Lone Star – Chapter 18

Trindle leaned over to Yaran, his eyes locked on the figures in the middle of the crossroads. “I told you it would get interesting once we got nearer to Pecos territory.”

Yaran nodded, silently.  This would be a major complication, but hopefully one they could resolve cleanly enough.  He knew his team would be able to handle this situation- he just didn’t want any of the village residents to get hurt in the eventual crossfire.

They’d arrived at the small village the day before, finding the people pleasant and hospitable enough.  The town’s technology level seemed pretty advanced compared to the other towns they’d been through recently, but not by a large margin.  The machine-shop was well-equipped enough to support a power-armor suit or two, and the local technicians were smart and well-trained.  The hotel was clean, and a local restaurant had a decent choice of food.  The local Sherriff- a tough-looking cyborg with one eye-sensor burned out- and his deputies were decent enough, too, and made a reasonable enough request of the group of canines to leave their heavy weapons locked up with their hoverbikes.  The canines were each allowed to carry a knife and a projectile-sidearm, but no energy weapons.
Nothing that would avail them against the bandit gang that had ridden into town at dawn, anyway.  Trindle had recommended they use this little village as a place to rest until they had found someplace uninhabited to use as an operations base, but hadn’t wanted to stay in town too long- and for this very reason.  Bandit gangs tended to attack where they saw the most profit, and there wasn’t much profit in the wilderness.

And now, like a handful of other travelers, they were caught up in the drama of a small invasion.  They’d dispersed around the village to pick up supplies, and now they were all separated.  It made Yaran nervous to have his people separated at a time like this, but Trindle had seen it as a blessing, since they wouldn’t be seen as a group of six canines that may pose a threat.  Scattered as they were, they would appear to be individual travelers, and might be unremarkable just long enough to get themselves into position to fight back.  And Gordon had thought to have everyone put their communications gear on before splitting up.

It had first been noticed by Mageera, who had been visiting the local mechanic shop and trying to bargain for some replacement parts they’d be needing soon.  The hoverbikes were working well, especially considering how much sand and dust they were exposed to, but she knew they’d be needing a lot of attention soon.  Her radio signal to Yaran had given them more warning than the villagers had gotten, but not by much.

“Si-shon, four guys just walked into the shop here with energy rifles,” she whispered.  “They’re moving us out into the street at gunpoint- two of them are staying here to keep an eye on the power-armor suits parked here.  Something’s going on.”

Yaran and Trindle had been sitting in the small lobby of the hotel, talking about what sort of ‘permanent’ outpost they wanted, and what landscape features they wanted to build it on.  They had moved out onto the street at Mageera’s call, thinking to go to her aid, but had been stopped by the sight in the village square- a half-dozen roughly-dressed humans were in the middle of town, brandishing energy rifles and holding up the head of the cyborg-sherriff for everyone to see.

“Your attention, please, everyone, there’s been a change of management in this town,” the one holding the head shouted into a bullhorn.  “I want everyone out on the street right now- and if we catch anyone hiding, you’ll be shot on sight.”  His gang began to disperse, herding people toward the town square with their weapons.

Heads that had been poking out of windows receded, soon reappearing out of front doors.  People who had been looking out their front doors came out, slowly.  Some carried small children, or were followed by them.  It appeared that many of the residents had been through this sort of thing before, and whatever their plan of action would be, the first step was doing as they were told by the people with big guns.

“Dog boys, check in with your locations,” Yaran said, just loudly enough for his radio to pick up and transmit to the rest of the team.  “Trindle and I are right out front of the hotel.”

“Mageera, coming up the street toward you with the local mechanics,” came the next reply.

“Gordon, in the weapons shop.  Just got herded out.”

“Billie, outside the general store.  Coming out with the owner and her kids.”

“Damien.  Coming up the street from the south.  They’ve got people at both the main roads out of town that I could see.”

“Can anyone see the north road?” Yaran asked.  “Is there a guard posted?”

“Yeah, I see one,” Mageera said.  “Two human males, energy rifles.”

“Wish we could get a count, but they’re pretty spread out,” Trindle said.  “As it is, there’s gotta be a dozen at least.”

“They’re all dressed pretty rugged, but I see patches of armor under their shirts.  Our sidearms won’t be much good- at least for me.  My pistol practice has been spotty lately,” Yaran observed.  Trindle nodded.

“With someone watching the mechanic shop, we can’t get at our rifles,” the bulldog replied.

“Lets just sit tight here, and see how the situation evolves,” Yaran said, gently.  “The townspeople haven’t panicked yet, which means that either they’ve been through this sort of thing before, or they’ve got a plan.”  It took some time for the invaders to get everyone into the middle of town, but the sky was overcast and the air was fairly cool for that part of the world.  The previous week had been scorching, and the clouds gave some hope of rain.  For now, though, Yaran was saving his hope for the villagers.

