1. Negotiations

The rusting tanker truck drove between two rows of large concrete hangers that sported big red metal doors. The stenciled numbers on those doors matched the oil logo on the side of the truck in that all had faded beyond readability. The truck kicked a plume of brown dust from the Earth as its aging diesel engine chugged, hesitated, and otherwise complained.

One of the hanger doors near the center of the old Russian air base opened; the mechanism creaked and groaned while the metal—thin and highly corroded—wobbled as it rose. A burly-looking fellow wearing a woodland camouflage tunic over black pants and holding a nasty-looking bullpup military rifle directed the tanker into the new opening with a stern wave from one of his big hands.

The tanker complied and clumsily lumbered into the space exchanging the bright sun of another hot day on wasteland Earth for a dark, dry chamber filled with the stench of old oil, rotting wood, and decades of neglect.

The hanger that once housed the high tech military equipment of mother Russia now served as a warehouse. Rows of tall metal shelving held pallets of tires, machine tools, powdered foods, bags of soil—a collection of eclectic supplies gathered and stored by the powerful for distribution when the right barter could be found. Rows of dangling round lights provided some illumination, although more than half of the bulbs long ago burned out without replacement.

An open space waited between the rows of shelves. The tanker truck came to a stop there, its grill five yards shy of a table where a middle aged black man held court. He wore the trappings of a King: fine silk clothes with gold and silver decorations on his fingers and in his ears with his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses despite the lack of light.

The noisy diesel engine switched off, the cabin door swung open, and Dice Quaid hopped to the concrete floor in one spry bound. He wore a sleeveless Second Earth tunic as he had worn since the day he had left humanity behind so many years before. On his head, however, rested a hat that elicited several chuckles: a white fedora with a thick black band but, most noticeably, several blue and green thin glowing tubes—wires, almost—were wrapped around the head piece; the types of novelty items that might once have been distributed at a night club for dancers or perhaps at a child's birthday party.

Dice—aware of the gun barrels trained in his direction—kept his empty hands in full view and strolled toward the table.

"Mister Mann! It's good to see you. Yes Sir, I know you are business man and it is great to be doing this type of honest, straight forward, easy business with you."

Mr. Mann drummed his fingers on the table.

Dice felt a shove from behind. The big guy with the camouflage outfit held his heavy bullpup rifle in one hand and ran searching fingers along Dice's waste band and legs. Dice's good humor faltered as he found the fondling a touch unnerving.

A man standing among several on Mann's flank found the whole thing hilarious. He let loose a serious of chuckles that grew into a hardy laugh. Dice studied him. He wore punk hair dyed blue and a white blazer with a blue shirt underneath (the collar turned up), and a red tie hung loosely from his neck. But it was his eyes—his crazy, insane eyes—that caught Dice's attention. He already had met Bormann—the ex-military guy doing the searching. He had heard his resume: 2nd Earth NCO known for brutality and efficiency during the Blue Wars. Now Dice realized he was meeting Laughing Boy; Mann's most psychotic follower.

Bormann did the heavy duty work; Laughing Boy played the roll of assassin. Like all of Mann's organization, they were deadly and dangerous. But also powerful and well-supplied due to careful management of resources and manpower.

Dice hoped Mann would prove a wiser businessman than most of the other petty warlords he had met over the last year of his travels. Sometimes he wondered if the human race was actually worth saving.

"He's clean, Mr. Mann."

"Good. I wouldn't expect you to be so stupid as to try and double cross me, Quaid. But a man has got to be careful, doesn't he?"

"Of course, sure, yeah," Quaid walked forward until he came to the table. "That's why I contacted you, Mr. Mann. I know you are one smart fella. You have a rep as a real thinker; a real business guy. Um, may I?" Dice referenced an empty metal chair on the business side of the table. Mann nodded. Dice sat. A scrawny guy with a beard holding a small Tech-9 machine pistol stood just behind Dice, no doubt ready to put a bullet in his head on the word of his boss. "So any-who, I'm glad we were able to do this little transaction. As you can see, I have brought an entire tanker truck full of petro-diesel."

"It hasn't gone stale, you say?"

