The wind rose high in the early afternoon, spurred on by the heat from the midday sun. It whipped shards of sand past Scott’s cheek, and he pushed up his neck scarf further, hooking the top round his nose to get as much coverage as he could. His goggles remained firm round his eyes, their sleek sunglassed shape letting the dust grains simply slide off as he rode onward.
Speaking of riding on; he was running on a quarter tank right now. For his latest daredevil escapade to mean something, he had to make it back to the outpost without the indignity of dragging his motorcycle behind him like an idiot.
There, in the distance, jagging up like teeth from the plains, a small stack of irregular shapes, a few smoggy spires of smoke. Kurna. One of his regular outposts in the plains of Owarra.
Owarra was home to many: nomads and bikers and outlaws of every flavour. They lived between the cracks of the weathered sandstone, in the woodwork of the debris of old and forgotten cities, in the much and the mulch of what remained of nature. Owarra, the desert wilderness, the new civilisation. Here it was hot and sweltering, here people found and lost their hope, and their humanity. Things changed on a day by day basis, but at the same time, nothing really changed at all.
Scott was used to it.
He patted the container at the back of his motorcycle, making sure it was still strapped firm — of course it was, he’d packed it — then he revved up to the next dune, kicking the bike into a spin as he cleared the top of it. Right over the other side, interrupting a gaggle of kids who were busy playfighting. They scattered pronto. Scott grinned.
‘Flyboy! Look, it’s Flyboy!’
His grin cracked wider as the awed cries hit his ears. Make a name for yourself, that was about all you could do here.
Further in to the heat and the grime of the small settlement.
He hoisted the pack off the back of his bike, and shackled up the vehicle to a post. Anyone who saw the rocket symbols — Flyboy’s symbol — on the side of the thing would consider that enough warning not to loot scraps of metal or tyres from it. Or risk his wrath later.
Through the tight streets, until he reached the overwhelming smell of cooked meats. Big, flat-pan grills filled with rice and other starches, chopped vegetables in an excess of oil (some of which he suspected was engine oil but he made no comment). And there, at the back, a shadier shop with a gnarly old man bent double-backed over a stew pot. The dubious sign Dobbs’ Delicacies hung above the canvas awning.
Scott strode in, hefting the pack in his hands to catch Dobbs’ attention. The old man turned, and his smile cracked wide, displaying an uneven row of yellowed teeth.
‘Is that my favourite desert rider come bearing gifts?’
Scott gave a curt nod. Handed over the contents of the pack — jagged metal blocks tied together with wire. Gas stove regulators.
‘Yeah, stole em from some raiders. They’re industrial strength, and no use for my portable kit. Enjoy.’
The shopkeep chucked him something squareish, lumpy, and weighty as an encyclopedia. Motorcycle battery. He had a cursory look at the numbers on the side, then grinned.
Not everyone was willing to trade with him. Nobody had a conscience here, so it wasn’t born out of a sense of morality. It was more that most people didn’t want the trouble, from riders especially, because it wasn’t always clear what alliances they were making or breaking when they went out to obtain their inventory.
Dobbs was all right, though. Used to be a scrapper, a scavenger down at the City Block. Scott never asked where he got his items. He never needed to.
Satisfied with the trade, Scott left. The smell from Dobbs’ cookpot was enticing, but he knew better than to try a sample.
A feminine voice followed him across the market. ‘Flyboy! Get your ass over here!’
He turned. Cass McCready, self-appointed fire chief not just of this settlement, but the overarching twenty miles or so of outback territory. She was waving him over, her yellow helmet bobbing above the crowd.
Are you gonna tell me off for the mess I left at that biker outpost on Scarred Ridge?
It had been only the other week, and it had been a bit of an incendiary incident, to put it lightly. Must have been a lot for her team to clean up, once the flames had reached the dry grasses. But, in his defence, he had to teach those guys a lesson. He didn’t mind when the gangs stole from each other, but when they started breaching the settlements, he tended to come down hard, in his own vigilante way.
She didn’t mention the subject so directly. All she said was ‘I know your, ah, daredevil activites and my team’s work haven’t exactly been the most compatible of things, but look. I find myself in the unique position where I need someone with your crazy-ass skills.’
She motioned for him to sit down on the low wall that lined the market zone. She had beers. He sat.
As they cracked open their drinks — her with a small bottle-opener from her utility belt, him with his teeth — and drank under the shade of the canvas shop awnings, the gentle warm breeze from the desert wafting in calm through the gaps in the shops, she told him about the ruins on the Western Belt and the water well that lay deep within. She told him about their previous attempts to excavate and gain access to the water table, gain new resources for their firefighting team. Maybe even establish a base out there.
‘Nice enough. But why are you telling me?’