*****

Damien wasn’t really listening to the bandits’ leader as he babbled. The guy was talking about a new protection arrangement, and that it would benefit the townspeople as long as they held up their end by paying taxes, providing food, shelter and drink, and not trying to mess with any of their new ‘protectors’.  Damien instead was putting his attention on how the bandits were dispersed around the square, how they were dressed, armed, and equipped.  The long speech gave him plenty of time to eye-ball what his team was up against.  And he had no doubt that his team was going to take action at some point.  They just needed to figure out how.

It occurred to him that these bandits spent a lot more time worrying about weapons and armor than they had about basic survival gear.  They either had a small camp somewhere out of town, with all their normal gear stowed away, or they had just bumbled from one town to the next until they found a juicy enough target.

It also occurred to him that the bandits hadn’t tried to interdict the canine’s radio signals.  He put himself in the mindset of his opponent, just as he’d been trained to do.  The first thing they’d done, coming into town, had been to go after the local law enforcement.  But any traveling group could just as easily come to the aid of their hosts, and the bandits had to be on guard for something of that sort.  The canines still had their radios operating, and while the units were small and easy to conceal, it didn’t seem like anyone was even listening in, let alone jamming them.  One of the first moves in an invasion, he’d been taught, should always be to interrupt enemy communications. So either the bandits had someone listening in and they were smart enough to keep listening instead of picking the canines up immediately, or they were just rock-stupid.

Their positions around the crowd weren’t well thought out, but they were effective enough against the townspeople.  The lead bandit was at the center of town, standing in the back of an ancient, four-wheeled pick-up truck.  He was large for a human, with broad shoulders and a broader belly.  His head was shaved bald, and while his clothes were rough, the chest-plate he wore over the top of it was quite obviously formidable.  It was a Northern Gun product- he almost thought he could recognize the particular unit model, but not quite.  He also had another Northern Gun product, an NG-P7 pulse rifle, which was big even for its owner.  Damien knew the specifications of that weapon by heart, even now- the CS trained its soldiers, even (especially?) the mutant canines, in weapon systems they would potentially be up against out in the field.  This one was bulky, powerful, and hard to use unless you set it on a tripod or a gun-mount.  It was also one of Northern Gun’s more reliable weapons.  It was clear that the firepower the man carried was his primary claim to leadership of the gang.

Two other bandits were milling about near the truck, dressed roughly the same as their leader.  One carried another Northern Gun energy rifle, this one the venerable L5.   Damien wasn’t sure if the truck had been brought in with them, of it they’d simply commandeered it for this purpose.  There were six others around the perimeter of the townspeople-crowd, all dressed in denim and cotton, some with pieces of heavy armor visible.  Damien made the assumption that they all had protective gear of some sort.  It was also clear, after a moment’s inspection, that they were all good customers of Northern Gun.  While there were a handful of other weapons manufacturers that could make comparable products, it appeared that this gang had outfitted all its members at the same store.  This struck Damien as odd, since these sorts of gangs were mostly formed by wandering thugs who outfitted themselves and banded together as they made acquaintances.  Perhaps they’d recently had a good score somewhere, and used the proceeds to buy all the guns they’d been lusting after for years.

Almost all the other canines were within sight, as well.  Yaran and Trindle were off to his left, trying to form an estimate of the situation just as Damien was doing his own.  Mageera was far off to the right, almost across the square.  If she’d been armed, she’d be in a great flanking position for both the lead bandit and half of his gang.  Billie was about half-way between Mageera and his own position.  He couldn’t see Gordon from where he stood, but he knew the tracker was around.  Damien chuckled to himself.  If he factored out the presence of so many unarmed civilians, and the fact that his team was more or less unarmed, he could say that they were arrayed almost perfectly.  Just give us our guns and let the people out of the way- not too much to ask, he thought with an ironic chuckle.

His attention was snapped back to his surroundings by a woman crying out behind him.  Three bandits were leading a handful of people out of one of the buildings, where they’d evidently been hiding.  One had grabbed a woman by the hair and was dragging her into the street, while the other two used their energy rifles to prod the rest forward.

The lead bandit’s speech had been interrupted by the scream.  As he got a good look at the group being herded toward him, he shook his head.  “Did I not tell you that we would shoot anyone we found hiding?!” he bellowed.  Instead of being angry, though, Damien could see the man was elated.  The bandits had killed off the sheriff and his deputies, but had apparently lacked an excuse to kill anyone else up to this point.

