The Old Way

"Our luck's gonna' run out sooner or later, Bast... it's just a matter of time."

Lucy Mercier's voice cut through the din of the mag-train as it sped towards its final destination. Sebastian Ford flicked his eyes toward his companion. In the dim light of her integrated flashlight he could see her cheek beginning to swell, a few strands of her tawny hair were stuck with blood where the cut spread under the freckles just below her right eye. At the pair's feet lay the deputy who'd stumbled across them.

"Well then," said Sebastian. "Let's just be glad it ain't today."

With a crooked grin he holstered his coil pistol.

"You really are loving this, aren't you?"

"You mean a train job, and sticking it to the CSA? What's not to love?"

Lucy's cobalt eyes narrowed.

"Whatever. Let's just open the damned roof."

Sebastian nodded and chewed the air for a second before turning his attention to the device left lying on the floor at the other side of the carriage. The darkness of the cargo hold was complete but for the few bullet holes in the wall and a weak blue light coming from Lucy's hand. It was difficult to discern anything other than vague shapes, but she and Bast had done this before.

With the flick of a button an orange glow began to scare away the dark. On the ceiling above Basts head a halo of light appeared. As the disc grew brighter the heat became noticeable. Sebastian stepped away from the device. Moments passed and a circle of smouldering metal dropped out from the ceiling. Pale starlight flooded into the railcar and the pair got to work searching for their prize.

"We have a winner," said Lucy after a time. The metal fingers of her right hand tapped against the heavy steel case as she waited for her partner in crime to join her. He found a handle and the pair heaved the container off the shelf. With a heavy thunk, they dropped it beneath the hole in the ceiling. Bathed in silvery starlight, the sheriff's star was just visible on the side of the case. Lucy pulled a two-way radio from the breast pocket of her field jacket and began to transmit.

"Cheyenne, this is French. We're ready. Do your thing."

"All in record time. Good work French. I've got Freya en route. You're still a little ways out from the ship."

Lucy let out a frustrated tut when Sebastian snatched the radio from her hand.

"Cheyenne, we ran into a little colour down here. We're gonna' need lifting too."

"Shit, Bast." Cheyenne let out a deep sigh over the radio. "Freya can't handle the two of you and the guns."

"Don't you have any more drones?"

"What, do you think they grow on trees? Of course I don't."

For a few moments a silence fell over the cargo hold, only broken by the rushing air and gentle humming of the mag-train as it drew nearer and nearer to the terminus.

"Look," Cheyenne spoke up over the radio. "Freya can grab one of you at a time. If you can handle waiting just a while longer, I can lift the guns and come back for you. She should be above you in a few moments."

Sure enough, the air began to fill with the whirring of drone propellers. Lucy and Bast looked towards the ceiling hole in unison. The silhouette of the remote flying machine slowly obscured the stars above while a magnetic clamp descended into the railcar. Sebastian stood the case on its end as Lucy used her human arm to attach it to the magnet.

"We're good to go, Cheyenne," Lucy said, after taking the radio back from Sebastian.

"So I see. Stand back."

The sounds of the propellers grew in intensity as the drone compensated for the newfound weight. In a few moments the steel case rose into the air to be spirited away. Sebastian grinned at his companion, face pale white in the starlight. Lucy rolled her eyes.

"What'd I tell you? Easy money."

"Easy?" She gestured at the body that still lay on the floor.

Bast waved his hand and dismissed the comment.

"A minor hiccup. We're home free."

"It ain't over until we're off this train and back in the black, Bast."

Lucy folded her arms and leant back against a rack filled with suitcases. Cybernetic fingers drummed against the taut muscles of her biceps. In the dimness of the carriage, the olive green of her jacket was difficult to distinguish, though her blue jeans and white shirt stood out against the shadows.

Before too long the whining of Freya's propellers drifted in from the hatch. The same magnetic clamp descended once more, and Cheyenne piped up over the radio.

"Alright, one of you get on and hold tight."

Not wanting to spend any more time than necessary by the deputy's body, Lucy gripped the sturdy tether with her cybernetic arm. The drone gave a strained whir at the sudden increase in weight. Her metal limbs made her far heavier than she appeared. Planting her feet on the magnet, she swung like a pendulum for a few moments before finding her balance.

"Here. You'll need it more than me," she said, tossing the radio through the gloom towards Sebastian.

Catching the radio with surprising grace in the dark, he smiled and winked at his partner as Freya began to lift her into the night sky.

"Easy money."

When she was gone, he nodded to himself and repeated his words as he cast his gaze down at the deputy. The pool of blood had stopped growing some time ago. Sebastian squatted down to get a closer look at his handiwork. The slugs from his coil pistol had hit the deputy in the chest and pierced clean through his back to punch holes in the wall of the railcar. If Bast had been quicker on the draw he could have saved Lucy the pistol whipping. He mulled the thought over for a while, rubbing the coarse stubble of his chin.

