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"Hot. Boring. Need action." Jak was sullen, hunched over at the front of the seat, holding the reins loosely in his grip while the emaciated horses tethered to the wag plodded on across the scrub and desert.
"My dear boy, I should have thought that we'd all had more than enough action to last us a lifetime," Doc replied laconically from the rear of the wag. He was lying propped against a rough hessian sack, once full and now alarmingly depleted. His shoulders slumped uncomfortably against the cans, self-heats and withered fresh produce that still lay within. His lips barely moved as he added, "Speaking for myself, I would welcome this respite from a life of constant peril. The merits of an adrenaline rush are, in my humble view, much overrated. Oh, for the balmy days when I could relax beneath the New England skies with a slim volume of poetry"
"Not talk," Jak interrupted pithily. "Prefer you when crazy to this."
Doc gave a throaty chuckle. "Sometimes, lad, I think that I would agree with you."
Ryan was keeping watch out the back of the wag. It was hard enough to concentrate in the heat, without the added irritation of Jak and Doc. The flying bastard parasites who kept buzzing around him, diving to bite and take some more of his blood no matter how much he swatted at them, were irritation enough. The wasteland vistas out the back of the covered wag were endless: partly an illusion fostered by the heat haze and the stretches of scrub and desert dotted only with a few mutated cacti. They had been driving for days. It was as necessary to ration water to the horses as it was to ration the water for themselves. There was no other way they could make the distance.Paradoxically, in doing this, they had made their progress interminably slow. It was the lesser of the two, but still made days beneath the canvas cover of the bone-jarring wag hot, boring and seeming to stretch across time like the ooze from a stickie's pads.
There was a word for what the one-eyed man was feeling. Ennui. Ryan Cawdor wouldn't have recognized the word, but Krysty Wroth would have. She lay propped against him, idly stroking his leg, lost in her own thoughts. Sure, she could snap out of them in an instant, but right now there was no necessity, and so she let her mind wander back to the days of her upbringing in the ville of Harmony, where her education would have included some old texts that had used that very word. It was an idyllic time, rainbow-colored by learning, by youth and by the fact that it was a very long way away. There had been bad things, but her memory filtered them out to make room for only the good. And she was aware of this, using it as a place to escape when she had the chance. It helped her to relax. As she could feel the tension in Ryan's muscles and tendons beneath the rough material of his combat pants, she figured he could do with something to help him relax.
They had been heading in a southwesterly direction forRyan stopped to thinkthis was the fourth day. Fireblast, it seemed a lot longer. Four short days ago they had been riding sec for a ville baron who had hired them to help his men shift a herd of cattle across the plains. Doc had marveled at the job"a return to the agrarian mores of yesteryear, my dear Ryan," whatever the hell that meantand had seen it as a sign that the world was beginning to settle again.
Ryan hadn't seen it that way. To him, it had been a triple-stupe move. The cattle were the only asset the ville had; the baron was taking a hell of a chance using outsiders to augment his inept sec men; and there were cold-hearts in every pass who could take the cattle and use them for ransom, for slaughter and for trade. But they were offered jack and, more importantly, this wag and some supplies. Coming as they were off yet another arduous trek, the latter was more than enough of an enticement.
The journey had been even shorter, swifter and bloodier than even he had expected. Two days out on their journey to the ville that had exchanged the cattle for goods, the route took them through a rocky mountain pass. To skirt around the pass in safety would have added a couple of days to the journey. Ryan had tried to argue for it, but had been shouted down by the baron's sec chief, already sore over the fact that outsiders had been brought in.
Six of Ryan's people against twice that number of ville sec: in truth, the friends could have taken all of them out without even breaking a sweat, but that would have left them with the cattle and not enough personnel to go around. It wasn't worth it. The lesser of the options was to go with the majority, and just make sure that, if nothing else, their own backs were covered.
It was a wise move. Just as Ryan had feared, there was an ambush in that most obvious of places, and they rode straight into it. The fool sec chief was taken completely by surprise. Ryan and his people were ready.
The result was a bloody firefight in which the ville sec men were quickly disposed of, the friends pinned down in the pass and the cattle stampeded to a certain death either under the hail of fire that crossed the narrow chasm, or by drought and starvation in the arid plains beyond. There were no winners here, only those who could survive.
It had been a bitter battle, in the end won only by the triple-stupe action of the ambush party, who had been torn between chasing the cattle and finishing off the people in cover. They chose the former, figuring that there were only a few left alive and they would be no threat.
There are bad calls, and there are those that go way beyond bad. This was one of them. Usually, it would have been a toss-up whether to waste the ammo by chasing the retreating coldhearts. This time, it was personal. Not a single one of the ambush party had survived.
Which left Ryan with this to consider: the sec men were chilled, the cattle were chilled, the ambushers were chilled. Apart from a charnel house full of corpses, both animal and man, there was nothing to back up their version of events. Should they go back? Should they go on to their destination and try to explain what had happened? Or should they just collect the wag of supplies that had accompanied them on the cattle drive and head off without looking back?
It was a no-brainer of a decision. Why risk being the messenger who got the shitty end of the stick? The whole operation had been a mess from start to end. Cut the losses and go.
The horses had been remarkably calm while chaos erupted around them. After their driver had been chilled, they had simply wandered into a shelter from the rain of fire. There they stood, ignoring the firestorm. Too stupe to notice, or just plain deaf? It was hard to tell, and in truth it didn't matter. All that mattered was that the wag was waiting for them when they got back to the pass.
