Sleetak, Humongous, Strelok, Bannstone and Gooptaz load the last of their supplies and equipment into the packed APC and bid farewell to their friends at the Ag-Station. Ahead lie 700 or more kilometers of largely unknown wasteland. Colonel McDermott vouchsafes the precious inertial navigator to Sleestak:
“This is the last working navigator, use it well. As I mentioned before, the terrain may vary from the ancient topo-maps we managed to load. Major Sands heart is too full to see you off in person…if you find any trace of her sister, please do what you can. But above all, remember that your primary goal is to retrieve the VTOL and if possible rescue any surviving crew. Especially the android, ‘Titus’. As you know, this android was a STOSS pilot in the 25th century. His knowledge might be crucial to accessing the Albukerke Spaceport, if it still exists, and exploiting any tech found within. Without the VTOL we lack quick and easy access to the Keeg Relay Station, Fort Mohawk and Heavens Gate. Not to mention any hope of ever reaching the ‘Omega Control Base’ coordinates found in the PDA retrieved from the ruins of Utah Polytechnic."
Gooptaz admits that he managed to ‘acquire’ a small camera to document the trip. Everyone takes their positions. Humongous manually cranks the big mechanical flywheel up to 900rpm. Bannstone engages the turbine and the small super-efficient motor spins to life with a shriek. The APC passes a hundred spectators lined up to watch, rolls down the dusty trail to the old state highway and turns south. Major Sands is glimpsed raising a hand in silent farewell from the battlements above Sipio.
The broken state highway roadbed, never much to begin with, disappears entirely just a few kilometers south of the Enclave Mine 3 low-intensity radiation zone. Ahead is a twisted landscape of sandstone ridges and valleys. The team must stop numerous times to scout a way head for their huge APC. Inevitably the vehicle becomes stuck every few hours, requiring two or three occupants to exit the vehicle and dig it out with excavation tools.
Later in the day the terrain opens up into a huge stony plain of radioactive dust littered with jagged boulders, some bigger than the APC. Bannstone and Humongous negotiate the boulder-field without incident, heaving on the completely manual steering apparatus and directing power to one or the other set of wheels when really tight turns are needed. The team sleeps inside the APC, which features a primitive NBC filtration and over-pressure system providing some protection from radiation and other contaminants. Strelok is able to stand guard this and following nights thanks to remaining deactivated atop the APC during the day while the sun recharges his solar cells. This also stretches the dwindling atomic cell.
In these uncharted territories Gooptaz’s new survival skills come in handy. He’s able to determine the basic radiation level in an area. Sometimes he’s lucky enough to rustle up some wild wasteland grub during evening downtime, even in this desolate irradiated waste. The first course consists of a double-handful of juicy grubs…only slightly radioactive!
The APC enters another region of shallow canyons and defiles all more or less leading southeast. Humongous and Sleestak must occasionally guide Bannstone across rough patches. More than a few times the team finds themselves at the end of a draw, but eventually negotiates the maze to emerge atop a bluff overlooking a narrow desert to the south. On the other side a vast canyon divides the land in two. This canyon is as far as Eagle Clan scouts have reached in living memory. Beyond lies the great unknown, with only the flickering yellow navigation track as a guide.
From various tell-tales, Gooptaz estimates that radiation intensity has increased considerably, to the high end of ‘medium’. Everyone will need to keep to the APC as much as possible.
About 12km short of where the navigation device says the dam should be, the APC high-centers on a boulder, tips over and slides sideways 4 meters into a rock wall where it comes to rest at a 60-degree angle. There is some light structural damage and the killbot-turret is jammed. As long as the overall condition of the vehicle doesn’t deteriorate too quickly, repairs shouldn’t be a problem. A few hours later the APC picks up an ancient roadbed and follows it around a hairpin turn. Around the corner is a deep gorge bisected by a ruined damn. The broken remains of a highway bridge hang high above the canyon.
Humongous and Sleestak dismount and inspect the makeshift bridge constructed over the remains of the dam while Bannstone covers them from the LMG cupola. Though once sturdily constructed to bear the weight of heavy vehicles, the durasteel construction is now partially collapsed in places. Trying to cross it will be extremely risky and potentially plunge the APC down the face of the dam into the flood of dry sand and silt 60 meters below.
Bannstone and Strelok successfully repair the damage done to the APC earlier in the day. Gooptaz scavenges some nearby ancient structures and succeeds in finding a sealed box of rifle ammunition among the remains of some long dead explorers. The team reconvenes in the APC and decides to spend a few days reinforcing and repairing the bridge as best they can.
Using the APC Bannstone and Humongous drag long metal girders, remains of a long-dead power transmission network, to the dam where Sleestak, Strelok and Humongous work to size and fit additional supports beneath the faltering structure. Some of the girders are used to span large gaps or weak spots in the concrete and durasteel roadway. Sleestak expends two hydrogen cells using his energy blade to cut and shape the steel.
Gooptaz and Strelok continue sifting through the sand-filled shells of ancient industrial structures along the west side of the canyon. They turn up a few artifacts including a large duraplast cannister containing military-grade concentrated food powder. Barely edible, but a safeguard against starvation.
Unfortunately no one realizes the canyon is highly radioactive and everyone sustains a major dose. Sleestak, Gooptaz and Bannstone become very ill. Even Humongous becomes mildly sick. Humongous injects Sleestak with one of the precious anti-radiation serums from the robotic medi-kit. From here on shift-work is required, with each man spending no more than an hour at a time outside the relative safety of the APC. Once a high level of exposure is reached, further doses could prove fatal.