‘Well, the last attempt didn’t go so well. We were ambushed by a gang. Guess they wanted the sweet spot too. Anyway, there was a cave-in, and one of my team members are stuck there. Gang’s camping outside. None of us have the bikes or the speed or the tact to make it past them. So, uh, that’s where you come in.’
‘Rescues? You know that isn’t my thing.’
She gave him this look, like she knew something about him he didn’t. It was almost unnerving, but nothing made it through the cracks of his outward mask. He just smiled back.
‘How long have you been in the Desert, Scott?’
Since he was a kid, actually. Since before he could remember. He sometimes had memories of someplace else, before the last nuclear hit from the North. Must have been about five. Memories of cleaner corridors and workshops not caked by grime, shiny polished chrome machines held in hi-tech facilities underground, and a sense of overwhelming camaraderie, friendship and safety. When he was around ten, he had made up his mind to travel the world and find whatever it was that was missing. It had been a fun little pipe dream.
But then the pandemic had happened and it hadn’t been safe to mingle, to travel too far out of the enclaves and the valleys and the plains that each cutoff civilisation found themselves stuck in. Scott had grown up in a mire of despondence, depression and disillusion, as had everyone else around him. The stench of post-empire, of a world once great, infected their veins, all of them, and the world had become a free-for-all attempt to just make it through each day without giving up entirely. Some didn’t make that battle. Others took to it all too well. Scott was neither one nor the other: all he sought these days was the thrill of riding.
So the fact that Cass McCready was now challenging that, acting like she knew more than him about himself, was rankling him a little.
She was aware of this. She was gauging his expression. ‘I ask,’ she said, ‘because I know you’re one of us. Through and through. I’m not asking you to be a hero. I’m asking you to be Flyboy for me. You’re a reckless sonofabitch, and I really need that from you right now. All of us do. And I don’t need you to care about my line of work or what it means for the safety of our little settlements. I just need you to enjoy the thrill of the chase and get my worker back for me. And, uh. Maybe sow a little chaotic discontent among the members of that gang while you’re at it.’
Scott took all this in as he took another swig of his beer.
‘All right. You know who the gang is?’
‘They all had black hoods on.’
Neither of them had said it explicitly, but if the outfits were an indication, they were part of The Hood.
The Hood was a gang, or an organisation, or a cult. Nobody really knew, because they were so secretive. Whoever the leader was, if there even was a single leader, was unknown. All that people in Owarra did know was that The Hood’s reach extended further than the Desert, and that they engaged purely in malicious activity. They didn’t even need the resources, they just seemed to want the power trip. Sometimes people heard stories of distant outposts completely razed to the ground by The Hood, and for nothing more than to have fun, have a laugh, make a point. They burned supplies instead of taking them, and they liked to steal technology and hi-tech machinery.
Scott did not want to get involved with them. But one thing was clear. If this was indeed The Hood, then those ruins must hold something of more importance than just a water well. And that meant maybe there was more loot for the taking. Maybe it would be worth his while, for more than just the poor worker’s sake.
Cass spied his thoughts as if she could hear them out loud. ‘Here’s the coordinates.’ She handed over a scribble on a thin sheet of paper. ‘So, good luck then?’
He knocked back the rest of his beer. Took the coordinates. ‘Sure.’
So he left, bright and early in the evening, as the indigo shades of night started to blanket themselves across the sky. He plugged his headset in, set a good heart-pumping beat going as he revved his engine. He was still buzzing from the beer, and the sky felt mercilessly open, and even though his arms were covered in leather, he could feel the wind rushing past and god, this was the life. This was perfect.
In the groove of flight he stayed, all the way across the open desert, bumping over small shrubs and cracked earth and adjusting position with barely a knock, like it was the smoothest tarmac. It may as well have been, for a rider as skilled as him. Even the sand patches gave him no grief; his tyres were thick and perfectly-suited for the desert environment.
As he approached his destination, over a ridge and through a shallow valley and across another stretch of grassy desert and skirting round the edge of a sand dune field, he slowed down incrementally, and pushed one headphone off his ear. The night whistled like a gentle lover.
Scott killed the engine, and stooped off the bike to rest one foot on the ground, keeping the other still perched on the foot gear, close to the throttle in case he needed to make a quick getaway.
Up ahead, barely a mile away, a crackling of fire sparking in the growing night. Where the gang had made camp. And behind them, a tall and dilapidated structure. The ruins Cass had talked about. Big stone slabs and concrete amalgam. Scott couldn’t figure out what the building might once have held. Research labs? A shrine? A base of military operations?
