Mutatis Mutandis 32

…Tenleytown/Friendship Station… Jason recalled the moment Darkness had first wrapped her velvet cloak about him. There had been a Supermutant, and ghouls, one of whom had spotted him eventually. He had been forced to beat the creature's head in with a rusty pipe, but nevertheless, there was a moment. A moment when he saw without being seen. A moment when he could strike without recourse, move without sound, pick and choose and pause and think without his enemies ever being aware of it. There was a power there, a great dividing line. Within her shroud, he was a god, watching life unfold and choosing, tweaking circumstances to his advantage, forever reading the battlefield like a chessboard where every opponent, no matter how dangerous or maneuverable a piece, was merely another pawn. Another step for him to easily mount. That was the moment when he was transformed from prey to predator. That was the night the wasteland had opened up to him, and he had never looked back.

He had been nervous about Narg's plan at first, setting off for Takoma without his Chinese Stealth Armour. After four years wearing it daily, letting its artificial shroud enhance his abilities, he felt weak. Especially without the Perforator. The silenced weapon had been the perfect companion. The final piece of the puzzle. Jason had hated Brutus beforehand, for all the Mutant had done, and all he planned to do. But the destruction of the assault rifle had made their adversarial relationship personal. Jason did not just want the mutant king dead, he wanted him to suffer first.

He watched from the shadows as a group of oblivious mutants passed by. From his overlook on the station's mezzanine, high above their heads, he scowled and sneered. Six supermutants, armed with assault rifles. A larger beast walked at the center. An overlord, hefting a tri-beam laser rifle. Darkness had proven to be his ally still, clad as he was in a Brahmin-skin shirt, dark pants, and his duster. Always the duster.

This would be too easy.

Jason leapt, using his own weight to drive his combat knife straight through the top of the mutant's thick skull. He pulled it out with a wet pop, spraying blood across the backs of the mutants in front of him as the overlord fell forwards. The Wanderer leapt off its back, drawing out a sawed-off with his right hand. He closed his eyes to shield them from the brightness of the muzzle-flash, and pulled both triggers, ending another mutant even as he engaged a third beast, slicing its hamstrings and then its throat.

The Wanderer vanished once again into the darkness, the only sound produced being the clicking and cocking as he reloaded his sawed-off. Blinded, and half-deafened by the assault, the supermutants grouped together around their fallen leader, only to find grenades bouncing front several different directions, only to land at their feet.

Those who survived the explosions, died of a slit throat. The Wanderer collected their ammunition and moved on.

He was standing in Chevy Chase drive now, where Three Dog had taught a younger Jason of the Good Fight, and the people who needed his help. It was there he began the long journey from Vault Dweller to Messiah. The Wasteland was his home, a special place, one that needed nurturing and protection, sometimes from itself. His mother and father had both died for the dream of a better world, but for Jason, that dream had started with Three Dog at Galaxy News.

The Lone Wanderer did not visit the structure itself, choosing to dart down a few back alleyways towards Vernon Square. He didn't want to visit Galaxy News now. He wanted to remember it as it was, standing proud and defiant against the mutant hordes, a giant middle-finger insulting the world, challenging the irradiated wastes to deliver a blow humanity couldn't shake off. It had been a heartening sight, a majestic sight, and he had no intention of ruining that dream.

As it happened, he encountered another patrol near the subway entrance. This group was comprised of the dark-skinned mutants. Those usurpers who, with their stealthboys and quiet steps thought they could enter his world and tame it, tame him. They thought they could survive him. They did not, in the end. Nor were any aware of them aware of any of the others' passing. Their lives simply ended, and their bodies vanished into the darkness and the rubble

The locations flowed by as quietly as he slipped through them, all with accompanying memories. There was Vernon square, where he had rescued Reilly's stranded mercenaries, and Abernathy Station where he had nearly been torn to pieces by Mirelurks. It had been a slog the first time. A protracted, grueling exercise in restraint and endurance as he fought through multitudes of armour-shelled Mirelurks. This time, with the added experience of two years of stealth, not to mention Point Lookout, he passed through with barely a whisper.

