Lone Star – Chapter 6

The smallest of the three taverns in Tradesplain had become the team’s official meeting hall very quickly.  It almost had 50 or 60 people almost every evening, winding down after a day of hard work, and their group of 15 taking one of the two private rooms wouldn’t attract attention.  The inside was well-kept, clean, and well-decorated.  The dining area was arrayed around a large stone fireplace and hearth that radiated comfortable warmth through the entire room.  Yaran had spent some time chatting with the owner, a unique D-B who called herself Tricia.  She was basically humanoid- same skin tone, same eyes, and long, light brown hair that she almost always wore loose- but she was very tall, impossibly thin-limbed, and she had four arms.  This made her very efficient at serving drinks, she would often joke.  She and her father had built the place, and had earned a reputation for great food.  While the larger taverns were better known for entertainment, Tricia’s place was chosen for the quiet.

The town itself was just barely big enough to support three such businesses year-round, but all the permanent residents had told them the same story- at the end of every summer, the cattle, buffalo and elk-hunting trade would nearly overwhelm the area with merchants, travelers, and no small amount of mercenaries for hire.  While Tradesplain was fairly civilized, a wanderer wouldn’t have to go far before finding themselves in great danger.  Anyone who could travel the wild in that part of the world without feeling the need to hire a few mercenary guards or guides could most likely find work as a mercenary.  It was a rough territory to ask runaways to pass through, but it was worth the risk to keep clear of the Coalition patrols and outposts farther east.  It was also a simple thing to disappear out there.

Yaran, Mageera, and Trindle sat around one of the smaller tables, finishing their evening meal.  Yaran had done most of the talking, filling them in on the details he’d worked out while the younger canines added what they could.  After the basics were covered, Yaran leaned back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling beams.

“I still worry about us working openly here,” he sighed.  He had hoped that they’d be able to move into town, get their team of three set up, and move on without much notice.  What he hadn’t bargained on was that the local law enforcement was led by a dozen or so of the more gifted psychics he’d ever met, and one of them had figured his group out before they’d gotten inside the perimeter wall.  They hadn’t spread the news, but there were still a lot of people aware of them and their purpose.

“Someone smart once told me that it never pays to lie to a psychic,” Mageera said with a sly smile.  Yaran rolled his head sideward to look at her, a dry smile on his own lips.  That had been his advice, once upon a time.

“I don’t know what makes you so nervous about that, si-shon,” she went on.  “The people here are more than happy to take in a handful of runaways from the CS.  They know we’ll work hard, because that’s what we were bred for, and they know we won’t cause trouble, because we don’t want the attention.  They might even lend a hand if we asked them.”  She shrugged.  “We’re the perfect immigrants to help build a town.  Did I tell you how Elena’s meet went this morning?”

Yaran shook his head.  Elena was a weapons expert by training, and a tinker by spirit.  She had hoped to get a job at a local weapons shop, but there was only one to choose from.

“The old man asked her to field strip an old-world automatic pistol.  It took her about 7 seconds.  He asked her about a dozen questions about what she could do, and what she had experience with.  Then he looks at her sideways and says, ‘You on the run from the CS Military, miss?’”  Mageera paused for a moment, smirking.

“Yeah?  How’d he react when she told him?”

“Hired her without another thought.  Even offered her the spare room above the shop, so that’s one less issue to deal with.”

Yaran closed his eyes, and rested his hands over his head.  “That’s good news.  I just wasn’t sure what the local people would think of us setting up an overtly anti-CS waypoint in their town.”

Trindle leaned forward.  “Si-shon, more than half of the town’s non-human.  At least a third of them are here specifically to stay away from the Coalition, so they’re more understanding than most folks about starting a new life out in the wild.  I mean, even the bartender here has four arms.” He nodded his head toward the bar.  “We’re not going to be bringing an air-strike on these people’s heads.  We need to worry about where we’re setting up our next waypoint a lot more than this place.”

Mageera nodded.  “I agree.  I’m nervous enough just moving through Nebraska ourselves, let alone sending runaways through there.”

Yaran leaned forward, putting his hands down.  “I know what you mean.  I’m actually less worried about one or two runaways moving through that area than I am about our own chances.  We could go farther west, but that’s begging for trouble.  Around here, there’s bandits and hungry critters plenty, but they stay away from a group like us.  If we move through Colorado, it’ll be easier to escape notice, but there’s big trouble out there waiting for us.”

