6. But They Didn’t Shoot The Deputy

Over the years, the Republic of New California has developed and distributed a wide range of combat equipment to its troops. Notorious among these are the fragmentation mines of the Pioneer Corps. The round explosive devices have the approximate size of a plate and are a hand's width thick. The compact format is not only for logistical reasons. An explosive device of this size can be excellently concealed in order to deny potential targets the attempt to defuse it in advance. In fact, NCR mines are surprisingly easy to disarm, which is why the stealth aspect is so important. The army issues socket wrenches to its soldiers, with which the mines can be both armed and defused by means of a bolt on their top. In a pinch, however, simple tools such as pliers are also suitable. Those who consider such a weapon design too careless and prone to failure can instead try to teach greenhorns and farm boys how to handle complex booby traps, the correct alignment of motion sensors and the proper wiring of remote detonators.

A suspicious silence lies over Primm. The remains of an impressive roller coaster are the only indication that I haven't missed my target as I approach the city from the north. The Interstate 95 divides the city in half. The western part of the city I am heading for is obviously controlled by the NCR. In front of me, the army presents one of its checkpoints. Sandbags, gun emplacements and the flag of the two-headed bear. The sign under which NCR enforces its expansions and claims to rule.

"Freeze!" it echoes towards me and single soldier comes towards me with halting gesture. "Don't you know what's going on in Primm? This is a restricted area!"

The uniform of the ordinary soldiers of the NCR consists of a brown combat suit with a metal breastplate. The helmet resembles the steel helmets of the British Army from the first half of the twentieth century. Equipped with semi-automatic assault rifles and a primitive bandolier, they are barely a match to the most basic threats of the wasteland. Although there are significantly better trained and equipped units in the army, most of the troops is very rudimentarily equipped. The scarcity of supplies and the numerous threats in the Mojave make it increasingly difficult for quartermasters to provide their comrades with sufficiently effective equipment.

I choose the most proven strategy in dealing with the NCR military: cooperation.

"No, sir, not at all. I'm looking for the Mojave Express outpost, quite urgently to be exact."

"You must have a deathwish if you’re wandering down Interstate 95 and heading straight for Primm without a second thought. The town is mostly overrun. The insurgents from the CF to the north have organized faster than we thought possible. Primm is half occupied. Whatever might be your concerns, you can forget about them until further notice!"

"Aren't you guys supposed to keep order here? Or something?", I presume to ask, obviously dealing with a fresh recruit. Near the bottom of the chain of command and with no authority to speak of.

"If you’re going to complain, get in line." The private sits down on the sandbags and lights a cigarette. "You can go to Lt. Hayes for all I care, further back in the camp. However, I advise you not to cross the bridge over I95 and stumble into the other side of town. We can't ensure your safety beyond the overpass."

It is the typical resignation of a soldier who finds himself caught between orders that are out of touch with reality and faithful devotion to duty. The NCR army is 70% such individuals. The rest is a mixture of ambitious officers, deluded patriots and opportunistic assholes. The NCR’s plans are too big for the young republic. Their hunger for resources strains their actual capabilities and thus the Republic overreaches itself with its Mojave campaign. The soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command usually get to ride it out. A stalemated siege might be a good scenario.

I nod to the young man and pass through the checkpoint. To my left, an overpass crosses I95 and leads into the eastern part of the city. Primm itself is among the ruins that are quite habitable. The city did not get any of the big bombs 200 years ago and the decay that marks the city is due to the ravages of time and the damage caused by sporadic battles, looters and not least the desert wind. As a result, most of the buildings are largely intact, albeit dilapidated and badly neglected.

I walk through the quiet streets, while I am attentively patterned by individual groups of bored soldiers. At the place where in former times something like a square was located, a small tent city now dominates the cityscape. I head for the command tent. The camp seems so understaffed that nothing but questioning looks stand in my way. As I push the tent canvas aside, I enter a dim command center where a single officer lifts his gaze from a stack of status reports and written orders and stares at me in irritation. The green barrett identifies him as a lieutenant.

"What are you doing here, civilian? Why did they even let you through, this is a restricted area!"

"Your soldiers seem to know that and ignore it," I say to the the man, stopping after two steps inside the tent. "I need to get to Primm"

"You are in Primm! That is the reason we are having this conversation! You don't seem to be aware of the situation here. Answer my question, what is your business here?"

"I have to go to the local branch of the Mojave Express. I'm fairly uninterested in the inmates at the correctional facility, I just need directions."

The lieutenant gathers up his stack of papers and places them face-down on the table. "A damn circus this is," he mutters, coming around the table toward me.

