If a Blasted Bastard threatens to give you the needle, take him seriously.____Qwerty Le Keyboard, Struggles in the Blasted Lands.
Morning dawned with a brilliant purple and gold sunrise. Long shadows threw their surroundings into stark relief, making a ten foot deep crater look like thirty. A stray bush became a lurking raider with an anti-armor rifle.
They moved out slowly. Smackie had explained that his lead vehicle, the Coy, stood for Decoy. It looked larger, though that was mostly illusion, and also towed any prize cargo such as the solarchem car.
The Pin was short for Rolling Pin, a much more heavily armed unit which did most of the actual fighting. Stranga Steel armor plate of equal density turtle-shelled both units, but weapons plus ammo took up much of the available space inside the Pin. The Coy sported only a single top-mount swivel gun in forty caliber and a rack of hand weapons for the occupants.
The Pin was something else.
First, as the Seeder had noted immediately, were the needle gun ports. These ringed the boxy machine on all sides, capable of producing a fire rate of ten thousand Bander flechettes per minute. The only blind spots were within eighteen inches of the attack vehicle along the sides, twenty-four inches at the corners, and a narrow cone at top center which measured some thirty-seven inches in diameter at its base.
In Bander’s patented super-compressed needle quiver packets, a design pirated by Blasted Lands engineers some decades ago, nearly a million needles could be carried without sacrificing a great deal of cab space. These were extremely effective against unarmored human beings…though absolutely worthless when faced with even an eighth of an inch of steel.
Where armor piercing capability was needed, they used an Akson two inch cannon mounted front and center in the style of early tanks and track mounted artillery pieces. The big banger was limited to one round every seven seconds, but its explosive warheads could take out other Rollers without a second thought.
Yet neither these weapons nor the coveted solarchem engines were the true genius of BL Rollers. Unret Adjine received most of the credit in myth and legend, though he’d hardly worked alone. Where the roller meets the road–or, rather, the lack of road–therein lay the secret. Steering looked, from inside the unit, much like the standard arrangement for any old school passenger vehicle: Turn the wheel, head in that direction. Nothing to it.
However, it was a different matter once you went below the cab flooring. Between that floor and the “true floor” some six inches lower, unseen hydraulic pistons lifted and lowered high traction rollers beneath the (big R) Roller. To effect a turn, some rollers lifted away from the Earth’s surface while others pushed downward onto that same surface. Each and every roller power-rotated horizontally to propel the vehicle, but none of them pivoted on any vertical axis.
Automotive engineers, Outlanders that is, could not seem to figure out how the Blasteds made the blasted things work, yet work they did.
A Roller could not be high centered, this due to the lack of any recessed undercarriage. Magazine articles and holo commentaries swore the things must break down constantly, jammed by fine particles of rock and other foreign matter sucked up by the (little r) rollers. Constant clogging, doncha know.
Despite that “expert” evaluation, Smackie and Boomer both swore a BL Roller was virtually maintenance free if made right in the first place. Sven’s mechanical curiosity was getting the better of him, but that would have to wait.
They had priorities, and tearing down an APC in the middle of Indian Country was not one of them.
In midafternoon, as they were passing a beautiful, green field of crops that contrasted sharply with the more usual series of craters and jagged tree snags, Sven gave the order to release Smackie from his bonds. It turned out to be a good thing he did, although Phelps himself advised them to leave Boomer securely bound in the Coy.
“Boomie,” he told them, “Feels I’ve lost face. I’m quite frankly glad to still have a face, but–I can sraighten him out, but not till you folks are long gone and I have some time alone with the boy.”
Just one blind corner later, the road they’d been following ended abruptly, plunging the Rollers, car laden trailer and all, into a crater some twenty feet deep and maybe fifty feet across. The crater walls were not steep enough to be a real problem, but the depth was just about perfect for setting up an ambush.
There were dead center in the bowl, crossing through the deepest part, when the raiders popped up on the rims to left and right.
“Gimme the wheel!” Smackie yelled.
