Generally speaking Rifts Earth is a dangerous place, especially when one strays too far from whatever passes for the local area’s ‘civilization’. This seems to be doubly true of areas that are genuinely safe. It’s as if the islands of normalcy attract a sea of murderous insanity all around them. That could just be the perception of the jarring shift from safe to not safe but whatever the case it is undeniably true that the area west of the Kingdom of Dogwood is Not Safe at the moment.
So it is perhaps unusual to see a large Guild House Trent crawler and a pair of gun trucks sitting idle in the middle of nowhere about twenty miles from the border and it is perhaps even more unusual to see them setting up communications gear. There’s an old phrase about bearding the lion in it’s den. It’s about to be updated. Modern digital technology means you can beard a lion from hundreds of miles away… if you’re willing to deal with the consequences.
There are one or two things necessary to this scheme’s success. One is the ‘key’, a piece of H shaped computerized tech presently owned by Stellla Bridger if not entirely willingly. Another is enough firepower to make sure that anything that may go wrong doesn’t go so wrong that it kills everyone present. At least not before anything valuable can be learned.
Factor Jericho Trent is present with a small group of CorSec soldiers, watching the setup. He really wanted to have his assault bot present. More protection, after all. However it might scare off the thing they want to attract so… no bot for him.
It had taken some deliberation for Natsuki to decide whether her presence here would be a help or a hindrance. She’d landed on hindrance – she had nothing particular to offer in terms of skills or training and yet here she was, standing near Jericho, watching the goings on.
Dressed sensibly in trousers, a tunic top and sturdy boots, Natsu’s hair pulled up and back securely. There’s no mistaking her for what she is. Part Elf. It’s a good thing that many of Jericho’s CorSec are familiar with her.
“Lady Zelda and, as such, the Puma couldn’t be spared, I’m afraid.” She’s explaining to those with her. “Mister Trent will explain the plan in just a moment, I’m sure…” the Part-Elf casts a dark eyed look in the Factor’s direction.
This is necessary. She knows it is. But that doesn’t mean that Stella isn’t still VERY uneasy about being this far out past Dogwood’s borders even with the fortifications Trent brought along. She’s insisted on having a rifle on hand as well as her usual sidearm.
“This had better work,” she tells Natsuki with a good dose of skepticism in her voice. But, even as she’s being all negative about their prospects, the thought of doing nothing and letting bad things continue to wander in is even worse. The repairs to her truck were painfully expensive to the point that every last bit of her reserve funds are now completely gone. And, with the Transport Guild’s ‘hold in place’ order still active so far as she’s heard, there is zero chance of rebuilding that reserve for the time being.
It should be unsurprising that the brightly colored cyborg has tagged along with Natsuki. Playing the part of a bodyguard isn’t the only reason Baldur’s here, however, given that the last time they’d talked about matters, it had been hinted that his presence might be needed. Maybe he’d get to shoot something. Or maybe he just needs to stand here and look pretty.
The cyborg stands not several paces from the half-elf, dressed in his usual favored outerwear and the wide-brimmed hat he’s come to love wearing, and not only because it had been a gift from Natsuki. He has his arms folded, metal fingers drumming anxiously as he waits. And watches. Because being out this far’s just inviting trouble, and it’s not like trouble hasn’t found its way into Dogwood already. Trouble never needs an invitation, that party crasher.
“Shame about the Puma. I woulda liked to see it in action.”
Jericho nods. “It is, but it may be just as well. The plan is pretty simple. My engineers have rigged up a device to broadcast a signal that I think will attract one of those remotely piloted puma bots. Once it gets here we’re going to try to establish some kind of communications with it. If worse comes to worst, then we’ll try to disable one of the legs to make tracking it easier. Might be a tall order with what we have here but I’m hopeful. Everyone ready?”
Whether they are or not the switch gets thrown.
The fact that nothing immediately happens may be somewhat anti-climactic. The device hums and transmits and… nothing. For a solid hour nothing.
“Something on the radar, sir. Moving fast.” The sound of a metallic ‘war cry’ or ‘roar’ leaves no doubts as to what it may be. “Everyone get ready. Miss Taniguchi, stand back if you please.”
