It was an easy climb up into the turret, the minor bumps of the road not nearly enough to throw Jill off even with her carrying her rifle. The inside was a bizarre mix of aesthetics that looked as if the whole thing had been made by stealing parts from different movie production lots. In the center of the turret was a leather chair with footrests on a shiny post that could have been taken from any hairdressing salon. In front of it was a series of clamps and cables, all pulsing with glowing golds and blues, leading to a thick window, to which was attached a circular, spoked gunsight that had last seen active service on WWII anti-aircraft guns. The turret itself was all hexagonal panels, every other of which had a small window right in the center.
“Badass,” Jill said. It was a bit awkward getting into the chair itself because the ceiling was low, but it was surprisingly comfortable once she was in. “Gun goes under the gunsight?” She muttered to herself, and she tried to slot her rifle into the clamps. The instant the tip of the gun was between the first ones it slipped out of her hands as if it were a greased magnet.
Integrating addon to ‘Bertha’ small arms turret 1.
Tier 1 rifle detected. Mana crossfeed enabled. Mana cost per discharge: 2.
The rifle was now held firm by three sets of clamps, a thick glowing cable plugged into where the bolt would normally cycle. Handles stuck out of the stock on either side, first sideways and then down almost like those on a high end bicycle, with a trigger on each where her index finger would go. The rifle barrel protruded a good foot past the thick glass of the window, held in place by a flexible looking gasket.
“Fuck me, hope I can get that out.”
“That's what she said!” Babu yelled from below.
Jill closed her eyes and shook her head, but said nothing. It would only encourage him. She began to experiment with the turret, figuring out how it moved. Pulling sideways on the handles rotated the turret left and right, a soft whine alluding to some hidden machinery. Pulling up tilted the gun downwards and raised the seat on its pole, tilting as it went to keep Jill comfortably looking down the sights. Easy enough.
“Slow it down a bit Ras, let them catch up,” she yelled over her shoulder, slewing the turret over to point at the oncoming monsters. She still couldn’t fire straight back because the trailer was in the way, but it was a much better angle than before and she didn’t have to worry about the wind pushing the rifle around. She squeezed the triggers. A pulse of gold raced down the cabling in an instant and the rifle barked, its sound muted to being more like a rock hitting a windshield than the deafening bang firing in the cab earlier had been.
This. This would work. She began to fire more rapidly, gentle pressure on the handles altering her aim as she did. It was difficult to see exactly where the shots were going - it wasn’t like a little rifle like her’s fired tracer rounds - but it was easy to see when a monster finally fell and calibrate from that. From there she just moved her aim bit by bit and kept pulling the trigger.
Dire Lemming (x6) defeated. Your contribution: 90%. 720 Experience gained!
Battle Badger defeated. Your contribution: 90%. 450 experience gained!
You are now Level 6!
The stat increased pulsed through her, filling her body with fire and her mind with ice. For just a second she again sensed the world of Mana, but it didn’t come close to what she had experienced the first time.
“Booyah bitches! That's a level,” she shouted. She leaned forward to check her aim and started firing again, faster this time. The rate of fire wasn’t truly limited by the rifle’s own mechanisms, which had been invaded by the turret’s technomagic, but instead there was a maximum speed that the pulses of light would travel through the cable to supply ammunition. Pulling the trigger too fast resulted in nothing happening at all, and soon Jill found a rhythm right on the edge. The barks of the gun, the drone of wheels on concrete, and the spurts of blood become her whole world. That and the kills, the feeling of experience rolling in. One final enemy took what seemed like a hundred hits to bring down, a mighty crimson elk that was oddly liquid, every bullet sending a spray of glittering red.
Dire Lemming (x9) defeated. Your contribution: 90%. 990 Experience gained!
Blood Elk defeated. Bonus experience awarded for: monster kill above your level (+1.5). Your contribution: 90%. 1989 experience gained!
You are now Level 7!
Jill shuddered as she levelled again, her eyes squeezing shut; the feeling was something she hoped she never got used to. It coursed through her for a quick eternity, then faded. She licked her lips and opened her eyes, aiming down the sights for another kill, another level.
But she didn’t pull the triggers.
“Aww, shitnuggets,” she said, letting her hands drop to her lap. That feeling… she recognized it. It was the feeling of chasing a high, and she knew exactly where that led. Enough of her friends had paid the price of painkillers, of an escape from reality, and teary funerals had steeled her resolve long ago. She shook her head, banishing bad memories, and stood. Someone else could get some experience for a while.
