“Big engine coming,” Merle said as he pulled up the collar of his GenI suit.
The atmosphere was thinning out in the martian summer wind. They say it might take another couple generations for the atmotowers to fill out the Moab Crater. That is, if they don’t break down first. They’d been running full blast for three gens, and the best Merle could get was dust down his collar and clogged nostril filters. So much for the dreams of elders.
His head sank down until his chin pressed the collar closed. Now his leathery cheeks took the worst of the sand blasting. His red beard grew redder and heavier with dust.
Clanger just laughed. Her statuesque form stood like a landmark twenty feet ahead, unmistakable, even in the storm. She called back to him to be heard without the microband radio. He felt her voice in the storm and its husky timbre through the bone conductors at the base of his skull. She had an electric effect on his spine no matter how her voice conveyed.
“Get your mangy white ass up here and let’s light them up,” she said, as if asking him to dance in her own special way.
Merle took up the rail rifle and followed the span of Clanger’s hips into the storm. She was his Mongolian Giantess, Amazon Warrior Queen. She was a legend at twenty-three.
Forgotten gods, how he wanted her. He wondered how many men died thinking of her embrace rather than the mission. The thought made him snap-to. He had to push back against the stories. They say she took Galvin back in the blowy season before he bought the vapor. Out on the plains, without atmosphere, as blood and air leaked from his systems, they say he spoke her name and died with a hard on and a smile. The thing about dying on the plains is that you stay there forever, frozen like a statue.
“Let’s spike us up some toadstools–see what they have,” Merle said as he put on a burst of speed and scrambled up the rocky slope ahead of her. “Maybe this haul will put us in the warm light with The Minotaur.”
Clanger sent him a signal that appeared on his retinal implant glowing red. She already thought up an attack scheme using their rover dug in on the other side of the cut. The false-color overlay of the gully floor below matched up with her war plan as soon as he poked his head up over the loose rock, careful not to disturb anything.
Toadstools were pasty, soft and weak, but they were smart. Their tech looked for patterns out of place. It might tell them something was wrong if they were not careful. The blow was a stroke of luck. It gave them cover. The engine grew louder. Merle felt it through his gloves as the supported himself in a pushup position.
Clanger eased up beside him close enough to smell her sweat. She somehow managed to make the scent of rail rifle oil smell like perfume. They watched the single engine add dust billows to the blow.
Merle grinned and let the dust clean his teeth for a moment. They both slipped back down from the edge and pressed their backs against the slope.
Clanger switched the comm over to low frequency sound signals to avoid detection. Encryption algos added fractional delays, but that was preferable to getting spotted and lit up with laser fire or worse, coherent microwaves. Toadstools were known to fire first and worry later. They paid a lot of blood restitution to the other tribes, clans and guilds over their trigger-heavy security measures. They could afford it because they had the land and the tech that brought lots of money. That was why Merle hated them. If he one day managed to sneak into the Polar Preserve, he promised himself a blood toll of hundreds before he escaped with treasure. But of course, that was every bandit’s dream.
Clanger smiled, wiped the dust from her face and smashed him with her big brown eyes before lifting up her forearm, bringing her index finger to the control panel there to mash a big red button. Detonations rocked the crater rim like the stumbling of a drunken giant. The toadstools were nothing if not consistent. They turned the turret of their engine towards the explosions and opened fire. They took the bait, using a wide-dispersion microwave blast that would have instantly cooked anyone within its range. It also blinded them to the rover on autopilot that reported a successful semi-autonomous sprint to a safe location.
Merle and Clanger scrambled down the crater slope as soon as the EM burst alarms lit up their retinal implants like static on a viewscreen. The old timers called the pattern “snow” after something that used to happen on Old Earth, before the Great Build centuries past. Merle found the things he thought about odd when he went out on raids. Even as he tossed a couple gauss pods under the engine’s treads, the oral history of Mars tumbled through his mind.
He grew up on the stories told by the GenI from the machines in which they aged. By the time he was an early teen, he thought he’d heard it all. The GenI were heroes, but the didn’t like dying. Most of them ended up brains and spinal columns floating in clear tubes or hooked up to the machines of infrastructure and commerce. It was sad when the last one died that way.
