CHAPTER ONE: BATTLING RIDERS
Tarex's wind rider howled over the bazaar in the mid-day heat. He was thankful to be airborne, with the wind blowing through his hair. He sympathized with the merchants and their beasts of burden that struggled to barter and make a modest profit on the outskirts of Kul-gora.
He remembered many days when he'd helped Patalon sell his forged-iron wares in the tumultuous marketplace. The bazaar was the nucleus of the community of working people in Kul-gora. The nobles lounged in their lofty towers, oblivious to the noise and dust of the city below.
Tarex veered his wind rider past the alabaster towers of the Kul-gora technocrats. He swooped in a precarious arc around the immense statues that decorated the tall buildings. They represented founders and conquerors of the realm in ages past. It was centuries since the port city was the target of invasion by pirates or foreign armies. This did not discourage the garrisons of Kul-gora who were frequently called upon to pacify combative, nomadic tradesmen and disgruntled shopkeepers.
Tarex intended to meet the Prefect. The Prefect of Kul-gora was a busy man and must have good reason to ask for Tarex's services. The wind rider figured he was to be asked to act as a courier. There were few wind riders in Kul-gora. The machines were expensive, even in these booming times. Most of the riders Tarex knew were busy guarding silk barges and spice caravans.
The canopied entrance to the Prefect's booth was replete with the scent of burning incense. A domesticated lemur gnawed dried figs at the end of the counter. Tarex didn't see the Prefect among the multitudes of contract scrolls and civic records. His assistant rose from her data station to greet the wind rider.
"Hello, you must be Tarex. My name is Angela. The Prefect said I should expect you."
Angela was about the same age as Tarex. Like him she favored the vented, leather fashion popular in the arid climate of Kul-gora. Her hair was dyed blue and extended to her waist in a single braid.
"The Prefect is out on other business. He said I should give you this."
Angela placed an electronically sealed scroll on the counter.
"He wants you to deliver this to the tinker in Rhajim. He said that it's urgent and he'll compensate you for the same amount when you report back."
She handed Tarex a money card. Its small screen indicated it was set at fifty trade units. It was enough money to refuel his wind rider a dozen times. Tarex was impressed but was sure to hide this from the Prefect's assistant.
"What's the hurry? Why doesn't he send it with a land courier like everyone else?"
"I don't know. I'll be waiting here, though. If your wind rider breaks down contact me on your com unit. I can carry tools if the need arises."
"Don't worry," replied Tarex. "My machine won't break down. I'm a fine mechanic and a handy pilot, too. I'll deliver the Prefect's scroll to the tinker. Tell him I'll be back soon for the other fifty units."
Tarex wondered about the significance of his boon. He didn't frequently find such work as a private courier. Although the bazaar and marketplace of Kul-gora were bustling centers of industry, there was not much written correspondence with neighboring cities. This was due to the struggling reconstruction since the Bio-Wars.
Tarex managed to keep his wind rider in shape with the money he received from Patalon. He'd visited the other cities only occasionally. The Prefect paid well, though, and he looked forward to testing his machine over the open land.
Tarex shifted his wind rider into cruise. The booster whined as it fired a jet of compressed, ethanol propellant. The twisted trees of the forested hills whipped below him as he used his helmet's display to scan for altitude.
The wilderness was an untamed and inhospitable environment. A lingering risk was to be confronted by the Shibuya team. They ran a delivery trade over the unsettled lands.
The greatest threat lay in facing the exoskeletonous ceptors that roamed the marshes since the Bio-Wars. They hovered by cycling their three pairs of wings at a fast pace. The ceptors preyed upon many of the land animals and stunned them by firing penetrating stingers from their scorpion-like tails.
The Shibuya team braved the attacks of the chitinous creatures by wearing plastic armor and deterring them with bursts from lasers installed on their wind riders.
Yoshitoshi was the leader of the Shibuya caravan. His reinforced armor was dark blue and green. Each member of the delivery team wore uniquely stylized armor that varied in color and structure.
The Shibuya caravan detected Tarex's wind rider as it accelerated to cruising velocity. It sped away from the outskirts of Kul-gora. On previous treks the rogue riders had mapped and charted the spawning fields of the predatory ceptors.
"This maverick rider is heading straight for a ceptor nest. He is clearly steering for Rhajim."
Yoshitoshi addressed his comrades via helmet communication link.
"Ichiro and Akiko loop around the hills to flank him. Tetsuo and the rest of you join me in waylaying this unlucky courier."
Tarex's helmet display lit up with flashing warnings. His computer chirped.
"Caution, multiple radar locks detected."
He veered sharply to avoid the incoming attack but felt his machine shudder as it was scorched by several laser blasts. Tarex's wind rider hurled smoke and jolted violently. He was forced to decelerate and was overtaken by Yoshitoshi and the Shibuya team.
Tarex's ears rang as his communications link was over-ridden by the Shibuya channel.
"You have no choice but to relinquish your goods to us, Kul-goran. You are heading for a ceptor spawning field. We have you outnumbered and in need of repair."
Yoshitoshi leaned over Tarex's wind rider and grabbed at the Prefect's sheathed scroll.
"No!" Tarex yelled.
He pulled away from the leader of the Shibuya team.
Tarex hadn't realized he had entered the marsh-covered spawning field of the ceptors. The chitinous creatures fired several waves of stingers from their tails. The piercing missiles struck the wind riders and lodged in their armor.
As Ichiro and Akiko entered the fray they fired their lasers. Several of the swarming ceptors were hit and fell to the swamp below. Tarex seized the opportunity for escape from the insectoids. He addressed the Shibuya team as he turned his damaged vehicle to the north.