She slid down the ladder in one jump. “How’s everything down here doing?”
Ras shrugged. “That gentle curve a minute ago was the biggest bit of excitement.”
Jill punched Babu’s shoulder. “You’re up, eager beaver. Leave the shotgun, rifles all hooked up.”
“Yessss!” Babu cheered. He climbed the ladder in record speed and made awestruck noises.
“He really loves this stuff, doesn’t he?” Jill asked Ras.
Ras nodded. “Always has. Never had his head in this world, always going on about some game. I guess it’s coming in handy now.” The turret above them started to fire, long pauses between shots at first quickly building into an unsteady staccato song.
Jill slouched into the passenger seat, taking a moment to make sure the shotgun was in easy reach. A minute passed, then another. She watched the mana gauge, trying to tell if she could see a change when Babu fired, but the amount of mana per shot was too low. The miles rolled by, the horde behind them thinning.
She was about to call Babu down and let Ras have his turn, but something caught her eye ahead. “Heads up,” she said, pointing. A group of half a dozen or so creatures had charged out of the brush a quarter mile ahead, scrabbling and leaping over each other in their haste. Whatever they were, they had way too many legs. Ras pressed down on the accelerator, pulling them away from the thinned horde behind. “Monsters ahead!” She shouted up to Babu, but by the time he had rotated the turret to position it was too late.
The monsters were giant wolf spiders, with thick hair legs and fangs dripping with venom, and they leapt for Bertha as if it was the world’s largest, juiciest bug. Two went low and impacted the grille with a carapace cracking crunch before being ground under the wheels. Three leapt to the sides of the truck and disappeared from view, and one leapt for Jill and Ras. It landed badly on the hood and slid forward, a tangle of legs and swollen body, eyes and fangs pressed up against the windshield, hissing and shrieking.
“Holy fucking shit fuck god damn!!” Jill said, falling back on old favorites. She raised the shotgun to her shoulder but didn’t fire. The glass was keeping the horrible spider out and she wanted to keep it that way.
“Sugarsugarsugarsugar,” Ras repeated to himself over and over, his hands gripping the wheel hard enough to turn his knuckles white.
From the rear of the truck came a scraping, tearing shriek as thin metal panels met claw-tipped legs and lost. “They’re digging into the trailer!” Babu screamed from above. The turret began barking again.
“I’m driving, get your sword,” Jill barked, hip checking Ras to get him out of the driver’s seat faster. With a thought she purchased the Torque Converter with a Class Power point, dismissing the accompanying box before it could appear. After a half second a new control slid out of the dashboard next to the gear shift, a small silver ball with three prongs tipped with glowing green balls coming out at right angles to each other, one pointing forward, one to the side, and one up. Despite there being no instructions for the alien spikeball Jill knew what to do; Bertha was a part of her now after all, and you didn’t need instructions to use your own body. She grabbed the glowing ball pointing forwards, twisted it a half turn, then pulled it. It clicked into place, color changing from green to red, and the hum of the mana engine gained a new note, a mid tone in harmony.
“Hang on boys!” Jill pushed the accelerator all the way down and pulled the wheel hard over. The cab turned even faster than she expected and the big rig whipped off the road, puling her sideways in her seat. For a fraction of a second Bertha started to roll, but the torque converted glowed and the truck stayed steady. The same couldn’t be said for the spider on the hood. It scrambled to stay on, and while its rear two legs found purchase by punching its claws into the engine cover, its others uselessly chipped at the windshield, sending bits of glass flying but offering no solid hold. Two limbs weren’t enough and off it went.
“Bye stoolsucker!” Jill said, turning the wheel in the other direction in the hope that it would throw some of the spiders on the trailer off. But big rigs trucks weren’t meant to go offroad, and Bertha had already slowed enough that the swerve wasn’t as powerful as before. The terrain was fairly gentle, a mild slope from the slightly raised highway down onto a grass and shrub covered flat, but the bumps were harsher and the tires were having trouble getting a strong grip. Bertha still didn’t roll, and Jill noticed that the maneuver had caused Bertha’s mana recharge rate to rise, but she did slide, the new wheel direction unable to turn the tons of truck without traction.
Saved class points didn’t help if she got eaten; Jill purchased the first rank in Utility Wheels. A beat passed as Bertha integrated the change, the mana cost fighting the bonus from the torque converter, and then Bertha stopped her slide, the tires gripping the grass and soil as if it were a racetrack. The turn pulled Jill to the other side of her seat as the truck whipped around the other way.
