IV. Ride the Black Country
A New Enemy in the Fight For Freedom Emerges...
“197, 198, 199…two-fucking-hundred.”
With a heaving sigh, a bare-chested Gibson relinquished his grip on the bar and dropped down to Earth. He looked at the gray wolf standing beside it, who hucked the soldier’s shirt at him with a smile.
“Getting better day-over-day Gib,” he said, “You’ll be back up to your old numbers in no time.”
The tan wolf nodded, sliding back into the white T. “Thanks Marty. Keep ‘er warm for me, alright?”
“Yessir,” he chuckled with a salute, “Tell Eve training’s back on at 6 tonight.”
With a final thumbs up, he threw his leather jacket on and left the gym. Waiting outside in the hall was Evelyn, who threw herself at him with the biggest bear-hug she could muster.
“Shit Teddy, gonna break my back!”
He heard a sharp crackle up his spine before his girl let him down.
“Not break, just crack,” she snickered in her husky tones.
“Not a bad masseuse Babe, just work on the bedside manner, alright?”
He nuzzled her gently as they began to walk down the long, winding corridors of the old school. For a while they said nothing. Just the being there, together, soothed both in an awesome way.
“The plane’s coming along great,” she said, “Nic wants her off the ground sometime in the next few months, for testing.”
“A lot happens when you’re conked out, don’t it?”
She could only scoff, “More than you want to know.”
The sentence vanished with the deafening ring of the bell, and a curt call from the speakers.
“Calling all Captains & Commanders to Briefing Room, Calling all Captains & Commanders to the Briefing Room. All Soldiers, maintain normal procedure. I repeat maintain normal procedure. This is a Code EMG. Code EMG.”
The two looked at each other, stupefied. Gibson broke the silence.
“Let’s book it for Knox’s, I got a feeling something is up.”
“You sure you still got any energy left in—”
Cutoff again, this time by her own lover flying into a sprint down the hall.
“Only man I know who comes out of a coma looking like a track star.”
Evelyn did her best to catch up as they both tore away towards the General’s office. In the blur of their run, they made it just outside the door, stopping to catch their breath on the bench outside. The two guards outside the General’s door kept them there.
“Stay queued, Soldiers,” the gray guard halted, “Though I suspect he’ll want you in for the next part of this.”
The first part, however, had commenced within the oak-lined walls where every captain and commander sat. Knox stood at the front of the room, smart striped button-up and a bolo tie adorning him as he laid everything out before his Top Brass.
“Before you is the latest surveillance imaging taken at Outpost 218.”
The image was that of a black wolf. His bandolier crossed his chest and back, his black fur dusted by the desert winds. Brown boots, blue denim, a black concho-emblazoned hat, and a white chopped motorcycle to match. His shadow lingered on the land as, in choppy detail, the lone wolf laid siege on the outpost. Firing wantonly and with no remorse, ripping through hound and machine with explosive abandon. He fired a single shot at the camera before the signal went dead.
“The agent of these dealt blows is, in fact, of wolven form and figure, note the black fur on his hands. He is armed, mobile, exceedingly dangerous and is in Ambiorixian Sector 200. If it was 300, I would marshal a few good men and march on his ass. If it was 100, we’d have chopped him into ground beef before he got in the gates of the Base. But he’s in 200.”
The General produced a map on the screen, illustrating a plethora of outposts leading up to a single, sizeable marking labeled “Am Base Alpha”
“An attack on 200 is an attack on the Lab. An attack on the Lab is an attack on our fight. If we are to assume the worst, and consider him an agent of A.C.E.S., he is aiming for Ambiorixian Base Alpha. And if ANY agent of A.C.E.S. learns of even ONE of the Lab’s projects, it could jeopardize the whole of our operations, not least of which Operation: Bomber. We’re talking years worth of weapon’s development that digital bitch wouldn’t know what to do with. The secrets of the Lab must be kept at all costs.”
A hushed silence fell across Command.
“DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”
“SIR YES SIR.”
The unified cry echoed in the room. Knox’s iron-clad grimace, matched only by his clenched cybernetic fist, maintained that tension admirably.
