The sun beat down upon the man and his robo-horse as they trudged their way across the Martian desert. Holo-shades and a worn nanoweave hat protected the man’s face from the distant star’s rays. A white duster (long turned red by the dust of Mars) was tightly belted around his waist to keep stray debris out of his clothing. The man and his horse might have continued this way forever but the groaning of poorly oiled machinery brought the man’s head up with a snap.
Far off on the horizon the man could see the silhouette of one of the many automated terraformers that pumped the superheated oxygen that had made Mars habitable for the last 100 years. Huge bellows on top of the machine swelled and wheezed as they prepared to blast out a new gust of air. The Man frowned then quickly sat his robo-horse down and huddled himself behind the beast as the machine sent out fresh oxygen at speeds reaching 100 miles per hour. Sand whirled and tore into the horse blasting the last of its paint and revealing the shining steel hidden underneath. After the last of the gust had died away, the man shook his duster and hat removing the layer of sand that had piled up. He raised the horse up, and set off towards the terraformer. Towns were always nearby and the man had nearly 4 hours before the next blast. If he hurried, he could make it in less than three.
The man turned to his horse and readied the saddle built in to the robot; straps unfolded and the cushion inflated. He lept into the saddle and spoke with a considerable drawl to the robo-horse.
“Sorry to do this, but we’ve a long way to go and a short time to do it. You’re going to have to push yourself.” The horse tried to whinny but its speaker unit had long since been corroded by sand.
“Yah horse!” shouted the man as the horse began to run¸ gears grinding with the effort.
The horse, despite its condition, performed beyond expectation. They reached the closest town in only two hours. A battered plastic billboard announced the town’s name as Durkonston. Population: 540.
The town was a collection of several dozen prefabricated grey-blue, plas-tech bunkers that had been popular during the early years of Mars’ colonization. Though functional and equipped with everything a colony family could use, the bunkers had one major flaw: they were impossible to tell apart.
The man dismounted and looked around with concern. His horse’s mouth heat sink was glowing red and if he didn’t find a coolant trough soon, the horse would be in danger of shutting down. There weren’t many people on the outskirts of the town and the man began to despair until he spotted a freckle-faced boy sipping a soda in the shade of a bunker. He gestured to the boy who slurped the rest of the soda before walking over.
“What’s your name mister?” asked the boy when he walked up.
“John Bingo. What’s yours?”
“I’m Dax Watkins. Most people just call me Watkins though, Dax just don’t sound right people say.”
“Well Watkins, I need some help. You know where I could find a stable? My horse is near to shut down.” John pointed to his horse whose heat sink was now bright white.
The boy nodded slowly, causing his mop of brown hair to bounce. “Sure, it’s just down the road, bunker 45. They got food and water too if you’re hungry.”
John looked close at the nearest bunkers and noticed a disturbing lack of markers. “Tell you what; I’ll give you some credits if you take me there.”
“Before or after?”
“After, I don’t want you running off.”
“How do I know you’ll pay me?”
“I guess you’ll have to trust me.” John grinned, showing off his perfectly white teeth.
They boy studied the man’s face. It was angular and the skin was darkened where the sun had beaten down for years. He had a short, black beard and his hair was cropped short. Watkins thought he looked a lot like one of the old cowboys that his father would show him in old movies.
“I guess I’ll trust you mister. I’ll warn you though, my pa’s friends with the Sheriff, and he don’t play with no nonsense.” He puffed up and tried to look impressive.
John merely nodded and walked back to his horse. “Lead on, Watkins.”
The boy led them on a path that wound through several alleys before emerging in front of a bunker with a large coolant trough and tie bar placed out front. By this point the robo-horse was barely able to move and steam had begun leak from the horse’s optics. John tied the horse up and brought several gallons of heavy duty coolant for the poor machine. Upon seeing the teal liquid the horse needed no further instructions; it dunked its head into the trough andbegan to pump coolant through its internal system while old coolant was expelled out the back into a recycling drain.
John turned to the boy and handed him a heavy chit. “Here you go. 20 credits, you earned it.”
The boy gaped in astonishment, at ten years old he had never had that much money in his life, he made to leave before turning back to John.
“Don’t seem right taking all this for just leading you around…” he paused, a frown crinkling his face. “I’ll clean up the horse for you mister. Pa’s a mechanic and I help him with the easy stuff, so I can clean out the joints at least.”
John reached a hand out to the boy. “You got yourself a deal; I’ll be back in thirty minutes.”
The boy smiled and shook the man’s hand before turning back to the horse that was draining coolant at an alarming rate. John walked inside the bunker and was instantly hit with cool air. He paused for a minute to enjoy the temperature change before making his way to the wooden bar. The barkeep, a short black man with no hair and only one eye waddled up to him.
“What’s your poison?” He grunted.
“Fruja.” said John, naming a popular Terran liquor.
