“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.”
She tugged her arm, but he wouldn’t let go, and she said indignantly, “Get your fucking hands off me!”
The big mercenary’s eyes narrowed in anger, and I strode over to intervene before things turned ugly. His companion eyed me with alarm, and grabbed at the bigger man’s arm, trying to tug him away as he hissed, “Stop dicking around Moorland, don’t you know who that is?!”
The big merc sneered at his buddy, and yanked his arm free, then looked my way, saying, “Why don’t you fuck off, before you get hurt.”
“There’s no need for violence, friend. Let go of the girl, and you can go about your business,” I said in a quiet, calm voice, attempting to defuse the situation.
He let her go, much to my relief, but it was only to square off against me instead. He reached out with his meaty paw of a hand, shoving me in the chest, as he said with contempt, “I think some violence is just what we need, ‘friend’.”
His buddy backed away in alarm, and I glanced his way, just to make sure he wasn’t reaching for a weapon. The huge merc in front of me took that momentary look as a chance to get in a surprise blow, and he swung his fist at me in a hefty right hook. He was a big man though, slow on his feet, and cumbersome with his attack. I weaved backwards, deftly avoiding the wild swing, then countered with a swift jab to his chin.
A split second before my punch connected, there was a smooth metallic whir, and the hydraulic rams in my bionic hand activated, sending the titanium fist slamming into the mercs lantern-jaw. His head snapped back, his eyes rolling as he tipped over, then crashed to the floor with a loud clatter. I stepped forward to finish the job, and his companion scrambled over, hands upraised.
“He didn’t mean anything by it, Jake. We’ll leave now,” he pleaded in a panic.
I nodded at him, moving back to give him room, and with some help from a couple of the regulars, they dragged the big merc out of the saloon. Satisfied that the ugly confrontation was over, I turned to the girl, to check she was alright. She had a look of shock on her face, but it quickly turned to curiosity, and she studied my face intently.
I raised an eyebrow at her intense scrutiny, and said, “I’m Jake, but you’re making me feel like I need to produce an ID. Who are you, and why are you looking for me?”
She flushed slightly in embarrassment, then replied, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. My name’s Rebecca Beaumont. I believe you know my mother, Jessica.”
I grinned, shaking my head in amazement, and exclaimed, “You’re Jessica Beaumont’s kid?!” I stopped to look at her, and smiled, saying, “Yeah, I see it now. You look a lot like her when she was about your age; she was a knockout too. How is Jess? I haven’t seen her in years...”
Rebecca smiled shyly at my compliment, then looked worried as she replied, “Mom sent me here to find you. She said you hang out in Kinsberg, when you aren’t out looking for trouble.”
I let out an embarrassed chuckle, then paused as I looked at her carefully, and asked, “Is your mom in trouble? Is that why she sent you to find me?”
Giving a slight nod, Rebecca looked around furtively, and leaned in as she asked, “Can we talk somewhere a little more private?”
I nodded agreeably, then returned to pick up my hat and long coat, nodding my thanks to Abraham for the drink as I left. I followed Rebecca out into the scorching sunshine, and she glided over to a powerful looking bike that was parked just outside the Atomic Saloon.
Whistling appreciatively, I exclaimed, “That’s a hell of a bike!” I leaned in for a closer look, and immediately spotted the telltale weapon ports in the front faring, so asked in surprise, “You’re packing heat on that beast as well?”
“Twin Machine Guns,” she said as she nodded, looking proud of the blue and white machine with its flowing curves and sporty lines.
I wasn’t an expert on bikes, but I could tell it was a very expensive model, based on the machines used in the bike-classification matches in the Arenas. It looked brand new as well, and I wondered how Rebecca, or more realistically, Jessica, could have afforded such an extravagance.
I pointed down the road, and said, “I’m parked up at Bob’s Garage. We can talk in my trailer.”
“Alright, I’ll follow you over,” she agreed, and she walked over to the big bike, lithely throwing her slender, leather-clad leg over the seat.
I started walking briskly back to Bob’s, and I heard Rebecca start the engine behind me, the bike coming to life with a throaty purr. She revved the throttle a little, then caught up beside me as I strolled along, moving quickly to make it easier for her to keep the bike stable. When I walked into Bob’s Garage, he was putting the finishing touches on a re-spray of the paintwork, and he stood back to admire his handiwork.