The gauss pods popped off, confounding the engine’s control systems, and Clanger took a knee. Merle casually let loose with a full-auto spread of rail rifle flechettes that neatly decapitated the turret and opened up a convenient breach in the hull. Clanger busied herself with the more subtle features of her rifle. She was just as good with breaking security as she was with breaking skulls. It only took her a few seconds to brute-force their comps. It bought the two bandits the precious seconds they needed.
To his great surprise, one of the toadstools popped out of the hull breach in a shiny new EV combat suit. It was no match for the battle-hardened GenI suit modified with bandit tech. Merle thought up a dose of stim and the suit jammed needles into his jugular old-school style, delivering the drug that let him leap.
He covered the two body length vertical span in two motions, one of them a two-pace lunge. Off the tread sprocket he sprang, then used two hands to vault from the rim of the treadguard. The Toadie died from the hesitation brought on by the shock of Merle descending from the dusty blow, N-wire blades in hand. While still pushing vital stats, the toadie was technically dead well before the first blade shaved off the top if his helmet and the crown of his skull with it. He was dead before the second blade rammed into his chest and slashed his heart in half. Merle was careful not to cut too far. He might be able to salvage valuable tech from the suit.
Merle tumbled down into the hull breach and found himself in a strangely familiar cabin. As he unslung his rifle and shot the pilot with a single pellet through the forehead, he caught the first inkling that he and Clanger might have made some kind of mistake. The place did not look toadie. It looked Clan, Weaver Clan to be precise. If that were true, he was robbing someone connected to Yangtze Riley. Bandits knew not to steal from Riley.
He didn’t notice when she joined him through the hull breach and swept the small cabin for more toadstools who might be brave or stupid enough to confront them. “I don’t think they had time to call for help,” she said. “But their blasting away will turn heads if anyone’s got eyes on the crater.”
Merle pushed the pilot corpse to the deck and wiped his brains and bits of skull away from the control panel. “It looks like this guy was firing the turret. Comm system looks inactive.”
“So your headless buddy here,” Clanger said, nudging the body with the edge of her foot, “must have been the co-pilot.”
They shared a concerned look. “Must be more. Let’s go,” Merle replied. They turned in opposite directions and headed down the narrow passages leading from the pilot case set in the center of the vehicle.
Merle switched his suit to detect heat and vibration and thought-commanded the false-color rendering to display on his retinal implants. The huddled body behind an access panel stood out immediately. He walked past the hatch while getting a read on the harmonics of the crawlspace with his rail rifle multi-scope. A few paces past the hatch, he turned and snickered, entering a set of commands into the rifle, and bringing it sonic cannon to bear on his victim.
When the scope histogram showed green, he squeezed the trigger. A muffled scream tried to escape the crawlspace before the telltale bass thump of a ruptured skull announced another dead toadie. Recovering that suit would be messy, but would yield a higher salvage value than scoring loot with rifle rounds. Tech with holes in it was far less lucrative on the market. Blood was fairly easy to clean.
Merle jerked and spun when a hand touched his elbow. Clanger sprang forward and grabbed the barrel of his rifle before he squeezed the trigger.
“Damn it,” Merle growled. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Don’t make it so easy for me, then,” Clanger purred and set off the total effect with a cheshire cat grin.
“You’re the only one who can creep up on me like that,” Merle replied, and his voice came soft to his ears with his waning effort to maintain a hardened bandit persona.
“Ha,” she breathed, stepping closer, offering her sweet breath.
“Are we clear?” Merle asked in a strangled whisper, swallowing hard.
“Yeah,” Clanger replied.
Merle found his arms around her at the same time their lips collided. Her pulse called out to him as he squeezed and she squeezed back even harder. He pushed her against bulkhead and brought his hands to her lower back, pulling her hips into his. She returned the push and the back of his head bounced off the opposite bulkhead, making him dizzy.
She somehow managed to unfasten the closure of his suit, then pushed him away to unfasten hers. Breasts round and firm met eager lips and surprised tongue found musk that gave his desire urgency in her hands as she pursued him deep into his suit.
As suddenly as they came together, they parted to a space of a few intolerable inches. Merle’s gauzy eyes rendered her softly in contrast with ragged breath that could not feed his head enough oxygen. He reached for her again, calloused palms finding shockingly soft cheeks. He pulled her close and kissed her gently.
