Chapter 3: Train to Churchill
Chapter 3: Train to Churchill
Oh, I most certainly blame the Americans. No doubt they all watched too many John Wayne movies in those days. What, you don’t know who he is? Famous actor from a couple centuries back. Cinema history buffs can tell you all about him. Just look him up. You’ll see what I mean.
The Americans got here first. To Mars that is. Their infrastructure was already well developed, so Moses was able to get them out the door quickly, so to speak. They set up their first colony on Mars, took one look outside, thought it looked familiar, and named their little colony Arizona and the city Flagstaff.
I don’t know if the cowboy hats were a joke at first or serious, but the things spread like a disease to all the other colonies when we got here.
Next thing you know we were all living in a John Wayne movie under a benevolent AI overlord.
The future is a most peculiar place, indeed.
Second Commander of Her Majesty's Martian Colony, Churchill
Died 2 AM
For Matthew Cole, there were a couple of downsides to a twenty-five dollar payout. First, it meant he was eating freeze-dried nutrient rations for the foreseeable future. The hold of the Sparrow had a locker crammed full of the nearly inedible bars. He’d purchased them years ago for lean seasons, and now certainly qualified. He peeled back the wrapper from the unappealing bar and took a bite. The complete lack of flavor wasn’t quite as bad as the dense, gritty texture. Matthew always had the impression that he was eating a block of dried mud.
The second downside to a twenty-five dollar payout was that his broker didn’t much care for a ten percent cut amounting to two-point-five dollars. Matthew tried to spin it as better than nothing, but Benny hadn’t found the joke funny. Not only had the broker disconnected the call, he hadn’t answered any of Matthew’s proceeding attempts.
For two weeks.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened, so Matthew wasn’t particularly worried. Next week he’d worry. Today?
Today he checked the public freelancer boards as he had every day and, as usual, came up disappointed. The Sparrow still sat in the Kyoto spaceport, incurring daily parking fees. He hadn’t moved it, afraid to burn the fuel until he had a job, but now the parking fees would cost more than the fuel. Sometimes you lost when you gambled.
The light on Matthew’s comm lit up, and he took the call, not even bothering to look at who it was.
“Alright. I have a job for you,” Benny’s voice rumbled through the cockpit.
Matthew smiled, mostly in relief. He tossed his unfinished bar onto the console, hoping he’d never have to touch another one if he could help it. “I knew you’d forgive me, Benny. What do you got for me?”
“Sending it now.”
The information popped up on Matthew’s display. Extra security on a prisoner transport. Then he saw the expected danger.
“Umm… Extreme hazard? Are you trying to get me killed?”
“No. I’m setting up a team for this contract.” Matthew heard a certain smug tone in the broker’s voice. He didn’t like it.
“I don’t do team contracts,” he reiterated for the hundredth time. “We’ve gone...”
“You do now,” Benny interrupted. “Because if you don’t do this contract, we’re never working together again.”
The cockpit was silent, except for the gentle white noise of the open comm channel. Matthew stared at the blue display. The pay would be good, but he didn’t do team jobs.
“Look, Benny. I appreciate you setting this up, but there’s a reason I don’t like doing this kind of job.”
“Yeah, so what? I don’t really care about whatever ‘loner’ mystique you think is so important. Cry me a Martian river, Cole. It’ll evaporate into the thin air before anyone cares. I’ve got a dozen other clients that would take this job in a heartbeat. But you know what? I thought about you, Cole. I thought about how hungry you are right now, probably eating mushy ration bars.”
Matthew looked at the half-eaten bar. “So you do care.”
“In so much as you’re a good freelancer when you actually work and make me money? Yeah, I care. And you know what else? You’re gonna cave this time and do this job.”
“Is that right?”
“Yup. And you’ve got exactly ten seconds to agree, or you’re never hearing my voice again.”
That’s almost cheating, Matthew thought in annoyance. He thought about calling the broker’s bluff. But then he also thought about his grumbling stomach. He gave it a nine-count anyway just for fun.
“Fine. I’ll do it, but just this once.”
He heard Benny’s nasally voice laughing on the other side of the comm. It sounded like he was covering the microphone with his hand to mute it and Matthew could barely make out muffled words. “You were right! He totally bought it.”
