"That's what I said," said Sheriff Sawtell, through a very tight jaw.
"In Pennsylvania." The Fox ran a hand through her black-and-white hair, then stuck it hard into the pocket of her silver satin jacket.
"I know where we are," Sawtell said. The Fox was just having fun, but Sawtell didn't know that.
Weevil Tarchinsky was sitting on a high stool, bootheels hooked around the rungs, looking through his thick glasses at the Oilfield County Transport Authority's array of police electronics. Weevil seemed unimpressed, but then he always does by stuff he didn't build. "What kind mutants you mean?" Weev said, scratching at his VHF headset so the antennae bobbled, buglike. "Giant ants? Eggplant on world-ruling trip?"
The Sheriff looked around the room at the rest of us, no doubt wondering just what the hell it was he was hiring; they all wonder, just as soon as they hear how much it's going to cost. Farley leaned against the doorframe, completely blocking it. Red Zinger had her sandals off and was sitting in lotus, three-alarm hair almost hiding her green eyes. I was memorizing the County map. We were going to take this one, whatever it was out there; that or eat beans. When you live with four other people in a closed motor vehicle, you don't eat one bean you can avoid. Beans have very poor stopping power in a tight situation.
"I mean," said Sawtell, taking a deep breath, "flying, flame-throwing, super-powered, leotarded, super-mutant-heroes! Only not heroes."
"The highway's full of broken heroes on a last-chance power drive," the Zinger said, "but even the hero gets a bullet in the chest."
"We can't hit Skyrider, and they bounce off Suncore," the Sheriff said, obviously not too sure it was the answer called for. "And when that tin-plated Major looks at you the wrong way, zot."
I said, "What have the, ah, mutants been doing?"
"They call themselves 'Deathtoll.' They set up on a road someplace, and hit everyone who goes by for ransom. You don't pay, they trash you and take everything that's left. If you look rich enough, they may not bother to warn you. It was bad enough when it was just ordinary traffic, but then they started goin' after our County convoys. Mechanical and electronic parts, stabilized food ... and our oil."
Even Farley looked up at that. Parts were pricey, food was precious, but oil, oh yeah.
"They got two tankers of real rock juice and one of synthetics. There was a load of waste oil, too, but the one called Suncore just torched that where it stood ... like he knew."
Weevil said "You set up run from here?"
"He knew." Weev pointed at the communications center. "You got Hexfacter Five 'cryptor. Crackorithm on Tops in Pops data net, four months."
You're kidding," the Sheriff said. Weev's jargon hadn't confused him, I noticed; he was laid-back but not slow.
The November Fox said "If the Weevil says you're in hacker hell, get yourself a coal shovel." She turned, said "Farley."
Farley walked over to the comm rig, pointed one of his bull-barrel fingers at a component. Tarchinsky said "Nyet. Two down, one right." Farley grasped the encryptor, pulled it out of the board. There was a kerpop as the AC line snapped. There was a neat little crunch as Farley folded the module double, and an even neater little gulp as he gave it to Sawtell.
The Sheriff said "That's ..."
"County property, yeah," the Fox said.
"Deputy sheriff said to me," said Red Zinger, standing up and stretching, "what you think you come here for, boy?" The Sheriff said "Gflhrmrmbl," which is what most guys say when they see the Zinger in motion. "Heartbreakers," she went on (unfairly teasing, I thought) "wit'cha .44s, I wanna tell ya where to park."
Sawtell opened his mouth, but no sound at all came out.
"Alkahest accepts the assignment," said Nola the November Fox. "We'll pick up the data disks and the down payment tonight. In gold, right?"
"Right," I said to be sure he understood.
Weevil pointed at the hole in the communications board. "Got a Covertron-K in junk box,'' he said. "We get back, yours free. Not crack that another six months."
"When you get back?" said Sheriff Sawtell, recovering quickly. As I said, no dummy .
