The desert air of the outskirts of Newhurst City was still cold enough to send a chill through Eve when she stepped out of the Carrolton Hotel with her luggage.
She strode purposefully between twin landscaped gardens toward the silver vehicle waiting in the drive, regarding its modest size with some annoyance. She had figured this might happen; her luggage might fit, but not comfortably. She pulled two rather ponderous suitcases behind her, along with her handbag and backpack.
“Morning, Eve,” Hanson said eagerly over the sound of his door shutting, his high-pitched voice breaking the cold stillness. He opened the rear hatch, taking her suitcases and backpack. “I picked up coffee for both of us, if you want it.”
She got into the passenger seat with a word of thanks, immediately checking the digital clock display on the center console. It was, just now, 4:55; he had been several minutes early. Early, and apparently very eager to take her luggage. Eve did not reach for the coffee.
Not for the first time, she wondered if it had been a mistake to take Hanson up on his offer of a ride.
It had seemed wise to accept when he had offered at the staff social in the penthouse boardroom, not even twelve hours before. He was even insistent, in his good-natured way; more insistent than others of his station would be, since he had known her for some 7-odd years. Plus he was local to the southwestern suburbs of Newhurst, so it made sense. Still, his apparent eagerness to spend time with her made her nervous. If she hadn’t already been struggling to find a cab service that was willing to take her to her destination, she wouldn’t have accepted the offer.
She felt the back of her seat lurch forward slightly as he worked to squeeze the second suitcase into the seats behind her. After apparent success, Hanson slid back into the driver’s seat.
“Sorry that it’s not the high-class cab you’re used to,” he said, shutting the door and buckling in. He put the car in gear and pulled forward, past a pair of ornate fountains to the exit gate. “This is Petunia – I’ve kept her running for decades, since before the cartel wars and everything.”
Eve only nodded. No need to express her doubts.
Looking out the window, she watched upscale buildings slide past as they made their way between pristine shopping centers, restaurants, and occasional luxury car dealerships. They made swift progress through the empty suburban roads; Eve noted the distant outline of a rocky butte silhouetted against the stars, slowly gaining more definition as they drove.
When Hanson tried to make conversation, she would give a reserved smile and a short answer to his question, careful not to engage. Soon, they reached older roads, parched and cracked by desert heat, and Eve realized there was no use taking out her Link; the aging Volkswagen Golf hit every crack with an impact like a small collision, joggling her too much in her seat to be able to focus on the tablet’s screen. If only she’d found a cab…
Not even thirty minutes later, the last vestiges of urban sprawl gave way to wider and wider stretches of blank flatness; they had already reached the salt flats. Eve reproached herself for her sour mood. The private aeroport was hidden just on the far side of the featureless gray-white basin of salt, tucked between a few ridges of rock – and the complex was so new, or so secure, that there was no designated road to reach it; one had to know exactly where to go, and off-road across the salty wasteland. Up ahead, what had been a formless dark mass now appeared to be a clump of low buildings: an abandoned mining town.
For the first time, she spoke of her own accord. “You’re sure this thing can make it across that salt flat?”
Hanson grunted, glancing at the dashboard. “Should be no problem.”
The car came to the end of the road on the far side of the ghost town, but Hanson continued on, only mildly slowing to accommodate the rugged, gravel-like surface. The tires kicked up salt against the car's underside, loudly pinging.
Eve looked at the clock again: 5:42 a.m. She had never had an airship chartered just for her before; it seemed excessive, but since she had been chosen to have the codes for Echelon Trust’s most valuable accounts encrypted onto her Link, the company was taking no chances with her safety. She appreciated that, after what happened to Buck just a few weeks ago. Or rather, what almost happened. She shuddered.
Granted, the drive to the secure aeroport location had been less than ideal, but thankfully that was pretty much ov–
Eve had ducked down in her seat without thinking, whipping her head around from her low position to scan the wasteland behind them, but it was deserted. An acrid smell like a burning chemical filled her nose as she felt the car lose speed dramatically. Turning, she saw a plume of dark smoke issuing from the hood, obscuring the headlights. Before she knew it, the vehicle coasted to a stop. The sound of salt raining against metal gave way to silence.
Hanson gave a long, low groan.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, eyes closed, his voice almost a whisper.
Eve was silent, her face professional and impassive. She reached for her handbag.
They sat in a small, stationary car in the middle of one of the largest salt flats outside of Newhurst, the only feature to mark the landscape for miles around.
* * *
The worst thing about being stuck in that salt flat was watching the digital clock counting the minutes, Eve decided.
The sky became lighter gray as hints of dawn crept up behind them. Eve had long since pulled out her Link to request a tow, selecting a location near the aeroport as the destination – she was reasonably sure the driver would know where it was. Still, she had no idea how Hanson would get back to Newhurst, or whatever suburb he lived in.