The tavern door opened, and Gordon entered, stopping by the bar to order some food.  He was far enough away that the three couldn’t clearly hear him talk to Tricia.  Yaran believed that the tall bartended had taken a liking to the Cocker Spaniel, but couldn’t be entirely sure.  The two certainly had gotten along well.  When Gordon wandered over to the table and sat down, he had a big enough smile on his face.

“Well, Elena’s got her work, and it sounds like Vince has his now, too.  I guess the blacksmith was looking for a strong apprentice who was willing to work with animals.”

“Vince fills that easily enough,” Trindle said, nodding.  “And Prince lined up work with the butcher.  Come round-up season, it sounds like he’ll be busy enough.  The folks around here seem to have plenty of skill and know-how, they just need a bit more muscle.”

“Keep up with your daily physical training, boys and girls,” Yaran said.  The others chuckled.

“So, if I had to guess, I’d say the glum looks I saw on your faces as I came in meant y’all were discussing the next part of our route,” Gordon said, looking around.  When no one spoke, he continued.  “Yeah, it’s got me a bit worried, too.  When we send runaways up here, we should send them through the middle of Nebraska, but to get our group down there, we need to go around.”

Yaran nodded, but Mageera disagreed.  “Going through Nebraska will take them right through the territory controlled by the First Apocalyptic Cavalry,” she said, referring to the large militia that patrolled that area.  They weren’t part of an official army, but then again, no city-state in the world was more official than their own ability to fend off monsters or other armies.  The 1st AC had kept most of Nebraska fairly safe to travel through for almost 20 years, protecting the villages and farms they found more or less fairly, keeping justice alive and keeping the wilderness relatively at bay.  The biggest drawback was their sometimes alliance with the Coalition.

Gordon nodded to her, then leaned back in his chair as Tricia brought him a plate of food with one hand, a tall glass filled with ale in another, and messed up the fur atop his head with her two free hands.  He smiled playfully up at her, then turned back to his friends.  “Precisely.  It’s pretty safe travel through there, as long as our runaways don’t cause trouble, which they won’t.  The Cavalry won’t consider mutants, one or two at a time, to be a problem.”

“But if they find a dozen or so in a group…” Yaran let his voice trail off deliberately.

“Yeah, they’ll consider us to be a bandit gang, or worse,” Gordon said.  “I’ve met up with a few of their officers, and they’re reasonable enough people, but what are the chance that we’ll run into someone we know?”  He shrugged.  “No, if one of their patrols crosses paths with us, they’ll haul us to the nearest outpost until they can sort out who we are and what we’re doing.  And once that’s done, they may very well let the CS know about us.”

“We’ll head west, but not too far west,” Yaran said.  “We’ve got enough firepower to take care of ourselves reasonably well, but let’s not push our luck.”  He looked up from the others and toward the door.  Belinda was striding toward them, and her expression put him on the alert instantly.  The Akita breed wasn’t known to be easily excited, but something had her worked up.  The other three noticed Yaran’s gaze, and stood up before Belinda got to them.

“We’d better get outside.  Damian seems to have stepped into something outside the west gate.”  She turned back toward the door, not waiting to see if they followed her.

*****

The wall surrounding Tradesplain was 8 meters high, a reinforced concrete structure with a ceramic composite shell that made it tough enough to withstand direct shelling from a tank- at least for a while.  It was more than enough for the ballistic rifles and smaller energy weapons carried in those parts.  The gate was impressive, too- a sliding door instead of hinged, it was basically a section of the wall that could slide open.  It was open at the moment, and as they exited Tricia’s Tavern they could see Damian standing in the middle of the road, 20 meters or so from the gate.

Dashing toward him were two young women, being chased toward the town by a half-dozen men on hovercycles.  The riders were firing their rifles into the air and shouting, and would easily overtake the two on foot before they reached the wall.  Yaran hadn’t gotten close enough to get a clear idea of what was happening before the situation escalated.

Damian stepped to the right, giving him a line of fire that wouldn’t endanger the women.  They continued their dash, and Damian lifted his rifle and sighted down the road past them.

