“Jake! How’ve ya been?” the stocky man in oil-stained overalls asked, as he greeted me with a cheery wave. He put down his torque wrench, and strolled across the garage to join me.
I stepped down out of my car, closing the heavy door with the satisfying weighty sound of well-oiled hinges locking it into place. “Not bad, not bad at all, Bob,” I replied, with a broad grin.
Glancing behind me at my car, he frowned as he asked, “What happened to the Valkyrie? Been looking for trouble again?”
I chuckled and shrugged playfully as I replied, “You know me, Bob. Couldn’t let an opportunity pass to ride to the rescue!”
Bob rolled his eyes, but his grin told me he wasn’t too mad. “The usual then?” he asked me curiously.
“Yeah, that’d be great! I burned through at least five-hundred rounds of twenty-millimetre for the Vulcans’, and if you could replace the damaged plating, that would be fantastic,” I replied hopefully.
He gave me an affectionate smile, then said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve got that in stock. Give me a couple of hours, and I’ll have it reloaded and looking as good as new.”
“You’re a miracle worker!” I told him gratefully, then looked at him suspiciously, and asked, “How much of a dent’s this going to put in my retirement fund?”
He laughed, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “Two large ought to cover it.”
I winced, then nodded good naturedly, and said, “You’ll be retiring before me at this rate.”
A sad look briefly crossed his face, but he quickly masked it with a smile, and gestured over to the computer on the desk by the workbench. Deciding not to pry into my old friend’s private business, I reached into my coat for my credit stick, and followed him over to his desk. I pressed my thumb to the DNA reader built into the side, and it chimed quietly as it confirmed my ID. I frowned at the readout as it listed my funds. Highlighted in an easy-to-read green font, the display showed, “Available balance: 12345 credits.”
Maybe Katie had been right after all. I probably should have taken the bounty money after that last job, but I just couldn’t do it. Shady Creek was a small town being harassed by gangers, and even though the townsfolk had offered ten-large to protect them, I could tell by the dilapidated state of their homesteads that they couldn’t really afford it. They could hardly believe me when I turned them down, telling them to put the money towards their kid’s education instead. Their looks of astonishment and hugs of gratitude had made the whole endeavour worthwhile, even if it had ended up costing me two thousand credits to help them.
Bob had run up the cost for the ammo and repairs on the Valkyrie, then rounded it down to two grand with my repeat customer discount. I waved the credit stick over the reader at the side, and it made a soft beep as the balance was adjusted. He tipped his peaked red cap, and grinned as he said, “Much obliged, Jake.”
“I’ll be in the Atomic if you need me,” I replied, as I started walking over to my trailer.
I was going to see if Katie wanted to come too, but I thought better of it, knowing she’d still be pissed. Besides, it was probably for the best if she stayed right here. Katie was a dusky hued beauty, who tended to raise pulses when she accompanied me to a bar. She also had a legendary temper, and I wanted to avoid getting into any trouble if I could help it. Turning on my heel, I waved Bob goodbye, then strolled hastily out of the garage.
It was a blazingly hot autumn day outside, and a strong wind blew dust down the high street, swirling around my feet in little eddies. I waited for an old sedan to pass by, before jogging across the street and stepping onto the sidewalk on the other side. Most of the locals liked to stay indoors at midday, avoiding the fierce heat from the bright orange sun, so it was deserted as I strolled along, taking in the sights Kinsberg had to offer.
The street quietly baked in the sun, with slightly worn looking cars parked along the sidewalk in front of the long row of small, dusty shops. Despite the tired and rundown appearance of the place, Kinsberg was actually a thriving little town, seeing steady growth over the last couple of decades. There were dozens of successful businesses here, and more were springing up all the time, along with a steady stream of hopeful settlers making homes for themselves here.
I’d actually grown up on a small farm near Kinsberg, before leaving Charon IV, and heading off-planet to seek my fortunes in the Asphalt Arenas. The town had certainly changed since then, but not as much as I had, and it still felt small and parochial after the gleaming cities on the Gameworlds.
