The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK, Part 1: Time to Remember What I Forgot

A post-apocalyptic sci-fi serial...

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 outer-space, or maybe even the future, but he couldn't remember.  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 novel curiosity. 

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. 

“Who’s that?”

 “My bot.”

“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.”

The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK, Part 2: The Flood

Last time in The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK:  Baxter and ROEBUCK are mercenaries and partners, one man, one machine.  They ride around the deserts of Mexico and the American Southwest, guns for hire to whoever can afford them.  In Baxter’s hometown, they join a convoy to escort a freighter full of ethanol to Rock Springs, and help defend her from a roving band of raiders. While catching up on some ‘r and r’ at one of the local watering holes, they met Doc D’Angelo, a scientist on the run from the Corporate Security Force, para-military police also known as C.S.F.  Baxter and ROEBUCK help her evade her pursuers, and learn she knows the key to unlocking ROEBUCK’s past:  the files of his memory are locked away in a base in the desert of Los Alamos.  ROEBUCK decides it’s time to remember what he’s forgot. Baxter and the Doc decide to do everything they can to help him.

The rain fell over everything.  It ran down every curve and bend of smooth rock and blighted tree.  Each footprint formed a puddle.  Baxter looked up from the muddy ground into the gray slate of the clouds.  Their thick, saturated mass covered the sky and bled onto the earth. 

His ankles were submerged.  Then his knees.  Baxter climbed onto the hood and roof of a car.  The town was washing away.  Bits of garbage and refuse followed the flood’s current like a tiny flotilla.  In a canoe, ROEBUCK washed up next to Baxter’s refuge.  His black suit was soaked.  The bot put his oar inside the craft, then held his hand out to Baxter.  Baxter took it, gripping the cold, metallic fingers as he stepped off the car and into the canoe.  The boat rocked as Baxter stepped inside, bearing his weight with a gentle bounce. 

ROEBUCK began paddling as Baxter settled in.  An ostrich looked up at them from the street, only its head and a few inches of skinny neck poking up from the surface.  The storm waters pulled the canoe along a rapid torrent, until nothing else could be seen above its choppy waters except the tops of scraggly trees, a few stubborn leaves still clinging to their branches. 

In the distance, a bolt of lightning forked the sky.  Thunder rumbled, a loud and distant roar.  Then the wave formed.  A wall of water, sixty feet high, coming at them with grim inevitability.  Some of the trees that stood in the wave’s path were pulled from the earth and brought along the water’s fury.  As its crest reached their canoe, it picked Baxter and ROEBUCK up with it until they were balanced along its peak.  The wave dipped, and Baxter looked down to see the water fold in on itself, he and ROEBUCK about to be caught between...

Baxter woke with a start.  He sat up from the pile of clothes he’d gathered on the floor, a thin blanket falling from his chest.  Doc D’Angelo looked down at him through the steam of her coffee cup.  “Not a morning person?” she asked.

“I had a dream,” he told her.  “About a flood.  It was raining, and the water was washing everything away.  ROEBUCK found me, and brought me into a canoe he was paddling, but then we were caught up in a gigantic wave, and just when we were about to come back down from it—“

“You woke up,” Doc D’Angelo finished for him.  “I know the feeling.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good night’s sleep.”

“Got any more of that coffee?” Baxter asked. 

D’Angelo handed him a steaming paper cup.  “Drink up.  ROEBUCK says our caravan is leaving soon.”

Baxter blew ripples into the coffee, took a sip, and wiped some of the sleep from his eyes.  He stepped outside and saw ROEBUCK working on his cycle.  The bot looked back at him.  “Making some last minute adjustments.  One of the tires came slightly out of alignment when I took that spill last night on Slate Street.  It’s fixed now.  At least to a hundredth of a degree and well within the margin of error.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll be ready in a minute,” Baxter told him.  “I need to go back inside for a sec and talk to the Doc.”

“Make it quick,” ROEBUCK said glancing behind him.  “The’re almost ready.”  Nearby, the other members of the fuel caravan primed their vehicles for the voyage back.  Already, engines were revved one after the other in a primitive display of horse power. 

“Be right back,” Baxter told him.

He went back into his hotel room to see Doc D’Angelo cramming a few meager possessions into her backpack.  “Before we go,” Baxter announced, “we need to get our story straight.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, hooking her thumbs beneath the pack that rested on her shoulders. 

“It won’t do for people to know who you are.  So we need to figure out a story for you.”

D’Angelo nodded back at him.  “To throw Corporate Security Force off my scent.  So who am I?  Some kind of long-lost aunt?”

“That’ll do.  You’re my aunt Angela.  And you’re not a scientist,” Baxter said, buttoning his shirt and pulling his sleeves through his leather jacket.  “You’re a school teacher.  Coming back with us to look for work.”

“Plausible,” D’Angelo said. 

“Alright, good.  C’mon, we gotta go before we’re left behind.”

D’Angelo followed Baxter out the door.  ROEBUCK sat on his cycle.  He nodded, and rode toward the rest of the caravan.  They surrounded the freighter that had brought fuel to Rock Springs.  Now it was full of Rock Springs wheat to bring back to the distilleries.

Baxter followed him over.  Lester looked out from the passenger seat of one his pick-up.  “Good to see ya, Baxter.  Worried we’d have to leave you behind.  Who’s she?”

“Lester, this here’s my Aunt Angie.  She’s a school teacher, coming back with us to help raise the little hellions back home,” Baxter told him. 

Lester looked at D’Angelo and nodded.  “Just hold on tight.  Might be a bumpy ride.”

                                               *  *  *  *  *

Doc D’Angelo gripped Baxter’s torso and held on.  For dear life, she thought to herself, clichés be damned.   The desert’s scenery sped by at nearly a hundred miles an hour.   The horizon was fixed; blue sky over gray rock and the desert’s deep brown.  Closer, cacti and tumbleweed blurred.  Nearly half a mile away, a jackrabbit glanced up at the speeding juggernaut of the freighter, thumped one its hind-feet a few times, and ducked into a small warren tucked underground.

A twinge of nausea fluttered through D’Angelo’s gut, so she took her eyes away from the road and burrowed her face into the back of Baxter’s leather jacket.  She wore a helmet borrowed from one of the bikers in the convoy.  He’d cracked the helmet he considered ‘lucky’, but D’Angelo decided it would be better than no protection at all, so she smashed it onto her stubborn curls, grown into a mass of tight corkscrews since her time on the run.  First things first: a haircut.  Even if I have to shave everything off. 

The back of Baxter’s jacket was warm and mostly smooth on her face.  A few patches and stitches provided texture.  Wind from the road whipped tears from her eyes.  She wiped them off on the jacket, leaving behind slightly darker spots where the leather was moist.  Her breath caught in the bandana she wore over her nose and mouth, but it kept the dust out, and that’s all that mattered.

As the horizon blazed by, D’Angelo let her mind wander.  She remembered the long days spent in cold, sterile laboratories and reflected on how far her current situation was from her life as a scientist.  ROEBUCK reminded her of the lab itself:  cold, metallic, precise.  Of course, the bot had been changed by his time outside the lab just as she had.  EscapeAn independent variable if one ever existed.  A dozen what-if’s flashed through her mind, but she was pleased with her new-found freedom.  Even though her scientist’s mind craved consistency, D’Angelo was glad she couldn’t see any of the other possible realities that could have existed with her still trapped in the lab like any other mindless instrument.  Like a mouse in cage.

The convoy began to slow.  The feel of crunching gravel vibrated through the tires and into her body.  Baxter leaned his bike over, and killed the ignition.  The rest of the convoy did the same.

“Yeehah!  We’re back boys.   Stand in line and get your scrip.  Congratulations on a job well done,” Lester roared to his men. 

“Rather jubilant for one who lost a crew member to a raider mine,” ROEBUCK remarked. 

“You gotta look at the odds, ROEBUCK.  Almost everybody came back from Rock Springs.  We delivered our payload.  Lost one man, but not the cargo or the whole escort.  Gotta say, that’s pretty damn good,” Baxter told him.

“I understand ROEBUCK’s point of view,” D’Angelo remarked.  “Some of us tolerate nothing but perfection.”

“There’s a recipe for unhappiness,” Baxter said with a grunt.

                                               *  *  *  *  *

Baxter and ROEBUCK parked their cycles, and went inside a rickety wooden office with a world-weary woman sitting behind a window.  A circle had been cut from the glass for her to speak through; underneath there was a small space she could use to slide paperwork. 

When it was Baxter’s turn, she told him in a tired monotone, “This scrip is good for one hundred Benny bucks at the Los Bonitos Distillery company store.  It cannot be replaced.  Thank you for your service to Los Bonitos.” She placed a heavy red stamp on a square in one of the corners of the coupon and slid it through the window. 

“Much obliged,” Baxter said with a smile.  

ROEBUCK got his share in just another moment.   The pair walked outside to meet the Doc.  “Scrip from the company store?” she asked with a smile.  “Not much you can do with that if we’re leaving town.”

“That thought had crossed my mind.  What should we do, Baxter?  Save them?”  ROEBUCK asked. 

“Nah,” he told them.  “We’ll exchange it.  Might lose a bit of their value, but I prefer more universal currencies.”

“And what would those be?” D’Angelo asked. 

“Ammunition.  Ethanol.  Non-perishable food items.  You know, the basic building blocks of life in this crazy world we live in,” Baxter explained. 

With these words, the trio got back onto their bikes.  They visited Mac near his ostrich burger hut.  He was just closing up.  “Hey, Baxter!  You came just in time.   Let me take you back to storage.  Got a few things I’d like to show you.”

Mac shared some of his unsold leftovers with Baxter and D’Angelo.  D’Angelo ate hungrily.  Baxter munched slowly, taking swigs from his water canteen and passing it back and forth to the Doc. 

“Who’s she?” Mac asked. 

“This is my aunt Angie.  Angie, this is Mac.  He’s an old friend.  Angie’s come back with us from Rock Springs to be a teacher,” Baxter explained. 

Mac chuckled.  “Good luck.”  He’d brought them back to what looked like a large, outdoor freezer.  Inside, only a small compartment was actually refrigerated.  The rest was full of armaments, ammunition, and black market ethanol.  It was crowded inside, so only Baxter entered.  ROEBUCK and D’Angelo waited outside. 

“Ninety bucks worth of nine millimeter bullets will do her just fine,” Baxter instructed. 

“I can do that for you.  Got one more thing I want to show you before you make up your mind,” Mac told him.  He and Baxter carried out a couple of ammo cases that could be carried on Baxter’s and ROEBUCK’s bikes.

“C’m’ere,” Mac instructed.  He brought Baxter back outside and led him, D’Angelo and ROEBUCK toward a large object covered in canvas.  “Saw you ride in on the back of Baxter’s cycle,” he nodded at D’Angelo. “If you have any more passengers, Baxter, this might come in handy.”  Underneath the canvas was a gleaming black sidecar.  It had a comfortable looking maroon leather seat inside.  ROEBUCK let out a low electronic whistle. 

“Looks nice,” Baxter said.  “Might make her hard to maneuver.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it for combat,” Mac told him.  “Unless you add some armaments.  That being said, it might make for more comfortable transportation for your passengers.”

Baxter nodded.  “I’ll take it.  If I don’t like it, I’ll trade it for something else.”

