Author's Note: Honestly, this entire chapter could have been replaced with a time skip and a bit of exposition from Maya. But it exists, it's here, and I'm sorely missing snow right now so you get lots of talk about snow and cold. Sorry for the slow update this time, I got bombarded by stuff. I am getting published - it's just a short story in a local anthology, and there's been a lot of other irl stuff going on this past week or so. I needed a fanfiction break from life, do some easy writing, give my brain a chance to reboot before I start back in on the difficult stuff I gotta get done this weekend.
As it turned out, Axton and Salvador had not, in fact, acquired a vehicle by this point. Instead, they had acquired both the attention and the ire of the local bandit gangs and were engaged in a running war with it seemed every living creature in their nearby vicinity. Both of the men seemed rather pleased by this and Maya cut the conversation short before she lost her temper with them both. They had a long road ahead and it wouldn't do to start in on them now, nor to hold a grudge. Sometimes things went wrong, she told herself. Still. She knew with a cold certainty that this would make her own task that much more dangerous. With this news in hand, she returned to the control room where Mordecai had finally decided to put his shirt back on. He was fastening the clasps on his vest as Maya walked in and did not look up.
"So?" he asked.
"They won't be making it. They're stranded out on a peninsula and the only way back is through a bunch of angry bandits. They plan to just wait it out until they've shot enough to push through without getting swarmed and then pick up a vehicle on the other side."
"How the hell did they manage that?"
"I dunno. You'd think Axton would have better tactical sense than to pick someplace with no exit, but he swears he didn't realize the entire thing was a peninsula until they'd explored the place. They got a choke point, at least, but they're not getting past it either. Salvador seems happy. I think Axton is too."
Mordecai looked up sharply, his hands paused on the last clasp just below his collarbone. He seemed about to speak, but Zero cut in.
"You explained the severity of the situation?"
"I only said we were trying to restore the digistruct network and needed their help. Axton sounded like he genuinely regretted not being able to come to our aid, so I left it at that. I'm not going to be bitching at them for things they can't control."
The assassin made no reply to that, so Maya could only assume that meant he concurred. Not for the first time – and certainly not for the last – she wished he were not so stubbornly enigmatic, that he would display some sort of emotion so that she could better understand him. Sometimes she hesitated to even think of him as a man, the word felt out of place for someone so ruthlessly efficient and so detached from the world around him.
Tasha fared far better with securing help. She returned with the announcement that her Carrion Birds had managed to salvage or steal enough runners to arrive in force. The timing would work well, as they would take a few days to catch up and that would allow the four to scout the outpost first and ascertain the best approach. It was some distance north from their location, situated along the crest of a mountain range. It was also located in the frost line, so they'd be encountering snow before they even started the ascent and it would only get worse from there. There was no way to tell if the runners would be able to take the road up, as it all depended on both weather conditions and if the road was engineered to remain clear or if Hyperion supplied the center through digistruct and orbital drop-offs and didn't bother with keeping the center accessible. As such, the four couldn't really plan, and would have to wing it when they got there.
The bandit camp beyond did not bother them overly much as they abandoned the outpost. There was a scattering of fire, but nothing sustained or earnest, and Maya was able to reach the driver's seat of her runner without a single flash of her shield. Zero once again took over the driver's position and Maya opened a short-range channel with him as soon as she'd pulled the runner into line behind Mordecai and Tasha.
"You're going to do the scouting, aren't you?" she asked.
"Yes. Mordecai is a sniper and nothing more. He won't be capable of infiltrating."
There was a long pause. Maya wasn't certain she wanted to know Zero's response. Both prospects were frightening. If she went with him, there would be the constant fear of discovery, an itch that felt like a cross-hair centered on the back of her neck, and an almost wild desire to simply have someone fire that first shot and be done with it. If she remained behind, there would be the fear of uncertainty, of not knowing if Zero was going to come back or not and what that would mean for the three waiting.
"Your phase-lock would be invaluable. Any combat will likely be hand-to-hand – is this acceptable?"
"I can handle it."
"Very well. Both of us shall go then."
That settled it. Maya shivered and said nothing more, letting her thoughts drift aimlessly and chase over possibilities of what could be over and over again. She'd never attempted to get in and out of a building unseen before. This was a new beast entirely and she could not help but be afraid she'd not be up to the task, that she'd endanger all of them with one careless move. Still. Zero had taken his time considering and if he did not deem her up the task, she had no doubt he would have said so. That would have to be her confidence.
