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|Lilian Rook|| It's somewhere in Nevada. It has to be. You're sure. Double sure. Triple sure. That thing that was allegedly a dragon didn't exactly inspire confidence in being able to give clear and simple directions in human terms (and by what roadsigns anyways?) but the hard-won information literally pulled out of some war crime neurons and mixed together with countless other micro-inductions paints the chain of command for the intentional disaster in Caelton fairly clearly:
Orders disseminated through the same drop as Damien's, through Western Seaboard inland transport routes, masked with the cargo activity of a company you could trace the logo of back to the States, originally based in California, which owns resource extraction in Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, but its telemetry and accounting and scheduling and manifests are handled through a monitoring and communications outfit that is a major developer and seller to the GDF, who run all their top secret testing and manufacturing out in an undisclosed location somewhere in Nevada, which finally matches with the description of a desert and shooting starts you got from the monster's mouth.
The problem is: there aren't any Warpgates that go there. None. Literally zero. The rate of their proliferation in this world has already slowed to near the end of that lifecycle, and there's just nothing that goes anywhere to that whole desert chunk of the continent. Why? Unfortunately, it's not like you can just get on the internet and ask, and predictably, Lilian has zero connections with any American Enlightened, and no outstanding reason to have made any connections there as with Japan.
By evening, the closest that can be gotten is the very edge of the desert, to the southwest, across the border of what would be California if anyone still cared. A true middle of who-cares, with barely the capacity to put cars through, out in dry and dusty air, soon to get cold in a few hours. To the south, a dim vision of bumpy, unimpressive mountains across the horizon, with the faint twinkle of distant lights. To the north, grey desert. To the west, grey desert and the setting sun. To the east, grey desert and a distant, pale blue glow across from it. There's not so much as a river to build a town on.
But there is habitation. Just enough to dubiously meet the definition of an Urban Center, by this world's very limited metric. It sits at a nexus of pale and faded highways, unmaintained for decades, as if even the Onslaught failed to remember this spot existed, never mind erase them. The land at the center of them is jealously hidden behind a steep caldera of towering walls; gunmetal politely painted in peeling, windmill farm white, bearing the occasional logo of a likely now-irrelevant sponsor organization between its thick, square towers and above its low slopes, blinking with sensor studs and bristling with radio equipment. Despite the different aesthetic, that much isn't dissimilar to either side of the English Channel.
|Lilian Rook|| What is different is that most of the habitation space appears to be *outside*. A sprawling ghetto of densely packed cabins, sheds, lean-tos, and permanent tents, crams itself as closely as it can to the walls, and only reluctantly follows the radiating roads when there is no space left, forming a solid ring of dusty shanty town. Beyond the border of even that, countless, slender towers crop up from the ground, like triple-tall aluminium telephone masts, unfolding into splayed racks of humming lights and crackling filaments, altogether forming a circular perimeter which the Warpgate is just barely within.
Those with the ability to feel magic perceive something akin to a monotone hum of flies wings and a vibrating numbness in the teeth. Everyone else is probably just more fixed on the sight of shabbily dressed mobs of children chasing down a convoy of covered trucks heading east, apparently out of simple boredom, monitored not just by their parents, drawing from outdoor wells or cooking on battered grills, but by the silicon eyes on sleek white robotic quadrupeds that wander the neighbourhood.
|Arthur Lowell||>Arthur: Make this right
Wrong questline, but you know what? Arthur *does* want to make this right. It's less his fault in general, but fundamenttally he was part of what fucked around the balance of power and started this disaster off. But still. Dude. Keep it in check for just a little bit. Arthur's not even there yet.
>Arthur: Oh, okay, cool. Make this right, but *casually.*
Arthur swaggers out of the gate, plants his palms on his hips, and looks around. Hmm! Okay. Well, this looks like shit, but it's got people, probably! With no real things like internet or suchlike, people's social needs must be being met somewhere. Probably somewhere with alcohol! He's gotta go find where there's a nice big bunch of people, kick in the door, swagger in, and ask for a guide to Nevada.
>Arthur: Wait, why not rocket there directly?
That's a *fantastic* idea for how to get ripped to shreds by a sky monster that's, like, made of hostile-luck mirror-shards, or eaten by an angry mobile mountain, or get abducted by a television signal, or whatever the fuck Antegent infests that stretch of land.
>Arthur: Okay fine, go to the nearest apparent social center and brashly demand a guide, I get it.
|Rita Ma|| This city design... I recognize it. It's just like the Union Busan used to be, but on land. This is how you defend against monsters when you think some people are disposable.
"Look," Rita says on approach, her expression halfway between neutral and a grimace. She's pointing at the slums. "The way they're huddled up outside the walls. They're desperate for that protection, but the people inside the walls don't think they're worth protecting." She looks to Lilian as if for confirmation, but her expression says she already knows.
The 'lower decks'. I remember what that was like. Policed, bled dry, and given only enough safety to make us stay. That's the way it always is.
Amid the slums, Rita blends in even better than she normally does. At some point when nobody's looking, her pretty blue-green skirt-and-jacket outfit dissolves in favor of an age-bleached, well-worn sundress. It was once red, maybe, but now a faded pinkish-beige. Even her dress shoes are replaced with hand-cobbled sandals.
"Excuse me, miss?" she says to the first unthreatening-looking older woman she can casually approach, and points east towards the departing convoy. "Do you know what's in those trucks? Or where they're going?" Her youthful appearance and tone of innocent curiosity manage to make it sound like an idle question, rather than the pointed inquiry that it is.
When one of the quadrupedal robots passes her, she flinches, as if it might somehow see right through her. Is that what keeps these people in check? Her eyes dart to the faces of those nearby- how do they feel about the patrolling machines?
"Even here, I'm starting to see patterns from my training," comments Kale, once the group's settled in a little post-warpgate-jaunt. "How and why things are setup. It's like looking at a painting and being able to make out the fine brushstrokes..."
