Real chicken stock, mind, not the laboratory equivalent. Being point driver for Crazy Mary's convoy seemed to result in a certain status. I go along with it; they honestly seem to enjoy making a fuss over me. So I grit my teeth and force myself to be sociable. I won't drink with them, though: I don't much like myself when I lose my inhibitions.
So I wait until Mary starts her strip-tease on the bar and walk outside. By that point, nobody pays any attention to what I do or where I go.
Usually I sit down under the stars at the edge of an outside light and write a letter to Dutchess County. ELMAY is a wonderful thing: I can get my mail anywhere I punch in my ident code.
Usually I write faithfully from each truck stop, but the letter I got today told that Julia gave birth to a little girl: proud mother and happy father doing fine. The stars are beautiful in Arizona.
"Justin." The voice was Mary's. I looked up.
"I thought you were dancing," I said.
She nodded. "You always go off when I start, and I wanted to have a word with you alone."
They call her Crazy Mary because of her adamant refusal to stop at toll booths. She believed that the power of any convoy rested in firepower and speed: she did not like slowing down. The point car of her convoy would kill anyone running the booth who didn't flee, clearing a path for the rig. Her fights are about as spontaneous as the Normandy invasion and generally successful. There is no madness in her.
I didn't say anything. I wasn't in the mood.
"Something's killing you, Justin."
She nodded, sat down by me. "I don't know anything about you," she said. "Not your family, not friends, no history. What's wrong with you tonight?"
"You're not even fooling my toy rabbit. Where are you from? Where did you learn to shoot? You're as good as anyone on the AADA circuit." She hesitated. "You a deserter?"
"Lose your family, friends? You can't let that kill you."
"They're all fine."
"Problems in the convoy? Colin jump you again?"
I couldn't help but smile. Colin had probably never heard of tae kwan do until I gave him a demonstration. That had been a bad day for me, too.
"It hurts me to see you like this."
"I'm sorry. My problems are mine and I don't want to inflict them on you."
"Dammit, Justin!" I had never seen her angry before. "We spill blood for each other. If you can't trust me with this, get in your buggy and go!"
I don't like being threatened. I tossed her my duplicate key to her rig and walked.
Smooth move, Justin. You're feeling lonely so you ditch some of the best friends you've ever had. There's an angel on my shoulder that tells me when I'm being a jerk: I must learn to listen to him someday.
My pickup is unique, a deep blue campershell model with off-road suspension. It's got two external mount MFR pods linked to a trigger on my front bumper, twin .50 calibers in a turret, and two forward-firing Vulcans with serial numbers traceable to a Tribune assault trike stolen from the Royal Army. The pickup was built in Dutchess County as a personal gift from some friends with scavenged equipment they would not be able to use. I fly colors: a black bastard sword, point down, over which is superimposed a blank scroll. It's an old joke which I never discuss. Speaking of which, I call the machine Doppelganger.
She happened to fit nicely with Crazy Mary's road strategy. The usual idea was to go offroad to flank too booths and trigger the anti-personnel grenades; or lay down some massive rocket fire at close range while Mary's rig tooled down the road and shelled them with an antitank gun.
About one hundred miles on, I found another truck stop. There weren't any convoys around and I decided to head back East, but I was talked into driving a doctor out into the desert.
It was a day's drive for me. It's disconcerting to ride with a man like that; to absolutely know the world would be better off with more like him and less like you. He honestly wanted to go out in the middle of nowhere and stop a little pain; he quit a high-paying job at a trauma center in a big arena because he didn't like the crowds. At least we had that in common: I've never been able to understand how people can get a thrill out of watching a firefight.
We reached the settlement as the sun went down. I almost parked my pickup on crops because I couldn't tell them from scrub weeds. Don't ever let anyone tell you about the unique high-pressure life of modern man - There was more pain and labor put into that village than most people ever see. Even so, the village was an awful gray place in an awful brown desolation. If farmers in the 1700s lived anything like that, then the First Industrial Revolution was a major step forward for the quality of human life.
I really wanted to leave before they offered us dinner, but three of the kids wanted rides and I didn't see any way I could get out of driving them around a little. Jim was twelve; that annoying age when you know you're too old to be treated like a child and too young for people to believe you. His voice was breaking and he had spots on the back of his hands; I don't know much about deficiency diseases but it looked like a mild case of kwashiorkor.