The four rotated drivers periodically, as their pace meant that the gunners had very little to do. There were packs of skags, of course, but unless the beasts were on the hunt they showed little inclination to give chase so long as the runners stayed on the road and out of their territory. There were bandit camps, but these too were set off the main road, and the one road barricade they came across they simply evaded by going off-road and the long way around. Mordecai didn't seem to want to invite more trouble than he had to and Maya had to agree with the decision. When they swapped out drivers, they also swapped out fuel cells and Maya set up the empty ones to charge while they drove. The runners had a solar panel nestled just behind the driver's seat, between the roll cage and the turret, and this would charge the spare cell.
"We've a long way to go still," Zero said as she locked the unit back into place, "It's mostly flatland ahead, so I doubt we'll have any difficulty while I'm driving."
"In other words, you just gave me permission to fall asleep until my next shift. Thanks Zero, you're the best."
Mordecai was walking over. He gave each a short nod in way of greeting.
"We've got another ten hours of driving," he said, "I want to stop at the base of the mountains so we can rest and wait for Tasha's Carrion Crows to catch up before we start the ascent. If the road is watched, I want to have them ready to go in case we need to start our assault prematurely."
"No," Zero said, "You will wait. Maya and I will go on foot and do the reconnaissance."
The sniper's lips twisted in a bemused sort of grimace. Maya returned the gesture with a thin smile.
"Do you have cold weather gear?" he asked. It was the closest to a protest he was going to get, she realized.
"I don't," Maya said, "We packed light. I, uh-"
"I'll loan you what I have. Zero, you'll be fine?"
The assassin nodded yes.
"Alright then. This is good. I actually like this plan a lot better. Then for the last leg of the journey, I want both of you on turret so you can sleep. We'll stop four hours from the mountain range base."
He turned to go, calling out to Tasha that there was a change of plans. Maya watched him go thoughtfully.
"He's giving orders," she said in an undertone to Zero.
"Are you actually going to follow them?"
Zero just turned and climbed into the driver's seat. With a shrug, Maya stepped up onto the side of the runner and pulled herself up and into the turret.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. The cold woke Maya before they were scheduled to stop once more. They were well into the day-cycle by this point and would be so for some time, but there was a cloud cover that reduced the land to a sort of gray twilight. The land was muted and Maya watched the scenery through squinted eyes, struggling to adjust to the unnatural half-light. Her internal clock had been ruined for almost a week when she first arrived on Pandora, and she was finding that it had been sent right back into that uneasy state of never quite knowing what time it was or how her body should respond to her surroundings. The terrain was no longer quite as flat and the runner dipped and bowed over swells in the road like a boat on the ocean, and on either side of the road rose peaked drifts. They were further into the frost-line than she'd been led to believe. This part of Pandora rarely – if ever – saw spring.
The terrain grew steadily more difficult as they neared the mountain range. They were in the foothills now and these were not the gentle rolling hills of her home planet. They were like scattered towers, the wind wearing the sides down into ridged strips, sheer and jagged. They cast no shadow, for the light was too diffuse, and it seemed like they had simply been placed into the snow like sticks, that they weren't anchored to the planet at their base. The road was narrower and in places the snow covered the pavement. Zero handled these with ease, taking them straight on and keeping the runner even until they were through. Maya had slid off the road the first time she hit a slick patch and almost flipped the runner when two of its tires had fallen into a ditch hidden by the snow. She'd improved somewhat since then.
As Mordecai had instructed, they stopped about four hours out from the mountain range. It hovered on the horizon, an indistinct blur against the pallid sky. Maya found she was stiff from sleeping in the turret and she stretched her arms over her head after climbing out. The wind bit into her exposed skin but it wasn't a danger, not yet. It would be, she could tell. Mordecai was walking over to their runner, carrying a blanket under his arm. He handed this off to her.
"Tasha is wearing my jacket," he explained, "She doesn't have anything, either, and she'll be more exposed to the wind while driving. She'll give it to you when we stop though."
"She's got everything in that runner though," Maya protested. She saw in the corner of her eye Zero climbing out of the driver's seat.
"Well, she's never been this far north. In fact, this is the first time she's seen snow."
