The mountains suddenly gave way to the vast and endless flatness of the plains beyond. The road stretched out across the world towards the dark stained flats beyond. Further into the journey, three dark looking dots resolved in the distant haze, resting by the roadside. Before long the distinct shapes of three bikes, riders by their side, came clear through the heat ripple rising from the cracked and dusty road. One of the figures separated, driving across the road and stopping sideways before stepping off Tuc slowed his van a little as Cin gave him a sideways glance from his passenger seat.
“What are you doing?” he said, slowly reaching for the assault rifle, now propped up in the footwell.
“No,” said Tuc, calmly. He continued to slow. By now Cobra’s truck, having fallen in line behind them, began to pull around level with them. Tuc thrust an arm out of the window at them, waving it up and down. “It should be ok!” he shouted over the noise of their engines, less raucous than before during the mountain road chase, though still enough to drown out his voice at normal levels.
“Friends of yours?” enquired Cin, now holding the rifle low in his lap, checking the breech and magazine.
“Not exactly,” he continued as Cobra pulled level with them, making no further move to pass in front and defend them. “But waving a gun around is a good way to turn them into enemies, so keep that down out of sight!” Cin stopped working on the gun, instead now staring at Tuc again. As before, had Tuc looked his way he would not know if he had angered the man or if Cin were simply deep in thought about the situation. His eyes were always angry. In actuality, he was surprised at Tuc’s assertiveness, which seemed to come and go in short and fleeting bursts. Eventually, Cin obliged and lowered the rifle out of sight, setting it back against his car door ready to be raised in a heartbeat.
“Any idea what this is about?” shouted Midnight from the passenger window.
“Likely we are going to be shaken down for a toll,” replied Tuc.
“A toll?!” spat Cin. Tuc looked back and forth between him and Midnight. Ahead the biker was stood in front of his bike, both arms stretched forwards, palms flat to the ground as he raised and lowered them in a gesture for them to stop. “Screw that just run the fat bastard over!” Cin grabbed hold of the rifle’s foregrip again. In response, Tuc slammed his foot down on the brake pedal. The van lurched suddenly, the tires screeched a little, and the van suddenly stopped Cin’s hand overshot its mark as momentum carried him forwards. “The hell?” he exclaimed.
“Knock it off!” came Tuc’s reply. He turned to Tuc, whose face was now turning a little red. To their side Cobra’s truck stopped beside them, a little ahead. “You’re going to get us killed here, just follow my lead here ok? These guys operate all over Cinder Rock and other settlements around The Skid. They are actually OK, certainly not the worst we are going to encounter here, but don’t mess with them all the same. Besides, I think I know this guy. The toll is not an official thing for the gang and he tries this kind of shit all the time. And besides I have some junk in the back they might like and I am not likely to sell anyway. Call it a business write off. It will be fi…”
Tuc stopped short of finishing as the sound of a car door slamming to their left grabbed his attention. He swiveled his head back to the sight of Midnight straightening his jacket. Outside of the truck, he stood at around five foot ten with a slim build and was dressed in faded denim jeans with a long black coat, well cared for but aged none the less. He turned back to Tuc with a warming smile.
“This one’s on me,” he said gently. As he strode off towards the biker in the road, still some distance away, Cobra killed his engine finally. Tuc finally spoke.
“Oh god, don’t mess this up.”
“Good afternoon,” said Midnight cheerfully as he approached the figure ahead. As he drew closer he took the measure of his new conversation partner. From top to bottom he judged the biker to be middle aged, the kind of man who spent most of his time on the road, and the time not behind the grip of his handlebars was spent with the grip of large pitchers of beer and entirely unhealthy food. As evident from the large gut extending ahead of him. He stood unapologetic to the world, his leather cut was ragged at the edges, his flannel shirt stained with old oil patches never to come clean again. His hair, slightly greying with age and somewhat fuzzy, was long enough to be tied back in a ponytail. His face was inhabited by a thick and equally grey beard that extended down from his chin with little care for any style. To their side, just off the road, his companions were now sitting on their bikes with hands rested on the stocks of what looked like shotguns tucked firmly into the rifle holsters strapped to their bikes. Not a directly threatening gesture in itself, but the message was clear to anyone with eyes to see it. If they started a fight, they would receive one in kind.
