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***Warning: Violence and adult content***
Made in DNA (Amazon link)
The voice ricocheted like a rifle shot through the twisted labyrinth of mined cavern tunnels that wound deep below Shattered Lands.
The prospector, his forehead and mouth covered in two simple bandanas against sweat and dust, looked up to see four Avatars standing on a rock ledge above. A riot of neon Chinese-language characters and what the prospector assumed were gang identification sigils danced over their heads. They'd caught him off-guard; not hard when one's ears were full of the clang of Pickaxe on Metal Ore.
Three of the four leveled an array of weapons at him. Death took on the palpability of the scorching sun at midday. He consoled himself with the fact that they weren't Mutants.
"You've been busy," one of the males grinned. The prospector heard the soft yet distinct sound of the Chinese tongue under the in-world language options of his own native English.
Leaving his hands on the pickaxe, the prospector was careful not to make any sudden moves as he spoke as clearly as possible through the cloth over his nose and mouth, "There's a storage area to the southwest of here. Ore cache. Food and water, too. Take what–"
With a leap and snarl, a second Avatar covered the distance between them and put the butt of his Sawed-off Shotgun in the prospector's face.
The prospector's head jerked back, blood exploded from his nose, and the Momentarily Stunned indicator in the upper-right hand corner of his vision winked on.
"Wu! Back off!" The first male called down. Picking his way down a convoluted, yet safe path, he and the remaining three joined their comrade-in-arms.
"From the size of some of the excavated caverns we passed through to get here, I'm sure the loss of the couple of Strongboxes you have prepared for anyone who might… stumble upon them, would be no great consequence to you."
The male was no fool. In this iteration of the world, leaving an offering at the front door was as good as life insurance in the Real. In contrast, hidden stashes riddled the corpse of the monstrous worm of hollowed rock and minerals around them; strategically marked by torches and footfall counts.
"Forgive my friend. He is a bit edgy. We had a hard journey here. Lost two fellow players looking for you. I'm Lim." And offered the prospector Bandages.
Nodding his appreciation, the prospector received and used them. He remained silent, waiting while his Health slowly returned to full, and for Lim to continue.
"Word in the world is that you are the man to go to if one wants resources. Heard from pilgrims in Hell's Beach you helped them find a clean water source and pantries several months back, and were able to dig a secret armory out of the abandoned factory in Dinkemsville."
Most days, the prospector avoided contact with people. But the occasional group would approach and ask him for aide. He wasn't above it as he had need for supplies at times. He traded ore or help for food, water and other items he had little interest in venturing out into the world for himself. Thus he avoided most trouble with violent elements. Encounters were always fraught with danger and he eschewed them as often as possible, but in a world like this, adventure often sought the denizens as often as they sought it.
Above ground was the ravaged world of Shattered Lands and lost souls – devastated cities, vast deserts, turbulent patches of humanity, and the monsters. A great many monsters. Many of which wore the masks of men. Gathering in gangs and coalitions, the survivors built mighty forts, scavenged for foodstuffs, forged new weapons, and hammered out lives.
He learned long ago that the monsters that came down into his domain of shafts and tunnels weren't usually the shambling kind with irradiated skin sloughing off their deformed bodies. He had little to fear from that type.
"We're currently having a little dispute with a group of out Texas. A real nasty bunch. We need resources to teach them a lesson."
The prospector allowed a shift in his stance to indicate he was still listening.
"I'd like you to come work for us. Start us a mine or two."
Or ten, thought the prospector.
"Wouldn't need you to dig everything out, just get them started. We have the manpower for that. It's finding the right coordinates that's the trick. You, on the other hand," spreading his own and looking around the vast area the miner had dug, "have a knack for the find."
"I fucking think he uses a Cheat," spat Wu.
"Maybe he does," conceded Lim, "or maybe he just has Real experience. No matter. He has the nose and that's the point." And then back to the prospector, "Whaddya say?"