I was playing Beethoven's 6th on the stereo while he was playing Star Commandos with the on-board computer, when I felt shock flow through me, hit the brakes and brought it down from 90 in six seconds. What is it about a human skill that makes it so noticeable? Ninety miles per hour over rough terrain with a squealing kid, and a skull half-buried in the sand grabs your eye better than a neon sign.
"Jim," I said - you never call a twelve-year-old "Jimmy," especially if that's what his parents call him - "I think I saw something back There. Will you come with me?"
He would, of course. I almost got out of the pickup when I changed my mind and backed to where I saw it. I had the horrible feeling I wanted to keep the pickup close to us.
The skull was not quite clean of flesh yet. I had my gas mask on so I don't know how it smelled. While I handled it I was startled to notice that my armor was buttoned up, the laserscope on my Uzi switched on, and the snap on my holster undone. Why had the nasty part of my mind booted up? Deaths happen often enough, even without murder.
"You know anything about this?" I asked.
Jim shifted uncomfortably and squirmed against my pickup. "They didn't pay their taxes," he explained.
We were by the side of a small hill; I scrambled up it. You couldn't see it from what passed for a road here, but There was a stake. Someone was tied to it.
He was dead. It was just as well, in a way: I had no idea what I would have done if he were alive. Scattered around were spent rifle cartridges and cigarette buts: A guard had probably been popping shots at coyotes. Running over like that had been a stupid move: There might have been guards and I would have walked right into them. Score one point for the nasty side of my mind. I didn't particularly want to see the bones here and There, all partly gnawed and scattered by scavengers.
If I had eaten half of what they offered me at dinner, I do believe they all would have gone hungry for a week. I drank coffee - don't ask me where they got it - without milk or sugar for the first time in my life. I wonder if black coffee is really as bad as I thought, or if every bit of that dinner was tainted to start with. I had a chocolate bar in my car, but I knew better than to offer it to them. Why is it that the people who deserve help the most are the people who won't accept it?
I gave the doctor most of the drugs I had in my pickup, mostly idiot-proof combat antibiotics and strong painkillers. I hit the road before midnight.
It was a shame about Jim, having to grow up in a place like that. What galled me, though, were those "taxes." I hadn't asked Jim's parents, but I had the nasty feeling that they were not levied by a duly elected government. Somebody really ought to do something. Pity Nightsword was on the other side of the continent. If I tried anything alone I'd probably just make everything worse. At 0117 I did a three-point turn.
My terminal lit up with "CONTACT" in red letters and switched to radar. About a quarter mile ahead, three bikes were taking on a compact: coming towards me. I switched off my lights, slowed down, and went off road. There was a good chance they'd bomb past me without noticing. But I have this quirk about fighting at night. I disengaged the bumper trigger.
The car was a Capricorn. I didn't have time to recognize the makes of the bikes. I swung onto the road at 20, into the path of what looked like the lightest one while traversing the turret to 85 degrees. I triggered the Brownings just before the small bike hit me. I must have hit the driver with the MGs because the first bike went over like a domino. The second hit my ram at a combined speed or about 80. Crunch. As he flew over my back, the Capricorn started rolling.
Terrific. I left rubber on the road as I swung around and punched it. The third biker had stopped as soon as the Capricorn rolled, and was going towards it with some large gun in his hands. I hadn't fired the Vulcans yet and didn't want to because he kept between me and the Capricorn. Smart guy. I overtook him, but he must have been a real acrobat. he dodged to his right and would have made it if I hadn't opened my door at the right moment.
He closed my door for me, which I thought was very sportsmanlike. I braked to halt and trotted over to the Capricorn.
Have you ever hated someone at a first glance? E mean, really felt filled with contempt and disgust; an absolute knowledge that someone was everything you despised? Neither had I. At least not up to now.
She was beautiful and unfortunately she looked like she knew it. She smelled of perfume (I don't like perfume) and wore a trim little sexy getup that was some civilian's idea of combat armor: not the bulky, ugly padded one-piece thing that had the advantage of being real. I mean, it looked like a costume in one of those autoduel TV shows where the good guys never buy it or even feel pain when they're hit.
"You could at least let me out of here," she said.
I was tempted, but she had a point. She might look better rightside up. "Do you think you've broken anything?" I asked.
"How do I tell?"
God. "Move all your limbs. If your scream exceeds eighty decibels, There's a distinct possibility of fractures."