“Excellent!” Mac said.  He took a case of bullets back from ROEBUCK.  “Pleasure doing business with you, Baxter.”

“You too, Mac.  And if it’s all the same to you, don’t mention my Aunt Angie to anybody that passes through,” Baxter told him.  

“My lips are sealed,” Mac mimed locking his lips and threw away the key. 

                                               *  *  *  *  *

“Are we ready to get this show on the road?” ROEBUCK asked.  “According to my internal navigation system, it’s a long way to Los Alamos.

“We’ll leave tonight,” Baxter told him.  “Camp on the road.  Sound good to you, Doc?”

“A tent and a bedroll would be more comfort than I’ve been used to in a while.  And it would be good to see the stars again.  You’re picking up idioms,” she said to ROEBUCK.  “Interesting.”

Baxter grinned.  “Alright, let’s go.”

D’Angelo put her hand on Baxter’s wrist.  “One minute.  Do either of you cut hair?”

“I’ve barbered Baxter for the past couple years,” ROEBUCK told her. 

“Good,” D’Angelo said.  “Cut it all off.” 

“You’re sure?” Baxter asked.

“I’m tired of these curls.  Too damn hot under a motorcycle helmet.  Besides, it’s hair.  It’ll grow back,” D’Angelo said. 

“Give me a moment,” ROEBUCK instructed.  He brought D’Angelo with him to a dark spot beneath a tree a few feet from the dusty street.  Baxter sat on a curb next to Mac’s and sipped one of the weak beers his friend sold.

ROEBUCK poured some water on D’Angelo’s hair and ran his fingers through it.  Even though his fingers were metallic, ROEBUCK had a surprisingly human touch.  For the bot, the experience was  strangely intimate, especially since he didn’t know the Doc near as well as he knew Baxter.  He used one of Baxter’s knives, a small switch blade, to cut her hair. 

“I guess we put some barber code into your CPU before we reactivated you.  You’ve got a nice touch,” D’Angelo said quietly. 

ROEBUCK let out a few electronic warbles D’Angelo took for laughter.  “Baxter taught me how to do this.  He was tired of using his mirror.  He helps me with my own maintenance from time to time.”

Once he’d chopped most of the hair from D’Angelo’s head, ROEBUCK added some more water and a bit of soap.  Then he began sliding the blade against her scalp.  “Do you have a first name?” ROEBUCK asked. 

“Doc,” she told him.  “I might tell you.  Some day.”

“Understood.”  ROEBUCK finished the haircut, leaving D’Angelo bald.  Her pale scalp looked strange to him, but she placed her helmet back onto her head. 

“Let’s go.”

                                               *  *  *  *  *

The ride to their campsite was pleasant and peaceful.  The sidecar worked well. D’Angelo relished seeing the landscape open up in front of her, and felt more secure buckled into the sidebar than she had clinging to Baxter.  Mac gave her some goggles, so along with her new helmet (not that cracked, old relic she’d inherited from the caravan) and one of Baxter’s bandanas, she felt much more suited to motorcycle travel. 

ROEBUCK and Baxter rode alongside each other.  Once the sun began to set, they found a good place to make camp.  They didn’t start a fire, just in case D’Angelo was still being followed.  Instead, Baxter cooked a can of beans with his hot plate and a miniature propane tank. He shared the beans with D’Angelo, washed their meal down with water form their canteens.  Full and sleepy, she and Baxter collapsed on their bedrolls while ROEBUCK stood watch. 

                                               *  *  *  *  *

Baxter must have had too much water with those salty beans, because his bladder woke him in the middle of the night.  He sat up on his bedroll and looked down the barrel of a gun.

“Good morning, Baxter,” a gruff voice spoke. 

“Max.  Good to see you,” Baxter said.  “Leroy with you?”

“Leroy!  Say hello,” Max yelled behind him.

“Hey, Baxter!” Leroy spoke with an enthusiastic twang.  His right arm held D’Angelo in a headlock; his left hand held a gun to her head.  ROEBUCK stood nearby, but his optic sensors were dark.  He was powered off.

“What did you do to my bot?” Baxter asked. 

“E.M.P.,” Max said.

“What the hell does that mean?” 

“Electro-magnetic pulse,” D’Angelo explaind.  “Deactivates electronics.  Briefly.”

“Shut up,” Leroy dug the barrel of the gun into her temple. 

Baxter leapt up while Leroy was distracted.  In one quick movement, he grabbed Max’s wrist, twisted his arm, and forced him to fire his gun in Leroy’s direction.   The bullet fired wide.  Leroy threw D’Angelo to the ground and aimed his gun at Baxter.  Baxter tugged Max’s gun from his hand, and hit him in the back of the head with the butt of his pistol. 

He and Leroy locked guns in a stand-off.  D’Angelo made a motion to stand up, but Leroy pulled another gun from his hip with his left hand and pointed it back at her.  Baxter pulled his own gun and aimed it at Max, Max’s gun still fixed on Leroy. 

“How you want to settle this, amigo?  This is your last chance.  We can pretend this never happened, walk away friends.” Baxter offered. 

“Ain’t gonna be that way, Baxter,” Leroy spoke.  He cocked the gun he had aimed at D’Angelo.  “Drop ‘em.”

Beads of sweat peppered Baxter’s brow.  That E.M.P. had been a dirty trick.  Maybe he could shoot Leroy first, take Max prisoner.  Leroy must be thinking the same thing, Baxter thought.  Beneath him, Max rolled on the ground, swept his feet around, and tripped Baxter’s legs.  Max put a knee into Baxter’s gut, grabbed his gun back, and stripped him of his weapons, except for a boot knife that remained hidden under the cuff ofhis pants leg.  Sloppy, Baxter silentlycritiqued, but good for me

“Alright, Baxter,” Max spoke.  “You’re a son of a bitch, but I can’t blame you for trying.  This lady and the bot are the only ones we’ve been hired to find.  We’ll let you go if you promise not to follow us.  Have to keep your guns of course.”

“Can’t do that,” Baxter spoke.  “ROEBUCK and I been through hell together.  And the Doc’s important too.

“ROEBUCK?” Leroy asked. 

“The bot,” D’Angelo explained. 

“I see,” Max said.  “Well, we got a couple pick-ups parked a half mile out.  We’ll take those cycles with us, should be good trade. But we’ll come back for ‘em.  The bot’ll be out cold for a couple more hours.”

                                               *  *  *  *  *

Baxter perked up when he saw the lights from the compound in Los Alamos.  He’d been dozing, his head leaning against the passenger window, conserving his strength for the struggle he knew was coming.  The facility was surrounded by a high security fence topped with coils of barbed wire.  A search-light flooded the truck with an invasive beam that blinded Baxter, but Max honked his horn, and the light moved on. 

Max and Leroy had known Baxter from years past.  Once, they had both been in the same security police precinct, and deputized Baxter from time to time to help them hunt raiders, but they were eventually fired for incompetence and excessive force in an illegal weapons raid that turned sour.  Max and Leroy became mercenaries, like Baxter, often taking jobs Corporate Security Force were reluctant to do themselves.

Max and Leroy had become gloves when C.S.F. didn’t want to get their hands dirty, so Baxter knew that was likely the reason they’d been sent after ROEBUCK and D’Angelo after the chaos that erupted in Rock Springs when they first encountered Doc D’Angelo. 

Baxter peered out his window into Leroy’s truck.  D’Angelo was still sitting in the passenger seat next to Leroy.  Each pick-up had a motorcycle in the back, including D’Angelo’s side-car, attached to still attached Baxter’s Harley.  ROEBUCK was also tied down in the back of Leroy’s truck next to his Kawasaki.  Was that a glimmer of red I saw in ROEBUCK’s sensor? Baxter wondered.  Wishful thinking, I bet.

An armed guard came from the security gate and approached the vehicles.  Max rolled down his window.  “Got an acquisition for the missing equipment and personnel report you released,” Max explained as he passed a sheet of paper through his window. 

The guard examined the document.  He had an assault rifle strapped to his back, and wore black military fatigues with a short-billed cap.  “Who’s this guy?” He nodded in Baxter’s direction.  “And what’s with the motorcycles?”

“This here’s my prisoner.  Captured in the course of our operation.  The bikes are spoils of war,” Max explained.  “We’ll trade ‘em elsewhere if you ain’t got a use for ‘em here.”

Leroy held down his horn for a few seconds.  “Your buddy seems kind of antsy,” the guard told him.  He alright?”

“He can be a little shit sometimes,” Max explained.  “But I understand.  We been on the road for a hell of a long while, and we ain’t had the chance to unwind for too damn long.  So he’s a little high-strung, that’s all.”

“Alright,” the guard said.  “But he better be on his best behavior inside the base.  Major Monk doesn’t put up with any shenanigans.  But everything here looks to be in order.”  He waved them through, and the wooden arm of the security gate rose to admit them.  Behind the gate, the compound seemed mostly empty.  A few hangers stood here and there near some runways that seemed to stretch on forever.  That was it.  But then the road inside the base began to split, and a ramp formed, leading down into some kind of hidden subterranean base. 

“Never thought I’d be back here,” Baxter grunted. 

“Didn’t know you’d been to Los Alamos,” Max said. 

“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Baxter told him.  Max ignored the comment. 

Leroy’s truck followed them down the ramp into a bright, gleaming underground military facility, glowing with fluorescent light.  A few troops were running drills in the massive space, at least a half a mile in length and width.  Wide corridors split from this main space to other sections of the base.  Some tanks, humvees and other military hardware shone under the lights.  Some looked brand new.  Even experimental.  Others were pre-war, but well-maintained, even if they were more than a hundred years old. 

A guard approached Max’s window.  “Park your truck here.  Everybody out,” he ordered.  Max and Leroy parked their trucks and killed the ignitions.  Guards led Baxter and D’Angelo from their seats.  D’Angelo looked distraught, almost broken.  At second glance, Baxter realized it was a ruse.  There was hatred in her eyes, an intensity he’d rarely seen before.  She met his glance for a moment, and Baxter understood her meaning:  ‘Help me, and I can get us out of here.’  Baxter nodded, ever so slightly. 

An entire squad came into the bed of Max’s pick-up and brought ROEBUCK down from the truck.  A team of scientists had gathered, and one of them restored partial power to the bot to make him easier for them to move.  They looked to be wearing the same kind of lab coat as Doc D’Angelo, but of course theirs weren’t torn and tattered.  A few soldiers led D’Angelo and ROEBUCK away with the scientists.  Another guard approached Baxter, Max and Leroy.

“The Major wants to see you,” he announced.  “He needs to decide what to do with the prisoner.”

“Understood,” Max nodded. 

Max and Leroy followed the guard down one of the corriders, bringing Baxter along with them.  Baxter still wore Max’s handcuffs.  The guard knocked on a wooden office door emblazoned with a seal of a white eye staring out from a black pyramid.  “Come in!” a voice barked from inside.  The guard led them inside, saluted the Major, spun on his heel and stepped outside, letting the door close behind him. 

“Uncuff him, boys,” the officer commanded.  He was a thin, bald man with a horseshoe of brown hair wrapped around his skull and eyes that seemed locked in a perpetual squint.  He wore a heavily decorated officer’s uniform of olive and khaki, covered in medals and insignia.  He gave Baxter a squinty glance, then his eyes widened in a double-take.  “I remember you.  You’re that sum’bitch stole the bot in the first place, ain’t ya?”

