Do you ever feel like... maybe I make bad decisions? Wouldn't it be nice if someone else decided for me, once in a while? I mean, at least then I'd have the option of blaming my failure on someone else.
That's kind of what these concept samplers are about. (Mmm, are they? Let's procrastinate clarifying this for a bit longer). Someone needs to make the hard decisions, people.
For anyone that didn't reach this blog through my mailing list - JOIN HERE (if you want, no pressure) - and then have a look at this chapter sample, and let me know what you think in the comments. Especially if you think I should complete the novel... but also especially if you think I should light it on fire.
CHAPTER 00010: Bandits
Zero sits back in the seat, the old fading leather cracking further despite her tiny figure. She repositions her skinny, cloth-wrapped parcel so that it leans firmly between the floor and the padded interior, and then she sets about appearing comfortable. With gray cloth wrapped over her mouth, several of the other passengers look at her strangely. It’s considered impolite to wear a halstuch indoors, even way out here, and a train car is certainly indoors enough for most folk.
Zero looks around, daring folks to keep staring. She ain’t their business, and they know it.
She lowers her wide cattle-hide hat over her goggled eyes and puts her feet up on the seat across from her. Reaching into the breast of her duster, she settles her hand habitually on the handle of her revolver and starts to close her eyes. A gloved hand swats her feet back onto the floor.
“Hey!” she whispers, revolver half-drawn.
“It’s rude,” says the Binary deeply, his emitter crackling. On the seat across from her, his irises shutter down in severity. Only glowing orange points appear beneath the shadow of his full brimmed hat. “Folks sit here.”
“Car’s already filthy,” Zero replies, crinkling one side of her face. She looks around. There’s a layer of red dust on everything from the dull wooden aisle to the brass overhead parcel racks.
“Show some respect,” commands the Binary. He’s rigid about the damnedest things.
Zero begins, “Sweet Whiskey says...”
“Quote me that old coot again. I’ll remove his voice box.”
She would roll her eyes, but the Binary can make out her eye movements through goggles. “I’ll just focus on the job then,” she says with a tight smile.
The Binary nods, finally turning to look out the window. The brown world might as well be a blur. It’s all the same between Iron Wheel and Keystone, a whole lot of nothing. Bet it’s the same nothing in the greenland, too. The same nothing, just greener.
If Zero draws a few stares here and there, then the Binary draws the rest. A man that keeps his limbs and face hidden is suspicious enough. But he can’t cover everything, and inevitably, staying in one place long enough means that folks will see his metal skin. Eventually, though, they’ll go back to minding their business. Sweet Whiskey says that plain folks don’t want any trouble, and the best way to avoid trouble out here is to ignore it.
Zero sighs. “When’s this supposed to go down?”
“When it does,” the Binary says, dangerously calm.
Her stomach grumbles. Zero spent too long in the workshop upgrading her scope, and after that, it was either skip breakfast or risk missing the train entirely. There isn’t much to respect about the infrastructure out here, but the Eisenbahn earns whatever respect folks can muster. The line operates on a fractal clock, and it’s always on time. Wish the same could be said for bandits.
Zero doesn’t shoot steady when she’s hungry. She fidgets in her seat, puts her hat down beside her. Working her fingers, she loosely braids her long brown hair. Then she unbraids it. Then she braids it again.
“Maybe they ain’t comin’?” Zero suggests.
“Aren’t,” corrects the Binary.
“Maybe they are not coming,” she says flatly.
The Binary reaches into an interior pocket of his long coat and pulls out a square of crushed nuts, oats, and honey. He tosses it to Zero. “Do something about your attitude.”
“You had this the whole time?” she asks, trying to sound especially wounded. She doesn’t wait for a response, discretely slipping the food square beneath her halstuch.
“When you skip fueling, there are consequences,” replies the Binary.
Zero chews and breathes heavily through her nose, glancing about habitually to be certain none of the other passengers are watching.
That scope upgrade is going to come in handy. He’ll see.
The red leggings catch her eye first. The man’s long brown coat seems normal enough, but yeah, red boots also. As the stranger walks passed, he turns his head. Zero gets a glimpse at his eyes, just a glimpse. She rotates slowly in her seat, following his path as he walks the aisle. She thinks about making him look at her, but she shakes off the impulse. Naw. It’s just the light. He’s already at the back of the car, and he takes a seat in an empty row. Like so many others, he lowers his hat over his face.
That man isn’t from around here, doesn’t belong here. Zero has a sense for these things, which is part of what makes her so good at her job. He has such a pretty jawline. And he’s so tall… But he’s not a part of the bounty. The bandits will be coming from the rear. At least that’s what Bear Young said.