Why residential and commercial centers are clustered the way they are, why this road or that is curving the way it is, the way the nearby water sources cause the nearby settlement to form around-
"... No, wait-" says Kale, giving voice to his thoughts again. "Why here?"
For Kale, it's like he was gazing at a picture for a minute, trying to make out the fine details - and then suddenly noticing that the sky had been painted in neon purple.
"There's - there's no water. Why set up town here? The warpgate's here, but it would have come *after* the town was set up- and the roads are fucked, I don't think you could actually get a car on one of them..."
"... And - no, shut up, you don't get it." he tells Rita. "The walls ain't here for keeping people out. Don't you see the way the defenses are pointing?"
"The defenses are pointing *inwards*."
"This is... all sorts of messed up," he adds, reaching back and putting a hand on one of his swords. "This is like - I'm just guessing about this, but it's like someone built the *idea* of a town, and kept it... is keeping it 'contained' here?"
|Tina Natsumi||Whoever heard of a dragon in a desert? Tina certainly hasn't, but after that encounter with the red dragon and hearing about everything else that's been going on, she's not so surprised about hearing that there's no easy way to their destination in the middle of the desert. That means...
Road trip! Maybe. Except the habitation area she emerges from is rather awful with all those crappy little shacks and tents making it look less like a permanent home and more of a...
".. What's it called when a whole group of people go wandering around instead of settling down? Nerm... Derm... Nomads!" Tina chimes as she saunters along, trying to look casual on her way around the shanty town. She's dressed in noticeably less flashy stuff than she usually is, but still distinctly not-from-here clothing: Denim jacket, black tank top with matching pants, and a belt with a suspiciously handgun-sized pouch hanging off the side. She's also got her cowboy hat on, of course, since the desert's not a place that someone would want to be caught without a hat.
She watches the swarm of children idly as they chase after the trucks, then gets to work on... She's not actually sure what she's looking for. Meeting the red dragon had been weird enough already, and it's actually kind of hard to make sense of what it even said way back when.
With little else to go off of, Tina opts to check out these strange robots. She picks one at random to follow around, although she doesn't make a huge effort not to get noticed. She's not dressed nearly enough like a local to blend in, either, and she's curious to see just how said robots or their creators would react to someone just following them around without saying a thing.
|I4||It's hot, it's sweltering, and now it's going to be evening soon which probably means it's going to get freezing, the road is bumpy and badly designed. It's awful and I4 weathers this all because it isn't like he can go home. He's spent the last two weeks with a psychiatrist, but nothing really has done much to improve his mood. Though he was cleared to work again.
He rubs the sweat off his forehead, and today he's not even wearing a headband. He does have a cap with a bill on it to try and keep the sun off of his face, though it does nothing for it being annoyingly hot. Behind him, the POD was hovering, though not saying anything at the moment besides the occasional pinging noise.
That was until they got close. The POD speaks up, -Detecting high levels of unidentified magic.-
This causes I4 to stand up straight to look at him. "Really? Alright so...that's weird," he says, not saying much about the city itself. The outside of INDUS' walls has the occasional shantytown. People that are too poor to get in, but live off the scraps. People who lost social standing and were kicked out...rather actually kicked out or forced out. Those places never last long, and they were never authorized to help them.
Most of those people are dead, because they died from monsters, or because they became monsters in the desert.
It reeks of INDUS and I4 sighs. Whatever, he's not here for this, he thinks to himself. Instead, he motions a hand towards the town. "Let's try and identify that magic, and find out where it is.."
|James Bond||MI6 - 'Estate'
M: A word about your evaluation. I've reviewed the tapes. This Caelton assignment... you sounded in that examination as though you were eager.
007: Shouldn't I be?
M: I'm not entirely convinced it's appropriate that you are.
007: It's inappropriate that I should want to handle this myself?
M: You feel as though they've crossed a line.
007: I do.
M: Then you're more of a child than I thought. When you pull on those threads as we ask, what do you suppose happens to what they held up?
007: That's different.
M: I'm sure it isn't. Disruption. Dismantling. This is a messy business, 007. It only looks different to you because it wasn't in your rear view mirror this time. Do I need to assign someone else for this?
007: No, ma'am.
M: Good. The nearest warpgate is in California. Dismissed.
California - 'Warpgate'
The pickup is at once older and newer than the walls of that urban center. Its paint doesn't peel, but its silhouette is from a time before there was ever thought of any Onslaught, before the things that went bump in the night had to divvy up a greatly diminished world between what was left of their number.
Its driver has no ability to perceive magic but the dry, cold, mundane forces that push and pull people, ideas and places, wearing them down, tearing them apart, pressing them into new and alien shapes. His faded ball cap shades his eyes. A black beard frames a frown of concentration. Outwardly, he is a person of the road. A primitive cistern is bolted to the bed, and a gun rack behind the seat bears a shotgun.
A man coming from nowhere, representing no one, flicks up the lever for the cruise conrol. A magnification screen appears on the inside of the truck's windscreen, zooming in on the convoy as it is chased by those children. Pictures are snapped, a blocky, compact yet primitive computer swivels out from the passenger side glove compartment. It displays images of Rita. 'NEW FACE,' types the man on this console, before it disappears and the instrument panel disappears behind its false wall once again.
He arrives. This is a man that's looking for work. A backpack full of tools is slung over one shoulder. He drifts aimlessly between the tents outside those walls. His accent is American. Midwest. He's done some traveling to get here. Hoping for greener pastures.
What's the word?
|Lilian Rook|| Lilian, herself, already knows the answer to Rita's question. It'd astonishing if she didn't. She sounds very much as if she's making excuses she doesn't believe, and even then, only with the tone of a reluctant devil's advocate. "The walls aren't easy to move. If you put them up to defend your own, and someone else's come running to hide behind you, there are choices you have to make, I suppose." She stares at the perimeter of humming posts in the distance, tapping her cheekbone in focused, repetitive annoyance. "At least, they moved those further outside. Those have to be what's sheltering anything from the moon, right?"
