Strictly Business

Strictly Business

By Kristina Blaise

Hot fucking damn, Vasquez thinks to herself, it’s good to be back in the field.
It had been four months since Hannah Vasquez’ patrol team was decimated by some killer wasteland plant monster. The Shifting Plant was what they had called it; Shifter for short. The Department had also decided on a codename, just like it does for all of its various targets and specimens. They were calling it Soma Green. Whatever it was, Vasquez was just glad it was being looked into. A lot of good people died all those months ago. Yet even now, after that terrible ordeal, here she was going back into the field.
Vasquez stood in Department Base Wyvern, a new set of agent-grade ballistic armour on her shoulders. Some of the earlier versions of this same armour were actually more like powered exoskeletons, although these were phased out due to costs. It was pretty much just a snazzy suit of combat armour. No fancy machines, just metal and kevlar sandwiched around fabric. Hopefully, it would serve her well for today’s assignment.

Meet and Greet

Watching the various patrol cars and APCs roll around was a little on the hypnotic side. Each of them branded with the Department’s massive, all-seeing eye logo, many of the vehicles were retrofitted old scrappers made from wasteland spare parts. This gave the assembling convoy an aesthetic of clashing military uniformity and wild punk-rock spontaneity. This was an all-prevailing design logic within the Department. For today’s assignment, it would no doubt serve them well in making the paramilitary force look right at home amongst the wasteland.
Out of nowhere, Vasquez was suddenly approached by a scarred, bald, imposing fellow. Total slab of meat, he was. His gear was far from standard issue, although the sizeable iron at his side was a Department model. It might have been a modified CZ series, although Vasquez wasn’t terribly up-to-date on the newer versions. His outfit, however, was a total patchwork of Department ammo bags and pouches draped over a bandit-like leather coat and jeans, decorated with reinforced shoulder and knee pads made of leather and metal. A patch sewn into the left arm of his coat indicated he might’ve served in the United States Marine Corps before the war. Probably a mercenary, some dog of war barely a skip and a hop above the bandits in terms of morals.

The Fixer

“Hannah Vasquez! How are you, agent?” the bald man held out a gloved hand for her to shake.
“Do I know you?” Vasquez uneasily gripped the extended hand. The merc’s grip was firm, but Vasquez was probably a bit like a dead fish out of uneasiness with the man’s sudden approach.
“You must’ve heard of me. I’m a bit of a rockstar here at the Department.”
“Nope. No idea. You look a bit like a bandit, though. Are you an escaped convict or something?”
The bald man guffawed heartily, slapping his knee and doubling over in what looked like an exaggerated display of schadenfreude. Little did Vasquez know, the gentleman was genuinely amused.
“Oh geez, no! Ouch, that hurt! Christ, your file was right! Hyper-lethal! Oh, christ…” he wiped a tear from his scarred eye, “Nah. I’m Vinnie Cooper. Some people call me the Fixer. Ring any bells, sister?”
“I would…really prefer it if you didn’t call me sister. And yeah, I think I’ve heard of someone called the Fixer. Let me guess, they call you that because you ‘fix’ stuff by killing anyone who’s a problem?”
“No, no, much deeper than that. I’m not some sort of hired killer. I do all kinds of stuff. Detective work, containment, paranormal investigation, hostage negotiating…hell, I even babysat a while ago.”

Deal with the Devil

“Man of many talents, then.”
“Yeah, I guess. Anyway, today it looks like I’ll be your driver. We’re running negotiations with one of the bandit clans. They’re in a gang war with some other wasteland scum, and as part some deal I’m not fully privy to, we’re giving ‘em weapons.”
“Since when does the Department sell guns to bandits?”
“I guess Academy training doesn’t cover it. Sometimes they have stuff we want, so we haggle a little. It’s just business, kid.”
Not feeling up to an ethical debate, Vasquez shrugged it off.
“What are we looking at?” she asked.
“Driving a standard issue interceptor to the ruined highways, just outside old Toronto. Our contacts with our allied clan are meeting us there. I’m counting on you to watch my back, V. Hopefully, we won’t see any killer tomatoes out there. I know how you feel about those.”
“Don’t even joke about that. Lot of good people died.”
“Was worth a shot. My bad.”
The two of them approached the interceptor. Interceptors were pretty bog-standard Department patrol vehicles, able to move quickly while having just the right amount of armour and mounted weaponry. Two MMGs under the hood, reinforced heavy plating made from the remains of Talos Red. A worthy mount for any wasteland cowboy.

What Happened?