"You should be okay with clear-talk radio until tomorrow night," I said. "You weren't going to tell anyone about us anyway. Were you?"
"No. I guess I wasn't at that.'' He grinned. That was good. We did want him on our side, after all.
"Who ya gonna call?" the Zinger said as we went out.
"What's our cover?" Celeste the Zinger asked when we got back to the bus. "I like the Travelling Salvation Show."
"You like the tambourine, and the speaking-in-tongues routine." Nola said, "and healing the Weevil." The Fox wasn't annoyed -- she was damn near laughing. Watching Celeste lay hands on Tarchinsky will get you believing in something, all right.
"No," I said. "They might ignore us. We want 'em to come up for a look, without calling a full preemptive strike."
"Snakejuice," Farley said. His voice is like metal crumpling with someone inside. He only talks to us, and we can't ever quite get used to it.
"Sounds right to me," I said. The others agreed. Farley smiled and went toward his gear lockers in the back, to get the bus dressed up. Celeste and I opened the costume cupboard. Nola and Weevil went up to the command cabin. All of us were talking, Farley whistling Bowie's "Fame," cheery as I-don't-know-what; places, everybody, lights, props, we got an audience tomorrow that's a real killer.
Are we crazy? Think about us: heroes for hire, electronic mail ALKAHEST, have guns will travel, no extra charge for dead team-mates. Ask yourself if it's crazy or not.
But I guess there's nothing for the craziness except to keep busy, so busy we might have forgotten to go back into town for the gold down payment.
But you know damn well we didn't.
By dawn we'd collected and spent most of the advance. "You notice those bars?" the November Fox said. "Real Johnson Matthey three-niners. That sheriffs got style. Especially for a sheriff."
I said, "You remember Smokey Sawtell and his Sixgun Special?"
"Sure. King of Division 20 in the Dakota Territory. Drove a superstock Frontier with a Vulcan mount." Then she got it, and laughed. "Not a relative, right?"
"Not a relative."
"I knew he had style."
I was driving, the Fox in the right seat, Farley at the master gunnery/engineering console. Farther back, Tarchinsky made solid-state voodoo, and Celeste got the show gear ready -- while staying two steps from Number Two gunseat.
Outside us were rolling hills, covered with trees lit like fire with autumn color. The sky was a deep cool blue, with a few clouds crossing it in no particular hurry. That blue seemed to lap like water against the hills, keeping the flames under control.
There were a few bunkered farmhouses visible from the road; there was the road itself, with its concrete and steel decorations -- but they were just minor annoyances to that land and sky.
We swung off the Turnpike northbound onto a tidily kept stretch of two-lane. There was a sign: LEAVING PA TURNPIKE PATROLLED AREA -- DUELLING PERMITTED BEYOND THIS POINT. A smaller sign read: That's BEYOND, friend. Shooting this sign is a capital offense. And you know, there wasn't one hole in either signboard.
Even off the Turnpike things were clean; burned spots, grease slicks, some clean-picked chassis, the occasional zapped tree, nothing unusual. Nothing like the Jersey Turnpike, which looks like a warehouse sale in Hell.
Nola looked up from her boards, at the bright and gentle hills. "Must have looked like this before the Big Spinout," she said softly. "Before there ever was a road to drive on. It's like..."
After a moment, Farley said, "A woman. Makes you want to lie in it." Another moment, and he added, "George Orwell," almost apologetically.
Nola turned her couch and put her hand on Farley's knee. She had on long, blood-red fake fingernails, part of her costume, and she gave him a gentle skritch-skritch.
I heard Weevil's voice in my ear: "Heat trace. Faint radar. Airborne and fast. On camera shortly."
The Fox shoved back an overhead sun-shade. In a very level voice, she said, "There is a man flying up there. Which is the flying one, Sharper?"
I said, "Skyrider. Silver suit, according to the Sheriff's disks."