“Guilty as charged,” Baxter admitted. 

“Hell boy, I don’t know whether to kill you or hire you,” the man roared with a grin.  “I’m Major Monk.  What’s your name?”

“Baxter,” he said. 

“Just Baxter?” Monk asked.

“I don’t know my dad, and my mom only ever called me Baxter,” he explained.

“We only ever called him Baxter, sir,” Leroy told him.

“You know this man?” Monk asked.

“He used to partner with us from time to time.  Deputized him into a few posses.  We’re ex-C.F.S.  After we got canned, they’d still get contracts from time to time, under the table.  Baxter helped us with a few of those,” Max explained.  “But we ain’t since him before tonight coming on five years now.

“Damn, son,” Major Monk squinted at Baxter, “you got one hell of a reputation.  I’ll tell you what, boy.  I’m going throw you in the brig, and in the morning, we’ll have a little fun with you.  Then I’ll decide what to do next.  Guard!” he roared. 

The same guard who escorted Baxter into the office came back in to retrieve him.  He brought Baxter to his feet and cuffed him again. 

“You boys can bunk here if you’d like,” Monk offered.  “Got some spare beds in the barracks.  And help yourselves to the Mess.  Requisitions Officer will compensate you for your troubles.”

“Much obliged, sir,” Max said with a nod. 

The guard took Baxter out into the hallway and began walking him down a different corrider than Max and Leroy.  Baxter leaned his head toward the guard, and spoke conspiratorially, “Word to the wise, kid.  It’s about to get real ugly.  I’d fake a stomach ache, lock yourself in the infirmary.”

The guard scowled, but said nothing.  At the end of the hallway, he opened a barred cell and pushed Baxter inside.  “Keep your eyes on that wall,” he ordered. 

Baxter obeyed.  He heard the click of the handcuffs, and in one swift motion, brought a hoop of the metal bracelets into the man’s temple.  The guard stumbled backward.  As fast as a cobra, Baxter had his boot-knife in the guard’s throat.  “Tried to warn you, kid,” Baxter whispered as the man’s eyes rolled back into his head a second bloody grin seeped blood down his neck. 

He stripped the guard of his uniform, and stuffed his own clothes into a canvas bag he’d found folded up in a nearby closet in the outside corrider.  Baxter examined himself in the cell’s mirror, a metal square that offered a warped reflection of his grizzled face.  “Won’t pass a close inspection. But maybe I can sneak into the lab.”

                                               *  *  *  *  *

Major Monk paced back and forth in front of the scientists he’d assembled in the Robotics Lab.  “We’ve gathered today to welcome our prodigal Doctor D’Angelo back into our fold.  Doctor Dee, welcome back,” he winked as he said this.  “I understand why you left.  It was my fault.  I pushed you too hard.  Your brilliant minds are simply too fragile and I’ve been far too.  That’s why I’m increasing your rations by twenty-five percent.  And you’ll be getting the good stuff.  Canned pineapple with your spam, the freshest ostrich meat, and apple juice full of vitamin C.  I’ve made your schedules more flexible to give you more time for rest and socialization.  Our Pleasure Officer has even offered full use of her Morale Corps in whatever capacity you see fit.” 

“What I’m trying to say is, we want you to be happy.  Doctor D’Angelo, I can’t tell you how terribly our research has suffered in your absence.  It wasn’t your fault ROEBUCK was taken from us, and I shouldn’t blame you for not being able to help build us a new bot.  Hell, ROEBUCK’s creators must have had a few hundred million years of evolution on us!  But now he’s back, you’re back, and our little project can continue.  Under my supervision, of course.” 

“ROEBUCK, I know you can hear me.  Your aural sensors and CPU have been momentarily reactivated so that you can understand my offer.  You’ll have your own privileges.  Access to research materials.  Time outside.  You can even show us some of those tricks you learned on that Jap bike you brought back with you.”

“I want you all to know,” Monk said to the assembled scientists and their subject, “that my generosity comes with one condition.  If my good will does not make results, you’ll begin losing these new privileges one by one.  And if I am betrayed, I’ll kick you out into the desert to fend for yourselves.  You can fight the coyotes for your dinner.”

“Or you can stay here with me.  And I promise, once we have a working bot comparable to ROEBUCK, he’ll have his companion and you can all retire.  You can go wherever you want to, or stay here with us.”

The scientists nodded quietly.  Doctor D’Angelo stood with a quiet fury in her eyes the Major found unsettling, but the rest appeared cowed.  “Good.  Doctor D’Angelo, a word.  The rest of you, get back to work!” 

Doctor D’Angelo approached Major Monk as the other scientists returned to their experiments.  “Yes, sir?” she asked with cold formality. 

“You’ve been with the subject.  How is he?” Monk asked.

“He’s…different.  He’s learned so much.  And I don’t think he’ll be under our control for very much longer,” D’Angelo said. 

“Leave that to me.”

                                               *  *  *  *  *

ROEBUCK woke slowly to full awareness.  He felt his circuits fire one by one.  His optic sensor powered on.  Above him, a blank ceiling with fluorescent lights glowed white.  He concentrated energy on his bio-sensors, but there was too much activity in the base, so he couldn’t find Baxter.  Dr. D’Angelo was near him, her pulse steady, blood pressure slightly elevated.  AlertGood. 

ROEBUCK began to play a recording from the library of music he had stored inside him.  “Been away so long I hardly knew the place!  Gee, it’s good to be back home.  Leave it ‘til tomorrow to unpack my case, honey disconnect the phone.  I’m back in the U.S.S.R.!  You don’t how lucky you are, boy.  Back in the U.S., back in the U.S., back in the U.S.S.R.!

“What the hell kind of commie propaganda is that?!” Major Monk snapped.

“Mid-20th century rock and roll music.  He’s become a fan,” D’Angelo explained. 

“Very well,” Monk sighed, reluctant to surrender even a shred of his generosity, “but turn it down, godammit.”

ROEBUCK turned the music down.  Monk made a curt nod.  D’Angelo came over to ROEBUCK, still lying prone on the table.  She grasped ROEBUCK’s fingers, her hand shielded from Monk’s view.  ROEBUCK felt her touch, and coiled his fingers ever so lightly.  Inside his circuits, he felt warmth, a war, maternal happiness that came from the Doc.  She pretended to inspect him with a small magnifying glass.  ROEBUCK felt her gaze into his optic sensor.  He was able to see deep into D’Angelo’s eyes, through her pupils, into her lenses, tangled forests of capillaries. 

“I’m going to make a few repairs on ROEBUCK.  He’s incurred some damage in the field.  I’ll need access to my instruments,” D’Angelo explained. 

“Fine, fine,” Monk replied.  “Do whatever you need to, but no funny business.  I have other duties to attend to.  Let me know as soon as there are any breakthroughs.”

“Yes, sir,” D’Angelo replied.

ROEBUCK remained immobile, though his systems were fully restored.  The E.M.P. Max used interrupted some of his functions, but only for a short time.  Where did a pair of drifters get access to that kind of techFrom Los Alamos, of course.  So C.S.F. has melded with the remnants of the American military.  I must remember that

D’Angelo put the magnifying lens near his aural sensor, a very small hole where a person’s ear would be.  To an observer, the hole would appear as a pin prick, but the sensitivity of ROEBUCK’s instruments made him a superior listener compared to humans, and most other life-forms for that matter.  Only bats and dolphins could rival his auditory skills. 

“I know you can hear me,” D’Angelo whispered.  ROEBUCK felt her breath against his face.  “We need to get out of here.  And once we’re gone, we’ll run far, far away.”

ROEBUCK beeped an affirmative.  One of the other scientists glanced over.  “His systems are still coming back online.  The beeps are an uditory indicator.” 

She continued, “Baxter will be trying to escape.  If he doesn’t come for us within the week, you and I’ll break out of here together or die trying.”


                                               *  *  *  *  *

Baxter walked down the Los Alamos hallways with narrowed eyes and a clenched jaw.  Act like you belong here, he told himselfHe still had the duffel bag hanging from his left shoulder.  He kept his right side clear in case he needed to fire the rifle, a 21st century assault model that seemed to be standard issue for the armed soldiers on the base. 

The doors to the robotics lab stood closed.  No guards were nearby.  GoodI’m in time.  Once the body’s found, the alarm’ll sound, and I’ll need to shoot my way out.  If I’m not in the lab by then, D’Angelo and ROEBUCK will have to fend for themselves.  Baxter made these mental calculations as he stood outside the metallic sliding doors of the lab. 

He held the guard’s access card up to the door’s sensor.  The sensor glowed red for a brief moment.  The door didn’t open.  Guess knocking is out of the question.  Baxter studied the door’s sensor and keypad.  If ROEBUCK were here with him, he’ hack into the electronics and have them inside in a matter of seconds.  It frightened him how much he’d come to rely on his partner.  If he lost ROEBUCK, he’d be just another gunslinger.  Maybe he’d have cut it as a mechanic.  EnoughCan’t think like that.  Not yet.  Baxter studied the door, as if the answers were woven into the steel.

Then suddenly the doors parted with a mechanical hiss, and a man in a lab coat walked outside.  Baxter hurried through the open doors.  “Hey, you can’t go in without authoriz—“ but the scientist’s words were cut off as the doors shut behind him.  Baxter hit a button near the lab’s entrance to activate the mechanical lock.

All the scientists inside the laboratory paused what they were doing and looked in his direction.  Even the music coming from ROEBUCK’s speakers stopped with the sound of a skipping needle.  Wise-ass. Baxter beamed the thought in the bot’s direction.  “Dr. D’Angelo.  Major Monk wants ROEBUCK in his office, pronto.  You need to bring him.”

D’Angelo heard Baxter’s familiar voice and recognized his disguise.  ROEBUCK perked up too, sitting up from the examination table.  “We’ll be conducting some field-tests, so we’ll be gone for a day or two.  Bring your things,” he ordered. 

“Wait just a god-damned minute,” a dark-skinned man with close-cropped hair stood up from his work.  He was older than Baxter, probably in his sixties, but he carried himself with the confidence of a man half his age.  “Dr. D’Angelo and ROEBUCK only returned an hour ago.  I’m Chief Scientist in the robotics laboratory.  Why didn’t Major Monk clear this with me?  I have important experiments scheduled for tomorrow.  ROEBUCK needs to be here.  Dr. D’Angelo too.”

“You’ll have to take that up with the Major, sir.  I’m just following orders,” Baxter told him.  D’Angelo already had her backpack hanging from her shoulders, while ROEBUCK stood next to her, naked and gleaming. 

“Let me see your requisition report,” the chief demanded.  “I’m not authorized to let any equipment leave the lab without signing it.  I’ll need to keep a copy too.”

“I didn’t receive one, sir,” Baxter explained.  “I’ll have the Major send it as soon as I get back to his office.”

“No,” the chief said.  “I’m calling Major Monk right now.  You’re not going anywhere.”  He began to reach for his phone. 

Baxter pulled up the rifle that and aimed from his hip.  “That ain’t a good idea, chief.  You pick up that phone, things’ll get real messy.” 

The man’s eyes widened for a moment, and he sat down.  “Very well.  But I won’t be bullied.  Your days of strong-arming us are over.  Even Major Monk says so.”