Rita's first lucky draw is a slightly greying lady that less decent people might spend a while arguing about whether or not she counts as latino, currently occupied with washing childrens' clothes by hand outside a dwelling on the more solid side, using a lot of baked clay and only finished off with aluminium siding and plastic. She looks at her with a measure of surprise, and then the kind of patient endearment that comes from deciding a weird child is Just Fine. "Your parents tell you nothing, little one? Ah, but it's a scary question, so maybe I don't blame them too much." She points along the road line with a slightly water-pruned finger. "They're off to the Mojave. Old Death Valley, where the west picket is. Guns for the soldiers that stay there so that nothing comes wandering on out of the Mojave. You understand?"
The robots are almost invisible to the people here, by her judging. Almost. The children and the younger adults don't seem to pay them any mind. The middle aged and older can't seem to get used to them, and seem to follow both where the robotic quadrupeds tread, and out who their own family and friends are with the way their eyes track from there. Tina follows one without much difficulty, for a few of what could charitably be called 'blocks'. It comes up to just below her ribcage in height, moving with a gait so close ot organic it's more creepy than reassuring, on thin, ballpoint legs, all parts other than its white plastic chassis concealed under desert tan dust covers. She spots a weathered logo --GHOST-- on the back half of its central bulk, and gets to watch a little black camera box with glinting lense eyes swivel back and forth and all around from its 'shoulders' like a little bird.
After she follows it for long enough, the robot abruptly plants its front legs and Initial D's itself around to face her with an uncanny sideways saunter, fixing her in the sights of a big, black, glassy dome-face. A very calm and pleasant, airline-style female voice synthesizes from a speaker, saying "Please remain at least fifteen feet from all public safety and wellness autonomous units on patrol, and return to your business. Harassment of public safety and wellness autonomous units is an offense, and may be escalated to presumed intent to theft of government property if harassment continues."
|Lilian Rook|| I4 is about to have the least fun time of all. Scanning for 'magic in the area' is precisely like scanning for radio waves in the middle of a solar event. There is jack shit in the way of magical *energy* anywhere --that is, the power to do 'work' via magic-- but there are obviously magical patterns and processes so densely clustered in the air that it's like picking up a whole spectrum of wavelengths --the empty grooves through which magic would move to weave a spell, like unpowered circuits on a board.
The more thoroughly he attempts to scan it, the more severely it interferes with his scanning. The more he tries to make use of his POD, the more its parameters become generally erratic. He can tell, at least, that it's not some kind of hostile suppression effect; no magic is drained from him, nor blocked, nor interrupted. However, trying to do anything overtly magically powered feels like trying to run a computer game while someone is waving a magnet menacingly around the hard drive. The sheer amount of noise competing with 'magic' in metaphysical space is like harsh radio static, drowning out anything too subtle.
It does, very obviously, come from those posts, erected to form a complete perimeter around both the shanty area and the walls themselves, which appear to also emit their own, smaller, less powerful signal as well.
James Bond stands out for even *having* a truck. The ones he photographs and scans are deceptive only from a distance; with minimal computer breakdown, he finds that they're obviously very new, and modelled on something close to a familiar military style sheerly due to the number of shortcuts made to simplify the design. Something you build when you don't have the original hardware anymore, a huge demand for replacements, and limited supply to manufacture with.
People watch him roll in with a random mixture of curiosity and consternation, or perhaps more accurately, judging opportunity versus weighing fear. Only children are oblivious enough to gather up around and go bananas over it, immediately mobbing him to ask what type of truck it is, where he found it, if he always had it, what driving is like, if they can have a truck when they get older and find work, and where he drove from-- they seem to presume the south. Some older boys ogle his shotgun through the window, and one even tries to offer to buy it from him, but everyone seems to have the unspoken etiquette not to go anywhere near the cistern.
The older boys also tell him that there's nothing for him here unless he can get himself a job with 'Ghost', 'ASI', 'General Dynamics', or 'Chase', and they don't seem to judge him as an educated type. They do, helpfully as can be, inform him that his best bet for work is to enlist, but if he wanted to do that, he'd be better off going further north where there's less action. A pair of white quadrupeds form up near his vehicle, and also politely inform him "Welcome to the Angeles Border Urban Center sub-zone 201. Provide your name, occupation, route of origin, social identification number, vehicle registration, and state intent of visit. Please remain at least one half mile away from the Center perimeter until contacted by a representative. Your safety and ours is important to us."
|Lilian Rook|| 'Social center' is about as accurately as one could really put it here, in Arthur's case. Certainly, there are centers of social behaviour in this vicinity, by the strictest of definitions. Most of them are 'outdoor lots where either a lot of kids are fucking around or a lot of old people are metaphorically or literally grilling'.
It takes a fucking *walk* to get to, thank god, a site where some less joyless people had a similar idea to him, and insisted on using a lot of leftover drywood on a cinderblock base to build their imitation of a saloon purely from pop culture memory, only its sign and classical swinging doors properly carved with reverence from some unemployed cowboy enthusiast, who seemingly never quite finished the last quarter of the rightmost door. Barging in even gets the proper swingback effect. Beautiful.
The inside is rather small compared to a movie. It's much more like a social club, or a dive bar hole in the ground, than a set for a dramatic shootout. The number of people who stop playing cards or watching the shitty beat-up TV to pay attention indicates that approximately every kid in town thinks it's cool to barge in like that once or twice. The smell of spirits is so strong that he can only naturally assume that this has to be, in spirit, an upscale moonshine operation, watered down and flavoured with whatever bitters are at hand to bring back to luxury of getting smashed at a local level.
Demanding to be lead to Nevada is mostly met with blank stares. Nobody even derisively laughs at this young idiot's hotblooded question. An older man with a prickly mustache, wreathed in a halo of pipe smoke, who should theoretically be washing glasses or something right now, takes the sacred barkeep's duty upon himself, and asks "What, you lookin' to enlist boy? This ain't the spot." He then pulls out a folded up wad of crinkled paper, slaps it down on the counter, and slides it towards Arthur. "I'll save you askin' the spurs for directions. Have to show out the kids enough."
