. . . Read Part 1 . . .
Gibraltar almost burped up the sausages he had for lunch as he wiped the grimy lens of his binoculars with a worn rag. That was the worst part of getting old, he reckoned. Not the achy knees, the grey hair, or the liver spots. Nope, indigestion was the worst by far. But then, he was lucky to have those problems at all, considering most of the fellas he came up with had long been lining shallow graves or the bellies of wasteland wildlife.
Henoch held an articulated hand to the wind, as if his cybernetics gave him some added insight. “Storm is gonna hit any minute.”
“I can see that,” Gibraltar replied. Any fool could see the slate-colored clouds churning overhead.
“You wanna talk about what happened earlier?”
Henoch cleared his throat. “Gib, I think –“
Henoch puffed out an exaggerated sigh–the kind a fella does when he wants attention–and stomped away.
Gibraltar snorted. The kid knew better than to push him on issues like this.
He wiped the lens again and squinted through his binoculars. The Unblind outpost sat right in the middle of the highway, not a quarter mile up the road. It was the only way through. Well, not the only way. But they had no time for detours. Funny thing was, the gates looked open and unmanned. Wasn’t like those zealots to turn a blind eye like that. No pun intended.
He couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed.
For most of his life, Gibraltar told himself he wasn’t a bad man. Not a violent one at least. Not like his father. Not even close. But the satisfaction he got from killing bad people, people that had it coming… made him question everything. He wondered whether these filthy cultists truly needed killing more than he needed to be the one to do it. At some point a man’s gotta ask himself whether he kills because he has to, or because he enjoys it. Gibraltar reckoned he’d rather not know the answer.
Marco creaked up next to him, the seams of his leather jacket announcing his presence. “What now, boss?”
“We find out why they left the front door open.” The old merc turned and stowed his binoculars in the satchel on the back of his bike. “Saddle up.”
The three of them mounted their dusty motorcycles and eased up the broken road. Their hogs rumbled a chorus of low metal growls as they approached the defensive wall curving around the entrance.
Marco slowed to a stop at the open gate and peered between the hodgepodge array of planks. “Knock… knock.” There was no reply but the whisper of wind as a few stray leaves tumbled across the blacktop.
“I don’t think anyone is home.” Henoch scratched at the stubble on his neck with the back of a metal thumb and looked to Gibraltar.
“You say that like it’s a good thing.” Gibraltar urged his bike past the other two and into the Unblind outpost.
Bullet holes pocked sheet metal lean-tos and concrete dividers. But were they from today? Or from any number of previous encounters with weary travelers on the road? An Ashlander lay sprawled out on the pavement, a stupid grin on his face like he was interrupted in the middle of his favorite joke. Five more bodies were draped over tipped chairs. Backwards, sideways, at odd angles, all strewn around a table with cards scattered over it. Their dead limbs dangled strangely from rungs, legs, and chair backs. As if they’d tried to scramble away from something and died in the process. Gibraltar found two more twenty feet away, face down, shot in the back. One’s head was twisted sideways, eyes still wide. Almost like he was running scared.
Gibraltar kicked the man in the ribs. Just to be safe.
“These look like rifle wounds,” Marco called from amid the corpses in toppled chairs.
It didn’t take a genius to figure that. But everyone needs to feel useful, so Gibraltar didn’t respond.
Henoch skirted the inner wall and crouched to investigate something. “Gib, check this out.” He prodded a lifeless android. It was the general shape of a human, but appeared to be constructed from mismatched parts. It had red arms, a faded blue head and chassis, one black leg, one green. But the whole of it was spotted with rust and streaked with lines of silver in places where the paint had been scraped off. A pair of hollow, metallic apertures in its head stared out at the swirling thunderheads.
“Stop molesting that thing. These Ashland scum probably stole it from the Republic and reprogrammed it. You wouldn’t want to wake it up.”
Henoch raised his eyebrows incredulously. “First of all, it’s definitely not a Republic droid. Too advanced. Second, it won’t just wake up. It’s clearly damaged, or deactivated. I think… I hope.”
Gibraltar frowned. “Your mechanical know-how is truly awe-inspiring.”
Henoch scowled and lifted a robotic finger to retort, but Marco cut him off.
“Heads up, boss. We got a live one.” Marco frowned down at a man chained over the exposed engine of a car. The pale man’s torso was tatted with the black eyes of the Unblind. His breath was labored, and his white skin was cut, stabbed, and bleeding everywhere there wasn’t a tattoo.
