, only a dozen or so were actual farmers. They mostly cared for the faction’s livestock and grew a few resilient crops that could thrive even in the shade of the forest, whereas the largest part of their population – the engineers – were those who actually kept the people fed through liberal use of hydroponics, growing their crops indoors under artificial conditions. She could not tell him for certain whether there had been hydroponics tables from the beginning or whether the founders of Eighfour had installed them, but she knew that they had at the very least expanded and improved upon the operation over time, upgrading their facilities over time to support their growing population.
Which, in turn, lead her to start talking about her own life in the faction; how her people did grow up with their parents… for most of her childhood, anyway. Her enthusiasm faltered somewhat when she told him the story of how her mother had been late from scouring and her father having gone out to find her and bring her back, only for the fog to appear and presumably swallow them both, for them never to be seen again. Remarkably her mood seemed to pick right back up again, though, as she quickly changed the topic to how Gramps and several other elders had taken her under their wings along with the other orphans of the faction – of which there were disturbingly many, with the state of the world being what it was – and had trained her to become a productive member of the community. She had started out assisting with the vital hydroponics operation and, once she was old enough, had finally been given free reign of her time and skills, to learn, recover, restore and build as much as she possibly could. She eagerly described the various projects she had embarked upon during the first years of her career, from a simple handheld grabber arm, to clocks, to refrigerators, to automated cookers and her first drone, which she remarked also “lived” in her cart: a small land-based rover affectionately named “Buddy”.
Her face fell somewhat when she reached the point when she had started tampering with weapons technology. It had gone splendidly at first, with her being able to cobble together pipe guns and the like with ease, and with ammunition being fairly simple to produce once one had the necessary molds and materials. When she had been trying to build something sturdier and more powerful, however, it turned out that she had probably gotten overconfident and careless, because the rifle she had been trying to build misfired, practically exploding in her hands and showering her face in fragments, along with the intended projectile. The accident nearly killed her, she had been told, and rendered her unconscious for quite a while… long enough, it turned out, for some of her fellows to decide that this was an opportune time to test the gate, which they claimed was what had restored enough of her cerebral functions to let her wake back up. She made no attempt to hide her distrust of the others’ intentions and her dislike of this change to her person, but did not outright accuse them of turning her into a science experiment either.
It was at this point that she felt the need to explain their faction’s possession of the gate and her artificial eye, and told him the story of where it came from. Decades ago by now one of their scourers had come upon a human carcass in a ravine, which had seemed like it had been dead for some time. Whether it was correct to even refer to the corpse as a “human” was potentially a matter of some debate, however, as what they had found had actually been more machine than flesh and bone, with all limbs and most of its organs replaced with cybernetic prosthetics. Though some of those cybernetic parts had been damaged or were outright missing, most of it had actually been in surprisingly good condition and required little to no work to restore to working order. By taking notes on how the parts had been installed on the corpse they had been able to figure out most of how they worked and how they connected to the host and each other… at least enough so that they had managed to plug the gate and an eye from the corpse into Kay while she was unconscious. Now they kept suggesting installing various other cybernetic replacements in her because they would not work without the gate, and were likely more effective than organic parts anyway, but she refused; having a toaster on her face was enough disfigurement for her.
Since then, she mused, she had been a lot less mindful about doing things for the sake of the faction and had started doing things for herself instead, like crafting the scavenger gun and going out scouring on her own, keeping whatever she found for herself to play with. She did exactly as much as was required to be considered a productive member of society, but no more than that.

Eventually, a while after they had started encountering scattered tree-stumps in the ground and discernible trails through the undergrowth, Kay looked at Enn with a frown.
“We’re nearly there,” she told him, waving her hand at him in a somewhat dismissive manner. “Just a bit further ahead and we’ll be in view of the gate. Just… put away your rifle as well as you can and walk next to me, all right? It’d be a shame if they thought you’d taken me hostage and was forcing me to take you here; depending on who’s watching the gate they might hurt you, or worse. Some of the guys are a bit overenthusiastic about getting to test their guns on ‘real’ targets.”
Hidden 1 yr ago 1 yr ago Post by Shienvien
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Day ??? of year 384 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm imminent

The Lone Survivor


“I’m… sorry about that,” the woman told him with an odd grimace. “That sounds horrible. I’ll help you get on their good side… or, well, at least try to convince them that you can be trusted. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Notrau hesitated for a second, then raised his shoulders in a stiff shrug. "It is what it is. Can't miss what you never really had. At the end of the day, we're all just trying to survive ... each in our own way. You by hiding... Anderekians by military, military by officers, officers by soldiers, soldiers by guns. And, well, hiding only works as long as no one finds you. Once they do, you have to run, or fight. ...Or negotiate, I suppose, but who knows if they'd even listen, and if they do, they will want something in turn. And they're in all the positions to assume you'll comply with anything other than being wiped out during the next lunch break."
He had reiterated the last point a time too many now, had he not? He guessed that was what happened if the entire meaning of your life was suddenly focused on one, seemingly impossible task: you could not stop thinking about it. Was this really his best option other than learning to hunt and make campfires in the first order and hoping he doesn't get eaten by a wandering beast or run out of bullets? But he assumed that regardless of how uncomfortable staying under the looming shadow of a giant "HIT THIS TO WIN" weakspot made him, it would at the very least be too quick a death for him to really do anything about it if any hostile faction chose that path. He was not sure whether to be disturbed by it - aside of what he supposed was now his own faction providing that outcome -, but he supposed it was not that different from being run over by an artillery or a .50 cal bullet tearing through his brain. The end result, from his personal viewpoint (or lack of it, as the case would be in this particular hypothetical scenario), would be roughly the same. And in any other doomsday scenario ... he supposed he would at the very least stick around until it was beyond hopeless. Unless Kay was wrong and Eighfour would turn against him. Unless that.
Kay-Gee seemed to switch moods in an instant - it seemed whatever darkness hung over them - over her faction first and foremost - was quickly forgotten in favor of her, what he assumed was her usual mirth. It was not like he What was with this woman? Careless? Unable to grasp the situation? Not wanting to accept the gravity of it? Or just figuring there is no point in worrying over what she could not change?
Currently, she was waving at the trees ... or rather, the invisible birds supposedly still perched somewhere in the branches. He was almost certain one of the trees growled in response. Or crooned? Produced some kind of low, guttural sound. Seemed like a warning more than an expression of fondness. Watch it. Better than the oddly human cries from before, at least...
He fell in line with her easily enough. He was a solder. Used to keeping a pace, even with half of his body weight worth of equipment on his back. Not much in the way of that on him, now. Just his armor and gun. Kay wasted no time chattering away.
"Not the sort to keep quiet for long, huh?" Notrau ... Enn idly commented. It was preferable to being left with his own thoughts, he supposed. Should probably clarify that. "It can be a good thing, yeah? Takes the edge off the quiet before the storm thing, at the very least ... and not the literal impending sunstorm. That's just an, ah, convenient inconvenience for the scourers and scouts. At least as long as there are no gamma bursts or supercells," or fog, "in which case I hope there is a bunker to hunker down in waiting for us. No reason why we can't ... have a cup of tea in a bunker." You do have one of those, correct?
The less enthusiastic one of the two, he listened to her descriptions. Forest. He had seen one of the artillery units ramming down a tree just yesterday. Sure, these ones here were bigger, but given time and an actual harvester... Simple walls. Good enough for the fast anti-personnel, at least. Some guns, most shoddy, wielded by civilians. AA, not automatic, not exactly light but probably not too fast or accurate. It would probably be easier if he weren't usually on the assaulting side, although it helped with what to expect. Somewhat. He was no officer. Had not been. Was he one now, de facto?
Kay rambled on, now going at the intricacies of Eighfour...ian? food production. Enn, Notrau closed his eyes (not for long enough to march straight into a tree), and swallowed. Food. Yeah. Not doomsayery things.
"To be fair, I'm not entirely sure where our food came from, or whether it had ever been plant, animal or any other lifeform ... just that there was always enough of it. Never saw any fields or cattle of ours. Just harvesters, mines, command centers, living quarters, defenses, factories, the like... If I'm going to venture a guess, whatever our food happened to be on any particular day could be blamed on the techs. Some was decent or at least reasonably edible. Some was good. Some was either experimental, or they discovered that our planned diet did not match up with the current plans and added stuff to what they had already prepared ... or both, I suppose. Never did find out whether the officers had their own supply of food or we were all subject to equal opportunity to complain over the lunch."
He went quiet yet again when Kay started talking about her family. Perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned not missing something you did not have in the first place? He stared at the ground in front of his feet as he strode on, quickly, efficiently. If there had been any pebbles on the ground, he'd have kicked one. There were none. Only dead conifer-needles.
"This is where I say I'm sorry, yeah?" It was unclear whether it was a joke, a confirmation of whether or not he understood the laws of her society correctly, or a clumsy expression of his own feelings. Perhaps all three. Soldiers did not get officially remembered. They were gone and that was that; unless you saw it, you never knew why. The ground remained devoid of pebbles. Luckily, Kay changed track, as if unwilling to dwell. He supposed they all had a reson to hate the fog, at least. She was a scourer and a tech. Something of the sort.
He did not express any words of compassion when the woman talked about how she had come to be ... changed. Half-macine, part-inhuman. If it had "restored enough of her celebral functions" as she had, roughly, put it ... then she was, indeed, not truly human anymore, was she? Who knew what this thing was really capable of? Turning her into an automaton? Kill-swithc? Some of her fellows to decide...
He can't allow them to touch him. To catch him unaware. It's just him and his gun. These people were not trustworthy. Not even Kay herself did not seem to be overly trusting, or happy with the decision.
Notrau didn't skip a step and his helmet covered everything but his lack of comments. Leave? Stick with the current plan? Ask Kay to up and leave in spite of being part mechanoid? She was probably the most familiar entity that was not liable to shoot him without ... something happening. Company could be useful, either way. But he wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. Anderekian or Trenian company would probably not be most desirable either. Nevetheless, it felt like he was walking into a trap, to a suicide mission or to become a guinea pig, just as he'd been warned. Just like what they knew they were fighting against. Almost as if it was more than just propaganda. It was all right. They were right. A ... chilling thought. He hoped Kay knew what she was doing, even when there was no obvious reason for her to trust those people besides them being the ones she had grown up with. Perhaps they were all the same, in different ways. Soldiers by guns.
There were signs of human activity around now.
“We’re nearly there,” Kay confirmed is suspicions. “Just a bit further ahead and we’ll be in view of the gate. Just… put away your rifle as well as you can and walk next to me, all right? It’d be a shame if they thought you’d taken me hostage and was forcing me to take you here; depending on who’s watching the gate they might hurt you, or worse. Some of the guys are a bit overenthusiastic about getting to test their guns on ‘real’ targets.”
"That doesn't sound encouraging," mumbled Enn morosely. If anything, her assertions added to his newly reacquired doubts. "I really do hope you know what you're doing, and I'm not being lead to a trap." Nevertheless, his gun stayed slung behind his back. He reasoned that there was a high chance the fellows up there would have either guns too shoddy to punch through armor or aim too poor to properly hit him. Follow orders. Do as Kay says. He can do it. For now.
Little did they know, something had already paid a visit hours ago. A small craft, shaped much like an arrohead, nimble enough to navigate through the forest, darting out from between the trees, halting for a second or two, skirting sideways before suddenly raising above the limits of the wall, and launching onward in a cloud of green flames and a crack of supersonic thunder enough to rattle, but not shatter glass.