Ostensibly some shittily penned directions on spare paper, Arthyr finds it quite cleverly sealed, with something of slight weight wrapped up inside it, the moment he touches it.
|Tina Natsumi||Following the machine turns out to be easier than expected! Tina notices the difference in how the younger and older people here treat the robots easily enough, and she takes note of which groups of people look like they might be families just in case she might need to know that in the next ten minutes or so. Eventually, however, the machine turns, and it gives her the/a reaction she was actually hoping for.
Well, except for the fact that it's really freaking creepy when it does. She whistles lightly as it does that impressive spin, then holds her hands up to show that she's not armed when it addresses her. "Whoa, whoa, easy there. Ain't no harm intended. Just been a while since I ever did see somethin' like you before."
She fakes a convincing laugh, then tilts her head slightly while catching onto something odd she's just heard. "I'm just a curious gal that ain't too good with folks, y'see? Curious about what you mean with this.. Uh. 'Public safety and wellness' business." Still keeping her distance and her hands up, she glances around at the townspeople, then at the walls with a bit more faked fear in her tone.
"There ain't somethin' or someone's I should be worried about gobbling me up, is there? Or some kinda disease I should be orderin' a hazmat suit for, you think? Or... Uh." She clears her throat, then pushes her luck once more. "Don't reckon there's someone I could ask about that, do ya?"
|Kale Hearthward||So what have we learned, Kale?
* The town is fucked up.
* There's no present local authority that's noticed them.
* There *is* a local authority, but they're doing everything through robots, maybe. (thus, not present)
* There certainly isn't anyone here to greet them and let them ask questions. If they were paying attention, they'd at least show up, right?
The conclusion: Make them aware, so that Kale can ask them questions.
One of the quadruped robots sprouts a sudden passenger. Human-glamoured (because he doesn't want to be mistaken for a bird antegent) Kale leans in, and taps on whatever camera he can spot. "Heyyyyy!"
He taps on it again, a bit more forcefully. "Hey! I don't like getting ignored! Let your bosses know I wanna talk, already!"
This should, hopefully, get someone's attention, and then the group can ask for directions and about the local hazards, and continue on past this dump. There's no possible flaws in this plan or anything that could go wrong with it. (Such as the fact that the robots are armed.)
|I4||I4, irritably crosses his arms at his POD. "That's not what I told you to do. No, why are you barking out more...that's not even useful information!" he says, perhaps in a sort of argument with it. Rubbing his temples after a moment, he tries to 'hack' the drone to try and clear out whatever is causing these problems.
Only to find out some sort of...is it magic? It's interference, there is a pattern or something..? For a moment, he tries to cast a simple spell to try and see what would happen if he does so. Nothing too over the top, just conjuring a small bit of flame in his hands.
With that, he tries to lead the source of the pattern to one of the stakes. He takes a moment to simply try and scan IT, trying to figure out what this thing is, and what its function is.
|Rita Ma|| THEN: Still staring at the slums, Rita's cheek quirks in annoyance as Lilian explains the alleged rationale- seemingly more at whoever put it that way in the first place, than at Lilian for repeating it so obviously halfheartedly. "Yeah," she says, acknowledging but not affirming.
She opens her mouth as if to pose some counterargument, but then stops herself and keeps walking instead. If she doesn't really believe it either, then there's no sense at all in trying to talk her out of it, right? ... If I tried to make this place better, I don't think she'd try to stop me. That's good enough.
NOW: When the middle-aged woman mentions "your parents", Rita has an entirely authentic pity-garnering flinch reaction. Her eyes drop forlornly to the ground; her hand comes up to rub her elbow. She's broken out of it by the pointing, turning to follow the woman's pointing finger. "Guns for the Death Valley soldiers," she repeats, nodding once to confirm she gets it.
Her benefactor is rewarded with a sunny, deeply sincere Imouto Smile. "Thank you, miss! Um, good luck with your washing!" And then she's off, girly-running towards the Wall.
We've got to get inside. But if I leapt over it, even invisible, I feel like they might shoot me down: they're ready for monsters, and I don't know how well I can hide from those weird radars they have. So I'll just have to go *through*, instead.
Rita lays a palm against the shiny gunmetal surface of the Wall where the white paint's peeled up. With a subtle shimmer of chromatophores, she disappears from sight- it won't do her any good if she's spotted immediately on the other side!- and then steps into the metal with only a slight ripple in its surface. She's aiming to emerge from the nearest reflective surface on the opposite side.
Colonel Althaus paying off her debt to the world. ... I should really let Candy treat me again sometime soon.
|James Bond|| A long, long, long time ago, he might have been a mobbing child. "It's an F100," says the man in that midwestern accent. "They used to be real popular, a long time ago. This one's been in my family for almost as long. Now it's just me," he says sadly. "I used to fix things, but not down south. Things dried up where I'm from. Do your parents have anything that needs fixing?"
The key to a good disguise is not 'what you're wearing.' It's how you wear it. A wandering handyman in search of work, told that this place might be Different, arrives to find that he stands out simply for having a truck at all. How would someone like that react?
Someone like that would be used to disappointment. Someone like that would try and keep it suppressed, knowing that it isn't these people's fault that they're hardly in a place to help him. But someone like that would certainly still wear it, because someone like that is human in a way James Bond can only imitate, but imitate to near perfection. A silent, downward gaze. A slight tensing at the shoulders, a restless twitch of the fingers.
But someone like that, he thinks, would want to be brave in front of kids. Not to cause them to ask too many questions that children oughtn't ask. He manages a weak smile. "It's old, and it complains, but it's taken good care of me, so I try to return the favor." The stranger is protective enough even of older kids that he "...can't take you up on that offer, buddy. If you hurt yourself with it, your folks might turn it on me! Appreciate the interest, but this way, no one gets--"
And someone like that would be very, very careful not to annoy authorities. "...hurt. 'Scuse me for a second, kids." That man tries to hide the pain of suffering such ugliness before kids--the pain of someone whose parents told him that it wasn't always This Way, but who nevertheless can't see a way out of it. He moves slowly, as one used to dealing with these things does, holding up the vehicle's registration and his social. Both are flawless. "Mark Andrew Dahlberg. Automotive mechanic. I-10 west from Phoenix Urban Center. ...Seeking employment or passage clearance."
