Chapter Six

Civilization

The Coalition States represent humanities best chance for survival in North America. They have the largest and most pure (100%!) human society. Their technology is the most advanced produced in North America. It is their economy and currency that dominate the region. Their military machine is feared by all. They are THE recognized superpower on the continent.

Millions flock to their fortress cities in the hopes of sharing in their prosperity and security.

The elite of the Chi-Town will tell you without blush that they are the continuation of the American way of life.

I wonder if their style of fascism was what Benjamin Franklin (one of the founding fathers of the American way of life) was thinking of when he said, "Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power."

I am reminded of another quote attributed (perhaps mistakenly) to the man. "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what's for lunch. Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote."

While the Coalition States is no democracy (it once wa,s, it is certainly made up of wolves.

Baaa!

-Excerpt from the Journal of Dr. Matthew James

There were no markers to tell the small convoy that they had finally arrived in the Coalition State of Chi-Town. There were no established roadways where they crossed the border. It would be some time before they started encountering CS towns and cities. It was a flight of Coalition SAMAS power armor overhead that drove home the point that they were now in the CS.

The patrol slowed down only long enough to report the composition of the convoy before moving on in their patrol route.

"Time to bottle up your powers, Dale," Dr. Knight said to his co-driver. "At least until they're absolutely needed. The next patrol we run into could have psychic assets."

"Waaay ahead of you!" Dale replied enthusiastically. "I've kept them locked away since yesterday. The last thing I want is a full on battle with the CS military. In the heart of the CS, no less."

The three hover trucks had closed the distance to Chip's hover cycle. They were on an ancient trail that saw little use these days. It allowed the vehicles to move along at an increased pace. Knowing that they were all now in territory controlled by the CS allowed everyone to breathe a little easier. The juggernaut that was the CS military was fairly proficient at keeping CS lands free of monsters and bandits alike. Assuming you weren't considered 'undesirable' by the CS, then there was no safer place to be.

Which isn't to say there wasn't danger. It was simply that the risk had been mitigated by a large margin, just for being within CS territory.

As Dale had consistently gotten by CS Dog Boys and Psi-Stalkers, Dr. James was fairly confident in her ability to remain hidden—so long as nothing prompted her to call upon her arcane might. Still, he had other reasons that he wanted to avoid inspection by Coalition authorities. At least until after they got to the Chi-Town 'burbs.

A day before the group crossed into Coalition territory, they had come across the aftermath of a battle. Two independent groups consisting of either bandits, mercenaries or freelance adventurers had all but wiped each other out. There were a few survivors from one side who were perhaps a little too trigger-happy when Chip rolled in on his hover cycle.

The three headhunters opened fire on the juicer, probably in the hopes that he was alone and not looking for a fight. They had proven wrong on both accounts.

Chip was still frustrated over finding the ruined D-Bee village from a few days ago and these headhunters presented a chance to vent. Once Chip was engaged, he called the others up to help him finish off the battle. It was pretty much a one sided affair after that.

While Dr. James would have preferred not getting into an unnecessary firefight, he couldn't fault Chip for defending himself.

In the aftermath of the battle it was pretty hard to determine the motives or origins of either side of the original conflict. What wasn't hard to discern was the cause of the conflict. Both sides were well equipped but one side had captured CS gear. They were also flush with plunder from an excursion into the wilderness.

This was really where Dr. James' expertise came into play. It was up to him to evaluate this 'treasure'. There were a couple dozen soda-pop cans of various brands, mostly un-dented. A few of them were still unopened. There was also a box of yellow, crème fill cakes that were packaged by pairs inside clear plastic wrappings. They showed no signs of mold or rot but anyone hoping for a tasty treat would have been ill advised to try these snacks.

Along with the alleged food products, were several items of clothing. All were from the latter half of the 21st century and were made of material that could stand the test of time. Among them were a simulated leather jacket, a sports cap, several pairs of slacks and a couple of shirts. All of them showed signs of heavy use prior to being consigned to whatever location that had preserved them to the present.

Laser discs of several sorts, still in their original cases, were also present. Some contained music while others had movies or other filmed 'shows.' A couple seemed to be technical data discs. The last half dozen or so were software programs.

