Taggen was a dry little town sitting in a protective hollow between two hills. It was an odd sort of place and quiet people lived there. The town was kept alive by farmers and what little produce they managed to coax from the ground in this harsh environment they sold here. The town had a number of little businesses and one or two small machine shops that helped procure parts for farming equipment or repaired anything the farmers couldn’t fix themselves.
Taggen would have been perfectly insulated from the noise except the town was not entirely enclosed. The two surrounding hills did not quite meet each other and there was an opening between the two. This gap was a convenient entrance, but also rendered certain areas of the little town too loud to be comfortably livable. For this reason, a wall had been built between the hills not long after the town’s founding. It emerged from the hill on the right, a tall, but ramshackle construction of wood, stone and insulation. The wall never had any purpose besides filling the space between the two hills. Indeed, the opposite edge of the structure ended suddenly, giving the impression that the wall was in fact a giant half open door. Taggen’s main road curved around this wall before entering the mess of buildings crowded between the hills.
Kappy had been to Taggen a number of times before. She had purchased her heat rifle in Taggen and came here to get her tub fixed when she couldn’t salvage parts from out in the fields. Kappy parked in the shadow of the wall and went to catch the robot. As she was dragging the little machine back to her tub she happened to look up and noticed that someone was watching her from up on the opposite hill. A young man, short, with dark eyes and a shock of dirty blonde hair. Their eyes met and the man held her gaze for a moment before slipping away among the rocks that littered the hill.
“Well, we made it,” said Miles stretching his arms above his head. “This shade feels nice after the road. I could take a nap here.” While Kappy loaded the robot, he unscrewed the top of his water bottle and took a drink, then dumped a little water into his hands and splashed it over his face, trying to rub away some of the dust from the road. “I guess this is goodbye then.”
“Actually, I was hoping you could do me one favor before leaving,” said Kappy climbing back into the tub. “I need a new clip for my rifle and I was wondering if you could watch the robot while I’m in the shop. I can’t imagine anyone would want him, but it doesn’t pay to take chances when it comes to the things people will steal.”
“Yeah, of course!” agreed Miles quickly, happy to be of any help to this strange girl. He started up his tractor and followed her as she drove into the streets. There were not many people about, but the little group got strange looks from nearly everyone they passed. The looks weren’t because of the vehicles they were driving, for people made use of whatever transport they could manage these days. Instead, it was the little robot that was drawing attention. Kappy found it quite annoying to drive with the robot in her tub as he petulantly did his best to escape by bumping into the back of her legs. She tried to turn him so he’d face the back of the tub, but his sense of direction never wavered and it wasn’t long before he was back. It was a relief when they arrived at the little alley that led to the weapons shop.
“I’ll only be a minute,” said Kappy to Miles and she got out of the tub. The alley led between a tavern and a junk shop. Most of the businesses in Taggen had apartments built above them and there were very few buildings less than two stories tall as space was at a premium in this town. Wood was difficult to come by and often had to be salvaged so the buildings were predominantly clay, stone and brick. Kappy couldn’t help smiling at the tavern’s name. The proprietor had obviously valued alliteration over creativity and had lovingly christened his establishment, “Taggen Tavern.”
She passed into the cool shade of the alley. The walls of the buildings to either side were windowless and the blue shadow cast by the tavern was a perfect line against the rough clay of the opposite building. The alley ended with a tiny, two story shop crammed into the narrow space left between the buildings on either side. There was no name displayed anywhere. It wasn’t a store people randomly happened upon – you had to know somebody. The place dealt in quality and plastic, which were the only two things Kappy cared about.
She entered through a bead door and let her eyes adjust to the darkness within. The interior was cramped and the walls were cluttered with a wide assortment of weapons. A gaunt man sat on a cracked leather chair behind the counter. Stringy black hair fell across his pale face. Dressed all in black, he was leaning over the counter, painstakingly cleaning a gun he had disassembled. His eyes flicked up when he heard his customer enter and a wide smile broke across his face when he saw who it was.
“Kappy,” he stood holding out his hands, “it’s been awhile!”
“Yes, it has,” said Kappy crisply. “Do you have any heat clips?”
The man frowned, “What is wrong with your old heat clip?”
“The battery is nearly worn out.”
“Ah, of course, it’s seen much use. I remember that rifle of yours. It was that all plastic monstrosity. Is that the one you need the clip for?”
“Yes, it is.”
He smiled and sighed and shook his head, “Oh Kappy, can I never convince you to trust metal? You keep it stored properly and the rust will not get to it for years.” He moved from behind the counter and stepped quickly to one of the walls, pulling a rifle from the rack, “This here, ammunition is cheaper than your special battery clips, twice as powerful. I could even throw in a custom sight if you were interested…”
Kappy glared at the man, “No thank you. I just need the clip.”
The man looked sad and set the rifle back on the wall. “Kappy, I’ll admit heat rifles have accuracy, but they require a perfect hit to kill a man,” he frowned and shook his head. “The problem has always been cauterization. Heat rounds are like surgeons, they stop the bleeding and sterilize the wound all at once! A bullet gives you so many more wonderful options. If the man is not killed straight away, he can always bleed out, and after… if he’s still not dead there’s always the chance of infection.”
