“You need four things out here,” the grizzled old man said. He was old enough to be one of the fossils that littered the area. Covered in enough dust, he was the same color. “Fuel, water, ammunition, and a purpose. If you’re missing one of those things, you might as well just kill yourselves right now.” The old man laughed at his own humor, but it came out like a dry coughing fit.
Jane nodded to the old man with a smile and then turned away, dismissing the unsolicited advice and turning back to her cycle. She had listened to the locals long enough to know that they are either batshit insane, want something from you, or they are setting you up for something bad. But sometimes she needed them, and that pissed her off.
Marshall was already sitting on his cycle, letting the engine come up to temp. He had packed up quickly as soon as the sky got light enough to see and was ready to go.
Aaron was pushing his cycle out of the garage. The fresh tread on his new tires made Jane envious. But she grinned as she thought of all the miles it would take before those nobbies smoothed out enough that it didn’t vibrate his nuts until they were numb. Still, he had new treads and she didn’t. She’d have to get some as soon as possible. The terrain in this region was not easy on tires.
Jane opened a small pouch on her tank bag and pulled out three coins. “Here you go, Mister. Three duckets for a night’s rest and use of some tools as agreed. We appreciate it.”
As she turned around with the coins in her hand, she turned into the muzzle of a hacked-off gauge. The old man was grinning ear to crooked ear. “Damn.” She muttered.
“Maybe I’ll just take all of it and kill you three right now. Could sell those machines and have enough to move to the coast.”
Jane slowly raised her hands. “You don’t want to go down this road, mister.” The old man’s grin twisted and one eye started to close as he sighted down the barrel of his hacked gauge.
Suddenly the man’s head erupted in a chunky gore fountain and the echo of a gunshot bounced off the building and canyon walls.
“Damn it, Marshall!” Jane yelled as she wiped old man’s brain chunks off her jacket. One chunk was hard and she picked it off. It was a gold tooth. She put that in a pocket and pulled out a rag to clean up the blood splatter. “You could have waited a second till I backed up a step.”
Marshal just grunted as he holstered the long barreled magnum he kept under his jacket in a shoulder rig. “I hated that guy since I first saw him… he was sketchy. Didn’t trust him.” Marshal’s voice sounded like it was as dry and full of dust as his cycle’s air filter. This also explained why he kept his jacket open since they pulled up, even though it was cold at night. “Didn’t like the way he looked at you.”
Jane put the coins back in her bag and turned to the crumpled body. The shotgun pistol was still clutched in the old man’s chilling hand. It was rusted, cracked, and useless. Jane kicked it away from the body in case rigor made the trigger finger contracted enough to fire the gun. She went through the pockets and found a lighter and a packet of instant coffee. She took both and stood up.
“Can we get out of here?” Aaron asked as he pulled his goggles down over his helmet. He wore an old fashioned motocross helmet because he liked the vintage style. His goggles were new tech though. Full data streams and eye tracking. A strange meld of the ancient and new that worked well with Aaron’s style. He did a lot of things the old fashioned way. Like his coffee. He actually used a burner to heat the water and not a flash induction coil. Jane didn’t understand why he preferred to take a couple of minutes to wait for hot coffee when he could have it in seven seconds. He claimed there was a better flavor, but she didn’t buy it.
She threw her leg over the seat of her cycle, kicked the stand up, and hit the starter. There was a high pitched whine as the turbine spooled up. With a low thump the ignition kicked in and fired the fuel-air mixture. A moment later the engine RPMs were up to speed and she was ready to go.
Aaron started his cycle. The big bore Twin-V-Twins burbled to life after a couple of coughing starts. The engines were older than the bike’s frame, but Aaron loved them. They were ancient and Earth-Made. But they were efficient and reliable. Aaron could keep up with the other bikes, so they had to have enough power output. He patted his tank like a cowboy would pat the neck of his horse. Sometimes, he even talked to it. Not to the engine management system or the nav-comp, but to the bike itself, like it could listen and understand him. Strange.
Jane pulled down her lid and cinched the chin strap. Her HUD lit up and showed her machine’s telemetry data. The warning lights from yesterday were gone thanks to the night’s opportunity to wrench and wire without worrying about feral packs or ROUSs. When all the system checks were completed, she looked over at Aaron and Marshal. “Come on. Let’s roll.”
She didn’t wait for a response. She opened the throttle and feathered out the clutch, and her cycle surged forward like it was shot out of a cannon.
The three Riders tracked Spinward in a wedge formation, Jane on point. Three plumes of dust rooster tailing behind them.