The route brought him swiftly to Takoma itself at the heart of downtown D.C..

After all of that time spent roaming the wasteland, Jason felt like he had finally come home. The mutant patrols were a dozen strong, and frequent enough to be a challenge. Sometimes all that lay between him and a bullet-riddled fate was the thin layer of dust covering a shop window. Sometimes it was a layer of plaster, or a derelict car. Sometimes it was no more than a shadow, but that didn't matter. This was Jason's city. With its wide streets, tall buildings and art-deco masonry, this was home, and he was the master of his domain.

The hordes did not see him. How could they? The darkened streets, with their rusted vehicles, enormous skeletal trees and derelict buildings he had an abundance of methods to move about undetected. The mutants would come upon a body, every so often. One or two unlucky mutants had gotten too close for the Lone Wanderer's comfort, and had suffered a silent death. Though in truth, leaving a trail did not matter. No mutant could reach Takoma before he did. They could only follow his trail. Their fortress would have no warning.

Jason reached the Behemoth campsite at just past midnight. It was a well-hidden area, previously only accessible through a crumbling, easily-missed townhome. The dirt path beyond was winding and boulder-strewn. Jason kept a low profile, moving through the gloom from shadow to shadow. He used the night sky and the dim horizon to outline the ground ahead, searching the path for supermutant profiles. As he neared the abandoned factory, he could hear the distant roars of the Behemoths, and shouted guttural orders. He could not see the behemoths themselves; they were in the parking lot, beyond a rock formation to his left.

The ground further down the path was lit with floodlights, removing his greatest asset. He clambered up a low bluff, crawling on his stomach to the edge of the lit perimeter. The factory was a quadruple-story minimalistic building with straight vertical walls, and few ground-floor windows. The roof had been lined with barbed-wire. Several gun emplacements, an idea probably taken from Jackrum's defense of Fort Bannister, had been set up at varied intervals along the roof, complete with rocket-bearing sentries.

The courtyard below had been reinforced with sandbag piles and an electrified fence blocking all access from the outside. Within the compound, Jason could hear the screams of captured humans, and the bellowing of celebrating mutants. They were gathered in circles around a central water-pipe system. Oil barrels, alight with flickering flame dotted the encampment. Sacks of flesh were being passed around the mutant circles. Overgrown teeth tore at the ragged bunches of human flesh, and crunched through bone as the Horde ate their nighttime meal. Several mutants were on their feet, growling and yelling and firing off their weapons in a celebratory manner. The noise carried high into the night sky, which had grown much darker in comparison to the fortress's lights.

In the midst of the chaos, Jason could see the generator chugging away, protected by two stern overlords. Perhaps it would have been a viable target, as it looked to be keeping the floodlights going as well. But Jason needed the light as much as the mutants did. He needed to be able to confirm the Behemoths, both in numbers and location before he utilized Narg's laser detonator. On top of that, he needed a safe place from which to detonate the nukes. Somewhere visible, yet with enough distance that he could survive the blast. All of this depended on the assumption that the old man had managed to activate the nuclear strike satellite systems. Narg probably had; the Tribal was far more competent than Jason would have expected. Aiming the detonator from the factory roof made the most sense to Jason. But first he would have to clear it.

Keeping his profile to a minimum, Jason carefully pulled out his sniper rifle and examined the situation. He grimaced and laid his weapon to the side. After that, he gently removed his duster.

This was going to be painful, he knew. The duster was his last symbol. His bandana was with Sarah in Vault 101, the Perforator was in pieces somewhere underground. Now he had to sacrifice his trusty regulator duster. Yet necessity overrode all other concerns. He could not let Jackrum's forces fight behemoths. He would not gamble the future of the Wasteland for a finely crafted piece of leather.

To gain secure access to the rooftop, he needed to eliminate the sentries and the turret operators. To do that, he needed to be able to operate a firearm capable of eliminating mutants from that range. If he had the Perforator, this would have been far easier. Unfortunately, he didn't. the sounds made by the mutant horde would mask the rifle's report, or so he hoped, but nothing would hide the muzzle flash, which would be clearly visible in the darkness. Very easy to spot. Jason could not afford to risk alerting the mutants. The nuclear strike had to come as a complete surprise.