Matthew frowned, first at the implication that Benny might have actually just played him like a fiddle, then at the thought that there was someone colluding with him. “Who are you talking to Benny?”
“Oh! Umm… That was just my business partner, don’t worry about it. I’ll send the rest of the details on the job. No failures this time, Matthew.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m already on my way.” He started warming up the Sparrow’s engines for a quick hop to Mars’ southern hemisphere. “This is just a one time deal, okay? Just this once.”
“Sure,” Benny said as he cut the comm.
Matthew finished the pre-flight checklist and pulled up the Kyoto Spaceport on his monitor. He tried not to wince as he paid the Sparrow’s parking fee, nearly cleaning out the last of his account.
He should probably thank Benny for forcing him to take this job, but he didn’t want him to get too comfortable. Punching the engines, he lifted off, heading for new and, hopefully, greener pastures.
Not that anywhere on Mars was particularly green, though the Arizona region was certainly the closest. Here the environmental shields extended further from the cities than anywhere else in the solar system. A wide land of valleys filled with farms and settlements, nestled between red rock mesas, branched out from the city of Flagstaff. As the Sparrow approached Arizona, Matthew gave a wide berth to the regions atmo-factory. An enormous cometary fragment, brought here by Moses over a century ago, was slowly being consumed by plasma torches, releasing, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane, trace amounts of oxygen, and other gases into the thin Martian air. A dozen such atmo-factories were scattered around Mars.
Moses had promised to make the air of the red planet breathable without assistance from technology. The first step was to get the air pressure high enough to live without suits. The second step would have been to adjust its composition to make it breathable. But that was all history. Moses left, and the colonists had managed to finish the first step on their own by simply manning the remaining factories, though the air was still rather thin. The second was now just a dream, lost like so much else.
Matthew landed the Sparrow on the outskirts of one of the border towns. The green ended abruptly at the environmental shields, and the red sands of mars continued undisturbed by man as far as the eye could see. He walked into the small dusty town of ramshackle buildings towards the tiny police station. A town this size likely only had a single lawman, possibly even part-time or a volunteer. But he wasn’t here to see the local enforcer of justice.
Matthew pushed open the door of the station and found three men already inside. One was quite clearly the local lawman, dressed in faded and dirty blues and wearing the wide-brimmed cowboy hat that was expected of him on this part of Mars. The second man was another freelancer and thus one of the partners that Matthew was unwillingly going to have to work with on this job. Leaning against a wall, he was dressed in dark combat fatigues and had a rifle slung on his back. Vaguely, Matthew remembered that his name was Vance. He’d only seen the man once or twice at a distance.
The last man had to be the job’s contact. The civilian clothes he wore did little to hide that he was a government man. The too straight posture, the set of his jaw, all of it spoke of a bureaucrat that was used to having his way because he was from the government and he was here to help.
Matthew tipped his campero. “Matthew Cole, here for the job. I take it you’re Mr. Thompson?”
The government man nodded and offered a hand for Matthew to shake. “Ryan Thompson. Arizona Minister of Law. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Cole. I’ve not heard of you before, but the broker I spoke with claimed you were a man of principle.”
“I suppose you could say that,” Matthew said uncomfortably, shaking his hand. “But I’d rephrase it to say that I try and make an honest living.”
“I see. Well, the Republic of Arizona is only interested in working with honest freelancers such as yourself. It’s not good business to pay someone who might end up working for the bad guys next week, as I’m sure you understand. If you’ll just take a seat, we’re still waiting for the last freelancer.”
Matthew sat in one of the sparse room’s chairs and tapped his fingers idly, hoping the wait wouldn’t be long. He wasn’t disappointed in the wait. He was disappointed by who came through the door.
Abigail Sharon ducked her head as she entered the police headquarters. She wore her powered armor openly, no trench coat today to hide her fantastic piece of earth-tech. Her eyes locked onto Matthew’s and gleamed with amusement.
He tipped his hat to her politely. “Ms. Sharon.”
“Cole. How’s the head doing after that little spill up in Kyoto?”
“Better actually, thanks for asking,” he smiled. “No thanks to you.”
“Oh, you two have worked together before?” Mr. Thompson asked, oblivious to the subtext.
Matthew scratched the back of his head. “That’s… maybe a little too generous a way of putting it.”