59:72:29 LNT
(afternoon)

The Aftermath


An armored palm was placed on a panel, slightly warm and somewhere between metal and plastic in feel. Black eyes behind a helmet's visor fixed on the rest of the locking mechanism. There was a dull, mechanic clank, and the door yielded, obediently sliding aside. Barely enough to halt his step, yet the lock is allegedly the work of some of their brigtest techs, at least one of whom was probably a psychopath. A very bored one with a very particular task to solve, and who had no small amout of medical knowledge.
Probably for pizza, as he doubted they would stay interested for long enough otherwise, wandering off to find something more novel, if the one he knew was any indicator. Brilliant guy, excellent problem-solver, absolutely unperturbable, if anything less interested in morbid matters than the usual person, problem-oriented, but listless and always seemingly varying between not bothering and doing things against the protocol just because he was bored and did see no objective harm from doing so. Thankfully, most of the time he did things because he saw a thing that needed doing that he could, and not because he found something that could be interesting that he didn't figure had enough downsides to not do it.
In any case, there was no easy way for anyone to trick the lock, even if you dragged a living person with authority over and got them to go through the motions. There were physiological differences between varying types of duress, and the system was sophisticated enough to distinguish between them. Frankly, it would be easier to cut through a wall. And then there would be no info an intruder could glean, and no controls they could take over with any more ease. At the very least not without equipment flexible enough to cause far more havoc than just hijacking the local information flow. The command center's defenses were to protect the people within more than the equipment.
He couldn't feel the damp air through his helmet. That provided nothing more than clean, filtered air. Not powered for the time being, though. Taking a breath took slight, but notable extra effort. If you were not used to it, the vague impression of suffocation could be rather panic-inducing. Claustrophobic, perhaps. But it was better than risking coughing up your lungs in the middle of the battlefield. If need be, and systems remained intact, there was a powered version available, for about forty-eight hours. The next step up was what was sometimes referred to as 'the gills', which were connected to your bloodstream and could replace breathing, and thus lungs entirely. Contrary to what the nickname implied, they only worked in the air, and could not provide for you underwater. (He assumed the name referred to the inside consisting of many overlapping but not connecting semi-transculent planes, tinted faintly orangeish from the blood when in operation, like some kind of odd machine cooler, or indeed a primitive set of gills. He had disassembled a broken unit, once, as a teenager.) Something about oxygen not dissolving easily enough under water, which necessitated taking containers along if you wanted to go diving. The gills were typically reserved for injured people. He was surprised Marax had not been provided a set. He had not checked, but he assumed they had simply ran out.
The dull white of the skies remained appropriately morose, even though their equipment promised a change for a much unhealthier hue soon. Where they had not been flattened or trampled over by the battle and its aftermath, there were ... flowers. Little bushy things. Hundreds of tiny pink blossoms on each branch, with little scale-like leaves. They had not been as apparent during the night, but they were everywhere. Heather of some sort, perhaps. If it were not a battlefield, it would probably be quite pretty.
He wanted to be away from people. For a bit. The living ones, at least. Once more, too many had died, and too many more were wont to die all too soon. Going over the names Igna had listed, the ones he had read to confirm what he already knew, he knelt down to remove a number of branches from the pink-flowered plants. It was awkward, trying to cut the flexible stems using only is non-dominant hand, but it felt like a thing he had to do.
Uwe or Marax would never understand. Igna might. Eris ... would have. He did not remember where Aidren was from. No family from what he knew of ... not his own, anyway. He had mentioned a father and a brother, but it was unclear whether they were military or civilian by background. And now he had come some unit of angular momentum less from being completely bisected, much like he himself had almost lost an arm. There was more chance you went prematurely as a soldier. Igna would have pointed out that between accidents and attacks, civilian life was no more certain. Still. Civilians only took a hit when military failed. Could they have prevented Angan Tirez? Can they prevent future attacks of similar kind? Someone had to. And their sacrifices will not be in vain, cliched as that statement might be.
With a collection of branches awkwardly held against his chest, he stood, heading towards the eastern edge of their camp, and past that, where two rows of people - what had been left of them, rather - were laid out. The sight was not pretty - they could patch up most things, so often enough, only the unfortunate people who had been completely torn to shreds, cooked, flattened or disrupted died. Many of them were not recognizable, and could only be identified by personal markers. Armor and equipment had been removed. Only remains of the bottom layer, simple synthetic fabric remained on the bodies of the first row. Standard-issue. Chosen for comfort and practicality, not fashion. Absorbent, smooth, not likely to leave threads in or melt into wounds.
Gore had ceased to bother him. Or perhaps it had never really bothered him. The deaths of his friends and subordinates did. People he lost. People he failed.
Starting from one end of the row, he progressed, one step after the other. Meticulous. Stopping only to pick a branch and drop it onto a body or vague collection of remains with a familiar marker. There were other flowering branches already there, on some more than others. He was not the first one to take a break from duties and come here. Those who did were usually of civilian background. Those who had grown up in a military environment were typically too ... pragmatic, perhaps. Dropping flowers on graves or dead bodies made no sense. It was just a tradition without function. Something living people did in order to cope with the loss, to be respectful, whatever it meant. What did respect matter to people who no longer existed.
The beasts will probably drag the remains off once they're reasonably certain the combat won't resume. The survivors who had known them would occasionally recall them during their downtime, reminiscing with a sense of melancholy for as long as they remained living. Past that, the fallen would probably exist as records in some database for as long as they, Trenians managed to protect it from fog, foes and data decay.
And then they would be no more.
The row of once-Trenians ended, and he sauntered back to one specific form, sitting next to it. Well, with his back to it, rather. He had already taken a good look. He found it fair, facing the consequences. But for now, the consequences could kindly step aside and leae him alone with... Well, with some concept of closeness with what had once been his fellow officer. To be fair, visiting graves and places people died made none too much sense the same. He had heard megaraptors did something similar, so it was not even just a human trait.
"Igna was right, don't you think?" he finally asked. There was no reply, just a vague conflict between the recollection of the person he had known and the knowledge of the leftovers behind him. And an absence. "It is pointless." The void remained stubornly silent. You could not avoid the natural proceedings of things. Past was past. Game over. No point in dwelling over the past. Life went on. The survivors mattered more than the dead. Time passed. Figures moved about in the makeshift base. One of them detached, heading his way, nay, past him, with but a slight nod, stopping at a couple people, much as he had. One of the artillery drivers, according to the markers. Much like him, she was fully armored.
With a sigh, he stood. Consciously, he knew it was far too late to say goodbyes. Absently, he moved on to the second row. It was longer. Much like the first row, the once-people here had been stripped of arms and armor. The remaining undergarments, however, were different. No markers that he could detect, only faction sigils.
Anderekians.
There were other differences, though, if you looked carefully. Fewer of these bodies seemed as destroyed as most fallen on their side. No one, and perhaps more importantly nothing, had tried to save those people; Ardeks quite literally died more easily. And even if they did find someone of the enemy ranks alive after the battle, those unfortunate fellows were usually just ended. Excecuted, almost. Cruel, but nigh inevitable. They could not spare the resources to save them, and even if they did, what then? Let them go home to kill his people the next day? Let them stay and hope these newly instanced renegades would be more loyal to them?
He did not hate them, he figured. Not cognitively, anyway. Most of them were probably just following orders, and would have been decent people if they were on his side. Emotionally, he did not really know. Sometimes he felt sorry for them. Sometimes the gnawing pain in his arm and the deaths and injuries of his friends and acquaintances won and he felt ... rage, anger, something of the sort.
He also noted these men - and they appeared to be almost exclusively men - were, on average, much younger than the Trenian forces. Between sixteen and mid-twenties, perhaps. More on the younger side. None as old as he was, let alone some of the more seasoned veterans like Igna. Only a couple of theirs were under twenty, but many of the Ardeks were practically boys. Whatever the differences in the two factions' paradigms, he could not help but think that Anderekian frontline soldiers got the shorter end of the stick. And that the two factions could never get along.
Someone had went and dropped flowers on the Anderekians' remains, too. Maybe respect. Perhaps an apology by someone who did not think it entirely justified to end people's lives, enemy or not. It did not change anything, but it could make people feel better. Funerals were for the living.
The living needed to do things. Both for the sake of their own peace of mind and getting things done. He was simply not sure what those things were. He was no medical personnel and the drones had not picked up anything noteworthy. The sky was already changing color. It would not be long until all surveillance would fall back to programmed flight, recording feed to be analysed upon contact. Everyone who could was already in position. There were scant few things he could move with one good arm, and he figured everything that needed to be shuffled about had been taken care for while he was in for surgery or asleep.
So he was either to find himself anything to do until someone needed him or, as it happened, there was one unknown. Three of their people were missing. Not that looking for them on foot was bound to be particularly effective. Drone sight covered the upper plane quite decently, so there was only the forest below... No vehicles on their end, so if they were alive, they wouldn't be far. The only spare one up here (and that only because it was a personal one) was Uwe's. He didn't suppose the guy would be overly fond of him lending it, even if it were not locked down to only obey its master. It was fast, though, and small enough to remain usable down there. It was difficult, convincing oneself that even if time was of the essence, Uwe still had better odds at locating the missing soldiers, vehicle or no. For better or worse, he was the only functional officer on duty this shift (Marax didn't count for the functional part) so he needed to stay here.
Might as well pay Aidren a visit.