“This rogue actor’s capture and/or extermination demands stealth, and our outposts demand enhanced security measures. I’m sending out a team to work on tracking, locating, and eliminating the threat. We’ll be divvying up squadrons based on Corp Divisions to guard the outposts, and I’ll be heading to the Lab with Chief Nic Ridgefield to coordinate max defense measures. Auto Corp Captain Atlanta Wesley will be Acting General here at the Base, with Moto Corp Commander Troy Wainwright as Second-in-Command, and will maintain a healthy, active force to guard the Base should the target distract from a greater invasion. As of today, the entirety of the 365th Infantry is on Red Alert! May God bless you and this Force. Dismissed.”
Command made a collective salute was made before leaving the room. As the group filed out, Captain Herrera was met with a tap on the shoulder.
“Say uh, Tom.”
It was Commander Douglas, who was met with a truly Grim look.
“Just here to call a truce Pal,” he continued, “Want to break bread, put the Corp brinkmanship down for a day.”
Grim slowly nodded. He slipped one gloved hand inside his long black trench coat. After a moment of digging, he produced his glass flask of Brandy de Jerez.
“It’s not bread Señor,” he teased, “But it’ll do.”
He took a swig and passed it down to M.A.D. Dog who gladly knocked a shot back himself. With the tip of a black hat and two shots of brandy between them, the truce had been called. For the day at least.
It was as the two filed out when Gibson and Evelyn were brought in by the guards. Knox managed a gentle grin when he saw the two.
“At ease Soldiers, take a seat.”
He sat down behind his old wooden desk, the two younger soldiers on the opposite side.
“You heard the code over the intercom no doubt, and you probably caught a few decibels of what I was laying down in there.”
Both wolves nodded.
“It’s not every day a sniper manages to wipe an entire outpost off the map, but no one every said normalcy was a part of the job either. I’ll give it to you straight. I’ll be sending out another Moto-Auto pairing so the four of you can fan out and cover more ground. Auto Corp Private Laura Metzer and Moto Corp Private Danny Lyman. You’ll be given the coordinates of Outpost 218 and you’ll go from there. With any luck, there are enough tracks or trace elements for your on-board computers to work with. Good luck and Godspeed.”
With a hearty “Yessir” and a firm salute, the two were set to leave before the General put his silver hand on Gibson’s shoulder.
“Stay safe out there.”
He shook the General’s hand before heading out alongside Evelyn.
“My man’s a bit of a golden boy now, huh?” Evelyn teased.
“Oh hell Teddy,” he blushed, “’Nuff of that shit. I’m just glad we’re still here at all.”
“I’m glad too Baby, I’m glad too.”
Laura and Danny sat idling away by Evelyn’s Rebel and Exciter. Laura herself was another black-clad killer, the tan leather of her belt and boots popping off the ensemble. Her pickup had enjoyed some time in the shop after the Saffton run, the black Blazer managing to glisten in the florescent light of the garage. Lyman, red jacket, snakeskins, and all, sat side-saddle on his Duo-Glide, the deep blue Harley catching plenty of passing eyes.
Sure enough, once the duo arrived, a firm round of handshakes ensued.
“Y’all looking mighty fine now,” Laura beamed, “Ready to snipe some ass?”
“You betcha,” Evelyn winked.
For Danny, seeing Gibson was the finest sight he’d seen in a while.
“Private,” Gibson grinned knowingly.
“Glad you’re back among the living, Chief.”
The tan soldier nodded. “Glad to be back. Let’s saddle up-n-head for the Outpost.”
The four engines throttled up in unison as the unit thundered up the ramp and into the warm light of the desert sun.
The drive brought with it a soothing breeze, the soldiers enjoying the drive and bantering over the radio. Evelyn was the first to start.
“Turned that Chevy right around, didn’t ya Laura?”
“My man don’t go quietly,” she giggled with her Southern swagger, “He’s just like me, a royal screamer.”
With a kick of the gray’s work boot, the truck proved her point. Once Evelyn barreled up behind, it was looking like a full-on drag.
Danny couldn’t get enough of the display.
