This is the fifth section of the sixth chapter of Sonnets from a Proton. The novel starts here.
The next section is here.
Malka had been riding for over an hour, the roads had started off quite good. She’d heard that the roads here had deteriorated since the exodus to the Habitat, but it was actually quite good. Maybe she supposed there were a lot of automated bots who were maintaining the roads, and this was a major route. She was just considering how much longer she’d be able to go before running out of fuel, the road was deserted and a desert, Oh this normally happened to her on these trips, too long stuck by herself. Hang on she thought what was that, something on the road? Before she could do anything she was upon it and the bike’s front wheel tucked under and she was flying through the air. Her implants reacted and injected a cocktail of combat drugs into her system to prepare her for the impact. The scene unravelled before her in slow motion. Around her her suit inflated into a large air cushion and she rolled across the endless sand dunes. It seemed to last minutes, but was probably no more than ten seconds or so. Her helmet display reported that all was okay and she wasn’t injured and was deflating the protective suit. As the suit deflated she regained her footing and assessed her situation. She was perfectly unharmed but the bike was a long way off and almost certainly unfixable. She felt the drugs start to wear off but this was always the time her training had warned her about. The initial attack then you have to look for the second wave, She was about to remove the helmet to start the walk back to the bike when the threat detection system in the helmet - normally used whilst riding to highlight vulnerable pedestrians, other road users and potential hazards - warned her of a pedestrian heading towards her. The helmet enlarged the image around this person and she noticed he whoever he was was carrying a small machine gun.
Suddenly it all clicked into place, she had heard about this: While the Habitat had had almost all convicted criminals shipped to it, not all the undesirable elements of society had been so conveniently disposed of, or some criminals had just made their way back to Earth once they had reached the Habitat, after all the Habit was insistent that it wasn’t a prison and while it would keep people from harming each other it would not force anyone to stay. Whilst a now mostly unpopulated Earth made for an unattractive environment for most criminals there were still niches. Despite the availability of any number of distractions on the Habitat, rape and other personal assault crimes were considered the worst crimes and were about the only crimes that actual punishment existed for. For those who simulations of the act were not sufficient had taken to returning to Earth and finding the real thing. For them the risk reward ratio was fairly beneficial. They normally got to set up small fiefdoms filling in for the lack of local law enforcement and then prey on those who came through their territory as it appeared Malka had just done. She’d been present at a number of meetings with the remaining Earth military about what to do about these groups. The overwhelming urge had been to take out these militants, even use them as a useful training exercise. However given that they had often taken the place of local law enforcement, then removing them would just leave another power vacuum. The distinguishing features between a concerned group of civilians who had taken to force of arms to protect themselves and a roving band of petty criminals was surprisingly hard to tell as an outsider.
Her training kicking in she dropped flat to the floor. In the featureless environment there was no cover to be had so she flattened herself against the sand. Reaching down to her belt was the gun she still habitually kept there. The helmet picked out a total of three hostiles and she mentally prioritised them based on distance to her and weaponry. She left it on the auto targeting function as she aimed at the first person running towards her. She fired and saw the figure running towards her go tumbling down to the ground. Again she aimed at the next and they tumbled down too. The third drew their own weapon again they went down.
That seemed a little too easy she thought. Still it was probably untrained thugs against the latest military personal gun. She warily got to her feet and crossed over to each of the downed individuals. The first was down with a light arm injury and cursing in a language Malka didn’t understand, the second however was cursing in a language Malka well recognised, again the injuries were light, the none lethal mode on the targeting was working well she noted absent mindedly. Still it left her wondering what she should do with them. The third however was much more communicative. The last to be shot and currently the most injured, what was supposed to be a similar light shot had badly damaged his lower right leg, possibly hitting an artery. This was the furthest target though so it wasn’t surprising the gun was less accurate. Malka pulled off her helmet and went in with what first aid she knew to try and stem the blood loss.
“You stupid bitch” shouted the prone man.
Malka ignored him and took his leg to examine the wound. “Pardon? That’s no way to treat someone who is trying to help you.”
“I could say the same to you you fucking moron.”
She ripped of a section of the man’s clothing to form a tourniquet “You were the ones who put the booby trap on the road and knocked me off”
“No we were the ones who were guarding that booby trap. The thing is rigged so that we can’t remove it. If you hadn’t been speeding like a fucking lunatic, what the shit is wrong with your vehicle that it doesn’t react to the speed limit.”
Malka thought to the lack of automatics that had probably meant she wasn’t following the speed limits. “You’re saying the booby trap was not yours?”