51:14:72 LNT
(early afternoon)

[[ROOT]]


There was another fragment between here and the makeshift base that had been arranged at the ground access. Potentially interesting, but not overly surprising, seeing that the fairly unremarkable span of land they had taken root in was more Larecrom's, than Root's own domain. The old loon to the northeast was most likely well aware they were there, but not overly interested in making contact or otherwise interfering. They didn't look enough like trouble. Seemed more civilian than military, an old relict warhead left aside. As per the progenitors' archives, these had been more common in the past, but were mostly disassembled to serve as nuclear fuel after the Downfall. Even if you had neither scattered or burrowed too deep, warheads like these were all too easy to shoot down before they got in range. This one looked more like a display than a functional armament. Not that it - be "it" the faction or the warhead - could not be put to some use if need be. North did need some more aid, in one form or another, and Root oneself did not have the forces to spare. Up to the north to decide what to do with them.
Humans were fickle. They over- and underfit. They saw patterns where there were none, and failed to see any where they were crucial. They had the innate drive to believe that random happenings had dues, that true randomness was uniformly sparse, that coincidences had meaning, that trees had faces and wind had voices... They put high confidence in their subroutines, yet could not explain what those routines were and why those came up with the results they did. They made mistakes. For a type of animal that took high pride in one's own consciousness, humans could be notoriously lacking in self-awareness.
Not that Root oneself was infallible ... simply more aware of one's own operation, with more redundancy and more integrity than most others in this often all too insane world. It mattered not that Root used one's own definition of insanity.
Nor did it necessary matter if someone else was insane, as long as they were the reasonable kind of insane. There were some cultists living, for all intents and purposes, right on top of Root oneself. They knew of their downstairs neighbour, and left usable if insignificant offerings whenever their goals seemed to coincide. Root did not mind them. They sought no unnecessary harm. They took what they needed, and not much more. They adhered to fairness and sufficiency ... if anything, their ways were decidedly suboptimal. Lunatics perhaps they were, but within a reasonable measure of confidence, they were what could be termed as harmless lunatics. As an aside, they knew enough to take some edge off the Scourge, however little. It was not ideal, then, that the Scourge was but a comparatively small issue to be handled.
As far as the old type "Arrowhead" was concerned... Time to - not shoot, but - take the messenger apart. It was but one small part of the whole of what had come to be referred to as Root; it had been very much useful for its lifespan, but now it had served its time. Though still functional, it was inferior to its newer versions, and as such, it materials would be put to better use in another form. The brain had decreed that the time for this little sensory cell was over. To effect the survival of the organism, it settled into an empty coalescension pool, and the less sophisticated inverse version of its birth tore its frame apart to catalyze and dissolve its components.
All biological organisms that were specialized multicellural had similar mechanisms in place. What needed to be replaced or was too damaged to warrant repairs self-destructed to make way for its own replacement. Controlled, programmed cell death, apoptosis. The entities who did not utilize similar methods soon ended with cancerous growths, and as practice had shown, mechanoidian cancer was no more desirable than biological cancer. Mechanoidian cancer was how you ended up with things like the Scourge, and while the Scourge was too disorganized to deal a devastating blow to a sizable faction on its own, it remained a nuisance that would utilize every resource it can reach to feed and expand itself, if only permitted.
Not far from where the old arrowhead had found its demise, a dozen small and two huge coalescension pools were drained. The small ones released new generation arrowheads, ready to fulfill their duties as scouts, messengers, and light hitters. Two were going to be northbound. Four vehicles that were almost, but not quite inexchangebly similar to Trenian chargecarriers (these ones were uniquely unmanned), had already been dispatched in a similar direction, though the forest and potential meddlers necessitated a detour course. It was a bit unorthodox, using another faction's etalons as basis for your own units, but what worked, worked. The anti-air Root had lended were not truly one's own design, either.
The huge pools revealed, for the first time, the earliest of what were later going to become known as Wraithmakers.