One of the bandits lifted his L5 rifle, shuffling its energy-clip activation switch upward and downward.  This was mainly done for the fright effect.  An energy rifle doesn’t need all that much adjusting to make it ready to fire.  Old-world weapons, and some newer versions based on the old stuff, would make a wonderfully intimidating clack-clack sound as the bolt was closed, or the action was re-set.  This bandit had obviously wanted to make some sort of sound to announce the use of his weapon.

What a chump, was the first thing that crossed Damien’s mind.  He’d picked the term up from his collection of pre-Cataclysm movies, and had found plenty of use for it since they’d headed South.  But a moment after that thought formed, his attention shifted again.  Of the people newly herded onto the street, one was lagging behind, looking terrified for his life and holding his hands over his head like a prisoner of war.  Someone who had seen too many movies, the canine thought.  He was dressed in what looked like the most beat-up riding leathers Damien had ever seen, and his deerskin shirt looked about ready to retire.  His hair was cut short, but not shaved, and while he had a beard it looked well-trimmed.  The eyes were what drew Damien’s attention the most- they were shifting from one point to another, just like someone about to wet themselves with terror, but… their movement was just a little too precise for that.  And while he kept his head down, he still kept it at an angle that allowed him to see where all of the bandits were.

Damien’s senses were ringing alarm bells in his head at this point.  His ability to sense magic-users and psychics was average for the mutant canines that the CS had bred, and that sense was pointing at this cowering man like a well-built compass.  Or perhaps more like a Geiger counter picking up heavy radiation.  He had not intended to speak aloud the line that crossed his mind at that point, but the entire team heard him say, “The Force is strong with that one.”

And just at the moment when Damien was convinced the man was not as helpless as he appeared, the electric green eyes turned to look right at him.  And then, they winked.

In the next moment, the young man became a blur of motion and energy.  He had been cowering before, but in his half-squatting position, he had been like a coiled spring.  He leaped toward the chump-bandit, twisting in mid-air and swinging one foot in a precise arc that placed the heel of his boot on a collision course with the bandit’s face.  The impact was enough to push the bandit into one of his friends, and the previously cowering traveler had already moved on to the third of his oppressors, pushing his rifle aside and striking him twice in the head.  It had taken the man just over 4 seconds to put those three bandits out of the fight.

“Oh, dear,” Damien heard Gordon mumble over the radio.  But the pit-bull was already in motion.  He was spaced mid-way between the two bandits nearest to him, and each was 5 or 6 steps away.  Too far for him to get close enough before they’d blasted him.  But he looked the way the entire crowd was looking, backing away slowly as the townspeople did, and watching as the bandits converged on this one upstart who dared challenge their strength.  They had plenty of space to use their rifles.  After a few steps, Damien was to the right and just behind one of them, and the other was 8 meters farther.  Once the canine guessed he was out of the peripheral vision of the closest bandit, he slid sideward, drawing his knife and driving it into the side of the bandit’s exposed neck.  The angle was sharply downward, and the 20cm blade dove downward far enough to slice the windpipe and pierce the lung on the opposite side.  The bandit wasn’t entirely quiet going down, but the noise from the townspeople more than buried it.  Damien had the laser rifle a half-second later, checked its readiness as quickly as possible, then took only a moment to make sure he had a clear shot at the other bandit between him and the young man who had winked at him.  That bandit was lining up a shot, and wouldn’t need much time before he took it.

Damien had a lot of ideas occur to him simultaneously; he didn’t want any of the townspeople to get hurt by the residual energy of the shot, and he didn’t want to take the chance of his target wearing a heavy cuirass under his clothes that would stop his shot from penetrating.  He also knew the other bandits in the gang, while being distracted by the first person to fight back, would soon notice people shooting at their friends.  He knelt down, angled the rifle upward, and drew a bead on the back of his target’s head.

Every weapon manufacturer has its quirks.  Often, individual weapons lines will have irregularities that make their owners stick with them.  And while Northern Gun weapons were as powerful as any others (besides the CS), the designers at NG took the accuracy of their weapons more seriously than their firepower.  Whether the founders had been sharpshooters, or the lead engineers had once struggled with a weapon that couldn’t fire true, their weapons had a reputation.  “If you couldn’t hit your target,” the sales reps often asked, “what did it matter how much energy it pushed out?”  Damien’s first shot was a testament to that reputation.  The energy bolt that the L5 had spat would have done noteworthy damage to a SAMAS, so the unprotected human head that it encountered didn’t have a chance.  The bandit’s entire head simply disappeared.  The excess energy continued at a gentle upward angle, not endangering anyone else in the crowd.  The best part was that the shot made far less noise than the crowd was making.  The other bandits still hadn’t noticed his actions.