“No wonder you grabbed Teddy when you could Gib,” he chimed in over CB, “Could watch her race all day.”
Gibson didn’t even respond, he just cackled alongside Danny as they kept pace with the hot rodding.
For the tan soldier, his mind had wandered to parts elsewhere, far ahead of the pack he led. When Knox took anything half as serious as this sniper, he knew he should too, but the thought of one wolf forging such a tapestry of carnage he couldn’t wrap his mind around.
Once he saw 218, he had no choice.
It was demolished. Ashes coated the site, the metal roof charred black, the reserve depot completely obliterated. Two buildings, ten personnel, fully armed and trained, all gone. But one sign of shattered life remained among the devastation: the charred bone of a single arm, a warped rifle beside it. To whom they belonged remained a mystery. Gibson swallowed the lump in his throat before planning the next move.
“Fan out in the area and let’s see if we can get a path on—”
“—No need Babe. Dig this.”
Not two feet from where Evelyn stopped was a trail of bike tracks. They stopped when they reached a still-smoldering pile of scrap before carrying on.
“Must be able to catch some wicked air on that hog.” she said.
“Heading about Northeast too,” Danny observed, “Then he is going for the Lab, ain’t he?”
Gibson shook his head.
“Not so fast. Means he’s heading Northeast. He’s got about a half-a-dozen different things in his way between here and the Lab. Half-a-dozen outposts he has a sporting chance at. For all we know, these buildings are what he’s after.”
“The hell would he want with outposts?” Laura asked, “Rogue scavenger looking for scrap?”
Evelyn looked puzzled.
“Then why come on a bike and why not take the roofing, or the burnt-out gear? He ain’t with his pack.”
Suddenly, something occurred to Danny.
“If he is after Alpha Base, then why attack the outposts?”
The question lingered in the air before the gray Private explained.
“Assume he’s an agent, yes. What good does it do to waste ammo on a post this far out from the Base? For goodness sake, he could probably bob and weave through the network and never have to touch one of these. Get shot at, sure.”
Gibson looked skeptical. “I think he’s eliminating potential threats. If he’s B-lining for the Base, he’ll hit the ones directly on the way. 224, 242, 254. 218 sits on the outer ridge of them all. It’s his gateway. Regardless, let’s not dawdle here. We’ll follow the trail and see where it takes us. Double time it, gang.”
When the four soldiers saddled up, they exchanged salutes from ride to ride.
If only his hand hadn’t been out for Him to see.
From clear out of nowhere, shots of laser-fire rung out, a streak of red graced Lyman’s left hand, sending the gray wolf reeling to the desert floor. Gibson went down to cover him, whipping out one of his .45s and firing in the assailant’s direction.
No one was there.
Not a trace of life stood on any of the ridges overlooking the quartet. Gibson growled, his lips curled into a feral snarl.
“Alright. First blood’s drawn.”
He looked to the gals behind the wheel of their rides.
“Evelyn, get some of your gauze for Danny’s hand. Then you and Laura load up his bike—”
“—I can ride with the hand wrapped,” Lyman seethed, “I…I won’t let you down Chief.”
“If he wants to rough it out,” Evelyn started, wrapping the bandage around the wound, “He can wear my fingerless gloves. They might fit tight, but that will also keep the bandaging protected.”
“Alright, but if it gets too rough out here, I want the bike in the pickup and him riding shotgun. Keep your wits about you and let’s head for 224.”
True to Lyman’s word, the gray mounted once more, the pain stinging but his resolve strengthened. The sun grew hotter by the minute as the unit soldiered on, the roar of the engines now tempered by the on-board silencers.
The terrain was hillier than most of the region, and in time, shade was found en route in a pass, rock formations towering over the Infantrymen. The clouds hazily drifted across the sliver of sky above them.
Gibson hopped on the CB. “Well, picked a good route to escape the heat for the meantime. Keep the train a-rolling.”
All three soldiers sounded off a restrained “Sir yes sir.”
But as the troop ventured forth, a glint of light caught Lyman’s eye. It was a flash of some kind. Then came more flashes. Flashes that had begun to strike the looser rocks at top the ridge of the pass. He knew what was coming.