"Thanks a lot, you guys. I'll send you my repair bill. I suppose I owe you wind riders for keeping me from becoming ceptor fodder. Arigatoo."
Tarex managed to get his machine back into high gear and bolted ahead of the Shibuya team as they fought with the winged animals.
A familiar voice emanated from his helmet link.
"Tarex, it's me, Angela. I've brought extra fuel. I could see you were in trouble from the telescope on the roof of the shop. It looks like your vehicle has seen better days. You should abandon it and ride with me. We'll take the scroll to the tinker in Rhajim together. The Prefect will reimburse you for you machine when we get back to Kul-gora."
Tarex couldn't conceal his relief that Angela had arrived.
"You're right, Angela. I'm glad you made it. Those ceptors can be a hindrance."
Tarex reached over to Angela's machine and climbed on. He would miss his old wind rider. He'd worked several months for Patalon in order to save enough money to buy it.
"I don't know what messages or blueprints the Prefect is having us send to the tinker in Rhajim. Whatever they are, he must think they're important enough to deliver there as soon as possible. I can't wait until the day that we can relax in the towers, like the nobles. I'm sure I'd miss all my friends in the bazaar, though," Tarex said.
"My friends work in the bazaar too," Angela said. "I won't be surprised if we all end up living the good life, someday."
Her long, blue braid danced in the wind as the towers of Rhajim appeared on the horizon.
CHAPTER TWO: THE PREFECT'S BLUEPRINT
Tarex and Angela cruised to the edge of the city of Rhajim. They stopped at the gates and met with the city guards posted there.
"Greetings, visitors," said the helmeted guard.
His voice was electronic and emanated from a speaker at the front of his helmet.
"What business do you have in Rhajim today?"
"We are delivering a package from the Prefect of Kul-gora to the tinker of this city," said Angela. "My friend would have made it here sooner if he hadn't been waylaid by some ceptors. The Shibuya team helped us but his wind rider was destroyed."
"Very well," answered the guard. "You may enter travelers. But don't linger here too long. There are rival delivery teams in this territory, as I'm sure you're aware. Be about your business and return home as quick as you can."
"Thank you, soldier of Rhajim," said Tarex. "We will heed your advice."
Angela idled her wind rider into the city. The pair of couriers beheld a bustling marketplace. Merchants yelled over the crowd to praise their wares. The sounds of the people mixed with bleating livestock and clucking chickens. The riders cruised through the marketplace until they reached the tinker's shop. Angela turned off her vehicle and the two friends went inside.
The tinker sat behind his counter. He was a bald man who wore spectacles. He looked up at the two visitors as they activated the entrance chime.
"Hello, my name is Marc. How may I help you today?"
Tarex addressed the man.
"Are you the tinker of Rhajim?"
"Yes," answered Marc.
"I have a data scroll for you from the Prefect of Kul-gora. It must contain important information for I was asked to deliver it across the wilderness at the greatest possible speed."
Tarex placed the digitally sealed scroll on the counter of the tinker's shop.
The tinker picked it up and attached a link to the plastic and metal seal. He downloaded a previously established interfacing code from his shop computer. The seal released its hold on the surrounding band and the scroll unfurled.
"As I suspected this is a blueprint for a new model of wind rider," observed the tinker.
Marc stared at the shiny etching of the blueprint that used different colors to register as gradations and layers. These notations appeared in a holographic format to a reader wearing three-dimensional glasses. Marc pressed a button on the side of his frames, activating a red, liquid crystal display on one lens and a blue, liquid crystal display on the other.
These plans are based on the use of refined hydrogen as fuel. Our existing models use a hydrogen-ethanol mix, as I'm sure you're aware, Tarex."
"Yes, Marc, but please tell me, why the urgency with a hydrogen-running model?"
"There are various regions beyond Kul-gora and Rhajim that depend on the commerce of fuel. These city-states are concerned that a transition to a hydrogen-based fuel economy will deprive their states from the much-needed exportation income."
"How concerned are they?" asked Tarex.
"Very, Tarex. This information could start a war on multiple fronts. The proportions of such a conflict would out-stretch the ability of our humble guards to maintain the sovereignty of our borders and the safety of our cities."
"Is there any way that the neighboring regions can assist Kul-gora and Rhajim in refining this new fuel? I'm sure that it can be extracted from potable water or sea water given proper desalinization," said Angela.
"I agree with your analyses, Angela. Unfortunately there is not a conference of delegates or open diplomatic discussion taking place between Kul-gora, Rhajim and the participating states such as Thal-set and Primordia.
"Such organizations are considered to be superfluous by our current elected representatives. Given proper time and coordination by lobbyists and junior diplomats I'm sure some day a council of city-states can be rebuilt over the ruins that remain of the tribes before the Bio-Wars.
"In a realistic perspective, however, the technology exists, as the Prefect's diagrams illustrate, for such a hydrogen-fed wind rider to take to the skies now. It is clear that the Prefect wishes for me to construct a completely hydrogen-fed engine. I will work in secrecy at the back of my shop.
"I depend on you two to keep this information to yourselves until such time as a diplomatic contract has been authored to insure peaceful trade between Kul-gora and the ethanol fuel producing states. None of us wish to return to the internecine conflicts that were promulgated during the Bio-Wars. Speak to no one about what you have seen here.
"Before I forget," added Marc, "take this money card, Tarex. It holds a hundred trade units to compensate you for your lost vehicle. Be wary of the Shibuya team for they can be formidable adversaries or loyal friends based on the actions of the travelers they observe.
"The information you delivered is quite valuable. You have my thanks. Return with Angela to Kul-gora and meet with the Prefect there. He will want to know the details of your conflict with the Shibuya team and ceptors."