My Valkyrie was a custom designed piece of destructive art, and essentially a reproduction of the vehicle I’d won my Asphalt Arena trophies with. Weighing in at just over four tonnes when carrying a full weapon load, twenty feet long, eight feet wide, and with four massive, chunky wheels, it was closer to an APC than a car. Despite its bulk, the Valkyrie had a ten-litre engine capable of over two-thousand horsepower, and I’d been able to push it to one-seventy on the freeway. I’d had it painted a bright blue, with white flashes that curved around the diamond-edged ram-plate, then swept up the side of the car. Finally, adorned in striking red lettering, the number “17” was painted on either side.
Rebecca brought her bike to a stop, turned off the engine, then activated the anti-grav stand which held the machine stable. She smoothly dismounted her ride, then walked over to join me. She didn’t say anything, and when I turned to look at her, she was staring at the Valkyrie in open-mouthed wonder.
Realising I was watching her, she blushed slightly, and said, “I don’t think you can call my bike a ‘beast’ when you’re driving around in that thing!”
I laughed, and looking at Bob, I said, “Perfect job as usual, thanks pal.”
He grinned at me, and wagging a chastising finger, he said, “Take better care of it next time!”
I nodded whilst trying to look chagrined, then strolled over to the armoured trailer hooked up to the back of the Valkyrie. I pressed my hand against the DNA reader on the side of the trailer, and the armour-plated door unlocked with the smooth whir of hydraulic bolts being withdrawn. I tentatively opened the reinforced door, then looked around for Katie. The door to the bedroom was closed, so I guessed she was probably sulking, and giving me the silent treatment. That was okay though. She’d been looking after me for all these long years on the road, so I didn’t mind that she was a little high spirited.
Stepping up into the trailer, I turned and smiled at Rebecca, inviting her in as I said, “Come on up, and make yourself at home. Can I get you anything? Something to eat or drink?”
She followed after me into my home away from home, and I smiled when I caught the look on her face. The girl was obviously impressed, by the plush, modern, and very expensive trailer. Walking into the lounge area at the back, she sat down, crossing her leather clad legs demurely, and said, “I’ve been on the road a while, so a cold drink would be great.”
I nodded amiably, leaning down to open the fridge, and pulled out a couple of cans of Tetra-cola. “Want a glass and ice?” I asked her politely.
Shaking her head, she said, “As long as it’s chilled, straight from the can would be great.”
I threw her one of the cans in an easy, under-arm throw, and she caught it deftly. Holding her thumb down on the top, she unsealed the can with a fizzing hiss, and she brought it to her lips and took a big drink. I copied her, chugging the whole can in a series of big mouthfuls, and letting out a huge sigh afterwards, relishing the momentary sugar rush. She swallowed the rest, following my lead, then grinned at me happily.
She looked breathtakingly beautiful in that moment, her hundred-megawatt smile lighting up my trailer with its brilliance, and reminding me sharply of her mother. That memory triggered another more recent one, and I asked, “You were going to tell me about your mom? Something about her being in trouble?”
Rebecca’s smile turned into a worried frown, and I immediately regretted that my words had taken away the shining radiance of her gorgeous smile.
Nodding, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. She held it out to me, and said, “That was wrapped around a brick. Some asshole biker threw it through our window yesterday, before high-tailing it out of there.”
I walked over and took the note from her slender hand, then sat down, and carefully unfolded the paper. Written in a scratchy red ink, someone had scrawled the following:
“Tell that bastard to be here tomorrow night, or we take our time with your daughter, and burn you and your home to the ground. The Skorpions.”
I looked up at Rebecca in alarm, and said, “You better take me there now. How far is it to your mom’s place?”
She looked at me in confusion for a moment, then replied hesitantly, “Her truckstop is about sixty miles out of town, heading west on Route Forty-Three.”
I rose to my feet and nodded decisively as I said, “I just need to refuel the Valkyrie, then we can roll out.” I looked at her curiously, and asked, “Who’s the guy they’re looking for, anyway? Is it your Dad?”
