Small sound, massive shift.
“That’s a beacon?” Owen asked, probably for the fourth time.
The lancer sighed loud enough for him to hear across the vertibird. “Yes, it’s a beacon. Keep asking me that and I’m going to think you don’t believe me.”
“I believe you,” the scribe replied. He stepped behind the co-pilot’s chair, observing Frank’s corpse in the seat beside them. “It’s just strange, you know? Why turn it on now? I mean, a beacon is meant to call for help. They didn’t just realize falling out of a vertibird was the ‘right time’.”
Working through the idea in his head, Owen began to nod. He turned back toward Patty and Harper. Neither made eye contact, which said a lot considering the limited space. The scribe raised his hands in surrender and gazed outside.
A bright red plume of smoke streamed up into the sky. Pink clouds loomed over a set of warehouses surrounded on all sides by trees, a paved lot that reminiscent of a medieval moat, and a number of broken down pre-war vehicles. There was dark smoke, too. An offensive, tarry odor clung to the air. Rubber and metal, burning.
They all understood. Not the details, of course, but the smell told them plenty.
Owen double-checked the utility ladders as Patty took sorted out the minigun. The good doctor studied them both in a way that made Owen stand a little straighter. Like they could even spare a body if Harper noticed something ‘concerning’. The vertibird began to rise, putting more distance between them and potential threats that seemed to be waiting.
“I got movement,” Lancer Brown reported.
Patty whistled. “It looks like that horde from earlier came this way,” she paused and her voice changed. “You think that means Chowder came over here?”
“Might have to rethink my feelings on dogs,” Owen chuckled. “Oh shit, I see them. One of them. Between the trucks, that’s power armor!”
“Preparing to fire,” Patty announced.
The barrels of the minigun spun to life, its whistle a warning for the crew. Owen could feel the pitched, metallic rattle of its report in his legs. He, like the others, watched as the relatively small, 5mm rounds came down like rain. Each drop causing a tuft of earth to burst from the ground like an orchestrated wave. The show culminated when the rounds found their targets: the remnants of the horde converging onto the warehouse.
They popped like balloons. Bits of meat, bone, and decayed flesh flung here and there. Their bodies torn apart by the barrage with little more than pulp and a bloody smear left where they stood.
Averting his eyes, Owen reminded himself the ghouls were feral. Wild, hateful things without a shred of humanity left in those rotten husks. The person was gone. Phantoms in place of people. He repeated this several times, trying desperately to push the image out of his mind. Whatever the ghouls were, they were entirely too human.
“Pretty sure that’s the knight-sergeant out there,” the lancer suggested, lowering the vertibird toward a clearing in the lot. “Looks like he cleared us a little spot. We should still make this quick.”
As if underscoring the point, Samuel touched down the vertibird. Patty stood poised for combat behind the minigun, her side overlooking the lot, while Owen’s old anxieties resurfaced. He stared at the warehouse with a hand on his pistol. He squeezed the grip when the big, barn-style doors rolled open. The doctor laid on his shoulder. Reassuring, grounding, and knowing.
Owen heard her gasp when the dog came running out first.
“Load up everyone,” Moss grumbled through the squad comm. “We’ve had enough surprises for one day.”
Owen and Harper helped the squad board until only two remained. The knight-sergeant finished off a ghoul apparently maimed during the battle, while the paladin waited impatiently. You could feel the tension. All of them overstimulated, senses keyed into anything that might hint of a threat.
The lancer turned in his chair. “Uh, sir?” Brown shouted outside. “I’m picking up some strange... vibrations, I guess. Something’s --”
First the thunderclap, then the wave of dust as ground opened. The front of the store and warehouse lurched forward, sinking like a foot pressed into wet sand.
Moss lunged for the vertibird, nearly ripping Owen’s arm out of its socket while climbing aboard. He glanced over Patty’s shoulder into the field. The knight-sergeant crept toward them painfully slow, covering little of the dozen or so yards between them.
“Take off,” the paladin whispered. He rushed to the co-pilot’s chair and repeated himself, this time louder. “Take. Off.”
A hush fell over the squad. Some protested loudly, others politely, and a few with silent disdain.
Then it appeared.
Faint movement in the haze caught their eye. Too obscured by the dust to know just what was coming until a clawed hand the size of a man’s chest swiped at the clouds. They didn’t need to see more to understand.
“Everybody hold on,” Lancer Brown warned.
The haze formed a ring beneath them as the vertibird ascended. Just wide enough to see Knight Sergeant McDowell standing on one edge of the haze and two deathclaws on the other. Patty turned the minigun, ready to assist, but as she took aim the vertibird continued to rise. Clouds rolled in from the edges, shrouding the deathclaws ready to pounce upon their prey and McDowell, who watched his last hope soar into the distance.
Conversation was short, visibility was good. Most kept to themselves, thinking back on the morning like a strange nightmare. Not the paladin, though. While they collected themselves, their leader kept busy looking for potential places to make camp and regroup. Posted himself behind the Lancer Brown, much to the pilot’s chagrin.
over there, you see it?” Moss asked, but it didn’t sound like a question. “It looks like there’s even a landing pad. Put us down over there.”
Whatever the squad felt, they went back to work. A new location meant potential threats. Patty continued to man the left minigun, while Estevez and Grimshaw readied their rifles by the right doorway. In the back of the vertibird, the scribes readied their gear. Medical supplies to finally see to the squad’s wounds and reference materials to overcome any obstacles the pre-war structure might hold.
Moss approached right door as the vertibird landed. “Knight Brown, take Grimshaw and Algarín and check the perimeter. Make it a quick sweep for activity,” he instructed. “Kinsley and Lancer Brown stay on the bird. I want to know if we can rely on it for a longer trip. Estevez and I will clear the building.”
“Watch your back in there,” Owen cautioned, eyes focused on Estevez. When the point was made, he acknowledged the paladin. “Looks like an old military facility, sir. Not the most fortified from the looks of it, but you never know.”
Without another word, Algarín joined Grimshaw, and Patty outside of the vertibird.