Sharon smiled and leaned against a wall, her exo-suit polished to a shine. “I laid him out flat in the street. Just business. Nothing personal.”
The government man eyed them both with suspicion. “Is this going to be a problem?”
“None at all,” she replied sweetly.
Matthew thought about saying yes. He thought about walking out of the police station and back to the Sparrow. But then he also thought about the ration bar that probably still sat on the console. “No problem, sir. As Ms. Sharon said, just business.”
“Good,” Thompson said. He didn’t look convinced. “I hope you don’t have a similarly distasteful past with Mr. Vance.”
“I know him only by name.” Matthew extended a hand to the third member of the team who shook it curtly.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Cole.” Vance smiled a big smile, the kind that irritated Matthew. He tried not to let it get to him. Some people were just annoying. Didn’t mean they weren’t good at their job.
“Alright, the niceties are out of the way,” Sharon said impatiently. “What’s the job?”
The government man turned on the monitor mounted to the wall. It flashed up with a map of Mars’ southern hemisphere, highlighting a rail line. “Prisoner transfer. I’ve been working for months to take down the Hawthorne gang. They’ve been operating out of this part of Mars for the last four years and getting bolder as time goes on. Last week, my deputies made a key arrest, none other than James Hawthorne himself, the second in command under his older brother.”
“Congratulations,” Sharon said. “I’ve had more than one run in with Hawthorne goons. Last time we ended up demolishing most of a warehouse. It was fun.”
“I remember. Let’s not have a repeat, please,” Thompson said, shaking his head. “James was responsible for murdering a member of Churchill’s parliament last year. As such, the Brits have formally requested that we extradite him to Churchill, presumably to hang him on the steps of parliament. I’m not really in a position to deny the Prime Minister, as I owe him a favor. Tomorrow morning, James Hawthorne will secretly be transported on the mag train to Churchill.” He rubbed his hands together. “We’re trying to do this quietly, to keep the Hawthorne gang from trying to spring their man en route. The train is a normally scheduled passenger train, with one of the cars exchanged for a high-security cell. We’ll have ten armed deputies in the car with Hawthorne.”
“Where do we come in, exactly?” Vance asked, leaning forward.
“Truth is, I don’t like this whole operation,” Thompson said, “but the Brits insist on having their man. I’d rather deal with James Hawthorne myself, but that’s not going to happen. And it gets worse. I know for a fact that I’ve got a mole somewhere in my officers. There’s no other way the Hawthorne gang could predict my operations the way they do. Picking up James was sheer luck, something I’m a little loath to admit. I think odds are good that his gang already knows the plan. You three are my wildcard. This job is off the official record, and I paid good money for the broker to keep this quiet. If the Hawthorne gang shows up, I hope to surprise them with the Shield Maiden and two of the best crack shots in the solar system.”
Made sense, Matthew thought. But if Thompson had security issues, odds were good the Hawthorne gang would find out about the freelancer backup anyway. Of course, there was also the chance that this was all for nothing. “What happens if the guests of honor are no shows?” he asked.
Thompson smiled tightly. “Then you three get the easiest paycheck of your lives, courtesy of the Republic of Arizona.”
Matthew sat back in his chair. One could hope, and maybe even pray, that would be the case. A little easy money would be a happy ending for everyone. Well, except for James Hawthorne.
Abigail Sharon didn’t like the job, not one bit, and not because she didn’t like working with a team. That was a pretty regular occurrence. She didn’t even particularly mind working with Cole, despite their little run in a few weeks ago. She’d given him a hard time, but he’d seemed a decent sort of guy from what little they’d spoken. At the very least he was polite, and that was rare enough in this day and age.
The minister’s calm confidence that something would indeed go wrong and that he had a mole, that was unnerving. Even if he managed to keep the fact that the freelancers were around for extra muscle a secret, it meant that the Hawthorne gang was almost guaranteed to show up, and in force.
This made her trust her teammates a little bit less. When you have a mole, everyone is a suspect.
After the minister had left, the freelancers spent the next hour going over the details of the operation. In the end, they decided to split up across the mag-train. Vance would guard the rear car, posing as a passenger and keeping lookout. Cole would also pose as a passenger, but in the frontmost car right before the secure cell. Abigail, unable to go undercover, would join the deputies in guarding James Hawthorne directly and only show herself if it became clear an escape attempt was being made.