She sighed inwardly. This was exactly what she had feared. Now, her back was sore from sitting in an unnaturally upright position to accommodate the suitcase behind her, and she was holding up the airship. All she could do was wait, and get a little work done until the tow arrived.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. “Wait.”
At Hanson’s inquisitive look, she gestured at the tablet she was holding. His eyes widened when he saw the device’s iconic chrome frame gleaming between her dark fingers. She turned it over to emphasize the logo of two interlocking chain links; or rather, to emphasize the violet light that pulsed coolly behind it.
“I didn’t know you had a Link,” he said, clearly impressed.
“Would it… help?”
As soon as she said it, she braced herself for him to laugh, or talk down to her. She hated situations like this, where she knew less about something than her inferiors, even Hanson – who was a good example of the small potatoes of Echelon Trust, as Buck would say. But he just shook his head.
“No, unfortunately. If I had a backup electric motor under the hood, the Link’s microreactor would definitely work to power it, but Petunia is gas-only. Good thought, though.”
Eve nodded, grateful for his unexpected tactfulness. Of course the ancient car didn’t have a backup motor. She had spoken before really thinking, since she was so used to using her Link to power her electric convertible at home.
Suddenly, Hanson sat up sharply and whipped his head around, staring at the salt flat behind them.
Already craning her neck to see follow his gaze, she spotted a dark shape. “Hanson,” she said nervously. “It’s probably just the tow, right?”
Silence hung in the air for several seconds. The vehicle seemed to stop moving, still quite a distance away, and dawn was breaking behind them; all she could see was abnormally dark-looking windows against an increasingly bright background. Another shape joined it, also coming to a halt. “Land pirates,” Hanson said hoarsely.
Eve’s mind raced. Piracy, this close to the city, almost twenty years after the cartel war had ended?
Hanson, long since unbuckled, now threw himself across the suitcase in the back seat to reach for something, then slid back into his seat with a canvas bag containing what looked like several foot-long sections of black metal pipe. “Screw this together if you can,” he said grimly, handing them to her. “We have a few surprises for them, at least.”
What is happening?
“What… We could try to negotiate,” she said lamely. And give up the Link with the codes?
“I doubt they’ll be interested, to be honest.” He reached under the steering column as she watched. Apparently he pulled some hidden lever, because suddenly an additional screen with surrounding buttons swung down and faced Hanson, just below the steering wheel. “Oh, wow,” he said. “I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
MC turned her attention back to the pile of tubes in her lap.
Oh, my… it’s a rocket launcher.
She found a few pieces that screwed together and worked quickly, hardly knowing what she was doing, stealing glances out the back window every few seconds. The two pirate vehicles remained where they were, like desert coyotes, motionless before pouncing.
“During the cartel wars, I had an arms dealer attach some light artillery to the undercarriage,” Hanson said, his voice dry but resolute. Mechanical sounds whirred from beneath their feet as he pushed some buttons experimentally. “A lot of people in my area had that done. We’ll see if it still works. They won’t expect us to have more than a handgun or two.”
She found the attachment point for the final piece of the launcher and screwed it on, hands still shaking. At Hanson’s indication, she reached behind him and pulled a cloth bag back with her into the front seat. Ammunition, she supposed. Hanson pulled an egg-shaped item that appeared to be wrapped in tan cloth and reached up to the gun’s muzzle, screwing it into place. “There. That’s how you load a grenade onto it.”
She nodded, picking up her Link. She typed out a plea for help as quickly as her shaking fingers would allow, eloquent but incredibly brief, to all of Echelon’s executives. LAND PIRATE ATTACK. SEND HELP NOW. For once, the Link’s proprietary satellite connection, guaranteeing her access to the company’s ‘Chain’ from anywhere in the world, was actually useful – especially as they would be able to view her exact location.
Hanson paused. The Link seemed to give him an idea; he reached into the canvas bag again and pulled out a hunk of machinery with yet another black tube attached, apparently meant to be mounted on top of the larger gun. He handed it to her. “If their vehicles are electric-powered, this EMP launcher attachment could be incredibly helpful. So you can send electromagnetic pulses, to take out all their electronics. Not very powerful when all you have is the internal battery, but…”
“I can attach my Link to it?”
She maneuvered the barrel of the weapon farther into the back seat so she could focus on placing the attachment in its place near the handle, and in so doing she caught a glimpse of movement. “Hanson!” she screamed.