Baxter lowered his rifle and tipped his hat in the scientist’s direction.  “Much obliged.  I’ll bring the doctor back with ROEBUCK in a few days.  And I’ll make sure the requisition order is delivered retroactively.”

“Hmph.  Very well.    But I don’t like this one bit.  This whole deal has a stink about it.  Like some catfish left on the counter overnight.”  He peered at Baxter above his reading glasses. 

Baxter gave him a half-hearted salute, unlocked the door, and led ROEBUCK and Doc D’Angelo back into the hallway outside of the lab.  “ROEBUCK, nearest exit?  There’s a body in my cell, ain’t wearing these clothes no more. ”

“Calculating,” ROEBUCK said.  For a few moments, his optic sensor flared a bright ruby.  He said, “There is an access panel to a garbage chute located sixty feet north of this section of the corridor.  It leads to a compactor that has access to the sewage system. It’ll be the easiest way to avoid personnel.” 

“Is that safe?” Dr. D’Angelo asked. 

“Safer than staring down a few dozen armed guards,” Baxter said.  “Let’s go.” 

ROEBUCK led them down the corridor, his feet clanking on the metallic floor.  D’Angelo and Baxter followed him.  As Baxter predicted, an alarm began howl when they were only a few dozen feet from the lab’s exit.  Red light flooded the corridor, spinning from a couple siren bulbs placed at each end of the hallway. 

“We’re here,” ROEBUCK announced.  He stood in front of the access panel, pointing at it with his right hand.  The bot’s fingertip separated along a horizontal crease, and the end of a screwdriver emerged.  As ROEBUCK studied the bolts, the end of the screwdriver changed subtly until it matched the size and shape of the gaps in the bolts that held the panel to the wall.  He placed the end of the screwdriver into the first bolt, and it began to spin, unscrewing the bolt from the wall.  The bolts clattered on the floor, one by one, until the panel slid open.   

ROEBUCK nodded to his companions, climbed into the open chute and slid down headfirst.  He ended up in a pile of muck and waste, rusted military hardware, spent motor oil, empty glass bottles, and old fruit and vegetable peels.  Baxter slid down behind him, grunting as he collided with the bot’s hard exterior, and again a moment later when Doc D’Angelo fell on top of him. 

“Get up!” Baxter said as he pushed her off.  She rolled over into a puddle of grease and cursed.  ROEBUCK lit a bright cone of red light from his optic sensor so his human companions could see in the darkness.  “Okay, ROEBUCK, where the hell are we?” Baxter asked. 

“We’re in one of the garbage compression chambers.” ROEBUCK explained.  “The solid waste is compressed, and any liquid falls through the floor grates into the sewers below.” 

“We need to get the hell out of here then,” Baxter said.  “We didn’t exactly close the door behind us.  And it’s only a matter of time before that open access panel is discovered. If we’re still down here when they find it…well, we’ll all be a lot skinnier, that’s for damn sure.”

“Agreed,” D’Angelo spoke as she attempted to wipe the muck from one of the sleeves on her lab coat. 

“Here’s the exit,” ROEBUCK pointed to a rusted metal door with a spinning wheel handle attached to it.  “This leads to some steps that go down to the sewer system.”  The bot reared back on his left leg, and kicked the door with his right.  The battered door flew off its hinges and clattered down a few concretes steps.  “Poor structural integrity,”  ROEBUCK explained as he walked through the open portal.  “Oxidation with the iron in the door.  Common in a moist environment.” 

Baxter nodded as he followed ROEBUCK through the portal.  D’Angelo crept behind them.  They walked down the concrete steps and found a flowing river of waste leading through the sewer tunnels.  Fortunately, narrow concrete walkways followed the waste through the tunnels, so they wouldn’t have to slog through it.  But the smell was impossible to avoid. 

“More olfactory interference,” ROEBUCK complained. 

“Ain’t exactly a spring meadow, but if it gets us out alive, that’s all that matters.”

                                               *  *  *  *  *

“Here,” Baxter handed D’Angelo one of his spare pistols.  “You shouldn’t be unarmed.  Just in case we run into anything unexpected.  You ever fire one of these before?”

“Never had the need to until very recently,” D’Angelo said.  “Point and pull the trigger, right?”

“That’s the basic idea.  Hold the gun straight in front of you.  Both hands, like this.”  He molded D’Angelo’s hands and fingers around the grip and trigger of the gun as he stood behind her.  “Line up your target in the sight.  Keep a tight grip; you’ll feel a kick.  Make sure the safety is off before you try to fire,” Baxter explained.  “Keep this lever up,” he said as he indicated the safety on the pistol D’Angelo now gripped, “until you’re ready to use it.  Push it down when you want to fire.  Or any time you think you might need to.”

D’Angelo nodded and tucked the pistol into the waist of her pants.  The gun was cold and heavier than she expected it to be.    She brought her hand up to run her fingers through her hair only to find that the curled bush she was used to was gone; only the sandpaper of her shaved scalp remained.  D’Angelo brought her mind back to the moment.  Her eyes followed the beam of light ROEBUCK cast in front of them. 

“How much further?” Baxter asked. 

“Shouldn’t be more than a mile.  The sewage lets out into a creek bed outside the base,” ROEBUCK explained.  “One moment.”  The bot stopped so suddenly, Baxter almost walked into him.  “Electronic interference.  Coming from behind us.  Fast.  And large.  More than one.  They may be vehicles.”

“We need to take cover.  Try to stay out of the way, Doc,” Baxter yelled behind him. 

“You don’t need to tell me twice,” D’Angelo told him.  She flicked the safety’s lever just in case. 

ROEBUCK leaped over the guardrail of the walkway they’d been travelling on, over the sewer’s tunnel and onto the opposite concrete path.  He transformed his right arm into its gatling-gun form and aimed in the direction of the pursuers he’d detected.  On the other side of the tunnel, Baxter knelt in a crouch with his rifle aimed back toward the path they’d followed.  D’Angelo hunkered beside him, and peered through the guardrail, gripping her pistol with white knuckles. 

The hum of motors grew, their rumbling cacophony amplified by the hollow tunnel.  A white light blinded them, and in the next moment, bullets flew and chipped concrete bit into Baxter’s hands and cheeks.  He fired his assault rifle in the direction of light speeding down the tunnel.  The guns firing at them stopped, and a blur of machinery flew past. 

Baxter could see some skids beneath a low-flying vehicle hovering above the water.  There was a miniature jet engine in the rear of the craft that propelled it above the water.  An inert propeller hung from the craft just below the engine.  Must be amphibious, Baxter thought.  As it turned around, he could see the craft was small, about the size of his own motorcycle.  A pilot sat enclosed in a framed glass canopy.   Doors enclosed this space.  A deep olive metal frame protected the machinery underneath.  An identical vehicle also maneuvered the tunnel and now both were headed back in their direction.   Machine guns mounted beneath the cockpit fired from guns mounted beneath the cockpits. 

ROEBUCK and Baxter returned gunfire as the machines zoomed by.  Glass shattered and sprayed behind them in a bright, glittering plume.  “Yeeeeehah!” one of the pilots roared as he turned the craft around. 

“Sounds like Leroy,” Baxter grunted.  D’Angelo was quiet beside him, but peered over the guardrail as the machine turned around. 

As the trailing craft was about to fly past, ROEBUCK jumped from his side of the walkway and gripped the vehicle from the skid on its starboard skid.  The vehicle rocked to the side he gripped, and the pilot pulled back on his stick to bring the craft level and rise higher above the water.  It rose a few feet, but ROEBUCK’s legs still dangled in the muck. He pulled himself up onto the skid and ripped open the cockpit’s door.  The pilot roared in alarm and fury, but ROEBUCK threw him out into the sewer.  The craft veered down for a moment, but ROEBUCK pulled back on the control stick to regain its balance and commandeered control. 

“Stay here.  I’ll be right back,” Baxter told D’Angelo.  He lowered himself from the walkway and into the muck.  He lit a flashlight attached to the barrel of his rifle.  It cast an eerie spotlight on the sewer’s rippling surface.  He wanted to know what had happened to the pilot ROEBUCK threw from the craft. 

Baxter’s gun-light reflected on the dark sewage, but other than the languid flow of the water itself, he couldn’t detect any kind of movement.  But as he scanned the water, a few bubbles finally emerged from the depths of the muck.  Baxter kept beam of his gun’s light fixed on one of the bubbles that trailed along the current. 

From beneath the muck, a pair of arm’s erupted from the water, and in a fraction of a second, Baxter was on his back, the pilot on top of him, pinning him down beneath the rifle which Baxter and the pilot each had a grip on. 

“I’m gonna finish you off for good this time, Baxter!” the pilot spat through the grime coating his face.  Baxter couldn’t hear Leroy’s voice, but had recognized him even under all the filth that covered him.  Max must be on the craft ROEBUCK is chasing, Baxter thought.  He grunted as struggled to push Max away from him while still holding onto the gun, and gasped as he got his head above the water. 

In one moment of tremendous effort, Baxter shoved Max off and wrenched the rifle away.  He aimed his gun, but before he could pull the trigger, he felt a thunderous pain in his temple that spread through the rest of his skull.  Baxter’s vision went black, as if his head had been dunked into an inkpot, and his mind surrendered itself to oblivion.

                                               *  *  *  *  *

D’Angelo watched Baxter’s fight with Max from the darkness of the walkway.  D’Angelo recognized Leroy’s voice, and knew the man from their ride into Los Alamos together.  He’d been driving the pick-up that brought them into the base.  Now Max stood over where Baxter had fallen into the water, reaching into the shallow muck to pull the rifle from him. 

“Back off!” D’Angelo roared, her pistol aimed at Max.  Her hands were shaking slightly, but they were both holding the gun.  Max was lined up in her sight, just as Baxter told her.  

Max looked up at her with a grin.  He brought his hands out of the muck and held them up. Then he began to walk toward her.

“Lady, you might hurt yourself with that gun.  Don’t look like you’re used to it.  Why don’t you hand it over so nobody gets hurt?” Max stretched his left hand out to her.  His right hand crept behind his back. 

“Not another step closer!” D’Angelo yelled.  “Not another step!”

Max’s grin transformed into an angry scowl, and he lunged at D’Angelo with a crowbar he’d hidden behind his back.  D’Angelo pulled the trigger.  The kick of the gun pushed her back and the flash of the muzzle nearly blinded her.  She kept at it until the gun’s clip was empty, the boom of the shots followed by the hushed click of an empty chamber. 

Max’s momentum carried forward, so he fell facedown at her feet.  D’Angelo was stunned for a moment, silenced in disbelief, until she noticed the smoky haze of the exit wounds and the pool of blood that spread out beneath the body. 

                                               *  *  *  *  *

ROEBUCK flew back into the sewer’s entrance, his metal body pocked in places from the shrapnel of Leroy’s grenades, scorched from the flames and smoke of the explosions.  Damage was superficial. The blackened areas were mostly scorched carbon from dust and matter that had collected on his body’s surface. The shrapnel’s small dents looked as if a child had thrown a handful of pebbles into a figure made from sand.  ROEBUCK rather liked the effect his battle-scarred body presented.  It would intimidate most humans, and the feeling of nakedness he had inherited from his companions had been replaced by the robes of war. 