Something else caught his attention. A strange vehicle, hidden behind a dune about two hundred metres from the gang’s campsite. The vehicle was not the sleek, black symbol of power and dominance that the gang seemed to favour, if their little zone of parked-up macho-bikes was anything to go by. This thing looked more like a bubble of a sand-buggy, small and colourful and designed for light-hearted extreme sports. It was partially hidden by fronds of desert shrubs, and it was hidden so badly that if it was not for the shallow rise in front of it, and the fortuitous outcrop of an old concrete slab, the gang would definitely have found it and claimed it — or torched it — by now. It likely belonged to another opportunistic adventurer, and, judging by the design of it, that person would pose no threat to him.
Scott leapt agilely off the bike entirely, and began to walk it towards a hiding spot of his own. One that was significantly more discreet than that sand buggy. Then he began to creep his way towards the ruins, giving the gang a wide berth but not wide enough that he couldn’t see what was going on.
Cass had been right. Their deep black cowls and their dark clothing… these guys were definitely of The Hood. They were drinking and whooping around their fires, silhouettes like devils. Music choice wasn’t bad, though.
He slunk around without being seen by their watchmen, who were far more silent and on the ball than the main gang (and that was a good tactic to spot unwanted visitors if ever there was one… lulling them into a false sense of security around the revellers). Around the edges and into the ruins through a tumbledown wall on the south side.
The air was cool enough in the desert at night, but in here it was far cooler. Dust shone in the arcs of moonlight that permeated from high above, and all around was debris, broken pipes and concrete slabs, bits of stair casing and bannisters and doorframes long since fallen in.
Scott was treading quietly, just in case more gang members were inside. He explored the south side of the building, turning up nothing of interest. Just offices, display areas, halls, a few old paintings and no real loot. East side next, and here, things were a bit more interesting. Stairwells leading up and down, mostly intact, or at least, navigable with his skills. A gap in the wall where an elevator used to be. He decided to go down, because that was where the fireman most likely was going to be if they had been looking for water.
Things started to look more like a factory down here. Big vats of metal, more piping, and doors with wheel-locks. Here, Scott found some radio transceivers, which he stuffed hastily into his rucksack, and a cache of spare fuses, batteries and tools. Perfect.
Further into the room and he found a massive cavern. It had probably originally been a stairwell, but now the route down was crumbled and more of a climber’s paradise than an easy walk. The edges of the cavern looked like fresh breaks in the concrete and wood. This was probably the cave-in Cass had mentioned.
He peered in.
The sound of feet shuffling behind him had him on high alert and he swung round, arm coming up in self-defence. A worried, youthful face stared back at him. Scott stared, eyes wide, chest tight, until he realised he very much recognised the newcomer.
Brandon Berrenger, irritating little loudmouth and wannabe explorer extraordinaire. It was definitely his sand buggy lying outside, that was for sure.
‘Oh no,’ Scott groaned. ’Berrenger, what the hell are you doing here?’
‘Aw, hey mate!’ Scott did not appreciate the epithet. ‘Jus’ following in the footsteps of the latest and greatest François Lemaire.’
‘You mean late and not-so-great,’ Scott muttered. Lemaire had — apparently — passed away in a basejumping accident off the Sacred Rock a few years back, but Scott wasn’t entirely convinced that was the full story. The guy was a sensationalist. And a narcissist. Scott had no time for either. He would have appreciated Lemaire if he had just been a thrill-seeker, but the man had to go and make it about himself, and not the adrenaline. In Scott’s eyes, that missed the point entirely.
‘Whatever.’ He turned to go. Berrenger was a twat, but he wasn’t the kind of twat that was prone to violence. Let his feathers get ruffled, it didn’t matter much.
‘Ey, no you don’t! I found these ruins first! We’re both going in.’
Scott groaned in exasperation.
‘Anyway, not every day I get to go on an expedition with ol’ Flyboy!’
Another groan. This was going to be a long-ass evening.
Scott made Berrenger wait until he had gone down first. It was difficult, not to mention agonising, listening to the kid’s shuffling of feet up above him growing ever more impatient, but at least Berrenger wasn’t right behind him, kicking loose stones and debris into his way.
By the time the pair of them reached the bottom, Scott switched tactic, and told Berrenger to stay close. It was surprising, the level to which the young adventurer was keen to do as he said. He’d never considered himself one for barking orders, and that was mostly because he preferred to work, and travel, alone.
They wandered through the underbelly of the ruins, until the quality of the air changed minutely. Somewhere in the distance: a shout.
’Ssh!’ Scott motioned for his unwelcome companion to stop. They stayed in silence until the call came again, and by that time, Scott was sure. He headed off towards the end of the room. Somewhere way down in the corridor beyond, far off and lonely, was a person, who sounded very stuck and very scared. He couldn’t tell how far away they were, but he knew which direction to go in, at least.
‘Someone’s there,’ said Berrenger, as though this was news.
‘I know. That’s why I’m here. Now be quiet and help me.’
‘You rescuing someone? Rad!’