Lyman’s exclamation sent the four soldiers bolting forward, the rocks and dust descending with great speed. As they neared the mouth at the pass’ opposite end, Laura spotted something that put it all in perspective.
“Target spotted,” she called over radio, “I don’t think there was anything natural about the disaster back there. I’m going after him.”
In an instant, she flicked up the top of her gearshift and hit the button, her carguns whipping out from under her.
“Go get ‘em Baby!”
She slammed the throttle down hard, weaving left and right, trying to blow out the back tire of the bike. The metallic behemoth was gaining when the biker played one more hand.
He fired into the mouth of the pass, loosening more and more stone until the ridge finally gave way.
“Double-time it, everyone!” Laura led the pack in the escape as her truck roared ahead. Then Evelyn’s Rebel. Then Danny’s bike. But not Gibson and Exciter.
Just as the Black Shadow had cleared the mouth, all it took was one stray rock for the bike to rear back on her rider, the tan wolf falling off in an instant. Right in the path of the oncoming landslide. Danny saw it all and whipped back around. Quick as a flash, the gray soldier grabbed his commander by the hand and yanked him up onto the seat.
“Shit man, what about Exciter?”
Danny grinned. “I’ll grapple with that.”
With a press of a button on the left handle of the Harley’s handlebar, a grappling hook came whizzing out the rear of the bike, landing right on Exciter’s front wheel. Lyman revved his bike up to full roar and sped away as fast as he could.
The final stone just missed the Black Shadow’s rear wheel.
“Where’d you have that stored?” Gibson whooped.
“Between you and me? She was one of the rides they been testing on at Alpha Base. Got her back before we went on the evening mission with you and the General. Commander Douglas is gonna go over ‘em with the whole Corp.”
“Let’s keep her together then!” the tan soldier roared.
The chase was still on as Laura unloaded on her fleet-wheeled target.
“Take over for me Eve,” she barked over the radio.
The brown wolf’s Rebel Machine roared past the Blazer and swung the carguns out from his chassis. Streaks of laser-fire began to pepper the ground, nipping at the rider’s wheels. Closer and closer Evelyn came until
The rear-wheel blew out as the rider lost control. Evelyn gave the beast space to tumble as the biker went flying. The moment he landed on the sand, all four soldiers were there to get a good look at him. Gibson ripped the helmet off to find…
“He’s a red.”
The bloody face of a red wolf was laid bare for all to see.
“Alright, what’s the deal?” Laura gruffly asked.
“Your what Man, out with it?” Evelyn barked.
“Your destruction,” came the reply.
With a pull of a pin, the team went bolting away from the red, who cackled to his last breath as the grenade fired off. All that remained of him was a red stain on the desert floor.
Everyone picked themselves up.
“So we’ve got two bastards in the running,” Lyman seethed, having landed on his left hand, “And we catch the decoy, sonofabitch!”
“Don’t count us out just yet,” Gibson replied, “Cat left his satchel on the bike. Let’s see if he’s left us anything.”
With no time to lose, the wolves dove for the bike and started rummaging through the leather bag. They found a backup handgun, another grenade, mercifully unused, and a single note:
Δ - 42 Γ - 24 Β - 45 A - A
At the bottom of the note was a strange sketch. The spur of a cowboy boot sat on its end, the outline filled in with jet-black ink.
Laura huffed. “Well, if he’s coding the message, done a lousy job of it. Greek and backwards numbers.”
“Yeah, but we still got three killers on the lamb,” Gibson shot back, “Destination: Alpha Base. Let’s wire HQ, tell bases 224, 242, and 254 to prepare for enemy agents, we’ll B-line it straight for the base.”
“What about Exciter Gib?” Lyman asked urgently.
“If she turns over, I run her. If not, she goes into Laura’s bed and we take our friendly neighborhood saboteur’s ride.”
Gibson unhooked the grapple and flipped Exciter back on her two wheels. He gave the bike a strong kick.
He tried for a second time.
She wouldn’t budge.
With a final, heavy stomp, Exciter came back to life, not a spot on the engine.
