APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 3 April, 2000


Badlands Rendezvous
Part One

Tom McGrenery

[NOTE: Tom joins an elite club this month; he has finally contributed his first "Part One" article. Welcome to the club, Tom! --Ed.]

PRDF Sergeant Jovalis kicked his heels against the Cheetah's leg. He was perched on said leg, the Gear to which it was attached being suspended face down, twenty metres up. Beneath Jovalis' stylishly attired feet, the sand dunes drifted past like heaped waves. He continued his previous undertaking - namely, slowly unwinding what a nautical man would call a plumb-line. Extended to its fullest length, the line's weighted end just scuffed the surface of the higher dunes. Jovalis set himself to drawing whorls and gentle curves in the sand as the floater passed along.

Jovalis himself was not a large man by any standard - his thin body gave the impression of lithe movement and strongly resembled the slim lines of the Gear upon which he sat, while his fingers, which deftly engaged the wire between them, were weathered and callused, clearly accustomed to practical work. He was out of uniform, instead sporting an informal suit, at home both on the streets and in the boardroom, while his long, bullet-proofed coat was draped over the Cheetah's foot.

A metallic-timbred knocking came from above, and Sandro Jovalis looked up towards its source. The floater's pilot was out of view, however, masked by the tarnished, pod-like underside of the gondola. Jovalis wound up his aerial stylus, hooking it over a safety bar. He put on his gloves and climbed slowly up the rope ladder that hung from the gondola's bulwark. He took his time, unwilling to over-exert himself in the day's dry heat.

Peacekeeper Huang Fei stood on the raised, drilled steel conning deck, which was, for all its impressive nomenclature, only half a metre across. His hand was on the tiller, its wooden surfaces now almost black with age. Huang Fei was properly dressed for the desert - long coat, tough boots, broad-brimmed hat, the lot. He also had his goggles on, and a good thing, too - it was plainly visible that the uncovered parts of his face had been blasted by both the heat of the sun and the sand that drifted on the breeze. The wind was almost dead by now, only the floater's forward motion bringing any air to move against the two men. The low drone of the turbine at the aft of the gondola was all that could be heard, save for the billowing envelope above and the slight clank of rigging.

"We're not going to make the Desertkeep by nightfall," said Huang. He seemed sorry to let Jovalis down, but equally determined to tell him the truth. "We're not fast enough."

Jovalis surveyed the floater. It wasn't the slickest machine in the skies, certainly. It was rusty, though daubed with olive-green paint where a previous owner had had a half-hearted stab at maintenance. Bolted-n spars stuck out in random places to brace the superstructure of the 10-metre long gondola, or else to act as a stay for a rope or two. Moreover, desert use was not the floater's strong point. Both Jovalis and Huang wore gloves lest they fall over for whatever reason. While the wooden and cloth covers on the bulwark railings kept the heat away, many of the fittings were plastic, and the metal deck was hot enough to fry barnaby fillets.

"This heap of junk was a complete waste of our time," said Jovalis, suddenly vitriolic. "And our money."

"Oh, I think you're being somewhat harsh, Sandro," replied the Peacekeeper, "While it lacks speed, it has an excellent fuel economy, which is what has allowed us to track the smugglers for such an extended period."

"But if we were faster," said Sandro, "We could have caught up by now and arrested them."

Huang apparently had no answer for this. Sandro walked fore-wards, and leaning on the cracked black rail, he gazed away to the dune horizon.

More than a half-day's floater journey away, a worn-out traveller was on the phone.

"Hello. Yes, I would like to speak to Mr. Cartier. Thank you so much."

He scratched at the stubble which had sprung up over the last few days. A young woman tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to their table. The traveller nodded.

"My name is Von Breslau. Yes, like the historical figure. How droll, I've never heard that before..."

By dusk, Jovalis was almost asleep at the helm. He was seated on the deck, with his left hand draped over the tiller, leaning on the gondola wall. From below deck, Huang Fei came up the five steep steps. In each hand, he carried a metal cup. The contents of each were steaming hot. As he crouched to down to press one into Jovalis' hand, the Paxton employee looked up.

"What's this?" he asked, taking the proffered cup.

"Soup," said Huang Fei, "It's very nutritious. I personally also find it quite stimulating."

Jovalis dipped a finger into the liquid.

"It looks like grass soup," he said.

"Exactly," said Huang Fei

"You've given me grass soup? Hot water with grass in it?" said Jovalis.

"It's a little more complex than that, Sandro," replied the Peacekeeper, "In addition to water and several varieties of wild grasses, there also other ingredients, such as -"

"Is this what they teach you at Peacekeeper school? I mean, is Mekong law enforcement really dependent on the manufacture of broth made of stuff picked up off the floor?"

"Well, Sandro, to be exact, any vegetable is 'picked up off the floor' like that."

"Great, we're into 'Mr. Academic' time again..."

"I think you mean 'Mr Pedantic'."

"I know what I - can you hear something strange?" Jovalis broke off, suddenly distracted.

Sure enough, a watery rushing could be heard from beneath them. Huang Fei looked over the rail, to see the gentle crest of a tall dune wedging itself beneath the floater.

"It's grounding," reported the Mekongese.

"That's what I love about you, Huang Fei," shouted Sandro, from the other side of the gondola. "Your ability to state the obvious."

To Be Continued...

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APAGear II Archives Volume 2, Number 3 April, 2000