‘I said be quiet and help me.’ Scott leapt over a fallen crate, aiming to get to the far side of the room, but something went out under his feet and in a snapshot of a second he found himself falling, fast. He was usually so light on his feet that feeling this sort of instability, this tug of gravity, was such a rare occurrence, and as he fell, aside from yelling, all he could think about was Damn it, if the kid wasn’t here I wouldn’t have been so distracted…
He instinctively reached out to grab something, and ended up dangling above a yawning chasm of indeterminable size, holding nothing but a grubby, dirt-encrusted pipe with one hand. His other hand hung loose by his side, and with the wind knocked out of him as it was, he was finding it hard to summong the strength to raise it, to find another place to grip.
Curses ran through his head. Most of them were aimed at Berrenger.
Up above, he could hear the lad panicking, asking if he was okay. He fired up a quick ‘The hell do you think?’ then settled in to waiting, and trying to figure out what on earth he could do to get himself up on solid ground again. He didn’t fancy his chances on the ground below — what he could see of it from here was an awful way off.
This is so embarrassing.
As the seconds dragged by, Scott was even more embarrassed by the fact that he was starting to panic, himself.
He couldn’t see any way out of this, and his grip was slipping…
He had barely a minute, tops…
Deep and definite footsteps thudded from above him. A voice he didn’t recognise, a lower tone that offset so sharply against Berrenger’s frantic higher pitch.
Who in the hell?
Whoever it was, they were evidently trying to help. Something about the measured tone in the voice. This newcomer was no gang member, that much was clear.
‘He’s just over here—’ Berrenger yelled, then yelped, then crashed through the floor mere yards from Scott. The yell echoed as the boy fell down, down, down, and then the screaming ended with a sharp thud. ‘Ow!’
‘Oh my god, Berrenger.’ Scott groaned. Then, louder, ‘Ugh, are you okay?’
‘Owww… yes… Pack broke my fall.’
The lad was at least twenty metres down, by the sounds of his voice. Scott gripped harder on the rusty pipe. He didn’t want to go the same way. His backpack was significantly less padded than the coddled teen’s.
‘Just hold on! I’m getting you out.’ The newcomer’s voice was firm, commanding. And, much calmer than he expected.
A shuffling of feet. Something shifted up above.
A handsome face looked down at him; soft chestnut eyes, wide and deep in a well-chiselled face, and a tuft of dark, waving hair jutting upward from a broad brow. The man’s expression was kind, and he was clearly here to offer help, if the hand stretching out towards him was any indication.
Who was this dashing stranger?
Scott couldn’t hide a wry smile.
‘I’m a damsel in distress,’ he said. ‘Rescue me.’
The man’s expression faltered. ‘I… Um. That’s the plan, yes.’ He motioned with his hand, and Scott summoned his strength, swung up with his free hand, and let the guy pull him out of the hole.
When they dusted themselves off, and stood face to face, Scott was able to size him up a little. This guy was taller than him by a fair few inches, and far broader. He sported enougn muscle to lift a car, or so it seemed. Maybe that was just the unreasonably-tight blue suit talking. And that suit, in itself, was incredibly odd. Who the hell wore that kind of thing? That colour? Those officious-looking patches? It was so loud, and not in the usual punk-bandit way that Owarran inhabitants were used to.
Maybe this guy had a fetish for rescuing people, or something.
They stood, and stared, and for a moment it was tense, electric, almost to the point of awkwardness. It was just a moment, though, and the new guy broke it off with a short cough.
‘Where’s your friend?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Down there, somewhere.’ Scott jerked a thumb towards the gaping maw behind him. The newcomer looked positively shocked at his lackadaisical attitude: a fact that pleased him all the more. So we got ourselves a do-gooder. He should be fun to play with.
‘We should get him out…’
‘Ugh. If we must.’
This earned him a sharp, reprimanding look. He grinned. He was content to stand back as the newcomer fussed over rescuing Berrenger. ‘I’ll get you out, don’t worry. This is International Rescue, you’re in good hands.’
Scott wanted to ask, but the guy was already motioning him to the side, getting him out the way as he removed a strange device from his belt. He pressed a button and the device span out into a miniature grappling gun. It anchored in the ceiling above him, and before Scott could make even a peep, he had leapt down into the chasm, percetly supported by the tiny device and its meagre-looking wire.
Scott didn’t appreciate so much him taking the lead. But he had to admit, he was a little in awe of this gentle giant and his technology.
It was more than that. It was the way he wielded it. So sure of every step, not only like he had rehearsed it a thousand times before, but like he belonged in it.
A short while later, he zipped back up, Brandon Berrenger hooked securely under his arm.
Berrenger wheezed as he got himself upright again, and immediately fell to mindless praise and exclamations of Awesome! So rad, my dude!
‘Introductions,’ the newcomer said, and he said it like a statement of fact, not a request. Scott sighed, shrugged a little. The man looked at him with warmth in those deep brown eyes. He extended a hand, and said ‘Virgil.’