That last bit isn't hopeful. Mark Andrew Dahlberg knows just as well as the kids that he isn't educated. He waits until the quadrupeds leave to utter a sigh of relief he can't hide from the kids. "My dad was old enough to remember a time before those damn things. I, uh... thought maybe this place would be different." Getting 'hired on' might give him an opportunity to see the guts of this operation from the inside, and get a line on that facility in Nevada. 'Clearance for passage' is just part of the disguise. Something someone who expects to be told no says. But surely, not every automotive mechanic has such sterling proof of their talent, nor such seemingly ironclad proof of identification.
It's a few moments after this exchange that 'Mark' spots Kale tapping on that robot. "Mister, uh... I don't know if I'd do that. Where I'm from, those things are kind of ornery."
|Arthur Lowell||>Arthur: Oh, sweet! These guys know what's up. Take the cool directions, then.
Yeah, there's no cool scarred guy to gruffly insist that the trek is impossible for someone new to the area and demand a series of short deals to motivate them to take the group where they need to go. It's just directions! Arthur can handle that. He provides several appreciative daps and pounds, orders a round for everyone using his divine stipend, and wanders back out.
>Arthur: Read directions
He walks away with a grin and a spring in his step, starting to unseal it. "Huh." He mutters, feeling the weight. He slips the paper away into his QUESTER LOG to update it with various directions, and focuses on whatever just dropped out of the sealed paper "package" of sorts. What's this now?
>Arthur: Examine SEALED OBJECT
|Lilian Rook|| "Threats to public wellness and safety include but are not limited to: infectious disease as a result of inadequate social hygeine, poisoning as a result of improper handling of food or water, poisoning as a result of improper handling of industrial materials, injury as a result of improper handling of tools, injury as a result of interfering with public wellness and safety activities, injury as a result of interfering with GDF activities, compromise resulting from contact with encroachment or supplicant-class Antegent hazard vector, compromise resulting from Antegent-compromised humans or material, compromise resulting from repetition of messenger-class hazard vector material, injury resulting from contact with Antegent activities, injury resulting from criminal activity, injury resulting from contact with wildlife, heat stroke, dehydration, and sunburn."
Tina's new favourite very helpfully replies to her. "Your biological scan has been taken and recorded. No physical symptoms of injury, illness, or distress are present. If you have concerns about your condition or wish to report a potentially compromised neighbour, please use your closest available credit phone. All public safety and wellness autonomous units are airgapped HOTL processes to insulate against possible spread of subversive vectors. Credit rewards are available for actionable reports of criminal activity or Antegent compromise."
I4 scanning one of the big poles finds it even harder up close. It definitely works in the sense of a 'coverage range', not a tremendously large one for each pole, but aimed back towards the habitation center like overlapping spotlights. As far as he can tell, the problem he's experiencing almost *is* its purpose. Out here, he can't see a single sign of a rune, ward, shrine, circle, blessing, or any of the other means that historically magical countries have set up around their cities elsewhere. The effect on his magical 'tronics seems to be incidental, rather than purposeful (probably); what it seems designed to do is to inherently scramble the flow of non-physical 'information'. Judging by what is lacking in the same area, he'd want to conclude that they're serving a similar function to the wards that Caelton had (until they were stabotaged that one night) in a very scuffed, wasteful, and power-hungry capacity.
|Lilian Rook|| Bond now experiences the feeling of temporal dysphoria shared by the class he is imitating in as genuine a way as can be. The way that little kids don't even recognize the name of the vehicle, but had picked up the culture of asking from their parents. The way the older boys treat his 'knowing how to fix a truck' with all the romantic interest of someone who can do genuine fast draw six shooting. And yet the way they insist his folks must be real old if they grew up 'without the spurs', seeming to refer to the quadrupeds. The way that the couple of adults who come to get their kids try to let him down gently as if he himself were merely fresh out of college.
He is too old-world to fit in, but too new-world to be worth anything. A mythical, self-reliant, old-fashioned westerner, whom everyone respects, but can find no place for, between the shanty town and the ivory walls of contracted computer touchers. The one young man who remains insistent about his gun is taken aside by his old man, and comes back to apologize as if he said something incredibly insensitive, then shuffle away. His car's recorders pick up the conversation between, wherein the boy's father carefully explains to him that anyone travelling cross country keeps a gun loaded for themselves, not Antegent, and to put any notions of 'home defense' out of his head.
The 'spurs' buy his fake credentials, whipped up beforehand. Someone opines that they thought he must have come from Mexico, 'where the Indians have the real stuff', and opines that he must be pretty brave to come from Arizona. Then even go so far as "Submitting notification of application. You will be notified within 48 hours of any pending service positions for outbound vehicular operations." Which means that people *do* get hired on to fix the trucks, at least. The scenarios in which they would be, over having a robot doing it, can't be favourable. It takes all of five minutes for it to process too, giving him a 'gate to report to', up road of where the trucks had come through.
|Lilian Rook|| Arthur unfolds the paper, and finds not quite directions, but what looks like a number of codes, a print of an outdated road map of the area with most of the highways crossed out at various places, a small ocean of dots, dashes, and waves marked along the Mojave border, a sequence of geometric symbols too simple to even be someone mashing Wingdings, and the words "It's not Area 51. Everyone thinks it is. Don't go turning over stones looking for accountability. I trust you to remove one man, and one man only. - Kent."
The small object is some kind of digital media drive, and another one of those weird onyx metal tokens with the cold war psychic test card glyphs all over it. Examining it with unfortunate timing, a 'spur' rounds the corner just as he opens it, its camera stutters several times, and then it confronts him with "Halt. You are the recipient of illegal contraband. Surrender the material, slowly raise your hands above your head, and wait for public safety and wellness manned units to arrive for questioning in order to ascertain the nature of your case." It is at this point he can see where the red dot on his chest lines up with something behind the black glass dome faceplate.