“One’s dead, but two got in!” Babu called down.
Jill gave a few more swerves for good measure, then maneuvered the truck back onto the road. She concentrated and an abbreviation of Bertha’s status popped up:
As she watched, the Mana ticked steadily up, recovering from the upgrade integration, but the Durability was falling. Whatever the spiders were doing back there, it was hurting.
“I’ll take care of them,” Ras said. His earlier terror was gone, replaced by steely eyes and just a hint of a smirk in one corner of his mouth. It probably helped that he had his sword, now faintly glowing blue with wisps of golden Mana curling off of it, in his hands rather than a steering wheel. “Uhh,” he faltered, looking at the sleeper area and realizing there was no way through to the trailer, “shoot, we have to stop, don’t we?”
Jill glanced in the mirror. The monster horde was significantly smaller, and had fallen farther back as they’d put on speed, but it was still chasing them. And if it caught them, there was no way they could survive. “Nah, I have a better idea.” Another mental prod, and she purchased Customization. Her connection to Bertha strengthened, the sensation like a combination of discovering a new muscle and opening her eyes for the first time. It was a much stronger feeling than her previous purchases, a fundamental shift rather than just a new piece to a puzzle.
She pushed through the strangeness and began the change she wanted: a connection between the cab and the trailer that someone could safely walk through. She imagined how train cars were coupled, a short chamber with a door on either end, only able to bend far further. A single pivot joint then, with walls made of overlapping panels that could slide past one another like the joints on old plate armor. The door started to appear, outlines puckering metal as the features pushed themselves outwards like a movie special effect, but was blocked by her bed. Jill huffed in annoyance and imagined it sinking into the floor. It wasn’t exactly ideal, and they would have to step over it to go to the trailer, but there was nowhere for it to go. Not yet.
The power description hadn’t lied though: the changes weren’t fast, and Bertha’s Durability kept going down. Those spiders needed to die as soon as the passage was complete. “Get down here,” Jill said to Babu. Once he had, she handed him the shotgun and filled the brothers in on what was happening.
Babu surprised her by refusing the gun. “It doesn’t reach far, but I’ve got my own fire” he said, wiggling his fingers and causing little tongues of flame to leap out. “It’s only two. I’ve got plenty of Mana for two.”
“Try not to burn the freight, there’s a penalty for damaged goods,” she said. “Or slash the freight. Or let giant fucking spiders tear it apart.” She thought for a second. “What the hell am I smoking, just kill the damn things.”
Bertha jerked to the right and Jill had to pull on the wheel to keep them straight. One of the wheels had locked, dragging with its new superior grip, and the truck slowed. The spiders must have been digging into the floor, going for the pneumatic lines that fed the brakes, or whatever magic bullshit had replaced them, just like a predator would go for the tendons of an elephant. Jill opened her mouth to swear again, but at that moment Customization finished its job. “Go!” She said.
Ras led the way, the door to the trailer sliding smoothly and silently open as it sensed his approach. He yelled something in a language Jill didn’t know as he charged, Babu hot on his heels. There was a pulse of gold light followed by the roar and flash of fire, before the doors closed, their sudden motion bringing a surreal silence. The brothers were fighting but she was stuck driving, making sure the horde didn’t catch them, and she couldn’t even hear anything happening.
The wait was awful. It was one thing to be driving while they safely harvested monsters, another to be helpless while the Bati’s fought for all their lives. She glanced through her skills, but didn’t find anything that would help now. Move cargo around, slowly? Pure magic, but that wouldn’t help, especially considering she couldn’t see. Jill almost bought the ability to talk to anyone in or near her truck, but reconsidered. It might be useful later, if she had many turrets or Bertha grew to truly enormous size, but right now it would just distract them. There was nothing Jill could do, and it gnawed at her mind like acid.
And then the door opened, Babu leading the way, eyebrows singed but a grin on his face. Ras was right behind him, sword leaned on his shoulder blunt-side down and a relaxed rhythm to his gait.
Jill was relieved to see them, the feeling cutting into her with an intensity she wouldn’t have expected from only being with them a few hours. The stress of surviving, of killing, of adapting to this craziness, had formed a bond in a way she hadn’t in years. But she had more important things to worry about.
“For fucks sake Ras,” she said with a scowl, “you’re dripping monster goo on my bed! That better godamn magic itself out or I’m going to make you lick it up! Git!”