A post-apocalyptic sci-fi serial by John Beechem.
Baxter smelled the smokestacks before he was ever able to see them. The scent reminded him of home, a smothering sweetness that hung thick in the air. He gripped his throttle with a gloved hand and gunned it, his engine answering with an angry growl and a loud pop. His goggles were smeared with bug guts, but through the goo and antenna, he saw the road become smooth and the cacti begin to blur. The needle on his speedometer crossed one hundred, but Baxter failed to notice. He road an ancient black Harley, as fast and loud as a tornado.
Beside him, ROEBUCK kept pace. His cycle seemed to hum, calm in comparison to Baxter’s. The bot’s steel exterior was coated in a thin layer of road-dust, but his bright red visual scanner shined like a ruby through the grime as it gathered data about the landscape. “Approaching. Our destination is three point seven miles away,” ROEBUCK announced in an electronic monotone. His bike was a sleek Kawasaki, as sharp as a katana, twice as deadly.
The bot defied any kind of logic. Robots, as a species, were still very rudimentary, at least for the most part. They were good for making things and even some conveniences, like those cars that knew how to drive themselves. ROEBUCK exceeded these and all other expectations of what a machine could be. Baxter had asked him to explain this once. ROEBUCK told him he came from the future. Baxter didn’t know whether to believe him or not. He had a deadpan sense of humor. These were a time of legends, so ROEBUCK seemed to speak and walk like something from a movie. And since so much pre-war technology was still misunderstood, people accepted him as a curious novelty.
ROEBUCK rode through the twilight like a silver bullet. Ahead of him, the sun bled red and heavy in the sky, lighting the purple clouds with a crimson glow. The moon was a feint silver sickle. As if weaving the clouds from white smoke, a row of smokestacks rose on the horizon. Along the outskirts, among canvas tents and tin shanties, the cloying scent of the distillery covered everything.
“My olfactory sensors are overwhelmed,” ROEBUCK said as they slowed their cycles to a gentle pace. The inhabitants of the slums swarmed around them as they passed through the busy morning market.
“You’ll get used to it,” Baxter told him, as he swung his leg over his seat and began to walk his cycle. “Let’s get off these for a sec. I want to poke around a little.”
“As you wish,” ROEBUCK said and did the same. A rattling vibration passed through the bot and the dust of the road shook off him. Underneath the sand, his steel body gleamed, smooth, welded seams and tiny rivets between the metal plates. He wore a black suit with a white collared shirt and a thin black tie that ended in a flat rectangular tip. It was an impeccable outfit, as always.
Baxter’s gear was more of a mismatch of items, picked up here and there over many seasons on the road. His helmet was black and white, and had a circle with an eight stenciled onto it to resemble a billiard ball. He wore a brown leather jacket patched and stitched together with a mix of ragged materials. On his hip, he carried a magnum revolver, jewel encrusted, with an ivory handle and shining chrome barrel. It was his one indulgence, which he owned proudly and knew well how to wield. His right hand never strayed far from it.
One of the street vendors, a short brown man with a thick mass of gray curls nodded in his direction. “Baxter! It’s good to see you. It’s been a while. We thought maybe you bought it.” He stood behind a white counter next to a steaming grill full of ostrich burgers and potato fries. Baxter’s throat was parched, and he swallowed when he saw the rows of beer lined up in the glass cooler.
“Couple of cold ones, Mac,” Baxter ordered as he stretched his goggles onto his helmet, and pulled his bandana down around his neck. A thin line of dirt remained in the space between them. Baxter wiped away the grit with the back of his hand. “Much obliged. Been on the road a while. Me and ROEBUCK had business back east. One thing led to another. Spent a couple of years criss-crossing Texas and Mexico with a band of banditos. Beside the bot, I ain’t got much to show for it. Thought I’d see what’s shaking back home.”
“Hmm,” Mac considered this for a moment. “Ain’t too much that’s changed. The Alexander’s still run the distillery; have half the town on their payroll. The rest of us toil to feed, clothe, and house the families who work for them. Sandstorms ain’t been too bad as of late. Got a new radar dish installed on Mount Whitepeak, lets us know when the winds are picking up.”
“Radar,” ROEBUCK remarked. “How primitive.”