The back of the Capricorn was undamaged. They had been concentrating fire on her right rear tire. The guard was shot away by MG fire, but a pothole had probably killed it. They had probably been trying to kill for salvage. Three motorcyclists can't make a good thing of stripping - you need at least a cargo van. That meant There were probably more around.
I ran back to my pickup and punched up the radar. Nothing. I set it to sound the horn in case of a contact.
"what did you run off for?" she asked peevishly.
"There's probably more of them. My onboard's looking around with radar."
"On board what?"
Christ. "Computer. Do you think you're hurt?"
I hoped not. I knew what a cycle gang would do to her if I left her, and I knew better than to move a casualty. I would have to stay with her and call for help. Some people who respond to Channel 9 are less than chivalrous.
"Uh, no. How would you know There's more of them?"
"I don't know. I think."
Being with a thinking organism probably impressed her no end. Anyway, she didn't say anything as I crowbarred the door off.
She waited impatiently in my car, while I checked the bodies. Nothing too valuable, but a thick roll of old low-denomination bulls, and jewelry. Life's savings of a very poor family. Something about that bothered me.
"Your father in charge around here?" I asked.
"Yeah. Hurry up, huh?"
Good one, Justin. You just offed three mercs hired by Jim's village to take on the Warlord. Score one for the White Knight. Just then, the horn went off.
If she had hit it, I was going to kill her. Period. But it was a legitimate contact. A solitary bogie, ranged two miles and closing. A big machine. The radar specified it was made of metal. Metal? All the combat machines I've ever seen used ablative armor made of plastic.
"I'll bet your father owns a bus, made of metal," I said.
"Wow." She nodded. Wow? I saved a person who says "Wow"? How far have I fallen? "He used Channel 12. Don't even think about trying to kidnap me, because he'll kill you."
"Ever read 'The Ransom of Red Chief'? I didn't think so. What's your name?"
"Tabitha Neumann. My father's General Neumann."
"Thanks." Tabitha. Almighty God. I clicked on the radio. "General Neumann? Justin Bialy here."
The response was almost immediate. "Mister Bialy? What can I do for you?"
Amiable sort. "You daughter was in a road duel. She's all right, but she lost the Capricorn. She's with me now."
"May I speak with her?"
I handed her the mike. "Dad? Hello?"
"Hello. Are you being kidnapped?"
"I think so. He mentioned the ransom of someone named Red Chief."
I wasn't expecting Neumann to burst into laughter. It was just about the most gratifying thing I've ever heard.
"He's not kidnapping you. Tell him how to get to the refinery."
It was a real oil refinery. I couldn't believe it. Any more than I could believe the truck parked inside the barbed wire. It was a gas-burner, and used to be a dump truck, a good forty-five feet long and fifteen wide. I rapped the side. Overlapping steel plates. Non-ablative armor: the stuff they still use on anti-riot vehicles. A .50 caliber MG wouldn't even touch this machine. That would take heavier weapons.
Vulcans, for example.
Ram plate and rocket launchers on the nose. Machine-guns all along the sides, like a frigate. I'll bet they weren't servoed. A turret on top with a laser.
He was about fifty, and looked like he used concrete for chewing gum. White hair, and a US Army brigadier general's uniform. I had the feeling he had come by it honestly.
"Quite," I said honestly. I decided to take a risk. "Old systems, and I wouldn't care to take it up against heavy lasers, but I'm sure it does its job."
"And what do you think its job is?"
Uh-oh. "Well, with steel armor, I assume it is intended to fight people with light vehicular weapons. In that case, steel armor would be a good choice over ablative. I'm sure you'd rather have more rocket launchers and fewer machine-guns, but one must make do."
He smiled. "Excellent. My turn. Your pickup mounts only one defensive weapon: a smokescreen, and is equipped with every imaginable electronic system which would not collapse the suspension. Your major offensive weapons bear to the front, while the only ranged weapon you can bring to a pursuer are machine guns. You are a duellist, very rich."
"Also excellent. I notice that you are doing your best to avoid bruising my ego. I must be a very bad duellist if you have never heard of me."
"I didn't say that."
"Actually, I am not a duellist. I fight to survive and avoid it when I can."
"Then you are the point-man for a convoy. Which explains why I've never heard of yo."
I was impressed. "Congratulations."
"you're a soldier, I think. And one of the few human beings able to draw logical thoughts."
"Thank you." I should have returned the compliment.
"Are you interested in a job?"