“Bitch don’t quit,” he grinned.
Laura was handed the responsibility of relaying the message to HQ as the troop bounded across the dusty plains. In turn, HQ relayed it to the three outposts and the Lab.
As the forces were marshaled, Captain Herrera and Commander Douglas stood guard over Outpost 254, their units at the ready for their first real fight of the day. The central building and gun-tower stood tall over the wolven troop, their shadows granting some of the soldiers shade.
Douglas rolled his Indian up to the Captain’s Scout.
“¿Estas listo, Loco?” Grim chuckled in his deep baritone.
“You betcha Pal,” Douglas replied, “Bitch probably rides one of ‘dem crotch-rockets. Can’t wait to mince the punk.”
“Hungry too, eh?”
“Hey, hey, not all of us are here to eat the enemy.” Douglas grinned, “Just the real loonies…Now where’s the bib I packed?”
Grim could only shake his head as he reached for his CB.
“54 Base, we got a make on the assailants?”
The operator didn’t respond.
“I repeat, 54 Base, we got a make on the assailants?”
The officers did a double-take of the radio. Through gritted teeth, Captain Herrera asked again. “We got a make on them?”
The radio operator stammered before replying. “Two armored cars, Cadillac Gage, miniguns in 7.62 and it looks like they’re laser-capable.”
“And here they are,” Commander Douglas spat in disgust.
They were jet black, like a rolling void. The sand and sun did nothing to mar their complexion as the machines soldiered towards them. On their sloped hoods was a giant streak of white. It didn’t look like much from a distance, but as they drew nearer, the outline looked something like the wheel and frame of a wheel barrow set on its handles.
“Let’s blow ‘em out of the dust, whaddya say Captain?”
“DIVISIONS UNO,” the Captain barked, “READY GUNS, RIDE OUT, AND FIRE ON COMMAND. ENEMY’S AT 9’O CLOCK!”
“SIR YES SIR!”
“DIVISIONS DOS! STAND BACK AND BY!” the Commander chimed in.
“SIR YES SIR!”
With guns drawn, throttles on the floor, and bikes revved up, the armada roared out from the Outpost. The dust storm kicked up could have smothered a city. And at the head of it all, the Scout and the Indian.
Grim flicked the top of the gear shift up, hit the button underneath, and opened his SUV up as wide as he could.
“Slaughter ‘em Señora.”
The blue laser-fire soared across the plain, the pistols, rifles, revolvers, and carguns all following suit. Whatever was coming their way, it was as good as dead. And yet, into the void it all went. Every ounce of stopping power vanished into the black of the armored cars. And it wasn’t until they were feet away when they realized the truth of the enemy.
A thousand brakes screeched as the Captain and Commander recognized the rouse.
“Whatever the hell we’re up against’s got hologram tech.” Douglas sighed.
Grim dove for his radio, “Divisions Dos, come in. I repeat, Divisions Dos, come in.”
“Dos Auto Leader Ellenshaw, reading loud and clear.”
“Look to the West, Ellenshaw. What do you see?”
“Nothing Sir. The West is crystal clear. We’re just—”
Static crushed the sentence under its heel, and behind the unit came the ringing of laser-fire. There wasn’t time to think, only react.
“COMPANY, ABOUT FACE!” the leaders cried in unison, the entire division following suit as the Scout and Indian led the rides through a wave of dust back to the Outpost. They held their fire as the troop hurtled back towards the base to see a sight of pure chaos. The armored cars had not only managed to get behind them, but were sandwiched in the perfect place for a friendly fire massacre. And yet, there they were, ripping through the second unit and into the crew of the outpost like tissue paper.
Grim and Douglas were thinking as fast as their rides when they came to the same conclusion.
Grim grabbed for the radio and worked it all out. Two at a time, bike and rod would concentrate their firepower on the back of the cars, wailing away at the fans. The unit cut deeper and deeper into the grates and fans until the first car went up in a ball of fire, and the other went hurtling and spinning, right into the gun-tower’s base. Metal pylons went flying as the fireball soared upwards and into the top of the tower, the gunmen incinerated in an instant.