Deciding not to get maudlin and start dwelling in the past, I hurried along, keeping my head down so my hat could keep the dust out of my eyes. It didn’t take long to reach my destination, and I breezed through the doors of Kinsberg’s finest drinking establishment, the Atomic Saloon. I quickly glanced around the place, casting a quick and wary eye over the patrons. I’d made plenty of enemies over the last couple of decades, so you could never be too careful. It was busy in here today, with the usual mix of mercs, farmers, and townies, but I didn’t spot anyone that raised the old hackles. Weaving around a couple of chatting patrons, I headed over to the bar where the bartender was busy serving a chilled beer to a burly farmhand.
“Jake!” the bartender exclaimed in surprise, when he glanced in my direction. “I didn’t know you were back in town. Staying for long?”
I removed my hat and duster-coat, dropping them on a vacant bar-stool, then leaned against the comforting sturdiness of the solid oak bar. “Nothing planned for the moment, Abraham,” I replied with a jovial grin. “Just kicking back for a bit, while Bob gives the Valkyrie some TLC.”
“Yeah, I heard all about Shady Creek. Gangers wasn’t it?” he asked conversationally, as he reached for a bottle of bourbon from up on one of the liquor-stocked shelves.
I nodded, then frowned as I replied, “They’re getting bolder. I haven’t seen gangers head this far south for years.”
Abraham poured out the dark-golden bourbon, then added a handful of ice-cubes just as I liked it. Katie didn’t really like me drinking, but just the one wouldn’t hurt. Anyway, I’d earned this one after my recent good deeds.
“There you go,” Abraham said with a grin. He glanced over at the other side of the saloon, then frowned as he said apologetically, “There’s a couple of mercs at your table, but I can move them along if you want.”
I smiled at him, and giving a nonchalant shrug, I said, “Leave them be. I’m happy sitting at the bar.” I reached for my credit-stick, and asked, “How much for the drink?”
He chuckled, and replied warmly, “Jake, you know your money’s no good here.”
Raising the glass in a grateful salute, I closed my eyes as I took a sip, feeling the welcome burn of the alcohol as it slipped down my throat. Leaning against the solid bar, I relaxed with my drink, not being in any particular rush to get back to Bob’s Garage. I lost track of time as I savoured the bourbon, feeling the tension ease from my shoulders, while listening with half an ear as Abraham made polite conversation with his customers.
There was an air of tranquillity in the Atomic, with men talking quietly at their tables, enjoying some time out of the sun, and relishing an early afternoon drink. The peaceful ambience was disturbed by the loud creak of the door swinging open behind me, but the quiet that descended in the saloon afterwards was far more worrying.
After the rough baritone voices that had previously filled the room, the bright, airy soprano sounded like a glorious songbird had flown into the saloon. “I’m looking for Titanium Jake. Have any of you seen him?” she called out in a clear, confident voice.
I put down my glass, then slowly turned to study this new arrival. She was holding the door open, so she was silhouetted against the bright sunlight, which was streaming through the doorway into the moodily lit saloon. I couldn’t make out her features, but she certainly cut an impressive figure. The locals in the bar all knew who I was, and had turned to look my way at the mention of my name. The girl picked up on the stares so she let go of the door, letting it swing shut behind her, as she started to walk gracefully in my direction.
Now that the door was closed behind her, and after I blinked a couple of times, I was able to get a good look at the girl. She was young, probably early twenties if I had to guess, standing at about five-foot-five, and wearing a full set of black, figure-hugging biker leathers. Long, wavy brown hair fell around her shoulders, framing a very pretty face, and her striking green eyes had a look of determination to them as they were fixed firmly on me. I started to rise from my seat, just as one of the brawny mercs sitting at one of the tables between us stood up as well, blocking her path to the bar. He was at least seven foot tall, with enormously broad shoulders, and his armoured frame completely concealed the girl from view.
“Hold on there, honey,” he said playfully. “If you’re looking for male company, I’d be happy to oblige.”
She sidestepped him without comment, rolling her eyes as she glided purposefully in my direction.
“Hey, wait a minute,” he protested with a frown, turning and reaching out to take hold of her arm. “There’s no need to be rude, I just want a nice friendly chat.”
.... There is more of this story ...