“Watch your tin mouth, before I decide to weld it shut,” Baxter growled as he gave his partner a sidelong glance. “Show some manners. This here’s an old friend.”
ROEBUCK warbled a series of beeps that had the tone of rotten obscenities.
“Know anybody who’s hiring?” Baxter asked.
“Well, not nobody that needs a hired gun. Things are pretty peaceful as of late. Alexander’s police see to that,” Mac explained.
“Poh-lice,” Baxter pronounced the word like a curse and spat into the sand. He slammed his second empty bottle of beer on the counter. “One more beer and a burger and fries to go. Thanks, Mac.” He threw down a handful of nine millimeter bullets, a universal currency in a world where the local scrip could be anything from lizard pelts to coupons from the company store.
Baxter found an empty spot on the curb and popped the cap off his beer bottle. He opened the paper bag Mac had given him and breathed in the familiar aroma of ostrich burgers and greasy French fries cooked in peanut oil. The salty fries made him thirst and he swigged his beer, a three percent brew that had just enough alcohol to keep one safe from the flux but still sharp enough to aim a gun barrel. Baxter let out a loud belch as he finished his meal, crumbled his bag and threw his litter on top of a wire rim trash can already overflowing with rubbish.
“It’s getting late. I need to find us some accommodations,” Baxter said.
“An oil bath would certainly be welcome,” ROEBUCK replied. “Perhaps a washing machine in working order.”
“Well, it won’t be nothing fancy, but I got a friend, owes me a few favors. Think he’ll let us crash,” Baxter told him as they began walking their cycles again. The sun had finally set, so the lamps lit one by one, burning blue and yellow, sharp with the tang of ethanol.
* * * * *
“You’ve got a hell of a lot of nerve coming here.”
“Hey, Julie,” Baxter greeted her. “Rick here?”
“Who is it?” a voice called from inside the trailer. A feint whiff of stale cigarettes wafted out, giving the odor of the distillery a tangy edge.
“It’s our old fucking friend, Baxter,” she called behind her. “And the Tin Man. You can deal with them. I’m outta here.”
Baxter stepped aside as she left, muttering a curse he’d learned from his mother. He turned around and walked inside, bringing ROEBUCK with him.
Rick leaned heavily on a black iron cane as he stuck his hand out to Baxter. He gripped it hard. His green eyes creased beneath a freckled brow, slicked red hair combed back. “Good to see you again,” he said. “Who’s your bot? Looks fancy.”
“Rick, let me introduce you to my partner, ROEBUCK,” Baxter said.
“Greetings,” ROEBUCK looked around. “How cozy.”
“Any pal of Baxter’s a pal of mine.” Rick smiled. “Well sit down. I’ll get you a beer, Baxter.”
“Much obliged,” Baxter replied, settling into a chair. “I guess Julie’s still sore.”
“Ah, don’t mind her,” Rick said, leaning into the open fridge. “She still blames you for the car. And the leg.”
“Can’t say’s I blame her,” Baxter said. “I was driving that night.”
“Yeah, but the job was my idea,” Rick said, handing Baxter the beer. He gripped his cane as he settled down into an easy chair.
“Well, I’ve always been an enabler,” Baxter replied. “Shoot man, I guess I got to say, we was wondering if you could help us out. Think I can crash on your couch a few nights? ROEBUCK just needs a place to power down. I need time to hustle up some work.”
Rick whistled. “Now you know I’d catch hell for that.”
“Ain’t got no other choice,” Baxter said. “But seeing here as our last score let you put a down payment on this beauty, I figure this trailer’s half mine anyway.”
“At least you get to keep earning,” Rick said tapping his knee with his knuckles. “You can stay tonight. I got a contact, might get you some delivery work. It’ll be dangerous.”
“That’s alright with me and ROEBUCK. Danger is lucrative,” Baxter told him.
Rick chuckled. “I guess that’s true.”
“Your record player still working?” Baxter asked.
“Hell yeah,” Rick said as he flipped a switch on the cabinet behind him. The trill of surf music from before the Great Fall came pouring out the speakers. “Got this from a salt caravan.”
“’Misirlou’ by Dick Dale, 1962,” ROEBUCK said.
“Don’t mind him,” Baxter said. “Electric encyclopedia. But that comes in handy sometimes.”