Rebecca stood up smoothly, and she studied my face as she replied, “Mom didn’t say who the note referred to. I lost my Dad before I was born.”
I looked into her eyes, and said sympathetically, “I’m really sorry, I had no idea.”
She nodded, waving away my apology, then walked with me over to the reinforced door. We climbed down the steps from the trailer, and I closed the Titanium-plated door behind me, which swung shut with a dull whir as the bolts locked the reinforced door into place. Bob had the hood up on an old green Jeep, and was busy tinkering with the engine. He heard us leave the trailer, and leaned back, wiping his brow with an oil-smeared rag that left more mess than it cleaned.
“You heading out now, Jake?” he asked me with a smile.
I nodded, and replied, “Duty calls ... a damsel in distress.”
He frowned, and said, “Take better care of the Valkyrie this time.”
“Hey, you know me, Bob,” I said, with a grin. “I do my best.”
He chuckled and said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
While Rebecca strode over to her bike, I pressed the remote in my jacket pocket as I headed for the Valkyrie. The heavy door swung open with a hiss, and I climbed inside, taking a refreshing lungful of cold, clean air. After the blistering heat and dust outside, it felt wonderful to be able to breathe more easily. I stripped off my long-coat and hat, placing them in the passenger’s seat, and settled back in the familiar driver’s chair. It was a wonder of ergonomic design, moulding itself to my body, and coloured jet black with a blue trim.
Leaning forward, I placed my right thumb on the dash, and the interior of the Valkyrie came to life. The panels cast a soft blue glow about the interior of the cab, bringing up the local map, and the regulars like top speed, rev counter, fuel tank, and cell storage levels. The Valkyrie was a hybrid, with solar panels on the trailer charging the energy cell for normal cruising, and a big tank full of racing fuel for when I needed some extra poke. The tank was looking perilously close to empty, so I was glad I mentioned refuelling it to Rebecca.
I turned to check how she was doing, and when she saw me look her way, she gave me a thumbs up and started the engine on her bike. She turned a tight circle, then disappeared from view, and I gave her a few seconds to get well clear before I started the ignition. There was a bass rumble as the Valkyrie ticked over, before the noise quieted a little as the electrics kicked in. I gave Bob a farewell salute, and he waved me goodbye as I backed out of the garage, and onto the forecourt.
Rebecca was waiting for me, and she pulled away onto the quiet main street, heading west towards the gas station on this side of town. We drove quietly along the streets of Kinsberg, overtaking the occasional car, and a couple of farm trucks dropping off produce at the local supermarket. It was nice to see the place looking so relaxed and sleepy, a place of quiet refuge from the chaos out in the Badlands.
We were quickly approaching the gas station, and I beeped the horn, just to remind Rebecca in case she’d forgotten. She waved back at me, then pulled into the station, skilfully avoiding a bus full of parishioners that lurched out ahead of her. I swung the Valkyrie in at my pump, while she brought her blue and white bike to a stop at one of the regular refuelling points. I pressed the button on the dash that would unseal the tank, then got out, making sure I quickly shut the door behind me to keep the cab cool and fresh.
I walked over to my pump of super-high-octane racing fuel; well, I say mine, but it really belonged to Hank, who ran the gas station. I didn’t really imagine there was too much demand for this kind of quality fuel, and I’d never seen anyone else using it. Still, Hank was a nice guy, and kept the pump going for the Valkyrie. I picked up the hose from the pump marked with the distinctive five-star pentagram symbol of “El-Diablo, Hi-Octane”, and stuck the nozzle through the hole for the Valkyrie’s gas tank.
“Hey, Rebecca,” I called over the hood of the Valkyrie, to the girl who was watching me fill up the tank. “Is the bike a hybrid too? Top it off if you want, I’m buying.”
She pulled off the black helmet she was wearing, then smiled at me gratefully. I watched her lithely dismount the bike, and reach for the trigger nozzle on the hose, to start filling up the big tank behind the handlebars. With the high-pressure distribution system on the El-Diablo pump, I actually finished topping up the Valkyrie before her, and as I put the hose back I could smell the distinct sweet aroma of high octane fuel. I strode around to go and pay in the shop, smiling at Rebecca as I walked past her bike. The bell gave a jaunty ring as I pushed open the door, and Hank looked up from the back of the store, where he was busy restocking shelves with cans of engine oil.