“Nice truck,” the biker stated, his voice hoarse. He nodded his head behind Midnight towards Cobra’s black armoured SUV. Without turning to look, Midnight gave a genuine smile and nodded a little.
“Well, thank you. I am sure the driver will appreciate the compliment. He’s very proud of it.’ Midnight looked directly into the biker’s eyes. “I’m sure you are proud of your bike, too. It certainly looks well maintained.”
“Uh… yeah, it’s not bad I guess.”
“With all this dust and grit out here, I imagine it takes some cleaning after a long ride.”
“Uhm, kind of yeah.”
“So, to business. My name is Midnight. And you?”
“… the guys call me Hog.”
“Excellent. So Hog, we are passing through to Cinder Rock. I understand you guys have business there as well?” At this point, Hog paused for a long moment before continuing.
“It’s just our friend in the van over there is looking to set up a business of his own, you see. He would not want to step on any toes after all. Though he is just a merchant of numerous general goods, which I don’t imagine would get in the way of any action you guys are involved in.” Midnight maintained his eye contact with Hog who now seemed to be trying to turn his head to the side. However hard he tried, he could not break eye contact with the man in front of him. Midnight seemed to Hog as though he filled his whole view. Slowly the world around began to grow dark, like clouds passing overhead. They certainly seemed to come out of nowhere. Hog turned his head back towards Midnight.
“Well we don’t do that kind of business,” said Hog evenly. “So I suppose that would be OK.”
“I assumed so. I don’t mean to pry either, your business if none of ours after all. And once we are done with this escort job we will likely hang around the town, too.”
“Uh, yeah, hey that is cool too. The town is pretty big and plenty of merchants, a couple of bars and what not.”
“Sounds great,” replied Midnight. Hog seemed to be relaxing into the conversation as they continued discussing the town for several more minutes.
Tuc fidgeted in his chair now. It had been almost ten minutes. Cin seemed to have relaxed, though. Tuc risked a glance at the intimidating aspect of his travel companion, where even at rest he still looked capable of violence. Either way, Tuc could not share his apparent state of calm. As if in polar opposite to each other, the longer the distant conversation between the biker and Midnight took, the more nervous he became and the more relaxed Cin seemed at their situation. He looked to his left at Cobra’s truck, just ahead of them and unable to see the driver within. Surely he would share Tuc’s discomfort at how long this was taking.
Cobra adjusted his feet again, crossing left ankle over right as they rested across the dashboard. He was slumped down in his chair, his back resting in the corner against the door frame. He opened his eyes once more, saw Midnight was still at it, then let out an audible sigh.
I guess they are getting along.
Tuc continued to fret in silence, having being chastised twice already by Cin for making the occasional nervous hum. Suddenly the hairy biker swung his arm up towards Midnight’s shoulder. Tuc felt his nerve break. This was it. They were going to fight. He pissed off the bikers and was about to get shredded by their shotguns. His grip began to tighten on the wheel turning his knuckles white. The biker slapped his open hand against Midnight’s shoulder, who returned the gesture in kind, and both of them laughed loudly. Tuc watched, unsure almost at what he was seeing. He knew the local bikers were not specifically a bad bunch, far from bandits certainly. Though he never expected one to warm so quickly to a stranger. The two shook hands with the veracity of old friends departing each other’s company, and Midnight turned to head back to where they were parked.
“Hells that took forever.” groaned Cin next to him, now straightening himself in his seat. “We can finally get moving.”
“Uh… what just happened?” asked Tuc.
“What do you mean? They talked, agreed, laughed, and we are going now. You want me to draw you a flowchart?” Tuc was about to say something in retort, but words failed to form. Instead, he slowly reached for the starter on his van as Midnight drew up to his window.
“We’re good here. No toll to pay actually. He was quite a nice fellow and saw the value of letting a new businessman go through to town.” Tuc sat, mouth slightly open, looking back between Midnight and the retreating biker, now backing his mount off the road again towards his friends. They were walking up to him, looking as confused as Tuc felt.