* * * * *
The crooked finger of dawn parted the curtains of the trailer’s window and poked red in Baxter’s eyes. He grunted, sat up on the bed, stretched and yawned. From the kitchen, the coffee pot rumbled and hissed.
A metal spatula scraped a cast-iron frying pan cooking on the stove. Rick flipped the pan a couple of times and some scrambled eggs whipped around. Pork was too expensive for Baxter to hope for bacon, but the coffee and eggs were enough. It smelled like Rick was toasting some home-made bread to go along with it.
Baxter stood up and noticed the thin band of black plastic that housed ROEBUCK’s optical sensors begin to glow red. “Good morning, Baxter. I’m going to go outside and recharge.” Baxter nodded. The bot’s surface was covered in tiny but extremely sensitive solar panels. He only needed a quarter of an hour in direct sunlight, at most a few hours on cloudy and dreary days, to completely recharge. With gasoline worth more than its weight in gold, people had learned to use other kinds of energy in the decades since the Great Fall. Those dark times had been lived by Baxter’s grandparents, but at least a few of his and everybody else’s ancestors had been among the precious, lucky few to survive the plagues and wars of the twenty-first century. Whatever his origins, ROEBUCK was well adapted to this new world.
He let the door of the trailer shut behind him while Baxter sat down for breakfast.
“Morning,” Rick grunted as he scraped eggs onto Baxter’s plate, his cigarette flaking ashes close to their meal. Rick walked back to the stove, turned it off, ground out his cigarette in an ashtray resting on the window sill, and sat down at the kitchen table with two mugs of coffee.
The men ate for a few moments of hungry silence. With their bellies full and their brains lubricated with caffeine, Rick spoke. “You can’t stay here. I wish it were different, but Julie ain’t come back last night, and she’s the only one of us still draws a paycheck. “ He lit a fresh cigarette and offered one to Baxter.
“I understand,” Baxter growled, lighting up. “Think you can help me find some work?” The cigarettes’ haze filled the cramped trailer.
“Go to the foreman at this address,” Rick slid a piece of paper with an address in the manufacturing district. “He’s got a caravan, and he’s shipping six thousand gallons of ethanol to Rock Springs, a mining town ‘bout a hundred miles to the northwest. We got raiders, been causing him problems. Man’s already hired an escort, but I’ll wager he’ll pay for a couple extra guns.”
“How you know about this?” Baxter asked. He stood up from the table, cracked the kitchen window, blew his smoke outside.
“I do favors for him sometimes,” Rick explained. “I introduced him to some old friends. They’ve helped him with escorts a few times. His men eat better than the raiders in these parts, and at least he’s sane.”
Baxter nodded. “Much obliged for the room and board. And the smoke,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette. “Give my regards to Julie.”
“It was good to see you,” Rick said as Baxter opened the door. “Don’t come back.”
* * * * *
Baxter and ROEBUCK pulled up to the address. The rumble of their engines faded into a steady growl for a few moments until they killed their ignitions. A sweet scent of burned ethanol clung to the air as Baxter removed his bandana and goggles from his face.
“A modest operation,” ROEBUCK observed.
A uniformed man walked out of a small guard shack. “You got business here?” he asked. His moustache and buzz cut were white peppered with steel grey, but the gun on his hip had not aged.
“We heard your boss is looking for muscle. His caravan left yet?” Baxter asked.
“No, but it’s about to,” the guard replied. “Speak to Lester. He’s leading ‘em. Take your cycles with you. The big boss will pay you when you get back. If you get back.”
Baxter didn’t like the grin in the old man’s voice, but he ignored the comment and approached the caravan, idling in an otherwise empty lot nearby. Surrounding an ancient 16-wheeled freighter, were a mismatch of motorcycles, pick-up trucks, and some kind of humvee with a mounted machine gun on its canopy. Like almost every vehicle still in operation, they ran on whatever kind of biofuel was available. Corn from the plains was trucked to the desert, because that’s where the biggest refineries and distilleries still operated. Farmland was too valuable to waste on space for factories and distilleries, so harvests were shipped to the desert to be made into fuel.