‘You got a last name?’
‘Not one I remember any more.’
Virgil raised an eyebrow. ‘Well. Mine’s Tracy. You, uh, might have heard of us?’
‘That the whole “International Rescue” spiel you had back there?’
A slight pout, which pleased Scott immensely. It looked a little ridiculous on that clean-cut, well-chiselled face.
‘Well, I… Yes.’
‘Some kind of roleplay thing?’
‘I— no! I’ll tell you more when we’re out of here.’
‘Um. Speaking of which. Why are you here? Cass asked me to do this.’
Virgil hesitated, and in that moment Scott gathered that no, he hadn’t come here to rescue the trapped worker.
He didn’t seem the treasure hunting type, either. Too moral.
‘My name’s Brandon Berrenger,’ Brandon Berrenger said. It broke the spell. Virgil greeted him courteously enough, which in Scott’s mind was utterly pointless. It made the kid’s face glow, and Scott just hoped that he’d latch on to Virgil as his new lord and saviour, instead of him.
Anyway. Enough on pleasantries. Scott had a mission to get to.
Scott left, not letting Virgil take the lead. He got back on track, listening out for the voice, following the route he had been on before the fall and the distraction. Behind him, Berrenger was already bugging Virgil with an assortment of questions. Is that a grappling gun! Why is it so small? Dude, what other neat tools you got?
Eventually, many rooms and corridors later, he came to the jumble of debris that presumably, had a person beneath it. ‘Hello?’
‘H-hi!’ A voice, low and masculine but sounding incredibly vulnerable, came up from beneath the rubble.
Scott said hi again, and the voice this time said, ‘Oh my god, you can really hear me, can’t you? I thought I wasn’t imagining things! Hey, I — I need help!’
‘I guessed so,’ Scott mumbled, in wardly thinking oh no, this one’s a talker too. Then, ‘I’m going to start moving this rubble. Are you hurt?’
The voice came back weakly. ’No.’
A stomping of boots and a deep breath behind him. Virgil had caught up.
Scott shook his head.
‘How deep is he?’
‘Dunno, maybe a couple metres in the thick of it—’
‘—Good.’ Then, to the trapped guy, ‘We’ll get you out, don’t worry. This is—’
He was about to say International Rescue, wasn’t he?
Yep, there it was.
After that, Scott didn’t have a chance. Again, Virgil took over. Another device appeared from his utility belt, a thin spindle of metal framing. At another touch of a button, the device splayed out into a spidery form, then strapped itself as an exoskeleton over Virgil’s gloved hands. More readjusting, more splaying out, more movement, until Virgil had a set of clawlike metal hands, extending out over his own. The way the claws moved seemed almost pneumatic, although, with the size they could condense down to, the way they had folded in to their small form, that made no sense. Scott found himself watching, enraptured, and as much as he wanted to be pissed at Virgil, it was an attractive sort of animosity, and he watched in awe as the beefy guy threw aside debris with his exoskeleton tool like it was nothing.
Then he remembered that he wanted to be angry. So he started heaving debris away with his bare hands, seeking to match his new companion-cum-rival. In the end, he didn’t clear away half as much as Virgil, but he did spy his chance to be the one to extend his hand and — as gently as he knew how — pull the poor fireman out of harm’s way.
It irked him how the fireman immediately looked to Virgil for authority (was it Scott’s biker gear? His hairdo?) so he cut in as quick as he could.
‘Cass sent me here. She’s worried about you.’
The fireman’s eyes lit up. ‘Cass? Oh, bless her. Yes. Ah, we had a little… problem when we tried exploring this place. As you can see. I didn’t fare too well.’
‘Why were you down here?’ Virgil, cutting in.
‘We was, um, looking for a water source. Heard there was a well, or at least, water pipes, in here.’
‘Makes sense.’ Virgil studied the man’s overalls. ‘You’re a firefighter?’
The man puffed up his chest with pride… then immediately winced. Ribs must be sore from the crushed debris. ’S’right! Best in Owarra.’
‘I knew that,’ Scott muttered, and it earned him a confused glance from Virgil. ‘Anyway. We should get back. The Hood are outside and I know they won’t be keen to let us escape easily.’
Scott looked around at the group. Well, there’s four of us now. That’s way more than I had originally planned for.
Ah, well. He wasn’t one to let unexpected circumstances get in the way of an adventure. He motioned with a flick of the wrist, and led on.
They made it out with little incident (and plenty of loot that Scott had surreptitiously spotted in the shadows), but once they reached the wall on the south side, there was a new addition: a hooded guard, silently patrolling like the Grim Reaper.
‘Could we take him out?’
He had an uzi in his hands. Scott didn’t fancy their chances. ‘Let’s scope out the front instead..’