“I’ve never done this before,” She said, voice small.
“Never on a captured engine?” Merle asked in wry bandit tones.
“No,” she said, frowning. “I mean this. At all.”
Merle chuckled, then faltered when her frown deepened. “Oh shit,” he said, leaving one hand on her cheek. When she tried to turn away, he drew closer and wiped a tear with his thumb as it threatened to streak her dust-coated skin. “It doesn’t matter,” Merle said, pressing forward. She pulled herself into him and he stroked her strong back as they swayed.
“You won’t tell anyone?” She asked in a childlike voice he’d never heard from her.
“Of course not,” Merle said. “But why do you let those stories about you live?”
“Because you boys are easier to command when your dicks are hard.”
Merle stepped back, taking his turn to show true emotion. “Is that what this is about?” He said, voice hardening. He stifled a deep inner curse that threatened to well up at letting himself feel vulnerable to her.
“No!” Clanger fired back, closing the space again. She kissed him to prove it. “Not you,” she said, words a sharp whisper. “Never you.”
“I believe you,” Merle said, closing the front of her suit. He held her there, and though they were the same height, she allowed herself to sink just a little in his arms. Merle burried his face in her hair and breathed the intoxicant that rose from the nape of her neck.
After a stretch of lost time, they separated and Clanger made a strange show of her attempt to control a wild mane of jet-black hair. Merle couldn’t restrain the pure grin of dumb delight that lit up his face and was mirrored on hers.
“You and me, now,” He said. She froze.
“You and me,” Clanger purred.
The screech of a proximity alarm brought them back to their roles as hated, feared and fierce bandits of the homicidal variety.
“I knew my dick would get me killed one day!” Merle said, picking up his long-forgotten weapon.
“Not under my command, asshole!” Clanger said. She was back.
They fought a war of shoulders and elbows pushing back to the pilot cabin.
“The engine’s waking up!” Clanger exclaimed, fingers flying frantically across the control panels.
“I thought you breached it,” Merle said.
“Scrambled its core. Didn’t hack it.”
“Fuck,” Merle declared flatly, the ancient expletive fitting their situation perfectly.
“Your dick might also get me killed,” Clanger said, never taking her eyes from the panels.
“You really know how to flatter guy,” Merle said, trying to figure out what sort of rounds to load into his rifle. “Who knew?”
“Certainly not me,” Clanger said, picking up the dead pilot’s helmet. “I’m glad he wasn’t wearing this when you relieved him of his gray matter,” she said.
“Don’t leave me guessing, damn it. What’s coming our way?”
“Single engine. Weaver. Seems to be alone and not spooled up for a fight.”
“I hope you have some ideas,” Merle said, finally setting on a long-distance, self-propelling, high caliber, explosive pellet. He decided a first-strike option was a good bet, but that was true in most cases. “What type of Weaver engine?”
“I don’t know. The turret you took out also carried the main sensor suite.”
“I’ll buy us some time,” Merle said, throwing up his hood, that turned from soft cloth to hard helmet in the fraction of the second that prevented him from hearing Clanger yell “Wait!” as Merle jumped back up out of the hull breach and onto the engine’s roof.
He spent a full second on the roof to get his bearings. When he jumped back down, it was by instinct. The incoming wall of ceramic pellets would have shredded him like cloned meat.
Merle hit the dust and rolled away from the engine as another volley plowed into the vehicle’s side. To his great surprise, the treads began to turn.
“Clanger!” he screamed over comms.
“Your bitch is as good as dead,” a voice that was not Clanger’s responded on the encrypted channel.
Merle ran perpendicular to the direction of fire, trying to get to the riprap at the gulley base for cover. Experience told him two things. First, if they wanted him dead, he would be dead already. Second, the fact that they did not want him dead meant that he had a second chance to live. He very much wanted to live.
“Clanger get out of that engine!” He screamed, not caring that the channel was compromised. The response came via text on his retinals.
“Dummy. I know. Don’t use VOX.”
Reading the text made him slam face first into the boulder he should have been hiding behind. His back hit the ground, but he managed to hang on to his rifle as two strong hands clamped around his ankles and dragged him to safety.
