A Rifts Story
by Alexis Williams
(Based on the Rifts Roleplaying Game, published by Palladium Books)
Jon jogged along the edge of the forest, searching as quickly as he could. Finally, he found his friend. Nikolai was standing near two bicycles, gazing intently into the forest.
Jon came to a stop. "Nikolai, we have to go."
The boy didn't move. He said, "I found her bike." He gripped one of the handlebars tightly. "She has to come and get it. She'll be here soon."
Jon approached cautiously. "I'm sorry, Nikolai," he said, with an air of finality. " I really am."
His friend turned toward him. "Don't say that. She'll be here. She just got a little lost, that's all." His rising voice grew shaky. "I know she's coming! She . . . she . . ." He started sobbing as he grabbed the bicycle and slid toward the ground.
Jon wished he had the power to bring Sonia back. To bring Thomas back. To change anything about this horrible night. His helplessness burned in him.
He heard the sound of an air vehicle streaking in the darkness. He said, "Nikolai, we have to go. Tobias and Royd were afraid that the explosion would be visible from a distance. It looks like they were right. The others have abandoned the cave. If we hurry, we can catch up to them."
Kneeling on the ground, Nikolai put his forehead to the dirt. "Leave me."
Jon said, "I can't do that. The army will find you here."
It seemed to take an effort for him to speak. "It doesn't matter," he breathed. "Not anymore."
Jon wondered for a moment if this really was the appropriate ending for Nikolai. But he refused to accept it. He marched over to his friend, grabbed him by the arms, and lifted the surprised boy to his feet. He looked him straight in the eyes. "It does matter." When Nikolai turned his head away, Jon shook him to reclaim his attention. "She sacrificed herself to save you. Is this what she died for? So you could crumble and fade away?"
Nikolai's expression hardened.
Jon pressed his point. "Is this what you're going to make her life worth?"
After long moments of silence, Nikolai seemed to reach a decision. The light returned to his eyes and his breathing deepened.
"Okay." He nodded. "Let's go."
Mina and Owen stepped out of the creek holding hands.
He turned to her with a smile. "So is this what it means to be an adventurer—walking around in wet clothes?"
"No," she said, returning his smile. "This is what it means to be an adventurer." She raised her arm with a flourish while chanting an incantation. Suddenly, a warm wind began swirling around them, gusting through their clothes.
Owen felt invigorated, and in a couple of minutes, their clothes were dry. He said, "I think I'm gonna like this."
Then his attention was caught by a tinny voice. "Dammit, Selby! I said, come in!" His mouth tightened with tension as he went over to his folded-up jacket, which had served Mina as a pillow. He pressed the communicator on the collar.
"This is Selby," he said.
"Ah, there you are," the voice said smugly. It was Colonel Hodges. "Nice try, Selby, but we know your game now. We got the background on that woman in the t-t-truck. And we know that you and Mina Tanari served together—and were once engaged to be married. So we know you've been aiding her and the d-d-dissidents to escape us."
Owen turned to Mina. "Looks like my defection is now official."
The colonel softened his rant a little. "Look, Selby, I know you guys have some serious firepower out there. Your accomplices have already taken out two SAMASes, a skull walker, and an Enforcer." He paused. "I'll be honest with you. This is starting to look bad for me." That gave Owen quite a bit of satisfaction. "So I'll make you a deal," the colonel continued. "Let's end this now. You know we can't leave until we've taken out the Front. If they surrender to us, you and your rogue friends can . . . escape. What do you say?"
Owen's face turned red with anger. "Shove it, Hodges. You know what? I'm coming for you personally. I gonna rid the world of one filthy rodent. "
"All right," the voice said bitterly. "If that's the way you want to play it, then how about this? I've got almost two platoons here. You think you can get to me through that, you're welcome to try. But if you fail, then in one hour, I start killing villagers. And I'll kill one every ten minutes until I have the Front in custody. So bring your best, Owen. You'll need it. Hodges, out!"
Owen and Mina looked at each other despairingly for a dark moment. Finally, he said, "He'll be in a fully defensive posture by now. We'll need some serious firepower to punch through. What've we got?"
Mina sighed and shook her head. "We've got nothing. In a direct assault, we wouldn't last half a minute."
Owen did his best to hide his anxiety. "Okay, how about an indirect approach then? What about some magic?"
"Not against two platoons," she answered with frustration. "We're completely outmatched." She zipped open a pouch that hung at her waist and removed a small communicator. "Toby," she said into it. "What's new?"
"Mina," came the response. "Not much—just general fleeing. How about yourself?"
She took a deep breath and gave him her update, carefully explaining the colonel's threats.