The barkeep hit a few buttons on a hidden keyboard and a shot of Fruja popped out next to John.
“How much?” asked John.
“5 creds, but you pay at the door.” replied the barkeep, who pointed at a teller machine by the front door.
John nodded and downed his drink then looked at the rest of the bar. The Bar itself was wood, a real luxury on Mars if he remembered the prices correctly. A few plas-tech tables and chairs were scattered around the room which was illuminated by a single, flickering fluorescent tube. The few people scattered around the bar were mostly quiet, content to sip their drinks and converse with their friends. John grunted to himself and thumped the bar to get the barkeeps attention.
“One more.” he said.
The keypad chirped and another drink popped out the counter. John picked up the glass and began to drink when the sound of screaming brought his attention to the entryway. A local woman had run into the room in hysterics, her red and black jumpsuit covered in tears and scorch marks.
“It’s Big Bert and his posse!” she cried in terror before fleeing the room. The rest of the bar reacted the same way: men and women hid beneath tables while the barkeep pulled down a blast proof shutter over his bar counter. John could hear the sounds of gunfire and explosions; whoever this Big Bert was he knew how to cause trouble.
John stood up and loosened his duster’s belt revealing a grey military jumpsuit with kinetic padding. On his waist was holstered an energy pistol modeled after a 19th century cavalry revolver. He trod towards the door careful not to make too much noise with his boots, the excitement was focused just outside the bunker and John did not want to attract attention just yet. Cracking the door open a fraction, he looked outside and was greeted with a scene of chaos. Three men were carousing in front of the building across the street firing gunshots into the air while a grey haired old man brought out credit cases to their hovercraft. A taller man, wearing what looked like old power armor and armed with a large rifle stood to the side and watched the proceedings.
“Must be Big Bert with his bunch of bandits. Well-armed bandits though.” thought John to himself. To the side of the door, he could see the boy Watkins’ face down in the dirt next to his horse. The men had beaten him up and taken his creds, John realized and his blood began to boil. The man in the armor suddenly shouted and pointed towards the hovercraft, the men began to pile in as Bert walked towards the banker. He gave the old man a vicious punch across the jaw that sent him crashing into the bunker and knocked him out cold. John decided to act.
In one swift motion he kicked open the door and drew his weapon. The sudden noise surprised the bandits and they had no time to react to John’s ambush. His first three shots blasted into Bert’s crew burning huge holes into their chests and sending their bodies flopping into the dirt. His next shot shattered Bert’s rifle leaving the man nothing but his power armor, or so John thought. Bert snarled, his scarred face twisting in rage and raised his left arm to reveal a built-in laser. John threw himself behind the cover of the coolant trough as the shots smacked into the wall behind him.
“You trying to stop me? ME? I’m Big Bert, the terror of the Martian desert!” He howled in fury as he stomped towards John’s location.
“I reckon so! Ain’t no cause to be a bandit in these time!” shouted John as he flipped his weapons emitter setting to max.
“Think you can get lucky shot off then? That pea-shooter of yours ain’t got the punch to bust through my armor!” Bert stopped and chuckled. It was a hacking wheezing noise that indicated the man smoked far too much.
“I reckon I can!” said John before raising himself out of cover. Big Bert had lowered his arm, not expecting John to reveal himself. He looked surprised as John aimed down his weapons sights and fired a single shot.
Big Bert tried to return fire but found that his arm wouldn’t respond. His vision blurred and suddenly he felt very tired.
“You bastard…” was all the bandit managed to croak out as he fell the Martian soil, dead. A single scorch mark on the back of his head marked where the shot had burnt through.
John holstered his weapon and walked up to body of the big man. A quick search revealed the creds that belonged to Watkins. He turned to help the boy but found that he had already recovered and had made his way over to Bert’s body.
“I think this is yours.” said John as he tossed the chit to Watkins.
The boy grinned and snatched the money out of the air. “You’re a real cowboy ain’t you mister? Just, like on the movies my pa shows me.”
John laughed and walked over to his horse giving it a look over before hopping on. He started off, and then turned in his saddle to Watkins who was still watching. “You’ll be alright?”
“Yes sir, the sheriff will be here in a minute and he’ll take care of the mess.”
“Good. By the way, if the bartender asks about my bill tell him to put it on his tab.” He pointed at the body of Big Bert.
When the sheriff finally arrived he found the boy talking excitedly with the banker who looked like he had seen better days.
“What the hell happened, Watkins?” said the sheriff as he drove up to the bank.
“A real cowboy happened, sheriff! He took ‘em all out by himself!” said the boy.
The sheriff looked around with no small amount of respect. “Guess he was good enough to take out Big Bert.”
The boy nodded and pointed off into the distance where a figure mounted on a horse could be seen riding off into the sunset. John Bingo was a real cowboy alright. A real Martian Cowboy.