"I hear Pripyat is pleasant this time of year."
Sniper stood watch, just outside the old travel agency building. Aside from somehow withstanding the rest of the block collapsing around it, the shop was impressive for having reasonably preserved brochures. Captain and Pilot would often amuse themselves by planning trips to countries that no longer existed, and Engineer would gather what they discarded for kindling. Whenever Sniper grew sufficiently bored, he'd call out with something he thought was witty.
It was a bit like that, being on watch; you'd either say something funny and die knowing your sense of humour was too good for this world, or you'd say nothing and die without validating your ego.
"Actually," Engineer spoke up from the Visit Asia section, a finger tracing over dusty advertisements as he moved along the aisle, "One of the last GOOD directorate broadcasts sent out was a list of anomalies brought on by the apocalypse, and apparently Chernobyl became the least radiated place on Earth."
Sniper took a moment to process this, eyes off the street he was meant to keep watch of.
"Sounds like a postmodern Disneyland."
"Ahhh, I see what you did there."
Sniper focused again on the area laid out in front of him, arms wrapped around his rifle. He counted the broken carcasses of the vehicles nearby, all six of them. Five cars and a truck, each torn up and obviously thrown about by nuclear fire and other, kinder elements. He kept counting until he remembered there were only five vehicles there originally.
"Wait, what?" Sniper straightened up, pushing himself off the wall and raising his gun high enough for comfort. One, two, three, four, five, six… Six. His gaze slowly moved from one wreck to another, not sure what to make of the extra. It was as unremarkable as the rest, but Sniper was confident enough that his brain wasn't poisoned to the point of being unable to count. Fifty three thousand, five hundred and ninety seven: The total, definite number of Sudoku puzzles he had completed last year. It immediately dawned on Sniper just how boring things were getting.
And that could really only mean one thing.
"Anything exciting going on back there?" Sniper called out, eyes still on the cars.
"Not really." Engineer replied, about a rustle of paper later. "Sev-, Err, Captain and Pilot are going over whether we should visit Toronto or Novokuznetsk for the summer."
There were so many things wrong with that sentence, and judging by his tone, Engineer was well aware of that fact. Sniper, however, couldn't resist turning around to look.
"Are you kidding me?" He said, looking directly at Engineer, who was clutching what was likely to be every Australia-related brochure in the shop to his chest and looking like a deer caught in atomic headlights. Sniper decided to ignore this.
"Novokuznetsk." He shook his head. "Easily." Sniper turned back to the street to see seven vehicles now, each one closer to the shop than before.
It suddenly seemed a lot more appropriate that Engineer looked so startled: cars were coming straight at them, even if it was at an odd pace. Sniper pointed his rifle at the closest car, which had moved from a street corner to the middle of the charred asphalt road.
"Don't shoot it, Snippy." Engineer warned from behind, followed by the sound of a few hundred brochures being adjusted for better holding.
"You think those mobile piles of junk are friendly-ominous? Because I'm pretty sure friendly-ominous is an oxymoron."
Engineer walked out into Sniper's periphery, carefully dropping the stack of pamphlets nearby. Sniper kept his eyes and aim on the wreck.
"First of all, in the brief time I've been with you guys after I was evicted," Engineer punctuated that last word particularly venomously, "Practically everything out here has been utterly hostile, so no." He took a few steps closer to the scrap pile, cautious and looking ready to sprint back to the unlikely safety of the travel agency.
"Secondly, shooting anything hostile out here only ticks it off further, or," He knelt down, picking up a fist-sized chunk of road, "In the case of a car..."
He lobbed it at the wreck before Sniper even had a chance to speak. The sound of asphalt on metal wasn't peculiar, and it wasn't immediately responded to by a monstrous zombie-transformer or anything. Just barely comforting silence.
"… Entirely unnecessary. Because it's a car." Engineer moved more confidently toward the metal carcass, almost close enough to touch it. "And bullets are pretty ineffective against cars."
He looked back at Sniper, who was still completely motionless. You couldn't really read a person with a mask on, even if that mask had unnaturally expressive lenses where eyebrows would be. If anything, he looked utterly focused. It was unnerving, to say the least.