He stood, looking behind him to make sure he wasn’t about to get hit, then took in the situation.  Trindle and Yaran were on the move, coming toward him in fact, but without weapons they wouldn’t be effective until they got close.  Billie was shouting at townspeople to get down and get to cover.  Mageera had crept up behind one of the bandits, using her own knife before her target knew she was there.  Damien watched her drop to the ground with her target, then saw her stand back up, holding a rifle.  He turned back to the look for the guy who’d started the fight.

The cowering young man he’d been watching was gone.  He’d been replaced by a dynamo, all energy and motion, and charged across the square with a dancer’s grace and a soldier’s focus.  The crowd had drawn back from the bandits and from him, and while the people were still in danger of being hit by stray fire, they had given the man enough room to move.  He dashed toward the nearest bandit- Damien realized belatedly that after the two he’d taken down, and the one Mageera had stalked, there were only 3 left around the crowd, and 6 total.  The two who had been prowling around the truck had now jumped up to get a better line of fire, and the leader had spent the time getting the huge pulse rifle aimed.  The muzzle flashed, and the blib-blib-blib-blib sound that signified pulse rifles cut through the noise.  He had missed, and almost slaughtered a middle-aged couple as they ran for safety.  The young man continued his charge, giving his next target, one of the last bandits in the crowd, time for one aimed shot.  The bandit fired, but the young man danced sideward without slowing down.  Three steps away, he drew both hands up and backward to his right, as if he was preparing a colossal two-handed punch. A green-blue light flickered in his hands, then sprang upward like a bar of energy that he held like a sword.

And just like it was a sword, the man cleaved the bandit in half with it.  Killing the bandit had cleared the line of fire for the leader and his friends in the truck, but he had moved again before they’d pulled their triggers.

A cyber-knight! Damien had barely enough time to realize it. He aimed his own weapon at the truck, and in a move he would later be very proud of, fired a blast into the structure around the rear wheel.  It gave away, dropping the back half of the truck right down to the ground.  The two men and one woman in the back buckled and lost their balance, tumbling sideward into one another.  Damien could have hit any of the three, and potentially killed them, but with this shot he disabled all three of them- at least for a moment.  Perhaps a moment would be all they needed.  Mageera had stalked another of the bandits, clubbing them in the back of the head with the butt of her rifle.  Besides the three in the truck, only one bandit was left.

Damien had just sighted that last bandit in when the radio in his ear spoke again, this time with Gordon’s voice.  “I got him, Damien.”

Over the cries of the townspeople, he heard the crack of a gunpowder cartridge.  The bandit he’d been sighting dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes.  And it made sense, Damien thought, to use that sort of a weapon.  The old-school lead bullet would have a much better chance of staying inside the body of its intended victim, rather than blasting out the other side like an energy weapon and killing a few more people along the way.

That left only the truck.  The three bandits had climbed down, sacrificing high ground for better footing.  Damien turned again, preparing to fire without lowering the rifle completely, but the knight was now too close to them for the canine to get a good shot.  A moment later, it didn’t matter.  The lead bandit got one more shot off, but again the knight dodged sideward, and when he swung his weapon- Damien had never really known what it was- it cut the huge man in half at the line of his belt.  Without missing a beat, the knight spun and planted a side-kick in the dead leader’s chest, pushing the upper torso into the two remaining bandits.  They didn’t have time to react.  The moment they’d gotten the torso out of the way, the glimmering weapon made two more slices, neatly cutting the laser rifles apart right in their hands.  He leveled the ‘blade’ on them, then stood still.  It was a trick all cyber-knights were capable of, the ability to form a blade of pure psychic energy that was as powerful as a vibro-blade.

By this point, many of the townspeople had come to the aid of their heroes.  One, apparently a mechanic, judging by the fact that his choice of weapon was a monstrous wrench, pushed one of the two remaining bandits down into the dirt and held her there while another bound her hands.  Once she was secure, they moved onto the other one.  Mageera dragged the unconscious body of one of her victims to the truck, figuring they could deal with them more efficiently if they were all in a group.

Damien stood back for a moment, keeping his eyes turned outward to make sure there weren’t any more bandits waiting for their chance to take a pot-shot.  The townspeople had reacted to the drama in their square very well; children were being taken back inside, a group had converged on the uninjured bandits and moved them toward the Sherriff’s office and its jail, and what looked like two medical teams, led by the two town doctors (they’d adopted the slang title of Body-Fixers), were doing what they could for the bandits who had been shot, as well as three of the residents who had been roughed up over the course of the invasion.  One young woman had been grazed in the arm by a pulse-rifle shot, and had the prestige of being the only serious casualty among the population.  She bore her wound well, knowing she’d be well taken care of.  Another group was lining the dead bandits up near the pickup truck.  Two more groups approached from the outskirts, each leading one more bandit (unharmed but terrified) by their own weapons.