Near the entrance, the noise picked up outside. Sounded like a fight was going on. That explained the heightened security, at any rate. Scott held out a hand, pulling everyone to a halt by the entrance’s grand stone pillars.
‘Oh, brother. What is it now?’
Scott peered out from around the pillar. A pair of brightly-dressed, loud yobs were kicking up a fuss at the gates. A flare arced in the sky, and there was a shout and an explosion of something significantly more dangerous than a flare. The newcomers had caught the attention of the encamped gang, and it sounded like they had done so on purpose.
Scott sucked in air through his teeth. ‘God damn it, guys.’
‘Who are they? Do you know them?’
‘Yeah.’ Scott hid back out of sight, and slumped a little against the wall. ‘Big one’s Havoc. Little one’s Fuse. I know ‘em, Havoc ‘specially—’
‘Oh, that’s Havoc, is it? Looks well different these days.’ Berrenger, interrupting, peering out to get a better look, mouth agape in a silly smile. Scott ignored him, continued with his story.
‘We hung out in the same slums when we were kids. Guess we were friends? Or enemies. Hard to tell when you’re kids, that shit changes from week to week, huh?’
Virgil chuckled. ‘I suppose it does.’
‘They run around calling themselves the Chaos Crew now. Bit silly when there’s only two of ‘em. Is that even a crew?’
‘Are they gonna be a problem?’
‘Dunno. But right now they’re a good distraction.’ Scott smiled, and he was sure Virgil understood his intent. He waited for the opportune moment. Then, on his signal they raced forward, aiming to cut a line through the shadows of the courtyard.
Some of The Hood noticed him. Breaking off from the group, a smaller contingent of fighters blocked off his escape. He fought back, spirited and quick, landing blows where they least expected. One guy doubled backward, mewling and holding his crotch.
‘Oi oi, got ourselves a live one.’ A big and burly gang member clipped Scott over the side of his head with a hooked punch. It caught him off-guard, and as he span to the floor, light-headed, he thought he saw Virgil’s face painted in shock.
All he could think was He cares about me?
Then, a loud and brash and decidedly feminine cry. Fuse interrupted the melee by rearing her dirtbike closer, and spinning a tightly coiled wire out of her hand. It threaded its way down onto the ground, bristling with sparks, then suddenly, neatly exploding. The blast separated Scott and Virgil from their attackers, but it also separated Berrenger from the firefighter, further up near the bushes.
It was hard to tell who was fighting who, really.
Then Havoc was on him, pinning him to the ground. Scott wrestled him as best he could, but gravity was working against him. Berrenger, with a spirited but ill-advised cry, went in for the rescue attack, coming back into the fray despite so nearly being free of it all, and was resoundly swatted away with a reinforced-steel gauntlet. His face smacked into the hard sandstone ground and he whelped out a pathetic ‘Oww.’ Havic didn’t pay attention to him after that. All attention on Scott.
‘I ain’t gonna kill ya,’ Havoc said, ‘but jus’ cos I knows ya.’ He got off him, letting Scott sit up and massage his wrists. ‘Now get gone. This is our fight.’
Scott nodded, somewhat numbly. He caught Virgil’s eye and the pair of them hightailed it out of there, content to let the two troublemakers
Behind them, Havoc cracked his knuckles and turned back to the group. Fuse revved her bike menacingly. Scott was happy enough that they could handle themselves; mostly, he was just glad that he wasn’t the one in the Chaos Crew’s firing line. The Hood gang were in for a very painful time.
They made it out, amazingly.
‘Well,’ said Virgil, once they made it over the small rise, ‘that was unexpected.’
Scott flashed his teeth, at once proud that this desert escapade had managed to surprise the stranger. ‘Which part? The Hood being such a formidable gang, or the Chaos Crew giving us a free way out?’
‘All of it.’
‘Ahaha. Life in the desert, mate. Life in the desert. Anyway. Time to get gone, pronto.’ Scott hadn’t forgotten there were guards out on patrol. So he stretched, then looked for where he had hidden his bike. Virgil did the same, and that was when Scott saw it. Virgil’s vehicle was like nothing Scott had ever seen before. He didn’t even know if he ought to call it a motorbike.
Then Virgil kicked it into gear and Scott realised oh shit, it can fly? Or, at least, hover.
Time for questions later.
Now, at least until they got a few miles away, it would be just them, and the desert.
He kicked his own bike into gear. A few metres off, he saw Brandon Berrenger had already helped the firefighter into the passenger’s compartment of his sand buggy. So the kid wasn’t entirely hopeless.
Scott forged the path ahead, roaring off into the desert. None of the gang even noticed their departure, with the noise and the lightshow the Chaos Crew were providing.