Hissing seals snapped Sebastian out of his reverie. Someone was entering the cargo holds. Bast ducked behind a pile of suitcases and masked his breath with his hand. A pair of heavy boots clunked against the metal flooring, speeding up as the new arrival ran towards the fallen deputy.

"Shit, Jackson," Boots said. "Jackson... Fuck. HQ, we've got an officer down on the train bound for New Hampworth, unknown number of assailants still at large."

Sebastian squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to think of a way out. Freya's propellers filled the railcar, and he opened his eyes as Boots walked slowly towards the hole. Taking a deep breath, Bast peeked over the suitcases to read the situation. Standing between him and his escape was another deputy, laser rifle slung over his shoulder.

"What in the..." Boots said out loud as the magnetic clamp lowered through the hatch once more. This was Sebastian's only chance. Without a moment's pause, he leapt out from his cover and smashed into Boots with his shoulder. The deputy went flying into the racking. One of the shelves buckled from the impact sending briefcases and luggage bags spilling onto the floor.

"Get me the hell out of here, Cheyenne!" Sebastian shouted at the radio. He jumped for the clamp and lurched from side to side as Freya's propellers adjusted themselves to compensate. Bast swayed to and fro as Boots recovered and fumbled for his rifle. Before he could line up a shot, Sebastian swung forwards and kicked both his legs at the deputy.

Almost home free, Sebastian's ascent stopped when Boots grabbed onto one of his legs. In a panic, Bast kicked and thrashed at the deputy. Boots yanked and Freya's propellers strained to lift the weight. In a lucky flail Sebastian caught the deputy with his heel and cracked his nose. With a grunt and a curse the officer relinquished his hold and brought his hands to his face. Freya surged upwards. Sebastian had made it.

Frigid winds tore at Basts russet jacket as he drifted through the sky clinging on to his rope. In a few heartbeats the mag-train was already on its way towards the horizon. Wind rushing in his ears, Sebastian smiled to himself and turned his eyes towards his destination. Distant lights marked Cheyenne's waiting place, a small craft nestled in the vast untamed barrens between the only major population centres on the continent; New Hampworth and Regia Lux.

The ship grew closer, a squat gunmetal gray thing that resembled a giant boxy frog. The hind legs were thrusters and landing struts, the mouth and vocal sac were the open cargo bay door. When Freya dipped low enough, Sebastian let go of the rope and touched down on the sandy ground.

"What's the hold up?" he shouted to be heard over the drone's whirring. "Let's saddle up and get off this rock."

Cheyenne ignored the question as he manoeuvred Freya into the cargo hold, eyes fixed downwards on the camera guided remote. Lucy shot Bast a frown as the wind whipped at her hair. Even silhouetted by the lights from the ship, Sebastian knew she was pissed. He adjusted the collar of his beige shirt and fiddled with his belt buckle.

"Easy fucking money?" she spat. Her human arm shot towards the opened case. Bast flinched at the sudden movement, before taking a few gingerly steps forward to peer into the crate.


"Yeah, shit."

Inside, the case was full not of the guns that had been promised, but reams upon reams of blank admin documents. Sebastian stood grimacing as he rubbed his jaw.

"Thought you said this tip was good, Bast?" Lucy said. Her scathing tone cut deep. He winced.

"Now look here, Wintersen ain't never given us a bad tip before, and besides that he tips off Vasili, too... and we all know how he deals with incompetence."

"Then how do you explain this?" Lucy gestured at the crate with both hands. She didn't give him a chance to reply. "This is so typical of you, Bast. Now we've got no guns and a dead CSA deputy who—if we're lucky—will be found in just a few hours."

"About that..." Sebastian swallowed the air. "Funniest thing happened after you left—"

Lucy cut him off.

"What...did you do?"

"Nothin'," Bast snapped.

"He was fighting with someone," Cheyenne chipped in.

"Nothin'..." Bast glared at Cheyenne. "Just... Just a little tussle with another deputy who may or may not have discovered his colleague's dead body."

Pirouetting out of sheer exasperation Lucy was lost for words. Cheyenne finally finished parking his drone. In the absence of propellers Sebastian noticed the sound. A low rumbling, like a crowd of stomping feet, moving closer and closer. He frowned and turned to scan the area around the landing site. All at once the noise erupted into whinnying and shouting. In an instant the three thieves were surrounded by riders.

"Hands where I can see 'em," a gruff horseman called. The sounds of laser weaponry priming was enough to deter Bast from making a reach for his coil pistol. With gritted teeth and a deep scowl Sebastian raised his arms. Lucy and Cheyenne followed suit.