What really caught Dr. James' eye were the books. There were nearly a dozen of them. Nearly all of them were printed on a paper like plastic that would last virtually forever. One though, was brown with age and bound in a hard cover. Dr. James ran his fingers over it gently, showing great reverence.

It was a novel, and not one he was familiar with. The title was "Atlanta Nights" by "Travis, Tea." Inside the cover indicated that this was a 13th edition published in 2089. Dr. James wasn't so concerned with the contents however. The yellowed paper pages wafted up their dusty aroma and he found it intoxicating. Here was a piece of history in his hands.

Truly, some people's garbage is other people's treasure.

The books and discs, Dr. James immediately earmarked to be turned over at New Crater City. The rest of the plunder along with salvage from both of the battling parties could be sold when they got to the Chi-Town burbs. However, just possessing any of this material could land the group in serious trouble with the CS authorities. The captured CS gear could get them shot on sight by the military if it was found in their possession. The pre-cataclysm artifacts would be confiscated and the holders issued a stern warning at a minimum. A severe beating was more likely and field executions weren't unheard of.

Thus all of this valuable plunder had to be hidden away in the secret compartment of Dr. James' hover truck. When Reese realized that all of the group's contraband and a mage were all in the same truck, he started calling it the outlaw-mobile. Dr. James stopped him short of actually stenciling it onto the bumper.

Dale was thoughtful as she considered these events. "Hey Doc, where do ya suppose the CS stuff came from?"

He paused while he considered her question. "I see several possibilities. They could have been purchased on the Black Market back in the Chi-Town 'Burbs. The group may have been black market themselves. The group may have killed some Coalition soldiers for them. Or finally, the group may have been Coalition acting under cover. It doesn't really matter. It comes back to the fact that it's Coalition gear and we're in big trouble if we're caught with it."

"That's very true," Dale agreed. "But one of those options you listed also involves the Black Market. They'll want their stuff back, if it's theirs. And they probably won't take kindly to us trying to sell it back to them."

"You raise a good point," Dr. James agreed. "However, the 'Black Market' isn't a single entity. Purchasing something on the Black Market just means that it was purchased illegally. What people refer to when they talk about 'the' black market is actually a collection of gangs, syndicates and occasionally freelancers who may or may not have any direct ties to each other. If all the crime in North America were handled by a single entity, then there wouldn't be crime because the people running this organization would be powerful enough to run the continent. One of the things keeping these crime lords from taking over is the fact that they are in competition with each other."

"Okay, so you got a point," Dale said as she looked out her window at the terrain as it flashed by. "But what if we happen to sell it to the syndicate or gang that it originally belonged to?"

"Well first you're assuming that it belonged to a component of the Black Market." Dr. James point out. "But even if it is, the odds are still far more likely that we'll be dealing with a different or rival group. And even if it were the same group, they would have to be able to identify the weapons as the ones they had. Reese has already checked and the file numbers have all been filed off already." He drove along in silence for a bit, "but if you really want to stack the odds in our favor, we can try to ensure that we deal with some freelancers directly."

"I think I can hook you up with somebody," Dale said as she turned back to face Dr. James. "A guy I used to date. He was in a gang last I saw him. Relatively small potatoes but they could probably afford our goods. And they generally have a no questions policy."

"Sure, sounds good," Dr. James nodded. "We'll use your contact then."

Eventually they started noticing other traffic on the trail they were using. Mostly wheeled, all terrain vehicles at first along with the occasional hover vehicle. A fair number of the vehicles were part of the local lumber industry. Some were probably fellow adventurers and explorers.

As luck would have it, the group caught up with a sizable merchant caravan after dinner and around the time they were looking for a place to set up camp. There were a number of other travelers gathered around the fringes of the caravan's camp. Some were hangers on that paid to be allowed to travel with the caravan for the protection it provided. Others were simply setting up camp in close proximity, partly for security and party to browse the caravan's wares.

"Gee Boss," Reese said over the com-line, "It sure would be nice not to have to set up a guard shift tonight."

"You read my mind, Reese," Dr. James replied, smiling into the handset. "I think we can afford whatever their fee is to camp within their perimeter for the night."