"No Sir, Mr. Mann. Now what good would that be to anyone?"

"Bormann…check it."

Bormann joined another armed guard at the tanker. The two of them climbed atop the vehicle, opened an access port, and lowered a test strip on a metal rod into the liquid inside.

Dice went on, eagerly, "Freshly made stuff. Like I told you last week, the people I represent drill the oil and refine it into diesel and a whole lotta other grades of gasoline, whatever you need. Really valuable stuff. And all they want in return is some equipment, starting with that Shrike we agreed on for the tanker fuel."

Mann's eyes went to Dice's crazy hat. His mouth curled in disapproval of the styling, flashing gold-capped teeth. The warlord regained his focus and asked, "What do they want with an armored Shrike? The bugs have been AWOL for a year now, don't they know?"

"Well sure, yeah, they know that. Everyone knows that. But there are a few out there here and there. And let's face it, Mr. Mann, there are a lot of things in this crazy world of ours that are up to no good and they're not all Blue, right? I mean, am I right?"

Dice smiled a big friendly grin while his eyes kept mental note of where the guards were (Laughing Boy plus two next to Mann…Bormann and one at the tanker…scrawny guy to his side…two more off to the right, one by the gate…maybe another one or two in the shadows…) and did they appear ready to pull triggers?

"It's good. Very fresh, too," Bormann called from the tanker as he climbed down.

"Good, there, see? It's all good, just like I said. Yep, that's how I like to play it. I'm a straight shooter," Dice knew the moment of truth arrived. He desperately hoped his faith in humanity would be rewarded…but his eyes searched for cover nonetheless. To his left, just in front of the first row of shelves, he spied a stack of sturdy wooden crates atop an old army footlocker. Enough, perhaps, to stop a low caliber bullet.

"Mr. Quaid. I don't like doing business with middlemen. So here's what we'll do. I will personally deliver the armored Shrike to your associates. This would be a good way to do it, don't you think so?"

Dice fidgeted.

"Well, now, I tend to agree with you Mr. Mann, in theory, that is. But these folks want to stay anonymous. They think it's in their best interest to do it that way. So," Dice glanced around the garage as if searching for Mann's end of the bargain, "if I could just have the Shrike I'll be on my way--"

"No."

"Um…how's that?"

Mann dropped his civilized businessman facade and reverted to petty warlord. He slipped his glasses halfway down his nose to make eye contact with Dice and his voice turned rough.

"You're going to point the way to these people and their oil and their gas because everything in this part of the world belongs to me, even if I don't got it yet. And if you don't get with the program—my program—then I'm going to let Laughing Boy here take a knife to you."

Said boy spat a high cackle. Dice found it quite disturbing.

"He finds a lot of things amusing, um, don't he?"

"Yeah, well, he got shot in the throat a few years back and laughing is all he can do with his voice. But he can do lots of shit with a knife, get the point?"

Another insane giggle.

Mann added, "Are we going to have a problem?"

Dice closed his eyes, sighed, and then plastered a big friendly fake grin on his face. With one hand he slowly raised his light-lined hat then returned it to his head, somewhat of a polite tip.

Mann sneered again at the thing.

"What is that stupid thing you're wearing?"
"This, oh, yeah, well she said it had a…oh now what was it she said? Oh yeah, it had a unique heat signature."

A thin beam of light punched through the metal hanger door. One of the thugs standing behind Mann—a guy in a sleeveless leather jacket like something from an old biker gang—flew backwards and to the floor; a gaping red hole appeared in his chest from a large caliber bullet.

A second beam of light joined by a soft crunch as another hole tore open in the flimsy gate. Another of Mann's men toppled.

Bormann—his military training a step ahead of Mann's less professional crew—correctly guessed the situation: "Take cover!"

Dice stood and swung a heavy right fist in one motion, catching the confused grunt on his flank with a solid punch. His Tech-9 spun upwards while his body fell backwards. Dice caught it and lunged for the cover of the crates…

…Outside a sniper's scope engaged from an elevated position with advanced heat-sensing technology. The men scattering inside the hanger appeared as nearly identical blobs of white, red, and yellow. Except for one: the one with the bands of blue and green on his head that made for easy identification.