"Silver suit, check." Thoughtfully, she added, "It is terribly odd to see someone flying like that. The human body has lousy aerodynamics. And a Reynolds number you wouldn't believe.''
"You're the team pilot." She also has a degree in aero engineering, but we discourage showing off.
The camera pictures came in then. "Not Very good," Weev was saying. "Fast. Maneuverable. Not metal; rotten radar." The screens showed us Skyrider had a slick metallic leotard with blue trim, and little flapping tassels, an insouciant touch. He obviously spent a lot of time practicing his flying pose, one knee bent, one straight, one arm cleaving clouds.
There was something familiar about the pattern of bands on his torso ... then we lost him behind the trees. Zinger stuck her red head in the cabin. She had long green ribbons, the color of her eyes, twined in her hair. "Are we about ready?"
"Well, they know we're coming," I said, and pulled the bus off the road at a nice little clearing. There were a couple of cars parked there; we stopped in front of them. They didn't look functional -- one had a wheel off, the other was covered with a tarp and set in a slick of spilled coolant.
A little distance away, a cluster of walking beams were sucking up the last of Pennsylvania's black gold. Orange hardhats bobbed nearby. "At least we'll have an audience," I said, as we locked down the controls.
The side door opened, unfurling colored streamers as it folded down. With the right dressing, it makes a fine stage for whatever we're supposed to be doing: spreading the good news, seismological research, Hamlet, or peddling snake oil. Farley came out carrying a loaded rack of patent nostrums under each arm. He went in and out again, ducking and drawing up to his full amazing height. He wore a wide flat hat and a plain black suit with a string tie; he cranked a hurdy-gurdy that played a sweet merry version of "Roadhouse Blues."
Celeste emerged, playing tambourine, all light steps and swirling ribbons. She and the Fox wore satiny shirt waists, leather vests, long black skirts with silver buttons down the side, and high-heeled boots. As the oil riggers started homing on the music, Nola and I came out, arm in arm; I put on my high silk hat and tugged the lapel of my long-tailed coat.
The act had something for everybody: music, dancing, ladies for the gentlemen to smile at, and Farley (yeah, and me too) for the ladies ... and of course the Secret-of-the-Ancients Elixir, one gold dollar the bottle, good for a variety of complaints and guaranteed non-fouling in conventionally filtered turbines.
We spent about half an hour working the crowd, making merry, selling a couple of bottles, advising on affairs of the heart, liver, and kidneys. (This is not dishonest; Celeste can on demand produce an MD and license to practice.) We bought a couple of kilos of rod wax, a goopy well by-product, from the riggers. (That was dishonest. If they'd known it filters down to petroleum jelly, we'd never have gotten it so cheap.)
In my ear, Tarchinsky said, "Heat trace, coming fast. And microseisms. One by air, one on wheels, one walking heavy."
There was a screech overhead and to the north, and for an ugly minute I though they were going to rocket us and pick over the mess. But it was silver Skyrider, doing a pop-up from behind a small hill, making a whole lot of noise. Then he pointed his chrome-plated fist, there was a flash of light -- and a patch of ground near the highway just exploded. Rocks flew, and smoke billowed, and I smelled sulfur.
When the smoke cleared, there was a woman standing there, in purple lamé tights with long steel gauntlets. There was a gun on her belt, and a whip. Uh-huh. That, according to the disks, would be Lightning Rose.
Everybody stopped still. The riggers were thunderstruck. We were pretty impressed.
One of the field hands yelled "Hey! Hey! It's the Muuuuuu-ries!"
"And people say they mutie around," Zinger said under her breath. I thought the rigger showed remarkable presence of mind under the circumstances. Anyway, it started the bystanders running for the hills, which was just fine; better to have them out of the way.
A car was tearing toward us. It was dead flat black, sleek enough to have stood on its tail and made orbit. There were a couple of housings on the hull that didn't look like anything from Uncle Albert's catalog. On the hypersonic droopsnoot, red lights swept ominously from side to side.