Kale is far more direct with instantly pissing off the cops. He doesn't get a helpful warning at either Arthur's grade *or* Tina's. Once he is already on top of the robot and hassling it up close, it reacts by sending out some kind of silent alarm signal (or maybe it's the CCTV mounted every other block?) and two more take off, rapidly skidding round the corner of the lane from both sides, making a number of weirdly smooth little twitchy jerks as they settle into a slightly leaned back posture, and then simply shoot him on sight, yellow muzzle flashes popping from recessed cavities in the side of the chassis to spray him down with (thankfully) old-military grade (unthankfully) computer assisted gunfire. Predictably, people scream and go running for cover.
|Lilian Rook|| Rita finds that the construction contractor did not, in fact, anti-glare coat the entire wall for some reason, and then also paint over it as well. It's not exactly mirror bright under the thin facade of 'it's white so it's environmentally friendly :)', but it's worn smooth by wind and steely enough to catch the setting sun. She sees a camera near to her twitch back and forth several times as it loses visual, indicating it's only automatically acquiring (and thus probably only sending AI-judged alerts to an external operator) visuals, rather than being stared at in real time.
She phases through the wall without issue. The nearest reflective surface isn't far at all, because the reverse side of the wall is absolutely festooned with light panels (currently on mid-burn as the shadows elongate) and photovoltaic surfaces, looking very pretty, very uptown postmodern, and even deceptively solarpunk, from the internal view.
The streets here, from the very first step, are neatly paved, barely cracked, and swept clean. Broad and older than the walls, they are even in use, at this time, by a sluggish trickle of cars and motorbikes, which can't be heard at all outside; nor can she hear the sound of gunfire from the ghetto through that wall. The view would be comedic, were she familiar with the stereotypical Sacramento suburban look, with little (oversized) white houses and their little (oversized) lawns filled with ferns, flowering cacti, and imported, thirsty grass. There are old street signs with their blue reflective coating still on them, and red public mailboxes which haven't seen use in decades. The only things that seem 'new' are the gluts of cameras, power cables, solar panels, loudspeakers, and weird little glassy black studs she sees mounted on things seemingly at random.
No robots here. Just cops. Probably. Full body desert camo gear doesn't help draw the line. Few lights are on at this hour either, mostly concentrated in the mid-town, where clean white smokestacks pump clouds of less clean vapour into the air, and discount wannabe office 'skyscrapers' blaze well past nine. Her *specifically* tuned familiarity can smell fresh water even from the very edge, and hear the thrum of boats, as well as the scents of oil and steel and the clank and rattle of shipyard activity. Or something like it.
Compared to the shanty town outside, no more than a hundred thousand people could be living here. Probably not that many more *originally* lived here. It seems as if the Onslaught never *quite* got to it, before the fighting went cold, but comfortable in their old houses behind new walls, people kept them up.
|Kale Hearthward||The good news: It's just normal old ammunition, and not weird antegent-killing rounds!
... The bad news: Kale's still getting shot.
There's a very unperson-like *squawk* from the definitely-a-person-and-not-a-bird, and he takes off, jetboots firing.
The good news: Kale has localized defensive wind spells that will, hopefully, take the computer-assisted aiming some time to compensate for.
The bad news: Those spells weren't active previously.
The good news: the bullets didn't hit anything lethal!
The bad news: The bullets, well, they still hit. Several times, with at least one staying lodged inside of him.
He jets off - three to one and flanking is way too much to deal with right now - and tries to put some distance between him and them to regroup, trying to still stay within the bounds of the city but at least put some distance in.
The good news: he probably has someone's attention now?
(The bad news: see above, getting shot)
|Arthur Lowell||>Arthur: Fight the robocop!!
Arthur's got the thing in his hands, but he freezes just on impulse, putting the hands up! And he wants real bad to start fighting it. But it might damage the device before he gets a chance to check its contents! He grits his teeth and makes a strained noise.
"UUUUGH. Alright, COPBOT, here, I'm DROPPIN' IT." Wracking his brain, he tries to think of how to get out of this situation. Think! Think!! Man, robots are so cool, why did a robot have to be like *this*?! He thinks back to his old fascinations with robots. What's something he can do to take advantage of it...?
>Arthur: The main issue is this thing seeing you, right?
Robot vision. Robot vision isn't based on movement, but it *is* based on black-box heuristics and neural networks. Is there some way Arthur can continue halting, waiting, and technically dropping the material, in visual systems?
>Arthur: What about the robot's other senses?
What about them? It's not like Arthur can do anything to take advantage of other sensory systems. The quadruped only has some balance, vision, and audio systems if it's anything like most combat drones. Radiation stuff could make disruptions, sure, but it's not like Arthur can be that precise when there's so much background magic! Gravity's the best he's got. What can he do with vision and gravity?
>Arthur: Lift yourself and the spur and maybe a chunk of ground to remain motionless relative to it. Drop the thing and get the fuck out!
Just might work. Arthur disables local gravity, one of his simplest spells, and drops the storage, leaving it drifting in the air near him. Then he starts shifting and rotating the terrain geometrically, so that he and the spur both remain totally motionless on the chunk of ground. He's banking on the idea that its computer vision and offender-handling protocols are just not built to deal with such complex and unconventional input alongside apparent compliance! Only once they're a fair ways up, he'll try to drop the spur, snatch the storage, and make a break in flight, rocketing his way out of this shantyville zone rapidly. He's got guidance of... a sort! He needs to get to that target in Nevada, doesn't he? Or does he?
>Arthur: Plug that thing into your phone, maybe. And share all the info you got from Kent with everyone else!
|I4||He tried to explain the system. He wonders if anyone even noticed. I4, staring at the pylon that's basically turning his magic into a massive interference pattern. Or rather, just is a massive interference pattern. He's not sure if it's even going to be damaging to his POD once he leaves. He doesn't even know because he can't use any of his powers.
