I noticed him before Tanner did. He was a clean cut man in a pale button-down shirt and a look that reminded me of a salesman. Or a politician. It was hard not to dislike him outright, but I did my best. He stopped just inside the door of our rough little bar and scanned the room as if looking for someone. Tanner still hadn’t seen him, so I tapped his shin with my boot and nodded towards the door.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Lost or looking for trouble?”
We were sitting at a table on the far side of the room, nursing a couple of beers, and Tanner peered through the low light and smoke haze. The man was at the bar now, exchanging a few words with the barman, Teddy. Teddy nodded and pointed towards our table, and I made up my mind to have words with Teddy later. My brother turned back to me with a sideways grin. “Well, he’s not lost.”
The man saw us now and was approaching quickly. He waved to catch our attention. “Hey! You’re the Griff twins, right? Soldiers of fortune?”
“Just brother and sister,” I said, “but that’s us. I stood up and extended my hand. I smiled, too, and I think it was even believable. “I’m Miranda.”
Tanner got up and introduced himself as well, and we both waited for the man to return the favor. He did so with a smile so sincere it had the opposite effect.
“Ethan Lindsay,” he said. “My partner and I own a business that ships in machine parts from Earth. Mostly high tech stuff—control boards, simple VIs, some labor ‘droids. All the stuff that doesn’t manufacture well out here on the colonies.”
Tanner and I sank back down into our seats and motioned for Lindsay to do the same. As he did, I would swear that he eyed our half finished beers with distaste, but the expression passed quickly. I grabbed my bottle and took another sip.
“Anyway,” he continued, “it’s all expensive, and I’m sure you know how long it takes for the ships to make the trip from Earth. So you can imagine that we have a vested interest in making sure everything gets where it’s going in one piece once it makes it planetside.”
“Sure,” I said. “And at a guess, that’s what you want to hire us for.”
“That’s assuming, of course, that you do want to hire us,” said Tanner. He spoke in that friendly, conversational tone he used when he was pretending I was the mean one.
“Which I do,” said Lindsay. He chuckled, and I felt with sudden certainty that my first impression had been the right one. “You’re familiar with West Edge, aren’t you?”
“Last town before Dalton, right?” I asked.
“That’s the one. We’ve got a shipment that needs to get out there by early Friday, if possible.”
Less than two days with cargo. I tried not to widen my eyes too much and exchanged a quick look with my brother.
Lindsay went on like he hadn’t noticed. “We have a Rhino available to make the trip, but none of the drivers we’ve spoken to have been willing to go that way.”
I couldn’t blame them, and took another sip of my beer to keep from saying so. And then he asked the question.
“Do either of you know how to handle a Rhino?”
My most recent sip of beer tried to reroute to my lungs, and I almost fell prey to a violent coughing fit.
“That’s not generally one of our marketed skills,” said Tanner. I thought he was being too diplomatic. Though, Lindsay had guts. Most people wouldn’t think of asking a couple of glorified gunslingers to drive one of those behemoths.
“But you can do it?”
Tanner hesitated before nodding. “Not like a full time driver could, but I could get it where it needs to go.”
Lindsay pulled a small datapad from his pocket and slid it to us across the table so that we could read the screen. I found myself immediately grateful that I had not taken another drink. The numbers displayed on the device were substantial.
“I thought you might appreciate seeing the actual amounts. That’s what you’ll receive if you deliver the goods on time.” He left the pad where Tanner and I could both see it, and we both checked it again. The numbers didn’t change. “So, can I count you in?”
I glanced over at Tanner again. “It’ll be tight.” Looking back to Lindsay, I asked, “What happens if we don’t make it on time?”
Lindsay waved, as if to dismiss the question as unimportant. “We wouldn’t be able to pay you the full amount, of course, but you’d be compensated for your time.”
Tanner shrugged and nodded at me, and we both ran through all the ways we could imagine the job turning sideways. None of them seemed any worse than usual.
“We’ll need a small advance,” I said, “and I’ll send you our standard contract. If you’re alright with that, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Lindsay grinned and extended his hand. “Wonderful. It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”
We spent the rest of the day making the preparations necessary before going anywhere near the Outlands. We checked our gear and bought supplies. We talked with anyone we could find who had been west in the past few weeks. We stopped by the garage that held the Rhino, and Tanner introduced himself to the man who owned it. And then we went back to our boarding house and turned in early in the hope that it would make the morning a little less painful.