Some of the water cans had been pierced by stray shots. Some of the cans and self-heats had been similarly hit. But, for the most part, the supplies were intact. Of course, there was nowhere near as much as they had been promised, but that was almost to be expected. All it did was reinforce their decision not to go back to the ville and the stupe double-crossing baron. Screw him.
So they had set off, not having any clear idea of where to go other than to avoid the ville from which they had come, and the one to which they had been headed. J.B. had used the minisextant that he found invaluable to determine their position, and the most expedient course had been to head toward the Grand Canyon and the nearest redoubt. It was territory that they knew, and although it harbored bad memorieswhich could have been said for most of the Deathlandsit was not a place where a welcome involving heavy firepower would await them if they returned.
Four days. The sky was clear of the taint of chem clouds, which meant that they could avoid the awful acid rains. But it meant that there was no cover for the oppressive heat of the sun. The canvas covering the wag was thick, but even that smelt at times as though it were beginning to smolder under the constant rays.
The seemingly endless boredom didn't help. A keening sound, underpinned by a dull roar that was all but masked in the air, broke the dead silence. It was a wag, or something like a wag but unlike any Jak could ever recall hearing. Small, but powerfulhe could tell by the note of the engine against the noise from the ground.
"Something out there." He spit over his shoulder. "Weird shit."
"What kind of weird shit?" Ryan said, his full attention now on his scanning of the landscape out the back of the covered wag. The hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle and rise.
Ryan's attitude communicated itself to the others without his having to say anything. They had been a unit for too long not to be able to read each other. Krysty, J.B. and Mildred shifted their positions and began to check their blasters, knowing they were primed and ready, but knowing the value of always making sure. Even Doc moved from his uncomfortable perch, the ancient but deadly LeMat coming easily to his hand.
"Still way off," Jak commented more than once.
Then, just as it seemed that the tension was to leave them, the sound became audible to their unattuned ears. It was like the angry hum of an insect, but growing louder with every second.
"There," Jak said simply, raising a hand to indicate direction. A cloud of dust and dirt rose toward the sky, a solitary blemish on the clear blue. It grew like a smokestack, spreading out to form a trail.
It was apparent that the vehicle was moving at a right angle to them. It was approaching, but not directly, which suggested that whoever was heading this way was not necessarily hostile.
The covered wag was an easy target, moving or still. That wasn't a consideration. What did concern Ryanconcerned all of themwas their own effectiveness in a moving as opposed to still vehicle. Particularly one that was little more than wood or canvas.As it moved, the wag gave them little in the way of options for firing. There was the uncovered front and rear, and little else. To fire from the front meant that whoever took the reins of the horses would be as impeded as the firer beside them. From the rear, there was a limited angle of vision. The only option would have been to strip off the canvas cover, which would merely leave the wag open and even more vulnerable than it was at best.
In truth, their best option was to stop the wag, unhitch the horses so that they could get clearthey had already demonstrated a propensity for avoiding crossfireand use the wag for as best a cover as possible. They'd have to fire from under and around the structure to utilize the cover and also maximize the angle of fire.
In less time than it would have taken Ryan to explain the plan, the companions had complied. Each of them knew what was the best option, and they worked without words, knowing time was of the essence.
For the wag on the horizon was getting closer with every second.
As the horses wandered off, and they took up their positions, J.B. squinted through his spectacles at the approaching vehicle. It struck him that it was making one hell of a noise for something that seemed so small. It wasn't a tricked-out war wag; neither was it the kind of old predark truck that was still used for transporting goods within a short distance range.
"What is that thing?" Mildred asked to no one in particular. "I haven't seen anything go like that since NASCAR."
"What?" J.B. questioned absently.
Mildred gave a brief, bitter laugh. "Long time ago, John. Way, way before your time."
"Heads up, people. He's closing way too quick for my liking," Ryan stated.
Another successful day for Thunder Rider. A one-man crusade against the forces of darkness was never going to be an easy task, but already he felt that he was making progress along his thunder road. More towns had been cleaned up: more scum had felt the scything sword of justice within the time between sunup and sundown.
Now to return to the secret base, where he could rest and recuperate in peace and security before venturing forth once more. Of course, he knew there would come a time when he would have to venture so far afield that it would be impossible for him to return home with the sun. Then, he would have to establish mobile bases that would serve as a secure haven while he rested. Perhaps in time he would be able to recruit others to his cause. There were good people out there, tired of being under the oppressive heel of the scum, who would join with him once they had a figurehead, once they knew they were not alone. He knew there were others from the communications that had been monitored at base since before he was fully trained. It was only a matter of finding them.
Though the dust streamed behind him, he had a clear view from all other angles. As darkness fell in such a barren environment, there was likely to be danger all around.
Like over to his right, and ahead of him. It was nothing more than a dot on the horizon to begin with, but as he approached, he could see that it was a horse-drawn wagon, with a small, hunched-over man driving it. It was covered, and he could not see within, but it was unlikely to be harboring danger. Those who would oppose him were not the sort to be driving a humble horse-drawn wagon, after all.
Nonetheless, he took one hand from the bar of the bike and flexed his fingers. He could find the .44 in a fraction of a second if necessary.
Perhaps it would be. He furrowed his brow as he watched the wagon pull to a halt.