CorSec soldiers man weapons but avoid pointing them as the bot thunders toward them, now easily in view as it comes down a slope to the west.
“It will work if it’s meant to, Miss Bridger.” Natsu says quietly, moving to position herself behind Jericho’s CorSec and the small number of Taniguchi banner man that accompanied them. “Baldur, you can direct our bannermen as necessary.” she says.
“It sounds … angry … don’t you think?” It’s a good thing that Natsu is tall, she can see through the men and women in front of her. There’s an air of expectance about her.
Oh, this is a baaaad idea. Stella can only shake her head when they send off the signal, and then spends the subsequent hour trying her damndest to NOT wear a hole in the floor with her pacing.
Of course it works. It works distressingly well. She readies the rifle in her hands as something huge comes crashing toward them. Fast. Very fast.
“It sounds really angry. What kind of signal did you send? Insult its motherboard or something?”
“………….” Well, this is kind of disappointing. An hour of nothing is…what it is, and Baldur’s waning patience shows for all the fidgeting he does. He’s about to suggest that they maybe play a game or something to pass the time (completely in jest, of course), when they finally get a response.
The cyborg steps forwards as Natsuki steps back, nodding as he minds his own positioning, making sure he’s not in the way of any of Trent’s men. His own pistols seem to have sprung right to hand as he holds them up in such a smooth movement that it’s like pure reflex. And perhaps in a way it is.
“Iiii’m not that familiar with cats, robotic or otherwise, but um…I’d have to agree with the ladies.”
“Maybe?” Jericho’s Corsec are arrayed in a loose line perhaps a hundred meters wide. The spacing would surprise civillians considering the small number of troops present but veteran hands like Baldur and probably even Stella will know that’s just how modern war is fought. Being too close together is just an invitation for someone to lob explosives in your general direction.
The puma bot slows about two hundred yards out and begins to ‘stalk’ forward, bent low with it’s rear quarters swaying in the familiar gait of a housecat hunting. It’s head turns from side to side surveying and it ‘warbles’ in a peculiar fashion. Stella and Baldur may recognize it as an oscillation in it’s fusion engine. The fact that it might be doing that autonomously is… odd. It’s not particularly efficient.
It’s getting much closer. At about thirty feet away it stops and opens it’s mouth and something very bright starts to glow right in Stella’s direction.
“So I’m not the only one to think so…” Natsu watches in fascination as the bot stalks forward, looking it over and comparing it to what she knows of Stella’s bot. “It’s similar to Lady Taniguchi’s, Mister Trent, but there are still marked differences.” she notes. She’ll relate them later, as she commits them to memory.
When the ‘cat’s’ attention turns to Stella, Natsu’s eyes widen but she holds her position. She can’t do much if that’s a laser or similar… “Well, that’s different as well…” is all she says.
Damn, that this is WAY scarier when she’s not in a vehicle. Stella is honestly relieved when it stops moving closer, but then that bright light starts up and all she can do is curse and try to shield her eyes.
Blinking a few times quickly, she tries to cycle the settings on her optics through to something that will help her deal with the cat thing and maybe also give her an idea what it’s trying to do.
‘What the hell do you WANT, already?’ she can’t help but think a bit loudly, mostly to herself. Of course, the moment she does so she regrets it, because that’s the exact kind of thing that that stupid sentient piece of scrap latches on to and tries to answer.
Trampling each other to death because of immediate evasive action is another thing better avoided with your soldiers given room for maneuverability. Baldur wouldn’t question Jericho’s men in any case, he trusts the Factor knows what he’s doing if not those at his command. Likewise he trusts the bannermen of House Taniguchi to know how to not get the way and to be mindful of Natsuki first and foremost. The cyborg may be a little rusty at giving orders, especially since he’s more accustomed to taking them, but if something comes up, he’ll do what needs be done.
He cringes just a little as the oversized cat makes noises at them. “Well, at least it’s not stepping on us?” It’s still a little too close for comfort, and Baldur doesn’t quite feel at ease with the way the metal beast carries itself. He can tell it’s tense. Searching.