The driver's door gullwinged open and a man leaned out. He was dressed like he'd found Georgie Patton's spare footlocker, and around the leather and whipcord he wore steel rods and fluidic actuators. An exoskeleton. Somewhere, Jack Kirby was smiling.
"I'm Major Motion," he said, through a loudspeaker somewhere in his suit. "And my friends and I own this road."
That settled one thing. Whoever they were, they got most of their ideas from old video-tapes.
"Why, pleased to meet you, Major," I said, holding out my hand and walking toward the car. ''I'm Professor Adam Sharpe, and my associates and I are always pleased to meet persons in authority. Why, my dear friend Ms. Zingara here was just saying the other day that the way to do business properly and smoothly is to start at the top, isn't that right, Celeste?"
The Zinger said "I tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow to the new revolution," and flourished her tambourine.
The Major was nodding in a distracted way. Then Lightning Rose cracked her whip straight between us. Sparks jumped off the poppers.
"Uhm, yeah," said Major Motion. "As the, um, owners, you understand we have to ask . . . a toll on passers-by. You are just passing by?"
I didn't think he'd recognized us. Alkahest's rep is still mostly Northwest. But we seemed to have found the mutants in the middle of a leadership fight, which might make them weaker but certainly made them less stable.
I looked at Red Zinger, who looked at the Fox. We were all thinking the same thing; when life gives you a crashbox, double clutch
The Zinger pirouetted and rattled her bells, ending up in an elaborate ribbon-draped curtsy a good ten paces closer to Major Motion. He was staring at her, the rest of the world forgot ten, no es verdad? As Red herself might say, they love to watch her strut.
And the November Fox arched her red-red nails over her white-streaked head. the Wicked Witch of Winnemucca, and said "That will be enough of that ! Do we bribe this lot and go. or don't we?''
Weevil's voice said, "Strong heat trace behind you. on foot."
I said. "Perhaps they'd care to sample a little of nature's finest?" and reached for the bottle in my tailcoat pocket, best hipshooter style
Rose's whip coiled around my arms and chest. I staggered. looked down. I could see the copper wire braided into the leather. Then she pave me the jolt. Not killing current. but amps enough. I made an appropriate noise and fell down flat. The Secret Elixir gurgled into the earth.
There was a whoosh and a wave of heat between me and the bus. Suncore was here. I turned my head, saw a human figure big as Farley, dazzlingly, painfully orange. There was an orchid of fire blooming in its right hand. A wall of flames separated us from Farley and the bus door.
Skyrider went by again, shrieking. The heat distorted my view. The sky above seemed warped .
''Weev,'' I said. "get a camera lock on the flier. I don't care how. Then pan up from him."
"Enough of this display!" Lightning Rose said. There was a crackling. unreal quality to her voice. I was ready to bet that it came from a throat mike and filters, but I wasn't quite ready to bet my life.
Rose tugged on the whip. It hurt; she'd nearly cracked my ribs the first time. She sent another tickle of current down the copper strands. I twitched. "We are Deathtoll. let us collect our price -- and leave their bodies for the scavengers." A real lady. Rose was.
"We will. Rose.'' Major Motion said. trying to be soothing and bossy at once. We had definitely caught Deathtoll on a bad day.
"Just what the hell do you people want?" Nola said. and she was not pretending to be ticked off.
I have been accused -- sometimes by my companions -- of being the one truly crazy member of Alkahest, because of my pathological inability to get worried at times like this. I mean, I was all wrapped up on the ground, wired to a walking generator, almost certainly the first one to get smoked -- maybe literally -- if things went wrong, and I was sort of enjoying myself.
Holy Haring, Barman. I can't help it. You got any better ideas?
Major Motion stepped out of his car with a whirr-whirr-click. He pointed at the bus. whirr-click. His eyes glowed blue. and a bolt of energy tore apart the stuff set up on the side door. The air stank of ozone.