“Everyone one on the Outpost frequency, evacuate ASAP!” Commander Douglas ordered. The outpost’s soldiers hopped in their rides and into those of the soldiers left as the tower made its slow descent. With a final groan, the weapons platform vanished in a fireball of their own. The flames just licked the Outpost itself. And while the building was safe, there was no shaking off the half-division hole left in the Outpost’s roster.
Grim stepped out of his Scout to survey the scene.
“All this, with two fucking armored cars.”
“Couldn’t even get the bastards’ autographs,” Douglas added, a simple nod given to the flaming black beasts before them.
Grim grabbed the CB and re-tuned to HQ’s frequency.
“This is V. Galvez to HQ, come in.”
“HQ, loud and clear. How goes it?”
“Like shit. Ambush at 1330. Gun-Tower 254 destroyed, Outpost Command 254 battered but unbeaten…50% of Auto and Moto Divisions Dos assigned to 254, dead. Need emergency fire-tenders ASAP. Culprit’s are two armored vehicles, both destroyed. Whoever’s behind this are more than just a gang. Relay to all active units.”
“That’s a 1010 from us, V. Galvez. Lick wounds and maintain defense. Firetenders from 236 scrambled.”
“Gracias. Over and out.”
As he hung up the radio, he looked over to Commander Douglas, who shot him a truly M.A.D. look.
“We made ‘em pay here Grim, and the General’s sure to bleed the first somebitch who comes knocking on the Lab’s door.”
Grim nodded solemnly as he looked to the wolves at his back.
“COMPANY! RESUME STANDARD DEFENSE OPERATIONS. OUTPOST COMMAND, STANDBY FOR FIREFIGHTING.”
With a final cry of “SIR YES SIR” and a collective salute, the work of Outpost 254 was set back in motion.
As word spread of the assault, Knox found himself shoring up every defense at the Lab. His units were armed to the teeth, wolves at every turret and tower on the compound, rows of bikes and cars ready and raring to chew up and spit out whatever came for them.
While the General prepared, Chief Ridgefield sheathed every project on site, carefully made blankets of lead draped over every gun and augmentation to prevent enemy scanning. Last came the big gal herself.
For as low as she sat, the aircraft cast a tremendous shadow over the main floor. A mighty piece of machinery she was, even half-finished and untested.
They really don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they Old Girl?
The black wolf chuckled at the thought, standing before her with a quiet prayer under his breath. As the blanket was lowered, he saluted the craft before turning and marching off to confer with the General on the front lines of their defense.
“Hatches battened down?” Knox asked, climbing behind the wheel of the ‘Cuda.
“Signed, sealed, and delivered,” Ridgefield replied, “All yours Sir.”
The gentlemen shook hands.
“Still can’t figure it,” the Chief went on, “Still can’t figure a damn lick of it.”
Knox smirked. “Let’s figure it in postmortem. Preferably over these dogs’ bodies. Just like the lawmen days, right?”
“Sir yes sir,” Ridgefield chuckled. “I’ll get in the Hilux and meet you out front.”
“See you there, Chief!”
When both wolves rolled up to the Corp officers, the sound of the front lines was that of baited breath. A pin could drop ten miles out and every soldier at the front could mark it.
Knox’s metal hand gripped the Cuda’s wheel as he waited. In his mind, the sight of an army to equal his fighters sat on the horizon. He was prepared to put a fleet of U7s down if he had to. As the minutes passed, and without an enemy in sight, he could sense a restlessness in the men behind him. It was like getting caught in rush hour traffic.
Even the on-site chief officers, Moto Corp Commander Ted Zavia and Auto Corp Captain Donald Maxwell, seemed somewhat anxious to get on with the enemy’s annihilation. The white wolves feverishly checked their wrist watches on the quarter-hour, sometimes in perfect unison.
“All in good time Troops,” Knox reassured over radio. “All in good time.”
Just as the General’s own faith in the enemy’s arrival began to decline, a bike came roaring onto the horizon. A single bike.
A single, white bike. Ridden by a black wolf.
“Ready your guns,” Knox ordered, “Standby to fire on my order.”