Gibraltar weaved through the detritus and stood over the Unblind cultist. “Hard to imagine you did this to yourself… But who did it is none of my business.” He drew a knife from his boot. “I’ll be the one to finish it if you don’t tell me what happened here.” Some part of him hoped the man wouldn’t comply.
The Ashlander forced a smile through a mouth of filed teeth. Pink froth accumulated at the corners of his lips as he tried to speak.
A nearby walkie-talkie crackled. “I wouldn’t touch him if I were you.” The voice was feminine, yet… hard.
Gibraltar picked up the transmitter. “Why’s that?” His eyes darted around as he resisted the urge to hunker down.
“Because I doubt you came all the way to culty territory just to die here.”
The old merc chuckled, although the bile rising back up in his throat knew he was anything but amused. “And who’s gonna kill us? You?”
“There’s a dozen ways I could.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I’m still considering it.” There was a long pause. “You boys don’t have eyeballs tattooed on your nether regions, or concealed any other place, do you?”
Gibraltar laughed again. “I can’t really speak for Marco here, but I don’t think so, no.”
Marco cracked a smile, pursed his lips, then frowned. He edged closer to the old merc and whispered. “Boss, hold up. Do the peacock feathers on my ass count?”
Gibraltar waved him away. If only the mental image was so easily dismissed.
The walkie crackled again. “If you’re not culties, then I have no beef with you.”
Henoch grabbed the reciever above the old merc’s hand. “And how do you know we have no beef with you?”
“Because I’m not a culty either. Not showing you my nethers to prove it, but you can look around at my handiwork if you’re not fully convinced.”
Gibraltar pulled the walkie away. “I’m convinced enough.” He cleared his throat. “Seems like we’re after the same thing. Roughly. You a merc?”
“A merc? Nah. I’m an aspiring bullet merchant. Not very good at my job though. Don’t seem to get any repeat customers.”
“Very funny. Any plans to come out of hiding and meet us face to face?”
“I can do that. But as a show of good faith, put your guns on the table.”
Gibraltar rolled his eyes.
“Did you just roll your eyes? Because it looked like you did from this side of my high-powered scope. Not cool. Just saying.”
Well that explained it. She probably had them in her rifle sights the minute they walked through the gate. He reckoned it was a small miracle she hadn’t shot them already. He set his shotgun on the table and gestured for Marco and Henoch to do the same.
“I’m coming over now. Sit tight.”
Every second was a thousand years when you were waiting for someone with a gun trained on you to come out and play nice. And when you were as old as Gibraltar was that didn’t bode well for already irritable stomach. He swallowed a sour burp and waited for the inevitable rifle shot that would be the end of him.
A blonde woman with a severe ponytail appeared from behind slab of collapsed concrete that had once been an overpass. As she approached, Gibraltar made out a pair of piercing blue eyes framed by eyebrow rings, and an angry scar running up her cheek. It was a hard face. Harder than Henoch and Marco’s put together. The rifle she had trained on him was now slung over her shoulder. Not smart, considering the situation. Then again, a woman with a face like that probably had a backup pistol somewhere within easy reach.
“You know, we could’ve simply picked up our guns and shot you.”
“Perhaps,” she replied. “But you didn’t.”
Gibraltar studied her. “But you didn’t know we wouldn’t. You’re an odd sort of merc to trust strangers like that. Especially way out here.”
“Trust had nothing to do with it. It was a test.” She snapped her fingers.
A soft hiss came from behind them, and the patchwork android sprang to life. A pair of cylinders emerged from its forearms. Three barrels extended from the ends, snapping out in a threatening manner. Then, as if it wasn’t menacing enough already, two-foot belts of ammunition fell out beneath each of the integrated guns. They all stood there a moment, watching the brass shells sway in the growing wind.
“A test…?” Gibraltar swallowed, then growled at Henoch out the side of his mouth. “Thought you said that thing was ‘damaged or deactivated.’ “
Henoch held up his cybernetic hands at a loss.
“Dot had my back the whole time.” The woman smiled. “Don’t worry, you boys passed.”
“Dot?” Henoch rubbed his baby-smooth chin, eyes glued to the multi-colored machine.
“Peridot.” A tinny female voice came from the metallic frame, as its weapons retracted and it assumed a more casual, less lethal stance. “Her indispensable partner.” Peridot’s entire frame suddenly desaturated of its reds, blues, blacks, and greens. Her metal carapace washed to a uniform copper color. All but her spiraled eyes. They shined green and bright, like twin peridots.
“Fascinating…” Henoch whispered, more to himself than anyone else.