That had looked impressive on the disks. It was a realI good trick done live.
"We are not people as you are." the Major's sound system said. "We are the new breed. the kind to come. We use your kind as you use animals --"
He went on like that for a while. I'd heard the routine before, we all had. Sometimes I wonder if there's a record that bad guys can buy and lip-synch to.
Suncore had moved closer; he was still too bright to get a clear look at. The wall of fire was dying out. I got my knees up so that my bootheels were planted flat on the ground. Rose gave me another charge, just for fun. and I rolled around likewise. but made sure I ended with my boots on the dirt again.
There was wire mesh in my coat and gloves, leading to a capacitor bank in my belt and grounding prongs in my heels. I'd only felt the smallest of Lightning Rose's shocks. but she didn't know that. So we had her number. Of course. the wire-and-leather whip could break my neck all by itself. And if she were a real teleport ...
A scrap of something brown was caught under Major Motion's big black sedan. Only I was near enough to the ground to see it. It was a piece of a paper coverall.
Uh-huh. Rose had worn the paper suit and a plastic hardhat over her costume. and arrived with the oilriggers. When Skyrider threw his flashbomb. she'd stepped into the smoke. ripped out of the paper. and appeared from no-where. We hadn't counted the riggers, of course, and they started running almost at once anyway.
So much for the "mutant powers." Good to know. but hardly the end of our problems. Suncore could still burn things. I was the only one shockproofed (and only while my heels were grounded). the Major had his very impressive eye zap plus whatever was in his car. And Skyrider was still overhead, going like a bat out of you-know-where -- though I thought I had that one figured.
Major Motion's speech had finally gotten to ''. . . stand aside, or die !'' Time to start the Party .
I grabbed Rose's whip and pulled. She wasn't expecting that; the handle came out of her hands, trailing a long blue are that couldn't have left much in her batteries. "Farley!" the Fox yelled, and she and the Zinger kicked the breakaway spikes off their bootheels and split the fake button-seams of their skirts. They sprinted toward the bus. I rolled and got up, shucking off the whip coils, and ran after them. I scooped up my high hat on the fly; toppers aren't cheap, and besides, it gave me a chance to roll the Remington Double .44 out of the lining and make Rose and the Major duck with unaimed but very noisy shots.
Farley had popped the lid of his hurdy-gurdy and was spinning the crank; the box played our theme song, "Goin' Mobile," uptempo as it sprayed riot shot, making everybody duck. Then Tarchinsky popped the fore and ah turrets on the bus, and put a recoilless round across Major Motion's bow.
The ground-based Deathtollers froze. Sky rider didn't -- couldn't -- but he forgot to turn off his jet-whistle and I heard him coming. I jumped for the door, rolled in and hit the closer bar just as a pair of frags went off where I would have been.
Through a side window I saw the Major's eyes flash blue. A chunk blew out of the side door with a sizzling whang. It closed anyway. Good: the door's cheap to fix, the hydraulics aren 't. Then an arm of fire came through the hole and tried to grab me. Farley knocked me down and sprayed a glob of quickfoam across the gap. Tarchinsky's voice said from his console, "Spectrogram on the fire. Naphtha, palmitate, binder. No ectoplasm. Plain flamer fuel."
Farley put me on my feet. I got into the left seat. Lightning Rose was running for the Major's car. Suncore was lumbering off behind a cleft in the hills, a nice flame bucket if we were dumb enough to follow him. He still shone like a Sausalito sunset. I punched in polarizing filters, and suddenly he was just a big guy in a bulky, shiny suit, disappearing around the bend. All done with mirrors.
The Major gave us another shot to the turret. I heard the extinguishers hiss. "He can't be carrying that kind of power in his hip pockets," I said.
"No," said Weevil. "Emplaced laser, hill quarter-klick yonder. X-ray laser. Invisible. Major makes nice light; they shoot over his shoulder."