Something clicked in Maya's head. She shot Zero a furtive glance to see if he'd heard Mordecai's comment.
"Shit," Maya muttered, "You're driving this runner, Mordecai?"
Maya didn't waste any time climbing back into the turret, effectively claiming it as hers before Zero could piece together the same thing the siren had. The assassin paused and looked up at her and she glared down defiantly at him. Then he continued on, up towards the runner sitting idle just ahead on the road. Mordecai took his place and buckled himself in.
"You going to stay warm?" Maya asked over ECHO as she slipped lower into the turret, covering herself with the blanket. There was enough space behind the gunner's seat for her to fit and it would keep her out of the wind.
"I'm fine," he replied, "I'm a hell of a lot hardier than I look. And I told Tasha to take it slow, she's not going to spin out."
"I did when I first arrived on Pandora. Not taking chances here."
"Were you taking it slow at the time?"
"...I was trying to make a ninety-degree turn. At full throttle."
"There's something wrong with you sirens. I think being all-powerful and crap makes you suicidally reckless."
"It's not recklessness. It's stress-testing the runner's frame. Someone needs to make sure Scooter is keeping them in good repair."
Maya heard half of Mordecai's laugh before he killed the ECHO connection. The siren found that she couldn't really sleep as Mordecai had suggested for the rest of the drive, even though she was plenty warm under the blanket. She'd gotten enough sleep during Zero's shift at driving and she spent the rest of the journey in a sort of half-sleep, hovering on the verge of consciousness. It wasn't exactly restful, but there was no talk over ECHO to keep her otherwise occupied and she could only see a portion of the gray sky from her tiny nook. It was strange how a long trip could be just as exhausting as combat, only in a different way. A sort of mental weariness. She hoped that the hike up the mountain would bring her back to full awareness before they actually attempted their assault on the data center.
The hours passed in this daze and it didn't seem like long before the cadence of the runner changed. Maya lifted her head out of the blanket and watched as Mordecai brought it off the main road, the tires crunching over the deep snow. He took them along the base of the mountain, driving slowly so that Tasha wouldn't be out of her league any more than she already was, until the road was well out of sight. Only then did he kill the engine. Maya pulled herself out before it had finished idling down and shook herself, wincing at the stiffness that resulted. Tasha and Zero both were making their way over to the two. Mordecai was climbing free, hindered somewhat by Bloodwing. The bird had taken up residence on the inside of Mordecai's vest and he'd unclasped it a third of the way down to make room for her. She didn't seem inclined to leave, either, and so he held her in place with one hand as he walked.
"That's so cute," Maya said.
"I know," Mordecai agreed, sounding more pleased than she'd ever heard before, "She got sleepy and wanted to nestle in close. This is why she's my best friend."
There were so many comments Maya could make, but she had a feeling every single one would come back to haunt her in some way, so she remained silent. Tasha walked up to stand next to her, stripping off Mordecai's jacket. It was brown leather on the outside and the inner layer was a synthetic black fleece. It wouldn't be enough to ward off the cold with just that, and as Maya put it on she knew there was a third layer between the fabric that would either trap her own body heat or generate its own warmth. She zipped it up to her chin and rolled the sleeves up a couple times until they were above her wrists. It was much too large, but it was better than freezing to death. Tasha had already started shivering without the jacket and Mordecai frowned at this. Maya wasn't concerned. He'd find some way to take care of her until the rest of the Carrion Birds arrived.
"Well," Mordecai said, pausing uneasily, "This is it. Keep us apprised. We'll have our ECHOs open."
"We'll get in and survey the layout of the building," Zero said, "If possible, we'll find a good hiding place to await your attack so that we can start from the inside."
"Sounds good. Have fun. Go kill people."
"That's not the point of infiltration." Maya could only assume Zero was annoyed. It wasn't like his inflection ever changed much.
"Only if you do it the boring way."
Zero turned towards the mountain. Maya hesitated a moment before following. Mordecai was no longer paying attention, instead turning back towards the runner to rummage through Tasha's supplies. Skag-girl, for her part, was standing still in the snow, watching Maya with wide eyes with her arms wrapped tight against her scrawny frame, shivers shuddering across her body.
"Good luck," she said to the siren. Then she turned and hurried off after Mordecai, and Maya was left to follow Zero up into the mountains.