“You Lester?” Baxter asked a grizzled mercenary dressed in leather and chains. He had spikes on the knuckles of his gloves, and his brown beard was grizzled and half-gray. A veteran. Must be a hell of a fighter to have lived so long, Baxter reflected. ROEBUCK stood silently beside them.
Lester grunted, “Mmhmm.” He glanced up and down at Baxter and ROEBUCK. He spotted Baxter’s ivory-handled pistol and let out a low whistle. “You know how to use that?” he pointed at the gun.
“’Course I do,” Baxter spat into the dust beside him.
“And the bot?” Lester asked.
“I can speak for myself, thank you,” ROEBUCK replied. “My weapons are concealed but formidable.”
Lester chuckled. “You’ll do. Raiders have been hell lately, but Rock Springs is sending out some of their militia to meet us halfway. They’re desperate for the ethanol, so they need us to get through.”
“Simple enough,” Baxter said.
He got onto his cycle, and revved his engine, pulled goggles over his eyes and lifted his bandana over his nose and mouth. Lester nodded, and got into the passenger seat of a gun-mounted pick-up truck. The pick-up honked a couple of times, and the 16-wheeler responded with a loud blast from its horn. Lester’s caravan rolled out, Baxter and ROEBUCK scouting a half-mile ahead on their cycles, a role that would be expected of them in any caravan this size.
In an hour’s time, a cloud of dust followed them, the distant horizon wide and flat. The border between desert and sky blurred in the heat.
* * * * *
The road to Rock Springs was long and cruel. Scrubs and bushes grew on the side of the road, dry and scraggly. Tumbleweed drifted past, blowing in the desert wind. Every once in a while, Baxter could see a few birds circle in the sky, or an armadillo run across the road. He glanced at ROEBUCK. Riding on his right hand. As always.
ROEBUCK’s optic sensors could see for miles. Some life forms glowed bright from the heat of their bodies. Others were as cool as the rocks. His senses were more powerful than a human’s. And he possessed some senses humans didn’t, like the ability to sense the electro-magnetic spectrum.
On the horizon, he sensed something different. Metal. Cold as the night.
“Slow down,” he told Baxter. “There’s an IED up ahead.”
“Hell,” Baxter said. “Get ready.”
Baxter tried to signal Lester to warn his bikers about the trap they were about to run into, but it was too late. A half a mile ahead of them, one of the motorcycles blew up in a streak of fire and rubber. The rider’s body fell back onto the road, a column of smoke rising into the air from the remnants.
The caravan screeched to a halt. The riders peered into the distance through binoculars and telescopes smeared with sweat and dust, but couldn’t see anything except sand and sky. Seconds stretched into minutes. Eventually, Lester motioned the caravan to continue, slowly, so that ROEBUCK could warn them of any more bombs.
A howling streak came hurtling across the landscape and struck one of the pick-up trucks with a rocket-propelled grenade. The caravan scattered like a herd of frightened animals. Baxter gunned his cycle, hoping his luck would hold out against remaining IED’s. Crouched behind a sand dune, he found a squad of men camouflaged behind a few sandbags. They were loading a mortar, but reached for their guns as soon as they saw Baxter. He fired his pistol six times, and the only shots the mortar team fired were wild and aimless, clutching the triggers of their machine guns as they died in the sand. Baxter spun his bike around and sped away back toward the rest of the caravan.
And then the hum of motorcycles surrounded them like a swarm of angry bees. Dozens of bikes, raider mods, full of spikes and machine guns sped around the caravan’s ragged huddle. The raiders were insane. They gunned their bikes full throttle, firing bullets past each other, nearly colliding with the random chaos of an electron cloud. A cloud of dust grew in their wake.
Baxter and ROEBUCK split from the rest of the caravan’s escort. Baxter wheeled left, skidded to a stop, and fired from a spare nine millimeter into a cluster of raiders who’d bunched together. Three of the raiders fell, but one returned fire, the bullet bouncing off Baxter’s rear fender. A little too close for comfort, he thought.
ROEBUCK’s weapon was a hand-cannon. His right hand and wrist transformed into a Gatling-style cannon that fired a torrent of bullets at the scattered raiders, but since he had to fire wide to avoid hitting friendlies, he only managed to puncture a tire.
He convinced the raiders to flee. Unable to cripple the rig, they left to hunt easier prey.