"Lieutenant Hayes, Army of the Republic of New California, 5th Battalion, 1st Company. I have orders to drive the powdergangers out of Primm. The original order was to reoccupy the CF and put down the insurgency, but the terrorists formed and armed themselves faster than we thought. Now we have to hold Primm for now. So there's not much I can do for you, whoever you are, even though you don't seem to pose a threat to NCR interests in this region."

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"The powdergangers are too big a task for you?" I can't help but ask. Unimpressed by the tarnished image of the army, I almost feel superior.

"The mission is not the problem, civilian. The problem is supply. We don't have enough resources and men to counter the powdergangers in open combat without abandoning this post here without protection. And to override that fact would be to violate the military doctrine of the Republic of New California. So we persevere here and at least prevent the powdergangers from making further advances."

"Is Primm even inhabited anymore? Is the Mojave Express occupied?", I'm afraid to lose my only lead. If the powdergangers and the NCR are the only remaining living in Primm, my last chance for answers has died.

"The sheriff and his wife are dead. The remnants of the population have retreated to the casino Hotel Vikki and Vance. Holed up, I guess you'd have to say. A guy named Johnson Nash runs the Mojave Express office in Primm. Whether or not he made it to safety, I can't tell. I have to strongly advise you not to cross the overpass to the other side of town. I can't give you an escort and frankly I don't feel like it. I don't even know who you are."

"Obviously I'm a courier, Lieutenant," I enlighten the curious officer. "Where do I find the Mojave Express?"

"Assuming you’d made it across the bridge we mined, you’d ran straight toward the center of town. That's where you'll find the Mojave Express and also the Vikki and Vance. You also find the Bison Steve there, by the way, which is the stronghold of the powdergangers in Primm. If you have such a death wish, why not knock there first?"

As I leave the tent, I think about the so-called death wish. My head begins to throb and ache again. In fact, at moments like this, the death wish is almost tangible. Out of the pain and flickering in my temple, a new wish rears its head. The wish to give the man in the checkered suit his bullet back, as a good courier does. A new death wish, just not for me. I look around and study the pathetic remains of a big city. No wishes come true here, this is where wishes die. I make my way to the checkpoint and the overpass. Johnson Nash must live. Besides, I'm afraid that the wiping out the Mojave Express field office wouldn't absolve me of my obligations for my stolen shipment either.

Arriving at the overpass, the young soldier from the checkpoint greets me.

"Hey there! Did you find the lieutenant? Well, there's nothing to be done. I'll let you through again. I guess it's back to the north now, huh?"

"Nope," I correct the soldier. "How do I get across the mined bridge?"

"You're fucking serious?" the young soldier asks me, aghast. "Theoretically you can, but what are you planning to do?"

"I plan to cross this bridge, are you going to help me or not?" I run out of patience in record time and my temple sends waves of pain rippling through my field of vision. I could swear the soldier is wearing a strange pattern on his uniform. Black and white checks billow across his uniform and I long into my pocket, feeling for Ringo's 9mm. The miserable son of a bitch, dares to brazenly stand in my way here. He was waiting for me in Primm and now he wants to finish the job. I fumble through my bag and instead find the bullet Doc Mitchell took out of my head. A strange calm flows through my hand and settles over my temple like a soothing cloak. I groan and and close my eyes. For a moment, all sound and the soldier's voice drift from my world and I am alone with myself and the bullet. The bullet brings back a calm and a clarity that gently pulls me down to earth.

„Sir, are you alright?"

I open my eyes and the soldier in front of me is wearing his plain brown uniform. No patterns. Just the two-headed bear on his breastplate. I gather myself and try not to let on. "Nothing, just the heat," I reassure the soldier and ultimately myself.

The soldier picks up on my concern, "Well, if you know where the mines are, you can get close to them quickly and disarm them. That's the thing about our booby traps. If you know where they are, you can try to clear them. I'm not tired of living and I'm not going to do it for you, but I can give you the socket wrench you need. If you get close enough to an explosive device fast enough, you can put the socket wrench on the bolt in the middle and turn it until it clicks. Then you are out of danger. Don't take more than two or three seconds to do this, though. Normally we always put two mines next to each other, so one don't have enough time to disarm both, but we don't have that many here…"

The soldier hands me a rusty, worn socket wrench and I accept it with a mixture of skepticism and gratitude. "Any other suggestions?", I ask him.

"Avoid the pylons. The round mines fit right under there and stay well hidden. It's not like there's a mine under each of the traffic cones, but oh well. I would play it safe. Just keep to the edge of the bridge and on the wrecked cars if possible."