Vance was staying at a hotel in town. Abigail returned to her skyhopper, a fixed-wing aircraft designed for flight in Mars’ low air pressure. The sun was setting over the distant hills as she lowered the ramp on the small craft. She paused and looked to her right. In the distance, Cole was boarding his much larger and fancier spacecraft, a Ceres Spaceworks Model 42. It was basically every freelancer’s dream ship. Sleek, able to defend itself, room for cargo, passengers, a crew, or whatever else you wanted. It was one of the best multipurpose workhorses out there.
She felt a pang of jealousy and knocked her armored fist against the hull of her skyhopper. A spacecraft of her own would be a dream come true. No longer limited to jobs on Mars, she’d be able to hit up the rest of the system as well.
“Lucky dog,” she muttered and ducked into the entrance of her own craft. The whole thing was too small for her armored form. Little more than a cockpit and a cramped living quarter, her skyhopper was no luxury suite. Abigail stooped in the middle of her quarters, picked up the power cable, and plugged in her exo-suit. It could run for days without needing a recharge, but she never took chances. She’d never yet been caught without power and had no intention of that ever happening. Checking her wrist to ensure the power banks were receiving the charge, she knelt to the deck and cracked the suit open. Pulling her arms out of their armored counterparts, she reached back and grabbed hold of two bars above her bed and pulled herself out of the armor.
Abigail cracked her knuckles and stretched out on her bed. Grabbing an old paperback novel off the shelf above her head and a box with a freeze-dried self-heating meal, she settled in for the night. Despite being one of her favorites, she had a hard time concentrating on the words. Not even the wittiest exchanges between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy held her attention as her mind kept wandering back to tomorrow’s job. Maybe it was just pessimism.
Or maybe tomorrow really was going to be that kind of day. It was always hard to judge this sort of thing.
She turned the light out and tried vainly to get some sleep.
The next morning Abigail got up early, checked over her armor, and ate a quick breakfast. She suited up and went to the train station. The grey pre-dawn light filtered over the hills and a chill breeze blew through the border town. She was met by a deputy who escorted her to the secure train car. Looking like an ordinary passenger car, it floated a meter above the magnetic track. Inside was another matter entirely. It was armored like a tank and had four barred prisoner cells.
There was only a single deputy present. He shook her hand, nervously, and introduced himself as Captain Stanley.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms., uhh… Shield Maiden. I’ve read a lot about you and respect your work.”
Great, she thought. A fan. She smiled graciously, “Yes, well, we’re all here to do a job.” She gestured to the empty cells. “Is our guest on schedule?”
Stanley straightened and nodded vigorously. “Yes, Ma’am. James Hawthorne will be arriving via armored car in just over one hour. You are welcome to take a seat until then.”
Abigail laughed and with a metal palm slapped the thigh of her suit, making a loud noise. “I don’t exactly tire. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just stand.”
“Yes, I umm... Of course.”
She smiled at his awkward response, enjoying one of the pleasures her earth-tech suit afforded her. Waiting around for the next hour was not among those pleasures, but they had decided it would be better if Abigail weren’t seen stomping onto the train. Hence the early morning.
Sometime after the sun rose, Abigail heard the roar of a personnel carrier pulling up outside, Eight deputies and James Hawthorne in an orange prisoner coverall boarded the train. He was a man of average height with a sandy beard. Nothing much to look at, but he was apparently an outlaw leader with a penchant for murder. Shows how you could never really judge a book by its cover.
Hawthorne startled when he laid eyes on Abigail. As he passed her, she looked down at him and laughed. “That’s right. Whatever your little men have planned is not going to work.”
He spat at her and was wrestled into a cell by the deputies. Captain Stanley laughed. “You ought to treat a lady with a little more respect. I get the feeling she could rip you limb from limb.”
The outlaw leader didn’t say anything, just glared daggers at the deputies from behind his bars. Abigail leaned against the wall in front of him and crossed her arms, deciding to stare him down while she waited. There was an unpleasant tickle in the back of her mind that Hawthorne was a little too calm, even after his initial shock of seeing Abigail.
There was going to be trouble. She was almost certain.
