The broken and patchy road, snaking through the mountain range, seemed more determined to shake their vehicles apart with each rapidly passing mile. Both engines protested as their drivers attempted to encourage more speed from them: one, the haggard and sickly rattle of an aged beast of burden, fighting for each yard it travelled; the other, a throaty bellow of a well-cared-for and faithful companion, taking the uphill journey in its stride. Some way behind them, several higher-pitched growls filled the air, gaining ground with the steady determined pace of committed predators.
Cobra jerked the wheel to the right again before pulling back to the left. One of the three pursuers, a dune buggy of some old pre-Starfall design, locked its wheels as the driver jammed the brakes on to avoid the side-swipe from the larger SUV. The three assailants were from a war gang called the Bisons, as evident from the tattered banner trailing behind the buggy depicting a horned skull pattern emblazoned in dull red ink the colour of dried blood. The Bisons claimed a large tract of badland near the entrance to the mountain road. Just ahead of Cobra’s truck, the lumbering faded-green van they were escorting struggled with the rough road surface. Behind, as the buggy recovered from its skid, the other two pickup trucks closed the distance.
“You see the one on the left?” asked Midnight, tightly gripping the handle mounted to the door frame.
“I see it,” replied Cobra. “Harpoon.”
“Can it hook us?”
“That shit will just bounce off the plating, but it will rip into Tuc Tuc’s van easy enough. He’s their target, we’re in the way.”
“Don’t let Tuc hear you calling him that, you know he hates that nickname,” chuckled Midnight as he slipped his hand into his long coat, withdrawing three thin throwing knives.
“Need to get you a gun one day,” mumbled Cobra, barely heard over the engine noise. “OK, ready?” He let a grin creep along his lips, his eyes fixed on the two assailants in his mirror as they split wide and surged forward.
He didn’t wait for Midnight to respond before jerking the wheel to the right then quickly back to the left once more. Then he jammed on the handbrake and swapped his feet from brake and clutch back to accelerator. His hands expertly negotiated the dual tasks of spinning the wheel one-handed while swapping gears on the shifter. The world was a blur for the next 180 degrees ending suddenly with the sight of the two pursuing trucks filling the windscreen. Cobra stomped on the gas, now in reverse gear. The truck previously to the right rear evaded off road with a screech of tires and plenty of pale blue smoke as their target now faced the wrong way, and was in front of them. The harpoon truck on the other side tried to slide by on the right, passing Midnight’s window.
Midnight’s right hand was a whisper as one after another, three slivers of light leapt between the two trucks. The space within the target’s cabin filled with a strangled, gurgling cry, and a spray of blood.
“Can’t this heap go any faster?” came the muffled voice of Cin as he leaned close over Tuc’s right shoulder. Cin was an imposing sight if only for the mask covering the bottom half of his face. The mask was a simple fine mesh painted black with a bare metal pattern the shape of several lightning bolts. Cin’s head was framed with ruffled and twisted light brown hair hanging just past his cheeks. Peering between the haggard curtains of his hair were two sunken yet sharp-looking grey eyes.
“We’re ca…carrying a lot…a lot of, y’know, stuff,” croaked Tuc.
“Yeah, so? We just hit the downhill stretch! More weight equals more speed right?”
“I’m uhm…well, I’m more worried about the sharp corners with…steep drops or jagged rock faces alongside. And stopping at the bottom.”
Cin emitted a low grumble that seemed to Tuc like his whole head had groaned in frustration. Cin quickly vacated the space over Tuc’s shoulder and began rummaging among the crates in the back.
“Hey, now, be careful there!”
“Any guns in this heap of crap? I need something to shoot with.”
“What? I mean…yes, somewhere…right side crates maybe?”
“Ah, found something. Never mind,” replied Cin.
“Where are your own weapons?” asked Tuc. The response came three heavy footsteps later as something spiky tapped his shoulder several times. Tuc quickly glanced to the side at the business end of a length of compact chainsaw.
“This is how I normally do business,” deadpanned Cin. “Not like waving this around from the back of the truck is going to do much good.”
Tuc spared a glance back at his passenger. despite not being particularly large in build Cin seemed to be able to loom over him all the same, somehow seeming to fill the entire back of the van.
Behind them came the screech of tires again, this time louder and more drawn out, as if competing to be heard over the roaring engines. Cin marched to the back door of the van, checked the assault rifle and several magazines he looted from the assorted crates, and swung one of the rear doors open in time to see the pickup truck to the right careen off the road. Cin took only a moment longer to realise he was seeing the back of Cobra’s armoured SUV. Should anyone have had a clear view of Cin’s face they would have been treated to a rare sight as he raised an eyebrow in surprise. The expression lived and died a brief life of its own as the cloud of grey-brown dust left by the now absent truck to the left rapidly parted.
“That’ll keep them busy!” exclaimed Cobra. As confidently as before, he executed another perfect J-turn and put his truck back the right way around, then smoothly slotted a gear in place. The engine thrummed in response as they began to catch up with their charge.