54:14:72 LNT
(early afternoon)

The Eastern Gate

Pity there were clouds. And that it was daytime. She had missed yesternight's fireworks, and today's grand show did not quite have the scene set for it, even if the seat was ideal. It was just about the beginning stage of a sunstorm. There was only so long they could chat speculations over Root's plans and the clashes between their northeastern neighbours from the upper plate. Or Crom's musings over the human condition. Or whatever was being worked on in the internals of the labs and factories. Those were good enough topics to pass some time, but nothing she felt overwhelmingly enthusiastic about.
What would she have found overwhelmingly engaging, anyway? (War. War would certainly break monotony. But once it was not only the non-thinking parts of commander-overseer getting wrecked and people you knew started dying, one such would not exactly be her idea of a good time, either.) Not lab-work; that seemed even less engaging than watch duty. Nor robotics. Maybe she could draw (badly)? Or write (even worse) poetry? Nah, not creative enough for either of those; she'd spend far too much time staring at a blank. Unarmed and -armored combat, maybe? It would probably be pretty hard to be bored out of your mind if a split-second of inattention meant being decked in the face. Nothing routine - not like dancing -, but reading a person and reacting, responding in an organic manner?
Simulations - of anything reasonably demanding and hectic - could be engaging enough, but ultimately there was always the knowledge that there was the imagination of a machine mind behind it all, be there other human actors or not. And it was not ... real, even though Crom had pointed out that they could always leave some bruises and punch a few nonlethal holes in her body if she failed there and let her heal in a more primitive way, in addition to applying a sense of pain where appropriate. Y'know, for the most immersion one could realistically achieve.
As an aside, simulations had a cost, most likely because running them served no practical purpose and humans needed some incentive to work rather than find new ways to entertain themselves. (Aside of the lucky ones who found objectively useful things entertaining.) Rewarding work with arbitrary currency and limiting pointless entertaining things by requiring amounts of said currency worked reasonably well, Crom insisted. Essentials were free, so it was not like you needed to work from survival standpoint. At least until commander-overseer got annoyed with you for being complacent enough with the bare minimum needed for surviving comfortably and assigned you to something, anyway.
For a change, Erida's eyes honed on a little flying speck hovering in her peripheral vision.
Her hand darted out, metallic fingers closing around the tiny intruder. Not that the little buggers could do any harm to anyone up here, but there was still a small measure of satisfaction in getting rid of them. Y'know, for the sake of all the times they got into living quarters with their whining high-pitched buzz and the ability to turn invisible just as you motioned the light on. She had thought about requesting miniature AA in the walls just to get rid of the damn things.
She dropped her arm, relinquished her fingers and -
"I think my suit is defective," the watchwoman reported to her companion, watching the mosquito and it's signature annoying buzz casually begun floating upward again, unperturbed and very much alive. "I have failed to terminate a target twenty-five million times smaller than I."
"Did you try shooting it?" Crom inquired. "I suppose powered gauntlets could be made with perfect fitting between the digits and the palm, but it seems like niche quality compared to having the optimal grip on, say, weapons that can harm units that pose a serious risk to your health."
"Are you mocking me? Anything that'd get through the defenses controlled by our lord and savior the commander-overseer makes me the mosquito." Her hand darted out again, this time deftly crushing the parasite between pinchers composed of her index finger and the thumb. Her sensors could pick up the barely audible "krk" of the insect's exoskeleton breaking, but she proceeded to rub her fingers together just to make extra sure this time. "If I live through such an attack which tears down our mighty walls and war machinery, they'll just pause to wonder how exactly, and the next shot - splat went the nuisance."
"Ah, I'm sure there is something you could do. Think outside of the box. Querilla warfare, set traps, use sunstorms and the fog to your advantage..."
"Do you reckon I have the mind to pull this off? Were you not insinuating I might try to see what jumping out of the watchtower would be like out of sheer boredom if I were subjected to TMS?"
"Oh, I'm not implying you might not consider it now, but the destrution a true war would work would change the context you see. Whereas now you -"
Pause.
"Crom?"
There was more pause.
"We appear to have found a man. Or, rather, he found us. Or, rather rather, he just stumbled into one of the scourers. Doesn't appear to be aware enough to qualify for much finding."
"A man?"
"Does it make a difference?"
"You seem overly curious at that for someone or something that, as far as I can tell, is an AI. But no, just surprised. And you can tell that, too. Even if you happen to be a human. What's the deal with him?"
"Looks to be a misplaced Trenian. Quite the holey man. Incidentally, that means you'll get your thrills. We'll prepare a vehile for the extraction and send someone up to replace you. Welcome to the team." The scourer had no means to pick up passengers.
"As long as it's not a hovercraft." Curiously, she did not get sea-sick or aircraft-sick, or even crawler-sick, let alone be jolted by tracked or wheeled vehicles. But hovercraft, with their sway and glide were her bane. Something she could not ever quite convince her brain weren't the effect of her being poisoned...
'Under the yellow flashing sky...'

68:32:25 LNT
(late afternoon)
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“They won’t shoot you if they can tell you’re with me and that I’m bringing you of my own volition,” Kay assured her new friend, resisting the urge to add “I hope” to the end of her sentence to not have Enn worry more than necessary. “Pretty much everyone knows who I am in Eighfour; being ‘the girl with the gate’ makes everyone at the settlement pretty interested in me, though not always in a good way. They’ll probably spot my cart and put their guns away immediately! No need to worry. None at all.”
Stop talking, she admonished herself, trying not to worry about whether her smile was too stiff or her breathing too quick, even as she felt her heart pounding in her chest. You’re making it worse.
“Unrelatedly, my cart is pretty resistant to bullets. Just so you know.”
Did I seriously just say that? What is wrong with me...

All it took for them to get in view of Eighfour was cresting what appeared to be a three meters tall elongated hill of sorts with somewhat steep but manageable slopes, except that Kay knew that the “hill” actually fully encircled the settlement, functioning somewhat like a rampart for defensive purposes. She did not know when, why or by whom it was made, but it was so old that the forest had long reclaimed the presumably human construct, making it difficult to identify it as anything but a part of the natural terrain. Only someone from Eighfour would know... or someone who knew where Eighfour was.
From the rampart there was about another couple of kilometers to the walls of the settlement, but from the top of it one could see a great deal of it. Past the wall just see the two nearest flak-turrets, each with two clusters of four barrels pointed diagonally toward the sky. Some ways past those one could see much more livable structures than the wall, which were low, clean buildings, the smallest and most disposable of which were of wood, a few older, larger buildings were of bricks and mortar, whereas most of the larger buildings were of reinforced concrete. The roofs of nearly every single building had a cladding of dirt on which grew grass and brush, enough so that they could be mistaken for part of the terrain if viewed from above, even if someone did happen to get a look past the trees.
Granted, most of those things could not technically be seen yet, as much as Kay just happened to know. Maybe Enn’s helmet could zoom his vision or something, but otherwise it was probably much too far to tell details yet.
Kay almost wished that there was a clear line of sight through the trees from here to the central part of the settlement, near which most of the largest and most important buildings were, like their power stations, their primary armory, the advanced research labs, the hydroponics labs and their medical center. It was the oldest, wealthiest, most upgraded and most impressive part of the settlement... so naturally, it was situated in range of certain vaporization if the duke was detonated.
Intriguingly, it seemed as though a truck was leaving Eighfour just as she and Enn were arriving, and it took her several moments to fully realize that the vehicle was headed their way. Coming to receive them? They must have spotted Enn already... and, encouragingly, opted against shooting at him.
“Seems you’ve got yourself a welcoming committee,” she remarked quizzically. “That’s a first, I think. But then again, there aren’t a lot of strangers in Eighfour.”
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Day ??? of year 384 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm onset