With the exception of the still-warm engine block on the tanker truck, the obstacles, cover, and hiding spots inside appeared as little more than ghostly shadows, and provided not much more safety than such shadows. Not to a .50 caliber cannon.

The sniper fired. And fired. And fired, shredding the hanger door with more round holes and finding two more targets in the process including one bad guy who would need to go by the nickname 'lefty' for whatever remained of the rest of his life…

Dice poked his head up from behind the crates. Mann crawled on the oily floor toward a rear exit door, his silk clothes now stained from the grunge and the blood of his henchmen. The others crouched, dove, and otherwise tried to find some measure of protection from their unseen assailant. One of the more brutish fellows fired a burst from a compact Second Earth carbine toward and through the hanger door. While his bullets failed to find any target, the muzzle flash drew attention; a beam of light shone on his face which then promptly disintegrated.

Two bullets chipped the crates in front of Dice. He ducked down and fired the Tech-9 wildly.

The burly Bormann astutely took refuge on the ground between the two front tires of the tanker, no doubt guessing the nature of the sniper's vision. Unlike the bulk of Mann's forces, Bormann remained calm and refused to completely cede the initiative. He glanced at the supply shelves…more bullets punched through the gate as illustrated by more beams of light…Bormann dared leave cover and grabbed a container about the size of a cigar box and returned to the interference of the warm engine.

Dice peeked out again. He saw Bormann acting and it made him feel uneasy but a burst of bullets in his direction forced him to retreat again.

The box was not, in fact, full of cigars but, rather, held flares. Bormann threw several of the white-hot burning devices onto the floor in front of the gate where they glowed with fierce heat creating a wall of hot and, he certainly hoped, distortion to the sniper's eye.

Dice—crunched behind the crates and foot locker—heard the gunfire go silent. He peeked out from his position and immediately saw why. Mann's men slowly emerged from their hiding spots.

Before Dice could formulate a new plan he heard a laugh…from behind. He turned to find a rifle butt headed for his face, but Laughing Boy did not move fast enough. Dice ducked—sending his unusual head gear flying—then used his left hand to grab and throw the light-weighted fancy-dressed hoodlum over the crates and out onto the middle of the floor.

Quaid quickly brought up his gun and found his stance matched by Bormann and two thugs who had him outgunned rather significantly, especially as Laughing Boy struggled to his feet (with, yes, a giggle).

"Aw crap."

Mann appeared at the back of the hanger, his clothes ruined from crawling and his sunglasses broke in half but still dangling from his nose.

He shouted in a voice that sounded less warlord and more angry child, "Shoot him! Shoot the son of a bitch!"

CRASH! SCREECH!

The door to the hanger exploded inward bringing with it an entire blob of bright sun as well as shards of corroded metal. An open air Jeep raced inside with its hood ornament centered on the four bad guys squaring off against Dice. They scattered. Bormann dove backwards over the table where negotiations had ended badly just moments before, Laughing Boy managed to scramble off toward the shelves, and the two others enjoyed a short flight into the back wall of the hanger courtesy of the Jeep's hood.

Dice leapt over the crates and bound to the driver's side door. There sat an eleven year old boy with messy black hair wearing a green T-shirt over jean shorts. He sat on a stack of books so that his nose could just barely see over the steering wheel.

Dice commanded, "Move over!"

"You said I could drive."

Dice grit his teeth and mumbled, "Don't argue with—"

The obstinate kid insisted, "You said I could drive!"

Dice—acutely aware of the band of thugs regaining their wits—let loose a loud, frustrated grunt, rolled across the hood to the other side, and threw his legs up and over the door and into the passenger's seat.

Bormann collected his bullpup rifle from the floor and rose from behind the table. Dice stretched his Tech-9 overtop the windshield and let a trio of bullets fly, forcing Bormann down again.

The Jeep's wheels skidded on the oily floor then caught, propelling the vehicle backwards and outside. Dice felt the air change from the moist and somewhat cool interior of the hanger to a dry, unforgiving afternoon heat coming from a cloudless summer sky.