He laid the duster over the tip of his muzzle, letting it flare out around his rifle. He kept it fixed in place under his elbows as he lay in the prone position. He selected his first target: a lone sentry at the far end of the factory. He waited until a mutant in the courtyard let off a burst of assault rifle fire, then squeezed the trigger. The sniper rifle bucked against his shoulder, and his duster billowed outwards as the lit gasses expelled from the muzzle and flowed outwards. The sharp report echoed around the courtyard, and down the boulder-strewn approach, but went thankfully unnoticed by the mutants. The sentry's back arched and it disappeared from view, falling off the far side of the fortress. Jason worked quickly, eliminating as many sentries as he could spot, as fast as his noise cover allowed. He set to work on the turret operators, choosing the most isolated first. The turrets were well-armoured, but the mutant's head was visible in a viewing slit, just a foot above the minigun barrels. Jason took a deep breath, let it half-out, and fired. The bullet traveled neatly, tearing through the fabric of his duster, flying across the courtyard, through the slit and into the mutant's left eye. The beast slumped back in its seat, its arms falling from the turret controls. In the darkness, the difference between living and dead would hardly be noticed. Jason nodded to himself and set to work on the rest. Every moment a beast would come close to finding one of its slain kin, it too would die. The mutants below did not seem to notice the added gunfire, and Jason was reminded once again that while Brutus himself had fought this war in an intelligent way, most of the beasts he commanded were just as dim-witted as they always had been.

The Lone Wanderer was on his fifth target when disaster struck.

His bullet hit home, but his shot the mutant's head burst as the bullet passed through. pieces of flesh rained down into the courtyard. A few droplets of blood and a chunk of skull landed on the shoulders of a supermutant brute. The beast brought its enormous hand up to wipe away the blood, and it peeled off a section of skull, with the skin still attached. The blithering beast looked skywards, clearly curious as to the source of the gore. The Wanderer could not kill it as it was in the thick of the beasts. The brute got to its feet and began to lumber across the courtyard towards a group of smarter-looking mutants, holding the flesh out in front of it as evidence.

"…Fuck!" The Wanderer breathed. He slid back into the darkness and got to his feet. He slung his sniper rifle over his shoulder and scampered quickly across the rocks, heading towards his right. He hoped to find a way to circumvent the mutant defenses. The path the mutants had lit up was the only viable approach for a large force choosing to attack the fortifications, but one man could crawl and climb through the rocks with relative ease, and the peace of mind which came with knowing that most of the lookouts were dead. Jason searched carefully and soon found an outcropping both tall enough and close enough to allow him to jump over into the compound. The nearest wall was in a relatively secluded area, with several large pipes obscuring it from most of the horde's view. A single sentry was patrolling the inner edge of the electric fence, and Jason landed just less than six feet ahead of the creature, though his enemy was between him and the wall.

They stared at each other, the mutant's jaw slack with shock. The Wanderer reacted first, pulling out his knife and whipping it into the mutant's throat. The beast gargled and fell backwards, but Jason was already moving forwards. The Wanderer retrieved his knife as he passed by, securing it in the sheath on his belt.

The Wanderer reached the wall one second later, and immediately began his climb. He clambered up the brick wall, finding finger-holds and edges for the toes of his combat boots to grip. He felt excessively exposed, especially once he reached a height at which the pipes no longer concealed him. Any mutant who looked in that direction would see him silhouetted against the night sky. A trickle of dust floated down, and he looked up to see a Supermutant master standing directly above him, watching the very approach he had circumnavigated. The mutant had yet to register the deaths of the turret operators to either side, but if he wasn't dealt with soon, he would. The risk was too great.

Gripping the wall with his left hand, Jason reached to the small of his back and pulled out the silenced pistol he had stowed there beside the laser detonator. He brought it up and fired two shots through the soft tissue under the mutant's chin. The beast tipped forward and fell with barely a grunt. He hugged the wall and felt the corpse whistle past him to crunch on the ground below, hidden by the darkness and the clamor.

