Chapter 1 - Battling Riders
Tarex’s wind rider howled over the bazaar in the mid-day heat. He was thankful to be airborne, with the wind blowing through his hair. He sympathized with the merchants and their beasts of burden that struggled to barter and make a modest profit on the outskirts of Kul-gora.
He remembered many days when he’d helped Patalon sell his forged-iron wares in the tumultuous marketplace. The bazaar was the nucleus of the community of working people in Kul-gora. The nobles lounged in their lofty towers, oblivious to the noise and dust of the city below.
Tarex veered his wind rider past the alabaster towers of the Kul-gora technocrats. He swooped in a precarious arc around the immense statues that decorated the tall buildings. They represented founders and conquerors of the realm in ages past. It was centuries since the port city was the target of invasion by pirates or foreign armies. This did not discourage the garrisons of Kul-gora who were frequently called upon to pacify combative, nomadic tradesmen and disgruntled shopkeepers.
Tarex intended to meet the Prefect. The Prefect of Kul-gora was a busy man and must have good reason to ask for Tarex’s services. The wind rider figured he was to be asked to act as a courier. There were few wind riders in Kul-gora. The machines were expensive, even in these booming times. Most of the riders Tarex knew were busy guarding silk barges and spice caravans.
The canopied entrance to the Prefect’s booth was replete with the scent of burning incense. A domesticated lemur gnawed dried figs at the end of the counter. Tarex didn’t see the Prefect among the multitudes of contract scrolls and civic records. His assistant rose from her data station to greet the wind rider.
“Hello, you must be Tarex. My name is Angela. The Prefect said I should expect you.”
Angela was about the same age as Tarex. Like him she favored the vented, leather fashion popular in the arid climate of Kul-gora. Her hair was dyed blue and extended to her waist in a single braid.
“The Prefect is out on other business. He said I should give you this.”
Angela placed an electronically sealed scroll on the counter.
“He wants you to deliver this to the tinker in Rhajim. He said that it’s urgent and he’ll compensate you for the same amount when you report back.”
She handed Tarex a money card. Its small screen indicated it was set at fifty trade units. It was enough money to refuel his wind rider a dozen times. Tarex was impressed but was sure to hide this from the Prefect’s assistant.
“What’s the hurry? Why doesn’t he send it with a land courier like everyone else?”
“I don’t know. I’ll be waiting here, though. If your wind rider breaks down contact me on your com unit. I can carry tools if the need arises.”
“Don’t worry,” replied Tarex. “My machine won’t break down. I’m a fine mechanic and a handy pilot, too. I’ll deliver the Prefect’s scroll to the tinker. Tell him I’ll be back soon for the other fifty units.”
Tarex wondered about the significance of his boon. He didn’t frequently find such work as a private courier. Although the bazaar and marketplace of Kul-gora were bustling centers of industry, there was not much written correspondence with neighboring cities. This was due to the struggling reconstruction since the Bio-Wars.
Tarex managed to keep his wind rider in shape with the money he received from Patalon. He’d visited the other cities only occasionally. The Prefect paid well, though, and he looked forward to testing his machine over the open land.
Tarex shifted his wind rider into cruise. The booster whined as it fired a jet of compressed, ethanol propellant. The twisted trees of the forested hills whipped below him as he used his helmet’s display to scan for altitude.
The wilderness was an untamed and inhospitable environment. A lingering risk was to be confronted by the Shibuya team. They ran a delivery trade over the unsettled lands.
The greatest threat lay in facing the exoskeletonous ceptors that roamed the marshes since the Bio-Wars. They hovered by cycling their three pairs of wings at a fast pace. The ceptors preyed upon many of the land animals and stunned them by firing penetrating stingers from their scorpion-like tails.
The Shibuya team braved the attacks of the chitinous creatures by wearing plastic armor and deterring them with bursts from lasers installed on their wind riders.
Yoshitoshi was the leader of the Shibuya caravan. His reinforced armor was dark blue and green. Each member of the delivery team wore uniquely stylized armor that varied in color and structure.
The Shibuya caravan detected Tarex’s wind rider as it accelerated to cruising velocity. It sped away from the outskirts of Kul-gora. On previous treks the rogue riders had mapped and charted the spawning fields of the predatory ceptors.
“This maverick rider is heading straight for a ceptor nest. He is clearly steering for Rhajim.”
Yoshitoshi addressed his comrades via helmet communication link.
“Ichiro and Akiko loop around the hills to flank him. Tetsuo and the rest of you join me in waylaying this unlucky courier.”
Tarex’s helmet display lit up with flashing warnings. His computer chirped.
“Caution, multiple radar locks detected.”
He veered sharply to avoid the incoming attack but felt his machine shudder as it was scorched by several laser blasts. Tarex’s wind rider hurled smoke and jolted violently. He was forced to decelerate and was overtaken by Yoshitoshi and the Shibuya team.
Tarex’s ears rang as his communications link was over-ridden by the Shibuya channel.
“You have no choice but to relinquish your goods to us, Kul-goran. You are heading for a ceptor spawning field. We have you outnumbered and in need of repair.”
Yoshitoshi leaned over Tarex’s wind rider and grabbed at the Prefect’s sheathed scroll.
“No!” Tarex yelled.
He pulled away from the leader of the Shibuya team.
Tarex hadn’t realized he had entered the marsh-covered spawning field of the ceptors. The chitinous creatures fired several waves of stingers from their tails. The piercing missiles struck the wind riders and lodged in their armor.
As Ichiro and Akiko entered the fray they fired their lasers. Several of the swarming ceptors were hit and fell to the swamp below. Tarex seized the opportunity for escape from the insectoids. He addressed the Shibuya team as he turned his damaged vehicle to the north.
“Thanks a lot, you guys. I’ll send you my repair bill. I suppose I owe you wind riders for keeping me from becoming ceptor fodder. Arigatoo.”
Tarex managed to get his machine back into high gear and bolted ahead of the Shibuya team as they fought with the winged animals.
A familiar voice emanated from his helmet link.
“Tarex, it’s me, Angela. I’ve brought extra fuel. I could see you were in trouble from the telescope on the roof of the shop. It looks like your vehicle has seen better days. You should abandon it and ride with me. We’ll take the scroll to the tinker in Rhajim together. The Prefect will reimburse you for you machine when we get back to Kul-gora.”
Tarex couldn’t conceal his relief that Angela had arrived.
“You’re right, Angela. I’m glad you made it. Those ceptors can be a hindrance.”
Tarex reached over to Angela’s machine and climbed on. He would miss his old wind rider. He’d worked several months for Patalon in order to save enough money to buy it.
“I don’t know what messages or blueprints the Prefect is having us send to the tinker in Rhajim. Whatever they are, he must think they’re important enough to deliver there as soon as possible. I can’t wait until the day that we can relax in the towers, like the nobles. I’m sure I’d miss all my friends in the bazaar, though,” Tarex said.
“My friends work in the bazaar too,” Angela said. “I won’t be surprised if we all end up living the good life, someday.”
Her long, blue braid danced in the wind as the towers of Rhajim appeared on the horizon.