Rubbing his forehead he kicks the rod with a foot, which isn't all that effective. He doesn't even kick it very hard, it does more to hurt his foot than to actually accomplish anything.
Things seem to be heating up inside, so he tries something. Information seems to be blocked, but he's got no other options here, and everyone else is likely to be either running out or cutting a path through the police here in a minute.
He tries to hack the large rods, trying to see if he can force any information...or get any information. Where is the power for these things? Where is the control for these? Is there a purpose beyond 'sort of anti magical information?'
|Rita Ma|| On processing that there aren't guns actively pointed at her, Rita de-cloaks, her outfit now back to a sharp-and-colorful skirt-and-jacket combo instead of the sun-bleached sundress of the slums. At first she lets out a relieved sigh, having been braced for something grotesque or nakedly opulent. This is pristine, and almost wholesome. It's the world that was denied to her by ten thousand feet of water.
-but that isn't right. It's a dream. It isn't real.
A clammy shock runs through her, and she straightens up with eyes wide. Her gaze darts between the lawns, the skyscrapers, the ferns. How many people could those lawns feed if they grew crops instead? How many people could these walls house and protect if it weren't all zoned for white-picket-fence single-family homes?
A memory: Rita and her older brother are welcomed into the Upper Decks by an accident of inheritance, after spending years below. It is unthinkably opulent. After a lifetime of eating seaweed and fish, a butler hands her a perfect, immaculate apple, grown on the only tree aboard. It's worth more money than she's made in her life. She can't eat it. She can't. She runs away and gives it to a beggar boy instead.
Though she's still reeling with shock, one thought passes through her head. Water. Boats. A port. Why is there water? There wasn't any water outside, why is there-
Rita walks towards the port. Her walk turns into a jog, and then into a sprint, barely believable for human pace.
|Tina Natsumi||"Whoa. You're really keepin' a good eye on these folks, ain'tcha? Sure makes me feel safer 'round these parts, I tell ya hwat." Tina replies in a cheerful tone, really laying that faux-Southern drawl on thick in case the machine proves to contain some kind of AI or its handlers are listening or something. "Pretty sure I ain't ever heard of any of these things, but I'll keep all that in mind. Thank ye kindly, lil' buddy."
That's a fair bit of information to work with. With the robots' makers so focused on watching over the people here to make sure they're not injured, sick, compromised, or engaging in any kinds of potential criminal activity, Tina can only guess at what whoever's protected by those walls might actually be concerned about.
<J-IC-Scene> I4 takes a moment to try and translate what'd he say into a better form, "The poles here extend the range, and every time I try and scan them it's like trying to see in a sand storm. Infact it's worse upclose. No runes, shrines, circles, blessings...basically any base root of magic that you'd see for any other kinda barrior or something like this." a pause as he considers something, "I guess it's trying to scramble the flow of non-magical information. It's very stappled together and extremely inefficient. Or I'd say that if it wasn't me that's the only person who's without their kit here."
<J-IC-Scene> Rita Ma says, "I'm inside! It's..."
<J-IC-Scene> Rita Ma says, "..."
<J-IC-Scene> Rita Ma says, "... Awful."
<J-IC-Scene> I4 says, "Yeah..?"
<J-IC-Scene> Rita Ma says, "No, there wasn't water outside, why is there..."
<J-IC-Scene> Rita Ma says, "They could help so many more people. And instead it's, there's... grass? Lawns?"
<J-IC-Scene> Kale Hearthward, over the sounds of very close gunfire, "Shit, that explains it!"
<J-IC-Scene> Tina Natsumi says, "I think I get it. They want to ensure nobody here knows or does anything. Controlling the info, keeping them all penned in, making sure the kids just accept that these freaky robots are all over the place."
That certainly helps her sort her predictions, at least. Still bearing that sunny smile as she steps away from the robot that actually explained things to her, she hears the sounds of gunfire not too far away, and she takes cover like the other people running and screaming.
Unlike the people running and screaming, however, her efforts are less about staying safe and more about keeping out of view. She's no stealth expert, but she can at least help provide some more distractions for those getting fired upon without outing herself too easily. That means...
Front-facing camera on. A little pose just out of habit. The cyborg-ish lizard Persona appears besides Tina, and it leaps out of cover with a mighty roar that could very well shake glass windows if there's even glass to be shook in this shanty town. It beelines towards one of the walls in the direction Rita had gone in, and its spines crackle as power builds within them. Godzilla (or is it some kind of Mecha Godzilla hybrid?) unleashes that stupidly hot breath into the wall as it runs forward, trying to melt through as much of that wall as it can before it crashes.
Shortly after it crashes into something, it disappears. Tina's not aiming for a sustained wall-destruction here, after all. She just wants to know how sturdy it is, and roughly how much she'll really need to focus to break it down the next time.
|James Bond|| These people barely have anything--it's one thing to see that with your eyes, but quite another to hear it. To hear the wonderment at something he'd consider so simple.
That boy asking about the gun. If I had a heart... I'm sure that would have broken it.
He and Damien both felt as if the Letter Agency had crossed a line. But that isn't true. They'd drawn one. That raid had made one simple truth clear: this, to them, is a more acceptable way of life than the Caelton settlement. He realizes, then, that M was right.
He's just as guilty of drawing lines for other places as they are of drawing one for Caelton. He's done it for years, proudly. Theirs was just messier, bloodier, more stark in what was deemed acceptable and what wasn't--and had it not been so messy, and so bloody, would Damien have objected to it? Would they even be here?
"No," says Mark. To the apologizing young man. "That's alright. You didn't kn--" The 'spurs' skidding around the corner--he doesn't trust them. He wouldn't even trust human guards, so he trusts robots an order of magnitude less not to inadvertently hurt someone. His hand extends protectively. Palm against the young man's chest, keeping him from venturing out beyond the cover afforded by the truck's cab.
The screaming begins. 'Mark' lifts the young man up by the scruff of his neck, one-handed, depositing him into the bed. "Stay there. Head /down./" He wants to intervene. But the disguise.
