Better Than Gold
Beto Rivera rested his cheek against a wind-polished lump of sandstone in the darkness. The smooth surface of the rock was warm in the cool, windswept night. He momentarily closed his eyes against the blowing sand and the screams and gunshots that the wind brought to his ears.
Miramar was a desert planet where the lives of men were often worth no more than the nickel it cost for a cartridge to end them. It had been prosperous once, with sprawling wastelands rich in ores and heavy metals, but with no oceans washing the sandy surface of the planet. The collapse of the far-off, galactic government brought an end to the prosperity of Mirimar. No more starships came to collect ore, no more supplies were delivered from greener, lusher planets.
The fireball from a rupturing fuel tank lit up the valley below him. Beto took a deep breath and opened his eyes. It was not his fight. He was ashamed to realize that he had been prepared to leave, when the piercing scream of a woman echoed in the night.
Beto gritted his teeth. If men wanted to kill each other like dogs, it was their own business, but no man who was a man would allow such treatment to be visited upon a woman.
He crept back through the sand to the low depression where he’d parked ’Gitana’ and gave the trailer hitch lever a kick with the pointed tip of his boot. As the tongue of the two wheeled trailer slammed into the sand, he was already climbing aboard the bobbing hover-cycle. He pulled on his goggles and tugged the stampede-string of his wide-brimmed hat up snug under his chin.
"Okay, niña," he said as he switched off the vehicle’s auto-pilot and took control with the knee switches. "It’s time to go to work."
The beep of the control panel was his only answer.
He touched an actuator and the primary thrusters came to life with a rumble. His hand grasped the imported walnut stock of a revolving scatter-gun and he slid it from its scabbard as he bumped control-spurs against the vehicle’s side-panels. At that, the hover-cycle bounded forward leaving a billowing plume of dust and smoke behind it.
Clearing the crest of the hill at high speed, the cycle sailed a full ten feet over its rated altitude before plummeting back down to cut a groove in the sandy hillside. Beto let out a wild yell and drew a .44 revolver with his left hand.
The raiders had been busy plundering and savaging the travelers they’d ambushed. There was no defensive perimeter set up, no scouts watching for any counter-attack. Beto roared through the scene of destruction and misery like a fireball. He let blast into the hydrogen tanks of both the raider’s vehicles as he past and cut a man down with a third, quick shot.
One of the raiders ran off into the darkness and he let the man go, promising himself, ’later’. Another dusty raider-a woman he thought-loosed a shot in his direction. He fired in return before his natural aversion to shooting at a woman stopped him. Logically, he knew that a battle against wasteland-raiders was no place for ethics. He would regret the shot after the fighting was done, but not during the battle.
A rocket wushed close across his path and impacted explosively into the hillside a quarter of a mile away.
That was too close! Beto spun Gitana and looked frantically for the marksman. He prayed the raider didn’t have a multi-shot tube and he’d have a moment while the man re-loaded.
"Gitana!" he called, "Auto-scan, where did that come from?"
A red dot flashed on the Head’s-up Display in his goggles as his wildly searching gaze past over one of the crippled vehicles. He threw a quick shot at the ID’d location to make the gunner duck. Spinning his cycle in a roaring half-circle, Beto drove directly at the cowering marksman while unleashing a fusillade of shots. A second rocket careened wildly into the night sky, and then the raider was up and running. Beto cut him down from behind and blasted back to the ambush site.
Another raider was running, dragging a prisoner by her slim, pale arm. Beto caught a flash of a narrow waste between a flowing dress and long, blonde hair. Running was a stupid act. On Mirimar, there was nowhere to go. Beto sheathed his empty weapons and drew his right-hand revolver as he pursued.
As he closed to within pistol range, the raider spun and clamped the woman to his chest as a human shield. Beto raised his cycle’s nose to break, and pulled up about sixty yards from the pair. The woman held out her hands, warning him away while the raider snarled his defiance and kept an automatic pistol pointed his direction.
The tableau held for only as long as it took the raider to cock back the hammer of his pistol. Then several things happened almost at once: Beto ducked and raked his cycle with silver-mounted spurs, the raider began firing at him, and the woman vented a piercing, drawn-out wail of terror.
Beto crouched as a bullet glanced off Gitana’s low windscreen. He gritted his teeth in anticipation and kicked again with his control-spurs to engage the after-burners. There was a bone-jarring jolt, and he was ripping past the pair in a blast of flame. He chanced a single shot, and the couple was left rolling upon the ground in his wake.
He wheeled and returned at a more controlled speed to find the woman screaming and flailing in the sand. The Raider never changed from his position as a crumpled heap upon the valley floor.
Shrieking curses and crying hysterically, the woman was slapping at her smoldering hair and clothing.
"Are you all right?" Beto yelled.
"All right? All right?" she shouted. She pulled her hand away from her head and it came away with a fist full of blackened, frizzled hair. "You almost killed me you-"
"Almost is good enough." He spurred Gitana and left the woman venting curses in his wake. He re-loaded his pistols as he circled the area scanning for life. Finding none, he rode off into the desert to track down the raider who’d run away.
There was no justice in the wastelands of Mirimar, only the crude, violent cycle of action and reaction.
Beto returned with the raider’s weapons tied across Gitana’s rear seat. The body was left to feed the buzzards and ants.
He found the woman busy applying burn salve to the side of her face from a scavenged first aid kit. She was sitting next to the single vehicle that wasn’t burning. It had been a plush limousine before the raiders had crippled its engine pods with careful rifle-fire.
Beto pulled up and kicked off Gitana’s main thrusters. "How’s the face," he asked.
"Burned!" she snapped.
"Hair and skin heal," he replied with a shrug. "A fellow parts your hair with a bullet, it’s more permanent."
"Thanks!" she snapped.
"You’re welcome," he replied, though he could tell by her flashing eyes she had not meant it in gratitude. "Did you transmit an emergency signal when they hit?"
"There was no time," she told him. "We were just passing through the valley and then rockets were raining down onto us."
"Anyone else left alive?"
"I haven’t checked-"