Bear Young, that weasel. He would sell his own mother for a shot of 8169. The Binary’s got the man hooked on it, but to be fair, Bear was hooked on the stuff well before the Binary started supplementing the supply.
Zero finishes the last of the crumbs, but something nags at her. She’s certain that the stranger’s eyes are resting on the back of her head, but that’s not where the nagging is coming from.
“Trade seats with me,” she says to the Binary.
“Let me sit there,” she insists.
The Binary sighs and glances to the back of the car. “He’s not our concern right now.”
“How do you know?” she asks, and the Binary grunts in response. “Well, how do you? Could be a wrinkle in the plan. Bear Young don’t know everything.”
With a sudden lurch, Zero is nearly thrown off her seat. The parcels shift on their racks, and some fall while the passengers groan and exclaim. The Binary is already up and rushing down the aisle. Looks like Bear Young was right about this part at least.
In one fluid move, Zero pulls the string on her parcel, unwrapping the long steel, and then she slaps the window latch. It springs open wide, and the hot air rushes inside as she grabs the gun and climbs through the opening. The train has only slowed a bit, presumably after the first of the bandits’ charges blew, but there will be more charges and more lurching. Holding tight with one hand to the metalwork along the outside of the car, Zero uses her other hand to clip the long steel into the holster at her back. She climbs to the roof beneath a mixed sky of bright blue and dark violet clouds.
The sound of distant thunder blends with the wind threatening to blow her clean off the roof, but she flattens and engages the electromagnet at her belt. It snaps hard to the metal surface. Fully prone and solidly anchored, Zero pulls the long steel from the holster at her back, flips down the thin stability legs, and sets up the shot.
For a moment, she waits. Then with a finger to her goggles, she toggles through the magnifications and specular settings. The microscopic capillaries within the device hiss with each adjustment. There. She can just barely see through the baggage car and watches as the Schultz Boys chase the rail in their Field Runner. Scope upgrade bad-assery.
Open to the air and horribly dangerous, Field Runners seat a dozen easy, and they’re fast and versatile, which makes them a favorite of war parties and outlaws. Climbing off one while moving, though, with those giant wheels on either side... The vehicle bounces up onto the mag rail and stabilizes before the men queue up onto the hood. Zero makes a silent wish for one of them to slip.
No such luck prevents the first two from jumping onto the train. They’re packing some heavy firepower too, Termodyne coil guns that can produce a hole the size of a horse through solid iron. But they won’t have time to use them. As expected, the first man uses a steel-blaster to blow out the door to the baggage car, and the second man ascends the rungs to the roof.
That second man, his chin doesn’t even clear the edge before Zero squeezes the trigger. The headless corpse falls backward onto the speeding Field Runner, but the Schultz Boys just push it off of the hood. The body sparks and ignites as it falls onto the rail.
Then at the sound of tight pop, the first man staggers back from the baggage car doorway. He slumps backward over the rail and slips to the deck in a heap.
“Nice one, old man,” Zero says calmly into the pickup at her collar.
“Try to keep the bodies on the train, kid,” rasps the Binary through the bud in her ear. “Can’t get paid on your glowing smile.”
A second lurch slows the train again, and Zero rolls to protect her face from the butt of the long steel. Her slight twist is the only thing that saves her from the plasma round. It scorches the roof where her head had just been. Someone is back there…
They’re already at the front of the train!
“It’s a set up!” Zero yells.
“Get off that roof,” growls the Binary.
She releases the electromagnet at her waist and rolls onto her back, flipping the long steel in the opposite direction. Three men are running along the rooftop, all hunched against the wind with weapons drawn.
Tapping her goggles, the field of view widens, and so does the gun’s plasma blast pattern. She grips the gun firmly, bracing it against her shoulder, and fires once, but the plasma spread is blocked with a flash of light. Each man is protected by a Neumann shield. Where did they get that tech all the way out here?
Zero flips a switch for steel rounds and prepares her mind for the pain of the gun’s kickback. As she intuitively corrects for the magnetic field, she squeezes the trigger, and the gun throttles her shoulder. The bullet catches the first man in the leg, blowing it clean off. He tumbles while steel bullets thud into the soft metal of the rooftop next to Zero’s arm. Without twitching, she squeezes the trigger again, and pain spreads out forcefully from her shoulder. The second man drops.
She can’t take another recoil in this position. Moving the long steel aside with her left arm, Zero reaches into her duster with her right and pulls the revolver. She feels a sharp sting in her thigh, but she holds perfectly still before loosing three rounds on the third man. All three bullets catch him in the skull, and the blue carrier fluid spurts from the new holes in his face as he falls backward.