The man winced as the tourniquet was pulled tight “No, well it’s our responsibility to guard it and warn people.”
“Then why were you shooting at me?”
“We never fired a shot, you were the one doing all the shooting”
Malka paused in thought. Had she fired the first shot? She had certainly seen someone advancing on her just after she had been attacked and whilst in a vulnerable position had lashed out “You’re bound to say that to cover yourselves.” But she suddenly wasn’t sure
“Fuck you, do you think we hang around here in this arsehole of a place for the fun of it?”
“That’s exactly why you’re more likely to be here to exploit other people.” She sat back to look at him in front of her. Did he look like a guardian or a thug. He certainly had the physical build of a thug used to forcing his way where he wanted. Still he could also be said to have the build of a good soldier.
“That your military training telling you that? No wonder humans made this place such a shit-hole.”
Malka carried on trying to look at this man in front of her. He was reasonably well built, tanned from the time out in the desert but his voice had an odd European, possibly French, tang to it. “I’ll call for help okay, I’m not sure what passes for law enforcement around here but I can get a relief team here soon enough.” She thumbed a few buttons on her belt.
“What the hell are you doing here anyway? The military normally leaves us alone, happy to let us stew in our own problems.”
“Let me know which particular warlord we should support. Look check your history, external powers forcing their beliefs on others doesn’t normally end well. I refuse to be a part of forcing anyone’s beliefs on others.”
“If they don’t like it they can just leave for the Habitat right?”
“Something like that” said Malka somewhat guiltily.
“Ah you remember that little war I see.”
“It was significant enough that I don’t know who doesn’t.”
“A surprising number actually.”
They both sat in contemplation for a while. The man gave up first “Shouldn’t you or I check my friends”
“I did, they’re fine”
“Yes that gun of yours must be quite good.”
“I don’t trust the automatics for a kill, but they’re good at this none lethal stuff.
“I should be glad you had that turned on”
“I actually forgot to turn it off”
“I’ll take my blessing where I can. So anyway you never asked me my name”
“No I didn’t”
“And you’re not going to?”
“If you like.”
“I still haven’t asked”
“Well it’s still Dirk. So what’s yours then?”
“Oh I assumed from your attitude you were more of a Captain than a private”
Malka sighed in an aggravated manner “Fine, just call be Malka, and I am a Captain”
“Well Private Captain Malka I’d like to say it’s good to meet you, but if it was good you wouldn’t have shot me”
She laughed a little at this “Help should be here soon.”
“Hypersonic carrier, probably launched from south Italy. Should be here in less than ten minutes anyway.”
“And then what?”
“And then they help you and I leave you.”
“After nearly killing us and possibly crippling us you’re just going to leave?”
“You think it’s safe to keep me around?”
“For us, no but I don’t want you doing this to anyone else.”
“I think I might just use this as an excuse to go home.”
“Well, by superior officer set up this trip for me, I think she thinks I’ve lost contact with the world”
“And possibly crippling people who were trying to help you in your first random encounter with civilians in a while has convinced you what? That you’re not safe, or that your commander was wrong? Because if it’s the first then I’ll definitely agree with you there”
Malka smiled, “No that it was the wrong thing for me to do”
“Might as well make it three wrong things”
“Let’s just get you sorted out” Malka looked to the sky “Ah speak of the devil”
The carrier aircraft had already passed overhead the sonic bombs yet to be heard. The carrier craft had dropped a smaller aircraft that was now gliding down to meet them. Braking rapidly and deploying parachutes which it shortly retracted just before using vectored jet thrust to land on the nearby road.
The doors on the small rounded cuboid craft opened and three people jumped out brandishing small assault rifles. Sweeping the area they homed in on Malka.
“It’s okay” she said. “get help for him and the others over there”
They silently waved to each other and split up as three paramedics came out of the landing craft. Two of them started attending to Dirk, the final one went to see to the other two injured people.
“Nice operation” commented Dirk “i suppose I’ll get the bill for this later?”
“No” said Malka
“Ah, then it’s our tax dollars at work again.”
“Just shut up and let them strap you up” Malka turned to the medic “How is it?”
“Not bad” she replied “Strapped it up, just grazed the artery, got some subdermal agents working. He’ll be fine”
“Need to take him away to the hospital?”
“It’s borderline, I’d like to to be safe,” she turned to Dirk “but it’s up to you.”
“Home” came his only reply
“Got any transport to get you home, or do you need a lift?”
Dirk turned to Malka “You can drive a car can’t you” Malka didn’t even reply she just looked at him “Okay then yes I have a lift home”