Tarex took the money card from the tinker's outstretched hand.
"I appreciate it, Marc," Tarex replied. "I'm sure that the Prefect will have us return with updated scrolls in the future."
The two couriers bade their farewell to the tinker in Rhajim.
Tarex addressed Angela from the rear seat of her wind rider.
"Take care to give a wide birth to the swamps, Angela. The safest way to Kul-gora is not as a crow flies."
Angela heeded the advice of her friend and guided her vehicle over the open sea. The coastline of the state of Kul-gora was jagged with tall, volcanic cliffs. The surf was powerful and met with the rocky beach in showers of spume. The pair of riders passed over a fleet of fishing boats that were linked together by a wide net. Tarex spotted a school of bass that flopped over the surface as they were trapped from all sides.
At last the towers and statues of the city of Kul-gora rose over the hilled horizon. Angela turned over the beach and headed inland. As they approached the city gates the friends saw a substantial commotion at the entrance.
Tarex spoke to one of the guards from the rear position on the vehicle.
"What's going on soldier?"
"My name is Michael. The Prefect has been killed in a most mysterious manner. A new Prefect by the name of Junichiro has filled the office on an interim basis. He left word that he wishes to speak with you both."
"Thanks for the information, guardsman Michael," answered Tarex. "We will hurry to the Prefect's office at once."
Angela was tearful from the sudden loss of her employer and friend.
"This news is as shocking to me as it must be for the citizens here in the marketplace."
"Are you alright to keep driving, Angela?" Tarex asked.
"Sure. I'll be fine, Tarex," replied the blue-haired courier. "I'll take us to the Prefect's office. I look forward to meeting with Junichiro."
The two riders hovered through the streets of Kul-gora. They pressed through the noisy crowds of farmers and merchants. The city guards strove unsuccessfully to establish order in the bustling streets. Groups of livestock and puttering motors merged in the chaos, creating a hammering din and clouds of smog.
At last the couriers reached the Prefect's office located at the westernmost edge of the bazaar. The compact building was surrounded by city guards.
Angela approached a tall guard who was taking statements from a gathering of concerned citizens.
"It was an outlander in dark clothing," described a salesman. "I saw him enter the Prefect's office from across the street. He was a sinister looking individual. The man carried a pair of steel daggers attached to his waist belt. I suspect he used those weapons to assassinate the Prefect, Hiryu. Someone with high social connections must have paid the killer to do his dirty work."
"That remains to be proven, citizen," answered the guard. "And what is your name?"
"Lotus, as I said before. I saw the suspect enter the office and exit a few moments later, wiping blood from his weapons before sheathing them. I am no warrior, of course, and was afraid to try to stop the man."
Angela interrupted the sergeant and witness.
"Excuse me. I was the Prefect's assistant. Is there any chance my friend and I can enter the office?"
"I'm sorry, Madame, but the crime scene is off limits to anyone but the homicide division. I'd like to take your statement, however. Have you noticed anything unusual in regard to the Prefect's workplace?"
"Yes, my friend and I just returned from delivering a secret document to Rhajim. I suspect that someone with a hand in the current technology that governs the city-states intended to prevent the delivery of the new schematics to the tinker there."
A flurry of laser fire strafed the street in front of the gathering of citizens. Everyone dove for cover behind shipments of fruit and livestock. Other tradesmen in the vicinity scrambled for safety in the nearby buildings. The Kul-goran guards unleashed a volley of laser fire from their weapons. Tarex did not carry a laser because they were banned to the general public. He did have a magnesium boomerang that he pulled from his travel pack. The courier scanned the rooftops of the bordering buildings from behind a shipment of melons. The attackers fired a second barrage of laser beams at the people below. Tarex was ready and flung his boomerang at the assailants with full strength.
The metal boomerang whirred as it spun upward at the silhouettes of the attackers standing before the afternoon sun. A loud, clashing sound indicated that the hunting weapon struck its mark. The city guards were quick to follow the sound of the impact and directed their lasers at the location. Several grunts and moans wafted over the sprawling tradesmen as another group of assailants was injured by the scorching laser beams.
The guardsman who had taken Angela's statement yelled into his com unit.
"Scramble groups two and three. Fly over us and deal with the murderous brigands!"
"I'm sorry, Madame," said the guard. "I'll have to take your story down at a later time. Find a safe place until we eliminate these hooligans."
Michael and the other guards of Kul-gora came to the aid of the soldiers at the crime scene.
"Angela, I need to retrieve my boomerang. With your permission, let me borrow your wind rider."
"Okay, Tarex. Be careful. Meet me here when you've got your weapon. I'll be taking cover in the alley."
Tarex sat in the front seat of Angela's vehicle. He activated the thruster and put it in gear. The engine whined as he turned into the street and rose to the level of the rooftops.
The majority of the attackers had fallen under the returning fire of the Kul-goran guards. Those that remained standing became targets for Tarex and his borrowed wind rider. The courier steered the machine at ramming speed over the roof, knocking the assassins to the street several floors below. Tarex turned the vehicle and steered to Angela's hiding place.
"Things are getting curious," said the young man. "Thanks again, Angela, for letting me use your wind rider. We have a burgeoning mystery on our hands and I'll wager that it will take much time and energy to get to the bottom of it."
"I agree, Tarex," answered the young, blue-haired woman.
Angela's eyes were teary as she confided in Tarex.
"I'm going to miss Hiryu," she said. "He was like a father to me. My real parents were victims of the bombings in the Bio Wars. He took me in at a young age and educated me in the transactions conducted in the office of the Prefect. Kul-gora is a blossoming, economic metropolis and we were always with plenty of work on our hands."