His C-12 laser rifle, he often said, was one of the only worthwhile things the Coalition ever gave him.  As the pursuers raced toward him, they were firing low-power energy weapons and bullet-firing rifles, whooping and cat-calling the women they chased.  But when Damian pulled his trigger and sent a full-power blast of energy into the hull of the lead hovercycle, their attitude changed very quickly.  The two women stumbled, and one fell forward.  The other nearly dragged her back to her feet.  They passed Damian, who tilted his head towards the open gate.  A moment later, the hovercycles surrounded him.  The one he’d hit was gushing smoke and couldn’t hold itself level.

They were all humans, all dressed in the ancient ‘old-west’ style of leather pants and large cowboy hats.  They were rough and dirty from the dust their cycles kicked up.  They circled him, one of them speaking, but Yaran couldn’t make out the words.  Not that he really needed to.  Their body language was pretty clear, even at a distance.  Yaran didn’t really start getting worried until Damian dropped his rifle.

“Uh, oh,” Trindle said.  He looked over to Yaran and Mageera.  None of the three were armed with anything but their knives.  They began moving toward the standoff, but they wouldn’t make it in time.

Damian crouched, then sprung just as the cowboys began firing.  Two of them had revolver-style pistols, and one had an energy pistol, but the other three had rifles that they needed to re-chamber.  With their cycles still in motion, they weren’t accurate at all, nor were they very quick in getting off any more shots.  Damian’s leap landed him on the back of the crippled cycle, and his arms quickly entangled his opponent.  The revolver dropped to the ground, and a moment later so did the cowboy.

Damian’s next leap turned over the cycle and sent it crashing into the dirt.  His next target got a second shot off, but missed wide.  Damian’s cap came off as he landed on the ground, dragging the second cowboy down with him.  Damian landed in a crouch, but the cowboy had the wind knocked out of him when he landed on his back.

More shots rang out.  Yaran was half-way there, with Trindle and Mageera just ahead of him.  Already the three were fanning out to flank the cowboys.  Trindle was almost close enough to pounce when one of the cycles stopped, its driver leveling his rifle for a shot while Damian disarmed a third.  Yaran’s heart sank, knowing what was about to happen.  Then he was caught off-guard by a blue streak of light that soared past him, brushed Trindle aside, and touched the rifleman.  His back arched, and he cried out in surprise and pain.  Yaran paused, turning to look for the source of the blast, and saw Belinda lowering her arms, her hands still glowing and crackling with energy.

Trindle altered his path, picking up the fallen rifle as he went by and smoothly swinging it through an arc that connected the stomach of the next-nearest cowboy.  His target crumpled, falling to the ground.  The cycle beneath him sped away toward the trees, kicked into full-thrust as its pilot fell.

At this point, only one was left on his mount, and he turned to flee.  Mageera nearly caught him, but gave up the chase 30 meters down the road, turning to come back.  Yaran stood next to Damian as the younger dog checked the pulse of one of the fallen cowboys.  He smirked up at his elder, then stood, flexing his left arm, then covering his bicep muscle with his right hand.

“Looks like I caught one,” he said, shrugging.  “Can’t be lucky all the time, right?”

Just inside the gate, Gordon and Billie were settling down the two women.  One of the local women had brought out a pair of blankets, wrapping the two up and leading them toward Tricia’s Tavern.  They were both young in appearance, and pretty, though their clothes were ragged and threadbare.  One was human, and while the other was close to human-shape, her ears had a slight point to them, and her skin was a soft grey-blue color.  She had a large bruise on the side of her head that looked at least a day old.  Tricia pulled a dozen or so chairs close to the hearth, then set off to the bar to bring water.  She called out a few orders to her staff for food, then returned to the fire as the women and the entourage with them settled around the fire.

The dark skinned girl said nothing, just gratefully accepted a glass of water and sipped at it.  The human girl was coming down from hysterics, and seemed to need to talk out her fear and tension for a few minutes before she could relax.  They’d been held as slaves, she said; her for just over a year and the dark-skinned girl for longer.  The cowboys had beaten them both constantly, until the night before when the two had killed the gang’s leader in his sleep, then disappeared into the night.  The leader’s brother was the one who had escaped.