* * * * *
“Could’ve used you back there,” Lester told the captain. “We’re so close to Rock Springs, you might as well throw down a welcome mat.”
“This is the rendezvous we agreed on,” the captain replied. “If you didn’t like it, you should’ve told me last week.” He was wearing a military uniform made from scavenged, mismatched gear. A patch on the captain’s chest read “Boone”, but it wasn’t clear that that was his actual name.
“That you? Boone?” Baxter asked.
“Jim Boone, Rock Springs Special Defense. Good to meet ya,” Boone stuck out his hand and Baxter shook it. Then he let out a low whistle. “Damn, son. I ain’t never seen a bot this advanced.”
“This is my partner, ROEBUCK,” Baxter introduced him.
ROEBUCK nodded in Boone’s direction and a flicker of red light ran across his optic sensor. “Good to make your acquaintance, Captain Boone. Are we far from Rock Springs?”
“Nah, not too far,” Boone replied. “Just a hop, skip, and about twenty clicks away. Speaking of which, we’re not gonna get any closer sitting here jawin’ away. You ready to move out, Lester?”
“You’re damned straight,” Lester told him. He placed an index finger and a thumb in his mouth and blew until his cheeks puffed out. A powerful whistle ripped through the air. A chorus of ignitions and the hum of engines answered him. The caravan growled.
“How clever,” ROEBUCK murmured. He turned to Baxter. “Can you do that?”
“No,” Baxter said, “but I got a few tricks of my own. ‘Sides, ain’t much louder than a .45.”
The caravan rumbled through the desert, which became rockier as they approached Rock Springs. The shadows grew long. Baxter took in the landscape around him, and appreciated the weirdness of it all; arches of rock and boulders strangely balanced in surreal formations. It was a deceptive kind of fragility that was much more stubborn than it looked. Baxter imagined some kind of catastrophic force that could cause it all to come tumbling down like so many dominos.
After another few minutes on the road, Rock Springs emerged on the distant horizon as a ribbon of green and blue. Oases in this part of the desert were rare and valuable, like emeralds and sapphires scattered in the dust. Livestock and a few rows of crops were visible in the far distance. Wooden fences kept ostriches penned in, and a few members of the small herd looked up curiously as the caravan approached.
A grizzled old man in blue coveralls came out to meet Lester, Boone and the vanguard of the caravan. He had spots of grease on his clothes and a red bandana tucked into one of his pockets. “Bring her around to the tanks! We’ve got the pumps ready to go. Good job, boys.”
A few members of the caravan began moving thick hoses and other equipment from the fuel truck, connecting nozzles and pipes to the tanks. A thirsty glugging came up from the pumps as the ethanol poured into tanks beneath the ground. Rock Springs had had trouble with the raiders countless times, so the subterranean tanks became a kind of insurance policy to make sure they always had enough fuel to power their machines.
“Alright,” Lester announced, “we ain’t got time to make it back tonight, but y’all have earned some R ‘n’ R. We’ll meet here at sunrise. Anybody doesn’t make it can fend for themselves.”
“What are your plans?” ROEBUCK asked.
“This here stream rambles on for a few miles,” Baxter explained. “I’m gonna find me a place, wash off the grime of the road. Relax a bit. You’re welcome to come with.”
“It would be useful to analyze some local mineral samples,” ROEBUCK replied. “Investigate the flora and fauna a bit.”
“Whatever glides your gears, ROEBUCK.”
* * * * *
The creek was cool and clear. The stones under the water were smooth and red, a few covered in furry green algae. Baxter scooped some in his hands and brought it to his face, letting it trickle back down into the stream. It only reached his stomach even in the deepest parts, but he didn’t mind. He crouched down and let the water cloak him, its gentle current unable to upset his balance.
Baxter relaxed completely as if cradled by gently rocking arms. The pebbles and plants beneath him waved to the rhythm of the water. All the heat and dust he’d gathered washed away. Even his heart beat in sync with the current. He felt oneness, a rare unity with the universe. He stared at his reflection, and found a rippling mirror. If only he could bottle up this sense of calm and bring it with him wherever he went; it could be a shield against the chaos of his existence. Instead, he opened every pore and dimension of his consciousness and let the waters wrap around every part of him.
