Desert Rat

The kid was about to get out when a commotion erupted in the transport cab. The man in the passenger seat began shouting more curses. The lady retrained the rifle at Max. He backed up to driver’s side of the flatbed. The kid fumbled between his feet for the shotgun.

“Who’s that?!” the lady shouted. “Who’s that?!” She pointed out across the plain.

A dust cloud rose on the horizon. Someone was coming in a hurry.

“Keep the gun down,” Max whispered.

Four or five levicars approached low and fast—it was still too difficult to see them clearly. There was no way this could turn out good. The simple plan had just gotten complicated.

“Those would be the bad guys,” said Max.

“I suppose those are the good guys.” She indicated the opposite direction.

Their team must have spotted the intruders and had taken it upon themselves to come to the rescue. They were flying in with everything: the other flatbed, a closed transport van and the two levicars. They would be armed, of course.

“That’s us,” Max confirmed.

“How do I know you’re the good guys?” She sounded almost desperate.

“Because we have a flatbed, which means we were just going to take stuff. They don’t have a flatbed, which means they are planning on stealing your transport, which means they are planning on killing you.”

It really was supposed to be just Max and the kid—no threat to anyone—but now the boy watched the storm clouds converging on them from opposite directions. He couldn’t tell which side would arrive first, and he certainly couldn’t predict what would happen when the two forces collided. The kid knew the team wouldn’t do anything impulsive. It wasn’t Max’s style. They wouldn’t shoot unless Max said to or if someone was in immediate danger. But there was no telling the character of the interlopers. Most bandits didn’t have too many moral qualms.

“Ma’am,” Max said to the driver. “It might be a good idea for you to call the cops about now.”

“Already done,” she replied. “Though I don’t see them getting out here fast enough to help.”

The rival convoys came in at full speed and pulled to immediate stops. This left the assembly in a swirl of sand. The kid moved the gun up onto his lap, though he couldn’t see anything yet to shoot at. Max took the opportunity to lean into the cab.

“Be ready to throw me the shotgun when I tell you,” he said before stepping to the front of the transport.

His sweaty palms rested nervously on the warm steel of the action and the barrel. This was the first time he had been in the center of such a tense situation. If someone decided to start shooting, he’d be in the crossfire. He didn’t want the gun at all; it was too much to be responsible for.

It took a full minute for the dust to settle. He saw about a dozen of the newcomers standing beside their levicars with rifles and guns aimed in his direction. One was already walking forward. He was short, and despite his youth, he had no hair. A holstered sidearm joggled at his hip, and a bandolier hung stylishly over his shoulder. He looked like someone playing a cowboy from an ancient west movie.

“Scurry along, little chickens,” he said to Max with a brushing gesture. “You’re outnumbered, and these aren’t zap bullets I’m carrying. We’ll take over from here.”

“Zap bullets won’t kill you,” replied Max, “but they’ll make you wish you were dead for about ten minutes.”

The kid looked over at the rest of his team. They all had weapons out, but there was no way of telling which type of ammo they were loaded with. Max was underplaying his hand. He didn’t see Nell, Quinny or Chet. They’d be hidden in the shadows beneath the tarp on the other flatbed with targets already chosen. The two men would most likely be loaded with zap bullets, but Nell most certainly would not. Whoever she aimed at would die.

With the hapless long-haul transit stranded between them, the two opposing gangs had about forty meters of wavering heat separating them. Unlike the other side, Max’s team remained in the vehicles. Not only were they better hidden, they would be more maneuverable.

Their leader realized his disadvantage and began twitching nervously and looking about desperately for an edge.

“There is a way for all of us to come out of this ahead,” Max said.

“There’s a way for me to come out ahead by shooting these assholes.” He reached for his sidearm and aimed it at the two in the cab.

“Now, Kid!” Max called.

As he lifted the shotgun from his lap, his hand gripped the trigger. He barely had time to register his mistake when the sound exploded in his ears and the gun jumped from his grasp. Another shot blasted out from somewhere and then another. He ducked down into the seat and noticed the hole he just shot into the door. A quick melee of bullets crackled around him.

“Stop! Stop!” Max shouted.

The noise and dust quickly settled.

“What the hell was that?” screamed the little bald man.

The kid lay across the seats wishing he could disappear and hoping he hadn’t gotten anyone killed. The best thing to do was to just fess up. Max had a way of figuring things out. The hole in the door would be a good hint.

“Sorry,” he shouted, raising his empty hands into view. “That was me. Sorry about that.”