The screeching sounds of the wind riders of the city guards reverberated off the walls of the marketplace as they flew past. They had no governors on the fuel lines of their engines and were able to fly much faster than the average vehicle in the event of an emergency.
Tarex was surprised to see the Shibuya team enter the small clearing at the center of the Kul-goran marketplace.
"Greetings, Tarex," said the leader of the maverick riders. "It seems that you remain in the scope of danger despite your return to civilization. Can we offer you some help?"
The Asian wind rider grinned.
"Yoshitoshi, what brings you rapscallions here. You've already done enough damage to my wind rider. Is it possible that you intend to reimburse me for my lost investment?"
"It's up to you, Tarex," replied Yoshitoshi. "We have plenty of work to offer if you're willing and brave enough to try it. Be assured that it won't be long for you to make enough credits to buy another wind rider; one of the latest models in fact."
"I wish I could accept, Yosh, but we have a mystery on our hands that may involve the financial future of all the cities in this region."
"Let me guess, individuals beside us are interested in that tantalizing scroll you were carrying earlier today. Perhaps if you let us onto your situation we can be a greater help to you and your girlfriend. She seems pretty upset."
"Speak for yourself, Yosh," said Angela. "I'm determined to find the culprits that killed Hiryu. Crime never pays in the long run."
"We are willing to assist you by whatever means possible," offered Yoshitoshi. "Hiryu was a great help to us over the years. He aided us in the fabrication of our armor suits. His knowledge of technology was advanced in comparison to the devices employed in the other cities. Accept the apology of the Shibuya team for the untimely destruction of your wind rider. We realize now that our interests are in tune with yours and merit an alliance of sorts."
"Thank you, Yosh," said Tarex. "Your apology is accepted. If you care to assist us let us look casually for the assassins that succeeded in slaying the Prefect and attempted to do so to us as well."
The wind riders shook hands in agreement to unite their efforts. They parted ways after establishing a rendezvous point in the bazaar at twilight.
Tarex found a mechanic who was willing to sell a rebuilt wind rider at a marginal price. He filled the fuel tank with ethanol and accompanied Angela as she flew her own machine.
They stopped at Patalon's shop. The smith had taken care of Tarex from a young age. The wind rider's parents had both been slain in the Bio-Wars soon after his birth. The husky engineer taught the young man to repair the variety of machines and vehicles that were used in various tasks throughout Kul-gora.
"Greetings, Patalon!" Tarex intoned. "I have returned with company."
The middle-aged smith looked up over his bifocal glasses.
"Ah, Tarex! It's good to see you. How go things in the bazaar? I've heard troubling rumors today. I hoped that you were not involved."
"Unfortunately I was, Patalon. Such was the case for my friend, Angela, also."
The Prefect's assistant shook hands with Tarex's caretaker. She briefed the smith as to the recent events in Kul-gora.
"I helped the Prefect, Hiryu, in his shop at the other side of the city. Like you he also dabbled in experimental technology and instrumentation. Somehow his work, involving an alternate fuel source for wind riders and other vehicles, caused an upset among the circles of trade that exist between the neighboring cities."
"That doesn't surprise me, young lady," Patalon replied. "I have also heard of research involving hydrogen and electric propulsion systems. In many ways the fuel we use is as much a means of economic transaction as the money cards we carry. The oil miners in the flatlands keep a keen eye on the progression of business in the various cities. If there is to be a change in the fuel economy among the developed settlements they will certainly oppose such an event. I urge you two to be careful. There is blood on the streets in relation to this issue. Conduct your investigations with caution."
"I agree, Patalon," Tarex replied. "We will remain cautious and will share this advice with our newfound friends in the Shibuya team. You also should be wary in your business, Pat. There seems to be a campaign in effect against engineers and tinkers such as you and the Prefect. Be careful of strange visitors and suspicious individuals."
"Don't worry about me, young people," said Patalon. "I have the ability to defend myself if the situation arises."
The smith reached under the counter top of his shop and brandished a gleaming bolt thrower. The device was loaded with a strip of tranquilizer darts.
"You two go about your business without me. New travels fast in the bazaar. I'm sure that if you catch a lead in regard to the Prefect's assassins I'll be quick to hear of it."
The wind riders took their leave of Patalon and guided their vehicles at a safe speed over the tents and booths of the sprawling marketplace.
"Angela, I wonder if the tinker in Rhajim has knowledge of Hiryu's demise. It would be a good idea to contact him on your com unit."
"I concur, Tarex," answered the blue-haired rider.
She activated the communication device imbedded in her helmet and established a connection with the tinker's shop.
"This is Marc. How may I help you," said the tinker.
"Hello, Marc. This is Angela, the Prefect's assistant," responded Angela. "We're calling to let you know that the Prefect in Kul-gora has been assassinated."
"That's terrible news, Angela. When did it happen?"
"Earlier today. Tarex and I found out upon our arrival here. We too were attacked by unknown snipers but managed to eliminate them. It seems that a mysterious faction of individuals is intent on stopping the construction of new wind riders based on Hiryu's blueprints. Be careful for I suspect there are more people involved in this prohibitive undertaking than have yet emerged."
"I will put some security measures into effect here. Thanks for the warning, Angela. I'll shift my work on the blueprints you brought to the back burner. Things have been hectic among the cities in the years since the Bio-Wars. Tell Tarex, your wind rider friend, to remain cautious as well."
"I will, Marc," answered Angela. "We will confer with you again in the near future."
Angela disconnected the com link and gestured to Tarex who hovered nearby on his idling vehicle. Twilight was beginning to fall and the two friends set forth to the rendezvous point designated in the bazaar. They accelerated to cruising velocity and soon neared the waiting group of riders of the Shibuya team.