“Jake! It’s great to see you,” he exclaimed with delight.
I was going to tip my hat to him, but realised I’d left it in the cab, so I settled for a smile instead. Hank and I were old buddies. We’d gone to school together back in the day, then when I’d returned to Charon IV, I’d helped him settle some awkward business with a local protection racket.
“Can’t stop and chat today, Hank,” I told him with a regretful smile. “I’m out on the road again.”
“You should come by when you can,” he said eagerly. “Gloria keeps telling me to invite you over.”
I laughed and said, “I still can’t believe you landed a woman like that.” I leaned in, and asked conspiratorially, “Has the cooking got any better?”
He shook his head, and said with a chuckle, “Nope, I’m still a disaster in the kitchen. Gloria’s on the verge of banning me outright.”
I reached for my credit stick, and said, “My usual, plus the bike on number three.”
Hank looked up in surprise, and glanced over at the pump where Rebecca had just finished filling up. He grinned as he waved at her, and she smiled back, giving him a cheery wave in return.
“You know her?” I asked, startled.
Hank nodded, giving me a funny look for a moment, before his face smoothed out into a warm smile. “Yeah, she stops by for gas every now and then,” he replied by way of explanation.
“I still can’t believe Jess Beaumont’s got a daughter,” I said, shaking my head in bewilderment. “She looks just like her, doesn’t she?”
“That she does,” Hank replied, while nodding sagely, and giving me a sideways look. His eyes darted to the till, and he added, “That’ll be four-fifty please, Jake.”
I pressed my thumb on the credit stick to check my funds. It confirmed my ID with a soft chime, then displayed in a clear green font, “Available balance: 12345 credits.”
Frowning, I was forced to admit Katie was probably right. I was getting a little low on cash, and probably should have accepted that reward money from the folks at Shady Creek. Still, I had enough to keep me going, and seeing the looks of gratitude on their faces had been worth every credit. Swiping the stick across the till, it made a high pitched beep as it subtracted the charge from my account.
“Cheers, Hank,” I told him. “Tell Gloria I’ll be round as soon as I can.”
“Stay safe, Jake,” he said to me with a smile, and waved me goodbye.
I strolled out of the store and pressed the button on my remote to open the door to the Valkyrie. “You all good?” I asked Rebecca as I walked briskly past her bike.
She nodded, and said, “Yep, all ready.”
“Watch out for my comm broadcast,” I called out to her as I climbed into the cab. “We need to sync-up.”
I activated the dash with my right thumb, and once the holographic comm interface had appeared, I sent out a point-blank proximity squawk. Rebecca answered it a couple of seconds later, and I locked in her frequency to the comm interface. A close up of her face taken from the cameras in her helmet appeared, floating like a ghostly disembodied head above the dashboard. Fortunately, this ghost was pleasant to look at.
“This is Rebecca, checking in,” she said, darting a look at the camera with her bright green eyes.
I fired up the engine on the Valkyrie, and smiled at her reassuringly as I said, “This is Jake. OK, you take point, but you see any sign of danger, pull right back and let me lead.”
“Alright, let’s roll out,” she said to me firmly in a gruff faux-baritone.
I laughed, and said, “That’s my line isn’t it?”
She winked, and revved up the bike, pulling away quick and smooth. Still chuckling to myself, I powered up the Valkyrie to the accompanying bass rumble of the massive engine, then eased my foot down on the accelerator, and left the forecourt.
It didn’t take us long to leave town, as we were already near the outskirts. We had a brief drive through the small stretch of suburbs first, passing well cared for homes, complete with picket fences. I’d always aspired to live in one of these nice, residential, five bedroom houses as a kid, having grown up out in the sticks. Still, if I hadn’t been so bored out on the farm, I never would have taken to helping my Uncle Lenny turn that old pickup truck into a hot-rod. When he’d been killed by raiders, I found out he’d left the pick-up to me, and the rest was history.
