Charles sped across the desert sands, kicking up a small wake of dust as he went. His head was low, and his eyes scanned frantically across the landscape, looking for anything he could use to his advantage against his pursuers. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that he had six figures on his tail, slowly gaining on him. He could easily leave them in the dust, but that would be counterintuitive.
He had very nearly lost his nerve when he saw Lana on the back of that carriage. He couldn’t imagine what she was doing there, or what Vince was thinking dragging a civilian right into the thick of their rivalry. Seeing her there had shifted his mission. He couldn’t just retrieve the seeds. He had to keep her safe as well. She had shown a lot of resourcefulness when he first met up with the Rogues, and he was sure she’d find a way to keep herself out of harm’s way, but just in case he’d given her his sidearm. While this made her exponentially more capable of defending herself, it left him with no means of attacking his opponents.
Charles glanced over his shoulder again. They were even closer now. He had to resist the urge to crank up his speed. If he lost them they would just go back to the carriage, and he couldn’t let that happen. He could beat them to the carriage, but then he’d either need to abandon the seeds and only save Lana or cart both Lana and the carriage of seeds back to Dustridge at a much lower speed. Some quick mental math told him that the Rogues would catch him before he could get to town. He had to deal with them, and he had to do it now. Unfortunately, the only weapons he had were his own body, his mount, and the environment around him.
That’s when it hit him. Some ways to his right there was a canyon. It was pretty narrow by Earth standards, only about twenty meters wide, but it was exceptionally deep, and it formed a steep ridge down as if someone had dragged a massive upside-down isosceles triangle through the ground. A human was unlikely to survive falling in. When he’d been chasing down the carriage his main goal was to make sure they wouldn’t reach that canyon, since the Rogues’ encampment was on the other side. With the Rogues guarding the bridge his only way back would be blocked, and while he was sure he could get himself through their defenses, the same couldn’t be said for the seeds that his town needed so desperately.
Charles wasn’t the only one affected by the Rogues’ defenses, however. The bridge they had constructed was rickety at best, purposely built to be easy to destroy in case they had to prevent anyone from the town from reaching them. This was a double-edged blade, however, since it also prevented them from reaching the town, and Charles was preparing to swing that metaphorical blade with all of his might.
Throwing his hovercycle into minus three Charles whipped around, using the added torque to make an extremely tight U-turn. The moment he was stable he threw his speed back up, all the way to three. Within seconds he blasted past his pursuers, who barely had time to react. He could hear them cursing and shouting as he shot past, but he paid them no mind. He had more important things to worry about. His trajectory shifted, curving gently to the left as he took a wide turn. To an observer, it seemed like he planned on going in a massive circle. The Rogues chasing after him attempted to cut the corner, intent on making up for the ground he’d made them lose. Charles’ course straightened out, however, and the Rogues were forced to adjust course yet again, costing them precious meters.
The Rogues, blinded with indignation, chased after Charles. None of them even bothered thinking about where they were chasing him too, which was exactly what Charles had planned. He knew Vince was hot-headed, and wouldn’t let his toying with them slide. The Rogues began gaining ground again as Charles lowered his speed. He couldn’t afford to get too far ahead, lest one of them get a chance to think.
Charles was directing himself with vague memories. Ideally, he would be making a beeline for the bridge, but he’d only been there once before, and it had been a long time ago. He hoped the bridge would at least be in sight when he reached the canyon, otherwise, he would have to mentally flip a coin and rely on his luck to decide which direction the bridge was in. He didn’t like the idea of relying on luck, but it seemed like he might not have another choice. In the distance, he made out the crack in the ground that was his target. It was still too far away to really make out any details, but soon he’d have to make do with what visual information he could get and choose a direction.
Charles took a deep breath, pushing down the nervousness that had been building up inside him ever since his talk with the mayor. The hopes of the town rested squarely on his shoulders, and he wasn’t about to disappoint them. He scanned his field of view, looking for any hint of the bridge. The gentle bumps and dips in the terrain were just big enough to obscure parts of his view. He knew he needed to find some high ground. Unfortunately, desserts aren’t exactly known for their rolling landscapes. There was only one other way he could think of to gain altitude, and it was incredibly risky. Charles wanted to avoid it if he could.
He looked behind him again. The gap between him and the Rogues had closed enough for Charles to make out the snarl twisting Vince’s face. His cybernetic arm still dangled at his side. It would be useless until they managed to repair it. That gave Charles some confidence. At the speeds they were going Vince couldn’t afford to take his only working hand off the steering, so he couldn’t fire potshots at Charles. The other Rogues had no such hangups, but they were also much less adept at riding and shooting than either Charles or Vince. As they drew close enough to fire on Charles, he increased his speed again, pulling away from them. He tried to maintain this distance, just far enough that they wouldn’t bother wasting their ammunition.
