The walking wasn’t that bad, Jack found. But Lee’s sudden silence was hurtful.
They’d left the oasis as soon as they’d both slept and eaten a good meal, but at some point in what passed for their night, Lee had grown distant and thoughtful. It was like Jack’s touch had alchemically changed something between them. Changed Lee, even.
“You know how much longer we got?” Jack asked.
Lee kept walking. After some time, he responded in a small voice, “As far as I can work out, we have a good twenty miles left. Should make it today.”
The ground was arid but, mercifully, flat. Whatever it was that Lee had put on Jack’s leg the night before, it had fair soothed the hurt, and though movement still smarted a bit, it was a pain that was cushioned now and properly controlled. Jack was grateful for that at least. It seemed like it would be smooth going from there, until:
In the hazy grey light, Jack was the first to perceive something on the horizon. “Marauders,” he said when he was sure.
Lee clung tight to his backpack. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, scanning the area around them. It was just dirt. “I mean there ain’t anywhere to run. Not that I can at the moment.” He looked to Lee then. “You could though.”
Lee shook his head, his hair slick with sweat. Jack was used to the heat of the flats, but Lee wasn’t. It was taking its toll.
“Then we stand. And if need be, we fight.”
“I can’t…” Lee said. In the protracted quiet, Lee added, “I mean I really can’t. I’m useless.”
“That thing you can do with your augments. Can you do it even if you don’t have contact?”
Lee considered a moment. “It takes time, and it depends on the tech.”
“I need a yes or a no,” Jack said.
Lee moved from foot to foot, breathing shallow. He was panicking. And then he wasn’t. His jaw set again and his eyes narrowed. “Yes. But I’ll need about five minutes.”
“I can work with that.” Jack took off his coat, throwing it on the ground. He worked his shoulders and cracked his knuckles. “You stay behind me. Try keep it discreet. I will talk at ’em. You work on whichever you can.”
The vehicle–a Chelonia with a large, armored central pod in opaque brown lustre–sped up to them, kicking up a wave of sand as it spun to a stop.
The pod opened and four men piled out, each wearing goggles over their eyes and heavy black scale like tattoos over their tanned skin.
“This is our territory,” said the lead man with lilac tint to his skin. “You trespassing.”
Jack glanced at Lee. Lee already had his head bowed, concentrating.
“No territory here,” Jack said. “By the Landolf Accord, this land is neutral. The air above it, though? That’s Einz.”
The four men before Jack laughed. “You an Einz yourself son?”one of the other men asked, this one with a split to his tongue which he seemed intent on showing off. Bifurcation was a cheap mod, but some gangs split their tongues to make themselves pure reptilian like. If that was the case here, this situation could get a whole lot more tricky as the reptiles were known for their short fuses.
“That I am.”
“Woooweeee!” Reptile Tongue said. “We got ourselves a prize.”
“You and your friend are coming with us,” said Lilac. “Reckon they’ll pay a price for you, or you’ll pay a price if they don’t.”
“We’ll pass,” Jack answered.
The words settled like freezing rain, locking each of them in place.
“What did you say?” Reptile Tongue spat on the ground. “You either come with us or…”
The man pressed a hand gun–nerve disrupting unit by its boxy shape–to Jack’s forehead.
“One chance. Step back.” Jack said, and his gaze never left Reptile Tongue’s black lenses.
Reptile Tongue laughed, looking to his friends. Then the laughter turned to a definite hiss. “Make me.”
So Jack did. His right fist connected with Reptile Tongue’s solar plexus, his left elbow coming down on the man’s back when Reptile doubled over. In one fluid motion Jack grabbed hold of the limp man and threw him back toward his friends.
“Get back in your Chelonia,” he said. He folded his arms, keeping his scowl deep and firm. He only looked at Lilac. “We’re just passing through, so let’s keep it that way.”
“You were passing. Now you’re dead.” Lilac held up his arm. The flesh rippled and the skin peeled back as four metal armatures reared up, their red hot eyes all trained on Jack and Lee.
Jack whistled. “An Armageddon. Not seen one of those since training.” He looked to Lee. Lee’s forehead was dotted with diamonds of sweat, and his eyes seemed to be trained on Lilac. “Mind if I ask where you got it?”
“Blast him,” Reptile Tongue said. “Blast them both to bits!” Their two cohorts who, until now, had hung behind raised their voices in agreement.
But then Lilac surprised Jack. He turned his gun arm on Lee.
“What are you doing?”
Lee didn’t even flinch. He just kept staring. Kept muttering. Jack could almost make out the words. “See parameters… auxiliary root…draw down…”
“I said, what are you doing?”
“My friend’s not right in the head,” Jack said after a moment. “Doesn’t understand you.”
“Doesn’t understand me?” One of the armatures moved, the eye turning back to Jack. “I know when someone’s trying a hack. Stop or I will blow you to smoke.”
Lee carried on mumbling.
“Shoot him!” Reptile Tongue said.
“Stop whatever you’re doing. This is your last–”
Lee did stop then. Just as the Chelonia’s engine roared, it’s treads spinning at high gear until it got traction and lurched forward right at the men. They scattered.
Lee followed the movement of the vehicle, turning it in a long arch so that it ran around them all, Lee and Jack included, looping over and over to form a circle.
One of the two more silent partners in the group made a dash for it.
“Engage weapons,” Lee said. The Chelonia’s extended, rounded head glowed hot. “Target. Fire.” The sand just in front of the man sizzled and turned to liquid. The man came up short, just in time.
Reptile Tongue ran at Lee then, gun held high. “You little shit!” The gun discharged, a pulse flying straight into Lee’s body–where it did nothing. Reptile Tongue shot again. Once, twice, three times.
He turned to Jack.
“Target,” Lee said, loud this time so that Reptile Tongue heard. “I will not miss,” he warned, his voice flat as though the man Jack knew had all gone away and in his place was something…almost robotic.
Reptile Tongue, seething, began to squeeze the trigger.
“No.” Lilac called. “Gun down.”
Reptile Tongue bared his teeth, his tongue flickering out. “Shit man!” he said, finally lowering the weapon. Lilac, too, recalled the Armageddon, its armatures withdrawing so that his limb returned to normal.
“We will walk out of this circle,” Lee said in that same monotone. “You will not follow. You will not attempt to find us. If your vehicle comes within signal shot of my augments, I can trigger a fatal cascade in the combustion system.”
“That means he’ll blow shit up,” Jack translated for Reptile Tongue.
Lilac nodded. “You going to call the Einz on us?”
Jack shook his head. “Way I look at it–we never met. You fine with that?” Lilac didn’t object.
Jack picked up his coat and, with a guiding hand on Lee’s shoulder, steered him up to the perimeter of the still circling vehicle. On its next circle, the Chelonia drew to a stop just after it passed them, then Jack and Lee kept walking.
A few more yards and Lee piped up: “Any attempt to shoot me will result in every one of you being shot.”
Jack looked back to see Reptile Tongue’s weapon pointing directly at them.
“See you round boys,” Jack said and waved.
They walked on for about a mile, the silence coming off Lee now positively unsettling. Then the man stumbled and fell forward onto his knees. He took a deep breath as if waking from an ages long sleep.
“That was some impressive hack,” Jack said.
Lee laughed. “Realised I couldn’t hack them, but you can always hack vehicles.” Lee looked up. Blood ran from his nose thick and fast.
“I might have burned out one of my augments,” Lee said in a manner that suggested he knew he definitely had. “It would be a good idea to get me to Vardy. Quickly.”
Then Lee’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he pitched over onto his side and began to fit.