Behind, to their right, the buggy burst through the dust cloud left by the evading pickup truck, the engine rasping like a hive of angry bees. Speed was on its side now as the armoured SUV fought to regain momentum. A hail of bullets crashed along the right flank of Cobra’s SUV as the buggy’s passenger, now standing up through the open roof, opened up with his SMG. Midnight ducked down to his left, away from the raking path of bullets. Cobra willed more power from his iron-clad steed.
Cobra held the wheel steady, keeping the target in line for Cin. He watched as the masked man quickly raised the assault rifle to his shoulder and emptied a full clip towards the buggy and its daredevil passenger, still peppering the side of Cobra’s truck with rapid gunfire. The buggy became a shower of sparks and blood. It veered to the side, slamming into Cobra’s truck before bouncing away. Cobra wrestled with the wheel, fighting against the sudden impact as the buggy leapt away to the right, then swerved sharply left again. He slammed the pedal to the firewall in an attempt to pull ahead of the impending collision.
Too little, too late. Cobra knew it before steel met steel and braced for the skid. The buggy driver was dead on the throttle and slumped over the wheel. It hurled into the rear-right quarter of his SUV like a handball player blitz tackling another way above his weight class. The passenger was still standing through the open roof, wounded from several shots and gripping the roof frame tightly. He recovered his senses in time to be slammed against the side of his former target as the buggy drove its death tackle home. Remorseless steel greeted fragile flesh as the buggy flipped over its nose against the side of the truck. The bandit was bent in half backwards before the buggy tumbled sideways. He, along with his screams, were lost in the twisting ball of metal in the SUV’s wake.
Cobra battled against unrelenting physics to prevent their own slide as the crash shunted the rear end to the left. He turned into the skid, feeding the wheel to the left while keeping the accelerator steady. In the few short seconds of the impact they were pushed a full 45 degrees and more as the buggy cartwheeled behind them. Another moment later the snapback happened. Cobra managed it with skill and calm, feeling the grip of each individual wheel on the road. Cobra felt the world around him slip away as his mind focused intently on the task at hand. Slowly exhaling, Cobra felt the whole world tune out of every sense in his body, reducing it to little more than a dull white noise. At the edge of his consciousness, he felt the distinctive metal presence, as familiar to him as his own body. His mind slipped inside as easily as if stepping through an open door, linking him to the machine.
He felt the momentum building, the traction slipping, the angle of the wheels and the compression of the shocks. The chassis torqued one way and then the other, the center of gravity rolled with the movement, but his foot remained solid on the pedal, keeping it at a level of depression every instinct he had said was correct. It was as natural as breathing, as instinctual as catching a lazily thrown ball. Though, in Cobra’s mind’s eye, it would be more accurately compared to a prize fighter’s instincts. Knowing the direction of an incoming blow without needing to see it, feeling precisely where his own head should be to avoid it while sensing that one vital opening through the opponent’s guard in which to drive his own balled fist.
The truck snapped level again, Cobra already prepared to direct every component of his new metal body as required to find that one opening needed. Cobra’s truck regained its composure and continued straight along the road.
Cin watched from the back of Tuc’s van as Cobra’s truck corrected itself, as if snapping back onto rails, and began to catch them up once again. Further back along the road the two pickups had begun to compose themselves as well, and their chase resumed as the road began to twist between rocky outcrops. He waved towards Cobra and Midnight, attempting to signal the re-approaching danger from behind. Midnight seemed to look around behind the truck, then thrust an upturned thumb in his direction.
“OK assholes,” muttered Cin. “Take your best shot.” Cin braced himself against some of the crates in the back of the van and slammed a fresh clip. He released the catch holding the slide, chambering a fresh round as the van negotiated the next corner, then took his position at the door again. Both pickups raced around the outcropping they had just passed. The truck to the left seemed undamaged still, having evaded Cobra’s maneuver earlier. On the back of the flatbed, clinging to the roll cage, two gunmen waved their own weapons in the air. Cin could swear he could hear their lunatic hooting over the sounds of the various engines echoing around the rock face. The truck to the right also carried its one passenger in the flatbed, strapped in among the extra support piping welded roughly to the body work and roll cage. A large harpoon gun was mounted to this support frame, the piercing end extended out over the roof of the truck’s cab and attached to a length of steel cabling anchored to the underside of the gun’s sponson. Cin depressed the trigger on the assault rifle, filling the back of the van with more empty casings and noise.
The truck to Cobra’s right rear had now pulled level in a bid to strafe their side. Bullets struck armour again as the war gang sought to extract vengeance for their dead friends. Midnight resumed his previous position, ducking down to avoid the fire. Prepared this time, he grabbed the handle just below the window frame and pushed down hard. A latch within the door cavity released its grip on the bracing plate between two spring-loaded pneumatic pushrods, and a sheet of rolled steel slammed upwards in the window frame. Two rows of inch-wide slits cut along the shield afforded the occupants a limited view. All the same, Midnight kept low to avoid any with a mind to find that vital opening. To his left Cobra followed suit, his shield pushing up into place with the force of the spring-loaded mechanisms within the door cavity. A storm of bullets crashed against the dull metal plating with the sound of hollow thunder. To their left, seeking advantage from the distraction, the previously attacked harpoon truck surged forward. Cobra looked back through the slits in his side window at the driver, holding the wheel one-handed while one of Midnight’s knives protruded from his left shoulder. Cobra spared a hand between wrestling with the bumpy road and withdrew his sawed-off shotgun from the holster tucked beneath his steering wheel column. He jammed the stubby barrel of his shotgun through one of the shield’s narrow slits. Gunfire answered gunfire as Cobra squeezed the trigger, unleashing a deadly cloud of lead shot.