Matthew sat in one of the stiff seats in the first passenger car back from Sharon. The dingy car seemed far dirtier and run down than when he had ridden this very line a few times as a kid. Still, he mused, at least it was running. Mag trains could be repaired when they broke unlike some other bits of infrastructure.
He looked over the rows of seats. There were only a handful of passengers in the car. He had chosen the rearmost row so that he would see any passenger that tried to enter or leave. He tapped his fingers idly on the rail, waiting for the train to depart the station. Churchill was some nine hundred miles from Arizona. The trip by mag train was about four hours, normally enough time for a good nap. Today it was going to be monotonous waiting for something to happen. This was the kind of job that could make you jump at shadows as it dragged on.
He was confident that something would happen. Something in the quiet sincerity of the government man’s own confidence had sold Matthew on that. It was just a matter of time.
There was a slight bump as the train departed and began to pick up speed. He took a glance out the window as they raced across the red martian desert. There was even a bit of blue in the usually hazy red sky this morning. He pulled back a sleeve and glanced at his old wristwatch. Weeks ago he had set it to Mars length days, which were conveniently only a few minutes longer than standard. He dialed it to local time. If the bandits were smart, they’d make their move at the two-hour mark. Halfway in between the colonies would give them more time before reinforcements could arrive.
Then again, sometimes there was value in doing the unexpected. Twenty minutes into the ride, three men entered the car. There was nothing suspicious about the way they dressed, simple working clothes with wide-brimmed hats, but there was no good reason for them to have changed cars. Matthew watched them casually as they walked toward the front of the car. They didn’t seem to have marked him. He pulled out his comm and signaled the other two freelancers. He got an immediate counter signal from Sharon. She must have been ready and itching for action.
Vance didn’t answer. Matthew fired the signal again and grimaced. Vance may have already been identified and eliminated.
The three men had reached the front of the car and neared the door. Matthew stood and bellowed, “Everybody, get down!”
This was for two reasons. First, he wanted the handful of civilians in the car to hit the deck. This was going to get violent one way or another. Second, he wanted to give the suspicious characters a chance to either prove their innocence or guilt before he opened fire. All three of them spun and drew their guns, and Matthew had his answer.
He fired four shots from his revolver, striking two of the men before they even finished turning. The third was fast and had his own gun drawn before the others hit the ground. Matthew dove behind the seat as sparks scattered from the bullets. The report was deafening in the enclosed space. He was on his feet again in a moment with his gun trained towards his target. The outlaw had taken cover behind a partition at the front of the car.
Matthew took a risk and fired all three shots at the partition. There was a cry of pain, and the man fell into the aisle. Matthew pulled a speed loader from a pocket and had his revolver ready to fire again. “Make sure your cover is bulletproof next time,” he said to no one in particular as he walked past the rows of seats.
Thankfully the few passengers had heeded his warning and taken cover before the fight. “Might want to stay down, ladies and gentlemen. I think you’re in the middle of an old fashioned train heist.” He signaled Vance one last time. Still no answer, and at this point, Matthew expected that there never would be.
He ducked behind a chair and called Sharon.
“No answer from Vance. Three bogeys down. You quiet up there?”
“Quiet as a church. Were there only three?”
“‘So far. If I had to guess the main assault will be coming soon, possibly by air. They probably posed as passengers to flush out extra defenders.”
There was a pause on the other end of the comm. “Think they were looking for us specifically?” They were both thinking the same thing. Thompson’s security problem was a gaping hole if the Hawthorne gang already knew about the freelancers.
“Either way they seemed to have found Vance. Keep your eyes open. I’m going to try and get a look at the sky, see if we’ve got incoming.”
“Keep me posted.” Sharon cut the link and Matthew moved into action. He stepped through the door at the front of the car and shut it behind him. Pulling a breathing mask from beneath his poncho, he placed it over his face. Mars’ atmosphere was thick enough that you no longer needed a pressure suit, and most of its citizens were used to cold-shirting it short distances from building to building or train car to train car if they were outside of the environmental shields. He would be outside longer than that though. He pushed open the heavy outer door and stepped out onto the small platform. The red Martian landscape raced by, a blur of sand and rock. The train car in front of him, the one containing the prisoner, Sharon, and the deputies, was joined to Matthew’s by a single hitch. A flexible hanging bridge made it possible to cross safely from one to the other.
