June 2278

The crack-bang of a bullet saved him. Caius, in defiance of all training, looked up when he heard the noise. Up to the sky not scanning the terrain as though he expected the noise to be Jupiter's lightning instead of small arms fire. He cursed himself again for a fool and dragged himself up the side of the ravine towards the shot.

Shots. Another two at a steady interval. Nine millimetre, he guessed. Unlikely to be scoped. He still kept low to minimise the target he presented. The sand was as hot as Avernus and acid cruel against the scorpion stings on his arms. Caius raised a hand to wipe the sweat off his face instinctively.

But he was not sweating any more.

Panic gnawed at him as he surveyed the desert for the source of the gunfire. He was dying in increments alone in this gods forsaken dust-bowl. Another shot. Not alone. And not dying, Caius told himself grimly, forcing down the gibbering voice in his head as he caught a hint of muzzle flash. Where there were weapons, there were people. And where there were people, there was salvation.

"Mars guide me." The legionary prayed as he scrambled down the lee to the cover of a large rock. There was a bare sandstone ridge oblique to the ravine he had been following. It twisted in aeolian curves hiding much of itself from his view. But the gunman kept firing in an even cadence. Caius picked another point of cover and ran to it before hunkering down to listen again.

Only one weapon with no returning fire. That did not reassure him as much as it would have before his patrol had been attacked by that damned abomination. There was a plethora of things in the Mojave drooling ready to kill.

He staggered to another rock outcrop and cursed when he stepped in entrails. In the shade of the undercut stone there was a lizard. It had been shot in the stomach and in its death-throes had disembowelled itself. The creatures travelled in packs preying on unwary travellers. His decanus had spoken of different kinds, including ones that could breathe fire. This dead one showed no signs of ignition. Just a gaping hole in its torso.

This time, Caius caught a voice in the echo of the gun shot. He listened keenly hoping one of his comrades had also survived. Sound bounced oddly amongst the gullies but he was close enough to pick out individual words.

"Tell that its sculptor well those passions read, you fuckers!" A woman spoke. Caius grimaced in disappointment. She yelled. Or chanted. She seemed to be reciting something. That suggested some education had been wasted on this degenerate.

BANG!

He jumped at the noise. A different gun, much higher calibre. Someone else? The legionary was confident he could overpower or if necessary reason with a lone person. If he was outnumbered, his tactics would rapidly devolve to bleeding on their boots.

"Which yet survive, ow, son of a bitch." The cursing interrupted the next line or else the poet was unorthodox in their use of language. Caius crept forward under scrub cover, skirting around a twitching lizard. It posed no threat to him. Someone had blown its head off. The body trembled as life left it, reminding him bitterly of Lucas thrashing after the deathclaw had decapitated him.

There were more lizards, perhaps ten of varying sizes, at the mouth of a narrow gully. It was a good defensive position barricaded by the carcass of a brahmin and defended by a broad leather hat. That was all Caius could see of the woman. She kept well down, firing through the gap between pack animal's heads.

BANG! A bullet ricocheted as the .45 calibre revolver jumped in her hand. He got a good view of the weapon and guessed the cause of the profanities. The gun was too powerful for her and her aim suffered for it. She took four shots to dispatch the last lizard, two of them clean misses taking chips off the buff coloured stone.

Six shots. Caius had counted very carefully. If she had switched to the revolver because the semi-automatic was dry, she would now have to reload. It was as good a time as any to announce himself. He swallowed on an arid mouth.

"Hello?" It was a croak, which was fortunate as he nearly began with a civilised salutation of 'ave'. "I come in truce."

"If you're a fucking ghoul, you're a dead man!" The woman shouted back. Possibly she was half-deaf from her own gunfire in the confines of the gully. Possibly she simply had no manners like the rest of her ilk.

"I am no ghoul." Caius showed a hand around his rock, revealing his position to test her intentions and her arsenal. When she did not shoot, he moved fully into her view. The brimmed hat remained where it was for a moment then raised itself over the brahmin so its owner could stare at him.

"You sound like one and you look like shit." Her tone moderated as she studied him with frank surprise. All he could see of her was sunglasses between hat and the faded bandanna covering her face. "How long have you been out here?"

"Days." He was not sure himself how long he had marched alone. Caius licked his cracked lips, refusing to lean against the rock to keep himself upright. The adrenalin of prospective rescue was fading and now demanding its due. He stood out of pride as his legs began to shake. He swallowed on nothing, trying to make himself heard above a rasp.

"Damn." She said eloquently, climbing over the brahmin to help him into her camp. Caius let himself be dragged past the barricade then sat down on a wooden crate as his knees gave. The woman opened a bottle of water, helping him drink it before busying herself with a satchel of medical supplies.

He had leisure to inspect the camp as she pulled off her gloves to wash his face and dab salve on his mouth. Satchels and boxes reinforced the defences, and a canvas awning stretched between the rock walls gave bless├ęd shade against the fierce sun. In that shade, a man lay on a bedroll, stripped to his underclothes.

"Him?" Caius nodded towards the insensate form.

"Don't talk. You'll split your lips worse than they already are." She finished with the salve and grabbed his wrist, turning his arm over to make a face at the oozing puncture marks. "God damned mess. Hold on." She went back to the satchel and returned with a clay pot, the contents of which she made him drink. Caius submitted to the dosing because of the familiar smell of the anti-venom. It had the same foul taste as well.

He accepted another bottle of water and swallowed it in measured sips. His stomach wanted to revolt against the liquid but he refused to waste the largesse. The woman cleaned his arms with alcohol then dressed the stings with new bandages not rags. Caius looked at the neat work but his mind was made of fog. She helped him onto a bedroll next to the man. His last conscious thought for quite a while was 'soft hands'.