The kid cranked the wheel and spun the car sideways sending a swirling puff of dust and dirt skyward. He then slammed on the accelerator with his tippy toes and the Jeep hurried south between the rows of hangers…

…Bormann watched the Jeep go. Mann shouted, "Don't let em' get away! No one does this shit to The Mann!"

Bormann had already planned for this contingency.

"He wanted a shrike," he said. "I say we give him a couple."

Mann's top lieutenant spoke into a small walkie-talkie.

"Bandit One…get moving!"…

The end of the corridor of hangers was in sight. Dice did not spy any signs of pursuit. His heart still raced but it raced a little softer.

Then the door to the last hanger on the left opened and out came a red and blue metal monster of the most lethal variety: an Armored Shrike. One of the personal, bipedal battle tanks that had been the main weapons platforms during the Blue Wars. A means of making the most out of every soldier at a time when manpower was in short supply but firepower was in great need.

Dice recognized this model of shrike as it pivoted and blocked their escape to the south. He knew it to be a Heavy Duty model, the backbone of the old military. While this one appeared poorly maintained, dented in spots, and showed signs of neglect, the shoulder-mounted Gatling gun and the five-hundred-pound rifle in its mechanical hands appeared operational enough.

The operator sat in a confined space protected behind what resembled a chest plate with a helmet-like head providing visual displays for the pilot.

The kid slammed on the brakes nearly sending seatbelt-less Dice through the windshield of the Jeep. Then he yanked hard on the wheel and spun the Jeep around, speeding to the north away from the Shrike.

Dice took some small comfort in realizing one of Mann's amateur's piloted the war machine for the first round of shots from the various weapons at the metal-beast's disposal went wide of their mark, chewing up chunks of dirt and concrete from the aging road between the hangers rather than metal and flesh from the fleeing Jeep.

Laughing Boy, Mann, and Bormann stood at the entrance to the original hanger and watched the Jeep race by as it sped north this time. They did not fire, preferring to find amusement in Dice's apparently futile attempt to escape.

Bormann raised his radio again.

"Bandit's Two and Three, get moving now!"…

…A chubby guy wearing loosely-fitting sweat pants and an ancient "Manchester United" t-shirt slammed the can of tin beef from which he had been eating onto the metal table as Bormann's message for "Bandit Three" grabbed his attention.

He sighed but knew better than to disobey orders in favor of finishing lunch. He slipped leather gloves on and turned his attention to the red and white painted Heavy Duty Shrike at rest inside the dark, lonely hanger. The mechanical monstrosity sat on its knees to allow the driver to easily climb into the rear hatch.

As he moved toward that opening a sound caught his ear. He turned and saw a girl come out of the shadows. A young girl, maybe sixteen, with straight, shoulder-length blond hair and sharp green eyes. The fact that she wore a well-kept Second Earth battle suit should have put him on guard, but he was more concerned with reacting to Bormann's orders and, at the same time, the idea of girls—even young ones—lurking around one of Mann's facilities was nothing new; Mann liked all sort of women for all sort of uses.

"Look babe, I don't have time to full around," he said.

"That's too bad," the girl said as she pointed a gun at him with one hand and dangled a pair of hand cuffs in the other. "Because I'm sooo in to bondage."…

…The Jeep neared the northern terminus of the hangers. And just as Dice expected, an Armored Shrike emerged from one of those metal gates to block their path. The kid brought the Jeep to an abrupt halt at the green machine's metal feet.

This model carried no guns: it was a 'Grapple' model, the type perfected for a sort of hand-to-hand combat against The Blue as well as support roles such as cargo transport and Shrike repair. The lack of guns, however, belied a lack of weapons.

"Get back! Get back!" Dice yelled because he saw what the pilot intended.

The Grapple's massive hands rose above its artificial 'head' and slammed down in two fists with enough force to crush the Jeep into a tin can. But those fists hit solid Earth as the kid pushed the transmission into reverse and backed the Jeep off as fast as he could.

The Grapple gave chase; its metal 'feet' contained rollers giving it the appearance of skating. It glided forward slamming its arms down and to the ground trying to catch the Jeep's hood as it reversed away. Each blow came closer and closer to striking home. Dice felt his mouth go dry as he watched helplessly from the passenger's seat as each thunderous smash fell short of mark.