But Matthew didn’t intend to hole up with Sharon just yet. Turning, he climbed the rung ladder on his car and poked his head over the top of the train. He saw exactly what he feared he would see. Two skyhoppers, much like Sharon’s, approaching fast from the rear of the train. In just a few seconds they’d be here.
“Sharon,” he shouted over the whistle of the wind. A small environmental shield at the front of the train greatly reduced wind drag. This had the side effect of making the wind atop the train much slower, which, considering the circumstances was a pity. Matthew wouldn’t have minded one bit if the top of the train was inaccessible due to hurricane force winds. “Skyhoppers inbound.” One passed overhead and slowed above the train’s engine. Which meant the other… He whipped his head around. It hovered over the rear of the train, and four men had already landed lightly atop one of the cars. They braced against the wind. “Sharon. The engine. You’ve got company from the front.” He shut off the comm and aimed his revolver across the top of the train. The intruders hadn’t noticed him yet. He fired four shots.
Through sheer luck, he hit one target in the arm. Unfortunately, they were way out of the practical engagement range of his revolver and, realizing this, they crouched and returned fire. Three guns answering his one had Matthew retreating back down the ladder. He’d have to make for the secure car. From there, he’d stand a chance with Sharon and the deputies. As he stepped onto the platform, Matthew felt the muzzle of a gun press into his back.
“Sorry about this,” Vance said.
Matthew almost thought he meant it. At least now he knew why the man’s smile had been so obnoxious.
“I thought Thompson said he was only hiring principled freelancers for this job?” He was stalling, of course, grasping for a plan of some sort.
Vance was quiet for a moment. “Turns out we all have our price.”
“That’s pretty blatantly untrue,” Matthew said carefully.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Just because you haven’t found yours yet doesn’t mean you won’t someday.”
Matthew shook his head. “You know nothing about me.”
“You’re right. I don’t. And sadly, I never will.”
That was as good a warning as any. Rather than take a bullet to the back from a coward and sellout, Matthew dropped to the ground, praying to take Vance by surprise. He swept a leg towards the other freelancer and in the process took him down. The rifle Vance had been holding discharged harmlessly into the sky. For a few moments, there was a tangle and confusion of limbs as both men tried to get their bearing .
Unfortunately for Vance, Matthew found his first, and his fist found the other man’s face. There was a cracking noise. Vance would have a broken nose and Matthew a few jammed fingers, but the traitor dropped like a sandbag to the platform. Matthew’s breathing mask had come free, and he grabbed its hose and shoved it back on his face. He checked to make sure that Vance’s was secure too. Asphyxiation wasn’t a death he’d wish on anyone.
From the secure car, he heard a barrage of gunfire, and he leaped to his feet hoping it wasn’t too late.
“Skyhoppers inbound,” Cole’s voice rattled over Abigail’s comm. Above her head, she heard the roar of the aircraft as one passed above her train car.
“Look alive,” Captain Stanley ordered.
She moved to the front of the car and pulled her riot shield off her back. It sprang to life with a faint hum. Her armor was tough enough to stop most small arms fire, but she still preferred to take them in the shield. Better not to take too many chances.
A spray of sparks began to shoot from the door as the Hawthorne gang cut through it with a plasma torch. “Breathing masks on!” shouted Stanley.
Abigail lowered her own transparent face shield and waited patiently, knowing this would give her one good shot at whoever was on the other side. The moment the torch had cut a complete circuit around the door she slammed her shield into it, giving it a good jolt from the grav plate.
The heavy steel door blew outwards taking at least two men with it. Abigail didn’t know what happened to them but figured their bodies would someday be found on the dry Martian landscape, half-mummified. Gunfire began to ping harmlessly against her shield. Then she heard something bounce across the ground near her feet.
A flash and a deafening roar echoed through the train car, and for a moment Abigail feared they had tossed a live grenade through the hole. As the stars began to clear, she realized with relief that it was only a flashbang, but the distraction could prove disastrous. Still reeling from the blast, she pushed her shield to block the missing door. There were more pings of deflected gunfire. Then she noticed the car filling with smoke.
“Find that smoke grenade and get it out of here,” she bellowed over her ringing ears. It was too late. The car was filled with smoke, making it almost impossible to see. Breathing wasn’t a problem for the deputies due to their masks, but it was hard to know where a threat was coming from if you couldn’t see it. The outlaws would probably have thermal vision to see through…
A shaft of light came from the rear of the car, cutting through the smoke. “Sharon!” Cole yelled.