Then it struck Damien that the residents had not just self-organized this efficiently.  As many of the business owners began to converge on the square, the canine realized that they were merely acting out a preset action plan.  They may or may not have been prepared to resist the bandits or fight them off, but they had most definitely been ready for this part, the clean-up-afterward part.  Maybe this does happen to them all the time, he thought.  He approached the crowd near the pickup truck slowly, sub-consciously safing the L5 rifle he was carrying, as he’d been drilled to, and removing the energy clip. Another group of residents, led by the elderly, dark-skinned woman who ran the weapons shop, had started gathering and counting the weapons the bandits had been using.  He approached them first, handing over the L5 and the clip separately.  Evelyn, the weapons shop proprietor, smiled at him in an almost-motherly way, then handed the weapon off to one of her team.

“Not too bad of a stockpile they brought to us,” she said.  Her voice was a little gravelly, but strong.  She clapped him on the shoulder, then pointed toward another group that seemed to be beckoning him.

The town didn’t have a mayor, but it did have a council, which was all the owners of the town’s major businesses.  Several of them were still involved with the clean-up of the situation, but most of them had assembled not far from the pick-up truck.  The young cyber-knight was with them, and when Damien approached, he was the first to shake the canine’s hand.

“Excellent fighting, my friend,” he said.  “I am Fredrick Rickard, of the order of Cyber-Knights.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sir Rickard,” Damien said.  He’d met a few of the order at Tolkeen, and while they might be too humble to demand the use of the ‘Sir’ title, he knew each of them had earned it.

“The pleasure is mine- and ours,” he said, motioning towards the rest of the group behind him.  “Please, have your friends come over, we’d all like to talk to them.”

Damien looked around, but the team of canines had already begun to approach.  He waved them forward, and they jogged in.  Yaran and Trindle were with him first.

Sven Haeglund, the owner of the hotel, was the next to shake Damien’s hand, then Yaran’s.  He was a short, stocky man in excellent physical shape for being middle-aged.  “That was some quick thinking on your part, my friend,” he said to Damien.

Yaran smiled.  “I wish we’d have been able to save your sheriff and his deputies, though.  I don’t know what you’ll do for protection now, without him around.”

The entire group of residents began laughing.  At this point, the entire team of canines had assembled there, and they had all heard Yaran’s condolences and the laughter.  None of them pretended to understand.  Sir Fredrick merely smiled, then pointed across the square.

The two young adults who worked for the town’s electronics shop were approaching, each carrying pieces of the cyborg sheriff.  The electronics wiz of the town, a middle-aged woman whose name was Gertrude but went by Silicon or the shortened ‘Silly’, had picked up the head that the bandit leader had brandished earlier.  She pushed her long, black hair away from her face, turned the head over in her hand, flipped a few switches, then held it up for the others to see.

“How you feeling, Silas?” she asked the head.  And amazingly, it responded.

“Like shit, thank you very much.”  Then it chuckled.  “How bad was it this time?”  Damien realized that she was holding the head not for everyone else to see, but so that the head could see everyone around it better.

“No one killed, but Tamara Jacobsen got a burn on her arm.  Nothing bad.”

“Good, good.”  One of the head’s eyes was scarred and burned, unusable even for a cyborg, but the other looked around at those nearby.  Then it focused on Damien and his friends.  “It wasn’t the canines?”  The voice sounded almost confused.

“No, no,” Sir Fredrick said, stepping up next to Silicon and giving the head a full view of him.  “Another group rode in this morning.  Tried a full takeover.  You’ve only been out for about an hour.”

“They hit me from behind, I didn’t even see them.” The working eye turned back toward Yaran and Trindle, who looked on in amazement.  “No offense, friends, but we had wondered if you were scouting the town for a robbery or something.  Can’t be too careful- as you can see.”

“These folks helped us take down the real bandits,” Sir Fredrick said, putting his hand on Damien’s shoulder.  “They’re the reason we took care of them so fast, and so cleanly.”

The cyborg head groaned.  “Give me the long version once I’m back in one piece,” the head said.  “If you don’t mind, I’m kinda beat up right now.”  Everyone in the council chucked again, and Silly led her assistants back toward her workshop.

Damien watched them go, shaking his head.  The owner of the hotel motioned toward his establishment, saying, “Let’s go sit down, and we’ll explain what you folks just saw.  I think you’ll like it.  And then… we’ll talk.”

*****

The conversation took place around three round tables in the hotel’s small restaurant, and nearly dominated the room.  There were 5 other tables, and many of the locals came and went, congratulating the council members and thanking their canine guests.  Drinks were served on the house.