It was a good start, Charles knew he needed to do something more, and he needed to do it quick. They were heading straight for the canyon, and at this rate, they would plummet into it. He was still searching for any sign of the bridge, but he couldn’t see anything of use in front of him. When he glanced back behind him, however, he got more than enough information. The Rogues had changed formation, spreading out to his right as if they were trying to herd him towards something, or, more likely, away from something. Charles threw the throttle up to four and rocketed forward, piloting his hovercycle in a long and graceful arc until he was moving parallel to the canyon, now only about a hundred meters away. The Rogues tried all they could to cut him off, but the superior speed of his mount made it difficult for them to keep up, let alone overtake him.
Charles felt like he had this race in the bag. He was much faster than the Rogues. Even if they tricked him into turning the wrong way, he could just do another tight U-turn and rocket the other way. The only thing it would cost him was time. He was certain that by sundown he would be back in town, with the Rogues’ stolen seeds and hostage in hand. In his certainty, however, he made a mistake. He let the Rogues gain just a little too much ground. A shot rang out, and the small display built into Charle’s hovercycle immediately glowed red as several warnings popped up.
“Shit!” Charles cursed, ratcheting his speed down. The shot had done damage to the auxiliary systems that allowed him to push his bike to greater speeds. He could still use it, but the odds of it failing critically were exponentially higher now, and, as discussed before, if one of the components of his hovercycle failed critically he would probably not survive.
At his lower speed, the Rogues easily closed the remaining distance. They overtook him on his right and formed a half-circle around him. His left side was wide open, but there was a canyon with a dizzying drop in that direction. Charles racked his mind for possible ways to escape.
“Not so tough now, are ya Sherrif?” Vince shouted from Charles’ right. In response, Charles just flipped him the bird. He quickly retracted the arm when a shot and searing pain ripped across hit. A quick glance told him a bolt from one of the two Rogues behind him had grazed his arm. It wasn’t a serious wound, but it highlighted the biggest danger of his current situation. He was well within shooting range, and unlike him, the Rogues didn’t seem to have any qualms about killing.
“Why are you so hellbent on destroying the town?” Charles yelled at Vince. He didn’t expect a straight answer, but he hoped that if he was talking they wouldn’t shoot him.
“You know damn-well why,” Vince shouted back. “After all that town had cost me, you should be thankful I haven’t burned it all to the ground.”
“What a gentleman you are,” Charles said. He was going to continue his line of questioning when his goal finally came into view. Beyond the Rogues, to his front, he could see the ramshackle bridge they had clobbered together. On the far side of it stood two more figures, guarding it against any unwanted entrants. Charles could feel relief and determination wash over him in equal measure. He had found his way out of this situation, now he just had to survive long enough to get there. He glanced back at the small monitor built into his hovercycle. By the looks of it, the components he’d installed for greater torque weren’t damaged.
“This is the end of the line, Sheriff!” Vince shouted. “We ain’t gonna let you get away from us this time.”
“Oh yeah?” Charles shot back. “Let’s see about that!”
With that he swerved hard to his left, rapidly closing the distance between himself and the canyon. He could hear Vince curse and order his cronies to lay chase and not let him get ahead of them. That was fine. Charles wasn’t planning on outrunning them anymore. As he closed in on the canyon Vince also closed in on him, much more rapidly than Charles had expected. Before he could react Vince crashed into his side, sending him sailing a couple more meters to the left. That’s when the severe drawback of his plan dawned on him.
Charles was going to be right next to the canyon, practically a sitting duck for them to ram into the almost certainly life-ending drop. He felt like slapping himself for not thinking about that possibility. As another shot rang past his ear, he forgave himself for being preoccupied. He lowered his head and tried weaving to make himself a harder target, but Vince crashed into his side again, sending him sailing even closer to the edge. Much more of this, and he would be too close to execute the tight turn onto the bridge he was planning.
Another shot, this one causing a brief flash of pain on Charles’ shoulder. They were getting closer and closer to seriously injuring him. He felt like he was within spitting distance of the bridge, but it wouldn’t be enough. He could already see Vince rearing up for another ram out of the corner of his eye. This one would almost certainly send him over the edge, and even if it didn’t the time it took him to recover would make him a still target. He glanced back down at the warnings on the tiny display, then up to the rickety bridge. An idea came to him, one he instantly hated, but committed to nonetheless.
Vince swerved his hovercycle to the left. It was an inelegant attack, but with one of his arms out of commission, it was the most he could manage. His boys would pick Charles off if he himself couldn’t finish the job. He crashed into Charles one last time, the momentum of the impact sending him gliding to the left. For just a moment it looked like Charles might regain his control, but before he could he went over the edge of the canyon, into a steep drop. Vince immediately slowed down and turned onto the bridge. Seeing his greatest rival so unceremoniously be undone didn’t sit well with him. As much as he would deny it, Vince didn’t like killing, and while he didn’t like Charles, he still had some amount of respect for him. He resisted looking into the canyon. He knew he couldn’t see the bottom, as the sun was slowly beginning to set. Even if he could, he wouldn’t want to see the corpse of a man he’d once called a friend.