The prospector cocked his head.
"There's a lot hidden in these tunnels. You could take from me in the very same manner in which you took from the Hell's Beach pilgrims," the prospector surmised matter-of-factly. The smile on Lim's face told him that the translation was not lost on the gang leader.
"True. But that would be killing the cash cow. Despite the ambition of some of my comrades, I would like to offer you the chance to come dig for us."
"Slave in your mines, you mean."
Lim chuckled but placed his hands up in a placating manner, "Look, I'm here asking, aren't I? We need our own mines. Trekking here took three Game Days. We can't be doing that all the time just to dig out what you've hidden. We could round up a bunch of losers to do it, but then we'd have to police them.
"Come put your skills to work for us, and you will be left to your own resources. You'll be fed and safe, and…" He looked behind him at the fourth member of the group – googles and bandana hid his or her gender, and not even the slight build of body was enough evidence to confirm.
She pulled the bandana down and removed the pair of googles that obscured her face.
"We have several girls. You could enjoy some lovin' now and then." Lim smirked.
The prospector looked over the woman. She was definitely not without her charms, and she smiled pleasantly enough, but her eyes were full of the dark fire of intention and ambition.
Through his bandana the prospector took a deep breath and nodded his head.
Lim laughed heartedly, reaching out to slap the prospector cordially on the shoulder. "I like a man who can read a prospect."
With a quick look at his Watch-Compass, Lim threw with his arm around the prospector's shoulder and lead them back to toward the southwest, "Since we are headed that way, let's consider the offer you spoke of earlier as a friendly gesture on your part…"
The gritty schluff-gronk from the dark side corridor was unmistakable. Pushing the prospector back, Lim, Wu and third man raised their weapons in defense forming a triangle. Wu, with his shotgun, elbowed the third man in a spate of clipped Chinese that the translation software was unable to handle. In response, the third man offered a hearty English "Fuck you!" He held his ground, shoving the bully back – clearly eager for the Kill Experience opportunity.
A brutish devil from the Desert Wastes, the Bulvark hop-skittered from the darkness, its sickly mottled skin bloated in disease and poison glands. It belched a sickly fog in the direction of the group displaying two rows of needle-sharp teeth in its disturbingly large mouth in a show of provocation.
The prospector fell back to the ground on his ass, his arms up in defense.
His face screwed in disgust, Lim fired several short bursts from his Assault Rifle. In the ensuing violence of semi-automatic fire, the prospector took his cue and went into action. Throwing himself against Wu, he shoved his finger through the trigger guard and gripped the shotgun in an overhand position that placed it in the crook of his right armpit, steadying it so Wu could not bring it up as a person was want to do when grappling.
At that range, the blast delivered Fatal Damage to Lim's back, sending his body flying in an odd ragdoll arc toward the Bulvark… and through it, exposing the hologram ruse.
With a scream, the woman unleashed a kick at the prospector's head which he ducked and rolled under, simultaneously twisting the shotgun from the Wu's hands.
Wu doubled over as the kick caught him straight in the groin. Without breaking the flow of his actions, the prospector turned the weapon on the third man only to have it click empty. The two would-be combatants stared at each across the span of deciseconds of surprised non-action until the prospector tossed the shotgun toward the third man, who in the confusion of the situation, jumped back as if the weapon were a live snake.
Ripping the loose sleeve back from his dusty jumpsuit to reveal a WristBow, the prospector fired at the man, hitting him square in the throat. The Avatar went down in uncontrollable spasms as the bolt unleashed a massive electric charge that set his nervous system afire.
The woman leaped on the prospector with the speed and agility of a large cat, sending the pair tumbling to the hard stone in the close quarters of the passage. The prospector positioned his left elbow between his ribs and the mean jabs she unleashed upon his left side. Uncont right arm was particularly brutal and his left elbow was going numb from the repeated blows.
