As crosshairs settled on a distant target, a small puff of dust rose in the still air; with all the air expelled from his lungs, the shooter used this natural pause in his respiration to squeeze the trigger slowly and evenly. A few seconds and 1,000 yards away, a steel target clanged with the impact of a bullet. The man grinned while watching through his scope.
"You've still got it, Alex." He mumbled to himself as he stood and glanced back toward his odd-looking vehicle. "ATLAS," he said in a commanding voice. A beep registered in his headset and a small question mark showed in his HUD (Head-Up Display) goggles. "Stand down from standby mode and approach." A double beep sounded and a small clock began to wind down from 2 minutes.
As he waited, Gunnery Sergeant Alexandros Theron, USMC (RET) looked around the sparse Arizona landscape and breathed deeply of the desert air. He scratched at his thick beard and ran his hands through his shaggy hair. His sharp, grey eyes noticed clouds building on the late afternoon horizon and wondered if he could make it back to his truck in time.
"Well, if it ain't raining; you ain't training," He said with a sigh, "ATLAS. Hurry it up, please." Another double beep sounded as he turned toward the approaching vehicle.
Alex marveled for the millionth time as the small vehicle trundled up. It was loaded down with all the gear Alex would ever need to live in the field indefinitely. ATLAS (All Terrain Load Assistance System) had started life as an M274 mechanical mule sometime in the Vietnam War, but had since been heavily modified and used as a test bed in the Lockheed SMSS (Squad Mission Support System) program. A LIDAR system and internal navigation system allowed it to operate almost autonomously without GPS. It could be set to follow Alex and respond to voice commands. At present, it was loaded down with just about all of his gear. It was rather ugly and utilitarian piece of equipment, but irreplaceable on the battlefield. He saved ATLAS from the scrap heap in a military auction and restored it to working order.
A bark pulled him from his reverie and he smiled as an Australian cattle dog jumped from ATLAS and ran to him. "Hello, Philandros," Alex said crouching to scratch the dog's offered belly, "I thought I told you to wait at the truck." The dog grumbled and whined as he rolled about Alex's scratching fingers.
"Well, come on. We have to beat this rain. Philandros, mesa (up)." Alex stood and began securing his M14 rifle in a hard case on ATLAS. Philandros jumped up onto his cushion in the passenger's foot well basket and waited impatiently for his master.
When he finished, Alex hopped into a small driver's seat and moved the steering wheel into position. As he drove across the desert, thunder rolled across the landscape. As they bumped and lumbered along, Alex glanced behind him to check on the storm, only to see a wall of sand barreling down upon him. "Shit, that's all I need." he said as he stopped the vehicle and scrambled for a pack behind him. He quickly tied a shemagh around his face and wrapped Philandros in one as well. He moved the steering column to the side and commanded ATLAS to return to the truck. There was no way he could see enough to navigate. ATLAS used its internal navigation system to return to Alex's truck, which was a saved waypoint in its memory.
After 30 grueling minutes of being pelted by sand and debris, Alex noticed the winds calming and the haboob rapidly receding from his sight. He looked around to locate his truck, but did not see it. "ATLAS, where is the truck?"
A small message appeared in his goggles, 1.5 METERS with an arrow indicating the direction. Alex looked. No truck was to be found. Testily, Alex replied, "ATLAS, how in the hell can you mistake a Ford F-250 and your trailer for empty ground?"
UNKNOWN COMMAND appeared in his HUD.
"Fucking stupid machine..." Alex snarled. "ATLAS, deploy mast." A communications mast extended from the rear of the vehicle. As it deployed, Alex began unpacking a smallish crate from the cargo area.
MAST DEPLOYED displayed in his HUD as he set a quad rotor UAV on the ground next to ATLAS. "Thank you, ATLAS. Deploy ICARUS and find my truck." A quick series of beeps registered in his ears and the UAV swept off in search of his vehicle. Alex took a tablet PC from a compartment and began watching the video feed from the rapidly receding UAV.
"ATLAS, activate radar," Alex said, "Where did that thunderstorm go?" A window popped up on the tablet with a Doppler radar image that showed clear skies in the 10 miles that it could scan. "Man, that is weird;" Alex said, noting the lack of weather, "deactivate radar."
While he was watching the feed from ICARUS (Individually Carried Autonomous Rotary UAV System), Alex noted that it seemed like the sandstorm completely covered the roads. "ATLAS, overlay a road map onto the video feed; and take us to the nearest paved road. Have ICARUS meet us there." ATLAS beeped rapidly and began driving toward the road.
When they arrived, Alex started to get worried. There was absolutely no sign of the road. It was as if it never existed. "ICARUS, Maximum altitude and wide area scan for movement." A trilling acknowledgement sounded in his ear as the UAV shot upwards.
What he saw next shocked him. Pristine desert lay as far as the eye could see. No signs of highways or the interstate that he knew were nearby. A covered wagon was slowly plodding across the vista about two miles away as he stood dumbfounded. A rapid alarm sounded in his ears as ICARUS focused in on a rising dust cloud in the distance. Alex could not believe his eyes as he watched a group of men on horseback come into focus.
"What the fuck is going on here?" He said while gazing in disbelief.
As he watched, the group riders advanced on the wagon as the wagon driver frantically tried to outrun the advancing attackers. This spurred Alex into action and he jumped aboard ATLAS and sped off toward the fray.
Alex commanded ATLAS on an intercept course and ICARUS to find an area of good cover for him along the route. ICARUS shortly identified a grouping of boulders near the road that he should be able to reach before the bandits caught up to the wagon. As ATLAS and ICARUS navigated, he carefully climbed into the cargo area and extracted his pistols, rifle and tactical gear from their storage cases. Strapping on his gear and weapons proved difficult on the jostling vehicle, but Alex was ready and jumped from ATLAS when he arrived at the boulders.