Damian knelt down by the dark-skinned girl, looking in her eyes.  She smiled, then turned her attention to his arm.  He hadn’t let anyone tend to it until he’d come in to see the two women, but she set down her glass and gently lifted his arm, clasping her hands around the wound.  When she squeezed, it sent a shock of pain up his arm, but she held tight.  A moment later, when she released him, she held the bullet that had been imbedded in his arm.  Then she looked up at Belinda, who had been pestering Damian to let her tend to his arm.  This time, he submitted, standing up and stepping clear to let the girl warm up before the fire.

“Where’d you learn that trick, by the way?” he asked.  “The blast you fired off earlier?”

Belinda’s white-furred face cracked a smile.  She wrapped a bandage around his arm, splitting it to tie it off.  “We live in one of the biggest communities of wizards, sorcerers and scholars, and you’re wondering where I learned to practice magic?”

Damian chuckled.  “I guess I should ask why it is you’ve got the gift for it.  I’ve never seen met a canine that had it.”

“It’s true.  The scientists down at Lone Star considered me a failed experiment.  But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them.  I guess it depends on what result they were hoping for in the first place.”  She winked, then gently pressed him into a chair.

Yaran was squatting next to the human woman, looking up as Gordon and Trindle approached their wounded team-mate.  He knew what was coming next, but couldn’t bring himself to intervene.

“Damian, you do remember our conversation about keeping a low profile, right?” Gordon said, handing him a glass of water.  He was trying hard not to grin.

“I remember it very clearly,” the younger canine replied.  “I thought we were talking about Pecos territory, and we’re a long way from there.”

Trindle sighed, then spoke quietly but firmly.  “We can’t go out of our way to get into fights out here, no matter what we see.”

Damian’s expression darkened, and he stood and stepped close to Trindle.  Even though he was almost two feet shorter, he stared down the taller dog easily.  He spoke in a harsh whisper.  “Say that a little bit louder, so those two women can hear you.”

Trindle looked at the floor.  “Look, I’m not saying you did the wrong thing, brother.  And you didn’t have to go out of your way, either, so it’s not like you slowed us down or anything.  I’m just saying your sense of justice, and your willingness to step into things like this has a good chance of getting us in trouble.”  He pointed toward the women.  “This was a good thing you did, and damn brave.  You made me proud to stand beside you, and I’m sure the whole team feels the same.”  He paused, and took a deep breath.  “I don’t know why you dropped your rifle, by the way.  One of the psi-sheriffs here tells me those boys out there were part of a bandit gang that’s been causing plenty of hurt around here.  Murdered more than a few people over the years, sounds like.”

Damian shrugged.  “I didn’t know that at the time.  I just saw a bunch of bullies who needed to be taught a lesson.”

Trindle laughed, clapping the shorter dog on his good shoulder.  “Well, they’ve rounded up the ones that didn’t get away.  They’ll wake up in jail, and the locals will decide what to do with ‘em.”

Another hand appeared on Damian’s shoulder.  He turned to see Sapphire, the leader of the psi-sheriffs, looking into his eyes.  Her clothing was no different than the rest of the town, denim pants and a cotton shirt, but her eyes were an unsettling violet color, and were so large as to make her look not quite human.  She smiled at him, glanced at his arm, then returned her gaze to his eyes.

He held up the arm.  “No big deal.  Wasn’t the first time I’ve been shot.”

Her voice was almost a whisper.  “Nor was it the first time you’ve been shot defending a stranger.”  She paused for a moment.  “One of the young girls outside, who saw the fight, asked me if you were a cyber-knight in disguise.”

Damian tried hard not to laugh, but failed.  “Oh, I wish.” He took a drink of his water.  “If I’d have been a cyber-knight, I probably wouldn’t have gotten hit.”  He finished his water, then held up the glass.  “Pardon me, ma’am.”  He turned to make his way to the bar.

She smiled, then turned to Yaran, moving close enough to him to whisper.  It was unsettling at first, but over the past few days they had gotten used to Sapphire’s mannerisms.  She spoke quietly and privately, and usually was close when she did so.

“My friend, we are lucky to have people like you in the world, and in our town.  Have no fear of us.  If the runaways you are helping are like your young companion, we’ll make a home here for as many of them as you can send us.  Tolkeen sounds like it may not be the safe haven people expect for very much longer.”

Yaran nodded, smiling.  “Thank you, m’lady.  And we will most likely take you up on your offer.  There’s not many places like this.”

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