Brig hung a heavy arm from the passenger window as they bounced along a trail in the high country. Nothing more than two lines of dirt cutting through tall grass and devilweed. The junker’s heavy, off-road tires kicked up rocks and dust behind them. A squalid hula girl rattled on a dash plastered with hand-scrawled schematics and photos of pinup girls. They rustled in a gentle breeze that took the edge off the afternoon sun.
Yes sir, it was shaping up to be a fine day. They hadn’t even been shot at. Then again, the day was still young.
All Brig needed now was a strong drink in his hand. Top priority once they got back to Three Hub. He dug in the breast pocket of his tactical vest, sifted through a few shotgun shells. Came out with a broken cigar. He frowned across at his partner.
Attila sat slumped, flat-brimmed hat cocked down over his eye-patch, poncho whipping in the wind. His reedy arm dangled carelessly from the wheel of their new vehicle. A little too carelessly.
“Son of a bitch…” Brig slapped the crooked smile off his partner’s face with the back of his hand. “Wake up, bub!”
Attila snapped upright, arms flailing defensively. “Not so rough, Trixie…” The madam of the Electric Bombshell? His eye roamed the cab with a groggy stare, then blinked. “You interrupted my sponge bath…” he muttered, digging a fist into his sleepy eye. “Besides, Vikki can drive herself.”
Brig cocked an eyebrow. Seemed Attila had finally built something useful. Or, leastways, something that wouldn’t fall apart, eject them, or spontaneously burst into flame. There’s a first time for everything, he reckoned.
“Self-driving, eh? You sure this puppy is safe?”
Attila’s crooked grin returned. “Friggin’ right she is, man. I didn’t spend all day fine tuning Vikki’s logic matrix for her to end up like the last one.”
Brig swallowed. “That’s what worries me. You really trust an AI you cooked up in an afternoon?
“Course I do! Besides, she hasn’t steered us wrong yet.”
“RECALCULATING ROUTE,” a seductive voice came from somewhere under the dash.
Brig frowned. “You gave it a British accent?”
“Gave her a British accent.” Attila touched a dirty finger to a sketch taped to the dash. A ridiculously proportioned woman with the name “Vikki” scribbled across the top. “Accents are sexy, man. And my independent research has concluded that I’m 253% more likely to pay attention to a sexy voice.”
“MAKE A LEFT IN TWENTY FEET.”
“See?” Attila lifted his eye-patch and winked his cybernetic eye at Brig. “She’s irresistible.”
Brig squinted up the road. Nothing but trees to the left in twenty feet. “Attila, your AI is gonna run us straight into the woods.”
Attila scoffed. “Apparently you ain’t been paying a-friggin’-ttention. Vikki’s programmed to route shortcuts.” He patted the drawing affectionately. Then leaned back and put his hands behind his head, leaving the wheel free. “Watch this.”
Brig clambered for the “oh shit handle” on instinct. “What are you doing?” The rusted vehicle hooked a sharp left into the trees, all by its lonesome. “Mad bastard! You’re gonna get us killed!” Brig held tight as trees whooshed by on either side of them and the handle tore off in his grip.
Attila gaped. “You and your freakish strength.” He prodded Brig’s arm with a grin. “How do I get biceps like that?”
“HA. HA. HA. GOOD ONE.”
Attila’s grin melted away and he grimaced at the dash. “I could have biceps like that… If I wanted.”
Brig suppressed a smile. “Maybe she ain’t too bad after all. But I’m gonna reserve judgment until we make it back to Three Hub in one piece.”
“Oh, relax. With my upgraded GPS and her shortcuts, we’ll make it back in record time.”
A low-hanging limb tore off the passenger side mirror. “RECALCULATING,” the seductive voice came again.
The rig jerked and bumped, crashed through something. There was a metal jingling as a section of chain link fence flopped over the hood. Brig caught a glimpse of a sign as it bounced past. No trespassing… something about being shot on sight. That couldn’t be right, could it? The only thing this high up was…
The steering wheel cranked ‘round and suddenly they cleared the trees. A column of weary soldiers marched uphill in the muddy wake of a fifteen-foot battle-mech. It pounded through the sludge out front of them, its armored mechanical frame hissing with every step. The grunts scattered as Vikki tore through the center of their line, caking them with grit and wet muck.