After a high-speed burn across the open desert that was called “The Great Capacious Ocean”, Jane eased off the throttle. They had been riding all day, stopping only for a few minutes to drink and drain. This last stretch had been a sprint to the finish. Two of the bikes slowed and stopped in a small clearing off the main track. They were close to the Grand Banks that she had been warned about approaching. If you wanted to get out of the Ocean, you had to get up on top of the Grand Banks. To do that, you had to get up the Ramp and through the Gates.
Jane looked around. The Great Capacious was once one of the largest and deepest bodies of water in known space. Once. They had been riding for two weeks just to cross this dust bowl and the sight of the edge made her excited. She pulled off her helmet and looked around. Dust and trash. A hundred years ago, there was supposed to have been good fishing here. Before the Cataclysm. There were a few skeletons of old boats around. Usable materials were scavenged a long time ago, all that was left were keels and main bulkheads too heavy to make off with.
Marshal shook out his dreadlocks and pulled off his armored jacket. Sweat and salt-stained, his black shirt looked grey and old. Almost as old looking as his bike, which was brand new only a couple months ago.
Jane’s machine was looking no better. Dust and grit combined with high speeds had stripped much of the paint off all the leading edges. The machine started its familiar cool-down ticking even before the turbine stopped spinning.
Aaron was coming in. He had been lagging behind a little, keeping an eye on their six to make sure no one was following them. No one was.
Jane didn’t have to look. The rumble of those big pistons announced his position down to the centimeter. She held out a water bottle, knowing he would be there in a second to take it. She grinned as the bottle was plucked from her hand. He had caught more dust than her or Marshal had, being behind them, so he was full-on monochrome. Aaron emptied the water and carefully tucked the bottle away so they could refill it later.
“How are we doing on fuel?” Aaron asked after he wiped off his lips. He was getting low, and knew the other cycles were even more thirsty than his.
“I’ve got another thirty miles,” Jane answered.
“Twenty,” Marshal noted.
Aaron got off his bike and unstrapped a small fuel can. He poured some into his tank, more into Marshal’s, and the last of it into Jane’s. “This should be enough to get us up top to the Station.”
“Hopefully they have fuel.”
“They always have fuel.”
“Hopefully they have fuel that they can sell,” Jane said as she stretched, glad to be off the bike again.
Marshal glassed the upper edge of the Grand Bank and noted the positions of the cannons there. Ancient rifled cannons lined the edge where the sky and ground met. Huge barrels aimed out into the Ocean as a warning to those that might have bad intentions. The guns were old, but the cybernetic targeting computers were state of the art and that made for a brutally effective combination. What High Order Explosive Shells didn’t take care of, the Las-cannons did. One blast could cut an APC in half.
“We’ll stay the night here and go up in the morning,” Marshal said. Jane was fine with this.
Aaron looked around. “No Ferals?”
“Didn’t see any for the last hour,” Marshal said.
“They mostly come out at night. Mostly.”
Jane snorted. “Don’t worry, Aaron. You’ll be fine.”
Aaron had been nervous about the dogs and rats ever since one bit his foot while he was asleep. He almost lost the toe to the bite, and the foot to the infection.
They had just set up camp when the Night passed over them. Day and night cycled at the Earth normal 24-hour mark. This annoyed Jane as it felt like the days were too short. Athens had a civilized day night cycle of 30 hours, which meant her wristwatch was useless here. She had clasped the watch band around her handlebars so she wouldn’t lose it. Keeping it on meant looking at it out of habit, and that threw her day off.
Marshall took the time to strip and clean. Once he had washed down with moist Baby-Wipes, he let himself air dry by stretching out on his bedroll. His feet hung off the edge. Marshall was tall, dark-skinned, and considered handsome by most folks. The dreads were getting long, not because it was a fashion or style thing, but because they’ve been out a long time running.
Aaron tinkered with his bike for a bit before he decided to turn in. He was always doing that, even if the bike didn’t need it. “Gotta keep the old girl happy” he’d say.
Jane understood it though. They depended on their machines like the Cavalry of old depended on their horses. Before the Cavalry took care of themselves, they took care of the horses first. Priorities. That and Aaron’s bike had problems with intake filtration that Marshall’s and her bike didn’t have. Turbines sucked in everything and blew it out hot.
Before she laid down for the night she pulled out a small black sphere. The Sentry-Bot. She tapped it three times on the top and the little bot started to hum. Small blue lights under the surface flashed and little induction pods unfolded, glowed, and the bot lifted off her gloved hand. It hovered for a moment and then climbed up into the dark. She caught a glimpse of a couple more blips of blue light before it went stealth and hung in the air silent and invisible.