"See?" Engineer moved around the car, breaking off a brittle piece of door as he began fishing around. Sniper's glare darted to the other cars, then back.
"They only seem to move when we aren't looking." Sniper cleared his throat. "Like that faceless guy who kept trying to steal Pilot's vintage twenty-dollar bills." He would feel guilty, lying to Pilot about how vintage those were, later.
"Or those statues that kept trying to catch us, only they couldn't make up their mind whether to kill us or send us thirty seconds forward in time." Engineer reminisced from within the wreckage. There was a loud thud, before a heavy chunk of metal was flung toward Sniper, cracking the pavement between him and the car.
"What are you looking for?" Sniper stretched his neck, trying to see what was going on inside. Behind him, Pilot squealed about something likely inane, making him suddenly wonder if the cars were focused on Captain, rather than Engineer or himself. He was, to be fair, a magnet for trouble. He just didn't think that he was magnetic in a literal sense, too.
Another chunk later, and Engineer emerged with a corroded box that had been torn out. He placed it at Sniper's feet at kneeled down, grabbing Snippy's shoulder to lower him. Sniper's watch of the car didn't waver for a second.
"See this?" Engineer scrapped off a layer of rust, before remembering what Sniper was doing. "Right. Well, this is one of those control boxes. The old models used to have them before ANNET became the inbuilt feature."
"That's pretty old."
"Ah-huh." Engineer lifted the box closer to view, Sniper being able to make out some serial numbers and logos from his viewing angle. Engineer continued, "AM4891 Series, standard sized power supply, six by six by four inches, clean charging, earpiece and microphone slots..."
"Right." Engineer felt around the sides of the box, and a telltale clack of detaching pieces meant he'd opened it. He was looking at the contents for a few, long moments of silence.
"Well?" Sniper queried. "Faulty control box that had us targeted as addresses or something? Engie?"
Sniper anxiously curled his fingers around his rifle again, as Engineer remained quiet.
"This better be a damn good rational explanation you're building up to here."
Engineer picked up the bottom half of the box and flipped it over, emptying nothing but dust into the other half. Sniper remained in silence even as the dust kept pouring and the fear crept up his spine. Engineer dropped the box and stood up completely rigid. He looked at Sniper, who hadn't once taken his eyes off the car but had seen everything from the corner of his goggles.
"Well. Nothing rational here." Engineer finally said. If he was shaken, it didn't show, as usual. "I'm going to go out the backdo-" He stopped as he turned, looking up above the door into the travel agency.
Sniper whisked around quickly, gun instantly trained on the car that was suspending itself directly above the door. It confused him so much that he had to lower his rifle to relax a muscle in his brain that was reserved for situations like this. That "There's-no-time-to-explain-get-in-the-car" muscle.
Sniper quickly grabbed Engineer by the shoulder and threw himself into the building, as the car above lost its spider-like traction and crumpled into the ground behind them.
It's pretty difficult to run at full speed through any interior in the post-apocalypse, which Sniper thought was fairly poignant when his brief stint at heroism ended with him crashing through several aisles of travelling information. When he got back on his feet, Engineer was already ahead of him, vaulting over a counter and going for the backdoor.
"You're welcome." Sniper called out, before checking his rifle. Not at all damaged, fortunately. Unfortunately, however, the light cast from the choking sun outside was suddenly extinguished. He quickly adjusted his goggles for a better view as he turned, and he felt his heart sink. It didn't take many details to make out the forms of wreckage squished into the frame of the agency's front, Stooge-style. He slowly backed into the counter and prepared to hop over it as quietly as he could.
He almost jumped out of his skin as he was forcibly spun around by a green-eyed blur, finally sent looking right at the Captain.
"Snippy! Long time no see!"
"It's been two hours at least, Captain!" Sniper wanted to choke him, but there were bigger, metal car-fish to fry right now.
"Too long! Fortunately we can still get everyone tickets to Toronto, and we can leave tomorrow!"