I put on my headset. "You got that, Fox?''
"Roger," Nola said. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Going mobile.'' I could hear the blades unfolding on her Grasshopper.
"Goin' mo-bile," Zinger's voice crackled, and she gunned her engine. Farley showed thumbs up at the right cabin window.
We'd scared Deathtoll off; it is a prime rule of the wide-open road that you never stand and duke it out with a bus, especially an emplaced bus. Unfortunately, we weren't hired just to scare them off; if we killed them here we'd have a long hunt for their loot; and it is also a well-known fact that buses don't chase very well.
So we bought the cars and set them up here last night. We were lucky enough to find a working Tetrarch Terraplane Grasshopper at Allston's Allnight Auto Armory; no guns, but Farley beats a factory install any day. Celeste saw the customized Pisces V in the Municipal lot, metal-flake red and all, and that settled that: Sheriff Sawtell gave us a really fair deal, too, considering it meant he had to get a taxi home.
I looked out the window. As the Terraplane lifted, you could just see the hidden skid that replaced the missing wheel; Nola didn't intend to do any ground-type driving. And the tarp over the red Pisces was tied down in back but only weighted in front; the Zinger just drove out of it like a heavily armed butterfly leaving the cocoon.
I went aft. Weevil picked up his field kit and joined me at the rear ramp, where Farley already had the cycles humming. I straddled mine; Tarchinsky slid into Farley's sidecar and folded out his firing grips. The ramp dropped and we roared down it, air-conditioned gypsies.
As we pulled close to Red Zinger, Nola swept past, and called on the team channel: "I've got Suncore. He's climbing into moonbuggy. Someone else driving ... and it looks like their trick laser up top." Pause. "They're going to cut in behind and bush-whack you. Shall I --" There was a squawk. "-- got careless there. Skyrider singed me a little. Nothing bad, but have to put him down. You got the laser wagon. Fox out."
"I can get angle on the flier," Weevil said.
I said, "Negatory. Airborne is the Fox's department. We've got our own targets ... Farley, this is a nice straight patch. Wanna be bait?''
"Bolshoi," Tarchinsky's voice said. I looked in my rearview: the buggy should still have been a couple of turns out of sight, and Nola should have been keeping Skyrider too busy to call in fire.
There was a nice crop of rock to the left. I braked the bike and swung off the road, shifting to stealth mode. Humming, I got behind cover just like Captain Speedtrap of the Ohio National Guard, and lined up the boresight reticle on my front fairing.
The Deathtoll vehicle pulled into view. Moonbuggy was the word for it: it was a tubular spaceframe, with huge off-road wheels and all the hardware hanging out in the breeze. A bellypan and a windscreen, but no armor at all. And the biggest damn laser tube I'd ever seen. The driver was a woman in plain gray riding leathers and a helmet. Suncore sat in the back, kicking his armored legs over the car's rear end. I had polarizers in my goggles, so he was just shiny. I could even make out the plumbing of his flamethrower, worked neatly into the armor.
I'd meant to shoot their left front wheel, but they pulled to a stop and began lining up their fire at Farley, so I shifted a bit to target the laser tube. You get real arrogant sometimes, shooting people in the back.
The backblast from my recoilless kicked up moss and dust behind me. The buggy laser went brang as the steel casing tore open, then kuh-poomm as the vacuum assembly imploded. The most expensive noise in duelling.
Suncore was out of the car and yelling, fumbling with valves on his suit. The laser conduits were arcing, and he was afraid of blowing up, not an unreasonable thing. The gray driver grabbed a hand extinguisher, jumped out of her seat, and foamed the cables and Suncore. In that order.
Then I blew the wheel off.
Both Deathtollers stared at me. I waved. Suncore pointed his bad-news hand. Oops, I thought, and cracked the throttle, remembering I was still in quiet mode and couldn't run all that fast. Suncore's flamer made a slurpy noise and burped fuel all over his feet and the driver's. I purred over, then switched out of silent running and gave a braap from the cycle's exhausts. They looked at me, then at the puddle around them.