We were both asleep within an hour. Within two, I was blinking in annoyance at my comm where it lay on the nightstand, chiming noisily for all it was worth. I grabbed it and shoved it in my ear.
“This is Miranda. Go ahead.” My voice was groggy. I hoped whoever was on the other end would hear it and be filled with shame.
“Hi, Miranda. It’s Ethan Lindsay.” Whatever he was full of, it wasn’t shame. “Our packages have arrived at the garage, and we’re ready for you and your brother to help us load up the Rhino.”
I gaped, and the first three things that came to mind were things I couldn’t say. The pause must have lasted just a little too long, because Lindsay’s voice crackled in my ear again.
“Miranda? Did you get that?”
I cleared my throat. “I got it. I’m sorry, Mr. Lindsay. Tanner and I were not under the impression that our services were required for that.”
The silence on the other end was anything but comforting. The next thing he said wasn’t any better. “We had assumed that was included when we hired your services.”
“I’m afraid not, I said.” My half-unconscious mind cast about helplessly for a moment before settling on a vague reference to our contract and our conversation in the bar. I might have also attempted an explanation on our need to be rested for the run to West Edge, but I don’t quite remember. Whatever I said, it seemed to work.
More or less.
After another pause, Lindsay said something I took to mean that he understood, and my comm chirped as he broke the connection. I pulled it out of my ear and tossed it back onto the nightstand before dropping into the pillow with a grunt. Somehow, Tanner slept through the whole thing.
He laughed when I told him about it in the morning. I glared at him and threatened to make sure that the next client had his contact information instead of mine. He grinned in a way that suggested he didn’t believe me.
I was almost in a better mood by the time we made it back to the garage. We’d had annoying clients before, and we’d survived their worst. Even the Rutherford job. Lindsay was frustrating, but he wasn’t trying to kill us. If I got a full night of sleep, I might not even hate him.
Then we saw the Rhino and the massive stack of crates right in front of it. I muttered something unfriendly under my breath. Tanner looked like he was trying to decide between panic and laughing. He was still caught in the middle when he glanced at me.
“That’s our cargo, isn’t it?”
I growled something unfriendly out loud.
The man who owned the garage was in another corner of it when we came in, but he came over now, waving to us and moving at a half run.
“You want a hand getting this all loaded up? I thought the guy who hired you was going to get it all loaded up last night, but he and a couple of guys just brought it by and took off.”
“Of course he did,” I said. The last vestiges of my good mood were gone.
“We’d appreciate that, man,” said Tanner.
The owner called over a few of his workers, and with their help it only took us half an hour to get the Rhino packed and ready to go. We stashed our own gear and necessities in what little space was left over. We were just about to climb into the beast and start the trek out when Lindsay himself showed up again.
My first impulse was not a charitable one. I fought it down and managed a civil nod. “Everything’s loaded and we’re just about to head out,” I said. “Anything we need to know before we hit the road?”
Lindsay shook his head. “No, nothing new,” he said. “I’m actually here on other business, and I’m a little surprised to see you here. I had thought you would already be on your way. Do you think you’ll still be able to make the trip on time?”
“We’ll do our best, Mr. Lindsay.” I smiled as I answered. Anyone with a shred of human sensitivity would have noticed that it didn’t reach my eyes. “We had to load the Rhino when we got here this morning.”
Tanner came up and stood just behind me, though I wasn’t sure if that was to show his support or to keep me from doing something stupid.
“Ah, of course,” said Lindsay. “In that case, I won’t take up any more of your time. Safe travels!”
He gave us both a short nod and left to go about his business. Tanner and I thanked the garage owner and climbed up into the Rhino. We pulled on the headsets and ear protection we found on the seats and strapped ourselves into the safety harnesses. Tanner keyed in the sequence to bring the engines online, and they came to life with a rumble and a roar. The Rhino rose until it hovered about a foot above the ground, and we were finally on our way.
I only made it to the edge of town before I gave vent to my feelings.
“Tell me you think he’s being ridiculous,” I said, adjusting my mic to make sure it was in place.
Tanner grinned, and his voice came crackling through the headset. “Probably not as much as you do, but I’m the one who slept through the night.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you.”
“I will, thanks.” Tanner grinned again, but reached over to punch my shoulder. “It’ll be alright. For what he’s paying us, we can put up with a quirk or two.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” I said, but I didn’t argue any further. It was a good point.