It makes him want to bellow. Like he did that night they sabotaged the runes. The night he realized he'd wasted his life. Bond leaps into the bed of the truck after him, work boots clanging on solid metal. It is, of course, Q Division's work. Rated to withstand modern assault firearms. His palm is like an anvil on the young man's back, until he can be sure there won't be any curiosity or rebellious streak drawing him towards the crossfire. "Stay here. I'm checking on your old man and that weird guy. This thing was made back when they made cars out of metal, y'know? You'll be fine."
One glance upwards and yes, the weird guy will probably be fine. At least, he can handle himself. Probably another off-worlder. Where's this kid's dad? He peeks over the edge of the bed to make sure he won't be climbing into a crossfire, then rolls over, does his best 'idiot civvie trying to pull someone's ass out of the fire' crouch-check-around-the-corner, and then takes the most direct path he can to get the other man out of harm's way.
|Lilian Rook|| Rita gets to go charging around through these streets without obstruction, but only while still invisible if she intends to continue going full bore down major intersections. Human cops are not only an employment opportunity to keep people in their hometown, and a luxury of comfort, but also able to assess 'something amiss' more holistically and with more nuance than AI training, which also makes people feel safer. And making people feel safe, just on the wild chance some kind of infectious headfuck vector or headburster got inside, is their whole job.
The familiar feeling of a breeze deflecting from waves brings her to a lake at the very heart of the town. Only a couple of kilometers across, but still easily big enough to capture the rain and recycle indefinitely. Enough that a 'park reserve' stands next to it, proudly undeveloped for 150 years according to the sign. Big enough for a handful of people with the liesure time and money to be spending time boating or yatching. But mainly big enough to be used by the much bigger, much newer, skyline-dominating power plant complex (it has to be, right?) on the north shore.
What she'd taken for shipyard sounds, were not quite, but close; if Rita knows what an airstrip is, she'll recognize it immediately, sequestered to its own pristine complex of gleaming glass and steel factory floors and office buildings and the hangars abuzz with labour grunts tooling away at fleets of eggshell white drone aircraft, all emblazoned with one of the wall logos on their sides. If she had to guess, most of the work *that happens* here must be in generating power, building and servicing planes and military equipment, and R&D-ing all that robot sensor stuff clearly evident outside. A town that neatly justifies existence by feeding the military machine to the east, keeping Nevada out of California, out of sight. Inside the walls, people trade their sweat and time and send away metal and plastic. Outside the walls, people trade the blood and homes and send away their children.
|Lilian Rook|| I4 doesn't find the digital security on the pylons to be exactly robust. Probably because the enemy isn't about to go hacking them, and nobody with the knowledge to hack them would be dumb enough to do something that is literally no gain and all harm. The power is being drawn at a somewhat disgusting rate from the power plant Rita has eyes on, to the point that it is probably rather strictly defining 'city limits'.
The *specific* purpose he can gather, from the frequent firmware updates that correspond to daytime schedules of repair, is as Lilian had suspected: the means available that relies the least on large bodies of organized magical talent and is still effective at scrambling long-distance intangible influence attacks or 'infectious cognitohazards', such as the Man in the Moon. The fact that nobody who isn't very good at magic will be able to use, never mind learn, any, is a side bonus. He can probably expect to see them pretty much anywhere in the country, from the level of standardization involved.
|Lilian Rook|| Kale takes glorious flight! The grounded spurs are unable to shoot him so long as he remains in a narrow cone above them, broadened by speed and height. Unfortunately, he now enters the feather-prickling range of *airspace* sensors, and a neat little dark and recessed cavity along the outer lip of the wall crackles blue-white, and something sized and accelerated for shooting down heavy aircraft (or, really, Antegent, because people don't fly!) comes his way, and becomes his wind wall's problem.
Tina trying to blow up the wall has Lilian abruptly step in front of her and push her phone down with a hand and her dumbass-soothing shhhhhh voice, so that she can point up at that happening, and direct Tina's questions to the expensive hardware that was sold to protect this city from the Onslaught before the GDF finally ground it to a halt a hundred kilometers short. Multiple layers of hardened and ablative material sandwiched together, automatic fire suppression equipment, variable intensity on those scramblers, Geneva-incompatible automated weapons all over, missile batteries, actual human patrols, and god knows whatever 'esoteric technology' might be involved if anyone from the American Enlightened community actually lives here. It is a profoundly dumb idea to Make Herself An Antegent Attack on a small but important military equipment provider. She is not a giant floating polyhedron of doom, but, in fact, someone with blood that comes out when shot.
|Lilian Rook|| James does what his job on paper trains him for the exact opposite of; the thing that families are supposed to do in his wake. He quickly makes himself 'thoroughly not their problem', and is forgotten about in short measure. Even beyond the kid he wrestles a bit, the rest of the block seems to pretty much follow his lead for him being the center of attention and gravitas; the crux of their visual human universe at the moment, which orients their behaviour. It passes without incident. As several more spurs from alternate streets come galloping through, it certainly seems as if there was an opportunity for one. The cabin frame of his truck is only dinged with one stray.
His thanks, beyond the profuse hand-shaking and back-patting and awkward apologies and swearing up and down that it isn't usually that bad, is a direct phone line that the dad 'isn't really supposed to give' to his brother, who works at 'the plant' inside, who will be able to 'see he gets what he needs', in slightly cryptic terms.
Also, whoever is responsible for the spurs' data training sets did not, in fact, account for real life magic eye physics bullshit. He hears a second halt warning only at considerable distance, when he takes off, and by then it's too late to do much about him absconding with Kent's drop, including the weird bauble that was insulating his private dossiers from the group's scry-alike efforts before. What he knows about robotics serves him when 'HOTL' is mentioned; human *on* the loop, as opposed to human *in* the loop. Humans are uninvolved in the operation of anything outside the walls except in the capacity of electively telling it to *stop*. It's safer for everyone inside, that way (and worse for those outside), but also means that no operator is live and on call to deal with his bullshit. A trick to remember for later.