The team concludes work on the bridge. It’s as sturdy as it’s going to get given the tools and materials on hand. As an extra precaution, all the portable gear is removed from the APC and walked across the bridge. Bannstone begins inching the APC across the top of the dam with everyone else guiding him on foot. As the vehicle approaches the east side, part of the bridge surface gives way and the APC slips sideways and down where it is impaled through the floor plating by a durasteel girder. Unfortunately the girder puts a gash in part of the cellular fuel talk and about 35 liters of ethyl alcohol drain out into the canyon below. Sleestak and Humongous are able to cut the girder loose and slide additional surfacing under the APC wheels. Bannstone guns the engine into a roaring whine. The huge APC jumps up onto the other end of the dam! The team gives thanks they are not at the bottom of the canyon and loads up their gear.
On the other side of the canyon lie the mostly sand-covered remnants of an ancient city. Gooptaz detects minimal radiation on this side of the canyon, but the ruins are contaminated with deadly chemical agents. Hollow shells of empty cluster-bombs are strewn around the ruins: apparently the delivery mechanism for whatever ancient hell this was. Strelok solo-scavenges some nearby buildings while the rest of the team patrols alongside in the APC. The ruins are mostly buried and not too productive…only a few items are found. Ten hours later the team makes camp about 20km south east of the ruins. The extra days spent at the dam and ruins have used significant extra fuel and water. The loss of 35 liters due to the damage sustained crossing the dam didn’t help either.
The terrain morphs into shallow winding canyons of yellow and white stone. Bannstone cautiously picks his way first down one branch, then the next. Occasionally one of the crew stands up on the APC to search for a way forward, or climbs a nearby ridge for a better view. A panorama of stone wilderness spreads down to the southern horizon, with dark mountains to the west and more distant peaks far to the east.
The nav-track turns slowly eastward toward the back side of a line of towering mesas and hills. Passage through to the other side of the mesa is anything but easy. Bannstone and Humongous work together to negotiate the narrow canyon without incident. By early afternoon the mesa is behind them. A vast expanse of burning sand and rock stretches away to the east directly across the nav-device track. The ruins of a distant city fringe the horizon to the northeast, only visible as collapsing towers rising above the shimmering sand. A large metal highway sign juts from the rocks a few hundred meters away, though the highway itself is long gone. Still barely visible on the durasteel sign are the words “Kayenta / Next Left”.
Very close by to the south are the remains of a contemporary settlement: a partially walled main compound and 12-14 identically-constructed dwellings lined up along the base of the hills. A triangular tower of metal struts topped with a large metal fan stands nearby the main compound along with two large storage tanks. The place appears completely deserted and in a state of disrepair though not at all ruined.
Bannstone peers through the scope of his CZ-91 sniper rifle and spots an ancient old man with billowing white hair and beard sitting on the porch in a strange ‘rocking chair’, as if he hasn’t a care in the world…clearly he’s already seen the big dust cloud from the APC. As Bannstone watches, a bobcat-like animal hops up onto the porch and drops something at the old man’s feet. A small dead animal?
Sleestak secretly suspects the old man is merely the lure of some colossal subterranean sand-monster. After a very careful approach with all weapons loaded and ready, no giant sand-worm makes an appearance. “Elia Parker” turns out to be as harmless as he appears. He’s the last person in the settlement, too old and lame to accompany the forty remaining villagers when they left after the well ran dry several months ago.
While Strelok works the rest of the day and night to repair the broken-down windmill, solar panel and water-purifier, Sleestak and Bannstone speak with Elia in a broken but understandable dialect of new-English, Spanish, Mongolian and even less well-understood words (Navajo). Elia is ancient and gimpy in one leg, but tough as boiled shoe-leather and apparently able to wring enough food and water from the desert to keep himself alive (he even helps Gooptaz catch a few delicious snakes and lizards that evening).
“My surviving kinfolk numbered 40 and left two months ago to find a way over the mountains beyond the wastes. They either made it through by now, Lord willing, or they’re in Paradise.” “Oh and yer free to look through the other houses for anything ya need. My kin were few in number and had to leave a lot of things behind…just leave me my kibbles-and-bits! Scavenged em myself from the ruins of Old Kayenta. Take care though, them ruins is poisoned something awful”.
Gooptaz and Humongous find a large quantity of items still in usable condition, including more excavation tools, old clothes, candles, an antique oil lamp and various other sundries. A few small artifacts from ancient times are found as well, probably collected from the distant ruins of ‘Old Kayenta’.
Elia asks for help burying his wife, who died of natural causes a few days ago. “My leg’s gone lame and I can’t manage it no more”. 100 meters behind the main compound is a cemetery with hand-carved gravestones dating back at least seventy years. It’s clear that at some point many more survivors lived here, probably well over a hundred. After the somber burial, Elia gives the team a crate of old dynamite hidden beneath the floor of his house. When shown the nav-device and the track east from Kayenta, Elia points to a spot 70km east along the nav-track, “Ain’t no way through there, that’s nothing but fire-belching mountains!” “You gotta head south of there, to the tunnel under the mountain”. Elia knows little else of this tunnel, which is over 100km across the wastes and has always been avoided by his tribe.
Sleestak promises to pick Elia up when and if they make it back this way. Elia only grunts and strokes the fur of his bobcat companion. He’s still sitting on the porch in his strange ‘rocking chair’ when the APC roars off in a cloud of dust the next morning.
The team takes their leave of Elia and departs the Kayenta ghost town, heading off the nav-track for the first time. About 40km across the burning plane of rock and sand, bad alcohol gums up the fuel system. Strelok and Bannstone are able to clear up the problem in an hour or so. By noon towering columns of smoke are visible rising up from the horizon to the northeast. A range of tall mountains bar the way east. The cracked slabs of an ancient 5-lane superhighway rise up from the sands to meet three curved openings in the cliffs. Apparently this is the ‘tunnel under the mountains’ spoken of by Elia.