As the dog of the hour drew nearer, a rumbling sort of rev began among the crowd of soldiers’ rides, the wave of growling engines growing and growing as the bike hurtled nearer and nearer.
The biker hit the brakes and swerved, gliding into perfect range for Infantry, and every barrel pointed his way. Knox issued the ultimatum.
“If you don’t die here, you’ll die out there. Tell us why and you’ll stand a chance at living.”
The biker cackled, “The Black Country haven’t any use for your mercy.” His voice was deep, a gravelly chuckle on every word.
“What is this Black Country you speak of?” Knox ventured.
“The key to true peace.”
“Explain!” The General pressed.
“How’s your home life, Adam?”
For Knox, the world stopped. He looked deep into the black wolf, his smile cruel, and his eyes piercing.
“FRONT ROW, FIRE!”
Everyone’s guns ripped into the black wolf at once, sending the rider into a flaming pile of fur and guts, the bike evaporating all that was left when it went off. In an instant, their agent was gone. Knox yanked the radio off its hook and tuned to the Base’s wavelength.
“T. Jeff to HQ, T. Jeff to HQ.”
“HQ to T. Jeff, under enemy fire. Under enemy fire.”
“From which direction?”
“Due West, T. Jeff.”
“Sending reinforcements from East, standby to receive.”
“Standing by T. Jeff, holding fort down.”
Knox switched frequencies and addressed the Lab.
“Alpha Base, I want First Divisions of Moto and Auto Corps back to HQ. I repeat, First Divisions back to HQ. Come from East, behind Base. We cannot afford friendly fire. I repeat, we cannot afford friendly fire. Make radio contact with HQ when in range.”
Zavia and Maxwell lead the charge as the wall of rods and hogs screamed into the desert. Knox looked back to Ridgefield, who had only one thing to say:
“I think we’ve got it bad this time.”
Word of the firefight at the gates had reached Gibson’s squad, who were frantically racing back towards it. Lyman’s hand was starting to sting, a rumble grew in Exciter’s engine, but both bikers kept pace with the women on all fours. They hadn’t a word between each other, only a steadfast determination to make to the Base as fast as they could.
But not without some roadblocks.
There was a biker gang on the prowl after all. A quartet of choppers were going for a stroll on the ridges when they saw the Infantry soldiers bearing down on them. Every bike was matte black, no reflection to speak of, the riders armed with high-powered rifles.
Evelyn and Laura raced forward, carguns open and firing as they threw their throttles to the floor. Two of the bikes were down for the count, but the others wouldn’t let up. Gibson and Lyman locked their guns on their handlebars and were firing alongside the cars as they all gave chase. When the hand grenades started flying, the only member of the troop who couldn’t swerve in time was Laura.
The blast blinded her as she fought for control, the Chevy weaving close to the edge of the ridge, a fifty-foot drop waiting to swallow her whole. She stiff-armed him away from danger, only to plow right into one of the choppers. She braked hard, holstering her carguns before backing off and leaving the rider to his fate.
If only she hadn’t left him alive.
Even through the crushed bones and twisted metal, the rider gave a parting shot right into the truck’s rear tire. She couldn’t get a hold of the situation in time, her truck veering wildly towards the ridge once more. She hit the brakes hard, and with a harrowing skid, the truck stopped. Her back wheels dug into the dirt as the front of the truck teetered off the edge.
“4-wheel drive ain’t working too hot right now,” Laura called over the radio. “I might need someone to hook a line on me.”
“Evelyn’s on her way!” Gibson replied, “Let’s hit it Danny, you and I.”
The bikers roared ahead as the Rebel Machine swung back around towards the imperiled Laura.
The chopper had gotten ahead, the Moto Corpmen’s bikes gaining fast. Whereas the third of the quartet had hand grenades to spare, Biker 4 came packing old-school lead. The kind of slugs that would knock someone into the next time zone. And for Danny Lyman, that was just about where he landed as the bullets drilled into his stomach. He fell off the Duo Glide, reeling in pain as the bike barreled ahead for a few more yards before skidding and rolling over to a stop.