“We should go quickly before his friends disagree to agree,” said Cin plainly, hand still resting near the grip of the rifle by his right leg. Tuc started his van as Midnight nodded and returned to Cobra’s truck. The two vehicles casually slid past the three bikers. Tuc glanced back in his mirror as the distance began to grow and saw the hairy one, still sat in the saddle, arguing with the other two who stood over him. Soon they were out of sight and the dark smear of the Poison Flats was ahead.
Following Tuc’s instructions, Cobra turned off at the last marker of the old road, taking a left onto a less paved path, at least partially. To carry on forward would be to drive into death. Now passing by their right side, the land sloped down partially before leveling out into a dried lake bed as far as the horizon and beyond. The earth was stained a murky brown, and signs on the approach road indicated all manner of unpleasantness beyond. Warnings of biological hazards, high radiation and poisonous chemicals were spaced out along the roadside, as well as along their current route running parallel to the flats. After a rough transit along the makeshift trail, they re-joined another stretch of old broken roadway that crested the rise beside the slope towards the flats. The convoy pushed further ahead, now travelling just a little west of direct north. To their left the plains began to give way to the large gouge of The Skid, gradually deepening and widening as they traced the edge of the eastern slopes.
“Someday,” began Cobra, after a period of silence. “You will have to let me in on the secret to that little trick of yours.” Midnight simply shrugged with his usual relaxed smile. “Fine, keep your secrets to yourself.” replied Cobra with a slight chuckle.
“If I knew how to tell others how it works…” began Midnight, trailing off.
“Yeah, I know. ‘I would still not tell anyone.’ We have had this conversation before.” Cobra smiled.
“You just hope it will get you lucky with the ladies someday.” Cobra laughed for a second and nodded.
“Would not hurt my chances.”
Less than twenty minutes along the road a large rock formation at the crest of the eastern ridge seemed to stand out from the ground like a broken fang, burned black by fire. The formation continued down along the banking of The Skid until out of sight. Stretching out from the rocks and across the road was a solid looking wall, constructed from large sheets of metal anchored and riveted to large steel posts. Standing at around 20 feet high, and topped with barbed wire, the wall stretched across towards the steady slope leading to the flats before meeting a large structure which resembled a big platform of some kind. The main gate straddled the broken road around half way between the rock face and the platform-like structure by the flats. Guards were visible atop the section of the wall close to the gates, as well as at small promontories spaced out across the wall’s expanse.
Tuc drew up short of the gate, Cobra and Midnight stopping alongside them in the armoured SUV. As they killed their engines a postern opened in the corner of the gate and two figures stepped out onto the road.
“The welcoming committee,” said Tuc with a smile and pushed open his door. Half way out he heard Cin open his own door too and stopped, one foot out of the door, while turning to Cin. “Now, be nice… actually, maybe just say nothing. Yes, that would be best I think. And leave the gun here, please.” Tuc fully withdrew from his van, while to his left, Midnight leaned through the window.
“We OK from here?” he said.
“I should think so, yes,” stated Tuc, the obvious relief in his voice as though the words were carried by his first new breath since they entered the mountains. Tuc observed a moment as the two guards stopped close to their vehicles, then turned back to Midnight. “What did you actually say to that biker?” Midnight simply smiled, then opened his own door. Cobra followed suit and, somewhere behind him, Tuc could feel the ominous presence of Cin lingering by the front of his van. Or maybe it was the look of discomfort on the guards’ faces as their eyes fixed on him.
“Don’t mind him, gentlemen, he’s actually quite a nice guy,” said Midnight. They reluctantly directed their eyes towards the rest of the group then finally at Tuc. One of the guards, seemingly the senior of the two, spoke first.
“Welcome to Cinder Rock folks,” he began with the well-rehearsed enthusiasm of an undertaker. “Since you seem to be new here, we ask that you allow us to search your vehicles before being allowed to continue through the gate. We also have a couple of questions for you while we are at it.”