“Keep your eyes on the rear door. I’ve got the front!”
“We’re going to have more company from the back in just a minute. They unloaded a squad on the rear cars.”
Abigail swore under her breath.
Captain Stanley gave new orders to his men, and four of them exited the rear of the car to defend from that position. The gunfire had stopped, and Abigail risked a peek around her shield. She couldn't see anyone on the other side. That didn’t make sense. What were they…?
The voice of one of the deputies rang through the car “The prisoner!”
There was a clang of metal, and the rush of air as a new hole opened in the train car’s side.
So that was the purpose of the flashbang and smoke grenade. Distraction while they cut through the prisoner's cell. One of the deputy’s revolvers barked twice. “Too late! They have him!” a voice shouted.
Abigail growled and unlatched what was left of the door, pushed it open, and stepped out onto the platform. Empty with no outlaws in sight. She grabbed the rung ladder and pulled herself up to the top of the car. The skyhopper at the front of the train had drifted back behind the secure cell, and several men, including James Hawthorne, were running the length of the train towards it.
Having no better plan, she ran across the top of the secure cell after them, leaping lightly to the next car. It was a dangerous leap for a man on foot, but for her, it was an easy jump. The outlaws must have heard her heavy suit land with a bang. While Hawthorne continued running towards the skyhopper, they turned and opened fire. She advanced slowly as the bullets ricocheted off her shield.
“Use a hand?” Cole asked from behind her. Abigail glanced at him in surprise, unaware that he’d followed.
“Be my guest,” she said through gritted teeth.
Cole stood behind her, using her and her shield for cover and began returning fire with the bandits. He was a good shot. Real good. In a matter of seconds, two were downed, and the remaining three were beating a hasty retreat. “Move forward,” he said calmly. “The deputies are pushing through the train beneath us as we speak.”
“Who put you in charge?” Abigail countered as she pressed towards the skyhopper. It was three cars away, and James Hawthorne had almost made it to safety. Reaching the end of the car, she leaped to the next and glanced behind her as Cole took a running jump to join her.
She could reach Hawthorne. Easily.
But then the skyhopper opened fire.
Its chin mounted chain gun began unleashing a storm of lead on them. She knelt to the ground so her shield would provide better coverage. The larger caliber bullets would almost certainly pierce her armor’s shell. Cole took cover behind her again, his back against her own. Hopefully, any passengers below were out of the line of fire. Abigail tried not to think about that right now.
“We might have a problem,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm.
“Yup. I’m going to be eating ration bars till the day I die.”
“You do seem to be good at failing contracts,” she shouted.
“I seem to remember that I was the only reason anyone made any money back in Kyoto.”
“Can this wait till later?!” she shouted. He wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t about to admit it.
Hawthorne was surely tucked into the skyhopper by now. The second aircraft had in fact already pulled away from the engine and was drifting back alongside the train. The chaingun stopped, and Abigail risked a peek around her shield. There was a rumble as Hawthorne’s skyhopper throttled up and it roared overhead. Cole’s revolver fired a few parting shots that glanced harmlessly off the hull of the craft.
Abigail cursed under her breath as she realized that the second skyhopper was right beside them. A side hatch opened, and something caught her eye.
So Cole had seen it too. An outlaw had a shoulder mounted thumper aimed at them. She brought her shield around and stepped between Cole and the weapon right as it fired.
The blast from a thumper is visible. In a vacuum, the artificial bubble of curved space bends light somewhat around itself creating an obvious distortion. In atmosphere, the bubble also gives off a faint iridescent light, some exotic reaction with air molecules. Abigail didn’t really understand the science. But she did see the blast as it lanced across the short distance separating the train and the skyhopper. It hit her shield squarely and she heard a high pitched shriek as the grav plate in her shield tried to neutralize it. It held, barely, but as the thumper blast collapsed in on itself, it let loose a shockwave that blew both her and Cole off the train.