Timing his movement to the punches, he made his way over to the body of the third man, pretending to tumble backwards whereupon the prospector obtained the dead man's six-shot. Up to a knee and around quick enough to stave off the woman approaching on her next attack. She froze.
Next to her, Wu groaned and came up to his knees. The prospector put two bullets in his upper body in quick succession and returned his bead to the woman before Wu's body hit the ground.
They both held their ground for several seconds before she unclenched her fists and held them up in a show of placation.
"Wait…" she said. And with a small laugh, "You're pretty damn good, cowboy." The word "cowboy" was clear under the English translation.
Once more the prospector was in no rush to speak.
"Look… team affiliations don't really suit me all that well." Cautiously reaching for the zipper on her jumpsuit, she undid it to just below her navel, revealing sensual, petite breasts with dark nipples as she shrugged her shoulders from it.
She bit her lip. "If you like what you see… You can take it all, the loot, the gang… me."
Shimming from the jumpsuit, she let it drop to the floor.
The prospector drank in the invitation in great gulps. When he was finished, the prospector brought the gun up with a cool calculation and put a bullet between her eyes. Her corpse jerked wildly, flopped against the cold stone wall of the cavern, and slid down into a lewd position.
Dumping the Chinese corpses in Strongboxes, he emerged from his wasteland hole in the ground, and he sent up a signal flare. Shortly after, two armed men came out of the sunset and entered his lair.
Silently, he led them to the chamber where he'd taken the Chinese gang down, and opened the Strongboxes.
Inside, nude avatars lay supine, palms up, faces serene – FPS caricatures of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, and next to each, the supplies the individual been carrying, neatly aligned. All as if waiting to be chosen and outfitted. That is, with the exception of the woman.
Her left leg and right arm were both partially missing. Next to them, the two prosthetic limbs she had been equipped with, giving rise to the explanation of why Wu had gone down so hard and why the prospector's arm had gone numb for a time.
Cybernetics were Very Uncommon, non-forgeable Items that had to be scavenged from across the greater Map as a whole. They were worth far more than anything he'd pulled out of this mine to-date. Too bad she hadn't been more proficient in using them. Perhaps she'd only just obtained them recently. The burned earth had a way of ensuring Items found their way to those who could use them.
"Yeah, these look like the hombres from the gang that hit us last week," said the first man interrupting the prospector's thoughts. The grin on the other man's face was lurid in the torch light. "Impressive kills. I'm sure PrinCis will want to personally show his gratitude."
The prospector nodded inattentively.
The first man lit a cigarette and stood in silent consideration, arms crossed in front of him.
"Damn, what a waste," said the second, an avatar with the neon name "Carl S'bad" eyeballing the nude form of the Chinese woman. "Hey, Jaeger, think we could take this bitch back with us?"
A look of disgust crossed the first man's face as he looked over his shoulder, "You and your kinks."
"Legally purchased Skill, man," S'bad chuckled. "But seriously, check out the Mod on this bod."
The pickaxe hit the first man just under the sternum in an upward swing that lifted him off the ground. He made little sound beyond the cracking of his neck against the ceiling.
Clueless to the ambush until the body dropped backward into the Locker, pickaxe and all, the second man did nothing more than stared open-mouthed as the prospector mercilessly took a Machete to his head.
Closing the Lockers, he opened them again quickly to reveal the shooters from Texas aligned neatly next to their Chinese counterparts. There was quite a bit of loot to be pilfered from this lot. He picked out a few items he thought would do him the most good, placed them into a backpack he'd prepared, and closed the Lockers.
It was a little known Bug, but they wouldn't be able to reconnect to these avatars until the next Update, which was at least still several weeks off. And then they'd be back – possibly working together – to hunt him down. He'd be long gone by then.
With a great swing of his pickaxe, he opened a hidden spot in the wall to reveal a long, dark tunnel he'd dug for just such an occasion. It lead to a different region of the Map altogether and surfaced nowhere along the route. Once inside, he quickly sealed himself in and was gone.