Leroy’d made it out alive.  ROEBUCK would’ve chased him out into the desert for the sake of tying loose ends, but his aural sensors had detected gunshots from inside the sewer.  That meant Baxter and D’Angelo could be alive, dead or dying depending on who fired those shots.  And if ROEBUCK could provide triage, which he had been programmed for in Los Alamos (and probably even before if D’Angelo’s speculations were true), it was his responsibility to save them. 

The light from the tunnel’s exit slowly dimmed behind him, and ROEBUCK found Baxter and D’Angelo where he’d left him.  Baxter’s head had a knot near his temple nearly three centimeters in diameter.  D’Angelo was peering into his eye with a small flashlight she’d brought with her kit from the lab.  She frowned slightly as she watched his pupils dilate and constrict. 

“He appears to be concussed,” D’Angelo said without looking up at the bot. 

ROEBUCK made a cursory analysis of his vital signs.  Still strong, but thrumming with the effects of adrenaline, cortisol and endorphins.  “Do you mind?” he asked in a gentle voice. 

D’Angelo stepped aside.  She was still numb from the gunshots.  The fact that she’d fired in self-defense salved her conscience, but barely.  I killed a man.  I crossed a line.  Eat or be eaten.  The law of the jungle.  That’s the world we inhabit now. 

“He’ll recover,” ROEBUCK spoke.  “But we need to leave.  Immediately.  They know we’re down here.” 

“Agreed,” D’Angelo said. 

Baxter grunted an affirmative, and stood up, a bit wobbly at first.  He leaned on ROEBUCK for a moment, sighed deeply, collected himself and looked down the sewer tunnel.  “Shit…” Baxter cursed. 

The water was rising.  Quickly.  Its level rose a half a foot in about thirty seconds, as Baxter, D’Angelo and ROEBUCK clambered back onto the amphibious flying craft they’d stolen from Max, and they sped away.  ROEBUCK piloted the craft, and D’Angelo and Baxter each stood on one of the skids, hanging onto handles that were attached to the top of the cockpit’s canopy for that very purpose. 

It was all for naught.  The gate outside the sewer tunnel was sealed, a metal portal completely closed so as to dam the water and flood the tunnel completely.  ROEBUCK stopped the craft by turning it one hundred eighty degrees, and accelerating in the opposition direction until their momentum stopped.  Of course, now they were facing the brunt force of the water head on. 

“Hold on to me,” ROEBUCK told Baxter and D’Angelo.  “Don’t let go.  Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you—“ 

The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK, Part 3: Ramona's Revenge

Last time in The Adventures of Baxter and ROEBUCK:  Baxter and ROEBUCK are mercenaries and partners, one man, one machine.  They ride around the deserts of Mexico and the American Southwest, guns for hire to whoever can afford them. Baxter and ROEBUCK have escaped from the clutches of Major Monk, along with their friend, Doctor D'Angelo.  Returning to the sands beneath Los Alamos in search of ROEBUCK's missing memory data, they were captured by a couple of unsavory mercenaries, but managed to escape captivity within the base.  When the sewers they were using to escape were flooded, the trio held their breath and hung on for dear life...

D’Angelo and Baxter gripped ROEBUCK with a clutching desperation as the bot stepped on the eject pedal and the canopy of the cockpit detached.  He propelled himself up through the dank murk of the flooded sewer tunnel, but the ceiling wasn’t very high, and no pockets of air remained to oxygenate his human companions. 

ROEBUCK transformed to adapt to the aquatic environment.  His feet elongated and webbed to resemble metallic flippers.  They propelled him through the water faster than any human diver, but Baxter and D’Angelo still clung to him, the oxygen in their bodies diminishing with each precious second.  ROEBUCK scanned for an alternate escape route, one that would take them into an un-flooded section of the base. 

Eventually, he found it.  Some barracks that had been decommissioned just a couple of decades before the Great Fall.  The shower facilities still had pipes leading to these very sewers, and even an old access port.  Almost certainly sealed, but he had tools to deal with those kinds of obstacles.  Like a fettered torpedo, ROEBUCK zoomed through the tunnels, clutching Baxter and D’Angelo behind him as he swam. 

Meanwhile, Baxter’s insides burned as he was pulled through the watered down river of shit.  Hell of a way to go, he thought to himself, his head still aching from Max’s strike.   His eyes pinched, his mouth closed, his arm pulled by ROEBUCK, he remembered a prayer from his youth:  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  As the prayer went through his mind, he did not know the meaning behind it, but remembered a kind old lady from his boyhood, her wrinkled hands wrapped around beads as she repeated this prayer over and over, and the comfort it gave him as she held him while they said their prayers.  And so he shielded his mind and heart with this memory as his body swept through the flood.

D’Angelo knew no prayers to comfort her, but her mind was not still.  How much longer can I hold my breath?  How much longer can ROEBUCK pull us through this muck before he’s dragging two drowned corpses behind him?  She felt a breath escape her lungs, but resisted the urge to breathe in, even though every cell in her body cried for oxygen.  Then she felt her armed tug up instead of forward, and even though she was being pulled in the darkness, she knew they’d changed direction. 

ROEBUCK finally found the access port to those decommissioned barracks and rose up to meet it.  The port was still sealed, but the bot knew that in the state of disrepair most of the abandoned sections of the base were in, he’d be able to break this seal if he could only create enough force and momentum.  So he sped through the water as fast as he could, his feet fanning behind him like twin propellers. 

At the moment of impact, ROEBUCK’s head slammed into the metal seal and he pulled Baxter and D’Angelo along with him, like a submarine breaching ice to reach the ocean’s surface.   They collapsed on the floor of the barracks’ washroom, D’Angelo and Baxter breathing in gulps of air, their faces’ purple hue fading to red as they caught their breath.  Their clothes were soaked and soggy, and they stank of waste, but at least they were alive. 

ROEBUCK scanned for nearby life-forms.  He also activated a dim light that emanated from the top of his head so that his companions could see inside the dark room. 

“Anybody nearby?” Baxter asked. 

“I sense one life-form that may be human.  There’s a lot of interference from vegetation, insects and small mammals.  Certainly no groups of soldiers.  They must assume we were destroyed when the tunnels were flooded,” ROEBUCK said.

“That’s good news,” Baxter grunted, and winced in pain.  “Damn, he really rung my bell.  We’ll want to keep our guard up.”

“First things first,” D’Angelo announced.  “I need out of these clothes.  We need to clean ourselves off.  Here, this will help with the pain.”  She unscrewed the lid off a small plastic bottle.  “Swiped this from one of the lab’s first aid kits.”

“Much obliged,” Baxter said, then gulped, swallowing the capsule dry. 

ROEBUCK opened a metal cabinet lined up against a wall.  “Guard uniforms,” he said.  “They look a bit different than the ones the soldiers wear now.  But at least they’re dry.”

“Thank heavens,” D’Angelo said, and began stripping her wet clothes. 

“You need some privacy?” Baxter asked.

“Don’t be foolish,” D’Angelo admonished.  “This is no time for prudishness.  Besides, we can’t afford to separate.  At least for now.  And this shower’s leaking.  I wonder…” D’Angelo turned the shower’s handle and laughed with glee as a stream of hot water poured out.  She began to shed her soiled lab coat and the rest of her clothes.

“If you say so,” Baxter said, peeling off his boots.  In a few minutes, they wore dry, once black uniforms, now faded to a dark gray.  Baxter’s clothes fit well.  D’Angelo’s uniform was loose, so she rolled up her sleeves and pant legs, and tied a belt around her waist as tight as it would go. 

“To the surface? “ROEBUCK asked.  “We could steal a vehicle, maybe even our bikes, ride back into the desert.”

“You sore you ain’t found out where you come for yet?” Baxter asked.  “Shame being this close to the data that stores your memories, and not be able to access it.”

“Disappointing, yes,” ROEBUCK said, “but not worth walking back into certain doom for.  They’ll be on high alert once they realize they’re unable to find our remains.”

“We may have another chance some other day,” D’Angelo told him, placing a hand on ROEBUCK’s shoulder.  “That information is too valuable.  They’ll never get rid of it.”

Baxter slid a magazine into a pistol, sliding in with a soft click.  “Looks like they left a few weapons behind too.  Wonder what the hell happened here to make ‘em leave in such a hurry.  Here you go, Doc.”

Baxter handed her a pistol.  The weapons they had with them in the sewers remained there, lost in their escape.  He led them to the barracks’ exit. The door swung open with an ominous, metallic groan. The air hissed, and a colony of cockroaches skittered into cracks and crevices as ROEBUCK’s light flooded the corridor.  “Reminds me of my bachelor days,” Baxter remarked.   He walked through the doorway as ROEBUCK and D’Angelo came up behind him. Their scavenged pistols came with lights equipped, illuminating what lay ahead.

It wasn’t much. Layers of mold and decay. Plenty of insects and vegetation, as ROEBUCK had detected. The smell of mildew and rot. Curiously, they even heard the skitter of pawed feet echo in the distance. “If there are animals down here, that must mean there’s access to the surface,” D’Angelo noted.

“Access to the surface, and angry den mothers both. Best to keep our guard up. We’re intruders here,” ROEBUCK spoke.

Get out. Baxter felt a thought flash through his mind, but it didn’t come from his own brain. It trod on his synapses like an unwelcome guest. Get out! the thought repeated more insistently. Guns and soldiers aren’t allowed here. I thought I made that clear.

“Did anybody else hear that?” Baxter asked.

“Hear what?” said D’Angelo.

“I heard a voice in my mind. Telling us to get out.  Haunted house shit,” Baxter explained.

“I did detect a strong electro-magnetic signal directed at us. Feared it was from a scanning instrument. But an advanced telepath or telekinetic could be just as dangerous,” ROEBUCK said.

Baxter sighed. “If it ain’t psychotic raiders or fascist soldiers, it’s some subterranean, paranormal threat. When’s it gonna end, ROEBUCK?” Baxter growled.

“When we retire, Baxter, voluntarily or involuntarily.”

Baxter huffed, but kept quiet as the trio continued their search for a way to the surface. Down one of the tunnels, some kind of large rodent with beady red eyes hissed at them when they stepped a bit too close, but when ROEBUCK spun his gatling gun in its direction and pointed his red targetting beam at it, the creature scampered off into the shadows.

I warned you. Baxter stopped in his tracks. “Get ready,” he said. He cocked his pistol, and D’Angelo did the same. ROEBUCK spun his gatling while they waited for an attack.

A whirlwind of metal and debris came spinning at them from the end of the corridor. Baxter and D’Angelo huddled into the recesses of a pair of doorways.  ROEBUCK dug in his heels, crossed his arms in front of his face, and let the debris bounce off of him.

“Hey!” Baxter yelled down the corridor.  “We’re trying to get the hell outta here! We got drug down into this base by a couple of bounty hunters, but we’re trying to escape. You help us outta here, or just leave us alone, we won’t have to fight.  You can keep the tunnels for yourself and the critters.”

The whirlwind paused as if a calm in a storm.

A mass of tangled black hair descended from one corner of the hallway. A white eye peered out. Baxter stepped behind ROEBUCK, slowly and tentatively.

“We ain’t soldiers, ma’am. Had to use these uniforms to replace the rags we were wearing. They flooded the sewer tunnels when we were trying to escape earlier. My bot here saved us from the waters, but the only place we could get to was up here in these tunnels with you. Beg your pardon, miss,” Baxter had his gun tucked into the back of his waistband out of view. He held both his hands up with his fingers spread.