ROEBUCK clicked and whirred as he wandered around the stream bed. He’d washed his clothes in the stream with a bar of lye he kept with him, and now they were steaming dry on a rock. He was focused on the minerals beneath him. In his analysis, ROEBUCK had lost himself too.
There were so many questions he could not answer. Where had he come from? Who was his maker? These could only confound him. But here he could grip certainty as a climber fingers hand-holds. The rust red of iron oxides. The golden yellow of limonite. Clay’s damp sturdiness.
He pitied Baxter and other humans for the limits of their sensory instruments. ROEBUCK could see light that was infrared and ultraviolet, and magnify every particle thousands of times over. He could feel the light and heat of the sun and know exactly how far it had travelled. Yet he couldn’t remember past the time Baxter had woken him in the laboratory deep beneath the sands of Los Alamos.
Somebody stole those memories from him, erased them. ROEBUCK could feel their absence, tingling like a phantom limb inside his consciousness. Every time he reached out to grasp them, the tendrils of his memory passed through like fingers through ash. In the time he’d spent with Baxter, he’d formed new memories, and these he guarded well. He’d rather be destroyed than let them be forgotten.
“You alright, hombre? Been staring at that speck of dirt for the last five minutes,” Baxter said as the water dripped off him.
ROEBUCK turned his head in Baxter’s direction. “Conducting a deep spectral analysis. But it’s over now. I’m ready to continue.”
Baxter was rejuvenated. The heat of the afternoon sun felt good on his flesh as he and ROEBUCK dressed. They inspected their bikes for damage during the battle against the raiders but couldn’t find much. A few holes made by buckshot, but nothing that would compromise “structural integrity” in ROEBUCK’s words.
They mounted their bikes and made their way back into Rock Springs. Baxter found them a room to rent in the same motel as the rest of the caravan’s members. Its flickering neon would make it easy to find when they made their way back in the middle of the night.
“I’m going to get some dinner and maybe a drink or two. How about you?” Baxter asked.
“We’re in unfamiliar territory,” ROEBUCK said. “Best stick together.”
* * * * *
The Rocksteady Tavern was calm most evenings. A crowd of regulars sat at the bar, old timers sharing laughs with a busty middle-aged bartender, a towel on her shoulder and a pencil tucked behind her ear. Most of them didn’t turn to look when they heard the front door open, but Baxter noticed the lady behind the bar make a slight double-take at the sight of ROEBUCK.
“Sit anywhere you like, fellas. Sandy’ll be right with you,” she called out to them.
“Much obliged, ma’am,” Baxter hollered back. He and ROEBUCK sat in one of the booths along the wall. The tavern was humble but comfortable. Dim lights reflected a sheen on the smooth wooden tables. A pre-war juke box even played country songs from across the room.
“Johnny Cash,” ROEBUCK said. “Folsom Prison Blues.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Baxter grunted. “Seems pretty quiet, but just keep an eye out. Ain’t in the mood for surprises.”
ROEBUCK’s optic sensors flared a brief acknowledgement. He turned his head slightly, and looked in the direction of approaching footsteps. Baxter followed his gaze.
“Good evening, boys,” their server greeted them. She was a young blonde woman, short, slim; maybe even a teenager. Her voice had the rough edge of a smoker. “What can I get y’all?”
“I’ll have a beer. What do you like to eat here?” Baxter asked.
“You like eggs?” the girl wanted to know.
“Unless they’re raw,” Baxter said.
“Get the ostrich omelet. You’ll like it. He need anything?” she cocked her head in ROEBUCK’s direction.
“No ma’am,” ROEBUCK said.
“Be right back with your drink,” she told them, and left to walk behind the bar.
In half a minute, she placed a cold bottle of beer on the table. Baxter took a sip, and leaned back against his bench. He hadn’t felt this content and relaxed for a long time. “What you thinking about, partner?”
ROEBUCK looked up. “I was distracted by the wood grain on this table. I analyzed its age and density, and am scanning my database to determine the species. The stain makes it an uncertainty, but I believe it to be oak.”