Yoshitoshi waved his hand in greeting as the two wind riders decelerated and lowered their vehicles to ground level. The other members of the team turned their helmets in the direction of the new arrivals. Tarex activated the broadband feature of his communication device and addressed the entirety of the group.
"Thank you all for waiting here, today. The time is ripe for us to put our differences behind us and focus on the tasks at hand. I regret that all of our resources will be put to the test in these troublesome times. Let us travel to the office of the new Prefect, Junichiro, and ask him what he may know about the assassination of the previous office holder."
"That is a good idea," responded Yoshitoshi. "There is clearly more than what meets the eye in this dark time. The Shibuya team will follow your lead. It is clear that in this situation the new Prefect is bound to be apprehensive. We spoke with the city guards of Kul-gora while you were away. They said that armed soldiers now surround the Prefect's office and that no one is allowed to enter without official business."
"Well, our business is as official as it comes, Yosh," said Angela. "We must get in to see him for the sake of the secured future of all our cities. Let us venture there and assert ourselves to be allowed access."
The group of couriers and mercenaries shifted their wind riders into high gear and guided their machines across the purple and red striped sunset. As the stars emerged in the night sky the tall, alabaster structure of the Prefect's office rose over the border of the marketplace and the civic headquarters.
The chamber of the Prefect was at the top of the buttressed tower. A sizeable landing pad was affixed to the building and had enough space for all to land. Several wind riders, colored red and green indicated the presence of the guards that Yoshitoshi mentioned.
A pair of tall, armed soldiers stepped out of the doorway of Junichiro's office and approached the group of wind riders on the landing platform.
"What business do you have with the Prefect?" This is a secured area."
"My name is Angela," said the female wind rider. "I was Hiryu's assistant. We have information in regard to a motive that may have driven the killer and potential accomplices to do away with the late Prefect. His replacement may be interested in hearing what we have to say."
"Very well," answered the guard. "You may enter after we conduct a weapons scan."
The Kul-goran soldier held a metal-detecting wand that he used to scan Tarex and Angela. As it scanned close to Tarex's travel pack it beeped.
"That must be my boomerang," said Tarex.
The wind rider opened his pack and handed his magnesium weapon to the guard.
"May I pick this up on the way out? It's an authorized model."
"Yes, you may. We'll hold on to it for safe keeping until that time. You may enter the office, now."
The pair of friends strode past the guards and entered Junichiro's lab.
The new Prefect was a husky man of Japanese descent who looked up at the arriving visitors over a pair of bifocal spectacles.
"Welcome, young people. How may I help you?" the Prefect offered.
"My name is Angela," said the blue-haired, young woman. "My acquaintance here is Tarex. We thought we should speak with you. My previous employer was Hiryu. I have information that may provide focus on the reason for his untimely demise."
"Please, enlighten me," the middle-aged man replied.
"We just got back to Kul-gora after delivering a sealed blueprint to the tinker in Rhajim," said Tarex. "It was an assembly plan for a new type of wind rider, one fueled by hydrogen."
"I see," answered Junichiro. "Perhaps I should speak with the tinker in Rhajim personally. Such a device would surely stir up controversy among the representatives of the various cities in this region. Do you know how close this model was to completion?"
"As far as we know the assembly was in its early stages if at all. If such a device were perfected the demand would be large indeed. Everyone is looking for a cheaper way to travel and generate power," Tarex declared.
The wind rider gazed out the window of the Prefect's office as he contemplated the ramifications of the burgeoning technology.
"I've heard of other alternative energy sources in the bazaar of Kul-gora. There has been talk of more fruitful harnessing of solar power along with steam compression and fuel oil taken from crops rather than underground."
"I've heard of such methods, too," Angela offered. "I frequently listened to Hiryu speak in hushed tones with visiting engineers about potential changes to the existing fuel economy of the cities of this region. If something constructive can be done in honor of the late Prefect's legacy it would be to consult with supportive engineers and bring his vision to fulfillment."
"I take your recommendations seriously," said Junichiro. "We should meet on this issue again in a few days. I will need some time to consult with other Kul-goran engineers and contrive a device that meets the parameters of the blueprint in question. I'm sure that once I speak with Marc in Rhajim he will be willing to send me a copy of my predecessor's design."
"Very well, Junichiro," answered Tarex. "In the meantime Angela and I will meet with Patalon, my mentor. He may have a closer degree of contact with the rumors that pass perpetually through the bazaar and marketplace here. I wouldn't be surprised if he knows of opponents to the changes in the fuel market. We will report back in a couple of days. I hope that you will have received a copy of the blueprint by that time."
The pair of young wind riders waved goodbye to the guards posted outside of the Kul-goran Prefect's office. Tarex made sure to retrieve his magnesium boomerang from the soldiers before mounting his machine and steering for the marketplace.
The friends enjoyed the breeze. It provided a soothing respite from the dust and heat of the ground level. The sun was setting and formed a wavering, orange spheroid behind the spindly, alabaster towers of the technocrats. Tarex was reluctant to consider the possibility that some of the supposed public representatives in the towers nearby may have asserted their influence upon assassins and rogues to do away with the previous Prefect.
Tarex and Angela decelerated as they approached the bazaar. The adept pilots negotiated between the palm groves and fountains that lined the marketplace. Several merchants and food sellers waved at the passing youths as they flew by.
The air was full with the scent of axle grease and cooking meat. Children intertwined around the gangly legs of llamas and camels to catch samples of sweet meats and roast nuts.
Patalon looked up from his soldering iron as Tarex and Angela shut down their wind riders at the front of his booth.
"Tarex, it's good to see you! How go things in the wind riding business?"
