"Y'all ready?" Clint said, his massive body dwarfed by an enormous rock pillar he stood behind. He was dressed from head to toe in a brown nomad cloak that billowed in wild, whistling winds.
The winds, when scrutinized closely, had small iridescent flakes in them, creating ever so faintly shimmering trails that indicated that they were packed with raw ether from a geostorm.
This was the tail end of the geostorm that was just about done passing over Meteor Labs.
"Ready to blow some shit up, yeah," said Stella, grinning like mad under her own nomad cloak. Behind her were the Blackwater students Tox, Ace, and Alexis.
"Hell yeah, that's the spirit!" roared Clint, though with the loud winds, his voice was only audible through the comm-link earpieces everyone had. Right in front of Clint was Kris, the techno from the Phantom nomad tribe, Diamondback, and Alan and Falco.
"Pipe down, Clint. We're due for action in just ten minutes," said Diamondback. He put his hand against his ear tentatively. "Looks like audio's clear. Kris, if anyone tries infiltrating us, we're counting on you to set up a tough firewall."
"Yeah, you can count me," said Kris.
"And me, if it comes down to it," said Alan. "I've got a neural operating system with smartlink capability. If Kris goes down, I can step up as a Netguard."
Most earpieces these days were compact temporary implants that attached directly into the ear canal to prevent getting dislodged physically, but this sensitive placement, though safer from physical risk, faced greater danger from a techno infiltrating the piece and frying it in the ear to very unpleasant effect.
It was thus imperative that a proper techno acted as a Netguard, someone who could directly link with the earpieces via neural link to protect their network.
Out of everyone here, only Kris and Alan were technos capable of neural interfacing. Showed in their appearance too. They were the only metalheads as well, with Alan packing tons of firepower in his cybernetic body while Kris's thinner build and cool-weave black bodysuit indicated he was geared towards maximizing his operational capacity in Cyberspace.
Cybernetics were commonplace, but not as much as the availability of the technology would suggest. Many Alters like Mutants were not compatible with traditional cyberware while tough Augmenters had skin and body parts that were too tough to operate on, not to mention if you were naturally strong, there was no need to replace flesh with metal.
Hence, technos with proper neural interfacing were extremely valuable in practically any profession both legal and illegal.
"I'd rather you didn't risk your mind in Cyberspace," said Diamondback. "But Kris, give the kid access. If by some chance you do go down, it's nice to have backup."
"I'm a Phantom, you know?" said Kris, a little miffed. "Best of the best on this side of the whole damn continent."
"I acknowledge that," said Diamondback. "But nobody is infallible. Do what I tell you. I hired you, after all."
"Yeah, got it," said Kris. He nodded to Alan, pale blue goggles lighting up.
Alan's red eyes flashed as he received information mentally from Kris.
"Got access," said Alan. He whistled. "Holy, the encryption your working on is top notch. It's just as good as the military grade stuff I got a chance to work with once. Phantoms don't play around, I see."
"We don't. When we say we're the some of the best dark technos around, we aren't bullshitting," said Kris. "Hope you don't play around either, kid."
"Won't have to if you don't mess up, yeah?" Alan fired back.
Clint laughed. "This kid's got some balls, hah! I like it."
"I got balls too, boss!" said Falco. He eagerly held onto his gun, a colorful green laser-rifle from Aztech, a firearm company known for their energy weapons and decorative flair.
The gun was spray painted with red wing patterns on top of that, showing that Falco had put quite a bit of love and time into it. "I'll show you when we start blastin' em!"
"When did I become your boss, kid? Your boss is always gonna be your daddy. Though I do respect the spirit."
"Not my dad. He's gotten too old and too safe. He'd never take a fight like this. A fight that really matters. All he does, all I remember him doing is just running around the Wastes, mapping and selling info, making deals with corporations and mercs and whoever.
He never stands up for himself anymore. He always takes the easy way out. He isn't like you, the Unbreakable," said Falco, quietly. He looked up at Clint with bright eyes, and it was obvious to everyone there that he saw Clint as the man he looked up to, not his father.
