Desert Rat

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The kid stood with the rest of the team looking out over the scorched desert plain. The stranded transport had picked a rotten place to break down. With no cover, any rootless band of wanderers could easily find it. Of course, it could be a trap. That’s what the team was trying to determine.

“I don’t see anyone,” said Max as he lowered the binoculars. “But that just means they’re too smart to leave the cab.”

The wasteland wavered in the afternoon heat. Studying the scene from the concealment of the hills, the team tried to decide on a course of action. Most likely the cargo hold wasn’t empty. It made no sense for a long-haul transport to go anywhere without a full load. One way or another, they would find out what it contained.

“I don’t think it’s been there too long,” said Dermot as he examined the heat signatures on his handheld readout. “The converter is still warm, but then nothing cools down very fast out here.”

This was good news. It meant help was still far away, and they could take a closer look without interference.

“Get the flatbed, Kid,” said Max. “You’re with me. The rest of you keep an eye on us.”

He was both surprised and thrilled to go. Because he was the youngest in the group, most of the others had more experience with these types of jobs. Usually, they just told the kid to watch and learn. On the other hand, he was their most sober mechanic, and they could offer to fix the transport—for a fee, of course. And the kid would not appear as threatening. It was important to present the right image for the benefit of the target audience.

There were two flatbeds, but the kid knew Max had been referring to Dermot’s with the tool boxes. Like all of their vehicles, it looked like junk. It had a mismatched collection of faded panels, an open cab, and no windshield, but like the other levicars, it flew beautifully.

Max climbed into the passenger seat and handed him a shotgun. “Keep it hidden unless things go south.”

This was another surprise. They did not let him handle the weapons on excursions. He had gotten some basic instruction on rifles, but never a shotgun. Though supposedly simpler to use, it still made him nervous. Tin can targets were one thing, but he didn’t know if he could shoot at another person. He put the weapon on the deck at his feet.

They flew low so the transport occupants could see them coming. The air displacement created a very visible sand cloud behind them. It wouldn’t help the cause to surprise anyone. The stranded transport came into focus through the heat. An intense glare kept them from seeing clearly into the cab, but they could make out two occupants. In the least menacing way possible, they pulled slowly to a stop within shotgun range. Max stepped out and shouted a greeting.

Nothing happened. Hot minutes ticked by as the shadows in the cab shifted indecisively. Max looked over at the kid and shrugged. The kid shrugged in response, but he was only thinking about the shotgun. It sat at his feet like a snake he didn’t dare to touch. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. The sound of the window whirring down drew their attention back to the transport.

“Just here to help,” Max said with his most disarming smile.

It didn’t work. The barrel of a rifle protruded from the dark interior. The kid thought he should reach for the gun, but he didn’t. He froze instead.

“Get lost,” growled a harsh female voice.

“Whoa,” exclaimed Max raising his hands. “I don’t have a gun. The kid here is a mechanic.”

“We got help comin’.”

“The closest help is three hours away at best,” Max reasoned. “The sun will be gone before that, and you know as well as I they won’t get caught out in the dark. You’ll be here all night.”

The occupants had a hasty conversation in the cab. The kid could hear the lady and a man bickering and cursing; evidently, they didn’t agree on their course of action. Eventually an awkward silence indicated they reached an uneasy consensus. Max glanced at the boy and winked. The tension seemed to dissipate, and he felt better about not pulling the gun. The lady poked her frazzled grey head out over her rifle.

“I suppose you want something in return.”

“Fair wages for fair work,” Max agreed.

“We don’t carry cash, and the cargo hold has a security lock that I can’t open.”

The kid knew they were lying about being locked out of the hold, but he’d have no trouble disabling the security system.

Max rolled his eyes and smiled. “We’ll manage something.”

“Sounds like a deal, then,” she said.