The vehicles were heading straight for them – already, they had closed half the distance to where they were. She saw now that one was a truck while the other was a Jeep, both with heavily tinted windows and painted in matte shades of desert gray. She forced the attachment into place—
Machine gun fire rattled her to her very teeth as the truck streaked past, and Eve dropped as low as she could – the bullets flew through the open windows and buried themselves in her suitcase, or slammed into the edges of the car doors; she could barely spare the thought to note that Hanson must have opened the windows and sunroof.
“Hanson,” she said again, unable to keep a note of terror out of her voice, crouched on the floor in front of her seat.
While struggling to attach her Link to the EMP launcher, she saw him press a button and grip the screen tightly, watching what must be a camera feed. There was a boom from beneath them as the cannon fired, and the Volkswagen rocked to the side. “Got him!” Hanson shouted triumphantly. “Smashed into the hood on the passenger side! That should be the end of that truck.”
“Can you see the other one?”
Hanson panned the car’s cannon around. “It’s hard to track with this thing – they’re moving too fast. On your side—”
Looking at the camera herself, she saw the Jeep swing out of sight almost immediately. Suddenly, the windshield shattered as a fresh rain of bullets buried themselves in the seatbacks above them. A chunk of glass sliced her arm and thigh as she tried to swing the rocket launcher toward the target; Hanson cried out in pain, too.
There wasn’t enough room to maneuver; the Jeep had crossed back to Hanson’s side, but she wouldn’t be able to get the muzzle of the gun out his window across him—
She saw the gray Jeep’s trajectory and didn’t stop to think; she just shoved the rocket launcher ahead of her out of the sunroof, pulling her torso up and through the small opening as well. Immediately she mounted the weapon on her shoulder, aimed as well as she could, and pulled the trigger.
The ground where the Jeep had been a few seconds prior exploded in a cloud of salt and smoke, partway between the immobilized truck and where the Jeep was now. Unbelievably, she realized with dread, it responded by turning towards them, taking advantage of the time it took to reset the heavy weapon—
“Eve!” She felt Hanson trying to hand her another rocket, his hand brushing her ripped pant leg, slick with blood—
There was no time; the gray car was getting closer, the passenger surely about to lean out and shoot, with half her body completely exposed. She found the EMP button on the attachment and slammed her whole hand against it, wild with adrenaline—
Immediately, the Jeep began to slow, its headlights dying.
Hanson gave an ecstatic whoop that came out like a child’s scream. Heart hammering, Eve watched as the Jeep came to a halt, apparently rendered as incapable of driving as the other two vehicles. Her Link was plugged into the EMP attachment near her right ear, facing her, still showing a readout of some metrics of the pulse it had delivered.
Eve slid back down to the relative cover of her seat, and they both breathed for a moment. The wound in her thigh began to burn painfully, slightly worse than her arm. She took the next rocket from Hanson and screwed it into the muzzle like he had done. She turned to ask him a question – but almost screamed instead, horrified.
He was holding a bloody hand to his shoulder as if to apply pressure, most of his gray shirt already a deep scarlet. “Don’t worry, it’s not deep, I don’t think. Anyway, from what we have seen so far at least, we have them significantly outgunned. And—"
Another explosion rent the air, and they crouched back down as much as possible, even though it hadn’t sounded particularly close to their location. Hanson panned the camera around again. There: the immobilized truck had exploded. “That wasn’t me,” he said nervously. He swiveled back the other direction.
There, coming from the direction of the aeroport in the full glory of the new morning light, was a caravan of vehicles; armored trucks, from the look of it, fully armed. Eve nearly melted to the floor in relief.
They got my message.
She sat there, adrenaline slowly giving way to an anemic haze that clouded her thoughts. It seemed that the threat of imminent death was the only thing keeping her awake; now, it seemed that she was on the verge of collapsing from blood loss. Hanson must be at least as bad, she thought sluggishly.
She didn’t think about the next explosion, which came from the direction where the Jeep had been; she didn’t think about the fact that a fleet of armored trucks had been prepped and ready to reach them in a matter of minutes; and she didn’t think about the fact that they had been the only victims of land piracy in decades, while she happened to be carrying the key to the Echelon Trust’s most valuable assets.
No; instead, she thought about Hanson. She had misjudged him. He must have been at least somewhat concerned that the desert was still less than safe, so he had offered her a ride because he had a vehicle that could shoot back – Petunia – and a rocket launcher to boot. Then, he had risen to the challenge, staying calm and fighting when it became necessary, even neutralizing an entire vehicle of the pirates. He might even be dying, now. Meanwhile, she, Eve, had felt it beneath her to suffer through the drive because the car was small and old.
Yes, all things considered, Hanson was made of stronger stuff than she had thought. I guess he wasn’t small potatoes after all. She wondered what Buck would say to that.
Eve smiled to herself as she slipped unconscious.