The backwards-driving Jeep sped past Mann and his men yet again, this time with the Grapple in close pursuit. Laughing Boy raised his hand, pointed, and cackled.

But then he stopped laughing.

The hanger gate across the way exploded open. 'Bandit Three' barreled out like a linebacker moving for a quarterback sack. War machines collided as the newcomer slammed into the rolling Grapple with what could be considered its shoulder. The metal beast toppled side ways and over, tumbling toward the hanger where the bad guys watched.

They scattered yet again, chased back into the shadows.

The kid stopped reversing and Dice breathed a sigh of relief…then ducked as heavy rounds raced over his head. The first thug-driven Shrike—the one with the guns—remained, holding its position on the south side and firing at the Jeep as well as the obviously-hostile Shrike.

The girl piloting 'Bandit Three' left the disabled and badly smashed Grapple and rolled south around the Jeep to face the other threat. She activated the machine's projectile weapons and let several volleys loose. Unlike Mann's amateurs, she knew how to operate the beast. Her shots found their mark, damaging the poorly-maintained Shrike in quick time. Smoke, flames, and static discharges danced around the bad guy's ride. That driver lost control and the whole thing drove wildly into the side of a hanger and came to a stop. The pilot tumbled out and scrambled for cover.

"Turn us around," Dice told the kid driving the Jeep, and the kid did just that, stopping just behind the friendly Shrike.

Back at the original meeting spot, Laughing Boy tossed open a foot locker and grabbed the anti-armor rocket launcher resting therein. He hurried to the hanger opening with the high-tech heat-seeking launcher on his shoulder. Before he fired, he laughed. Loudly.

Dice heard and turned just in time to see a puff of smoke as the rocket launched, aimed not at the towering Shrike in front of the Jeep but at Dice and his vehicle.

The girl inside the Heavy Duty Shrike did not hear the laugh but she did see the 'heat lock detected' warning on her console as well as the rocket plume in her rearview cameras. From birth until the fall of humanity's outposts in space, the girl had trained for battle and those instincts worked like a reflex.

In the Jeep, Dice screamed and the kid fumbled with the gear shift, stalling the car in the process.

The Shrike, however, moved to help. In a ballet-like move, the massive machine jumped backwards over top the jeep, kicking its legs and turning its torso in the process like a gymnast on the vault.

Time seemed to crawl. Dice saw everything in slow motion. He saw the rocket flying toward his car. He saw the Shrike leap over his head blocking out the sun and casting a shadow. He saw the eleven year old kid reach up in innocent wonder at the two-ton hulk of metal as it flew overhead; his fingers brushed against the smooth surface. The shadow past and the sun shone brightly once more.

Fast again. The Shrike landed on its feet with a solid thud, now facing the incoming rocket. The Gatling gun fired dozens of powerful rounds in a split second. They intercepted the missile and it exploded ten feet from the Heavy Duty in a sunflower of smoke and fire; the shrapnel bounced harmlessly on the Shrike skin keeping Dice, the kid, and the Jeep safe.

More missiles. This time two tiny ones from a pod on the Shrike's forearm. This time headed toward Laughing Boy.

The smile left his face. He ran inside and the return volley exploded at the front of the hanger, collapsing chunks of concrete, toppling shelves, and providing a cover of thick smoke.

The kid started the Jeep again and Dice pointed south. They sped off in that direction, the Shrike kept pace but did so moving backwards with its 'face' focused on the hangers behind them. The car and the fighting machine escaped from the base and sped out into the wasteland. Once clear, the girl spun the Shrike around with a jump and a twist, landing smoothly on the rollers in a move much more complex to execute than a spectator might expect.

Dice sat in the passenger seat, the hot afternoon breeze causing his thick dark hair to waver in the wind.

He ran a hand over his face and then opened the glove compartment. There he found a small white package with a red bull's eye logo on front. He pulled the last cigarette from the pack and stuck it between his lips.

The eleven year old kid behind the steering wheel told Dice, "You know she's never going to let us hear the end of this."

Dice struck a match and lit the tip of the smoke. He took a deep drag then exhaled a small cloud.

"Yea, I know."