After Mina's explanation, Tobias, Royd, and the others sat in silence, trying to find any ray of hope. They turned in response to a voice at the edge of the clearing.
"Thank you for trying to save us," Jon said, with Nikolai standing close behind. "But we're out of options, aren't we."
Tobias and Royd looked at each other in silent conference. They turned back toward Jon, their heads nodding with resignation.
Jon addressed the members of the Front. "They bought us a few more hours. A chance to say good-bye." He looked in the eyes of each one individually. "But they can't change our destiny. Our fight ends tonight. And it was a good fight." He turned to the travelers and shook their hands. He stepped a few yards away from the group and said, "The last good thing we can do is make sure that none of our fellow townspeople die because of us. Who's with me?"
One by one, they stepped forward to join him. As Tina moved, the young Maya grabbed her around the waist, crying, "No! I don't want you to go."
Tina, her eyes streaming, knelt and hugged her cousin. "I have to, honey. We all have to do what's right."
She nodded her understanding, allowing Tobias to pull her away. She held his hand tightly.
As Nikolai stepped forward to join Jon, the leader turned to him gravely. "Nikolai, I need you to do something for me."
"What is it?"
Jon took a breath. "The Coalition was only given eight names. They don't know about you."
Nikolai hung his head.
Jon continued. "I need you to use that. I need you to live."
Nikolai looked at him resolutely. "My place is with the Front. Your fate is my fate."
"No, it isn't," Jon disputed. "You're the only one of us with the power to escape this execution. After tonight, you will be the Front. Don't you see? By you living, it means the army will have failed to destroy us. We will still survive. Our dream will still survive."
Nikolai turned away, struggling with his conflicting emotions.
Jon put a hand on his shoulder. "Dying tonight would be the easy way. I need you to take the hard path. I need you to be brave."
Nikolai turned back toward him.
Jon continued. "I need you to promise me that someday, our town will be free."
Nikolai's eyes reflected all of his anger, fear, guilt, and determination. He took a deep breath. "I swear it."
Jon looked hard into his friend's face. They had come so far in such a short time. Finally, he smiled and turned to the others. "Let's go."
The town square was now an armed camp. Armored soldiers lined the perimeter of the Death's Head Transports. Sky cycles patrolled overhead. Twenty-two SAMAS units formed a wall of death around several hundred villagers, huddling fearfully under harsh lights.
Bill Turner could feel the tension mounting. For most of the night, there had been only a handful of soldiers here. They'd all been out combing the countryside for the eight youngsters. But now they were all here, in a powerful defensive formation.
They were no longer out searching. Now they were here waiting.
Waiting for what?
Turner sat with the other townspeople, feeling all too vulnerable. Not to mention exhausted and confused.
All was fairly still, until a fully-armored officer emerged from one of the transports. He approached the crowd. "I gave them the ch-ch-choice of their lives or yours," his voice echoed through the loudspeakers. "Now you see what traitors are really made of."
He made a gesture, and a soldier stepped into the crowd and grabbed a middle-aged woman. She screamed and struggled.
Several murmurs from one end of the crowd. drew Turner's attention. Looking into the distance, he saw, just entering the field of artificial lights, seven youngsters striding boldly, side-by-side, toward the Death's Heads.
In short order, they drew an escort of sky cycles and hovercycle riders. A company of foot-soldiers kneeled into defensive positions, weapons aimed at the dissidents, as if they were a fearful threat. Another unit maintained watch on the park perimeter, with assistance from a spider-walker and a giant Enforcer.
From their hidden position behind the general store, every few moments Royd would issue a curse, his helpless frustration overpowering him. Tobias racked his brains for some last-minute plan that would turn the tables. None came.
As the Front passed the destroyed flour mill and approached the square, the townspeople got to their feet and watched them silently, frankly amazed that they would return. The dissidents were herded to the same spot they'd been the first time the execution was attempted. Several of them started tearing up when they saw Thomas's body already lying there. The firing squad took up its positions.
Jon projected his voice toward the townspeople. "This isn't over," he said. "It's just beginning. Someday, our town will be free."
From a loudspeaker, the voice of Colonel Hodges once again read the criminal charges. Without delay, he issued the firing command. Seven low-powered slug rifles rang out, the sound echoing into the night.
Seven bodies fell.
With military efficiency, the two platoons loaded up and departed, leaving the town of Cobdendale to mourn.
Tobias, Royd, and Nikolai hiked their way to where the truck was hidden. They joined Mina and Owen, who had gotten there much faster on Owen's hovercycle. Royd started doing basic checks of the tires and engine. Nikolai stood sullenly apart.
Mina worriedly kept one eye on him. "Toby, " she said. "I've been trying to explain to Owen what adventurers do. I'm afraid tonight wasn't a very good example."