The Rhino made good time. Better than anything on wheels or caterpillar treads would have, and the ride was smoother, too. Plus, given the reputation of the West Edge road, it was nice to have a little armor between us and the outside world. A dedicated band of highwaymen would still be able to break through, but that was what the guns were for. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t have to use them.
We weren’t lucky.
About two hours after we left town, the grassy fields we had been traveling through gave way to rougher terrain, and the road dropped down into a narrow canyon. Rock walls rose up high on either side, and a bend in the road kept us from seeing much more than forty yards ahead. There had been five ambushes here in the last few months. We could have guessed that even if we hadn’t heard the reports.
Tanner brought the Rhino to a halt just before the road began its descent and let it hover there. We both looked out through the windshield.
“We could try to go around,” I said. “The Rhino could handle it.”
Tanner frowned. “Maybe. We’d lose a lot of time, though.” A little bit of static rustled in my headset while he spoke.
“We’ll lose time when we get jumped down there,” I said, “and we’ll probably get shot at.”
“Well, yeah.” He shrugged and paused, then looked over at me with a daredevil twinkle in his eye. “But if they can’t stop us…”
I looked over at him and glared. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m not! We’ve got a Rhino. What are they going to do, stand in front of it and hope we stop?”
“Put up a blockade?”
“Sure, and that’s how you’d stop a jeep caravan. But anything that could stop a Rhino would take too long to move in and out of the road. They couldn’t hide it from the Rangers.”
I grimaced. He was making sense.
“You can grab the rifle and cause problems for anyone still looking for trouble.”
“And you’ll just drive like the devil and get us through as fast as you can.”
Tanner grinned wide. “And I’ll just drive like the devil.”
I waited a second or two before responding again, breathing in and out with a heavy sigh. “Fine. But only because I don’t have a better idea.” Before Tanner looked away, he caught the edge of my own hellcat grin.
All things considered, the plan worked well. There was an ambush, and four would-be bandits had set up exactly the sort of roadblock we had expected. The Rhino turned it into matchsticks. What we were not prepared for was the rocket launcher that one of them had somehow managed to acquire. I took him down with a well-placed shot, but not before he got off one of his own.
We were lucky; the missile just grazed us, clipping the back of the Rhino and spinning us sideways before exploding against the rock wall above us. Tanner only barely kept us from our own headlong collision with the side of the canyon, and we still slammed our side against the rocks. I yelled something with four letters at the top of my lungs. The engines whined and screamed. Tanner started giggling through clenched teeth. Smoke began to seep into the cabin, and the Rhino began to falter, but we didn’t stop until we made it out the other side of the canyon.
Tanner brought us down in the shelter of a crooked rock formation, and we climbed out to check the damage. It could have been worse. The Rhino’s left side was all torn up, scraped and dented in at least a dozen places. Its right rear corner was even worse, chewed apart and scorched black where the rocket had caught us. Somehow, the structure was still sound. Even better, our cargo was still intact.
“So, I know you can get it running again,” I said. “How long is it going to take?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Longer than I’d like. Are you going to call Lindsay?”
“I’d rather not,” I said, but I started to make the connection on my comm all the same. “Just get us going again as soon as you can, alright?” I ducked away as much to find a quiet spot to make the call as to avoid the look that Tanner gave me.
Lindsay answered almost immediately. “Miranda? I was hoping to hear from you. My contact in Norberg says you haven’t come through there yet. Is that correct?”
“It is,” I said. “We’re still a little further south. We ran into some trouble and the Rhino took some damage.”
“And the cargo?”
“It’s fine,” I said, and didn’t have to say anything for his relief to be palpable. “Tanner is making the repairs we need to get on our way again. Hopefully we won’t have any more delays.”
“Of course,” said Lindsay, then after a moment he added, “I’m sure you understand that this won’t change the required delivery time for the goods?”
“I never expected it to,” I said. It’s a good thing I only had to make my voice sound friendly. There was no way I would have been able to hide the cold look that flashed across my face.
“Wonderful,” said Lindsay. “Then I’ll expect to hear from you once you get closer to West Edge. I’ll make contact with our buyer and let you know where to meet them. Until then.”
We finished the call. I unclenched my jaw and went to see if Tanner could use my help.
We made our repairs with a combination of spare parts and the creative repurposing of a couple of backpack straps. And thanks to a little luck and a lot of providence, it worked. We were moving again less than an hour later.
