With the Free Riders of Stanton, I wanted to have a relaxing ride. It was everything but relaxed.
It was a typical cold Microtech night. I stood at the open cargo ramp and looked out into the darkness. In the sky, the stars twinkled. On the ground, ice and snow crystals glistened in the light of the spotlights. The White Rabbit stood in front of the garages of the New Babbage Interstellar Spaceport. After my nerve-wracking missions at Orison and on the Reclaimer, I desperately needed to relax. I had arranged to meet the Free Riders of Stanton to ride the hoverbikes along the river to its source.
Doerek was the first to arrive. And he didn’t come empty handed. He had his hover quad packed full of drinks and food. I was surprised how many bottles of Schmolz could be packed into the quad. Shortly after, Valentin Benz appeared. His Drake Dragonfly just fit next to the other two hoverbikes in my Star Runner.
Skeptically I looked at the cargo hold. ” That’s going to be tight with the fourth bike.”
“No shit. Right cross in the back. It’ll be fine,” Valentin warbled in his inimitably cheerful way.
“Where’s that fourth guy, that Ray Keaton?” I couldn’t remember ever meeting Ray. But I had read an announcement from him. He was looking for S71 rifles. I had found one in an outpost and brought it with me.
“Ray is a fine fellow. I know him very well.” Valentin seemed downright excited about Ray.
“I brought a gun he wants to buy.”
Doerek seemed visibly irritated. “What do you mean? Are you doing gun business? I liked your bazaar. There were no guns for sale there.”
“Ray’s running a little late. Come on, let’s get a drink started. Let’s go, lift those bottles.”
Valentin raised his Schmoltz in the air. There was a loud clink as our bottles collided in the air.
Finally, Ray Keaton arrived in a Cutlass Black. The Cutlass was black with a few red spots. Emblazoned on the front side wing was a large skull with two crossed swords. Who the hell was this guy? Was the paint job on his Cutlass just a gimmick or a statement? A statement of his beliefs? Something inside me warned me to be careful. But I had to admit one thing to myself. The Cutlass looked damn good.
After Ray parked his Dragonfly in my cargo hold, he looked at me wordlessly. It was a strange look that just pierced me. Something was off with this guy. But not just with the guy. The whole situation was strange. Downright chilling. I walked into the cockpit with a strange feeling. A feeling that told me that this trip would not have a good end. Restlessness and tension spread through me.
When we reached the lake where the river ended, it was already light. We were in a beautiful green-brown landscape with many coniferous trees. Snow-capped mountains could be seen in the distance. The place was perfect for relaxing. But relaxation did not want to come. After the hoverbikes were unloaded, Valentin raced through the area and fired the gun of his Dragonfly. I desperately searched for my good helmet and eventually took the cheap spare helmet. Ray remained silent.
But then he broke his silence. “Your Dragonfly looks good in that yellow.”
Surprised, I looked at Ray. Was he thawing out? Just as I was about to say something, I heard the whistle of bullets. Then it went black around me. Everything was gone, only voices remained in my head. Voices from far away. One was the voice of Valentin.
“Ray, Zero. Are you all right. I was shooting in your direction. Didn’t mean to hit you.”
“Zero is on the ground. He’s not moving.”
“Oh shit. I didn’t mean to do that. Ray, there’s a medi-tool on Zero’s belt. See if you can use it to get him back in shape.”
The blackness around me grew lighter. My head hurt terribly. Slowly I sat up. My vision was blurred and riddled with blood. Ray was waving the medi-tool in front of my nose. Unable to think clearly, I took the tool from him. As if in a trance, I set it to auto mode and gave myself a high dose of medication. A very high dose. Suddenly I could see clearly again. But my thoughts were not clear. It was a feeling like being under drugs.
Almost drunk, I swung myself onto my Dragonfly and flew off. I didn’t care that I had just been shot. I felt good, very good. The grass slid under me. The trees flew by sideways. It was great. At some point I realized I had been flying in the wrong direction. A comment about poor navigation was heard on the radio. I didn’t care about that either.
Eventually we reached the lake and flew upstream. After a while I spotted a settlement on the left shore. Or what was left of it. A tower, several buildings, walls. It all seemed to be somewhat dilapidated. My spirit of discovery was aroused. What were these buildings? Who had lived here? I wanted to take a closer look. But then I heard Valentin’s frantic voice on the radio.
“Ray is gone. Have you seen Ray?”
“I just saw him hit a rock. Then he was gone.” Doerek sounded a little perplexed.
I rolled my eyes and flew back to the others. So no exploring a settlement for now. What a mess. After a few meters, Valentin was already coming towards me on the river.
“Oh what the heck. Ray is probably already sitting in Grim Hex and drinking. If he crashed, he’s regenerated there. Come on, let’s keep flying.”
Valentin raced past me. But he didn’t get far. His Dragonfly suddenly turned into a ball of fire. First the water reflected the glow of the flames, then the river swallowed the remains.
Shaking my head, I flew to the shore and landed. What was this crazy mob? I wondered if there was any hope for Valentin. Without thinking, I rushed into the water and searched for him. I found his body at the bottom of the river. With difficulty I pulled him to the shore and laid him on the ground between colorful flowers.
Doerek was already waiting for us. In a last attempt I pointed the medi-tool at Valentin. Nothing happened. It did not work. A red X was visible on the display. I looked helplessly at Doerek. He took Valentin’s helmet off. Blood was visible. It was flowing down right in front of my eyes. But it was not Valentin’s blood. It was my blood. My head injury had burst open. Desperately, I pressed the medi-tool against my arm. With a hiss, another dose of medicine poured into my body. It was too much. The overdose was affecting my cognition and coordination. My knees went weak. Only with difficulty could I keep on my feet.
I don’t remember how, but somehow we managed to get Valentin into the White-Rabbit and fly to New Babbage. The last thing I remembered was a brightly lit room where I was lying on a hospital bed. In front of the room, Valentin was lying on the floor. Behind him was the White-Rabbit in a large hall. Doerek stood at the doorway and pressed a button. Then it went dark.
The next day I had woken up in the hospital. After our return, Doerek had taken me to the hangar’s emergency room. I was able to leave the hospital fully recovered. Ray and Valentin were also well. They had saved their Imprint on Grim Hex and had regenerated there in the clinic after the crash. The attempts to save Valentin had been useless. Doerek and I had only dragged his empty shell around. We could have saved ourselves the effort. This Imprint technology was a disturbing thing.
A little tired, I stood in the White-Rabbit’s lounge. There were beer bottles all over the place. The guys had been partying pretty hard while I had flown us to the lake. And that’s exactly where I wanted to go back to now. I wanted to go on a little expedition and take a look at the old derelict settlement by the river.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)