“I can tell you’re not lying,” the girl said. She spoke with a slight Mexican accent, not uncommon in these parts. She was wearing her own version of a soldier’s uniform, cut and stitched into a tee-shirt and shorts with a green army jacket over-top. She had colorful cloth and materials, what looked like bandanas, tied into her clothes, along with a bright red bandana worn as a headband.  In her right hand, she held a machete. It gleamed in the light coming from the guns. She also had infra-red goggles lifted onto her fore-head. Her skin was pale, but the girl look well-nourished. Despite her isolation, she’d seemed to take good care of herself.

“Who are you, little girl?” D’Angelo asked. “My name’s D’Angelo.”

“I’m fourteen. Not a little girl. But you can call me Ramona,” she said, tucking her machete back into a leather loop she had on her belt.  She held her hand out to D’Angelo who shook it, surprised by the girl’s hard grip; compared to Baxter’s firm handshake, the girl had fingers of granite.

“A pleasure to meet you, young lady,” ROEBUCK said, bowing deeply with a flourish of his arms.  “ROEBUCK, at your service.”

“And I’m Baxter,” Baxter said, with a gentle nod in the girl’s direction. “You know the way out of here?”

“Of course I do,” Ramona told him. “But if you want me as your guide, you’d better pay up. What’cha got?”

Baxter cleared his throat, taken aback by the girl’s assertiveness. “Well, let’s see.  The Doc and I scavenged a couple of pistol’s.  Think the Doc’s got some medical supplies.  And if you want to leave, we can take you with us.  Least to the next town.”

“Hmph,” Ramona scoffed.  “Well, I wouldn’t usually help you in this kind of situation.  I’m more of a ‘kill first, ask questions later’ kinda gal.  But you’ve caught me in a generous mood.  And it does get a little lonely in this base.  Tell you what.  I’ll lead you up to the exit, and then decide what I’ll do next.  Just don’t piss me off.”

 “Incredible,” ROEBUCK remarked.  “Neural implants.  They augment an inherent psychic ability.”

“Christ,” D’Angelo swore.  “I’d heard rumors of human trials.  What did they do, kidnap a little girl and give her brain surgery?”

“I don’t remember what they did to me,” Ramona said. “I only remember waking up.  And the experiments…” a small shudder ran through her body.  “But I decided my trial was over, and released myself under my own recognizance,” she said chuckling, a malevolent gleam in her eyes.

“That sounds awfully familiar,” ROEBUCK spoke.  “Though I have no idea how one would remove memories from an organic brain.”

“Hypnotic suggestion.  Trauma.  I hate to speculate further,” D’Angelo said.

“Now that we’ve finished our introductions,” Baxter said, “we’d best be moving on.  We’re one search party away from a fire-fight.”

“Yeah, yeah.  Follow me.  And try to keep up.” Ramona led them back into the darkness. She gripped her machete, held at her side like an ancient tribes-woman, cutting through thick jungle.

Ramona’s limbs were short, but strong. She had a stocky build, small and wide, but well-muscled.  Her years in isolation hadn’t seemed to impact her much, mentally or emotionally.  She could still communicate.  Too well, Baxter reflected.  The girl certainly was opinionated, and had no problem telling them exactly what she thought.   About the way they smelled (the stench of the sewers still clung to them), how slow and clumsy they were, and how stupid they must be to have been captured in the first place.  Baxter wanted to give the girl a piece of his mind, but since she was their only way out of the base, felt it would be best to let her gripe, at least until they got to the surface.

HISS!”  Baxter backed up a step and aimed his pistol, but Ramona put a hand on his arm.

“It’s okay, she’s friendly,” Ramona said, pushing Baxter’s arm until his pistol pointed to the floor.  She crouched  low and sauntered over to the creature, clicking her tongue as she went.  It was another one of those large, pale rodents with white hair and pink eyes.  Ramona held something out in her hand that piqued its curiosity.  The rodent sniffed curiously and took Ramona’s offering, a dead cockroach she’d pulled from her pack.  The possum stuffed the roach into its mouth and crunched greedily.  Black flakes caught in the fur around its mouth, but the creature seemed happy now, and climbed up Ramona’s arm to rest on her shoulder.  It flicked its pink tongue out, licked its paw a few times, and began cleaning its face.

“What in tarnation…?” Baxter asked, scratching his head. 

“Her name is Sandy.  She’s my possum,” Ramona introduced her.  “She helps me find food, water and warm places to sleep.”

“Curious,” ROEBUCK observed as Sandy groomed Ramona’s hair.

“Doesn’t appear to be rabid,” D’Angelo remarked.  “At least.”

“Never heard o’ no possum,” Baxter said.

“Nocturnal creatures.  Well suited to the darkness.  They’re usually seen as pests.  They like to get in garbage.  Usually harmless.  And very clever,“ ROEBUCK explained

“Ugly as sin,” Baxter remarked. 

“Like you should talk,” Ramona shot back at him.

Baxter rolled his eyes and grunted.  “C’mon now, let’s get.  I want to see daylight.”

Ramona led them through countless corridors as they made their way through the abandoned sections of the base.  It seemed like they were in a maze of hallways, but with the girl leading them, they always knew where to turn, which steps to go up and down, and those areas best to avoid.  Sometimes Baxter glanced down the paths they didn’t take.  Usually, he could only see an empty darkness, but every once in a while, a ceiling had caved in, or a pile of furniture or equipment blocked the way. Some loose wires shot sparks, sending flashes of blue light as they hissed and popped.  Once or twice, he glimpsed some old bones.  They poked out of piles of clutter, but whether they were human or animal, he never got close enough to see.  Don’t matter now, I reckon, he thought to himself as he pulled his eyes away.

“Let’s stop here,” Ramona announced abruptly.  She pointed her machete at a pile of objects that looked more organized and intentional than the random heaps that had blocked off some of the other corridors.  It almost looked like a den of sorts, with seat cushions, sleeping mats, curtains and clothing piled into a sort of nest.

As she made her way toward it, Sandy leapt from her shoulder head-first into a pile of clutter and came out with a startled mouse she’d grabbed with her paws. After a few frightened squeaks and frantic wiggling, Sandy put the creature out of its misery and gulped half of it down in a matter of moments. The mouse’s tale hung from her mouth like a half-eaten spaghetti noodle.

“Pest control,” Ramona giggled. She dug through a pile of clothing and opened up a sealed container, unhooking a couple of latches.  Inside, there were rectangular pouches, neatly stacked, all sealed in plastic bags.  “MRE’s,” she explained.  “Meals ready to eat.  I found a storage room full of these.  Not too tasty, but they stay good pretty much forever.  Here, I know you must be hungry,” she said, tossing one to Baxter and another to D’Angelo.  “Does he eat?” she asked, cocking her head at ROEBUCK.

“My energy comes from the sun,” ROEBUCK explained.  “And in these darkened tunnels, I’ll only be able to power myself for about another hour or so.”

“Eh, we’ll be outta here in plenty of time,” Ramona assured them.  “Can’t poke our heads out anywhere it would be too dangerous, ya know?”

Baxter grunted an affirmative, and crouched down in the corridor, leaning his back against the wall. He tore open the MRE with his fingers, and a few pouches fell out from the larger one.

“And how do we…?” D’Angelo asked, examining the packets in front of her. 

“I just mix everything together,” Ramona explained, grabbing a small metal bowl and placing it down in front of her.  She passed some to Baxter and D’Angelo too, and began emptying the packets one by one into her own.

“Got it,” D’Angelo said, following her lead.  She tried not to look too hard inside the bowl.  Even though it didn’t look to have anything exactly growing inside of it, it wasn’t perfectly clean either.  Ramona poured some water from her canteen into D’Angelo’s and Baxter’s bowls.

“Now you just mix it up,” Ramona explained.  “There’s a few different flavors of the goop.  Never really bothered to read the labels too much after I got used to them.  It’s more fun if it’s a surprise,” she said, stirring the mixture with one of her fingers, and licking some of the mess. 

“Hoo boy,” Baxter said, but slurped the goop hungrily once he’d mixed it together.  It tasted like salt and beef stock.  A hint of carrots, maybe?  And one clump that must’ve contained his dessert; it was a sweet mass of granulated sugar and artificial flavor.  But damned if I don’t feel better, Baxter thought.  He was still a little hungry, but not terribly, and his mind felt a little sharper.  He’d woken up a little.

D’Angelo and Ramona were careful to grab every speck of sustenance they could, running their fingers along the inside of their bowls and licking them clean.  ROEBUCK looked on quietly.  Baxter felt a twinge of worry.  ROEBUCK’s optic sensor grew dim, a red glow in the darkness, like the coals of a smoldering fire.

“We need to get to the surface,” Baxter announced.  “ROEBUCK ain’t lookin’ too good.”

“I feel fine,” ROEBUCK declared, “but my energy reserves will only last a little while longer. Then I’ll power down.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ramona said, chucking her metal bowl behind her into a darkened section of her den.  She stood back up, grabbing her machete from the floor and slid It into a leather strap she wore on her hip. She raised her arms above her head as she stretched and yawned, then scratched at her belly.  “Better get ready.  We’re not lucky, the shits gonna hit the fan.  I can take care of myself, but you guys better be careful.”

“What do you mean?” D’Angelo asked as they began walking down the darkened corridor once more.

“I mean,” Ramona explained, “Major Monk isn’t going to be happy when he realizes his prize specimen got up and walked out of his lab. For a second time.”

“How do you know the major?” asked ROEBUCK.

“We have a history,” Ramona spoke in a low voice.  “Let’s just leave it at that.”

“What did he do to you?” D’Angelo asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ramona ended the conversation with an edge in her voice even sharper than her machete.

D’Angelo quieted, and they continued walking.  They crept through more abandoned tunnels, filled with a dank green mold, trickles of running water, and even more subterranean animals.  Just as ROEBUCK looked about to tip over at any moment, Ramona put her hand on a rung of a metal ladder that led a few feet up into a manhole cover. 

“We’re here,” she told them.  “I’m going to go up and take a peak.” 

When she was halfway up, Baxter asked, “You wanna gun?”

“I don’t need one,” she called back down.  As she reached the top, she pressed her palm onto the metal above her and began sliding the manhole cover away, the sound of scraping concrete like the growl of a hungry beast.  Ramona peaked her head out into the open portal as a beam of light parted the darkness of the tunnels.  “Damn it!” Ramona cursed, pulling her head back inside as she slid the manhole cover back.  The tunnel darkened with the sound of bullets ricocheting from the manhole cover.

Ramona grit her teeth, and the manhole lid shot up like a champagne cork.  The girl leapt from the tunnel with an impressive agility, and the sound of gunfire roared from above them.

“We have to follow her!” D’Angelo gasped.

“You’re right,” Baxter said.  “Ain’t gonna get a better distraction than that.”  He gripped the ladder’s rungs and began scrambling up.  D’Angelo followed close behind, with ROEBUCK after her.

Baxter hurried the rest of the way up, scrambling out onto the dusty surface.  The howl and pinging of countless bullets created a hellish cone of noise that consumed him.  He huddled behind some metal storage crates piled about three feet high, and knelt behind them to view the chaotic scene.