“Alright, hop in. Convoy leaves in five. Oh, and V?”
“Yes…other V?” Vasquez held in a laugh. Vinnie seemed a little bit amused, but he clearly had his head mostly in the game right now.
“I forgot to ask; how’s it feel to get back into the field?” Vinnie asked.
Vasquez sat in contemplation with that thought for a moment. It had obviously been a while since she’d had her boots on the ground. When she’d been in psychiatric care, all she could think about was getting out. Now, she was unsure if it was worth the hype. All of this seemed shady.
“Pretty good,” she strained a smile.
As she climbed into that car with Vinnie, she felt a little gross about this whole thing. First day back and she was making under-the-table arms deals with bandits. Lovely. Hopefully this whole thing would be over soon, and she could get back to the things she actually joined the Department for: justice, exploration, and curiosity. She just hoped they still held those values somewhere.

“…You make up your own rules, just like me…”

“Department pigs! Long time no see! How’s that blood I donated treating you?” Maxine, the Department contact with the bandits, hollered from the hood of her car. The leather and fur-clad wasteland warrior leaned against the hood with the aloofness befitting someone in any situation other than the one she found herself in. A clandestine arms deal was about to go down, and here she was carrying herself like some teenage punk rocker. Vasquez felt sick.
“How the hell should I know, Max? They don’t pay me to ask questions!” Vinnie called back, carrying the bag of supplies in his left hand.
Typical goddamn merc, Vasquez rolled her eyes as she thought to herself, only language he speaks is money. Where’s his spine? His conviction?
“That’s what I like about you, Fixer dude. You make up your own rules, just like me,” Maxine said with a laugh as she shook hands with Vinnie.
Oh, how flattering. Being compared to a bandit. Must feel nice, Vasquez felt totally unamused.
“Let’s see the goods, pal,” Maxine pointed at the bag.
Vinnie slammed the bag to the ground. Oddly enough, the sack of armaments did not emit any metallic clattering. Rather, the bag hitting the ground was merely accompanied by a dull thud.
What kind of guns are we giving these thugs? Ones that are made of bread? Vasquez pondered, her hand hovering over the loaded carbine sitting on the seat next to her. She had a feeling something was about to go down.

“…War is coming to the wasteland…”

Maxine bent down. The handle of her monstrous bandit dagger was all the more prominent now, and it sent a chill down Vasquez’s spine. If she doesn’t like what’s in there, Vasquez thought to herself, this situation is gonna get hairy.  Yet as the bandit leader unzipped the substantial, Department insignia-adorned duffel bag, her face showed not contempt but rather relief and satisfaction.
“Just as we ordered. Thanks, Vinnie. Our boys in the field won’t starve thanks to you.”
Wait, what? Vasquez took her hand away from the gun, leaning in closer to see what was going on.
“How are weapons going to help with starvation?” Vinnie asked.
“They didn’t tell you? We didn’t order weapons. We ordered rations. Your Department aren’t arms dealers, we’re just helping each other out where we can because if not, things will get ugly.”
“How so?”
Maxine went deadly serious. Her previous carefree manner of carrying herself evaporated. Whatever ‘getting ugly’ meant, it was clearly a level of ugly reserved for blobfish and family gatherings where a racist uncle starts talking.
“War is coming to the wasteland, Fixer. Some really bad people have rolled in from the north, and they’re razing everything we’ve built to the ground. These guys are serious, too. They could get to your Ark if we aren’t careful. That’s why cooperation with my clan is so important. Your Department needs all the help it can get for what lies ahead.”

Bad Motherf…

“Wow, that’s ominous. Damn, Max, you okay? I’ve never seen you like this before.”
“This isn’t a joke, Fixer. Your world’s about to change, and we’re all gonna need to learn how to work together. Tell your director that the Sons of Mephistopheles are coming.”
The who of what now? Vasquez felt a little unnerved and confused. This whole thing was just hurting her head. This was supposed to be a milk run. A morally questionable milk run, but the principle remained the same. This just complicated the narrative.
“Alright. I’ll try and relay the message. I hope we helped you folks out a little,” Vinnie said, waving as he headed back to the car.
“Uh, yeah. Sorry for springing all that on you like that. This stuff is serious, y’know? Well, anyway, you take care, Fixer,” Maxine took the bag and made a beeline for her own ride, the old junker all covered in spikes and various clan battle flags.
Vasquez waited for Vinnie to return. He was only a few moments, but Vasquez felt that his gate was somehow slower than normal. Judging by the look on his face, he wasn’t doing so good. The anxiety was almost a physical presence by the time he got in the car.
“What’s going on? What happened back there?” Vasquez asked as they headed off down the road.
Vinnie took his eyes off the ruined street, his eyes practically screaming. Whatever Maxine had been ranting about, clearly it had struck a chord with him.
“Oh, very little actually. Just some really bad motherfuckers, coming back to haunt me. And we are not ready.”

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