"Not so well, Pat," answered the versatile engineer's onetime apprentice. "There is trouble in the air. I was sent on a mission to deliver a blueprint to the tinker in Rhajim. On the way I fell victim to the ceptors only to be rescued by the Shibuya team. In the process they damaged my old wind rider beyond repair. I don't know if you've heard of them. They have since volunteered their assistance to our cause.
"I succeeded in making the delivery," Tarex continued, "and was reimbursed by Marc, the tinker there. Angela was an invaluable help and followed me most of the way. She was saddened to hear of the untimely demise of her employer. We took the initiative and met with the new Prefect, Junichiro. He said that he would request a copy of the blueprint that we suspect was the motive for the termination of his predecessor. We also have made amends with the Shibuya team. They wait outside to ride with us as I speak.
"Patalon, have you heard anything about technocrats that are determined to support the existing fuel economy?" asked Tarex. "Whoever was responsible for the Prefect's undoing must have powerful friends in the senate. The plans in question were based on the concept of a hydrogen-fueled wind rider rather than the ethanol-hydrogen combination we use today."
"Hydrogen…hmm. That is interesting," said Patalon. "I've heard of such concepts before but the ideas were theoretical at most. Like me most of the engineers in and around Kul-gora have their hands full with the repair needs of the merchants and soldiers. There has been little time for research and experimentation with whimsical models and esoteric fuel sources. Between you two and me I wouldn't be surprised if the economy does in fact switch to hydrogen in the distant future. Based on the information you've given me someone with power and supporters decided to nip this plan in the bud. We must be careful for it will be unlikely for such conniving individuals to be easily apprehended. There are sinister people afoot and all of us must take great care on the streets and in the skies."
"You speak sound advice, Patalon," said Tarex. "It is good to have you as a confidante. We will investigate the scene carefully. The Shibuya team has also agreed to assist us. Allow us to conduct reconnaissance of the area and get back to you in a couple of days. I'm sure that you will find the blueprints in question to be engaging once you get a copy."
"Thank you, young man," replied Patalon. "You parents would be proud of you. I look forward to our next meeting. Take care when you venture into the public arena. None of us know what aids of the technocracy may be lurking around the area."
The middle-aged engineer shook hands with the two adventurers and they exited the shop.
Before they drove toward the rendezvous point with Yoshitoshi's team they paused at a fuel station to fill their tanks with ethanol. Tarex and Angela flew to the base of the towers and the prearranged location of the Shibuya team. Tetsuo and Akiko were there and signaled the wind riders to land.
"Welcome, friends," said Akiko. "We are glad that you decided to meet with us. It would have been a shame if you had second thoughts after the accident with your old vehicle. Yoshitoshi and the rest of us sincerely care for you best interests. I hope you understand."
"I do, Akiko," Tarex answered. "I'm going to miss my old wind rider but appreciate your team rescuing me from the spawning field of the ceptors. We have our work cut out for us. I'm glad to have your extra numbers available to conduct reconnaissance in the mystery of the assassinated Prefect. My old engineer mentor, Patalon, suggested that some factions of the technocrats in the Kul-goran senate may be responsible for Hiryu's untimely death. What do you riders think about this possibility?"
"It makes sense to me," a voice said over the com units of everyone present.
Yoshitoshi and the rest of the Shibuya team decelerated and glided to a stop by Tarex and Angela.
"I must confess that I'm surprised to find you two here," said the Japanese leader of the team of wind riders. "I figured you riders would have high-tailed it out of town by now. You appear to have more resolve than we previously surmised."
"It seems that if you folks wanted to dispose of me you could have done so long ago," Tarex replied. "The wilderness alone is a hostile adversary. You riders have survived it well enough. We can use your numbers to get to the bottom of this dilemma."
"I too am driven to find the identity of the killers at large," said Angela. "Hiryu was like a father to me and I will miss him. Whoever is responsible for the foul deed must be brought to justice."
"Let us travel beyond the city walls, my friends," said Yoshitoshi. "There are watchful eyes in this bustling metropolis and it will do us well to discuss these issues in greater depth beyond the range of whatever scanners and eavesdropping devices that may be targeting us here."
The leader of the Shibuya team ignited his wind rider and gestured for his companions to follow suit. The motley group of friends mounted their vehicles and took to the air. They guided their wind riders up and over the city walls of Kul-gora. Yoshitoshi led the group south, along the coastline. Once they reached cruising velocity he again addressed the expeditious gathering.
The landscape on the way to Rhajim was varied in its texture and size. The group of couriers continued to remain on the lookout for the infamous ceptors, despite taking care to avoid their spawning grounds. Other creatures that had mutated since the close of the Bio-Wars also had a reputation for predating wind riders as they passed through their respective foraging and hunting areas.
One species of hunting creature in the region was the chopterix. It was a winged reptile with sharp teeth and claws that pulled fish from the surface of the sea and small mammals from their habitats on the ground with equal facility. Tarex and Angela were wise to the predatory instincts of the chopteri as were the members of the Shibuya team.
Just as the travelers had become satisfied that they would not be intercepted by any of the mutant animals the radar scanners on the various helmets of the pilots beeped a proximity warning.
Yoshitoshi signaled his companions to swerve over the sea. Angela and Tarex arced in a similar curve and caught a glimpse of a flock of chopteri that rose on the warm air thermals to come within striking range of the wind riders. Tetsuo and Akiko fired their lasers and winged a number of the creatures but several more of them continued to rise in pursuit of the ethanol-burning vehicles.
One of the airborne reptiles drifted into Tarex's path. The young man had just enough time to bring out his boomerang and hurl it forward before he was bowled over by the screeching creature.
Angela maneuvered her own wind rider behind those of the Shibuya team.