The woman cleared her throat. “Not partner. Subordinate.”
Peridot’s hollow gaze centered on her boss. “Oh. Forgive me, great master. I forgot my place for a moment under the sheer weight of my crippling responsibility to protect your fragile human life.”
“Shut the hell up, Dot.”
Marco giggled and Peridot’s copper head snapped in his direction. Her aperture eyes narrowed like a predator that just found its next meal. Marco recoiled and slipped over an Unblind corpse. Rolling over the body, he hopped back to his feet, dusting off his leather jacket like nothing happened. He puffed out his chest to save face and eyeballed the android with less-than-subtle suspicion.
“Don’t’ mind Marco.” The old merc shook his head. “Name’s Gibraltar. The tech-head is Henoch.”
The woman took a slight bow. “You can call me Kuri. It’s a pleasure to meet you and your subordinates.”
Kuri’s brows rose. “They take orders from you though, no?”
Gibraltar snorted. “When they ain’t busy botching my plans, they do.”
“Then they sound like subordinates to me.”
“Your logic is sound.” The old merc nodded. “Any advice for dealing with unruly underlings?”
Henoch wasn’t amused. “Screw you, Gib.”
Marco was still too busy staring down the android to care.
“You mind if we take our guns back now?” Gibraltar asked.
“By all means.” Kuri swept her hand toward the table.
The old merc retrieved his shotgun and Henoch did the same. Marco edged over, a step at a time, watching Peridot as her eye slits remained locked on him. He reached his arm out slowly, then snatched his gun off the table and took a quick step backwards.
Peridot cocked her head to the side. “What is wrong with this one?”
“Him?” Gibraltar pointed at Marco. “Inbreeding. We think.”
“And massive head trauma,” Henoch added. “Years of it.”
Marco looked offended for a moment, then seemed to accept his companions’ assessment and simply shrugged it off.
“I see. What a coincidence.” Peridot gestured to Kuri. “I believe my master suffers from the same condition.”
Kuri glared at the android with cold blue eyes. “Keep it up, Dot. I hear the Scrapsmiths pay handsomely for custom droids. It’s less than a three-hour drive from here.”
Peridot’s apertures widened, then narrowed at Kuri. But the android said nothing.
“So, Kuri…” Gibraltar broke the uncomfortable silence. “You mind telling us what you’re doing out here?”
“Killing culties mainly.”
“Reckoned that much already. Business or pleasure?”
“Are the two really mutually exclusive in our line of work?”
“No, I suppose not.” He knew better than most.
Kuri smiled. It was a sly, knowing smile. With something darker beneath it. Something that reminded him of himself. Maybe it was just the way it wrinkled the livid scar up her cheek, but it gave him comfort.
“We’re after Redwall, the Unblind leader,” Gibraltar explained. “That means probably having to go through dozens of ‘culties’, as you put it. You interested in partnering up?”
“Partners?” Kuri mulled it over for a moment. “That could maybe work.”
“What a momentous occasion,” Peridot began, “You’ve made your first friend. Let’s see how long that lasts.”
Kuri’s brow dropped. The metal piercings hovering over her eyes made her icy gaze more ominous than ever. “One more word out of you, Dot, and I’ll override your vocal capabilities with a tuner that only picks up WR 105.9. I’ll gladly listen to Coyote Joe’s talk radio bullshit over yours.”
It wasn’t a perfect alliance. But questionable help was better than no help at all.
Gibraltar climbed back on his bike, and his partners followed suit.
“Hold on,” Henoch turned back toward the Unblind chained to the car. “Are you just gonna leave that guy tied up to suffer a slow and painful death?”
Kuri smiled her dark smile, the scar twisting tighter up her face than ever. “Of course not, thanks for reminding me.” She pulled a remote from a belt pouch and clicked it.
A small explosion belched from the the engine, setting the Unblind on fire. He screamed as it engulfed him. A moment later the entire car erupted in a ball of flame. Bits of metal and dark spray went up into the air as a cloud of black smoke mushroomed in on itself.
Henoch frowned. “Overkill, much?”
Kuri’s smile grew darker. “In our line of work, dear, there’s no such thing.”
Gibraltar found himself swallowing bile again. Apparently there was someone who hated those bastards as much as he did. Maybe more. But why? What had the Ashlanders done to this woman? Who did they take from her? Maybe that was just her nature. It didn’t matter. She was a killer. Whether justified and righteous or simply cold-blooded and godless, right now, a killer was exactly what they needed.
. . . to be continued . . .
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