They raced on. Scott pulled out one earphone and started his music going, for once hit by the regret that he had no boombox mounted on the bike. Would have been nice to subject his unwanted compatriots to the onslaught of heavy, spirited rock that was assaulting his ear. Instead, he sang along, bobbing his head, and… was that Virgil smiling at him? God damn it.
Scott kicked the gears up a notch. The others had to catch up. Didn’t take long to reach the canyon that offered them a bit of cover under the open sky. ‘Right,’ he said, killing the engine and stepping off to face them. ‘Now we gotta decide what we’re doing.’ And as he spoke, he looked at Virgil the whole time.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘We gotta get this guy back to his boss, but first, you’re still an unknown quantity to me. You said you’d tell me more when we were out of here.’
Virgil still looked like he was keen to hide something, but at least he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. ‘That’s right,’ he said. Then, ‘You know, I find it funny you folks call the whole gang “The Hood.” That’s really just the name for the leader.’
‘You know about The Hood’s leader?’ Berrenger was getting excited again. Scott could fast see this becoming a problem, or perhaps the birth of a rumour mill starting. He made an executive decision.
‘Berrenger, take this man back to Kurna. Make sure he gets to Cass, okay?’
‘What about you, my dude?’
‘Don’t call me that. I’ll be fine.’ Scott waved him away, eyebrows a firm line, and Berrenger mercifully got the message and started assisting the poor man over to his sand buggy.
Once the pair were off, Scott rounded on Virgil. ‘All right, Mister Hero. What the hell is this all about?’
Virgil paused to exhale deeply, and in that instant he seemed both innocently youthful, and horribly patronising. Scott still couldn’t figure out if he was sweet on him or if he was angry at him.
‘All right. So, this International Rescue thing. It’s my family’s organisation. Look, I know we’re not from Owarra, but we operate with as wide a reach as we can. It’s hardly worldwide but we want it to be so. And, The Hood, the guy who runs that gang, well… that gang’s just one of many things he controls. He’s got influence far outside the reach of the Owarran desert. He’s really got it in for our organisation. I don’t think he wants to see the world rebuild itself after the Great War.’
Scott rarely thought about the world outside his own small part in it, and that was understandable, because with the spread of the desert, it really did feel like an entire world at times. What need had he for anything greater? He had been taught, as well as any kid in these bleak times, that the rest of the world was just the same as here: people hanging by tooth and nail, fighting to stay alive, waiting hopelessly for the scorched parts of the earth to regenerate someday so they didn’t have to live like nomads any more. Some hope.
But he had never actually been out of the desert. And, for the first time since he was a small tyke, he actually noted with surprise that he felt excited thinking about what it might look like. A childish notion of The Hood and conspiracy theories about illicit organisations that spanned the entire globe flitted through his head like the embers of a campfire.
‘So you were out to get The Hood’s followers.’
‘I came looking for you.’
‘You’re… special, Scott.’
This caught Scott off-guard. Special?
‘I mean. I’m a mean rider. But I’m not…’
‘You should give yourself some more credit.’
‘I don’t get why you do this,’ Scott murmured.
‘Why you’re so nice to everyone. Like, why save people at all? Nobody’s going to care, in the long run.’
‘I think that’s where you’re wrong,’ Virgil said, and when he said it he seemed as immovable as a mountain. Scott felt a little chastened, and did not press the issue.
Silence fell between them. Virgil looked like he wanted to ask him something. Scott waited. Started tapping his foot.
‘I need you to come with me,’ Virgil said at last.
‘To International Rescue’s base. My father — the leader of International Rescue — wants to talk to you.’
Scott stared at him. The implicit question: Why?
‘He thinks you have potential.’
Potential. The word glistened in his mind.
‘Why the hell not?’ He was curious, and he wanted to see exactly where this rabbit hole led.
So he decided to go with Virgil to his curious employer’s base. Virgil’s eyes softened and he seemed genuinely happy about this fact.
‘My craft’s gonna pick us up over by that mountain range. Think you guys call it Blacksand Peak?’
Scott nodded. He knew exactly how to get there. ‘Mind if I take the lead?’
‘Go ahead.’ Virgil seemed amused. ‘I want to see more of your driving abilities, anyway.’
They raced together over the dry, cracked earth. Scott was surprised at Virgil’s driving abilities, and more so by the fact that the man was able to remain so calm and composed the whole time, even when following in the wake of Scott’s daredevil moves. It didn’t even faze him. The guy was a god damn badass, despite his stoic attitude.
It was… actually, pretty cool.
The music went back on, and Scott sank into the feeling of flight-footed freedom once more. He wasn’t just happy, he was ecstatic. What a freaking strange evening, but it was exactly the sort of odd occurrence he didn’t mind at all. Life had to have flavour, or the desert dust would cloud the eyes and there would be no point to anything at all. He tapped on the handlebars, dipped his head in time with the beat.