"Doing what my daughter should be doing. Thinking."
"And fighting. I rule this county." He looked at me sharply. "Do you disapprove?"
"This is a fine period of time. Caste systems have broken down, a man can go as far as his strength and brain can take him. A time when the cream is allowed to rise. Are you a student of history?"
"I dabble," I said blandly.
"There was a similar time in China. After the Emperor fell."
"After the Double-Ten Revolution."
"Yes. Lasting until the Communists took over."
"Not really. Chiang kai-Shek subjugated the warlords before that."
He seemed to find this funny. "You do impress me. Did you strip the bodies of the cyclists?"
He could check later anyway. "Yes."
"Did you find anything interesting?"
"Anything to indicate who they were working for?"
Damn. He had figured out they were mercenaries. Or he was paranoid. Either way, he was right. "No."
"No," he repeated. "Mister Bialy, I'm afraid I'll have to kill you."
My king was in check. Easy to stay calm. "Indeed? Whatever for?" The MGs to the truck had swivelled, depressed. Don't give them an excuse to open up.
"My daughter told me you found jewels. Therefore, you are either stupid, lying, or working for the villagers. Any possibility would do."
Radical shift in tactics: tell the truth. "Don't make me your enemy, Neumann. I can be dangerous. Sure, you can bully civilians when you're safe inside your buggy, but you and I know why you won't ever take that machine against a real town. Any half-assed duellist club would blow you to hell."
"Of course, if you keep crawling low enough, There's a good chance no real fighters will ever be bothered with you or your share-cropper empire."
He hit me across the face. For a moment, I thought he had loosened teeth.
"Think it over, Neumann," I said quietly. "You're not the first warlord this planet's seen. They were all smart man, brave men. They all lost - eventually. Even when they died rich, their dynasties fell. You've got an oil refinery here. Sell it and you're rich, or run it yourself. Bet you'd live a lot better than you are now."
He considered. "I wish you weren't my enemy, Bialy."
"I don't have to be."
"But you're no threat if I kill you."
I showed teeth in my grin. "Try me."
"Excellent," he said ruefully. "Gold Cross, eh? And a member of The Brotherhood."
"Let's just say I have a trigger-happy friend in high places named Elijah."
"I won't surrender on the cheap threats of hopped-up duellist."
Damn! Damn! Damn! "It's no surrender. Nobody's ever pointed out your options before." I was lying, of course: Anyone with half a brain would have thought of selling the oil - unless he was obsessed with his kingdom.
"I'm going to let you go, Bialy, if you let me see the jewelry. My technicians will unload your Vulcans before you leave."
"You'd better let me disarm the security system first."
He barely looked at me. "Nice try. No, your security system is set to trigger flechette grenades. It won't damage the car."
"And your technicians?"
"They'll take their chances."
I went along with it. I never claimed to be a hero. The techs managed it without killing themselves. The road I took out was a tortuous one, up the side of the mountain. Radar said I was alone. Dawn was beginning to break and I stopped to consider my options. The smart move was to leave, reload the Vulcans, and gun for Neumann's truck.
So I'm stupid. Why else was I crawling back to an oil refinery surrounded with razor wire carrying an Uzi, a thump gun, and three whit phosphorus grenades?
No patrols were out. The storage tanks made easy targets. I tried not to think of how many hundreds of thousands of dollars of octane were going up down There. I just watched the truck, hoped the fire would spread to it in a hurry.
The truck started up, went through the fence and into the desert. Neumann beat me again.
I needed Doppelganger. I ran the three miles back to the pickup, uncertain what I'd do when I got There. Someday I'll learn: Neumann had sent a patrol out after me. Three, with rifles. They were siting on Doppelganger.
"Hands up," said a fat guy who was probably the sergeant. I felt his suggestion had merit, so I complied.
"The General told us to follow you on foot. Funny, you stopping like that. Bet you've been causing trouble. Orders are to let you go but first we're going to have some fun."
Hmm. No radio contact with the refinery, and they didn't notice the fire ... "Of course," I agreed, "But since you're only three to one you'd better keep you guns close by."
People can be so easy to manipulate. Following Sarge's lead, they dropped their rifles and came at me barehanded.
It's incredible how bad most people are at fighting. They think all you need are muscles and nerve. Combat armor has heavy shinpads, so you'd think people would know to kick for the shin. But no, it's my experience that people can't fight hand to hand worth beans.