The Sentry-Bot was a small robot designed for campers. It would scare away animals that could hurt anyone sleeping by flashing harmless laser lights at them. If that didn’t work, the Bot would set off audible alarms in various tones inaudible to humans and if that didn’t work, it would go audible to humans. It could stay up for as long as fourteen hours if needed. Usually available at any sporting goods store for about 30 duckets. Jane’s had a customized hers to add a couple more features. One of which was to allow remote access to a small multi-spectrum camera array.
After verifying the Sentry-Bot was operating in the right modes, Jane pulled out her notebook. An old fashioned paper notebook bound with a simple spiraled coil of wire. It was thick with inserted scraps, data sheets, flexible PDAs, and anything else thin and light. The cover was torn in a couple of places that strips of adhesive tape held it together. Elastic bands held the rest of the stuff inside the notebook. The total collection of a decade’s worth of research. It was as adhoc and confusing as a method of collection, but to Jane it all made sense. She was able to flick through the leaves of paper and scraps and retrieve any bit of data she wanted faster than she could type in a request into any type of computer, or vocalize a request into a PDA.
She quickly flicked to a section highlighted in faded blue along the edge and opened the pages wide. A scrap almost fell out, but a thumb had caught it. The scrap had a small sketch on it. This scrap she picked up from ruined school on the planet Hector 3.
Hector 3 had been abandoned by a race of aliens, similar to the classic humanoid shape, but with an extra set of eyes and nostrils. The planet had been abandoned long before human contact. The ruins on Hector 3 were ancient and little evidence of sentient life remained on the surface. Underground though, things were preserved quite well. Including scrolls and books. Deciphering the history of the Hectarians wasn’t what interested Jane. It was this sketch. She looked at it once again… for the hundredth time if it was the first time.
It was a small simple sketch of a dragon. What made this sketch interesting was the isolation of the race of aliens that drew it. They wouldn’t have had contact with other species of Sentients. And yet here was a dragon. Humans from Earth arrogantly thought that dragons had been the invention of their own creativity. Turns out they were wrong.
Jane had found fables and legends of dragons in almost every culture, in almost every sentient race, across nine galaxies. All from pre-contact eras. Everyone had stories of dragons. And all of them had similarities enough in their descriptions that there had to be something more than coincidences. If the planet had a Nitro/O2 Atmo, there be dragons.
Most scientists dismissed this as a coincidence. Shared storytelling from early space travelers and wanderers. Jane had a different theory. It was the dragons that were the early travelers. Unfortunately finding any actual physical evidence had been elusive. Until last year. Her hunt had brought her to a Bizarre on one of the oldest planets in known space, Eridani.
Jane had been searching for projectiles for an Eridani firearm she had already purchased when she found a clear crystal sarcophagus that contained what looked like a preserved baby dragon. The only thing that the proprietor of the shop would give her was the name of an Earth-Human university professor Thull Chafe who was said to be the one who discovered the sarcophagus. This started the hunt for Thull Chafe which took three world jumps to track down.
The night was uneventful for Jane. She slept well enough. She woke up slowly, opening one eye first. Then the other. She listened, then looked around. Marshall was rolling up his gear as Aaron was making coffee and rehydrating a nutrient mash that was supposed to be like scrambled eggs.
“About time,” Aaron said. “Here you go. Breakfast in bed.” He handed her a small plate and a cup of steaming hot coffee.
“Thanks, Aaron.” She said. He only grunted in acknowledgment, as he sat down to his own food. Marshall finished up packing his gear and sat down close by and helped himself to the rest.
“I could kill someone for some salt and sugar,” Marshall grumbled but downed the breakfast nonetheless. Once done he leaned back against what was once a huge ship’s keel. He looked around, “So how was this an ocean? What happened? What was this cataclysm?”
As Jane got dressed, Aaron explained. “This world didn’t use to be a Ring. Eighty years ago it was a Dyson Sphere. The biggest one ever. Then something punched it. The impact shattered one side and blew out the other. All that mass added to the sun made it hotter. Surface water vaped off over the years. The underground water won’t last.”
“So why is the world called ‘Deirdre’?” Marshal asked.
“Because it was once beautiful and has a tragic end. It’s a Lore thing. A beautiful woman that ends up with her head smashed open.” Aaron said.
“There’s more to the story, Aaron.” Jane said as she shook out her armored jacket.