"I envy your weapons, Yosh. Perhaps you can help us to install similar lasers on Tarex's and my vehicles. I'm sure the structural regulations can be put on hold considering the trouble that is brewing in regard to the Prefect's blueprint."
"No problem, Angela," said Yoshitoshi. "We will set you up right once in Rhajim. We know of several mechanics that will gladly enhance the defensive capabilities of your wind rider."
Tetsuo and Akiko circled around in a precarious arc. They targeted the widening flock of chopteri and fired their weapons from scanner lock. Three of the mutant creatures were struck by the shots of the wind riders and were scattered into spiraling tufts of feathers and reptile flesh.
The pair of wind riders turned their vehicles once more and accelerated to meet up with the others. The chopteri did not attempt to hinder the party of couriers again. After less than an hour in the air the spindly communication antennae and towers of Rhajim sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. The group of newfound friends lowered their vehicles to cruising altitude and decelerated. Tarex and Angela noticed farmers and fishers who looked up and waved at the sound of their roaring jets. Angela waved in greeting to the workers below.
A group of guards stood before the city gates. They gestured for the band of wind riders to stop their vehicles.
"Hello, wind riders. My name is Ian. Do you have identification cards for us?"
"Certainly," said Angela.
She and the other pilots drew their identification cards from their travel packs and displayed them for the guards. They scanned the magnetic strip on each of the cards and waited for a beep that confirmed their identification data was up to date.
"Thank you, wind riders," declared Ian. "You are free to enter."
The tall, helmeted guard gestured with a remote control and entered a code that caused the hydraulic servos imbedded in the steel surfaces of the gates to protract and open.
The interior of the city of Rhajim was much the same as that of Kul-gora. The marketplace was equally busy. It was crowded with merchants, peddlers and storytellers who catered to the various needs of the citizens of Rhajim.
A unique feature of the city was the fondness of the people for accordions. They were ancient instruments but still enjoyed popularity in the northern city. A number of citizens had formed makeshift circles around musicians who played their accordions and fiddles in various styles from Polka to Zydeco.
Tarex, Angela and the Shibuya team took a moment to listen to the musicians. The tunes were rhythmic and engrossing. Many of the residents of Rhajim clapped their hands and tapped their feet in time with the syncopated serenades. Each of the accordion players had placed hats at their feet and members of the audience dropped money cards and plastic coins therein.
"We must move on, my friends," said Yoshitoshi. "This is fine music but we must survey the area for suspicious activity. None of us know whether the assassins of the Prefect will attempt their crime again with Junichiro or any of the many engineers and hardware manufacturers in our cities of origin."
"I concur, Yosh," said Tarex. "We should take to the air once more and observe the movements of the businessmen and women from above."
Angela and the Shibuya team followed the recommendation of Tarex and thrust their wind riders into cruising speed. The group flew for a short while when they noticed a trio of sinister-looking wind riders in flight around the shop of Marc, the tinker.
The individuals in question wore dark, plastic armor and cloaks that billowed in the arid, desert wind. Their faces were hidden by their helmets, preventing any would-be observers from determining their age or gender.
The trio of suspicious wind riders turned their heads in unison. They gazed at the group of wind riders through silver-tinted visors. Once they realized they were being pursued by the young wind riders they thrust their aircraft into high gear. One of the dark riders addressed the ethnically diverse group of pilots.
"Do not pursue us, wind riders. We act on the behalf of the senate of nation-states. We are armed and will defend ourselves if necessary."
"Some group of evildoers has been waging a campaign against the technological development of the propulsion systems used by the working people. That wouldn't happen to be you folks?" asked Yoshitoshi.
"Yes, it is us. Many of our comrades-in-arms have been destroyed for their work on the behalf of members of the technocracy. Don't interfere with our objectives lest you face the brunt of our superior laser arrays."
"Speak for yourself, dark rider," replied Yoshitoshi. "Our vehicles are also armed and represent the cutting edge of portable weapon technology. Your supporters in the technocracy will be exposed and defeated. Progress, both cultural and industrial, is an ongoing development of our people and will not be delayed or halted by violence or devious conspiracy."
The mysterious riders split up over the towers and antennae of the city of Rhajim. They turned and locked their weapons arrays on Tarex's group. They fired heat-seeking missiles and flurries of laser fire from their modified wind riders. The group of couriers responded to the detected radar locks on their helmets' displays. They took evasive action and managed to destroy many of the missiles with their own laser cannons.
The groups of wind riders entered a dogfight at high altitude. They spiraled and rolled for position in the cloudy sky. Yoshitoshi and the Shibuya team were adept pilots and easily compromised the dark riders' angles of attack. Numbers of heat-seeking missiles and streams of laser fire spiraled in the afternoon light. Yoshitoshi and Tetsuo used their lasers to disable one of the dark riders. The renegade pilot was forced to decelerate and land on the street below.
The other two, mysterious riders were not so easily disabled. They evaded and arced their airborne vehicles with dexterity equal to that of the couriers. Tarex and his friends overheard the communication of the would-be assassins.
"We must retreat from these intrusive riders, my friend. Our companion has already been forced to the ground."
The black-cloaked maverick riders accelerated their wind riders into high speed. They blew past Tarex and Yoshitoshi and headed for the tallest tower in the metropolitan zone of Rhajim.
"Let us pursue these brigands," declared Tarex. "They appear to be seeking sanctuary in the tower of the technocrats."
"I agree, my diligent friend," answered Angela.
"Shibuya team, we must press on and determine the sponsor of our hostile adversaries," said Yoshitoshi.
The couriers followed the request of their leader and joined with Tarex and Angela in following their adversaries. They flew upward toward the skyline of the post-apocalyptic city. Their wailing engines left trails of water vapor in the atmosphere as they pierced several groups of smoggy clouds.