The Lone Survivor


“They won’t shoot you if they can tell you’re with me and that I’m bringing you of my own volition. Pretty much everyone knows who I am in Eighfour; being ‘the girl with the gate’ makes everyone at the settlement pretty interested in me, though not always in a good way. They’ll probably spot my cart and put their guns away immediately! No need to worry. None at all.”
"And would it be because they're confident in you, or because they are afraid they'll damage your associated gadgetry?" he inquired. Too dark? Perhaps he should not have said that, but for whatever reason her manner of speech had lead him straight to something that was equal measures gallows humor and genuine question, and he had responded before his brain caught up on the fact that he was not with his usual company. To be fair, it could have been risky even with his usual company, depending on the vicinity of more suspicious officers.
“Unrelatedly, my cart is pretty resistant to bullets. Just so you know.”
"Huh." Was that by design or just a coincidence? Engines stopped bullets fairly decently. Fuel or batteries could rather mean an opposite effect. There was probably stuff inside that might stop a bullet. Frames aside, there was usually little functional reason to reinforce a light vehicle to the point of having any stopping power against bullets of his calibre. An AP bullet slowed down to seven hundred meters per second would be just as lethal.
His first in-person look at Eighfour followed a brief climb disrupting the otherwise fairly monotonous landscape distinguished mainly by the types of trees you could see around you (it was better to stick to where the conifers were if you wanted to get through with anything larger than yourself; the deciduous trees made thickets). Disturbingly, a part of him thought it could also be a big-ass crater the faction had decided to inhabit, by the way it seemed to curve around the buildings toward the center, as became evident once he had climbed it. And if it was a crater, it was probably not a natural one.
For a few seconds - Kay permitting - he stopped, attempting to glean what he could from the elevated position. He could just about discern a couple of turrets and low, varied buildings of some description. There was a truck departing. This one was distinct regardless of its comparatively small size mostly because it moved. And was warm. The sunstorm prohibited further analysis. Wind was dead quiet. There were electromagnetic disturbances aplenty and radiation was up, but thankfully, the weather was not throwing worse at them than dry (in terms of rain, if not humidity) lightning. Probably better to move on regardless.
“Seems you’ve got yourself a welcoming committee,” the woman remarked. “That’s a first, I think. But then again, there aren’t a lot of strangers in Eighfour.” He had not paid too much mind to the vehicle, figuring it was just a part of some routine (or, at the very least, typical) pickup run, but Kay's reaction seemed to indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, it seemed she wasn't overly concerned. Compared to how she had been before the settlement - could it even really be called a base? - came to sight. Still. Odd.
His fingers twitched, muscle-memory compelling him to ready up for a potential confrontation, but consciousness interfering. Do not ready arms. Do not halt. Did nothing against adrenaline beginning to flow, but it's not like they could tell either way, or so he told himself.
"You didn't mention anything about a surveillance system beyond the perimeter - past what can be seen from the walls. Nor a vehicle at the ready at all times," Enn pointed out. "Don't you think your greeting party reacted just a tad too quickly to be reacting just to us?"

72:79:32 LNT
(afternoon/early evening)
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“I... well, we don’t have...” Kay started saying, but kept interrupting herself as she realized that she did not have an explanation as to how the others knew they were coming or how they had managed to get a truck ready that fast. The garage with most of their vehicles – and all of their heavier vehicles, like trucks and tanks, which they did have a few of – was near the center of Eighfour along with the rest of their most valuable things, and truthfully she doubted they were even fueled usually, since they were rarely used. Now that he had mentioned it she even realized that the ground around the outer wall of the settlement had changed while she was gone, having the appearance of soil recently disturbed by a lot of traffic, mostly going parallel to the wall. Patrols, maybe?
“I...” she said again, slowing down her pace before coming to a stop altogether, her brow furrowed in confusion. Squinting, she could make out that there seemed to be more people on the wall than usual.
“Something is wrong. Something has happened.” Her attention turned back to the truck approaching them, inspecting the vehicle more closely as it sped toward them as quickly as the terrain allowed. It was the kind of smaller truck with an open storage area, the kind some people called pickup trucks, geared towards being able to traverse terrain quickly, which was practically a necessity in a place like Eighfour, where there forest was all around them. More important and remarkable, however, was the manned belt-fed machine-gun mounted on its back. There were another two people sitting on the cargo bed besides the gunner, each carrying what appeared to be assault rifles. “This is...”

“Don’t move!” someone shouted as the truck skidded to a halt just some ten meters from them as all guns came to be aimed at Enn. Even the driver jumped in on the action, drawing and pointing a small-caliber pipe gun at him, even though the weapon did not stand the faintest chance of penetrating the soldier’s armor.
“Wait -” Kay shouted, but one of the guys with assault rifles waved at her aggressively – notably taking one hand off his weapon to do this – without taking his eyes off Enn.
“No, identify yourself! What are you doing here? Who are you with?”
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Day ??? of year 384 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm onset

The Lone Survivor

“I... well, we don’t have...” the woman sputtered. "I..."
As Kay slowed down her gait and eventually stopped, Enn adjusted his speed accordingly, making sure to stick to her side as instructed. Arms neutrally hanging by his sides, hands half a dozen centimeters from his thighs, plainly visible, gun on his back, standing straight.
“Something is wrong. Something has happened.” She did not need to say it; it was apparent from her behaviour.
"I'm going to guess there would be no kettles in that truck, huh?" he inquired in a low, flat voice. Unseen, his eyes were fixed on the approaching pickup. "I suppose I'm going to have to improvise, and hope I don't fuck up."
The assault rifles were not overly concerning. Guns like that were typically smaller calibers, and probably would not do too much harm before he managed to dive behind cover. The machine gun was more concerning. Being mounted, it could afford to pack perhaps even more of a punch than your standard-issue Anderekian infantry firearms. If they knew how to use it, it would be hard to dodge, and unlike the smaller guns, it would most likely not run out of ammo before you could count to five. He did not need to be hit more than once before being effectively dead, chances were. “This is...” The pickup came to a stop at what was closer to talking, than gunning distance.
“Don’t move!” Well, that part was easy, seeing how he was already doing it. And, at the very least, matched the Anderekian protocol. If you were asked to identify or report, you stood absolutely still and answered. Briefly. Accurately. Nothing more. Completely ordinary, thus far. Well, perhaps aside of the fact that he was evidently a lot more interesting than his companion.
“Wait -” Kay shouted, but was waved off. They clearly knew who she was, but did not appear to consider it worth even listening to her. The guys were obviously no real soldiers. It was less the waving around while gripping their guns one handed (though, depending on how exactly they went about it, it could amount to a gun safety violation and cost someone a foot or two) as the overall eagerness in confronting him. The driver especially. If you're driving, then drive. Also, your gun is useless.
“No, identify yourself! What are you doing here? Who are you with?” Not too different from the way he had greeted Kay earlier today, to think of it.
"Enn Que," he replied. "Infantry."
That part was easy. The other parts ... not so much, and he had the gnawing suspicion that he would not have much time to ponder over the various implications of his potential replies. Notrau had no intention of finding out whether these amateurs were more or less trigger-happy than himself. In any case, it was probably best to give them an answer right away. An honest one. And a short one. If they wanted explanations, they could ask more questions. Odds were it would be safer than derailing too far or hesitating too long. Marginally, but still.
Civilians were supposedly more likely to be twitchy than outright executioners. More likely to kill out of reflex or on a whim than as calm, pre-meditated action. As long as he does not move and sticks to replying to things mostly in accordance to the protocol he was used to, it should be fine and he might get to glean what the heck was going on here and why it did not match what Kay expected. Should be.
"I was hoping to gain an audience with your faction." With less muzzles pointed his way, granted. Unseen, Enn kept staring at the machine gunner from behind his visor. He did not know whether he was the most important one of the lot, but he had the biggest gun, and as far as the renegade was concerned, it amounted to the same.
"She said her name is Kay-Gee. Scourer." Not what they were probably expecting, and nothing they did not know, but technically completely accurate. Sometimes it was better to play dumb rather than overshare. He no longer had a faction. It would have taken too long to explain how and why right away. If they wanted to know, they would need to ask specifically that, separately.
There was no telling whether it was healthier to inform them outright that he was alone - truly alone, Kay notwithstanding -, or let them think that there could be a faction backing him up - one that knew exactly where he was, and come looking in force, pissed, if he went missing.