"Especially if we can dump some of our swag on them," Donald interjected.

"Not so fast," Dr. James replied. "These guys will only pay us wholesale prices. And we're not going to be able to sell openly around here, they won't appreciate the competition. We're better off to wait until we can sell it directly to a user, not to a middleman."

Right about then, Dr. James's truck was pulling up to a makeshift checkpoint established by the mercenaries protecting the merchants. One of the tougher looking mercenaries with obvious bionic enhancements approached the door of Dr. James's vehicle.

"Passing through or staying the night?" he asked in a matter of a fact manner.

"We were hoping to grab a patch of grass inside your perimeter," Dr. James said with an honest grin.

"Sure. It's one hundred credits per person plus one hundred credits per vehicle." The mercenary nodded in the direction of a few pavilion tents that had been set up. "If you spend more than one thousand credits each there, your parking costs will be reimbursed."

"Sounds more than fair," Dr. James agreed as he held up his credit card. "I'm paying for the two hover trucks and the hover bike behind me. Seven people in our party total."

"That'll be eleven hundred credits then, please." The Mercenary took the card and swiped it before handing the scanner over to Dr. James to punch in his pin code. When the credits were transferred, he handed Dr. James the receipts so that he could be reimbursed if any purchases were made. "Make sure you display these pass cards on your vehicles." The mercenary added as four plastic cards were passed over with the receipts.

With the transaction complete, the group found a patch of grass large enough for their four vehicles in the taped off area nearby. Dr. James handed out the pass cards and receipts to the drivers while addressing the group. "If you spend a thousand credits or more, you'll be reimbursed for the cost of staying here. Make use of the facilities and enjoy yourselves. Try to be back by midnight as we'll be setting out tomorrow morning at around 0730hrs."

After affixing the pass cards to their vehicles, the party quickly dispersed to see what the traveling caravan had to offer.

Dale immediately went off to make use of the portable showers and toilets. They were set up trailers that 'unfolded' into shower units. They had hot and cold running water, sinks, toilets, and showers. These were true luxuries in the wilderness, especially after traveling for a week with a bunch of men.

Reese wanted to go see what parts and components were available and Kirk went along with him to keep him company. The young engineer was on the lookout for the components he'd need to restore some of their salvage to a more valuable, salable condition.

Ashton had some skins, furs and excess meat he had managed to hunt during stops the group had made and by taking shots of opportunity on the road. He went to find a dealer he could sell them to. The prices he was able to negotiate were decent but hardly stellar. As Dr. James had said, he was selling wholesale.

Chip went along with Donald to purchase medical supplies. They also wanted to see of maybe some replacement drugs could be secured for Chip's harness. Chip had a two-month supply of the drugs with him but he felt more comfortable with a six-month supply available. Dr. James had agreed that if reasonable prices could be found, then the cost could be deducted from the party's expense account.

As for Dr. James, he was looking for relatively mundane supplies for the group. From what he could tell of the wares on display, he figured that the caravan didn't deal with anything that the CS would consider contraband. At least not openly—and certainly not for cheap while in CS territory.

Still, they had a great deal of merchandise purchased in CS cities. Things that were comparatively common in the cities such as clothes, toys, tools and entertainment products would be valuable commodities outside Coalition borders. This particular caravan didn't deal in weapons or military hardware although it had stockpiles available to its defending mercenaries.

After buying some supplies, he met up with Donald and Chip.

"Well, they don't sell juicer drugs," Donald told the team leader. "But they do sell a number of drugs and chemicals that I can use to synthesize what Chip needs. It's going to be pricey. Enough that we should be able to redeem all our receipts."

Chip was looking sheepish at the cost of his 'medical' bill.

"How much are we talking about, exactly?" Dr. James asked while eyeing Chip as though to determine the boy's actual value.

"Twelve thousand, five-hundred credits," Donald supplied without hesitation. "The price isn't too bad. I don't think I should synthesize the drugs until we leave CS territory. Just to be on the safe side."

Dr. James nodded. "Indeed." He handed the expense account card over to Donald, "Get everyone's receipts too."