There was a moment of weightlessness. Through sheer luck, they happened to be traveling along the top of a steep hill and the ground was nearly a hundred feet below them. Abigail returned her shield to her back but left it engaged. Cole hurtled through the air beside her. Reaching out she grabbed his arm and pulled him to herself. She saw the look of surprise on his face as she wrapped her arms around him. His breath mask had been knocked off and he fumbled in her grip to replace it. Abigail rotated to land on her back, feet facing down the slope.
This whole process took only a few seconds as the ground rushed up at them. They hit the slope at high speed, but the grav plate in Abigail’s shield absorbed the majority of the impact. Mars’ lower gravity also helped keep their speed non-fatal. Half supported by a cushion of gravity from her shield, she did her best to keep her feet from touching the ground. If this turned into a wild tumble, Cole was as good as dead.
Red rocks and dust flew up behind them as they slid down the hill. Judging they had shed enough speed, she planted her feet to continue slowing them. As they neared the bottom of the hill, she clipped a boulder and lost hold of Cole.
Matthew bounced another twenty feet across the shallow basin of sand at the bottom of the hill before tumbling to a halt. He coughed, then realized his mask had come free yet again. He replaced it and took a deep breath, promising himself to find one that secured to his face better.
A few minutes passed as Matthew lay on his back, glad to be alive. He had been supremely confident when the thumper fired that his life was over. The fact that Sharon had somehow managed to save them both was something he was still trying to process.
Speaking of, Sharon stood over him. “How you doing, cowboy? Any serious injuries?”
“I’m going to hurt in the morning, but I’m alive,” he accepted the hand offered to him and stood to his feet. “I guess that’s that,” he grumbled. “I don’t think Thompson hired enough guns.”
Sharon shook her head. “I think the whole cloak and dagger on a public train was the real downfall. No heavy weaponry to chase off the skyhoppers. What a disaster.”
Matthew grunted. “Thanks, by the way, for saving my life.”
She nodded, seemingly distracted.
Not knowing what else to do, Matthew started walking back up towards the tracks. He’d spotted his hat halfway up the hillside and stooped to pick it up. The low gravity made the trek tiring, and he began to sweat despite the chill in the thin atmosphere. They reached the hilltop and, without a better plan, started hiking down the track towards Arizona.
“Arizona has a serious security problem,” Matthew mused. “I know Thompson said he had a mole, but that was nuts.”
“You’re telling me,” Sharon agreed. “They knew which car and even which cell in the car.”
Matthew stared at her for a moment and then realized she was missing an important detail. “Oh right, I think I forgot to mention that Vance was a traitor.”
“What?” she asked, rounding on him.
“Yeah, he wasn’t answering for a reason. Vance held me at gunpoint, but I managed to turn it into a fist fight. I broke his face. He’ll live, but not if I ever see him again.”
Sharon suddenly laughed. She looked at her wrist and tapped a few buttons. “This job may not be over after all.”
Matthew gave her a good stare and raised an eyebrow in an unspoken question.
“I didn’t trust either you or Vance after Thompson expressed his concerns. Last night I slipped a tracker on both of you before we left the briefing.”
“I would have noticed that.”
“I can be subtle,” she said defensively.
“You weren’t subtle back in Kyoto.”
“Check your hat.”
Matthew took off his campero. Sure enough, a tiny black disk was nestled between the crown and brim. He didn’t say anything and merely replaced the hat.
Sharon laughed again and tapped her wrist. “I just checked on Vance’s tracker. It’s north of here.”
Matthew nodded. “And the train went east. So Vance was able to retreat with them. He didn’t stay down long.”
“He’s got an impressive reputation. I’m not surprised.”
“So we follow your tracker to Vance and the Hawthorne gang. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Beats not getting paid,” she said.
“And eating ration bars,” he concluded. “Fine.” He pulled the air compressor off his belt that connected to his breath mask.
“How much time do you have?” Sharon asked.
“Eight hours. Probably not enough to make it back to Arizona. I’m not exactly sure how far out we are.”
Sharon gave an exasperated sigh and knelt to the ground. She gestured to her back. “Hop on.”
Matthew stopped and crossed his arms. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Not a bit. Either you ride piggyback, or I carry you bridal style. Your choice.”
“You’re sure you can carry me that far?”
“Yes and much faster than you can walk. Come on. We don’t have all day.”
Matthew walked over to her and climbed on her back. “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.”
Sharon laughed. “Quit complaining cowboy. We’ve got a job to finish.”