73:02:12 LNT
(afternoon/early evening)
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The guy who had spoken before – a moderately ambitious, irritable and uninhibited fellow called Ell-Oh, who Kay had had some dealings with in the past – rolled his eyes at Enn’s identification of her, and shot her an annoyed glare. “Enn Que? Really? That sounds suspiciously like an Eighfour name, Kay-Gee.”
“Uh, maybe?” Kay offered with a shrug, smiling nervously at the people with the big guns. Put like that, the fact that she had thought up a name for Enn from Eighfour tradition probably made it blatantly obvious that it was not his real name, given that he obviously was not from Eighfour, and consequently that he was trying to hide his identity. At least it also made it clear that she was cooperating with him, or at the very least that he knew enough about Eighfour to know their naming standards. “He’s a friend, Ell-Oh. We need him as much as he needs us.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the assault rifle slinging guy said, throwing a glance through the window into the cab with the driver. “What’s the verdict?”
The driver glanced down at something out of sight from outside, lowering his pistol as he did so. “It’s hard to say for certain with the sunstorm, but it’s not pickin’ up anythin’ s’picious on any frequency in the scanner’s range. Doesn’t seem he’s transmittin’, at least.”
Ell kept scowling at the stranger trying to approach their settlement, but visibly relaxed a little. The other assault rifle wielder and the machine gunner also seemed a bit less on edge, but all weapons remained aimed at Enn. He frowned. “Why do we need him?”
“He needs to see Gramps,” she told him hurriedly, hoping to invoke an authority higher than Ell’s would defuse the situation faster. “Eighfour is in danger, and Enn Que has information and advice on how to deal with it.”
“Does he, now?” Ell made a grimace that seemed the very image of reluctance, and Kay had a strong suspicion that he was just trying to think of an excuse to keep his gun aimed at Enn. “And you’re sure he’s not being tracked? No signal at all?”
“If he is, it’s weak enough that the scanner can’t pick it up through the sunstorm,” the driver assured him. He looked at Enn and finally put his pistol away entirely. “He’s clean.”
It took another couple of seconds of Ell staring at Enn, trying his very hardest to think of a good reason to gun him down on the spot, before he lowered his gun, which prompted the other two to do the same. He looked at Kay with an expression that was a mix of annoyance and disgust, then back to Enn again.
“I really fucking hope you’re right, Kay-Gee, ‘cause we’re pretty much screwed otherwise. A drone came by earlier, hours ago; a really hi-tech drone. Came through the trees and then just blasted straight through the sound barrier out of here. Someone’s already found us.”
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Day ??? of year 384 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm onset

The Lone Survivor

“Enn Que? Really? That sounds suspiciously like an Eighfour name, Kay-Gee.” Yes, it was ... probably. Had Kay not said something about her people not being particularly inventive with naming? But if he was to change name, he might as well stick with it. It was not these people for whom he was foregoing his old identity. Notrau was supposed to be dead. The version of him who was being questioned was Eighfour...ian. Might as well get used to thinking of himself as such, whether the fellow with the assault rifle was willing to take it at face value or not. For now, he was silent. Too much talking was unhealthy.
“Uh, maybe? He’s a friend, Ell-Oh. We need him as much as he needs us.” At the worst, he was as useful as any other young healthy guy who could shoot well. He was still not entirely certain what Eighfour should do, aside of perhaps replace their tactic of worshipping their inert warhead to a protocol of, "If you see an unknown not-civilian, announce that everyone should pick as much useful stuff as they can carry and run, run for your lives."
The hello-guy seemed to be the most officer-like individual present for the time being, unfortunately. Ordered Kay around and the driver scrambling for some readings, at least. Let them look and scan if they wanted. As long as they did not touch his physical person, he could just pretend it was all the usual protocol and not care. There was nothing to find. He had no desire to light up and declare himself free-for-all.
“Eighfour is in danger, and Enn Que has information and advice on how to deal with it.” Great. She was doing her hardest to paint him a saviour. It felt like a heavy burden to bestowed. He did not have a clue!
Perhaps it was part of why so few even attempted to turn renegade. If you had been trained to take orders from the ground up, to never doubt, to never stray or even think too much, you didn't really have a bloody clue what to do once left to your own devices. Even in a faction like his old, you belonged somewhere, and had something to fall back to. Now, everything was strange. Wrong, almost. Even aside of the everyone trying to survive thing. Which you really couldn't for too long, alone out here in the wild. He might not have even made it to running out of bullets.
The rifleman in charge didn't look pleased. “I really fucking hope you’re right, Kay-Gee, ‘cause we’re pretty much screwed otherwise. A drone came by earlier, hours ago; a really hi-tech drone. Came through the trees and then just blasted straight through the sound barrier out of here. Someone’s already found us.”

Cold.

Too late.

"Hide" had failed. The wait had begun. He was not sure he wanted to see what would happen if they actually opted to just wait it out.
And yet the Eighfourians were concerned about a single anti-personnel infantry unit, not the faction that presumably had had their drone return by now? Or a "drone". He did not know any supersonic drones, nor a lunatic that'd fly a fighter through a forest, but it could be from the west. Or the Trenians had even more new toys than just the hell-lasers. The south was an unknown. The east was water. Easy enough to cross by a flighted unit, but also largely surveilled by Anderekians. It had been all quiet on that front.
Should he break protocol, and thus his silence? He, technically, had no rank here. Not yet. Soldiers took orders. He had not been given one. You only asked questions when orders were unclear. Kay had not reacted yet, so he did not know whether asking questions would conflict with any unwritten rule here, either. He was on his own.
If he asked... If he genuinely wanted to know what it was like, it would prove he was not allied with whoever sent the drone -- which would probably imply he was at the very least on another side. If he was bluffing, it would mean that he was testing them for lies, and that a really hi-tech faction would indeed know where exactly he was -- and take any harm to him as an open declaration of war. Not that killing him wouldn't mean a declaration of war anyway, were he a part of a faction other than Eighfour. One would think that a faction as small as this would treat anyone larger kindly, just to avoid starting any unfavorable wars. And not flaunt any "remove area from map" buttons. To think of it, if multiple factions congregated here, then they might as well use it specifically against one another, and remain entirely indifferent towards Eighfour itself.
He decided he might as well risk it. It had not been confirmed he would be taken to "Gramps", so supposedly he was still subject to a pre-hearing of sorts. You were not supposed to interject to a hearing. But those people were not going to follow Anderekian protocol, either. Seemed safer than asking whether they can join the guys on the pickup, at least.
"The craft sighted hours ago," he specified, still using the voice mostly reserved for reporting in. What manner of unit of time was 'hours ago'? "What was it like? Form, any visible armaments, any markers, pattern of movement? Do you have any recordings of it? I am trying to figure out its identity."
Still motionless.

73:05:00 LNT
(early evening)
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Even though Kay still felt a cold hand squeezing something in her chest painfully hard, a feeling of immense dread sending a tingling sensation through the gate in her head, she still found it in herself to offer Enn an encouraging smile and a nod at his reaction to these news. She was genuinely impressed with him, and knew both from her knowledge of Ell and the expression on his face that he was as well, if grudgingly so. The news had been grave enough that it had left Kay stunned, speechless and confused – her home, discovered and likely doomed? – but Enn had handled the shock much better and reacted just the right way to get on an Eighfourian’s good side: asked for more information and set a potentially achievable goal immediately. Most Eighfourians would panic in a situation like that, immediately assuming the worst and trying to come to terms with that, and the ability to keep calm during crises was one of the key aspects of the people who became leaders of their faction.
Ell bit his lip, looking uncertainly from Enn to Kay while the others on the truck looked to him for a decision. Finally he seemed to reach a decision. “Get in the truck, I’ll fill you in on the move. Kay-Gee is right; you two need to see Gramps.”
“I didn’t see the craft myself, but witnesses on the wall said that it was ‘small’ - whatever that means – and nimble enough to maneuver back and forth between the trees. It was fully VTOL capable and was seen accelerating quickly in any direction, even laterally, while using jet propulsion of some kind. They said it was triangular, sort of... like an arrowhead.” He looked at Kay. “Gramps doesn’t know where it’s from, so we don’t who we’re dealing with. We’ve tripled the number of people on the walls, powered up the flak turrets and were just headed out on patrol when we spotted you two. Everyone else is making sure everything is fueled and loading vehicles with as much as we can fit... I think Gramps wants to run.”
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Day ??? of year 384 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm onset