Chip let out a sigh of relief as Donald and he headed back to the pharmaceutical section of the pavilion.

"What's the matter, kid?" Donald asked of his companion.

"I was worried he might not pay the cost," Chip replied sheepishly.

"We promised you reasonable expenses, didn't we?" Donald asked with a smile. "Fact is, even with this cost, we're still not paying you anywhere near what you're worth."

"Well..." Chip started hesitantly, "the way the Doc was looking at me, I was starting to worry."

"You're not scared of him, are you?" Donald was actually surprised by Chip's seeming hesitation.

"I ain't scared of nuthin'!" Chip insisted, somewhat aggravated. He quickly calmed down. "I was raised in the Chi-Town 'Burbs though. We were taught not to trust someone with too much book learning."

"You know, I'm at least as educated as the 'Doc' is. Maybe more so. So is Reese," Donald informed Chip, somewhat amused.

"Yeah sure, but it's useful learning. You're a doctor and you fix people. Reese fixes machines," Chip objected. "But Doc? His head is filled with all sorts of strange ideas. And ideas just on their own aren't useful to anyone. And some ideas can be dangerous. Like the idea that humans and D-Bee's can be equal."

"Ah," Donald said, still somewhat amused. "I wouldn't worry about Doc. It's not his job to get ideas of his own. His job is to find out what ideas other people have and to learn if they're dangerous or not."

"Okay, sure," Chip conceded somewhat grudgingly. "But what if one those alien ideas gets lodged in his head the wrong way? What if he starts believing these other ideas or liking them better than proper ideas?"

Donald frowned, his brow coming together. He didn't actually believe in what Chip was talking about but recognized it as part of the indoctrination the kid had received growing up. It took him a few moments to put his words together in a way that Chip might accept and understand. "Someone needs to know what our enemies are thinking and how they think, Chip. It may be a risk, as you say, but I trust Doc's judgment about what's real and what isn't. I trust him not to become corrupt."

"Seems like an awful lot of trust to put into a man," Chip replied, still somewhat sullen.

"Sure, I guess," Donald shrugged. "But we all have to trust each other. All of you trust me to keep you healthy. We all trust Reese to fix our stuff. We all trust Ashton to hunt good food for us. We all trust Dale for her mystical expertise. And of course, we all trust Kirk and you to protect us. We all need each other and we all must trust each other if we're going to succeed. Hell, if we're even going to survive."

Chip slowly digested Donald's words. "I guess you're right."

"Indeed, so..." Donald paused when he spotted something. "Oh look, there's Reese and Kirk. We should get their receipts."

"Hey guys, how's it going?" Reese was carefully pushing along an old grocery cart overloaded with various parts, tools and techno gear.

Walking beside him, Kirk was likewise bearing just as much gear as he could manage without dropping it all.

"The salesman certainly saw you coming," Donald said with a laugh. "But where'd you get the credits to buy all that?"

"I have my own budget card to pay for parts and maintenance," Reese replied with a toothy grin.

Donald made an 'ah' noise before asking, "I suppose that you've already redeemed your receipts then?"

"Yup, and Dale's, too," Reese confirmed. "We ran into her when she was coming back from the showers."

"A shower," Donald said with a sniff. "What an excellent idea. I think I'll head over after we're done our purchases."

Reese nodded. "Yeah, I was thinking of doing pretty much the same thing after dropping off all this hardware. Come on Kirk, let's drop this junk off."

When the field engineer and cyborg arrived back at their vehicles, they found Dale and Ashton already there.

"And what does Buffalo taste like?" Dale was asking the hunting expert.

"I like it a lot better than beef." Ashton answered as he set up a grill. "I've never hunted the animal myself, but I've had it before. That's why I picked up these steaks for everyone to try."

"I can hardly wait!" Dale exclaimed before looking up to see Reese and Kirk approach. "Hey boys! Find anything interesting?"

"A few odds and sods that should come in handy if we have a break down," Reese confirmed.

"Ashton bought us some buffalo steaks to try out." Dale turned back to watch Ashton start getting their meal ready. "I want that one!"

"Okay, whatever the lady wants." Ashton chuckled as he started to apply seasoning to the meat.