"Kid, there's a hell of a lot to respect about your pa. For one, the fact that he could even get hard enough to make you in his wrinkly old age, heh - guess all that Qi training in China was actually useful after all." Clint laughed.
"He isn't standing up for himself, he's standing up for his tribe," said Diamondback. "There's a difference. A difference that shows itself in the fact that the Hawks have had the fewest casualties out of any nomad tribe across the entire U.S. in the past decade.
A difference I sometimes wish this cinderblock for brains would figure out." Diamondback gruffly nodded at Clint.
"I got you to figure that out, heh, no?" Clint chuckled, but his laughter was cut short when his ears twitched. They grew larger, pointed, bat-like. His brows furrowed.
"What is it?" said Diamondback.
"The hell? Sounds like an aircraft," said Clint.
"Aircraft?" Tox shook her head. "Not possible, old man. Those big ears of yours must be tweaking here. Any aircraft wouldn't be able to land through a geostorm."
"But a HV can," said Clint.
HVs, or hover vehicles as they were known in long form, were aerical vehicles that relied on anti-gravity engines to hover. They were slower than typical etherite-fuel engines, but they compensated with far superior stability in rough conditions.
"An HV?" Alan questioned. "Anti-grav engines have massive energy requirements. Out here, in the Wastes, you'd be hard pressed to find charging stations. Any HV out here has to be rocking either a military or industrial grade battery.
"Getting a physical visual will be impossible through the dust clouds and winds," said Diamondback. "Not to mention risky. The storm hides us from any HV sensors, but if we try to make eye contact with it, there's a threateningly high chance it'll spot us too if it's geared with decent optics.
Need to get a remote visual.
Kris. Cyberspace dive. Figure out what's going on."
"Geostorm energy surges are still in the air," said Kris, putting his black gloved hand in front of him, touching the little slivers of gleaming rainbow energy.
They crackled and fizzled chaotically at his touch. "I can dive, but my connection to Cyberspace is going to be spotty. It'll be hard for me to analyze the HV to any high level of detail.
At best, I might be able to make out a general outline, maybe a company it's from."
"Don't need high level. Any information is better than nothing," said Diamondback.
"Understood. Diving. Secure my position." Kris sat and leaned against the rock pillar, making himself comfortable for the dive. Once he dove, it would basically be like as if his soul was sucked out his body.
He would be rendered completely defenseless in Realspace.
Like all Phantoms, Kris had a jaw-shaped mask that covered the lower half of his face. He pressed a button on it, and it hissed, releasing pressurized, cooled air through his mouth and nose to prevent his brain from overheating.
He grew limp, head hanging low as his consciosness floated to Cyberspace.
"Perimeter," said Diamondback.
Stella, Tox, Ace, and Alexis responded promptly, circling around Kris and securing his position.
"Over here." Clint guided Alan and Falco, the two newbies, behind him where they could hiddle behind his huge frame for cover in case of attack. "Make sure to keep a look out where everyone else ain't lookin'-,"
"I know," said Alan. "I've downloaded military training software and played through it."
"Yeah, I knew that too," said Falco, though not very convincingly. It was very obvious that Falco had never really been a part of a big operation before, which did beg the question why he had an Aztech gun, as Aztech was actually quite high end.
Probably all for show.
"Damn, all right, y'all kids learn so quick these days. Shit, when I was your ages, I barely knew how to wipe my ass right, hah!" said Clint.
"Quiet, all of you," said Diamondback.
Several tense minutes passed.
Kris shuddered before he came to, rubbing his hand on his head. The glowing blue in his goggles darkened a few shades.
"As expected, I couldn't get much. The encryption on the HV's one tough motherfucker too. Even if there wasn't a geostorm, I'd have trouble cracking it," said Kris.
"Definitely military or industrial grade, then," noted Alan.
"What else?" said Diamondback. "Any identifying markers? Is it tied to a company?"
"Yeah," said Kris. "Imugi."