I thank him and step to the head of the overpass. The bridge, about 20 yards long, stretches across I95 in front of me. Several wrecked cars stand on the bridge, surrounded in places by orange traffic pylons. The asphalt is cracked and in some places completely ripped open, revealing the bridge's steel structure underneath. A misstep and the fall through such a hole, might mean a similar death sentence, as the step on a mine.

Three meters in front of me I see the first car wreck. If I manage to jump from wreck to wreck, I may be able to avoid the mined asphalt entirely. I keep to the edge of the bridge and approach the first car wreck. If the soldier is right, this must be the safest course of action. I climb onto the rusted-through bodywork and stand on the roof. With my newfound overview, I work out a plan of my position. From here, it actually seems possible to jump from vehicle to vehicle and avoid contact with the road. However, I am concerned about the middle of the bridge, half of which has collapsed, leaving only one lane of the road passable. This one lane, however, is rigged with several pairs of mines. Apparently the soldiers did their trick, and they did it at the narrowest and most unstable part of the bridge. Right in the middle, where an advance or retreat is equally unattractive. Clever bastards, I mutter and catch my step. The wind picks up and the Mojave sand blows in my face. A bad time to rub your eyes regularly and gymnastics on slippery sand and metal.

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In front of the next wrecked car there is an orange cone. Impossible to tell if it hides a gift from the NCR or not, so I'd better make the jump. I take as much of a run-up as I can on the small car roof and jump towards the saving pile of rust. My feet land on the trunk, which gives way in a decrepit fashion and dents. My feet slip and threaten to come dangerously close to the pylon. I grab frantically for some kind of hold and get hold of the window frame of the smashed rear window. My right hand claws desperately at rusty metal and glass splinters while I pull myself up onto the wreckage as if out of my mind. When I find some footing, I don't stop climbing until I reach roof level. I want to be as high up and as far away from the asphalt as possible. I lie down on my back and wipe the sweat from my forehead. As I do so, I notice that my right palm is throbbing painfully, presenting me with a 200-year-old shard of glass, covered in blood. I carefully remove the shard from the wound and straighten up again. The car roof has heated up so much in the desert sun that I fear I will burn to death before I have the chance to die otherwise. The next three car wrecks are close together that I should fortunately manage to move safely with short jumps or even bare steps. After a short while I find myself in the middle of the bridge. The right lane, lined with mines in pairs, is not a constructive solution to my situation. The left lane again is completely broken away and gives a dizzying view of good old I95. On the other side of this hole, a wrecked car with its front end is overhanging a part of the abyss. If I'm going to jump, I'm going to jump here. It should be possible to hold onto the hood and climb up the car. The jump is not particularly far, but the question of whether the car will not slide off the edge under my impact and fall with me into the depths causes me serious concern. I look around. Half of the bridge is already behind me. A retreat is not to be thought of. The Primms district that holds my answers, on the other hand, lies directly in front of me. I take a deep breath, get a running start and jump.

Deputy Beagle lands hard on the ground and wakes up in pain and nausea. A number of voices resound around him, strangely distorted by the fog of his fading unconsciousness and the echo of a great hall. The sound of rattling bars, slamming doors and other indefinable noise are the most helpful support for the question of where the hell they have taken him. Beagle pulls himself up by a cot and finds himself in a prison cell. A door is slammed behind him and a group of powdergangers depart without offering further explanation.

"You'd better sit down and make yourself comfortable," a voice sounds from a corner of the cell. Beagle does as he is told and sits down. On the other side of the room sits a man in convict clothes and a black hat.

"Sheriff Mayers is my name. Former sheriff I guess I should say," the man introduces himself, tapping two fingers against the brim of his hat.

"Sheriff?" asks Beagle. "So now deputies and sheriffs are sitting in the jail and the criminal ones have the keys, right?"

"They're not looking that closely," Mayers laughs, crossing his legs. "Whoever joined Samuel Cooke has the keys. And everyone else, preferably NCR folks are in. But this is about ransom and power fantasies, not necessarily role reversal." After a moment's thought, Mayers adds, "Which is not necessarily so easy to separate."

"Shit, is this THE correctional facility?" asks Beagle, on an uneasy hunch.

"Sure, which one else would it be? This is where it all started, I was there. This is where the convicts started their revolt and took over. When sufficient personnel were withdrawn and transferred to the front, Samuel Cooke took over here. Apparently it wasn't such a wise idea to give dynamite to forced laborers to build railroads…"

"And what about you? You're wearing the powdergangers outfit, why are you sitting in here and not with your buddies outside?" Deputy Beagle leans against the wall, eyeing his fellow inmate with suspicion.