While Cobra peppered the side of the harpoon truck, the strafing pickup to their right began to rapidly fill with holes from Cin’s barrage. The windshield of the pickup resembled a spider’s web of cracks and bullet holes, some splattered with the driver’s blood. One of the gunners on top took several hits to the chest and tumbled backwards into the flatbed. The pickup dropped back and swerved off the road as it had before, this time slamming its front right corner into a protruding rock face. The truck somersaulted over itself, hurling the final passenger far overhead before crashing into the harsh crumbled tarmac. Cin had a good view as the bandit broke along the road, cartwheeling several more seconds before mercifully halting almost twenty metres from the wreckage behind.
The harpoon truck’s driver attempted to evade Cobra’s second volley, turning the wheel to the left with his one good arm. It was already too little too late to save the gunner on top, now hung against the roll cage as a useless red mess. The driver pulled the wheel back the other way in a desperate bid to damage their target’s escort, hurling his truck towards the armoured SUV in an attempt to ram it out of the way. Cobra quickly hit the brakes, turning to meet his aggressor’s rear quarter in a mimicry of the careering buggy moments before. Metal crashed against the steel framework around the front bumper of the SUV, folding the truck’s wheel arch like cardboard. The harpoon truck screeched in wounded protest as the bodywork gave way. Cobra jammed the throttle to the floor on impact, his engine roaring over the agonizing cries of his target as he pushed the pickup sideways. The pickup’s wheels locked as the driver failed to control his machine. Cobra continued around the rear of the spinning truck as it wedged one of its front wheels into the deep cracks in the road. The doomed pickup flipped sideways, crushing the corpse harnessed to the harpoon before tumbling again. The truck rolled over several more times, kicking up a cloud of debris, dust and flailing limbs. Cobra kept well left on the road as they pulled around the wreckage before speeding up, catching up with Tuc’s van. In tandem, Midnight and Cobra lowered their side shutters and gave Tuc a thumbs up. He turned to look at them, forcing a smile to his pale and trembling face. Neither of them could quite tell if he was nodding nervously or simply shaking badly.
The road ahead was as bumpy as it had been behind. The road continued to descend through the mountains which began to part ahead of them, signaling the end of the mountain road. Cresting the final rise, they got a good view of their final destination. The land ahead seemed to flatten in an endless and featureless expanse. Only the land closest to the mountains seemed marked and blemished in some way, barely noticeable at this distance. Eventually, the small convoy arrived at the bottom of the mountain road.
The mountains seemed to suddenly end, as though unwilling to intrude further out onto the plains beyond. Passing the final bluffs of rock along the left side of the road, their view suddenly opened up. The mountain range stretched in both directions along the dusty wasteland ahead of them. The road continued ahead, away from the mountains and flanked either side by a dusty expanse of wasteland. In the distance the road looked to fork off to the left, the right fork continuing towards a vague dark smear of land, the road itself petering out before reaching its boundary. Now travelling along flatter land they could see their destination more clearly. A large valley, shallow at first then gradually deepening as it grew wider, sprawled away from them across the land to their left, running parallel to the mountain range. Nothing about it seemed natural, like an ever deepening furrow carved by some enormous farmer’s plough.
“So that’s The Skid, huh?” mused Cobra. “Bigger than I expected.” Midnight nodded appreciatively.
In the green van ahead of them Cin leaned across the cabin, his face close to Tuc’s shoulder. “Woah,” he said quietly. “Is that the Starfall?”
Forgetting himself for a moment, Tuc let out his first laugh since they left the Four Cities behind them two days ago. Cin’s head did not move, though his eyes slowly panned towards Tuc and fixed him with a stare. Tuc quickly felt it, his laugh faltering in his throat and becoming little more than a strangled croak. He glanced sideways at Cin several times in a few seconds, not daring to meet his eyes. He could not tell if Cin was angry with him, or just curious, the mask obscuring anything other than those eyes, which always shared their expression with those of a hungry snake. Tuc fought to regain his composure.
“Well…uh, th…that is the thing really.” He expelled a nervous cough to clear his throat as he continued. “You see, some people do think The Skid is where the Star Fall came down. No one is quite sure, though. Despite that, it does look like something fell here a long time ago. The people here have told me stories of The Founding, where they would drag huge chunks of metal from the ground with all kinds of salvaged vehicles and…”
Cin groaned, leaning back from the window and Tuc, who had lost his initial trepidation to his reverie.
“…because Saunter City didn’t just get built carved in half after all, so it is easily assumed that…”
Cin leaned against the frame of the open window, his gaze fixated on the vast emptiness occupying the view along the right side of the van, infinitely more interesting to him than the history lecture going on to his left.