The village’s defensive plan was ingenious, the canines all agreed.  Silas, the cyborg sheriff, and his deputies- all appearing to be cyborgs themselves- acted as lightning rods.  While the other townspeople put on a good act as being more or less helpless without their law enforcement professionals, in fact they were all very capable of taking care of a bandit clan like the one that had attacked them.  Most of the time, they would let invaders take over the small town, lull them into complacency and comfort, and then begin picking them apart when they weren’t looking.  The normal, just-above-average façade the town had built disguised a rather advanced little community.  The mechanics shop had a lower level with three power-armor suits hidden in it, that could be fired up within 30 minutes.  The weapons shop had a good selection of average weapons in it, but a hidden room downstairs housed some very advanced weaponry that Evelyn kept very quiet, and almost never offered for sale.  And the electronics shop was the most surprising- Silicon had, many years ago, worked for the CS at the Lone Star complex itself, as an electrical and robotics engineer.  Her basement shop held enough gear and tools to rebuild a skelebot if she’d wanted to, and her expertise had built a new body for Silas that would survive near-total destruction.  She’d estimated that it would only take her two days to rebuild him.

Her shop had also had someone monitoring the canines’ radio communications.  “This is why,” Silicon said, “we thought you were scouting for a robbery or invasion.  “We’d advised Silas to be friendly, but to keep an eye on you.”

Trindle snickered, the brilliance of the system impressing him greatly.  “That had occurred to me while the bandits were making their big speech.  They hadn’t tried to do anything about local communications.”

Silicon merely shrugged.  “Some gangs are smarter than others.  They didn’t even have their own com-links.  Those poor guys that were assigned to watch the roads didn’t have a clue what was happening in the square until we scooped them up.”

“What you guys saw, and assisted, today- thanks again, by the way,” Sven said, “was a faster-paced event than we’re used to.  We didn’t know Sir Fredrick was in town until he jumped on them.”

The canines all turned toward the cyber-knight, who smiled.  “Originally I had thought to watch how you handled it, and intervene only if someone was about to get hurt.  That nearly happened- but I also had a feeling that your guests here were going to take action on their own.”

“We actually were,” Yaran said.  “I was worried that we might end up getting some of your people killed, so I was hesitant to start anything.”

Evelyn spoke up next.  “That gang may not have noticed, but you did have your team in a pretty good position around them.  Her, especially,” she added, pointing to Mageera.  “I don’t think those two you took down even noticed you were there.”  Evelyn lifted her glass in a salute.  Mageerga returned the gesture with her own glass.

“So, you all know Sir Fredrick here, but just didn’t know he was around?” Damien asked.

“Who do you think came up with this plan of defense?” Sven said, smiling.  “Sir Fredrick had been here during a small invasion, long time ago.  We put together most of the details ourselves, like Silas and his deputies, but the idea of letting a gang take over, then picking them apart, that was his.”

“There are so many roving gangs out there, and they pull stunts like this so often,” Sir Fredrick said, his voice growing somber.  “And so many towns and villages depend only on a high-profile defender.  If they can’t see whats really protecting the town- especially when it’s the townspeople themselves- they can’t easily plan to destroy it.  Just give them something to plan for, like Silas, and let them hit it.  Then they’re exposed, and you can fight back easily.”

“And what does Silas think of it?” Mageera asked.  More chuckles from the council.

Silicon answered. “He thinks it’s amusing, actually.  He registers damage, but it doesn’t really hurt the way it would for you and I.  We record as much data as we can from each attack on him, and try to learn from them.  That was his idea- death is the ultimate combat learning experience, right?  We take good care of him here, and most of the time he lives a pretty comfortable life.”

“You don’t like the high-profile defense?” Yaran asked.  “I mean, this system obviously works, but it seems a bit risky.  You have a couple power-armor suits, but you don’t let anyone see them.  They might have convinced this particular gang not to invade, if they’d seen them.”

Sir Fredrick shook his head.  “No obvious defense is big enough to keep everyone out, and the stronger the defense looks, the more guns the invaders bring.  One city I visited, further west of here, had a fairly big population- almost a thousand- and their main protection was a pair of Triax combat robots leading a dozen or so power-armor suits.  I mean, these people were well-equipped and had real firepower.  I had traveled back that way about two years after my first visit, and the town had been wiped off the map.  Nothing left but ruins.  Someone had brought bigger guns, and unless you’re the Coalition States, someone has always got more firepower.”  He shrugged.  “The real defense this town has is the fact that their true wealth is hidden from visitors and travelers, and doesn’t attract much attention.  If they look like they don’t have much, fewer people will come to try to take it.  Silas and his boys are tough-looking enough to keep a lot of gangs from trying anything, but once in a while, someone decides to test him.  Last time it happened while I was here was a year and a half ago, and I didn’t have to get involved at all.”