The Lone Survivor


Kay looked at him and smiled. Hello-guy looked at him and appeared uncertain. Everyone else looked at Hello-guy and seemed to wait for a verdict. “Get in the truck, I’ll fill you in on the move. Kay-Gee is right; you two need to see Gramps.”
"Acknowledged," he said. Standard response, produced without much thought. Correct, he thought. Whatever the conventions here, asking for more details was, evidently, a safe enough option, though judging by the reactions of the people, it was perhaps not the expected one. But it was approved of, nevertheless, with the promise of more information to follow.
As long as he could continue operating as a soldier, it would be fine. He was used to having guns pointed at him. Used to the knowledge that a bullet might take his head off at any moment. It was the things that did not fit his world that he was worried about. Things that were entirely unfamiliar, and things that his instincts told him were wrong. In the interim, he would just try to survive. And try to figure out a way how these rather unexpected acquaintances could survive, too. All ... how many of them, exactly? He did seem to recall Kay saying Eighfour was not a big place, consisting of just what he saw ahead, but it was nevertheless a lot to take in ... going from functionally one to, what, two thousand?
He was not an officer. Planning things for others was not what he did. He followed orders. Glancing at Kay from behind his seemingly opaque visor, he finally moved. With habitual ease, he was up (apparently, his armor enabled quit the range of motion) and settled with his back to the side of the cargo bed. If need be, he could get his gun out, assume a middle brace position, and shoot over the edge easily enough. For now, he was resting, watching. Thinking.
“I didn’t see the craft myself, but witnesses on the wall said that it was ‘small’ - whatever that means – and nimble enough to maneuver back and forth between the trees. It was fully VTOL capable and was seen accelerating quickly in any direction, even laterally, while using jet propulsion of some kind. They said it was triangular, sort of... like an arrowhead.”
Sounded more like a bloody fighter jet than a drone, albeit one piloted by an absolute madman ... or a machine mind. Especially given the weather.
"This small to twice that," he held out a hand with thumb and middle finger spread out, "- and we'd talking about a surveillance bug, but I doubt anyone would be impressed by one getting through the trees, or that it'd be noticed. A meter or two long, wingless or as broad as one of those large black birds in these forests - one like that would be of Trenian origin -, and it'll be a gun drone. Some of those are indeed equipped with rocket engines of some description. Bigger than that, and it probably was either not a drone, or it was a cargo drone. Not that I know anyone who'd be capable - or enough of a lunatic, even under threat of outright execution - of piloting a fighter through these trees. Not any person alone, anyhow." Pause. "I could already pick up static when I woke this morning. I doubt there was enough connection stability to manually control a drone with considerable finesse under these conditions, unless the operator was within a couple of kilometers at most. AI involvement - either as control aide or as a full machine mind embedded in the craft - is extremely likely. Would explain the maneuverability, too."
It didn't quite sound like something he had seen, but he was not willing to bet on the credibility of the relayed witness account, either. It did not sound like something Anderekian. Trenian, any of the unnamed abominations of the west or an entirely unknown faction were all equally likely until he heard more details.
“Gramps doesn’t know where it’s from, so we don’t who we’re dealing with. We’ve tripled the number of people on the walls, powered up the flak turrets and were just headed out on patrol when we spotted you two. Everyone else is making sure everything is fueled and loading vehicles with as much as we can fit... I think Gramps wants to run.”
If they did not have the fleet to go east, the air carriers to go east or south, the northeast was Anderekian, the northwest was Trenian, and the west - and, he had though, this entire plate this side of the great lake and the bogs as an extension - was supposedly the domain of various cyborgs and machine minds, of which he had first assumed Kay to be part of, then...
"Where would you flee?" He could see the merits of fleeing - he had considered it multiple times himself, provided they could somehow take enough infrastructure with them to not die of thirst, starvation, toxicity, or radiation poisoning -, but all ways seemed to lead deeper into enemy territory. Felt a lot harder to hide an entire traveling circus than a lone dead soldier.

73:47:27 LNT
(early evening)
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“Uh...” Ell hesitated, looking from one of his companions to the other uncertainly before returning his gaze to Enn. “I... don’t know?”
“None of these guys have been very far from Eighfour,” Kay told him, smiling with pride by the fact that she had been much farther from their settlement than anyone else in the vehicle... aside from Enn, of course. “In fact very few of us ever stray very far, and those who do spend a lot of time roaming rather than be here. But even I don’t know much about the other factions around here... I’ve always turned avoided anywhere that seemed even remotely populated.”
“Yeah,” Ell reluctantly agreed, “though if anyone knew where to go, it’d be Gramps. He used to be a trader!” He spoke the word with reverence bordering on awe, and for good reason; even Kay felt her heart beat a little faster at the utterance of that word. Eighfour had survived for as long as it had mainly by virtue of remaining hidden from the surrounding factions – something that had only gotten harder as time went, with other factions growing larger and encroaching on their domain – and they were all raised with the idea that people from the outside were dangerous and should be treated with caution, and avoided if at all possible. Because of this, people who went out into the world to meet outsiders intentionally were at once treated as if contaminated and like heroes. Trading was not only dangerous, but also incredibly difficult, having to not only be willing to barter deals with other factions, but also maneuver in such a way that they were not tracked back to the settlement after.
“But I have no idea. Honestly I’m not even completely certain that he wants us to run. He hasn’t actually told me what the plan is, it’s just my guess from what he has us doing.” Ell shrugged.

On the way through the settlement it became clear to Kay just how serious the situation was in Eighfour; every face they drove past was either confused, frightened or downright panicked, and a lot of Eighfourians seemed so on edge that they were barely keeping themselves together, dropping things they were moving from shaking hands or retreating to remote corners to cower. On one hand Kay was embarrassed for her faction, especially since she had brought an outsider here who was just having his first experience with them, and her fellows were making a pretty pathetic first impression... but on the other hand she could relate to how they felt. She was nervous, too, and deeply uncertain about what was going to happen to them all. Eighfour had always been peaceful, constant and seemingly eternal their entire lives, but now that their seclusion was threatened, that was all liable to change... In fact, with how they were raised, “impending invasion” was synonymous with “possible annihilation” thanks to the doctrine of using the nuke to defend themselves.
The trip was not long; once they got past the other wall of the settlement they had a fairly straight run to the center of their domain, with more and more people crowding the sides of the street the closer they got. What was much more remarkable than the people, however, was the rapidly increasing number of vehicles parked along the street, soon crammed along the street end-to-end while people ran from one to the next, checking to see that everything was working optimally. No two vehicles were quite alike, either; much like their weapons, Eighfourian vehicles were mostly salvage they had restored or repurposed, resulting in things that either looked like machines built from trash or amalgamations of several different entities. It made the properly restored vehicles stand out all the more, like the truck they were riding just now: vehicles that actually looked right and were mostly made by parts that fit together. There were other armed vehicles like the truck, though many of those were also improvised, and even several creations that could justifiably be referred to as tanks, but most were made purely for transport of people or goods.
It was at the core of the settlement that Gramps could be found, and the truck skidded to a halt – apparently that was the only way their driver knew how to stop – in the shade of an especially large tank that boasted two machine-guns for the crew to man beneath the unusually long and thick cylinder of the barrel of its main cannon. Though one could tell it was still mostly made from repurposed scrap it was in good condition, with the word “Parenthesis” written across either side of it.

“That’s him,” Kay said as she disembarked, pointing to Gramps, who was already looking in their direction even as he continued handing out instructions to anyone who approached him. Unlike what one would normally associate with the nickname “gramps”, Gramps was by no means frail; old, maybe, but burdened little by his age. He seemed remarkably out of place among the other Eighfourians; while the others were mostly thin or pudgy, Gramps was fit, he was muscular, and he was sturdy, ten times as masculine as most other men in Eighfour. Dressed in a stained gray tank top and black cargo pants, he stood 1,95 meters tall, with thick but groomed hair and beard that time had turned gray. He shot a long, hard look at Enn – they had stopped some thirty meters from him – before waving them closer.
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Day ??? of year 384 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm onset

The Lone Survivor


"Where would you flee?"
“Uh...” Hello-fellow hesitated. He'd have to remember to actually not call the guy that to his face, but at the very least Enn's mental nickname also served as a sort of mnemonic; there was little chance he'd forget that particular combination of letters this particular guy had been assigned anymore, barring a particularly hard blow to the head. He also remembered Kay, since she had been the first non-Anderekian he had not been assigned to shoot, making the entire encounter different, and he remembered his own new label because it was literally his - or his old, "dead" self's - initials, but if his suspicions were true, then it would be all too easy to lose track among all these pick-two-letters-from-the-alphabet folks he would probably need to come to be able to organize in his head, somehow. As long as he was not wrong about these folks' ability to read minds, it shouldn't really matter how he referred to them in his mind, so... “I... don’t know?”
No protocol, and no decisions, then. Ab-so-lu-te-ly brilliant. His jaw behind his outwardly featureless helmet clenched as Kay took over and effectively explained that he was the only one - or rather, one of the very few people - in the entire settlement who had a somewhat serviceable mental map of what (and more importantly, who) was where to boot. And while his idea of where Anderekian bases and some Trenian bases and other settlements were was rather accurate, there were plenty of gaps in his knowledge of this entire plate.
“Though if anyone knew where to go, it’d be Gramps. He used to be a trader!” There was blatant admiration in Ell's voice, and even Enn himself was given a pause.
"Trader?" his surprise was evident from his voice, reproduced by the helmet as it was ever so slightly notched in the speaker's direction. He knew what the word meant, in the general, technical sense, but... Even Trenians, to his knowledge, only traded among their own faction, and probably only rarely outside of routine exchanges meant mostly to feed the military, literally and figuratively. Trading with outsiders was, quite probably, considered worth less than assimilation, and not worth the risk with other factions of significant power.
He would not be able to precisely put a finger on what exactly the role of Trenian civilian settlements was compared to their bases, but from what he had seen it had felt more like a distinction between specialized military facilities, and general production and human reserves. More reliant on inter-base and -settlement infrastructure, but also more compact on either end. Trenian settlements were usually simple residences, warehouses and factories away from the frontier, surrounded only by inconspicuous automated defenses unless an incoming assault was expected or intersected, but their bases were nothing but armaments, walls, silos, and things to make more armaments, silos and walls with. Warcraft nests, tank hives. Often underground.
Anderekian bases were more mixed in nature, more expansive, at once less and more vulnerable. Harder to attrition, easier to penetrate. More controlled, less divided.
“But I have no idea. Honestly I’m not even completely certain that he wants us to run. He hasn’t actually told me what the plan is, it’s just my guess from what he has us doing.”
"I see." Notrau's tone was flat. They were now in the settlement limits, which gave him ample opportunity to, well, quite literally see. Complementing patchwork monstrosities which stood for vehicles around these parts, there was a lot of chaos in the streets. The sort that could probably only result from a bunch of people faced with uncertain doom being told to take everything what was needed for an equally undefined future. The contrast with Trenian civilians was stark. But then again, bullets and bombers weren't exactly an unambiguous threat. On some weird level, he thought he could relate. Maybe not to the dropping things and running around aimlessly part, but certainly the lack of protocol thing.

