Duel in the Desert
by John Romero
Web Posted by John Romero, 1996
Reprinted by the Seattle Washington Autoduel Team, September 2001
Original Web Address: http://www.aisp.net/romerohj/stories/deseduel.htm
Jed hated the fucking desert. Always hot. Always dry. Always sandy.
His nose bled for a month when he first came up from Louisiana eight years
ago. Since then, New Mexico hadn't exactly grown on him, but he adapted.
There hadn't been much choice since the Collapse. The Radical Right had
taken over Louisiana, and Jed lost a lot of kin during the political cleansing
of undesirables. He'd barely made it out of the state with his own skin,
and a horde of memories he never talked about. The rest of the nation,
too preoccupied with other pressing matters both domestic and foreign,
couldn't stop a number of southern states from seceding. Louisiana had
quickly become a religious dictatorship, controlling about a third of the
oil supply produced on the North American continent. The fate of folks
like Jed was a mere footnote in an
underground history book. As for Jed himself, he just pressed on.
Jed cruised parts of New Mexico and Arizona on a never-ending search for gas and water, the staples of local life. There were numerous road hazards to avoid. Texans from the east, carloads of Mexicans from the south, Nippon-backed Californians expanding their borders from the west, rabid Mormons from Utah, and they all claimed the southern arid regions as their own. Added to that were rival gangs doing the same thing Jed was doing. Two things tended to keep Jed among the living: flying the Cloud Scorpion colors, and the twenty millimeter mini-gun in his roadhog's custom sidecar. Escape and evasion had long since become second nature, along with the occasional preemptive strike.
Somewhere east of the short border Nevada shares with Arizona, Jed eased down forgotten pavement almost completely blown over by wind-driven sand. Clicking along at fifteen or twenty miles, he stopped frequently to consult a large military map and his compass. Folding that big sucker up in the ever-present wind was a goddamned nuisance, but the only way to find his goal. The military had built some kind of compound or cache in the area -- somewhere -- years ago. Jed had the job of finding it and rating it for salvage. Like as not, someone else had already stumbled across it and gutted it, or blown it to bits in some skirmish. Yet, the Scorpions usually developed extra good intel, for the same reason Jed had such kick-ass firepower for a scout: Jed's gang operated out of a military missile silo complex.
Jed worked for Snake Jenkins, who, in turn, led the Cloud Scorpions.
The Scorps had bettered themselves under Snake's daring leadership. They
had caught the base they now occupied in the middle of an abandonment process.
The nukes were long since gone, launched and then destroyed by SDI systems
that worked far beyond anyone's best expectations. Since there were no
missiles, the security was weaker than it might have been. But there was
still quite a bit of other hardware left around, and not enough of the
Air Force left to hold onto it or destroy it before bugging out. The Scorpions
had seen fit to relieve Uncle Sam of said hardware in the interests of
Scorp security. Snake even changed the name of the gang to the Cloud Scorpions
to mark the conquest. He also added a mushroom cloud backdrop to the gang's
scorpion silhouette symbol.
The complex was an excellent base to run out of, highly defensible, self-contained power supply, and many bays suitable for mechanical work. So far, the government didn't have the resources to regain it. Snake figured they'd come calling again someday, if only to settle a point of honor.
Snake amused himself from time to time by searching the base's huge collection of military data. They'd cracked some safes and lockers, and found all manner of records. Snake had located the map, marked with several base locations, that Jed now carried. He sent Jed to have a look and see what might remain. So, now, Jed scouted. As he examined the map again, he knew he was within a mile of his goal. A flash of light off in the distance distracted him. He looked towards the horizon and caught it again, a glint of reflected light, wavering in the heat.
"Must be it," Jed thought, "or another goddamned mirage." He tucked the map away and gunned the motor. Guiding the bike off the road, he mounted a nearby swell to maybe get a clearer view with his binoculars. He heard a distant whining, strong and steady, as soon as he killed the motor. Something was coming. Jed quickly drifted back down the rise, cranked the hog, and flipped the arming switch on his cannon.
The mini-gun was a Vulcan type, with six rotating barrels firing more rounds per minute than Jed generally carried with him. Jed, the Scorp's most accomplished scout, got the mini-gun from the base's stash. Their mechanics had managed to mate the gun's carriage to his sidecar, and even provided some limited articulation. Jed used it rarely, yet he still gained something of a local rep because of it.
Jed used a thumb-controlled toggle to test the swivel mount, glancing back to be sure that it was working. He moved into the scant brush, angling away from the road. He kept his speed down, trying not to raise much dust behind him.
Looking back down the road, Jed could see that his enemy did not take the same care. Everything not Scorpion was Jed's enemy by default, a basic assumption that extended Jed's survival. Dust arced into the air as Jed's foe worked to close the gap. Jed no longer doubted that he'd been made. A chill sweat dribbled down his spine. Jed thought it would be a good idea to goose it.