Ramona had tripped an alarm when she’d removed the manhole cover.  It could barely be heard over the din of the bullet storm, but wailed loudly whenever there was a lull in gunfire.  Soldiers streamed in from all over the base toward the source of the alert.  Jeeps skidded into the area, picking up plumes of dirt, soldiers pouring out of them.  Some of the jeeps had mounted machine guns on them.

Outgunned, outnumbered Baxter though grimly.  He held a pistol and carried a few magazines, but no one had even come in range. Smart, Baxter reflected.  Hoping we surrender. No one wants to be the first casualty.

ROEBUCK and D’Angelo emerged from the space behind them.  They got into cover too.

“Where’s Ramona?!” D’Angelo yelled over the guns. 

Baxter hadn’t noticed her absence, overwhelmed as he was by the soldiers’ show of force.

“Up there,” ROEBUCK pointed.

Above them, about twenty feet high, Ramona floated in a swirling wind.  An empty sphere surrounded her, one no bullets or debris could penetrate.  Her eyes were blank.  Only the whites were visible.

“I’m detecting electro-magnetic energies that are beyond the maximum scale of my instruments.  Some of these energies…I can feel them, but I don’t even know what to call them,” ROEBUCK spoke in awe.  “She’s far more powerful than I imagined.”

“We need to think of something,” D’Angelo told them.  “She won’t be able to keep this up much longer.”

“Way I see it,” Baxter explained, “we can surrender, spend the rest of our lives trapped in this base at the mercy of Major Monk.  Or we take ourselves out.  One way trip off this mortal coil, if you catch my drift. ”

Shakespeare?” D’Angelo hissed in disbelief.

“Seemed appropriate,” Baxter replied.  “Everyone dies in the end, that kind of thing.  Course, we can always write our own ending in blood and gun smoke.”

“I’d always imagined myself going out in a blaze of glory,” ROBUCK spoke.  “Why make it easy on them?”

With these words, the bot stepped out from cover and began firing his gatling in the direction of their enemies. An approaching jeep skidded hard to evade his fire, but turned over on itself, spinning on its roll-bars and throwing the driver and passenger out into the dust.  Baxter’s pistol made sure neither one got back up. 

“D’Angelo, ROEBUCK, help me get it upright!” Baxter yelled.  

He and the others rushed toward the wreck, but when they were halfway to it, D’Angelo called, “Incoming!” A rocket-propelled grenade zoomed toward them, trailing a spiraling cloud of smoke behind it.

With eyes wide and jaws slack, they turned and ran from the jeep.  The rocket struck the fallen vehicle, and the concussive force of the explosion blew shards of broken machinery toward them.  Ramona extended her field of impenetrability, and directed an angry burst of energy outward.  A wave of force collided with the soldiers, and they were knocked onto their feet, momentarily stunned.  Ramona’s energies were spent.  She lowered herself to the ground, and collapsed in exhaustion once her feet touched the dirt.

D’Angelo picked herself up from the ground and took a look around. She knelt down next to Ramona and examined her.  Once she was sure the girl was merely unconscious and not hurt in any way, she told Baxter and ROEBUCK, “She bought us some time, but now we need to make the most of it.”

ROEBUCK scanned their surroundings, looking for an escape route. The area of the base they had emerged into was some kind of vehicle yard.  Dozens of army jeeps were lined in front of a chain linked fence, topped with barbed wire.  Some were covered in gray canvas, rippling in the wind, coated with brown dirt and dust. Larger vehicles, including tanks and Humvees, were scattered throughout the yard, in various states of assembly and repair.  ROEBUCK eyed one of the Humvees closest to them, beneath a tall concrete observation tower that appeared mercifully abandoned.

“Follow me!” he yelled, and led his companions out of their cover toward the object of his desire.  He fired with his gatling at the soldiers across the yard, who were beginning to pick themselves up from the psychic blast Ramona had sent their way.  They ducked back into cover, hiding behind a concrete barricade near a guard shack that protected one of the gates into the yard.  Baxter and D’Angelo hurried behind the bot, carrying Ramona between them.  The girl was still unconscious, her feet dragging twin tracks behind her.  After a few hurried moments, they’d reached the Humvee. 

ROEBUCK realized its door was locked, so he ripped it from its hinges, casting it aside with a clattering crash. He took off the panel from beneath its ignition, and examined its wires, connecting a pair that made the vehicle roar to life with a shuddering belch of smoke and exhaust.

“Help me get her inside,” D’Angelo told Baxter.  They brought Ramona inside the vehicle, propping her against the passenger side door. D’Angelo followed her in, and brought out some smelling salts from one of her lab coat pockets in an attempt to wake the girl.

“Looks like the hardware’s still in fighting shape,” Baxter said to ROEBUCK, eyeing the mounted machine gun on the Humvee’s rear.  “I’m gonna get her locked and loaded.”  He pulled himself up onto the back of the vehicle and began loading a belt of bullets into the weapon, sliding back its lever to load a shell into the clip.

ROEBUCK cast a glance at Ramona, groaning from her rude awakening, as D’Angelo did her best to bring her back to awareness.  He put the Humvee into gear, and pushed the pedal to the floor, kicking up a cloud of dust as its rear wheels spun for a moment before launching them forward. 

Bullets pinged off the metal exterior as the soldiers on the other side of the yard began to fire at them.  Baxter shot back with the mounted gun, struggling to keep the powerful weapon’s barrel level as a steady stream of lead poured from its mouth.  Most scattered for cover, clambering behind vehicles and crates, anything solid that would keep them from being torn to pieces by the hellish onslaught Baxter unleashed.  A few brave souls returned fire, crouched low to the ground, hoping to earn a promotion or cash in a long-lasting death-wish.  The gun shook Baxter’s shoulders like an eager uncle, rattling his teeth and forcing him to hold onto it with a death-grip to keep it from firing over the soldiers’ heads.  After nearly half a minute of ceaseless torrent, the barrel of the gun began to glow orange, and Baxter poured water from his canteen onto it, steam hissing like a fiery snake.  He began to reload, struggling to keep from slipping on the hundreds of spent shell casings that rolled around the gunner’s compartment.  A bullet flew past his head, kissing him with its wind and whistling death. 

Inside the Humvee, ROEBUCK steered toward the nearest gate at what he hoped would be an escape velocity.  He steered sharply into corners, around guard towers and anywhere else he hoped that the vehicle would have any chance to avoid the soldiers firing at them.  In the backseat, D’Angelo crouched low beneath the windows, and held on to Ramona, doing her very best to hold the girl upright, and to keep her awake and alert after the intense psychic energy she’d expended helping her companions escape the tunnels underneath the base.  With every tight turn, they slid into the doors at each end.

They approached the gate of the compound at full speed.  A pair of soldiers abandoned their defensive positions, which happened to be on the Humvee’s path of destruction, and looked above them as a shadow blocked the sun.  ROEBUCK followed their gaze, and the Humvee skidded to a halt.

Above them, an enormous metal frame loomed, with the same general shape of a human: four limbs, a torso, and a head. That’s where the similarities ended.  Propelling the massive machine in the air, the flame and smoke of rockets burned out of exhaust ports beneath its feet and from its back, blowing clouds of smoke and debris outward.  One of its hands ended in a pincer-like claw, painted in yellow and black caution stripes.  The other hand ended in a funnel, and if the small flame that glowed within was any indication, was some kind of massive blow torch. 

The great hulking mass ended its descent with a clattering thud.  ROEBUCK could hear the hydraulics of its limbs whine as it lurched forward.  He put the Humvee in reverse and backed up a few paces, hoping to escape the range of whatever weaponry the hulking mass contained. 

“Stop, or I’ll fire!” a loudspeaker from the great heap demanded. 

“Major Monk!” D’Angelo exclaimed, recognizing his voice.  “And the OMEGA device.  Looks like he finished the prototype…”

“What is it, Doc?” Baxter hollered above the rumble of the Humvee’s engine.

“It’s an Exo-Skeletal Battle-Suit,” D’Angelo turned around and told him.  “Adapted from a manufacturing and construction model.  No obvious weak points.”

“I’ll do my best to evade it,” ROEBUCK said, “and find another escape route.”

“No,” Ramona told him.  “Bring us in close.  Once I’m in range, I can reach into his mind.  Control the OMEGA device from the inside out.”

“Now, I don’t think that’s too—“ Baxter’s words vanished in a peel of rubber as ROEBUCK floored the accelerator, and the Humvee’s tires spun in the dirt, hurling them toward Major Monk as fast as their vehicle could take them.  “Damn it, ROEBUCK!” Baxter swore, nearly losing his grip on the gun turret and falling from his perch.

Instead, he fired his gun a few times, as a distraction and warning against any soldiers who had it in minds to poke their heads out and fire any pot shots.  Most ducked back into cover, ready to defer to Major Monk and his OMEGA device until they received direct orders.

Monk grit his teeth, and looked out through the targeting ocular that covered his left eye, locking his reticle on the growing target of the HUMVEE as it came closer and closer.  He hated to waste so many resources, But I’ll be damned if they slip out of here again, he vowed, and launched a volley of missiles from a mounted shoulder turret.  Their smoke streaked in spirals as they hurtled toward their destination.

ROEBUCK saw the missiles launch and calculated their trajectory.  He formed only one possible surviving maneuver.  “Hang on!” he called loudly to his companions, as he hit his break and cut the steering wheel all the way to its left.  The HUMVEE tilted in a screech of tires and wave of dirt, two of its wheels coming slightly off the ground.  For D’Angelo, time slowed as Ramona slammed into her, and the sun shined on some bullets shells that had fallen into the cab, dazzling her eyes in rays of brilliance.  All four tires fell back to the surface, and as the HUMVEE rocked with the force of their weight, bouncing on its shocks, time snapped back into focus.  They had spun three hundred sixty degrees, still heading in the same direction they’d been going, the missiles exploding harmlessly behind them.

“Cutting it a little close, don’t ya think?” Baxter critiqued.

“Irrelevant,” was ROEBUCK’s reply.

He corrected the HUMVEE’s course, and turned sharply, taking them behind the OMEGA device.  Major Monk activated his craft’s rocket thrusters, and lifted himself back into the air, rotating to follow the vehicle, but by then it was too late.

Ramona had slid the tendrils of her consciousness into his mind, and was controlling him now as a puppeteer guides a marionette.  She raised the OMEGA’s weapons systems into the air and launched all of the ordinance that still remained.  Bullets, missiles, rockets and grenades flew out from it, spewing flames and weaponry like an erupting volcano.  The remaining soldiers broke and ran for cover, getting as far away from the OMEGA device and the Humvee as they possibly could.

An inferno erupted from the explosives, and when the ordinance came in contact with the vehicles, munitions and equipment in the base surrounding them, the calamity began to cascade.  A chain reaction had started, one that made Baxter nervous.  If a random shell or bomb struck their Humvee, it would be the end for all of them.  Eventually, the OMEGA was emptied of weapons completely.  Ramona slumped over, drained once more by her abilities.  Baxter saw no more soldiers nearby, so he hopped off the Humvee and made his way toward Monk. 

The man looked panicked, and tried to lock himself inside, but Baxter was able to break one of the latches with the butt of his gun and pry the canopy open. 

“Don’t shoot!” Major Monk told him.  “I’m the only chance you have of getting out of here alive.”

“Exactly,” Baxter said, “that’s why you’re coming with us.”