Rebecca took the turn for Route Forty-Three, and I followed after her, keeping pace with her bike. The double lane highway was pretty clear at this time of day, and I put my foot down, pushing up to sixty, and drawing alongside her. She flashed a grin at me and opened up the throttle on her bike, racing away and leaving me in her dust. I was in half a mind to show her what the Valkyrie could do, but I quickly remembered I had the trailer on the back, with Katie sequestered inside. She was already in a bad enough mood with me already, and I decided quite wisely not to push my luck.
The bike was a small speck in the distance, but it got gradually larger as Rebecca dawdled along, letting me catch up. Her holograph was smiling at me smugly, but as she crested a hill, her expression changed abruptly, her eyes widening in alarm.
“What is it?” I asked her brusquely. “Get back here if there’s any trouble.”
“Raiders,” she explained, glancing up at the camera. “They hit some convoy, but looks like they’re long gone.”
As I drove up the hill, I could see wispy trails of grey smoke marring the otherwise beautiful blue sky. Then when I reached the peak, and looked out into the valley beyond, I saw what had panicked Rebecca. She was right, a convoy had been hit by raiders, and it was the work of a well-armed group judging by the devastation on the road ahead. They’d wrecked the mercs on escort duty first, then started picking off the civilians in the convoy. A few of them had been destroyed, but there was a cluster of vehicles a few miles up ahead, where the raiders had run the remnants of the convoy off the road.
Rebecca had stopped up ahead, and as I overtook her, I said to my lovely companion, “Let me take point, there might be an ambush set for anyone looking for survivors.”
She nodded obediently, starting up the bike, and following after me, and I drove closer to the forlorn looking convoy. Half the vehicles sported weapon damage of some kind or the other, and one large freight-hauler had been set on fire, leaving it a burned-out charred ruin. As we approached, I started to see what looked like bodies strewn around, and I clenched my teeth in anger.
Pulling up a safe distance from the wrecks, I carefully opened the door to the Valkyrie, keeping my eyes peeled for an ambush. I thought about asking Katie to come, but it made more sense for her to stay back at the trailer. At least that’s what I told myself, and it definitely wasn’t because I was trying to avoid antagonising her at the moment. The last thing I needed was to have to deal with her legendary temper right now.
Rebecca jogged up to my side, carrying a ferocious looking sub-machine gun. She certainly looked like she knew how to use it, holding it with practiced familiarity.
“Take cover if you see anything suspicious,” I told her, taking a cautionary tone.
She gave me a brave smile, but I could tell she was nervous, as she replied, “I’ll just follow your lead.”
I walked ahead carefully, eyes darting from side-to-side, watching for the slightest hint of movement. It was still breezy out here on the plains, and a tumbleweed rolled past, drawing my eyes with its haphazard motion, a slave to the whim of the wind. Other than that, and the occasional flap of a curtain in a shot-up mobile home, the convoy was quiet as the grave.
One look was all it took to confirm that I’d been right with my first glance. There were bodies strewn about, most of which had been shot, but a few had met far grimmer ends. The corpses were of men, children and the elderly, which left one group conspicuously absent. I spotted drag marks in the dirt leading over to a small mound, and I felt a leaden feeling in my chest as I walked in that direction.
Turning to look at Rebecca, I asked, “Can you take a quick look around the vehicles, just to check there aren’t any survivors hiding inside?”
She looked up at me, eyes wide, and nodded slowly, before turning and making her way over to one of the nearby trucks. I watched to make sure she was safe, then continued following the trail over the mound. It led to a gulley on the other side, where I found the missing group from the convoy, the women. I felt bile rising in my throat, and looked away quickly, thankful that I’d sent Rebecca off to the trucks so she hadn’t seen this. Squaring my shoulders, I turned on my heel, and walked back towards the wrecked vehicles.
We searched for survivors, calling out as well in case anyone had managed to run into the scrubland beyond and hide. Only the whistling wind answered our cries, and after fifteen minutes of searching, I knew it was hopeless. We walked back to our vehicles in silence, subdued by what we’d seen, and I could see how worried Rebecca was, when she stopped and glanced back at the ravaged convoy.
Reaching out, I placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, and said firmly, “Don’t worry. I’ll make them pay for what they did here.”