Sven didnt’ argue. The Rolling Pin was the Blasted Bastard’s baby after all. He ought to know what he was doing.
He did. Bullets spanged off the armored hull as the APC let out a roar worthy of an enraged lion, charging the right side wall with unbelievable acceleration. What the Hell did this thing have under the hood?!
The din was deafening, a combination that felt to the Jensens a bit like being stuck up a rocket’s butt with a street band on speed playing steel drums. At the crater’s lip, the boxy tanklet hesitated, nearly running out of momentum. For a split second, it seemed they might topple back into the crater, end over end.
Nasty thought, that.
Then it steadied, settled back level, and darted along the line of ambushers with a ferocious clatter.
The noise came not from the machine itself but from enemy metal shields being smashed under the Rolling Pin, thankfully covering most of the screams coming from crushed human bodies…not to mention those meatier, full-splat sounds as dozens of bodies became off-road kill. A flick of Smackie’s left hand, and the rear needle gun launched thousands of deadly flechettes back along the way they had come.
This side was clear.
Not so the other. On the far rim, a mobile artillery gun known as an Eraser was positioned behind a massive steel shield some three inches thick. Sven recognized it from military history textbooks…and Erasers were hard to kill. Its offensive capability was considerable, too, easily penetrating even Jovian tank armor.
The only vulnerability was its slow rate of fire, just three Crowd Crusher rounds per minute. It had just wasted a shot at the Coy.
Pete was at that wheel, Boomer still restrained and no doubt cussing a blue streak. Fortunately, the tall young African American had the combat instincts of an inner city street warrior born and bred. The Coy had zigged, leaving the Eraser round’s smoking signature rising from the Earth to his right–a miss of nearly ten feet.
Smooth as a striking cobra, Smackie Phelps spun the Pin into alignment and triggered the Akson without pausing to aim–or so it seemed to the uneducated eye. The Pin rocked back, jolted by the recoil. On the crater’s far lip, the Eraser erupted in a fireball. Not so hard to kill after all…if you had an Akson handy.
It was over. The Eraser had been erased.
Smackie calmly tipped the Pin back over the edge, rolling down to join the Coy. Kate was shaking her head, holding her hands over her ears, her eyes staring straight ahead into nothingness. The Seeder kept an eye on her, murmering a few soothing words every now and then.
It took her nearly twenty minutes to return to the “real” world.
Two days later, they arrived at the western edge of the Blasted Lands near the Indiana border. Boomer, finally untied after Smackie got him to promise to be good, stayed with the Pin while everyone else loaded into the Coy for an Outland run to Richmond.
“They’re not real fond of us in town,” Smackie informed his passengers, “But they don’t bother us as long as we don’t bring in a heavy shooter like the Pin. The locals are pretty sharp; their cops definitely know the difference between one Roller and another. They have a National Guard unit stationed just a few miles to the north, and they’ll scramble a chopper–usually a Bug Squasher–if we spook ’em too much. My great uncle got Squashed, back before the Unwritten Agreements were in place.”
He dropped them at Billy’s Flycars and Grounders, One Thousand Vehicles On The Lot But We Don’t Charge A Lot, then headed back home.
Three careful sunrises after that, the Sandfire bunch topped a rise and looked down on their own home. Tonopoah. The moment those wonderful, familiar sights and sounds in the Sandfire Glass building closed joyously around them, Kate began to cry uncontrollably with relief and sheer, unmitigated joy.
None of the others, either those who had gone or those who had stayed, blamed her one bit. Truth be told, the only truly dry eyes among the Inner Circle members belonged to the cats…who eventually made up for everything by purring on top of their sleeping humans for most of thirty-seven straight hours.
At which point the intercom chimed in friendly but insistent fashion.
“Rise and shine, sleepyheads,” Ben Boulder’s cheerful voice informed them. “Sandfire meeting in three hours.”
Sven flipped the intercom switch to acknowledge, than sat on the edge of the bed for a long moment, thinking. Ben was the one who had taken charge of the Sorter, chips, and manuals acquired from the Guild Data Room.
He must have found something of interest.