By the time they reached Blacksand Peak, Scott was amped up beyond all reckoning. Virgil was already off his vehicle and speaking into a receiver strapped around his wrist — a series of numbers and letters, then We’re ready for pickup, over. First thing Scott did, he opened the trunk box on the back of his motorcycle and plucked out two beers.
‘While we wait,’ he said, as he proffered one. Virgil took it out of politeness, hardly realising what he was doing.
‘Shouldn’t drink on the job. And besides, I’m not sure we’ll have time…’
‘Shut up and drink,’ Scott said. ‘You come into the desert, the very least you can do is try an Owarran brew before you leave.’
Virgil’s doubt melted into softness — again, with this guy, why was he so sweet like that? On any other person, Scott would have considered this a weakness — and with a gentle sigh, a sound of concession, he cracked open the bottle with a metal device fished from his belt and joined Scott in a drink, perched on the dusty rock next to him like they were both old friends.
Scott’s emotions roiled inside of him, greatly aided by the beer, and when he heard the aforementioned aircraft roaring its approach — it had barely been five minutes, and Virgil hadn’t been joking, his craft was fast — he decided to take his chances.
He leaned up, and kissed Virgil square on the lips. It was a forceful kiss, one that left Virgil no space to react. Lips pressed together, and god, Virgil was so soft, yielding in his surprise. Scott smiled into the kiss, feeling perfectly in control.
Then Virgil disentangled himself, and pushed away.
‘You probably shouldn’t have done that.’
Virgil bit his lower lip, casting his eyes to the side. Something he wasn’t telling him.
Whatever. He’d tease it out of him eventually.
‘Looks like our ride’s here,’ Scott remarked. And he looked up, and…
Holy hell. The aircraft that hovered above them was like nothing he had ever seen. It was a world beyond Virgil’s strange hovercraft bike. Huge and beetle-green, it hung in the air perfectly-still, vertical thrusters roaring, and in that moment Scott understood where the tales of UFOs came from.
A platform extended down from the centre of the craft, supported by thick cables. Scott didn’t bother asking if he could bring his bike, he just did it anyway. Soon both of them were stood on the sizeable platform, holding on to a guard rail, bikes at their sides as they were hoisted into the guts of the impressive craft.
They were greeted by a young lad with a shock of blond hair, who wasted no time in sliding out of the pilot’s seat to allow Virgil a way through.
‘Take good care of my Thunderbird while I was down there, Alan?’ Virgil patted the boy on the shoulder.
‘All good as new, Virg.’
‘Good. Well, you’d better keep flying, then. This troublemaker cajoled me into having a drink.’
‘That’s not like you! But fair enough.’ Before he clambered back to take the pilot’s seat, he turned to Scott. ‘Nice to meet you. I’m Alan.’ The lad was chirpy, but he didn’t waste time with extraneous conversation like Berrenger did. Scott could get along with that.
Virgil bade Scott take one of the passenger seats next to him, a little further back from Alan. The flight passed with little conversation, aside from Alan and Virgil conversing in curt, businesslike sentences involving coordinates, flight plans, and strange turns of phrase Scott didn’t recognise. He supposed there would be time to ask once he met Virgil’s father, the big boss, whoever the guy was. By the end of the journey, which only lasted a half hour, he had gathered that Brains was a person, and that every member of this organisation also had vehicles that were all called Thunderbird. Virgil avoided mentioning the awkward kiss for the entire duration of the flight, which made sense because of the kid, but Scott fancied he spotted a sly, compromised glance his way every so often.
‘And, here we are!’ Alan announced. The thrusters pointed downward again: Scott felt the shift in gravity, the lurch in his chest. Maybe he should not have chugged that beer.
The landing was smooth. They disentangled themselves from their seats, and stood waiting for the doors to hiss open. Here I am. Let’s see what awaits me here, then.
A strong smell of sea salt hit his nose. The ocean? He’d never seen the ocean before. He blinked, looked around. He stood before a grand island home, surrounded by lush verdance. It was exactly like a dream — not a desirable dream but a strange one, because water was overwhelming and plants were things that fought for existence, not things that swanned lazily in humid, wet earth.
He edged forward, masking his hesitance with curiosity. Virgil beckoned with a hand. Scott bit his lip, didn’t take the hand for fear of being seen as weak, and he strode forward as confidently as he could.
He was greeted at the entrance to the grand seaside house by a contingent of people, but aside from Virgil, the one that drew his attention the most was the older man at the centre of it all. He had the airs of an explorer, with piercing grey eyes and swept-back greying hair, and a strong and lean stature. Looked like he could take on mountains and be back before breakfast.
‘My father,’ Virgil whispered at his side.
The man spread his arms wide, focussed entirely on Scott. In this small instant, his entire world shifted.
‘Welcome home, son.’