The pain in her thigh has not peaked yet, and Zero needs to get off of the roof before the next rail charge kicks. She rolls to the edge and swings her legs over the side while clipping the rifle once more to her back. Her injured leg protests as she places weight on it, but the rest of her limbs compensate well enough, except maybe for her bruised shoulder.
Dropping without too much trouble, Zero slips back into the passenger car.
Swiftly she aims her revolver toward the commotion at the front. Only a few remaining passengers are cringing against the walls as the stranger with the red boots lands a fist square across the jaw of another man, a huge man. The outlaw, now easily identified by the Neumann shield emitter pinned to his chest, has clearly been augmented.
Large, meaty fists club the red stranger in the chest, and the stranger crashes backward down the aisle tumbling directly onto Zero. In the collision, Zero’s head hits the floor.
With her vision spinning and her leg throbbing, she tries to push the stranger aside. He’s heavier than he looks. The outlaw is advancing, and last of the passengers push their way out of the car.
“Move it, asshole!” she yells, trying to get her right arm and revolver into the air.
“I’m stuck!” yells the red stranger, his foot wedged beneath one of the bench seats. He quickly jerks, and his elbow knocks Zero’s revolver away. It skids down the aisle.
“Damn!” Zero says through gritted teeth. There are no other options.
This is going to suck.
Somewhere below her lungs, the energy swells, and she can feel every inch of the train car. She can feel the doors, the open window, the advancing outlaw, the red stranger. The pains in her thigh and shoulder increase substantially, and she grits her teeth against it.
As Zero presses the energy outward to the air surrounding the outlaw, the big man halts as if flash-frozen. His expression is first of confusion, and then panic, and then anger. He struggles against Zero’s will, pushing slowly through the mire she has created around him. His strength is staggering, augmented as he is.
Drawing energy deep into her gut, Zero feels the swell until the very cells of her body begin to hum. The accompanying headache is dreadful, the throbbing in her leg and shoulder acute. She breathes hard to keep from passing out.
Fully saturated, Zero releases the energy in a single wave. The explosive force sends her sliding out from under the red stranger while the large outlaw hurtles against the bulkhead. Rolling to her knees, somewhat clumsily through the pain and exhausted from the expenditure, Zero takes her time raising her arm. The revolver whips through the air from its resting place across the train car, drawn into her hand. Then she allows the momentum of the gun to help her arm swing upward and rapidly unload four rounds into the outlaw. His body oozes blue fluid from two holes in his chest, one in his neck, and the last between his orbs.
The door at the back of the car bursts open, and another outlaw crashes headfirst to the ground, a smear of blue fluid down the aisle beneath him. Zero falls back into the nearest row as the lanky form of the Binary steps patiently across the threshold.
“They weren’t here for the cargo,” Zero states weakly, her headache flaring.
The Binary rasps.
“We’re gonna’ have to thank Bear Young proper for this,” Zero says.
“I’ll handle it,” says the Binary
Zero can feel the train accelerating now. The automation is going to do its best to make the Keystone station on schedule. Shaking her swimming head, she asks, “What about the rest of ‘em?”
To answer her question, the sound of an explosion reaches her ears. “They won’t be bothering us,” says the Binary. Field Runners are fueled by a variant of 8121, particularly volatile. “Are you feeling okay?”
Crimson is seeping from the torn brown fabric on Zero’s thigh, and the Binary sweeps her into his arms and lays her gently onto the seat. The tips of his leather gloves touch her face.
“I’m fine,” she says quietly, wincing at the pain in her thigh, in her shoulder, in her head.
The Binary grunts, his voice emitter crackling. He looks at the red blood. “Has anyone seen this?”
“No one alive,” Zero grins. “’Cept for maybe this asshole.” She points at the unconscious stranger wedged between the seat bench and the floor.
The metal emotive contours of the Binary’s face shift into a frown. “And what else was seen?” He looks at the parcels and baggage littering the car.
“Nothin’,” she says bashfully, biting her lip.
“It’s getting stronger,” says the Binary.
“I know,” she says, dropping her head.
“Zero, I’ve told you, you absolutely cannot...”
“Well, what was I supposed to do?” Zero asks. “This jackass was on top of me, and I couldn’t get my shootin’ arm out.” To Zero’s surprise, the Binary does not continue his lecture. He simply nods and looks down at the red stranger. Zero follows his gaze. Laying with his face against the floor, the stranger looks like any other quantum. “He’s like me,” Zero says finally. "A... human."
“Yes,” says Binary.
Even through the pain, the corner of her mouth curls. “Not very impressive, though, is he?”
OKAY! If you made it this far, you might actually want to say something about that mess up there ;) You can throw your feedback in the comments, and I'll 100% be reading it.
Thanks for reading, and be on the lookout for more original content and writing updates soon!