"Well, lookie what we've got here boys," said another rider, much more youthful and fresh sounding. "Got us some low-down-the-food-chain train robbers. Only, looks to me like they're none too good at their jobs."

A few of the riders chuckled at the mockery. One of the new arrivals dismounted and stepped into the light spilling out from the ship's cargo bay. Standing with an old fashioned gunpowder rifle in his hands was a Central Systems Alliance appointed sheriff. His iridium CSA star glinted in the light while his jet black body armour seemed to absorb each photon that hit it.

Standing slightly shorter than Sebastian, he made up for his lack of height with a sturdy frame. Face clean shaven and hair cropped neatly in a small quiff, the man seemed too young to be a sheriff. Bast knew the only two ways to receive an iridium star were to earn it, or kill an actual sheriff for it. Either feat marked this man as dangerous.

"Seems to me," he spoke, the same youthful voice as before. "That you folks are in something of a predicament. You see, we've heard some troubling reports from the train bound for New Hampshire. Word is, they're an officer down and a case full of CSA property short."

The sheriff put his hand to his mouth in mock shock.

"But what's that on the ground? Could that be the case that went missing? I think is, boys... I think it is."

Bast ground his teeth and his frown deepened at the sheriff's mummery. A few murmurs of obviously false surprise sounded from the surrounding deputies.

"So now," the sheriff carried on the performance. "You can surely see how that puts me in a mighty strange position. Here I am, three train robbers caught red handed, and news reaches me that they killed one of my deputies. However should I proceed? Boys?"

Cursing inwardly, Sebastian shut his eyes as he tried to drown out the suggestions thrown out by the other deputies.

"Hang the bastards!" the gruff rider called. A few more yet called for various methods of execution, none of them pleasant.

"You know," said the sheriff, turning to Sebastian. "The punishment for killing an acting CSA deputy happens to be death." He smiled. White teeth in a perfect line made the gesture all the more sinister.

The sheriff walked a circle around Bast and his partners in crime. Hearing the sudden crunch of dirt behind him, Sebastian knew that he was the first in line for whatever was coming next.

"On the ground," the sheriff ordered.

Sebastian's body locked up. Even if he wanted to obey the command, he couldn't, it went against his very nature. A powerful kick to the back of his knee forced him down.

"I said, on the ground. And you two."

With a wave of the sheriff's obsolete rifle Lucy and Cheyenne did as they were bade.

"The way I see it..." The sheriff's mocking tone was gone now, only malice remained. "You three bastards owe me a life... Deputy Jackson served Regia Lux well. That makes his life a valuable one."

A cool metal barrel pressed up against Sebastian's neck. He closed his eyes tight. With a hiss and sharp sting, something pierced his flesh and embedded itself deep under his skin. Bast opened his eyes to see the sheriff moving counter clockwise towards Cheyenne, rifle slung over his shoulder and some kind of medical applicator in his hand. He injected something into Cheyenne's neck, and did the same for Lucy.

"I'm not keen on the way the CSA would have us do things. I believe in bringing back the old way. That there in your neck is a tracker. I own you now. You're all three property of Sheriff Romulus Bale."

Sebastian's eyes caught the movement of two deputies carrying a crate into their ship.

"We're putting a bomb in your ship. Of course, this is all cutting edge CSA hardware, at least they're good for something. Tamper with the tracker in your neck, the bomb goes off. Touch the bomb itself... it goes off. Try and leave this star system..."

"The bomb goes off?" Sebastian asked. Bale smiled a wicked grin and gave a slow nod.

From across the dirt, Bast could see Lucy staring daggers at him. He hung his head.

"Since the deputy you so egregiously took from us was such an exemplary officer, the blood price is going to be high. Here's the deal. While we're all busy dealing with rats like you, a new threat is rearing its head. A triad, operating primarily out of the Betelgeuse system have been putting their grubby paws into all sorts of illicit business.

"They've got a foothold somewhere in this system. You're going to find it. You're going to rob it. You're going to wipe it out. And all of the money is going to find its way into the Regis Lux 'Widow's fund'. Understand?"

None of the three said a word.

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that." The sheriff smashed the butt of his rifle into Sebastian's jaw. Bast got a mouthful of blood and dirt when he hit the ground. His ears rang and he saw stars.

"Do you understand?" Romulus asked again, hammering out each syllable one by one.

"Yes, we understand," Lucy piped up, her voice thin and defeated. The sheriff snapped to look at her.

"Good," he spat. "And if you try anything funny, mutant, I swear to all the gods in the universe that I will pull off each of your mechanical limbs one by one and fuck you with them."

Lucy grimaced at the word mutant and turned to avoid the sheriff's gaze. Sebastian stayed on the ground, looking sideways at the men leaving his ship. He noted the badge of a CSA ordnance officer on one of their shoulders. Guess he wasn't bluffing about the bomb.