Gibson wanted to stop, but he couldn’t let the bastard get away. The tan wolf landed several shots to the rear tire before putting a blast to the rider’s head. It was a direct hit, yet with all the fury of a meth-addled zombie, the final rider whipped around on the seat and unloaded the magazine into him. The slugs socked Gibson in the gut, but he kept on rolling, even as the blood began to seep through the white of his shirt. He could hear Exciter’s engine grumble and moan louder than ever as he kept firing his SAAs into the rider and his bike. It was anyone’s guess who was gonna bite the big one until a final, fatal shot hurtled through the air.
It went right through the Black Country Biker’s neck, sending him over the ridge and into the abyss below.
Gibson, as quick as he could, raced back to grab Lyman. Weaker and weaker he felt as the blood flowed from him. The last thing he remembered was his face hitting the desert floor.
It was sundown when Gibson’s eyes weakly opened. His torso was made of gauze and his jacket nowhere on him. Then he realized he was riding shotgun in the Rebel Machine. Beside him, behind the wheel was Evelyn. She was quiet. Not a tear shed, nor an outburst of emotion. She sensed he was back among the living.
“You shouldn’t be alive,” she said quietly. “God knows how you are.”
Before Gibson could say anything, he looked over out to the desert. There was Laura, her dusted truck holding together. In the bed of the pickup was a war-torn Exciter. But no Duo Glide. He tried to prop himself up to see if Lyman was riding shotgun with the gray. No one was beside her. He looked in the Rebel’s backseat. No one lay there either. Evelyn only had the truth to tell.
“He was gone before she fell on him. He’s in the trunk now.”
Gibson said nothing. He felt nothing. Couldn’t even feel guilt. He felt only the cold that an empty chair at the table brings. A cold that tightened when he saw the apocalypse made of the Base’s Western Front.
They had brought A7s. They were tall, brick-like machines. Hideously brutalist, but efficient assault pawns of exceptional hovercraft capability, armed with mini-guns on every corner. Every last one of them had been dropped, a fleet of five standing as graves for the Black Country’s forces as the soldiers returned home. And on the back of every A7; the upturned spur on the biker’s note.
With dozens of bombed out cars and bikes laying among the downed leviathans, the cost to defend the Base was tremendous. Just before they reached the gates, darkness fell over Gibson’s eyes once more.
The next time he came through, there was Knox standing over him in Sickbay.
“I thought we could keep you out of here,” he remarked dryly. “Bit old seeing the white walls, isn’t it?”
Gibson’s stare was barren as the sands. “The boy’s gone.”
Knox sighed. “He gave his life as any of us would. As he would’ve out there for us that night.”
Gibson rubbed the catatonia out of his eyes as the General turned to look out the window, the setting sun drenching the room in a reddish orange.
“I won’t sugarcoat it Gibson,” Knox continued, “We’ve got bad news right on our doorstep this time. And it ain’t machine.”
He pulled out a pocket cassette player, a single black tape sitting in it. With a flick of the play button, Gibson’s world changed forever.
“We ride the black country. A country untouched by the electric goddess or machines of war. We’ll take back everything that was ever ours, and that ever should be. That includes everything you own. The enemy of my enemy is now forever, my enemy. You can fight in the city streets. You can fight in the deserts. But you will have to go through us if you want true freedom.”
The tape stopped, a collective sigh let out by both commander and underling.
“Three fronts?” the tan wolf ventured.
Knox looked back to him, the hell of it all flashing before his eyes.
“Three fronts, Son.”
There was only one thought on the soldier’s mind as he propped himself up. “Get me patched up then. We got work to do.”
Knox turned to face him fully before cracking a gentle smile. “Yes we do, Lieutenant. Swear in is at 0900 on Thursday.”
Gibson didn’t know what to say, a disbelief Knox met with reassurance.
“We lost a lot of men today, including mid-level personnel. We’re going to need the very best we have left. It’ll take time adjusting, but first we’re giving you time to heal. Stay rested, will update you on affairs as necessary.”
With a shake of the hand, Knox marched out of the room, leaving Gibson bathed in the light of the red dusk. The soldier’s whole world was about to change.
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