"For god's sake, Captain! Novokuznetsk is clearly the better holiday destination!" Sniper was almost shouting, but was able to hear over his own voice the subtle grinding of a pack of cars breaking into a travel agency. It was an oddly specific sound, really. Sniper shook his head, "We have to get out of here, now!"
"Motherland, eh?" Captain leaned closer to a broken computer terminal, pressing a short sequence of keys before he swiveled the gutted, informationless monitor to face Sniper. "Look!" Captain gestured, apparently oblivious and without night vision, unable to see the screechy doom heading toward them. "Turns out there's a flight leaving for Novokuznetsk right now! We can call a cab, if you'd like."
And because life favored those whose cruelty was difficult to define as either intentional and pre-determined or ironic and coincidental, a taxi crashed through wall, stopping at the edge of Sniper's view, which was shaking profusely at this point.
"Certainly saves time." Captain noted casually, before snapping his fingers in a manner that either meant imminent chaos or salvation.
"Pilot! We need to travel directly to somewhere brimming with fine vodka and Russian women immediately!" He shouted, still looking at Sniper with that mischievous smile his mask always casts. Sniper was going to object, but his train of thought was quickly thrown off its rails when he was swept off his feet by Pilot and planted firmly against his shoulder. Snippy looked across to Captain, also in the same position, but almost certainly enjoying it instead of freaking out. It was hard to keep conscious at the ludicrous speed Pilot was managing with difficult terrain and two fully grown men over each shoulder. Captain took out a small microphone from somewhere in his coat, and held it to his mouth. He cleared his throat and began.
"Kssht! Ladies and minions, this is your Captain speaking." Pilot added a sincerely enthusiastic if a little exhausted "Bah dum tish" for effect. Captain continued, "We here at Captainia International would like to thank you for choosing our airline today. The time in Novokuznetsk is something-something pm, and the temperature is a lovely something-something degrees Fahrenheit." He paused, before adding, "It's definitely cold, so I hope you enjoy our refreshingly warm tea." He took a sip from that disturbing mug of his, that never split a damn drop and provided all his sustenance despite never touching his lips. "I know I am. Enjoy the flight. Kssht!"
It really wasn't that much of a chase, which was fairly relieving and a little disappointing for Sniper. Unlike the faceless man or the statues, the cars didn't really move that fast, even when they went unobserved, so while Pilot weaved in and around the alleyways and streets away from the travel agency, the threat of being murdered by scrap was gone only after a building block of travel. It was about ten blocks later, and about several hours of protesting and inflight movie monologues from Sniper and the Captain respectively, that Pilot touched down in a shopping mall plaza.
Sniper felt he could never appreciate being on his feet any more than he did at that moment when Pilot let him go. Pilot sunk to his knees, panting, as Captain rolled off his shoulder and into a nearby boutique. His coat was second only to his mug in being completely untouchable by the elements. Nothing ever stuck to either, as if dirt were fearful of hitching a ride with a maniac. Snippy knew the feeling.
At a slight crackle of broken glass Sniper flung around and had Engineer firm in his sights. The déjà vu was uncanny, although instead of clutching piles of information about drop bears and vegemite, he held a tablet to his chest. That startled stare was still the same, though.
"You'd have to have broken the land speed record of cowards everywhere to get here before us." Sniper drawled, lowering his rifle.
"Better cowardly than crazy, right?" Engineer retorted.
Sniper looked over to Pilot, who was still recovering from playing airplane and had adopted a fetal position. He was alternating between quietly cooing over having done a good job and silently cursing shoes. Sniper returned his sights to Engineer.
"He might have every screw in his head loose, but he sort of saved us from those car zombies."
There was a lull, with only the sound of Pilot nearby and Captain rolling around in the distance filling the air. Sniper felt an inner peace he only ever managed whenever an adventure was over, or when he avoided getting assigned to go on one in the first place. Engineer dispelled it when he shook his head in afterthought.
"Anyone could've outrun those cars. You're way too sentimental, Snippy. Or dramatic. Or something." Engineer shrugged. "I don't really care, I found something more interesting." He held up his tablet.