By the time Reese and Kirk had stowed all the new parts they'd acquired, everyone else had returned from their various shopping sprees and Ashton was finally placing the meat on the grill.

Everyone was in good spirits as they sat in a circle to chat and laugh. It was really the first time since they had left Upper Michigan that any of them had really felt relaxed and safe. Security was a precious commodity to be savored, much like the tender steaks sizzling on the grill.

Shortly after the food was served, a flask of whiskey started circulating amongst the party. Reese switched on one of the truck's stereos and played some tunes for everybody.

Nor were they the only ones unwinding that evening. Numerous small bands of travelers were enjoying the caravan's protection. One lone traveler sat by herself, warmed by a small fire, not far away from the group Dr. James had gathered together. As their good natured chatter drifted through the night air and into her cybernetically enhanced ears, she smiled to herself. They seemed like decent folk.

-----

The group was woken the next morning by the sounds of the caravan crews striking camp. Those who were travelling with the merchants were doing likewise. Some others who had merely stopped for the night were lingering a bit. The party led by Dr. James was among them.

Since the group had resupplied at the caravan, it seemed likely that they could head straight for Chi-Town without any stops at outlying cities and towns. The Coalition State of Chi-Town had many population centers within its border. Chi-Town was the capital and was further renown for being one of the fortress cities of the Coalition. Not to mention being the capital of the CS.

Most of these cities had populations in the tens of thousands although a dozen or so had populations as high as two-hundred-thousand. All located in what was once the American state of Illinois. By post-cataclysm standards, this was a very densely populated area.

Other signs of civilization were apparent as well. Farmland was quite common as were CS Sky cycle patrols. It wasn't entirely unheard of to come across a military base or outpost. What really marked the area as civilized was the presence of roads, especially around Chi-Town and the larger cities. Roads were essential for trade and security. Less visible evidence of civilization was the power and communication lines that ran beneath the earth between the communities of Chi-Town. All these things were once quite common the world over but now only existed in places where mankind had beat back the chaotic hordes and reclaimed a piece of their former glory.

"There's a road near here that will take us straight to Chi-Town itself." Dale was pointing to a red line on the map that Dr. James had purchased the night before.

"I was hoping to see what life was like in some of the smaller communities," Dr. James said with some hesitation.

"Feh," Dale countered eloquently. "We'll see enough of those as we're leaving the state. If you want to see what the Coalition is all about, you have to see Chi-Town. That's all there is to it."

"She's right," a new feminine voice added.

Everyone looked up from the map that was spread out on the hood of Dr. James's hover truck. An Asian woman decked out in medieval European armor had halted her approach several meters away. She was a little shorter than Dale but seemed to carry herself with the confidence of an experienced warrior. Her brown hair was fixed into a bun with a pair of shortened chop sticks. Her helmet was held against her hip with her right hand. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude but I couldn't help but overhear your conversation, with my cybernetic hearing and all."

She gestured to her ears as she spoke. The implants she was referring to weren't immediately obvious—it would take a careful examination of her inner ears to reveal the implants. "I happen to be headed that way myself and I was wondering if there might be room for one more among your crew."

All eyes turned to Dr. James.

He paused as he examined the new arrival carefully. Then he removed his hat and examined the interior just as carefully. "Don't take this the wrong way, but why?"

"That's simple," she replied with a smile. "There's safety in numbers and we seem to be headed in the same direction at the moment—to Chi-Town."

"What takes you there?" he asked, replacing his hat on his head and returning his attention to her face.

"Curiosity, mostly." She blushed a bit. "I guess you could say I'm something of a tourist, really. I've heard so much about the fortress city that I really wanted to see it myself."

"What can you do for us?" Dale asked, somewhat coolly.

"I can fight," the woman answered. "I'm a Cyber-Knight. I was apprenticed to Orlog who was apprenticed to Lord Coake himself." She formally bowed. "I am Lady Kym Long."

Donald's lips twitched into a grimace. "Well met, my lady."

Kym inclined her head to Donald. "And to you, sir."

Dr. James pursed his lips in thought. "Well, your motive matches ours close enough. Are you carrying any contraband?"