Its mouth glows just like his own when he speaks, but who’s to say that the thing isn’t trying to blast Stella with some internal weapon? No one gave him the specs on this thing! Baldur yanks his guns up, not even sure that they’d be any good against the thing, but maybe he’ll serve as distraction when it comes down to it.
Both Stella and Baldur immediately get the spine tingling sensation of something trying to access their systems. Stella through her spinal network port, Baldur through his own internal systems. It’s the Cat. It’s trying to communicate but it’s being really loud about it. Full spectrum blast, multiple code types, multiple handshake types. Stella’s eyes finally identify the thing inside the Cat’s mouth as a holoprojector and an image of her fifteen feet tall appears before her.
“Why has the recall order been ignored?” Her own voice demands in a rather disturbingly monotone way. “Where is Pilot Taniguchi and Pilot Saltzpyre?”
Natsu sees the way Baldur and Stella respond and her eyes dance between them and Jericho. She knows he’s got exceptional perception – does he see it?
Not that it matters when the Stella holo appears and starts to talk. “Uh…” another look to Jericho and she might be ready to step forward – she’ll keep Baldur and the Factor near if she does.
“They’ve received other orders that require them on another front. Why is it you wish to recall them?”
She’s talking to a hologram.
‘TOO LOUD,’ Stella thinks at the puma thing as forcefully as she can, trying to get it to stop bombarding her brain with what feels like the nervous-system equivalent of dozens of computer modems squealing all at once. ‘I’m not a machine. So just STOP already.’
Of course, that’s when she’s finally able to look at the puma, just in time to see… herself. “The hell?” And then the hologram starts demanding answers for questions. Thankfully Natsuki is sufficiently on the ball and offers answers to the questions. She’s still mostly reeling from the LOUD system invasion.
He’d like to think he’s not a machine either, but truth be told, he’s more so than man in this state. There’s a visible shudder through the full-cyborg’s body, his guns dipping for a brief second before pulling back up with renewed encouragement. “What the hell was that,” Baldur blurts, the glow of his orange optics flickering. “I don’t know what this thing’s trying to do but color me all shades of unsettled.”
It’s only because the cat’s finally spoken up- which is right creepy in its own way, and that Natsuki and Stella have responded that Baldur’s not given into an itchy pair of trigger fingers.
“Recall orders are given under Alliance Wartime Authority Act. Pilots Taniguchi and Saltzpyre will be subject to AWOL sanctions if they do not heed the orders.”
“What in the name of…” That’s not the name of any law Jericho recognizes, not even a very old Dogwood Law. It might be something else. Something from Before.
The code communication attempts dial back a bit but definitely don’t stop.
“Idenitfy the non-compliant maintenance unit.” Now the Stella-Gram looks from Stella to Baldur evidently expecting someone to tell it who Baldur is and why he isn’t mopping floors.
Stella-gram might be happy it’s intangible right now, having insulted a war hero like that.
“Alliance Wartime Authority Act?” Natsuki thinks and looks to Jericho, seeing he doesn’t recognise the law either. “Baldur does that mean anything to you?” she says quietly before speaking up again. “What year was that Act put in place?” She doubts the Stella-gram would know, but she can try. “And what disciplinary action do the pilots face?”
There’s a soft snort, it might be amusement, at the maintenance unit comment. Given it’s looking to Stella, Natsu takes advantage of that to speak quietly to Jericho “Mister Trent, do you think we could pose as the pilots? Or do you think it has some form of biometric confirmation for the Pilots?”
This is quickly making less and less sense to Stella, as she’s never even seen the inside of one of those mech things much less tried to pilot one. She’s a driver, and that’s it. Letting her rifle drop to being loosely held in her left hand, she steps back to lean against the nearest object before her knees buckle. That signal feels like it’s trying to bore a hole through her brain.
Trying to keep it together just a little bit longer, she looks toward Natsuki, and for the first time in probably ever, the unnatural look to her eyes is obvious before she blinks a few times and they look entirely normal again.
He must not shoot someone that looks like Stella. He must not shoot someone that looks like Stella. Not that it would do any good anyway, but he’s also sure that Stella might have something to say about it. No one said anything about not threatening the thing though.