Evelyn continued Sir Fredrick’s line of thought.  “As far as the risks go, it’s risky everywhere.  We get a couple of occurrences like this, but we’ve got enough food and supplies to tolerate a gang like that once in a while.  The farms and ranches around here are prosperous enough for us to absorb losses like this.”  She motioned towards a few of the council whose properties were outside of town, and they nodded their agreement.  “We just make it look like we’re beaten, give them what they ask for, and then strike back when we’re ready.  We have to spend a lot of time hiding what we can do- the irrigation systems for the farms are all underground, and all our critical technology is out of sight.  That’s a little inconvenient, but it sure makes days like today easier on us.”

“So now,” Sven said, “lets talk about you canines, and what you’re doing out here.”  The sentence carried a lot of weight, and it wasn’t lost on any of the guests.  Yaran let the statement hang in the air for a moment, trying his best to keep a neutral expression.  Unfortunately, Damien and Mageera weren’t so good at hiding their surprise.

“We’re looking for a place to set up a farm or ranch, maybe both,” Yaran said, falling back onto their agreed cover story.  “Someplace close enough to a town like yours that we can do business here, but we tend to keep to ourselves.”

Sven and the other councilors were quiet for a moment.  The hotel owner merely smiled.  Then he took a deep breath and said, “Pardon my being impolite, but I can’t say I believe you.  A team like yours, armed and equipped as you are, coming down here to build a farm?  There’s only one place mutant canines come from, and with your response to those bandits, we know you’ve done at least some training together.  Now, don’t worry, we know you’re not here from Lone Star- at least not directly.  The CS wouldn’t send canines to do a scouting mission, it’d be too obvious even for them.  And if you were, you certainly wouldn’t have risked your lives to help Sir Fredrick or us this morning.  It would have blown your cover.  So either you’re on the run from your former masters, or you’re down here looking for something.  If you really wanted to set up a farm or a ranch, you’d be doing it a hell of a lot farther away from Coalition territory than you are now.”  He paused.  “You’ve helped us greatly this morning, and we’d like to return the favor.  Whatever it is you’re looking for, perhaps we can help.”

Silence again.  Yaran looked over the face of his team, one at a time.  They didn’t speak, but their eyes gave their support.  He looked back to Sven, and decided to go for broke.  The council wouldn’t have revealed nearly as much to the canines if they didn’t truly trust them, on some level.  It was time to trust them back.  The worst that could happen would be that they’d need to leave, and they’d planned on doing that anyway.

“All right… We came here from Tolkeen, and our goal is to help mutant runaways from Lone Star escape the Coalition completely.  We all escaped with help from a Mutant Underground, but recently it has been interrupted.  So we came to put it back together.”

Sven’s eye widened, and so did his smile.  He looked over to his fellow councilors, then back to the canines.  “Well, well, we certainly didn’t expect that!”  He laughed, and looked around to his friends.  “We’ve told you that we’d been monitoring your radios.  We heard you discussing ‘setting up somewhere nearby’, and were planning on approaching you about this.  We didn’t know what kind of people you were, but this morning’s events have proven to be enough of a demonstration for us.  But as far as actively going into Lone Star territory, and conducting operations there… we’ll have to discuss this more.”

One of the ranchers, an elderly gentleman named Norm, spoke up next.  “Don’t know that there’s too much to discuss, Sven.  We’ve had runaways come through here before, and it’s never been a problem.”

“Yeah, but that’s been when they’re passing through,” the farmer beside him said.  “They’ve never stayed here long, and if these guys start bringing a lot of them through, the CS will wise up to it sooner or later.”

Gordon nodded at the farmer.  “That’s true, and it would be true no matter where we were working from.  Our own plans take this into account.  Wherever it is that we’re calling home, we’re not going to have mutants moving through.  We need to protect ourselves, too.  Wherever we set up, we’ll be steering mutants away, whether it be outside your town or outside some other town somewhere else.”

Damien agreed.  “Your town just happens to be a good choice for us.  You’re all friendly here, willing to do business with us canines.  You have good lawmen, and a good defense.  We just need someplace we can disappear to, that’s all.”

Silicon smiled at him.  “If we can keep what we have hidden, we can keep the CS from finding out you’re here.”

Sir Fredrick stood.  “I’ll leave this conversation to you folks.  Sven, if you don’t mind having Junie come over to another table with me, I’d like some food.”

“Of course, of course,” Sven answered.  He looked toward the bar, motioning toward one of the two girls working behind it.  She smiled, picked up a notepad, and headed toward the cyber-knight.

Sir Fredrick tapped Damien on the shoulder.  “Mind joining me?”