“What’s going on,” he subvocalized, sending the text translation to clanger. How she managed to get out of the engine and behind the rock before him was a complete mystery that he would solve as soon as he succeeded in his goal of not being killed by angry weavers.
“You can’t hide from us, scum,” the deep female voice said. “Coming out is the only chance you have to survive. Return what’s not yours and you might live.”
Merle cocked his head inside his helmet as if clanger could see the gesture. She knew he wanted an explanation regardless. “Found something,” her text said as if she’d read his mind.
Whatever she found, she would not leave behind. That was the bandit way. Because she was able to grab it, Merle could only guess it was small. Old technology, maybe? Diamonds? Pristine casimir capacitors?
“It’s data,” Clanger said, taking the risk of using low-frequency, encrypted sound. Their pursuers were far enough away that the risk of intercept was low. “Old data.Gen-one, original database.”
“A fragment.” Merle said as ice water ran down his spine. Even though nobody could crack first generation quantum encryption, data fragments were priceless. They were also the stuff of legend, rarely found. Someone must have plucked this one from the deep ruins.
“Return the item,” the female voice said. “Last warning.”
“We need to split up,” Merle said. They both knew it was their only shot, but Merle did not lie to himself. He was disappointed at the speed with which she agreed.
“Let’s hope they haven’t found the rover,” Clanger replied. “Pick a direction.”
“See you back at the pit,” Merle said. He managed to make himself sound convincing to his own ears even as he ran the odds and prepared to die. Merle smiled a little remembering the kiss of a lifetime. Six running strides later, a salvo of automatic rail rifle rounds shattered the rock wall to his left. He dove into a small crevasse and retrieved his last two gaus pods. Programming them with trembling fingers, he prayed to a forgotten god that he might live.
Tossing one of the pods over his shoulder, he scrambled back out of the hole and ran in the opposite direction. The ruse worked. The program he selected made the pod the source of what looked like incoming rail rifle fire to the scanners of the pursuing weaver engine.
He clawed back up the crater wall and reached the crest, where he paused. Merle activated the last gaus pod and set it down by his feet and waited. The dust cloud of the Weaver engine changed direction. Merle took several wild shots towards it to make sure the Weavers understood that two bandits fired on them, not one.
“Get away, Clanger,” he muttered to himself before proceeding down the outer slope at a suicidal pace.
He made it down and he was free. His only problem was that he was stranded on the side of the crater with even less atmosphere, where it was a full forty degrees colder. It had taken him more than a half hour to run down the slope. He found a suitably flat rock and sat panting while his suit recycled his sweat, splitting the difference between drinking water and oxygen reserves.
The meds and stims he used to perform what must have been a record-breaking sprint decomposed in his bloodstream into dopamine agonists. The chemicals released by artificially stressed muscles joined the fray, making his thoughts feel distant and foreign. His life was still at risk, he knew, but he had trouble caring. All sensations seemed somehow pleasant.
“Get up,” he told himself, but the hard rock under his thighs seemed soft as microfoam. “Why?” He answered, and immediately wondered if answering his own voice made him insane. He sat mulling over the paradox as the two-crew rover appeared from nowhere as if in slow motion.
Merle fumbled for his rifle and tried to command another dose of stims, but the suit decided it did not want to kill him. He tried to override the safeties, but his tongue thumped against his teeth like a drunken hydrofarmer after a harvest party. His stupor could not dim the clarity of vision and the realization that two weavers in combat EV suits drew point-blank beads on him with very large rail rifles that managed to glimmer even in the listless red dust that drifted down the exterior slope of the Moab crater. The dust settled on his slack arms like the passive recrimination of a myopic milquetoast muttering insults under his breath at the man who just bloodied his nose.
“Goodbye, Clanger,” Merle said. He dropped his rifle and teetered forward with both middle fingers displayed defiantly. The Weavers lowered their rifles as Merle teetered forward and fell face-first into the dust.
He was conscious of arms looping under his shoulders and the tips of his toes dragging along the ground. Just before he faded out, Clanger’s words blinked across his retinal implants.
“Made it. Running.”
Merle smiled inside his helmet as he sank into blissful oblivion.