“Oak,” Baxter replied. “That’s a strong wood. My favorite is cedar, because of the smell. You reckon—“
The front door opened with a loud slam. A tear-streaked, gray-haired woman rushed inside and peered frightfully out the window. Baxter noticed the bartender reach under the bar. “Cover me, ROEBUCK.”
He stood up from the table. His right hand gripped his revolver. The woman ducked beneath the window. The doors burst open again.
“Where is she?” a black-clad security soldier bellowed. He held a shotgun, but Baxter already had his revolver pointed in the man’s face.
“This ain’t your jurisdiction,” Baxter told him. “It’s mine. Leave the lady alone. Turn around and go. Tell your boss you couldn’t find her.”
“Why should I?” the soldier asked. He pointed his shotgun at Baxter.
ROEBUCK approached, his hand-cannon armed and ready to fire. “If you kill him, I’ll kill you.”
The soldier’s eyes widened. He backed out of the bar and let the door close behind him.
“We’d better get out of here,” Baxter told the gray-haired lady. Her clothes were dirty and frayed. She wore an old lab coat that used to be white. “You want to come with us?”
The woman nodded.
Baxter called behind the bar. “Gonna need that omelet to go!”
* * * * *
Baxter put the take-out into a case on his bike. He climbed on, flipped the ignition and gunned the engine. The motorcycle responded with an enthusiastic roar. “Get on the back,” he told the woman. She obeyed.
ROEBUCK got on his bike too. “We need to leave soon. Our friend’s on his way back, and it looks like he brought company,” the bot warned.
A security vehicle was creeping up the street in front of the tavern. Baxter and ROEBUCK rolled quietly down a nearby alley, but the cops saw them anyway. Their car’s spotlight flooded the alley and its siren screamed in alarm. Red and blue lights spun and the alley lit up like a disco. The motorcycles sped away in a peel of burning rubber. “Hang on!” Baxter yelled to the woman behind him. She clutched him tight.
The alley let out onto Slate Street, a four lane road with stoplights almost every block. Traffic was light this late at night. Baxter led the way. He weaved through cars and sped past intersections, ignoring red lights and honking horns. ROEBUCK kept up with him, but so did the security car.
Its heavy frame and powerful engine hurtled the vehicle through every obstacle in its way. Cars that couldn’t move in time were brushed aside by a heavy metal bumper. The sound of broken glass and smacking metal created a cacophony with the screeching tires and wailing sirens. In the driver’s seat, the cop who had entered the bar floored the accelerator. From the passenger side and the back seat, two cops leaned out the windows and fired their pistols at the motorcycles.
ROEBUCK felt the ping of a bullet against his back, and turned back in anger. Another ruined suit, he thought. He slowed his motorcycle and reached into the security car’s passenger window. The cop fired wildly, but ROEBUCK grabbed his arm and pulled him from the car completely, dumping him onto the road. He rolled a few times after falling to the pavement. Tires screeched behind him, and he pushed himself up from the road, bloody but alive.
The driver saw this and responded by ramming the side of his car into ROEBUCK’s motorcycle. ROEBUCK spun behind the car, and did his best to keep his balance. The effort was futile. His motorcycle landed on top of him after his tire struck the curb. He pushed the bike up, brushed himself off, and continued after them, but Baxter and the police were blocks ahead by then.
Baxter turned around in his seat and fired at the pursuing car, difficult with a passenger clutching his back. The car swerved to avoid the bullets, but one shattered the windshield. He could see the cop’s face, stung by broken glass, seething anger. Baxter couldn’t see ROEBUCK any more. He hoped his partner had just fallen behind and not been destroyed.
His revolver was empty, so Baxter swapped it for his nine millimeter. Behind him, the cop car came menacingly close, inches from his bumper. Another cop fired from the back seat, but his aim failed. The bullets whizzed past. Baxter turned around and fired a couple more shots. He shattered the car’s rear window, but didn’t hit either of the security cops. But he noticed the man in the backseat had stopped firing, and guessed he’d run out of bullets or needed to reload.
Baxter slowed the bike and let the car run alongside him. They’d reached a relatively empty area of Slate Street, so the traffic had thinned out. Baxter fired into the backseat. He felt the woman’s face bury into him. The backseat cop raised his hands reflexively, and Baxter saw the ring finger on the man’s left hand fly off in a small explosion of blood and bone.