Tobias removed his light armor. "Things don't always turn out the way you want them to." He turned away as he ran a wet rag over his haggard face.
Mina said, "But did we even accomplish anything? I mean, we stopped that first execution, but they all still ended up dead—plus the town is half destroyed and the population had to spend the night in terror. Would we have been better off doing nothing?"
Royd stepped in vehemently. "No. At the first execution, they were just victims." His eyes smoldered. "At the second one, they were heroes."
Mina considered it. "I'm sorry, Royd, but that just doesn't comfort me. Death is death."
He looked like he wanted to say more, but simply shrugged and returned to his inspection.
"Well," Owen said tentatively. "If you hadn't interceded, I'd still be with the Coalition."
She turned to him and smiled. "I suppose that is some good."
Tobias said, "Take it where you can get it."
She looked over at Nikolai again, then went over to him. His face was grim and weary. She gave him a hug. "I know this doesn't help," she said. "But it won't always hurt so much."
He twisted out of her grasp. "How would you know? You don't know what it's like to have your home and everyone you love and everything you are taken from you all at once."
She sighed, glancing over at Owen. She looked Nikolai in the eyes. "Actually, I do."
He met her gaze with surprise.
She said, "I'll tell you about it. And we'll get through this together." She stepped away and opened the back door of the truck. "But first, why don't you get some rest."
He nodded weakly and climbed in.
Tobias leaned against the battered truck and gazed absently. "I think I'll write about them," he said. "The Front. People will know what happened here. People will know who they were. What they did."
"I like that idea," Mina said, returning to the hovercycle. "Toby, I'm going to ride with Owen for a while."
He smiled. "Fine, if you like bugs in your teeth."
Owen mounted the bike, then helped Mina on. "By the way," he said. "Where are we going? How exactly do we find these adventures?"
Mina smiled wryly. "They mostly find us."
Tobias's eyes lit up. "Actually, we are pretty close to a historical site I've always wanted to visit."
Royd grimaced. "Here we go again."
Tobias continued enthusiastically. "Only a few hundred miles from here, there's a great religious center from ancient times. For hundreds of years, pilgrims went there to worship. It was considered very sacred." He thought for a moment. "I believe it was called . . . Graceland."
Royd climbed into the truck muttering, "Hopefully there will be something to fight."
Tobias put the truck in gear, smiling. "I'd be surprised if there wasn't."
Overcome by sorrow and exhaustion, most of the citizens of Cobdendale stayed home the next day. The planting would have to wait.
Nine-year-old Maya, however, could not stay in. Her mind struggled to make sense of the awful events of the night. The events that took her cousin from her forever.
She stood at the edge of the ruins of the flour mill. She had seen the giant robot get knocked into it, destroying it. She never knew that there was so much raw power in the world. She couldn't even imagine the strength of whatever had removed the dead robot.
As she gazed at the wreckage, she noticed something unusual. She climbed toward the center of the rubble, her faded coveralls providing a little protection from scrapes. She had to remove several chunks of brick to excavate the strange object. Finally recovering it, she saw that it was a slightly bent construction of cardboard and paper. She opened it to find markings similar to the ones Tobias showed her in the cave. He'd called it a book, and said that it spoke words to him. She flipped through it and saw pictures with giant letters beside them.
She turned to see her two little brothers looking at her curiously.
"Watcha doin'?" one said.
She made her way toward them. She said, "Just thinking."
"I'm bored," the youngest whined. "Ma said you should play with us."
Normally annoyed by this, she had an idea. "Okay," she said, smiling. "How would you like to hear a story?"
"About what?" the oldest asked.
"It's the story of how the Cobdendale Eight gave up their lives to save our town."
The boys' eyes were wide. "Oh."
"And," Maya said, looking down at her book. "We're going to figure out how to work this thing."
They stepped closer. One said, "What is it?"
She ran her finger along the cover reverently and spoke barely above a whisper.
She said, "Magic."
Bill Turner was caught completely off-guard.
He was expecting only a dozen people, even though he had told the others that they could invite anyone they thought would be interested. He couldn't believe that there were actually hundreds of people here. Apparently, almost everyone had been affected by the nightmare they were forced to share.
So he had to relocate the gathering from his storeroom to outdoors. The crowd moved over to the park. He looked at the eight bouquets of flowers that marked the spots where those foolish, naive youngsters fell.
He stepped over to the middle one, where Jon had spoken his final words. After being momentarily lost in contemplation, Turner noticed that everyone else was silently watching him. The moment of truth had arrived. He removed the piece of straw from his mouth.
"Fellow citizens," he said, a bit shakily at first, then with growing confidence. "Welcome to our first meeting . . . of the Cobdendale Liberation Front."