The other Rogues all followed Vince across the bridge. They stopped on the other side and dismounted their hovercycles. They glanced around for a moment, feeling slightly uneasy. The fight had ended so suddenly in what was a very unsatisfying anticlimax. Their adrenaline was still pumping, but now they had nowhere to direct it.
“Is that it?” one of them asked.
“Boys, go get them seeds,” Vince ordered. He turned to them with a severe scowl on his face. “And one of you take that girl back to town, and if I ever find out which of you took her you’ll be joining the Sheriff down at the bottom…” he trailed off as he heard a dull thud. He winced, thinking that it must have been the Sheriff hitting the bottom of the canyon. His wince turned to a frown as he pondered how long it took the Sheriff to fall down. The canyon was deep, but not that deep. A faint hum greeted his ears, and his eyes widened. He spun around and drew his gun, but he was a second too slow.
As Charles went over the edge, he wondered what had possessed him to think of this insane idea. He immediately began falling, and it took nearly all the strength in his legs to keep him anchored to the hovercycle. He quickly lowered the throttle to minus five, giving him maximum torque. He toyed with the steering and speed, relying on gut-feel physics to get his angle right. It took less than a second for him to wind up parallel to the ridge of the canyon, but it felt like an eternity. His downward speed was still increasing, but now he could use that to his advantage. He threw the throttle forward all the way to five. This was risky even without damaged systems, but he didn’t have much of a choice. He threw every ounce of speed the bike could muster into this charge and began steering upwards.
His descent slowed, and soon he was slowly gaining altitude again. All the while his forward speed increased. He repeatedly switched between maximum speed and maximum torque, turning his forward momentum into upward momentum. Once he was halfway back up the canyon wall he abandoned torque and threw everything the bike had into speed. He moved at a roughly forty-five-degree angle to the ground. After a few moments, his bike let out an echoing boom as one of the internal components gave out. He could feel the loss of power, but by now he could reach the top on momentum alone. Whatever little speed he could force out of the bike would be enough for the rest.
Charles crested the brim of the canyon, his trajectory sending him colliding straight with the bridge. It shattered as his bike plowed through it. Vince tried to get a clear shot at Charles, but the shower of timber and the cacophony of the collapsing bridge made it hard to get a read on him. Charles only barely managed to land on solid ground, and immediately began speeding away from the canyon. He brought the throttle all the way down to zero. It was a miracle that whatever component had failed hadn’t taken his life with it. He wasn’t going to chance anymore, so he cruised forward at the bike’s unmodified top speed. Behind him, he could hear Vince shouting. A single shot rang past his head and kicked up a small cloud of dust ahead of him, but Charles paid it no mind. If they were going to shoot him, there was nothing he could do about it. To his surprise, however, no more shots rang out.
The rest of his trek was relatively uneventful. With minimal searching, he’d found the carriage, with Lana still waiting inside it, brandishing his gun. He tied the carriage to his hovercycle and towed it back to town, the trip taking much longer as he exchanged his speed for the power he needed to haul the weight. As he pulled into town, he found it quiet. A faint din came from the Saloon, but aside from that, the town seemed exactly as he had left it. The only bit of fanfare he received was when Pat, along with three girls he immediately recognized as Lana’s sisters, came storming out of the bank. The girls swarmed Lana, hugging, crying, and making sure she was alright. Charles took a moment to smile at the heartwarming sight, before turning to Pat.
“Sorry that took so long, Pat,” he said. “We got all of it here, though two of the bags have some damage to them. They didn’t lose any seeds, but the material’s not really fit for reuse.”
“I’m just glad you and the Newman girl are safe,” Pat said. “When her sisters came and told me they couldn’t find her, and that Old Man Richards never got his seeds, I immediately figured out what happened. It was all I could do to prevent those three from going after her themselves.”
“Yeah, family will do that to you,” Charles said, turning back to the girls.
“You said two bags got damaged?” Pat asked, prompting an explanation.
“Yep,” Charles replied. “Lana took out two of the Rogues with ‘em.” Pat let out a low whistle, before laughing.
“Looks like you may have found that deputy you’ve been looking for then,” Pat said, slapping Charles on the shoulder.
“Maybe,” Charles said. “Though I don’t know how I’ll convince Harvey of that.”
“I know exactly how,” Pat said. “With a stiff drink. Help me unpack these, and then we can head over to the saloon.”
“Sure thing, Pat.”