I said, "Don't suppose you'd like a light?''
I left them cuffed to the buggy and went to catch the finale.
"Dirt road," Weev told me. I still had the map in my head, and turned off at a little unpaved track -- which turned out to be a perfectly good spray-paved drive covered with fuller's earth. They were chock-full of cute tricks, all right.
Two-thirds of a klick farther I found Deathtoll Headquarters: a futuristic-looking bunker, sprouting antennas and gun tubes -- all of them inert, and no doubt phony -- and a big stretch of came netting over their vehicular loot, including the three oil tankers. (Never steal more than you can carry with you, that's my motto.) I could hear guns and tires, but no one was in sight, ground or air.
Then the Deathtollmobile, or whatever they called it, came tearing around the bunker. It didn't look nearly as sleek as it had earlier. Sort of chewed on. Lightning Rose was leaning out the window, firing her very unmutanty pistol to the rear. Just behind them came the Zinger in four-wheel drift. There was the bass-fiddle thrum of a Vulcan, and a cloud of black fiberglass chips got gnawed off the Major's tail.
"Weevil," I said, "Farley, positions?"
"Tankers," Weev said. "Wired to explode if messed with. Fixing it. Have fun."
Why not. I armed and toggled. Too soon: the round glanced off the black car's front slope. The Major slewed left, and Red Zinger disappeared behind a flamethrower cloud. On my side, Rose was drawing a bead on me.
I threw up a stern wake and heard the bullet whiz by; she was good with that thing. The black car's rear end jumped as the Major dropped some ordnance, and then it roared off, fishtailing. Celeste came out of the smoke and hit mines. Her left front tire shredded; the wheel went bouncing and the fender dug dirt. I put a snap shot past the Major and Rose, then saw a pair of ports click open in the black car's stern. Twin flashes. I laid the bike down and laid myself down too.
No zoom, no bang. Not rockets: rocket boosters. When I looked up, the black car was a long way down the road.
Celeste was running toward me. The green ribbons held her hair back, and there was a sawed-off double Gyroslugger tied down to her thigh.
"You okay, Sharper?"
''Can I borrow your wheels?'' She jerked a thumb at the Pisces. "With a turret gun I'd have fixed 'em."
I waved at the bike. "Have her home by midnight." She laughed. Then we heard the blades overhead, and turned.
The black car was coming back, slewing left and right. Above and behind it, Skyrider was flying, not nearly so high or carefree as this morning. Above and behind him came the November Fox, herding them both with the draft from her blades and her outboard machineguns.
At this speed and altitude, it wasn't nearly so hard to see what kept Skyrider in the air: a transparent hang glider with nylon control strings. There were some holes in the canopy now, though, and Skyrider was flapping for lift like a sick condor.
And they were all boring straight in on Celeste and yours truly.
The Zinger drew, braced, fired. The 20-mike rocket whistled like the Last Trump. The black hood flew open, blocking the wind-shield. Zinger fired the other barrel. A ball of flame exploded from the Major's engine, then snow from the extinguishers.
"Red," I said, very calmly even for me, "even without power, that man is going to run us down."
"Naah," said the Zinger. "Watch the Fox."
"She won't -- we're not --" But I knew she would. And she did.
The car slammed into a solid wall of nothing, front end splintering against the air. Sky rider's glider folded up like an origami bird, and Skyrider dropped onto the black car's roof with a fwump. He slid down the windshield, closing the hood. He made a sort of deflating-Zeppelin noise, but didn't move at all.
I appreciate not being steamrollered as much as the next person, of course, but now we were committed. Nola brought the Terraplane lower, dusting the car, blowing pieces off Skyrider's glider. There were bumpings and cursings from inside. They certainly weren't going to eject with that Super Cuisinart overhead. The crisis of leadership between Rose and the Major was no doubt reaching epic levels.