"ATLAS, standby mode, 300 yard minimum standoff range; ICARUS, tactical overwatch. Philandros, mazí (together)." Alex commanded as he settled into the rocks with Philandros next to him. ATLAS trundled off, and ICARUS shot away to monitor the situation. The wagon appeared over a slight rise about 200 yards away with the horsemen not far behind. The horsemen were now firing at the wagon and Alex noted the seven men were wearing cloth or bandanas over their faces. He lined up his crosshairs on the closest bandit to the wagon and fired.
By chance, the round found its mark because Alex forgot to adjust for the horse's movement. The bullet entered the man's stomach and he slid from his horse. The other riders seemed not to notice and Alex acquired a new target. Three more riders fell before the highwaymen turned tail and bolted away.
"ICARUS, monitor targets and report." Alex said as the wagon slowed to a stop near the rocks. The driver was looking around trying to figure out where the bandits had gone, and trying to locate his saviors.
Alex slowly stood from his hiding spot and waved. "Hello, the wagon!" He called out. The driver looked over in his direction; his eyes almost swept over Alex in his desert-camouflaged utilities and tactical gear before he did a double take and promptly fainted.
"Well, that went well." Alex muttered as he walked toward the wagon; Philandros huffed in agreement.
Alex slung his rifle and drew his suppressed M1911A1 pistol from a drop leg holster as he stalked toward the wagon, searching for targets. Alex quickly checked the passed out man before searching the rear of the wagon.
After clearing the wagon and attending to the driver, Alex began stripping the dead bushwhackers of their valuables and dragging the bodies off the trail. As he was doing this, he came across a dying bandit.
"Why'd you do it, son?" He asked the mortally wounded young rider with pity in his voice.
The young man stared at Alex in shock and fright before answering in a weak voice, "Just trying to make a buck." He began coughing and died before Alex could get anything else from him.
"Same shit, different day." Alex said quietly. Just then, the driver of the wagon walked up with his gun drawn. Philandros growled softly at his approach. Alex slowly turned around and held his empty hands out.
"Philandros, that's no way to treat our friends;" he admonished the dog in a calm voice, "but neither is holding a pistol on them either."
"Who are you, mister?" the man asked with a trembling voice.
"Gunnery Sergeant Alexandros Leonidas Theron, I am at your service, sir." He said with a slight bow.
"You're with the Army?" the man asked skeptically, keeping his gun pointed in the general direction of Alex.
"Marines!" Alex snapped, reflexively. The man jumped slightly at his harsh reply.
"I'm sorry, sir, I meant no offense. I'm Jedidiah Johnson and I sure do thank you for saving my bacon. You just took out more than half of the Smith Gang!" He said in awe, holstering his gun.
"Think nothing of it, Mr. Johnson. The Golden Rule always applies," Alex said with a smile, "why were those fellows after you anyway?" Alex asked, continuing to strip the dead of their valuables.
"Like I said, they wanted my bacon." Jedidiah said, pointing back toward his wagon. "My family owns a hog farm nearby and that bacon'll fetch near on to 15 cents a pound at the market."
Alex looked at Jed in disbelief before chuckling to himself. "Well, Mr. Johnson, I'm glad I could be of service. Is there anything else I can help you with?"
"Why don't you let me buy you a meal, Sergeant? It's the least I could do for you savin' my life." Jedidiah offered.
"That's a deal, Jed," Alex said with a smile, "I'll have to use one of these horses. It seems my mule has gone missing. He bucked me off when a snake spooked him and he ran off. I was trying to walk to town, when I found you. By the way, what is the date today? I've been out in this desert for quite a while and lost track."
"I see," said Jedidiah, "you can get a new mule if you want in Fort Verde and outfit yourself at the mercantile. You should get a fair bit for all those horses and loot you just fell into. And the date today is March 15th, 1873."
"ATLAS, recover ICARUS and follow. Keep in visual range, 1000-yard minimum distance. Advise if anyone gets close." Alex mumbled into his radio. "Beware the Ides of March," he said to himself.
A double beep sounded in his earpiece as he began stripping off his gear and stowing it in his pack. He put on a baseball cap and wrapped his head in a shemagh to cover the earpiece and wrap around glasses that held his HUD. He knew it was not much, considering he was in A-TACS camouflage utilities and everything on his person was foreign to these people. Alex found the best-looking horse and strung the rest along behind it. He figured he could search the contents of the saddlebags later. He shoved all of his loot except for a few coins in them and mounted up.
He would have to find a way to disguise his technology. At least all of his rifles and shotgun were wood stocked and could be mistaken for a period weapon at a glance. His pistols were a different story, but he did have his M1917s on ATLAS. At least they were revolvers.
Alex sat quietly, mumbling instructions and to-do lists to ATLAS in between the small talk offered by Jedidiah. After a while, the wagon came to a halt in the middle of a small dusty town.
"Welcome to Fort Verde, Sergeant." Jedidiah said with a sigh as he levered himself off the wagon.
Alex dismounted and slowly looked around and whistled. "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto." He muttered aloud. He looked at Philandros on the seat of the wagon, "Philandros, filakas (guard). I'll bring you some food on the way out, okay?" Philandros grumbled, but settled in to watch his post.
"Say again, Sergeant?" Jedidiah asked.
"Nevermind, Jed. How about that grub? And we'll have the Smith Gang pay for it." Alex grinned, flipping Jed a Gold Eagle.