"No." Kym shook her head. "It didn't seem prudent to aggravate the local authorities unduly."

"Prudent." Dr. James finally smiled. "A trait I can admire. Can I ask my lady where she intends to go after her curiosity is quenched in Chi-Town?"

The young Cyber-Knight blushed a bit at Dr. James's formal address. "Well, first of all, if we're going to be travelling together, I think you should call me Kym. As for my plans after Chi-Town, I hadn't made any."

"We'll be continuing eastward." Dr. James explained. "We're out to learn and discover as much as we can about the wilderness and coast east of here, up the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Eventually we'll make our way back to New Crater City, which is a little east and south of Lazlo."

Kym's face brightened significantly. She had merely been hoping to find a group to provide increased security until Chi-Town. But this group had purpose, and a worthy one at that. "That sounds like a truly noble quest and worthy endeavor. I would be honored if you would consider me for inclusion into your number for the duration."

Dale, almost grudgingly, leaned over to whisper into Dr. James's ear. "From what I can tell, she's sincere and exactly what she appears to be." It wasn't that Dale was automatically jealous of any other woman she saw. It was just that up until now she had been the group's alpha female by default. Now a pecking order would have to be established—and Cyber-Knights by their very nature tended to be alphas.

Social pecking orders were not much more than an academic curiosity to Dr. James. Of more concern to him was ensuring the manpower needed to accomplish their mission was available. There was no denying the fighting prowess and therefore usefulness of a Cyber-Knight. "We'd be happy to have your company on our journey, Kym. I'm Dr. James, but you can call me Matt." He extended his hand to the new member of his little band.

While the two were shaking hands, Dale automatically said, "Call him Doc. Because he's not a real doctor."

Kym couldn't help but smile, "Very well, Doc."

Dr. James frowned ever so slightly, "My ever helpful sidekick here is named Dale."

"Sidekick nothing," Dale protested. "You're lucky I deign to be seen with you." She shook hands with Kym and even managed a warm smile while she did it.

Donald took Kym's hand as soon as Dale released. He raised it to his lips for a chivalrous kiss. "I am Dr. Donald Corwin, my lady. A real doctor and at your service."

"When did all my sidekicks start putting on airs?" Dr. James asked himself loud enough to be heard by all.

"Feh," Reese countered as he bumped Donald out of the way to shake Kym's hand. "You're all lucky that I let you ride my coattails." He winked at Kym. "Reese, field engineer and all around genius at your disposal."

Reese was roughly brushed aside before Kym could respond. "I am the mighty Kirk! Hailing from the distant New German Republic, I have come to this land to find adventure and the glory and fame that come with such! It is an honor to meet one of the fabled and storied Cyber-Knights!" He grasped Kym's forearm, engulfing it nearly entirely within his mighty armored fist. "At last I shall have a companion who is not so squishy!"

While Kym was being thankful for the armor that was currently keeping her bones from being crushed, Chip was raising an objection. "I am NOT squishy! Remember who beat you in that arm wrestling match?"

Kirk sighed—an impressive sight on a seven foot cyborg. It was not the first time he had come to regret letting the arrogant young juicer win that match. "Of course my friend. I meant no offense, of course."

Chip stepped up to Kym, unconsciously flexing his muscles as he did so. "Hi... I'm Chip." Suddenly shyness had gripped him and he found himself at a loss of words.

"Well met, Chip," Kym said with a smile. "I look forward to working with you."

He smiled sheepishly before stepping aside so that Ashton could step up and greet her.

Ashton didn't quite get why everyone else seemed to be tripping over themselves the way they were for Kym. He supposed that she was attractive enough although no more so than Dale was. He certainly wasn't ruled by his hormones in such a manner. "I'm Ashton Walker. I'm the group's pathfinder."

"It's a pleasure to meet all of you," Kym said, smiling. She felt she had been quite right about the group's basically good nature from listening in on them the night before. "I look forward to our travels together."

"Excellent. So I assume you have some form of transportation?" Dr. James asked, getting right down to business.

"Yes I do," Kym responded before whistling. Immediately a robotic horse trotted up to her side and nuzzled her. "This here is Saotome. A more loyal mount there has never been."