Enn remained markedly unperturbed when the pickup skidded to a halt - he had been holding onto the side of the cargo hold for a reason, and armor built to negate the recoil of a gun such as his had its perks.
He was not entirely certain what he had been expecting when Kay had told him about Gramps - aside of him being the de facto leader of the place, in charge of the good old "SHOOT HERE" sign, and something about a cup of tea. Probably an average elderly guy, someone who might have been an aging technician still just about considered fit for duty in Anderekian context.
The guy next to the tank Kay indicated as Gramps was anything but, age notwithstanding. More than anyone else here, he made Enn think of a soldier, though it would have been hard to find a living one who was wearing as little armor out in the open. It made it blatantly obvious if someone was looking at you. No wonder. He was at least as out of place here, if not more so.
Seeing that the pickup was now immobile, Enn stood in one fluid motion, though still makin sure that his one hand remained hanging inertly by his thigh, and the other following suit once it could no longer hold onto the edge of the cargo bed. Look, then. He was about half a head shorter than Gramps, but one could imagine no less fit. As it was, his dull yellow-green outfit left almost everything but his height and lack of overt rotundness to imagination. He was wearing enough armor to shrug off many a smaller round point blank, and judging by the gun on his back, was meant to fight the same, after all.
In any case, it appeared he passed the preliminary inspection and was granted permission to move forth. So he did, in what appeared to be his habitual exact, yet not overly threatening manner. Unless indicated otherwise, he stopped a couple of meters away from Gramps. Point one, identify yourself. Didn't even matter whether they knew who you were.
"Enn-Que. Infantry, anti-infantry and light vehicles." Reporting in. The normal thing would have to wait for instructions, but he supposed this was written off for the time being. "Who I was is dead; purposefully led into elimination or written off as unsalvageable loss, I don't know. Either way, I'd be shot as traitor, and they'd be no kinder to you simply because you're outsiders, so my presence here makes no difference to your potential relations. I am with Eighfour now." He took a deeper breath, not quite a sigh. Since it was not externally reproduced, it came off as simply a brief pause. "Kay and Ell gave me a brief overview of some thing that have ensued on our way here. I still have a fairly up to date knowledge of the terrain, and nearby locations of multiple factions' forces and bases, as well as the tactics, units and predisposition of the same. And my equipment and skill set."

74:02:07 LNT
(early evening)

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Kay hang back for a moment while Enn got off the truck and started introducing himself, not because she did not want to stand by him when officially meeting their leader, but because she had to detach her cart from the truck so Ell and the others could resume their patrol.
Some of the other Eighfourians seemed to realize that Enn was not one of them while he was speaking, staring at him with wide eyes, whispering to each other with expressions of curiosity and concern and generally plotting the routes they had been walking along before his appearance so that they gave him a wide berth. One man – one of the ones that had been talking to Gramps when they arrived – seized a handgun by his side, but was stopped by an admonishing finger from Gramps before he could even draw the weapon, despite the leader of Eighfour not even looking in his direction. His attention – intense and neutral, seeming neither wary nor trusting yet – was focused solely on Enn.
Despite wanting nothing more than to believe that Gramps would solve everything and that he would just immediately accept Enn’s help, Kay’s attention was nevertheless held breathlessly by the two of them, a hard knot forming in the pit of her stomach as unbidden thoughts of what would happen if Gramps decided to treat Enn as a hostile, or simply discarded the man as a burden. She knew Gramps to be a warm and protective man, but also an extremely practical one, almost pragmatic at times... Chances were that even if he decided to trust Enn and wanted to protect him, he might cast him out if he deemed him not worth feeding and protecting. He would want to help Enn, and to accept Enn’s help, Kay was sure of this, but Gramps was also responsible for all of Eighfour; he had to make the decision that was for the best of the faction.

Gramps’ eyes scanned Enn from head to toe, lingering occasionally on parts of his equipment, but always returned to Enn’s face shortly, letting him know that he was listening intently. Only when Enn had finished his introduction did Gramps let his gaze stray from the stranger momentarily, darting to Kay immediately, then to Ell, and finally back to Enn.
“You take care of things here for a moment, Chubby,” he said over his shoulder, prompting a quick affirmative from a woman with a pretty average build holding an electronic PDA. “Continue preparations and make sure to keep the perimeter secure. I need a moment with Enn-Que.”
‘Chubby’ - whose name was actually Ex-Ell and got her nickname from her name being the same as the initialism of “extra large”, just as people would annoy Ell by greeting him with “Hello, Ell-Oh!” on the street in less stressful times - started directing the Eighfourians coming for instructions to speak to her, and Gramps left behind the crowd to approach Enn.
“My name is Dee-A, but everyone calls me Gramps. You must be weary with everything that has happened,” he told the soldier with a measured smile. “Let’s talk in my quarters. Food was one of the first things we packed up, unfortunately, so I can’t offer a proper meal just this moment, but I think I might still have some crackers in a cupboard, or some cookies. And I’ll make something to drink. Do you prefer tea or coffee?”
“You come too, Kay-Gee,” he remarked just as Kay came up next to Enn with her cart, earning a grateful smile from her. It was just like Gramps to spot how things fit together without anyone having to explain it to him. Kay happily followed, and together they headed to Gramps’ quarters.

His “quarters” was actually a ten by seven meter shack just a short way from the center of the settlement, just a few minutes’ walk from where they had found him, barely discernible from the multitude of other small structures lining the streets beyond it seeming perhaps a little more worn than the others, with a metal door that bore signs of having been repeatedly mended, and the dirt in front of which bore signs of being heavily traveled.
They traveled mostly in silence until they got there, where Gramps opened the creaking door and bid them both inside the somewhat cramped space inside. The entire structure was made up by just a single room, though the two ends of the room were furnished for different purposes. The end they entered was clearly where Gramps received guests, with an old, well-worn dining table and wooden chairs took up most of the open space, and a series of cupboards and closets lining the two adjoining walls to their right. The other end, to their far left, seemed to be much more for personal use, containing a small unmade bed, a closet and a chest of drawers, but also a desk facing the wall, filled with piles of random junk around an turned-off PDA and various devices in different states of disrepair.
“Have a seat,” Gramps offered with a gesture at the dining table, heading straight for the string hanging from the naked light-bulb in the ceiling, pulling it to turn on the light; the shack, like all buildings in Eighfour, had no windows. They closed the door behind them, leaving the room lit solely by the cold electrical light.

“So,” he said, leaning against a cupboard once they were fully in private. He still did not smile, but simply looked at Enn intently with a decidedly neutral expression. “An Anderekian soldier who actually had enough independent thought to realize that your faction couldn’t care less whether you lived or died, and that before you got yourself shot or lost any of your equipment. If you’d be presumed dead and lost there must’ve been a battle. Probably with the Trenians. And the Anderekians lost.” He sighed. “I don’t suppose you know whether the Anderekians or Trenians use AI?”
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