“I’ll give you non-compliant,” Baldur says sharply, thumb flicking back the hammer on a pistol, his weapon still aimed. He’s sorely tempted to fire just to get the cat bot to quit it with the internal noise that make his circuits crawl.
“That’s a negative, Miss Taniguchi,” he says in response to her question, his eyes not leaving the oversized metal feline.
“Sanctions for AWOL are at the discretion of the theater commander. Presently Logged Sactions are: Death by firing squad.” The not-Stella answers in that oh so creepy monotone.
“Theft of Facility Property is punishable by thirty days suspension of privileges, or death.” It adds after looking at Baldur. “Instruct Pilots Saltzpyre and Taniguchi to bring this unit in for reconditioning and proper equipment. It is displaying unauthorized modifications.”
“No idea Miss Taniguchi but it knows their names. Who knows what else it has found out with those wandering ashcans.” Jericho snorts but has the presence of mind to add. “Where are they supposed to go?”
“Report to Feline Actual. Coordinates follow.” The ‘coordinates’ are in a concentrated data-blurt that comes across to Baldur and Stella as a high pitched noise but does contain a fair number of ones and zeros. They’ll… have to parse those later.
Natsuki ‘hmmms’ and maintains her place between the Cyborg and Jericho. “There was nothing in the Archives about who made those pumas but it didn’t indicate there was a facility in the mountains. ” she says quietly, considering the information they’ve just received.
“Steady Baldur. I’d prefer you didn’t start a shooting war and to get out of here in one piece.” beat “Did it just send something you something useful?”
“Seems whoever they are, if there is in fact a ‘they’, they want the mechs as much as the pilots.” To the Stella-gram “How would you identify the Pilots when they report?”
“Shall we follow this back to its lair, Mister Trent?”
“Aw, I was only trying to make a point, ma’am,” Baldur replies almost sulkily. “I wasn’t really going to shoot it. Unless it really was askin’ for i- yarrgghh…!”
That spurt of data noise nearly makes him drop his guns as he jerks bodily away from the cat thing. His cocked pistol fires off with the abrupt gesture, thankfully doing nothing more than cause a small eruption of dirt as the shot hits the ground not several feet in front of him. Shaking his head, the cyborg glares up at the puma bot. “You…. have really got to stop doing that!”
Making an exaggerated show of holstering his weapons, Baldur huffs as he turns in an almost drunken manner to look in Natsuki’s direction. “‘m fine,” he mutters, even though that hadn’t been the question. As his equilibrium evens out again, Baldur tilts his head this way and that, one optic going out, then switching with the other in the manner of one’s squinting eyes in alternating fashion. “I…. It sent me something. No idea how useful though…”
“That information is classified.” Guess it won’t be answering that question. The projection fades and the big cat-robot turns and bounds away, up the hill and out of sight in less time than it takes to tell.
Jericho sighs and motions to his people to bring it in and start packing up.
“Well… that complicates things. Let’s get out of here and figure out what we have.”
The burst of data is the last straw for Stella, causing her to collapse. It’s a good thing that Baldur was better able to withstand and maybe share the information, because she’s unconscious.
“I guess not then…” Natsu watches the bot as it lopes away. “Well, we’ve got something at least.”
She smirks at Baldur as he responds to her request and raises an eyebrow as he jumps. “I think Mister Trent’s correct, we should see what we have…” beat “Do you think you could see to Miss Bridger, Baldur?”
“Uh…” Baldur stares as the thing takes off. “So. At least it didn’t try to eat us or something.” Jericho’s not going to hear any objections from him, however. He’s had enough of giant cats for one day.
It takes him a moment, but he’s already stepping towards Stella when Natsuki speaks up again. He’ll blame the cat for screwing up his reaction times. “Yeah, I got her,” he says, moving to pick the woman up so they can load up and head back.
Following up on the matter of the wayward robotic puma, Jericho, Natsuki, Stella and Baldur attempt to draw it out so they can work out more to this puzzle.
August 20, 2410
Outskirts of Dogwood