There was an inarticulate yell from within the car, and something or somebody hit something or somebody hard enough to make the whole car wobble on its wheels. "They tried to blow the tankers," Weevil said in my ear. "Little late, though. Farley's coming."
I looked at the car's cockpit, and thought of moonless midnights. There were a couple more yells, and then the passenger door opened and Lightning Rose jumped out, cursing an ultraviolet streak. I got up. Rose shot past me, not by much. Zinger took a step. Rose swung the gun.
Then there was a crunching, tearing sound from inside the bunker. Oh goody, I thought, a real surprise.
The wall of the bunker tore open like tissue paper.
The wall was painted plywood. Farley kicked the scraps out of his way and came toward us. In his cycle gear and helmet, I suppose he looked like a Magnum truck. Anyway, Rose spun around and put four shots into him, all in the ten-ring. Farley bled, and wobbled, and fell down still bleeding.
Everything seemed to just go dead still for a moment; I couldn't even hear the Terraplane, and its blades seemed to spin in slow motion .
Then the Red Zinger took a long heavy step toward Lightning Rose. Then another. Rose fired. The Zinger kept walking. Rose fired again. I saw the bullet tear a hole in Celeste's blouse, right over her breastbone. Rose fired again, and again, white-eyed, and was clicking the hammer on an empty chamber as Zingara leaped to chin height and knocked her into the middle of next week.
"And the Crimson Dynamo," Red muttered, "just couldn't cut it no mo'." Then she turned and ran to help Farley.
I went over to the car. It was pitch dark inside; by the sounds of struggling and clanking I guessed that Major Motion's "exoskeleton" had gotten tangled with his seat belts, and he was struggling to get free. That wasn't his big worry, though. "Max? Elaine? Where are you?" he was yelling. "I can't see! I'm blind!"
"No, you're not," I said, and turned his lights on. He looked up at me, and I punched his lights out again. They just don't make superbeings like they used to.
The Fox had set down near the bunker and Farley, ready to fly him out. But he was already sitting up, and Celeste was waving; Farley would be okay once the Zinger got the slugs out, so they wouldn't heal inside him. (So now you know what happened to the big guy's throat.)
I took off my helmet, scratched my head. "How's it going back there, Weev?" I said.
"Fine," Tarchinsky's voice said in my ear. "Put helmet back on. People see you talking to self, get ideas."
In fact, this was a really first-class Alkahest Solution: we didn't break up any of the civilized landscape, we didn't destroy the oil in order to save it -- we even brought in the bad guys alive, for whatever that was worth. In fact, the local citizens offered us nice houses just (ahem) outside of town, at (ahem) fair prices.
But we're on the road for a reason -- or rather, each of us has his or her own little secret reason, which we sometimes have to do very imaginative things to protect. Like:
We strung some wire rope across the front of Major Motion's car; it didn't really match the damage, but the car had certainly hit something, and nobody was going to run tests on what. The Major though the impact had temporarily blinded him, which was convenient. We showed off my shock-grounding kit (always tell some truth), and a couple of dented armor vests convinced Lightning Rose that she was the world's worst pistol shot. Turnabout, as the saying goes, is fair play.
We boarded the bus amid cheering crowds and headed east on the Turnpike. Tarchinsky came forward, holding a stack of Elmay letters fresh off the printer. "Three offers within one-charge range," he said, without moving his lips. He looked at Farley, who was co-driving; after a moment's concentration, Weevil said, "Never been to Albany either. My vote too."
"Isn't Albany near Woodstock?" the Zinger said.
The November Fox said, "I thought we were going to rest awhile and watch clouds. But I should know better by now. Make it unanimous, Sharper?"
"Might as well, can't dance," I said. "Besides, somebody's got to keep the world safe for real mutants."
"When I'm mo-bile!" sang the Red Zinger, and we all joined in -- even Farley -- as the road rolled on.