I incapacitated them long enough to get into the pickup. I waited for them to limp to their weapons, and triggered the AP grenades. I fell back with a sigh and considered my next move, until I noticed a smell of perfume.
"Hey, Tabitha," I said as the barrel of a Sterling 9mm touched my throat. "How's tricks?"
"Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you."
I said the first thing I thought of. "I'm a terrific lay."
That disconcerted her - or maybe she was considering the offer - long enough for me to punch it. I drove as wildly as I could: By the time she got control of her gun we were going down the mountain road at 70 mph.
"Stop us, now."
I shrugged. "Kill me and we'll see how far a pickup can fly. Don't bother me when I'm trying to concentrate."
She rammed the gun into me and I pretended to lose control. "Oops," I apologized. "I warned you. Long way down, huh?"
On the desert road, I hit 110 and thanked my lucky stars for sportscar engines. I re-engaged the bumper trigger. Radar had no problem finding the truck. "I remember an accident I saw once. Kid rolled his car at fifty. He had external mount rockets like mine. You wouldn't believe the fireball." I didn't mention that the fireball was from another car. I was in control as long as we were driving fast.
I saw the truck, now. About half a mile from the village. They saw me; turned, stopped. I was facing a broadside of machine-guns. Bad move on his part. But Neumann didn't know what I was going to do. I had beaten him, even if I lost now.
"You'll never damage it, not without Vulcans," she said.
I offered her a bite of my chocolate bar and put my MGs on automatic. She was probably right. "Maybe. I want you to get on the mike and tell your father to give up."
She didn't, of course. he wouldn't have, anyway.
The truck was getting closer. The laser was scoring hits, blowing away paint and revealing my reflective armor. When will people realize that lasers are just light? Still closer: I went off-road and got ready to turn from my collision course.
I looked at Tabitha. "When you get to hell, tell Mom I said hi."
That distracted her while I pulled a red handle marked EJECT. An instant later, the roar of rockets filled Doppelganger as I went through the roof.
My seat was halfway up when Doppelganger hit the truck, broadside. The hang glider unfolded and the seat dropped away before I got a look. Doppelganger had gone through the truck, and sat, a pile of flaming debris. The truck roared with flame as well: Doppelganger must have hit flamethrower tanks. Explosions tore the truck to scrap while I landed.
Neumann was alive. It figures. He would be in the safest place aboard the truck. His leg was broken, but get him to a hospital and he'd survive.
"General," I said.
"Tabitha?" he asked.
"Back on the mountain. She's all right."
"Don't let them kill her."
"They won't do a thing to her. I promise you that."
He looked at me gratefully. "Thank you, Bialy."
I said nothing.
He laughed. "You lost your car. What did you get for it?"
"I think I'll be getting a glass of water and a packed lunch." I shaded my eyes with my hand. "The villagers are coming now.
"I don't think they'll give you water, General."
Doppelganger: Pickup with Camper Shell, X-hvy. chassis, OR suspension, Sports power plant, 6 solid tires, driver, gunner. Two-space external weapons pods (facing front, one on each side), with 10 points of laser reflective armor, carrying one MFR each, both MFRs linked to bumper trigger; two linked MGs in turret; two linked VMGs front; SS back; 8 AP grenades (2 each left, right, and top, 1 front, 1 back). Hi-res computer, Anti-theft system, radar, LD radio, Ejection Seat. Laser reflective armor: F20 (with ram plate), R10, L10, B10, T10, U5. Acc. 5, HC 2, $43,55, 7,788 lbs. Cargo: 8 spaces, 12 lbs.
Note: The sports power plant ($8,000, 1,000 lbs; 5 spaces, 12 DP, 2,700 power factors) is not an "official" Car Wars item, but was suggested by a reader in "Backfire" of ADQ 2/2. To build the car with a super power plant, the cost will go down $5,000, but you must find 100 lbs. to get rid of, and the maximum speed will drop to 90 mph (wind resistance caused by the EWPs cuts a vehicle's max speed by 10 mph).
Bialy is a Driver +1, Gunner +2, Cyclist, Handgunner +1, Runner +1, Mechanic. His personal equipment includes improved body armor, a heavy pistol, and an SMG with a laser scope.
The truck uses metal armor. It's old-fashioned in 2035, but it still works - especially if you can afford to carry a lot of weight! We're play testing metal armor rules and will present them in a later issue of ADQ.