"I don't think I've seen that model before," Reese commented, his professional interest piqued.

"I bought it from a Titan Robotics dealer. Its armor is as thick and its legs as fleet of foot as any Northern Gun model but the personality AI surpasses anything I've ever seen before."

"It does seem to be uncommonly realistic," Reese agreed. "And Titan Robotics makes quality merchandise. Maybe not to the same level as Triax but certainly a strong contender in the robotics market regardless."

"Alright then. Let's strike camp and get moving, people," Dr. James said, taking charge of the situation.

The group was underway in less than thirty minutes. Kym joined Chip at the lead of the group.

They had little trouble finding the road that Dale had mentioned. They weren't on that road for more than an hour before they were stopped by a CS ground patrol. The patrol consisted of two armored hover cars with two troopers in each along with six additional troopers riding hover cycles not unlike the one Chip used but with more armor, a built in pulse laser, and side mounted mini-missile launchers.

"Pull over and submit to inspection," a loud speaker from one of the hover cars announced.

The small convoy did as instructed and was soon surrounded by Coalition hover vehicles. Out of one of the hover cars, an officer stepped out. "Who's in charge here?" he asked over his armor's loud speaker.

Dr. James opened his truck's door and stepped out, leaving both his sidearm and helmet inside the cab. "That would be me, sir. How can we help you?"

"Just a routine inspection," the officer replied in an officious tone as he regarded the stopped vehicles carefully. "Any D-Bee's or magic users in your party?"

"Not a one," Dr. James confirmed. "No use for traitors or invading scum."

The officer nodded in seeming approval to those words. "Good. Any contraband?"

"Hmmm, well..." Dr. James hesitated deliberately. "I'm not sure. We found some stuff in the wilderness and was hoping it would be worth something in the 'Burbs. I can show it to you, see what you think. Wouldn't want to accidently carry something that wasn't legal."

"Show it to me," the officer demanded.

"Right this way." Dr. James led the officer to the back of his own truck and pulled aside the tarp. Visible the non-CS gear the group had salvaged earlier as well as some pre-Rifts artifacts that weren't offensive to the CS. Close to the tailgate, a dozen cola cans were deliberately placed.

The officer looked in and did a quick visual examination of the visible merchandise. Almost absently, he picked up one of the cola cans. "Where did you find these?"

"In the back of someone else's truck," Dr. James admitted. "The spoils of battle."

"I see." The officer's eyes drifted to the weapons and armor. The armor was clearly patched. "What were your plans for those weapons?"

"I was thinking of selling them to human mercenaries," Dr. James replied in a sincere tone. "The artifacts all seemed harmless, so I figured I'd try to find some buyers for them as well. From what I've heard, nearly everyone in the Coalition has at least one or two trinkets from the golden age of man, so I'm not sure what I'll get for them."

"I don't," the officer said, a hint of envy sneaking into his voice as he once more looked down at the can in his hand.

"You don't?" Dr. James asked, seemingly surprised. "Then why don't you keep that? Heck, take the whole dozen for you and your squad. The way I see it, you troopers aren't rewarded nearly enough for the work you do."

The officer looked at the other cans, then to Dr. James before settling his eyes settled on the cans. Casually, he reached in and scooped them up. "Seems to me like you're running a clean operation here. You folks have a good day and try to stay out of trouble."

Dr. James nodded with a smile. "Will do, sir. You have a good day too."

The officer gave the barest nod before returning to his hover car. The patrol was up and away before Dr. James made it back to the driver's door of his hover truck.

"So what did it cost us?" Dale asked casually.

"About half our cola cans." Dr. James replied as he buckled in. "Although I'm not sure if that officer realizes if he was bribed or not. He may have taken my words at face value."

Dale snorted. "I doubt it. The troopers are mostly uneducated but their officers are usually pretty smart."

"I suppose you're right," Dr. James agreed. "Still, it wasn't bad at all."

"It's your boyish face," Dale told him. "It makes you look more honest than you are."

"As you say," Dr. James agreed as he started up his crotchety vehicle with a relative minimum of fuss.

In under an hour, the group was in sight of the Fortress City.