She turned to look up at me, then surprised me as she stepped in for a hug. I stroked her back soothingly, and Rebecca trembled in my arms as she asked, “How could anyone do something like that?”
“Some people just turn out wrong,” I answered her awkwardly. “Then they head out to the Badlands, and that makes them ten times worse. There’s no reasoning with monsters like that, they just do whatever they’re strong enough to get away with. You just have to make sure you’re strong enough to stop them.”
She stared up into my eyes, and asked, “Is that why you do what you do? Because you’re strong enough to stop them?”
I lost focus on Rebecca as there was a flash of red, followed by horrific screams and dreadful wailing that sent shivers down my spine. I shook my head quickly, to clear away the disturbing visions.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I lied convincingly, hating myself for doing it, but not wanting to see a look of recrimination in those lovely green eyes.
She nodded, letting out a heavy sigh, and said, “We better get back to my Mom.”
I released her from my arms, and watched her walk to the bike, mounting it gracefully and starting the engine. Opening up the door to the Valkyrie, the glossy red “17” caught the bright sunlight, making me blink for a moment as it dazzled my eyes. I stepped inside the cab, and swung the door shut behind me with a solid clunk. Firing up the dash, I brought up the comm interface again, seeing Rebecca’s pretty face appear in a hologram.
“Let’s get moving,” I told her gently. “I’ll reach out to Sheriff Winters, and let him know what happened.”
Rebecca nodded, then eased ahead on her bike, but I noticed she was careful not to get too far ahead this time. I cycled through the list of local contacts until I found the comm channel for the Sherriff’s station, and swiped across the name to make the call. It rang unanswered for a couple of minutes, which left me with a dark sense of foreboding.
“We should check in at the Sheriff’s Station,” I said to Rebecca, trying to conceal my worry. “They’re not responding at the moment, so they might have a busted transmitter. I keep telling Geoff to just buy a new one.”
“I’ll call Mom, and let her know we’re nearly home, just taking a slight detour,” she replied, and I could tell by her sombre expression that she hadn’t believed my lame reassurances.
Rebecca’s holo-image above the dashboard winked out while she made her call, and I pulled up alongside her while she was distracted. The road ran ahead in a long straight line, with sparse dry plains to either side, stretching away for miles. It was desolate terrain, and a large swathe of Charon IV’s single huge continent was like this, populated with wild and dangerous frontier towns. If you had decent irrigation systems, these dusty plains could be turned into well cultivated fields, as was the case in the more civilised south. The opposite end of the spectrum was the horrible wasteland to the north, known locally as “The Badlands.”
Charon IV was located near the border with Trankaran Space, and had been partially terraformed by the Terran Federation. Unfortunately, funding had run out when the Terrans had desperately fought off a Kirrix invasion, leaving Charon IV half-finished. When it became obvious no further funding was going to be forthcoming, the settlers had moved in, taking advantage of the low cost of land on this less than hospitable planet.
“I told her we’ll be a couple of hours at most,” Rebecca said, her holographic image reappearing above the dashboard, and shaking me from my reverie.
I nodded, saying amiably, “Yeah, we won’t be too long. We’ll just check in with the Sheriff first.”
We rolled on up Route Forty-Three, until the big green sign informing us to take the next turn for Drift City, came quickly into view. I glanced at Rebecca’s hologram and she met my gaze, saying agreeably, “Yeah I know, take the turn. Sheriff’s Station is ten miles down on the left.”
We slowed down to take the turn, and joined Route Thirty-Nine, heading towards the biggest town in the district. Despite its name, Drift City couldn’t really be described as a major metropolis. The town was nice, definitely an up and coming place, but the population only numbered in the low thousands. Still, the Sheriff’s Station was just outside the suburbs, which helped keep the crime rate down, and that was always good for business.
Cruising along the dust beaten tarmac, we quickly chewed up the miles, heading up to the valley that cradled the fast-growing town. A thick column of greasy black smoke came into view some distance off to the left, and Rebecca shot me a worried look.
“Yeah, that’s coming from the Sheriff’s Station,” I confirmed for her grimly. “Hang back, and let me take point. If things get really nasty, you high tail it out of here, and get back to your Mom.”