Jason kept climbing. No sooner had he laid hands on the roof of the factory than he heard the shouts of alarm from the campsite below. The two corpses had been spotted, and as he rolled onto the roof, he could hear the sudden turmoil, and the thudding of approaching feet as the horde gathered around the dead sentries.

He had little time left, and not enough for stealth. Three mutant sentries were left on the roof, and all three had spotted him as he peaked the summit. Jason shouldered his sniper rifle and fired three shots, putting all three beasts down even as they readied their own weapons. The Wanderer ran across the roof, keeping his eyes fixed on the nearby parking lot. He could see the Behemoths moving around, some were seated in their own circles, chewing on god only knew what. A few were watching curiously as the fortress wound up to a state of alarm.

Jason didn't bother to count, but an estimate of shapes in the darkness put the Behemoth number at around four dozen. More than enough to wipe out Jackrum's army. Jason pulled out the Laser detonator and pointed it at the center of the Behemoth campsite. He steadied it, and pulled the trigger, holding it down even as the mutants below began to fire blindly at the rooftop, bellowing in rage. The behemoths began to rise to their feet, taking note of the sudden chaos. The device began to beep. Slowly at first, but growing faster by the second. A few of the more curious behemoths began to march across the parking lot towards the factory. The device let out a high-pitched whine, and then the sky lit up.

Then there was intense light, as bright as the sun. Jason felt heat and a great, terrible gust of wind which took the fortress he was standing on to pieces, along with everyone and everything surrounding it.

The Lone Wanderer opened his eyes. Everything was spinning, and covered in a thick haze. He could make out dark shapes moving all around him, and the blue of the sky above his head. His entire body felt raw and burned. He had not felt this badly since all those months ago with Sarah. His last trip to the Pitt, when every car on the bridge had exploded with him at the center. It had taken him days to recover from that. How much time had passed now?

The white noise which saturated his world was slowly fading, transforming into intelligible sounds. At the same time his vision was beginning to clear. A dark shape hovered over him and morphed into Brutus, the Supermutant king. The mutant's face was lined with cold, hard fury. His eyes boiled crimson with something far beyond rage.

"M'rifle…" Jason reached out an unsteady hand towards the familiar Chinese assault rifle slung over his enemy's shoulder.

The mutant's voice was low and callous. "It is mine now, Wanderer. I will keep it to spite you. Do you have any idea how much trouble you have caused?"

Jason blinked myopically, feeling both too weak and too sick to react. He could only watch.

"One third, Wanderer." Brutus intoned coldly. "One third of my entire army, my fortress, and all of my behemoths. Not to mention our breeding pens, almost all of my FEV II virus supply, and Casey Jones – our most beloved general, and my closest friend. I would kill you, but that is not nearly painful enough a punishment. Not nearly painful enough, do you hear me?! You will be left alive, Wanderer! And you will watch the human world burn. Better still, you will do everything in your power to help me start the fire. I am in need of a new alpha, after all, and you are already well on your way." He looked up at his mutants, who had formed a circle around them. "Pick him up and bring him to Project Purity. We've a battle to fight."

It is very difficult to write a chapter with almost no dialogue. More still to keep bringing out original mutie-killing material at this point. How many different ways can you pick to end a mutant life? Even pure action tends to lose its taste after a while. I hope the weight and suspense built up over previous chapters adds more to the atmosphere of this one than I felt while writing it. Right now I'm just glad it finally got out. It wasn't one I was looking forward to writing, but it IS a major roadblock passed.

I feel like Jason's been neutered a little in this story. A lot of that is owed to Narg and his alternate form of badassery, but I wanted to remind us why Jason is so feared/respected by the wasteland.

A reader informed me that it's been a quarter of a year since my last update. I cannot keep apologizing for these delays. I can only beg. So here's my begging: If you've read this chapter, please review. Even if it's anonymous and it only says "I'm still reading". I got back to this story because enough people started to pester me. I'm trying to get my nearly atrophied wheels turning. It's been far too long, and need to know there's still an audience for this.