He'd gotten about a half mile further into the brush --- still too thin to serve as decent cover, though he was moving through increasingly larger rock outcropping --- when he caught on that they were taking long range pot shots at him. He couldn't make out the sound of the gunshots over his screaming motor, but he couldn't miss the sand and rock less than fifteen feet away erupting in patterns he usually created at a distance with his mini-gun.
"Shit," exclaimed Jed.
He turned hard, away from the impact, dodging around a low pile of boulders.
More rounds zinged by overhead.
Jed concentrated on his navigation.
Jed finally caught a glimpse of his enemy, now close enough to make out general outlines. It was a small four-wheeler, an off-road make, and with military lines. Yet it was unfamiliar to Jed, who'd seen a number of U.S. military examples close up. No one seemed to be hanging out the windows with rifles; the weaponry firing at him even now was mounted, like Jed's own. He ducked out of sight again as nearby rocks chipped from the impact of rounds getting closer all the time. The bastards churned dust and gravel to close up the distance.
"Persistent mother fuckers," he thought. Jed bobbed and skidded, moving towards increasingly larger clumps of boulder and earth. He was looking for a bolt hole of some kind. Jed could shoot back, maybe match their guns, but he was pretty sure he was fighting an armored vehicle, and he counted his chances as slim against that. Better to evade, live to fight another --
"Son of a bitch!" Jed stopped short, inches away from the edge of a ravine that cut a twenty foot gap in the desert floor before him. He cranked the front tire around and began running parallel to the trench.
Jed checked back. He wasn't completely sure but it looked like they'd figured out that he turned. It looked like they were trying to cut him off. It damned well looked like they might do it, too. The boulders were getting larger and closer together as he progressed, so he figured he still had a chance to escape. But the bastards were shooting at him again . . .
Jed sped along the ravine, watching the stony outcropping on his other
side. Abruptly, he saw a partially enclosed
niche, and a plan formed.
He slid to a stop just past the opening. he cut the engine, then walked his bike backwards into the gap, covering the opening with his mini-gun. He had only to wait. There was a narrow gap between him and the ravine, but it was easily wide enough to admit the jokers on his case. Without his own motor noise, the whine of those assholes' engine echoed off the surrounding rock face and the far side of the ravine. It sounded like a banshee released from the depths of hell. He couldn't pinpoint where they were. Jed reflected that it was a high pitched whine, almost like a jet's. No land vehicle in his memory made a racket like that.
Without warning, it materialized before him, rounding the side of the boulder. Jed cut loose on the far front tire, walking his rounds to it, while the car returned a volley, surprised and poorly aimed. The solid rubber off-road tire vaporized in a cloud of expanding dust and shreds. The vehicle immediately lost traction, and its momentum carried it over the side of the ravine.
Jed heard the crump of the impact when the vehicle struck bottom. He eased up to the edge for a look, then quickly ducked back as the near gun of the overturned car swiveled over and took a shot in his direction. Then it exploded.
"Son of a bitch!" cried Jed, his ears still ringing too loudly to hear his own words. He sat back in the shade for a bit to catch his head. The wreck burned itself out quickly. There were a few more smaller explosions which Jed guessed were rounds burning off, then all was quiet again. Jed was too prudent a fellow to give up so readily on a possible salvage op, so he decided to give the wreckage at least a short inspection.
While dusk began rolling in, Jed climbed down the side of the ravine. He began poking around the wreckage. Even in destruction, cracked open like a can of beans gone bad, the vehicle had the sleek lines of Japanese design, coupled with the utility of a military vehicle. Jed confirmed his suspicions, noting Japanese pictograms imprinted on some of the interior components. This bastard was from California, probably made in a fucking Honda plant.
It had the most hinky off-road suspension system Jed had ever seen. Cables from the shocks disappeared into the interior, where Jed traced them to a hardened case bolted to the chassis where he suspected some sort of hydraulic reservoir and microchip brain lurked. A wide, low-profile ram scoop, bedecked the top of the passenger cabin. It channeled air to the mill in the back, no parts of which Jed could readily identify. It looked like it could have been an electric/gas hybrid. There was also a revolving grid on top, maybe radar, which went a long way towards explaining why Jed was having such a tough time shaking the pursuit. The guns protruded in the front, trashed by the wreck, and the fire had done in the ammo.
Jed wrenched back the hatch that led into the cabin. At first, he didn't understand what he was looking at as he peered within. Then, the blood sort of drained from his face as recognition set in. He hurriedly reached in and grabbed an object about the size of a bowling ball. He took off, scrambling back up the ravine side as fast as he could. Snake would want to know about this.
"Fucking Japs," he muttered as he climbed. "Fucking Japs!"
Inside the broken armored car, Jed had seen a badly burnt head and torso. No more than he'd been expecting, until he saw there hadn't been any other body parts. Then he saw the wires and the tubes. He'd seen where the torso fitted into the console that replaced the driver's seat. He'd taken the ceramic-hardened skull, the skin still festooned with bits of surgically implanted electronics, because he knew no one would buy this story without some kind of proof. It was a goddamned abomination, and Jed figured there'd be more where it came from.