Sniper walked over to Engineer, unimpressed until he saw that the tablet was reasonably intact.
"What is it?"
"Remember that broadcasted list? I found a transcript."
Sniper huddled closer to Engineer as the screen lit up, with a username and password prompt.
"Dr. Alexander Gromov." Engineer spoke into the device, his name sufficient enough to get a positive "ping" noise. Sniper instinctively turned his head as Gromov put in his fourteen-character password in, affirmed with another ping. When he turned back, the screen was filling a substantial amount of text.
"How big is the list?" Sniper wondered.
"There are a few hundred anomalies here, but it only goes until the broadcast cut out."
They started going down the list, and by the time they reached 'hostile AM series machinery', which was only the eleventh point, they realized in simultaneous horror what they were holding.
"This is the worst brochure ever." Sniper finally spoke.
If Engineer glared any harder than he did at Sniper at that moment, he would have burnt holes in his visor.
"Well, it is for us." He said sheepishly.
"Snippy, we can't let this get into the Captain's hands, who knows what he'll do with it."
Sniper instantly broke from his timid stupor and returned a glare to Engineer, which was exceedingly more effective with the help of his lens-eyebrows.
"You can't say things like that, you'll jinx everything!"
"Ah, but you've un-jinxed it by saying that!"
They were interrupted when Captain rolled out of the boutique with bottles of vodka in hand and everywhere his coat could manage to hold them. He was followed by two feminine mannequins, which rolled by virtue of being stuffed into barrels that clinked with every rotation. It was either a lot more vodka or a lot of broken glass. Neither Sniper or Engineer wanted to bother arguing how unrealistic that so much alcohol could still be around, or even drinkable for that matter: questioning the Captain's luck was never really a high priority at any time of the day. As Captain rolled past Pilot, he deposited a bottle with a silly straw beside him, never breaking his horizontal stride. Pilot immediately threw away the bottle and started trying to bend the straw into the straight line it was supposed to be.
As Sniper and Engineer let each other know how relieved they were that Pilot wasn't getting into any of the alcohol by muttering half-consciously, they failed to notice how the Captain stood up without really moving his body whatsoever in front of them. The mannequin-barrels stopped at his feet, providing him with something to sit on.
"What do you have for me, minions?" Captain sipped from his mug, which had a vodka bottle sitting in it.
Sniper and Engineer exchanged glances before Engineer raised his fist and attempting to punch through the tablet. He succeeded in almost breaking his hand and having it fall into the Captain's lap, where he took it up and inspected it.
"Two 'That's not how it works' moments in a row, Gromov." Sniper sighed.
"Mr. Snippy and Mr. Engie." Captain looked up, his tone unusually serious, although this seriousness was undercut by his bottle-mug combo and mannequin-barrel throne. "This is a list of THE most important things in the universe right now, other than ourselves, this mug, and that one rat we keep finding whenever the cameras are on."
Sniper looked around, confused. Engineer kept his eyes on the tablet, quietly visualizing himself successfully punching through it.
"We are to locate these items immediately, for the glory of Captainia." Captain finished, take a brisk swig of vodka-tea.
"For Captainia!" Pilot shouted, saluting and accidentally letting his straw curl back up.
Sniper's shoulders sunk, instantly defeated. "Wonderful." He muttered. Engineer snapped out of his silence, patting Sniper on the shoulder and trying to hide how satisfied Sniper's depression was. "Have fun, Snippy." He did a pretty terrible job of it, really.
"This is a job for everyone, Dr. Engie." Captain said pointedly. Engineer's shoulders promptly sunk as well. Captain inspected the two, before standing up and handing each of them a bottle. "Vodka, straight from Toronto." He spun around, looking to Pilot and sparing a glance to his mannequin-barrels, his mug up to toast.
"For Captainia!" Captain raised his mug.
"For Captainia." Sniper and Engineer clinked their bottles while slowly realizing that things were about to get interesting again. They semi-cheerily peeled off the bottle caps before wondering how they were going to drink through their masks.
"For Captain!" Pilot said, straw pointing to the plaza rooftops, finally straight.
Until it bent back again after a few seconds.