Damien nearly jumped.  “I’d be happy to.”  He followed the cyber-knight to the far corner of the room, sitting across from a small table.  Sir Frederick ordered food for both of them, and another drink- this time, water for both of them.

“I’d like to talk to you about what you did out there this morning,” he said, keeping his voice quiet enough to be private.  “It was very brave- and skillful, I might add.”

Damien chuckled.  “I would think you had your mind elsewhere at the time.”

“Out in the wilderness, you don’t get old without being aware of your surroundings.  I suppose I should apologize to you for forcing you into action, though.”

“Like you said earlier, we would have done something eventually.  We just hadn’t seen the opportunity to move without risking someone else’s life.”

“Not what I meant,” the cyber-knight replied, putting a hand on Damien’s shoulder.  “What I mean is that I acted the way I did, leaving many of the bandits able to attack me, as a test for you and your team-mates.  You in particular.  And you took on the challenge, just as I had thought you would.”

Damien cocked his head to one side.  “A test?  Why were you so sure we’d back you up?”

“Because I’ve seen you step in and help a stranger get out of trouble before.”  The look that Sir Fredrick gave him was intense, and Damien understood a moment later.

“That was you, out in the forests.  You were what Billie and I were sensing out there.”

“Yes, I was.  I watched you step between that runaway and the two Kill-Cats that chased her.  You risked your own life to save her, even though you’d never met her.”

“That’s what we’re down here to do, Sir Fredrick,” Damien replied, evenly.  “I couldn’t just watch them catch her.  You would have done precisely the same thing.”

“Of course I would, but that’s why the cyber-knights have the reputation that we do.  I have spent most of my adult life helping to build that reputation.  Not to mention that it was the right thing to do.  I would also have intervened the way you did in Tradesplain.”

Damien’s jaw dropped.  “You were there, too?”

Sir Fredrick nodded.  “I was, and while I was about to take action to help, you got there first.  I had a feeling that you were the sort who would fight for those weaker than yourself, and decided to keep an eye on you.  I’ve been proven right twice more since.”

Damien beamed with pride.  This sort of compliment from a cyber-knight was priceless.

“I have also spoken to other knights of my order, many of whom are older and wiser than I, and they have all expressed their support for you and your team.  We knew of the mutant underground, of course, and would help it whenever we could, but now we know of your team in particular, and will help you if you need us.”

“I don’t know what to say, or how to thank you,” Damien said, knowing how ridiculous the words sounded even as he said them.  Sir Fredrick seemed to understand.  “The support and offer of help goes both ways, of course.  If ever we could be of help to you, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“As a matter of fact, there is something you can do,” he said, slowly.  “You in particular.  I don’t doubt that everyone on your team is brave and gallant- you each volunteered for this mission, so none of you are selfish or cowardly.  But you in particular have shown strength, honor, and the willingness to risk your own life to fight for people you’ve hardly met.  The order has agreed to invite you to join us.”  He paused for a moment.  “When your mission is done here, if you so choose, one of the older knights can take you on as an apprentice.”

“Me?  A cyber-knight?  Are you serious?  Would they train a canine?”

“Our order doesn’t consider race to be a factor,” the knight said.  “Almost every race we’ve encountered has members who possess the qualities we seek.  It is not an easy life, but for those of us who truly want to make the world a better place, it is the best way.  Even if you don’t complete the training, you’ve already begun to walk the path by taking on this mission of yours.  I only wish I could help you more directly- but we have orders not to work directly against the CS.  The threat they would pose to the order, should they decide to, is too great.”

Damien nodded, still absorbing the full weight of what had just been offered him.  The cyber-knights were an ancient order, reknown throughout the continent as incredible warriors and defenders of the weak.  In their own way, they helped keep the light of hope continue shining in a world that had grown dark and dangerous.  To be offered a place with the order- even as a squire or assistant- was a great compliment.  He had to remember to breathe before speaking again.  “This mission, our work with new runaways, it might not be the kind of mission that ever really ends.”

“Of course not- neither is my own.  The true mission of our order will never be completely realized, either, no matter how hard we work for it, or how much we may wish for it.  But if there comes a time when your friends are settled in, here or elsewhere, and can do without you for a time… Damien, our order always needs people like you.  We seek you out wherever we go.”

“How would I find you?”

“Well, if you’ll be staying here in this town, you have a good chance of finding me eventually.  And any cyber-knight you meet will be able to pass the word to myself, or to others who would take your apprenticeship.”  He paused, while the bar-maid brought out food for the both of them.  “Think about it.  You’ve already chosen the path for yourself.  Walk it with your friends, but someday I hope you choose to walk it with us.”  He picked up his fork, and began eating in a way that made Damien think the knight had been fasting for a week.  The canine smiled, then tucked into his own food.

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