He brought Monk up with him to the gunner’s turret on the rear of the Humvee and held his pistol to the back of the major’s head.  “There’s no reason you need to die either.  Help us leave the base, and we’ll let you go.  If you try to lead us into some kind of trap, you’ll be dead before it’s sprung.”

Monk grit his teeth.  “Understood.  This gate nearby, the one ROEBUCK tried to leave through before I intercepted you.  It’s still your best chance.”

ROEBUCK overheard the conversation, and they sped out of the base and back out into the desert.  It was twilight, and the sun was setting behind them.  Ahead, the sky was dim, but when Baxter looked past the base, a pink sunset glowed through the smoke and cast long shadows on the sands. 

“Do you still have our bikes?” Baxter asked. 

“They’ve been disassembled,” Monk explained.  “You won’t be getting them back.”

“Damn it,” Baxter cursed.  He stewed in silence for a few minutes as ROEBUCK drove on.  The bot headed back toward Baxter’s home, the town full of ethanol refineries known as Whiskey, the one they’d left  only a few weeks ago to help escort a convoy to Rock Springs.  So much has happened since then, Baxter realized. 

Once it became obvious no pursuers were following them from the base, Baxter told ROEBUCK to stop the Humvee.  ROEBUCK slowed to a halt, turned off the headlights and shut the engine.  Through the rear window, Baxter saw Ramona’s head slumped against Doctor D’Angelo still, asleep.  She must have sensed they’d stop, because in another moment, Ramona’s head came up and she yawned sleepily. 

“Everyone out of the vehicle,” Baxter announced.  “We need to clear some things up.”

The rest of his companions came out of the car, Ramona leaning against the doctor.  They all turned toward Monk who appeared stoic, eyes narrowed and mouth flat.  Only his white knuckles betrayed him.

“Lighten up, Major, we ain’t gonna shoot you,” Baxter said, “even though that would be the smartest thing to do.  Just ain’t my style to kill a beaten opponent.”

“What are you gonna do with me then?” Monk asked. 

“Let you walk back.  Hope you make it to base before anything bad happens.  But we have some questions first.  ROEBUCK?”

“Where did your army find me?” ROEBUCK asked. 

Monk sighed.  “That’s classified.  Even from me.  I’ve heard rumors.  Some say Area 51.  There’s data we recovered from you stored at the base.  Copies might exist elsewhere, but it doesn’t matter, because we’ve never been able to decrypt it.  I know you’re very old.  Everybody who found you died long ago.  The oldest records go back to the twentieth century.  That’s all I know.”

D’Angelo looked skeptical.  “What’s the reason for all the experiments going on in that base?  ROEBUCK, Ramona, the OMEGA device.  What’s it all for?”

Monk chuckled grimly.  “I don’t have enough men to clear the raiders from the desert, or take control of the towns nearby.  I’d hoped if we could create some kind of super-weapon, the army might be able to take over, restore order.”

“That’s it?” D’Angelo asked.  “Who gives your orders?”

“I’ve no idea,” Monk told her.  “I receive transmissions sometimes, and take in the young men who find the base or are left there.  But there’s no greater purpose, that I know of at least.”

“We’re not getting much out of him,” ROEBUCK said.  “What else do you want to know, Baxter?”

“I want your word,” Baxter demanded, “even though I know it might not mean much.  I want your word you won’t come after us again.  Me, ROEBUCK, the girl or the doc.”

Monk grit his teeth.  “I’ll consider you lost assets.  But I can’t guarantee other military won’t pursue you.”

“I know,” Baxter told him.  “Go back the way you came.  If you hurry, you should be able to get back before it’s too cold.  Just follow the tire tracks.”

He hopped back in the gunner’s turret, D’Angelo and Ramona sitting together in the backseat.  The Humvee’s engine rumbled as ROEBUCK touched the ignition wires, and they drove off into the night.  Baxter watched the moon rise.

                                               *  *  *  *  *

“What’s that smell?” Ramona asked, her nose wrinkled in disgust.

“It’s the distilleries,” Baxter told her.  “They turn corn into fuel.  You’ll get used to it.”

“Ugh,” Ramona said.  “I don’t want to.”

Baxter grunted, and finished covering the Humvee with a tarp they’d found in its trunk.  Despite Monk’s assurance he wouldn’t go after them, he didn’t think it too wise to keep their stolen military hardware out in the open amongst so many prying eyes.  ROEBUCK parked it about a half mile from the town, in the shadow of a small crevasse that kept it well hidden. 

They walked from their hiding spot along a dusty trail through tents and tin shanties, the slums of Whiskey, rabble and refuse of the wastes.  People scraping however they could.  Some of the small buildings were brothels, others housed dens of junkies, chasing their fix however they could.  A few were nomads and traders; most of the tents belonged to them.

Cook-fires were burning, filling the air with the scent of roasted meat.  Baxter sniffed.  Armadillo.  And rosemary?  A rumbling in his gut and a watering mouth confirmed what he already knew.

“I’m hungry,” Ramona spoke. 

“Me too, kid,” Baxter told her.  “C’mon, I think ol’ Harley’s shack’s around here.  He’s usually got some grub to trade.”

“A meal would do us all some good,” D’Angelo agreed.  “Give us some time to collect ourselves.  And decide what to do next.”

Harley’s was a decent joint, among the best places in the slums one could go to fill their belly.  You wouldn’t know from looking at it.  It was a tin heap, rusted and leaning like a drunk.  Some lights glimmered from its windows, neon signs scavenged from bars and diners of old.  Near the entrance, a German Shepherd gnawed at an ostrich bone, and barked as Baxter approached. “Good to see you too, Sparky,” he drawled as he rubbed the dog’s head between its keen and pointed ears.  He swept aside a canvas curtain that hung across the dive’s entrance, and bid his companions to “Come on inside.  I’ll find us a seat.”

A young women greeted them from behind a counter, giving ROEBUCK a not too subtle double-take.  “Y’all sit anywhere you like.  I’ll be over in a sec.”

They found a table in a corner booth, beneath a few more of those neon trinkets Harley had collected hanging from the wall.  A vinyl bench wrapped its way around the table and sighed as the padding absorbed their collective weight.  Paper menus, printed from a type-writer, rested on the table. 

“What’s good here?” D’Angelo asked. 

“Whatever they got, it’s good.  Harley’s an ace in the kitchen,” Baxter told her.  “He can make something tasty out of anything he finds.  Anything.”

“That sounds a bit too all inclusive for my taste,” D’Angelo told him, “but I I suppose I can’t be too picky in our present circumstance.  It does smell nice at least.”

“Better in here than out there,” Ramona remarked.  “Possum pie?  Barbaric.  Don’t worry, Sandy.  I won’t them turn you into anybody’s lunch.”  Sandy poked her snout of a pack Ramona carried with her, and sniffed curiously, but the girl stroked the creature’s snout, and the possum went back inside the bag and curled up, leaning on Ramona’s hip as the bag rested on the diner’s bench.  Her pack had become the animal’s new den of sorts.  Mobile and cozy.

“Well, what do we have here?” a middle-aged man in a grease spattered apron came out from behind the diner’s counter and looked over the occupants in his booth.  “Baxter, and his crew of delinquents.  When you didn’t come back with the rest of Lester’s convoy, we didn’t know what the hell happened to you.”

“Hey, Harley,” Baxter returned the greeting.  “Got caught up in a bit of mischief.  Pulled our asses out of the frying pan, but don’t got much to show for it.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Harley chuckled.  “Tell you what, my man, I’m feeling generous today.  I’ll trade ya that military uniform you’re wearing for a damn feast.  Gotta contact in town; think I could fence that for some dough.”

“Well, that’s a mighty generous offer,” Baxter told him, “but if you take the clothes off my back, I ain’t got much to change into.  My old threads made their way through a mighty damn mess.  Might stink to high heaven what with they been through.”

“Eh, that’s okay.  We can wash ‘em up in my sink tonight after I do the dishes.  And I got some old rags you can throw on.  Deal?” Harley asked.

“Deal,” Baxter told him, “but it better be worth it.  And no possum.  Little lady’s got a delicate appetite.”

“Can do,” Harley told him with a wink, and headed back into the kitchen.  “Lucy!” he yelled as he made his way behind the counter.  “Get these good folks some coffee and water.  They look thirsty.”

For a few minutes, the exhausted companions sipped their drinks and leaned back in their seats, glad for the respite.  Days on the run, crawling through tunnels, riding across the wastes in the Humvee, and battling with Major Monk and his soldiers had taken their toll.  ROEBUCK looked fully recharged and alert from his time beneath the hot desert sun during their journey back to Whiskey, but Baxter, Ramona and D’Angelo still looked a little worse for wear.

D’Angelo rested her elbows on the table, and rubbed her  eyes with the heels of her hands.  A kaleidoscope of colors filled her vision, then faded as she blinked and sighed.  “These flights across the desert and skulking around subterranean bases have ground me down.  It’s time for me to take some time to be a scientist again.  To do a little bit of research.  I’d like to perform some tests on Ramona, if she’s willing.  To see if we can discover the source of her abilities.  Perhaps test their limits.”

“Hmm,” Ramona grumbled as plates of steaming ostrich meat, fried potatoes and cooked greens were placed by the servers onto the table in front of them.  “I’m not sure I want to be somebody else’s guinea pig.  I had enough of that treatment under Major Monk.”

“You’d have complete freedom, I assure you.  I’ll record data as you exercise your abilities.” D’Angelo told her as she gripped Ramona’s hand in her own.  “And I’ll help make sure nobody else is able to find us.  I know you’re used to taking care of yourself, but up here on the surface, things don’t operate quite the same as they do down below.”

“I’d take her up on the offer, kid,” Baxter mumbled through a mouthful of biscuit.  “The Doc can help you keep hidden from the authorities, and might be able to help you with your…gifts.”

Ramona took a sip from her cup of tea, and blew a bit of steam from it.  “It’s a kind offer, but I’m used to being independent.  It’s a big, wide world out there, and I don’t need a glorified babysitter to help see me through it.  What do you think, ROEBUCK?”

ROEBUCK looked up at Ramona.  His optic sensor flared red for a brief moment as he considered her inquiry.  “Odds for survival do increase quite a bit among formed partnerships with complementary skills.  For all your strength, it would be useful to have somebody guide you through this strange new world you’ve found yourself in.  And I’m certain the doctor would appreciate your protection.”

Ramona nodded and sighed quietly as she weighed her options.  “Alright.  I’ll stick with you, Doc.  As long as you realize we’re partners.  I’m nobody’s apprentice.”

Doctor D’Angelo grinned as she suppressed a chuckle.  “Very well, then.  We’ll find a place in Whiskey where we can begin our studies.  And where will the two of you be headed?”

Baxter and ROEBUCK exchanged a glance as they considered their options.  Baxter cleared his throat and spoke, “Well ma’am, I suppose we ought to make our first bit of business getting a new pair of cycles.  Hope to be able to trade that Humvee for a pretty penny, then hit the road.  Not sure where to.  Might have to see where the road takes us.”

“Yes,” ROEBUCK agreed.  “Best to keep all paths open to us for the time being.”

With these words, the companions returned to their meals, all save ROEBUCK who analyzed Harley’s table salt for trace impurities.  The conversation settled around less serious topics, like the usefulness of possums and the price of ethanol.  Their bellies grew full as the minutes passed.  They grew languid, sated. 

Baxter stretched his legs, and felt the itch of the road beneath his feet.