“Oh, of course, that would be fine,” said Tuc with more than enough enthusiasm for both of them. “My name is Tuc,” he continued, seeming to slip into his element as a trader. Meanwhile, the two guards had split up to begin their checks on the two vehicles. “My travelling companions and I have come from the four cities.” The guard who spoke headed round the SUV towards the driver side door. Behind Tuc, the second unnamed guard stopped as close as he seemed comfortable to Cin.
“Sir, is this vehicle carrying any cargo or trade goods?” He waited for a response other than the usual dour glare emanating between Cin’s hair. Tuc turned and restrained a roll of the eyes before answering the question. “Oh, apologies, he does not talk very much. And it is my van. These men have been my escort through the mountain roads. I am sure my friend would be fine with your inspection. Oh, and yes I do have cargo in the van. And will disclose that there are weapons packed in there as well as one in the… passenger side footwell…?” he directed the half-formed question towards Cin, who nodded.
“You trading here?” asked the senior man again as he finished inspecting the SUV’s driver side.
“Oh not exactly, I am seeking to open my own business here. I already have an existing arrangement with Merchant Guild Master Vulpan. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your names, gentlemen?” He looked between the two, the second guard now out of sight behind his van. The senior guard began opening the doors on the passenger side of Cobra’s truck.
“Yes I never told you,” he stated plainly. Several moments later, he withdrew from his rummaging in the rear compartment and closed the door. “These kit bags here are your personal effects I take it?”
“Exactly.” stated Midnight with his usual easygoing smile. “And by way of introductions, my name is Midnight, this is Cobra and the impressive looking fellow by the van is Cin.” Barely a second of eye contact passed before the guard spoke again with a slight huff.
“My name is Rowland. Day watch, upper south wall supervisor. The other is Greggins, one of my men assigned to this gate.” Midnight nodded and stepped a few paces away from his own door, coming to rest beside Tuc. As Rowland began searching the passenger side, Tuc glanced at Midnight and eventually whispered.
“I’ve got it. Hypnosis, right? Some kind of vocal modulation mixed with eye contact.”
“If I revealed my secrets,” whispered Midnight in reply. “Then they would not be secrets. And I fear I would suffer the most horrible pain.” Tuc stared at Midnight for several more seconds before the man finally cracked a smile.
“Ha, ok I get it. Good one,” said Tuc finally, smiling wide. Greggins returned to the front of the vehicles after completing his search, Rowland too satisfied himself with his search of the passenger side front seats.
“All checks out sir. No contraband.”
“If I may,” interrupted Tuc. “The last time I was here I do not remember any searches. Do you conduct these often now? I admit it has been a while since I last passed this way myself.”
“Yes sir, especially for irregular arrivals such as yourselves. Things may have changed a little here since you were last in town then. Nothing to worry about. Cinder rock is the safest town on The Skid.”
“Aren’t you technically to the side of The Skid?” All heads turned to the origin of the question, eyes resting firmly on Cin. Several silent seconds later Tuc swiftly broke the tension with a short laugh.
“Well, actually, Cinder Rock’s lower part of town extends down the slope into The Skid proper. You cannot see it because of the rock face here.” Tuc pointed to the large outcropping.
“Well, you’re all clear to proceed inside. Just a note, the gates close from sundown, no exceptions. If you guys are planning to come and go from here in the future you should keep that in mind.” With little else to say, and before Tuc could issue so much as a thank you, Rowland and Greggins turned to the gate and walked back quickly. Rowland raised his right arm in the air, index finger extended and rotated it in a circular motion. Catching the signal, the guard on top of the wall shouted down to open the gate.
“I was blocking the door,” Midnight whispered to Tuc. Tuc turned slowly and looked at him confused. “When I asked his name, I was standing in front of my car door, blocking his way. All it took was a little eye contact to make my point. I dislike discourteous people.” He smiled at Tuc before returning to Cobra’s truck. Tuc scratched the back of his head, turned to his van and walked back while suppressing a chuckle of his own.
Ahead of them the gate, an old salvaged roller shutter, began to lift away on screeching gears and rattling chains to reveal a large metal construction. Fortified metal bars, backed by plates blocking the view beyond sat before them. As the gate rolled up to the halfway point, the fortified wall parted in the middle, adding to the metallic cacophony. They swung open revealing the interior of the upper town of Cinder Rock.