The engines had an unsteady sound about them now, which we did our best to ignore. The smell of smoke slowly faded in the cabin, or we got used to it. Little by little, Tanner pushed the engines harder, almost bringing them back up to the speeds we had been going before the canyon. The Rhino devoured the miles, taking us through Norberg and on to Bascow where we had to redo some of our repairs. We refueled in Tupesti when the sun was low in the sky and casting long, black shadows behind everything it touched.
We had hoped to make it before dark. So much for that. There were still a lot of miles to go, and only enough daylight for a fraction of them. I checked our rifle and the pistol in my belt, just in case.
Right as the sun started slipping below the horizon, I got another call from Lindsay. For just a moment, I thought about not answering. I did let him wait long enough to tell Tanner who was calling, and the look of commiseration made it a little easier when I did pick up.
“Miranda? It’s getting a little late, and I understand you and Tanner haven’t reached West Edge yet.”
“That’s correct,” I said. “We’re still on our way. We should reach it sometime after dark.”
A momentary quiet on the other end of the line tied my stomach in a knot. “Our client had hoped to have it by the end of the day. Is that not going to be possible?”
I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek and rephrased my next statement in my head five times until it came out more courteous than not. “We agreed to deliver your merchandise by Friday morning, Mr. Lindsay. That is still our intent.”
“I see,” said Lindsay, followed by “Then it will have to do. Please contact me once you reach West Edge.”
I said I would and ended the call maybe a little more abruptly than I should have. A handful of seconds passed. My rage began to abate, or at least it seemed to. I took a deep breath.
Tanner heard it over the sound of the engines and despite his headset, and the look he gave me was the one that said he wasn’t going to laugh at me until he knew I was alright. And that was when I realized I wasn’t.
“He’s an inept, idiotic son of a mother.” I snarled the words into my headset and looked over at Tanner to see his nod of agreement.
God bless him. He didn’t give it.
I tried again. “He can’t plan ahead, doesn’t take any blame.”
Tanner still didn’t reply, and the fact that I knew he was listening almost made it worse.
“He asks for the impossible and throws a passive aggressive fit when we only almost pull it off, as if suddenly we’re the ones who don’t know what we’re doing. We helped him out! He was up a creek, and we helped him out.”
“For the money,” said Tanner.
I glared. “Fine, for the money, but only because we thought we could do it. And we could have, if he hadn’t changed the rules.”
“So, he’s a sleaze. We both knew that when he walked in the door.” Tanner shrugged. “We deal with jackasses like him all the time.”
“Why doesn’t this bother you?”
“Why is it bothering you so much?”
Several answers came to me, and they were all wrong. The right one followed a moment or two later, and it slipped between my teeth. “We’re good at what we do. We’re really good, and he’s saying we’re not. No one else could have done half as well as us, and it’s like he thinks we’re a couple of two-bit mercs looking to rip him off any chance we get. We’re better than that.”
“Yeah,” said Tanner. “We are.”
I slumped back in my seat and stared up at the roof of the Rhino. I could still taste the bile rising up from my stomach. It wasn’t quite as bad as it had been. “I’m still mad,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
We reached West Edge almost three hours before midnight, and I called Lindsay one last time to tell him we’d arrived. He started to suggest that we hadn’t earned our full payment, but I reminded him of the contract and even he didn’t feel like arguing the point. Our earnings would be transferred into our account by the end of the next day.
“I’ll call the buyer and let him know you’ve made it with the delivery, then. He’s got a warehouse about halfway down Main Street. He’ll meet you there.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Tell him we’ll be there momentarily.”
Whether he did or not, a man and a youth rode up on four-wheelers a few minutes after we reached the warehouse. Tanner and I jumped down from the Rhino to greet them, and the first thing they did was to thank us profusely.
“We didn’t think these were going to get here for another day or two. We appreciate this more than we can say. I hope Lindsay paid you well?”
Tanner found a way to step on my foot before I could express my feelings on the subject.
We ended up using about half of what we earned to cover the costs of repair for the Rhino. It turns out those vehicles aren’t particularly cheap to fix, and there was a lot of damage. Technically, the bill should have been forwarded to Lindsay, but when the owner of the garage tried, Lindsay found a couple of legal loopholes that let him weasel out of it. So, we helped. I can’t lie and say it was our first choice. For better or worse, we’re not that generous. But we did help. And I’m glad we did.