The dark riders were fast and the gathering of friend shifted their vehicles into overdrive. Tarex and Angela felt their engines rumble with the strain of the energy boost to their wind riders. They gripped the handlebars of their machines tightly and succeeded in growing closer to the renegades.
"These brigands are headed for the tower of the technocrats, my companions," Yoshitoshi declared. "We must intercept them before they enter the secured structure."
Tarex drew his magnesium boomerang from his travel pack as his opponents signaled for a secured garage door to open and allow them entrance. The suspicious individuals thrust their vehicles under the still opening door and directed it to close.
The onetime student of Patalon hurled his boomerang ahead of the pursuing group. The metallic weapon spiraled into the technocrat's garage and disabled the device controlling the door. The dark riders realized they were in jeopardy of being cornered by the Shibuya team. They fired a volley of blasts from their laser cannons at the following riders. The attack was expected and the pursuers evaded the beams of ruby light.
At last Tarex and his friends neared the technocrat's docking platform. The base of metal was emblazoned with the symbol of Brutus, one of the key members of the senate of the technocrats. The riders landed hard on the platform and skidded awkwardly under the jammed door. They entered a fierce melee with the dark riders who exercised an adapted form of martial arts. They intended to deter the wind riders long enough to conduct an escape into the secured halls of the technocracy.
Tarex retrieved his boomerang and hurled it again at the pair of brigands. They were knocked unconscious. The gathering of riders surrounded the mysterious individuals and removed their silver-marked helmets. They were surprisingly young assassins, not much older than Tarex and Angela.
"We represent people interested in the safety of our cities. Who are you and what drives you brigands to interfere with the development of existing technologies?"
"We are Brute Force. Upon the request of Senator Brutus our group has acted to discontinue the propagation of new technologies threatening the economic balance that exists between the city-states."
"Are you sure that your actions benefit the development of more economical and environmentally conscious transportation?" asked Tarex.
"Yes, the smog that surrounds the various cities is but a minor side effect of the combustion of oil-based fuels. Now is not the time to change the engines to a hydrogen system."
"What if your group is mistaken?" Angela queried. "No technology is meant to last forever. Even so it is not moral to assassinate those with whom you have a difference of opinion. Violence is not a salient method to express yourselves."
"We act at the behest of Senator Brutus. If you disagree with his agenda you should communicate with him directly. Brute Force is just following orders."
"Despite the aforementioned senator's intentions you are individually responsible for the murder of the Prefect in Kul-gora and the assaults on the city guards," Yoshitoshi interjected. "If you are not brought to justice by the city guards you will still be held to an ultimatum by we united wind riders. Discontinue your attacks or answer to us. We too are armed and ready to support the free market system established since the Bio-Wars."
"So be it, wind riders. If we must continue to fight in the skies above our respective cities then that is what we will do," replied a dark-cloaked rider. "My name is Ixus. I am the leader of Brute Force and will not heed your ultimatum. Our cause is just and we are willing to engage in combat to protect the continuance of the agenda of Senator Brutus."
"Very well, Ixus," replied Tarex. "Consider yourselves under citizen's arrest. I am contacting the city guards."
Tarex used the com unit embedded in his helmet to summon the guards of the city-state. The dispatcher informed him that officers were on the way to his location. In a matter of minutes the guards arrived on the scene and took the testimony of Tarex, Angela and the Shibuya team. They agreed with their assessment of the situation and placed the two, would-be assassins in a paddy wagon that hovered behind their wind riders.
"Thank you all for the tip," declared a guard. "We have been looking for these malevolent fellows for some time now. At last we know which of the senators in the technocracy is responsible for the recent violence and assassination. Keep your eyes open in the skies above for there are bound to be more supporters of Senator Brutus' cause that have yet avoided apprehension by the authorities."
"I agree," said Tarex. "Angela and I, along with Yoshitoshi's Shibuya team, will remain on the lookout for suspicious individuals. If things go well the Prefect's blueprint may yet be brought to fruition. We bid you farewell for now."
"Thanks, Tarex," replied the guard. "Keep in touch with us if you run into any more brigands. Alas, we may not be able to hold these representatives of Brutus in custody for very long. The senator is powerful and holds many connections within the judicial and penal system. It is unfortunate that we may be forced to arrest the same riders again if they maintain their agenda of sabotage."
"In the memory of my deceased employer and Tarex's engineer mentor we'll remain on the lookout for any would-be assassins," Angela declared. "Given sufficient time to work, Hiryu in Kul-gora and Marc in Rhajim may yet realize the blueprint of the past Prefect. It is what my supervisor would have wanted."
The gathering of wind riders bade farewell to the guards and took to the skies once more.
"It seems we still have our work cut out for us, my friends," said Yoshitoshi. "We will assist you if we can. Stay alert and contact us if need be. We have decided to return to the wilderness and contend with the hostile, mutant creatures that thrive in and out of the swamps. We bid you farewell."
The sizable group of wind riders divided their numbers as they went their separate ways. Tarex spoke to Angela as they headed to Patalon's booth in the bazaar of Kul-gora.
"Let us speak with my teacher and inform him of the events that have occurred here. He will be thankful to know that it is Senator Brutus who ordered the killing of Hiryu. These times after the Bio-Wars continue to be tense. It will be wise for us to remain cautious and communicate with the Shibuya team upon their return from their hunt of the hostile mutants."
"I agree, Tarex," replied Angela. "Let us be on our way."
The two wind riders flew to the south and soon approached the dusty marketplace and bazaar of Kul-gora. The merchants and businessmen continued their work despite the recent events. They were determined to make sales and repairs for the customers that sought them.
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