“My fucking finger!” the cop screamed. He sprayed blood on the driver. The driver looked back, but at the wrong moment. He almost slammed into a car stopped in front of him, and swerved to avoid it. The car spun out, and in this moment of distraction, Baxter led his motorcycle down a side street away from the police.
“Where are we going?” the woman asked.
“We need to find ROEBUCK,” Baxter told her.
“Oh. Him. Yes, I’ve seen him before. I know him.”
* * * * *
ROEBUCK leaned against a brick wall in a dark alley. It was night. The stars’ luminosity was intense. Orion’s belt shone overhead near the waning moon. Sirens wailed in the distance, but no security patrol would venture this deep. I hope he charged his radio, ROEBUCK thought. “Baxter, this is ROEBUCK. Come in.”
“ROEBUCK? You okay?” Baxter’s voice came back through the radio with more than its usual rasp.
“Yes. Can you meet me back at the hotel?” ROEBUCK asked.
“Ten-four, good buddy. Over and out.” Baxter replied.
“Over and out,” ROEBUCK repeated. He climbed on his bike and got on a road that paralleled Slate Street and led back to his hotel. ROEBUCK had software that allowed him to detect vehicles broadcasting the security police radio frequency. It made them easy to avoid.
He sped his bike, a sleek Japanese model painted black and gun-metal grey, through the streets. To some of the drivers, he appeared as nothing more than a streaking red light flashing by them. His engine hummed high and loud, creating a Doppler effect for pedestrians. To him, the hum was constant so he forgot about it. Only the blur of the cars mattered, but with his computer calculating speeds and trajectories, apart from his human companion, he could speed through the night’s traffic with a machine’s precision.
The hotel’s neon light glowed. A cool green beacon of hospitality. ROEBUCK parked his motorcycle and disabled it. Baxter’s stood nearby. He walked to their room and knocked. The hotel’s owner had only given them one key, so he had to wait. Baxter let him inside.
“Good to see you,” Baxter told him. “This here’s Doc D’Angelo. She knows you.”
“A doctor?” ROEBUCK asked.
“A Ph.D. I hold a doctorate in computer engineering. I helped reactivate you,” D’Angelo explained.
“Reactivate me?” ROEBUCK asked. “What do you mean?”
“You were found. Two hundred years ago in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico. Your grey companions died at impact, but you were easy to preserve. Eventually, our technology caught up with you, and we were able to reverse engineer the aliens’ tech and figure out how to wake you. I think you were their pilot and bodyguard,” D’Angelo explained. “At least, that’s what the generals told us. I think they wanted to turn you into a weapon.”
“Did you work in Los Alamos?” Baxter asked.
“For a time. That’s where our facility was located. Then the subject disappeared. We tried to recreate you, but were unsuccessful. We were abused. Starved. Beaten. ‘Motivation,’ they told us. I escaped. But they tracked me down in Rock Springs. That’s where I ran into you two,” D’Angelo explained.
“How serendipitous. A bit too serendipitous for my taste,” ROEBUCK replied. “Are you some kind of trap?”
“No!” D’Angelo gasped. “Why would I put myself in so much danger?”
“To gain our trust,” ROEBUCK told her. “How can we know you’re telling the truth?”
“You’ll have to believe me,” D’Angelo said, “if you want to get your memory back.”
“ROEBUCK, what’s she talking about?” Baxter asked.
“You remember I told you I couldn’t remember anything before you found me?” ROEBUCK said. “I told you my memory was damaged. That it might come back. I was lying. It had been erased. I didn’t want to think about that, so I made up a lie. To try to convince myself. It never worked, of course. But somehow, it made it easier.”
“The scientists who found you, they accessed your memory,” she explained. “That’s how they understood your technology. Only they didn’t want you to remember what happened when it was time for you to wake you up. So they erased it from you. But they didn’t destroy it. It’s still there, in Los Alamos.”
“What do you think, ROEBUCK?” Baxter asked. “Ready for a homecoming?”
ROEBUCK flickered an affirmative. “Into the hornet’s nest? I guess we must.”
“I know a secret way,” D’Angelo told him. “It’ll be dangerous, but not impossible.”
“Par for the course,” Baxter said.
“It’s time to remember what I forgot.”