"Not every inmate is a powdergangers, what kind of ideas do you have? Originally I was in here because the NCR didn't like my methods as sheriff. Then when the riot started, the self-proclaimed explosives experts decided who they could actually trust. And as a former sheriff, I didn't fit into their ideas of a resistance group against the NCR. So you could say I'm too criminal for the NCR and too law-abiding for the powdergangers. Shit luck" Mayers stands up and stretches his legs in a cramped space. "Originally, the riot was still about certain ideals, too. Samuel Cooke had some people rallying around him. Break your shackles, rebel against the hypocritical order of the NCR and be your own master! I don't know to what extent he thought his vision through to the end, but he probably had some kind of counter-design to the NCR up his sleeve. But this is a fucking prison! Not a sworn community of beautiful-minded conspirators. For the most part, it was about being able to continue to rob, pillage and rape. It quickly became clear that the two parties were not going to pull together – that's when Cooke took his people and moved north with them. Since then, Eddie has been in charge. He and his people raid the caravans on the I95 and kidnap people for ransom. Supposedly, they already control Primm."

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"They're at least close!" Beagle lies down on his cot, still struggling to get comfortable. "They murdered my sister and brother-in-law, the sheriff of Primm in their sleep. The rest of Primm is holed up waiting for a miracle. As the remaining deputy, I still tried to stake out the powdergangers, but they caught me. But without my brother-in-law, I'm no longer a deputy beagle anyway, really just a beagle." He shrugs and for a brief moment found a comfortable position. "The NCR has moved in by now, so it should only be a matter of time before law and order is restored in Primm. Then they'll get me out of my predicament!"

Mayers stands at the bars and listens to the newcomer with a patience one only learns as a prisoner. After Beagle's last sentence, however, the former sheriff turns around in disbelief, "You're naive, Beagle – deputy by brother-in-law's grace!"

I land with a loud crash on the hood of the wrecked car and an equally plaintive and warning groan travels through the century-old body. I carefully straighten up and start climbing along the car as fast as I can before it loses its grip and slides into the depths. As I shift my weight to take a cautious step forward, a new sound comes in. The crunch of steel on asphalt as the wreck slowly changes position and begins to react to its new center of gravity. I lunge forward and see, feel and hear the car slide off the edge beneath me. For a few steps I practically tread water while the wrecked car passes under my feet. With a last desperate leap, I throw myself forward, hoping to grab the edge of the asphalt. My hands claw into the cracked asphalt whose porous texture gives me sometimes more and sometimes less grip. As the wrecked car below me hits the interstate with a heavy thud and falls clattering to its side, I hang onto the edge with the upper half of my body while my lower half hangs in the air. I mobilize my last reserves of strength and pull myself back onto the bridge. I crawl away from the slope, irrationally afraid that something could still pull me into the abyss. While the wound on my right hand continues to tear open under the strain and begins to bleed more profusely, I forget the actual danger on the bridge. A shrill beeping reveals my inattention and an orange light begins to flicker faster and faster in the corner of my eye. Instinctively, I pull the socket wrench out of my pants pocket and, panicking, try to place it on a small metal bolt on the mine I've moved into range of. My blood- and sweat-smeared hands slip on the smooth surface of the key and it falls to the asphalt with an indifferent jingle. In a last burst of hopeless and desperate survival instinct, I take the whole mine and toss it off the bridge like a Frisbee, pressing myself onto the hot asphalt. The mine explodes in flight next to the bridge shaking the 200+ year old structure. A metallic creak travels through the overpass, denying me my breather. I pick up the socket wrench, rise on my buttery knees and stagger along the bridge. On the way, I tear off a shirt sleeve and wrap it around my right hand in a makeshift fashion. Ahead of me, between two wrecked cars lies another mine. Fearing that more parts of the bridge might cloud in, I rush to the mine and drop to my knees. I place the socket wrench on the mine's bolt with my bandaged hand and am relieved to find that it fits. The shrill beeping of the booby trap stops abruptly as I turn the wrench with a jerk and I hear a releasing snap of some mechanism I don't understand. Intuitively, I take the mine in my left hand, the key in my right, and just start running. Arriving on the other side, I hear more parts of the bridge collapse and another car wreck falls into the depths. A look back reveals to me that most of the bridge is still standing, however. The bridge has survived another day, as have I. Until now. I slump to the ground and close my eyes. I have reached the eastern part of Primm and have not exploded, fallen, bled to death, or burned. Until now. I open my eyes and look at the mine in my hand. It is circular and of the size of a plate. Small, but perfectly adequate for human targets. Around the small bolt is drawn an arrow with two tips. At one end it says disarm. The writing on the other end is unreadable. In sloppy handwriting, someone has written "Sweet dreams, Caesar." I stow the Mine and socket wrench in my pocket and take a huge sip from my bottle.

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