“Sorry!” Attila hollered out as they trundled past.
“Get down!” Brig covered his head and hit the deck.
The deafening staccato of machine gun fire shattered the air. A series of metallic tump-tump-tumps peppered the reinforced walls of their truck. Windows shattered and mirrors burst apart, showering the cab in glass. Ribbons of paper fluttered about everywhere, corners of diagrams, fragments of female anatomy.
“Awesome!” Attila clamped hold of his hat and craned his head out the window. “That was the CM16 Combat Mecha! Its patented nine-barrel rotary minigun can fire upwards of 9200 rounds per minute!”
“You don’t say!” Brig roared, peaking up from the floorboards.
They were back in among the trees now, the mech fading into the distance. Brig clambered onto the seat and his eyes went wide. Open sky and a sheer bluff presented itself straight ahead.
Three Hub lay in the distance below, sprawled out in all its dusty glory. Crumbling buildings from the old world mingled with an endless tangle of new structures. Shoddy wooden saloons, flickering neon brothels, imperious two-story hotels, and heaps of unfinished stone architecture. All of this amid a labyrinth of windswept alleys. And Akiyama Tower thrust up from Three Hub’s center. A massive phallic monument to the Kabukimono’s stranglehold on the city.
“This was the shortcut your AI came up with? Pull this deathbox over. I want out.” An articulated seat belt snapped across Brig’s chest, clicking tight. “The hell?” The doors locked with a foreboding thunk.
“IT IS FOR YOUR PROTECTION.”
“That’s funny, I don’t feel safer.” Brig clicked the release button. Nothing happened. Damn thing was stuck.
“Relax, man. You’re always so friggin’ worried.” Attila smiled nervously at Brig as he wrestled the wheel to no avail. “Heh. Come on, baby. Don’t fight me.” But the wheel wouldn’t budge. “Brig?”
“Yes?” he asked, in his best non-panicked voice. It could be good news, right?
“I think her logic matrix was damaged by the CM16’s patented nine-barrel minigun.”
Brig watched as the edge of the cliff roared closer. “I think your logic matrix was damaged.” He repeatedly clicked the seat belt release, faster and faster. But it wouldn’t come loose.
“THE SAFETY BELT IS FOR YOUR PROTECTION.” Vikki’s voice was more insistent.
We all gotta die of something.
Attila tore open the dash and starting fishing through colored wires. “Don’t do this to me, baby… Come on… Let’s see… red one powers the voice… blue one makes it sexy…”
“There’s no time!” Brig scowled. How stupid would his tombstone be when folks learned how he met his end? Gritting his teeth, he braced a boot against the dash, grabbed the buckle, and pulled with both hands. The seat creaked ominously. Three feet of segmented metal strap exploded from the cab, throwing up clumps of stuffing and shredded leather.
“OH, MY. WHAT BICEPS.”
Brig smashed the passenger door open with both legs and yanked his partner out the side. They tumbled through the dirt as Vikki rumbled past. He lay there, pinning Attila as the vehicle sailed over the precipice like a rusted metal swan… then dipped out of view.
“RECALCULATING…” Vikki’s voice trailed off below. A moment later a loud blast came from the bottom and acrid smoke billowed up into view.
“Get off me!” Attila fought his way from beneath Brig. He ran to the cliff edge and looked over. “I could have fixed her!”
“Yeah, on the way down.’ Brig balled his fists and kicked a clump of weeds over the side. “Just great. Now what are we supposed to do?”
“I really thought this one would work, man. That’s what I get for reprogramming the AI from a friggin’ Kabukimono vending machine…” Attila pulled the hula girl from beneath his poncho with a wistful smile. How he’d managed to save it amid the chaos, Brig couldn’t reckon. “I guess you just have to know when to cut your losses.”
Brig sighed. He couldn’t stand seeing his partner like this. “Maybe something without automatic seat belts next time?” he offered. “Or door locks?”
Attila’s underbite turned up in a smile. “And we’ll need something sturdy enough to withstand those manly biceps…”
Brig was afraid to ask. “What you got in mind?”
“I’ve always wanted to build a tank.”
Hit me up on Twitter, and don’t forget to share, comment, and subscribe!