“Yes, well, if I need to kill someone I’m going to do it right the first time.”
“But the clips are so expensive!”
“I don’t see you complaining! Besides, you of all people should know they can’t make a decent traditional rifle out of plastic.”
“They can get close though! And like I said, with proper storage you won’t have any problems with rust…”
“That’s not what I’m concerned about,” interrupted Kappy. “I’m concerned about the things that’ll happen if I DO keep the metal protected. There are much worse things than rust you know.”
The man smiled sadly and raised his hands in defeat, “I see I cannot convince you”
“No, you cannot,” said Kappy quickly. “Now please, I would like the clip.”
The man reached under the counter and pulled out a long plastic clip, “As usual I can offer you a discount if you exchange your old clip”
Kappy held up her old clip and set it on the counter next to the new one.
“Ah, excellent, excellent. Let me just see how much I purchased this one for.” The man pulled out a dusty grey notebook and began rifling through it.
There was the sound of beads shifting behind Kappy and she turned to see who had entered the shop. To her surprise she recognized the face of the man who had been watching her from the hill. He seemed just as surprised to see her. His eyes widened and he quickly looked away, sidling over to one of the gun racks and examining it with intense interest.
Kappy decided to ignore him. She turned back to the man behind the counter and he slid the notebook towards her, his finger on an inky number. Kappy quickly paid and left the shop.
Once outside she was surprised to hear raised and angry voices coming from the mouth of the alley. Curious, she quickly made her way back onto the street and stopped short.
There was a crowd of people, men and women, all gathered in a half circle around Miles who was standing next to her tub and the robot. He was arguing with three older men who were leaning over him.
Kappy hurried to his side, “What’s going on here?”
One of the men turned to her, “Who are you?”
“They’re trying to take your robot!” said Miles angrily, his face was flushed and red.
“It’s not her robot,” said another man loudly, “and it’s dangerous to have a machine like this in the town. It should be put under our safekeeping.”
“It’s not dangerous!” said Miles.
“Yes, it is! It’s obviously come alive!” said the man.
Kappy interrupted, “It’s not alive, it’s been programmed. It’s a Rust probe.”
The men stared at her in disbelief.
“Here, listen!” Kappy reached into the tub and grabbed hold of the robot, pulling him near the edge and turning him around so that he was facing away from the crowd of people. “See?” Kappy gestured at the three buttons on top of the robot. The men stepped closer to look and the crowd pressed forward, suspicious, but curious as to what was happening. Kappy pushed one of the buttons.
A tinny voice spoke. It sounded as if it had been recorded long ago and was speaking from a great distance. It was also speaking some form of Chinese. Kappy shook her head, “That’s not it. Wait, there are different languages.” They waited in silence for the recording to finish and then Kappy pushed a different button. The voice started up again and this time they could understand it. The small voice was quiet enough that even if the recording had been of a higher quality, it would have been difficult to hear. Miles realized he was holding his breath as he tried to make out the words.
‘This is Director Abbott of the Rust Initiative. If you are listening to this, you have recovered one of our long range satellite units. It is of the utmost importance that you do not tamper with the device. We…’
The next part was lost in static. Then his voice was back, ‘returned to the nearest Rust station. However, if the unit is functional it will…’
And the rest of the recording was drowned in more static until suddenly it ended with a click.
“A Rust probe…” said one of the men slowly. Then more voices joined in and everyone was talking at once.
“That man called it a satellite…”
“It’s the same thing.”
“Exploring the noise? Out in the fields?”
“Can’t have people out there…”
“Didn’t know the probes ever came back!”
Another of the three men standing next to the tub, someone important by the way he was dressed, spoke now in a condescending voice, “Well… if it is the… ah… the property of the Rust Initiative, that’s all the more reason that it should be kept here until we can determine what to do with it.”
“You don’t need to do anything with it!” said Kappy angrily. “It’s traveling just fine on its own!”
The man smiled sympathetically, “I’m sorry, but we simply can’t entrust it to a… well… a boy and a girl.” He gestured to two large men standing near the front of the crowd, “Please remove the probe… ah… the satellite from the back of this… er… vehicle.”
“Just you try it!” shouted Kappy and she jumped into the tub, scrambling for her heat rifle.
“I am the mayor of Taggen!” said the man, outraged. “You cannot speak to me like that! I demand that you give up custody of the robot!”
There were angry voices from the crowd now. Then someone shouted, “You do what he says, girl!”
The two men approached the tub and reached inside for the robot. Kappy hadn’t managed to get the new clip into her rifle, but she knew more than one way to use her gun as a weapon. The butt of her rifle collided with the side of the first man’s head with a satisfying crack. He staggered to the side, swearing. The other man made of grab for Kappy, but suddenly the tub rocked and there was an explosion of light and noise. The man fell away, startled. Kappy looked up to see Miles who had leapt onto the nose of her tub and was firing his machine gun in the air.
There were shouts and confusion. The crowd had backed up, some people ran. Kappy took advantage of their momentary distraction and attached the clip to her rifle, arming the weapon. Then she leveled the rifle at the crowd and with murder in her eyes shouted, “We’re leaving! With the robot! If any of you try to stop or follow us, there’ll be trouble! Understand?” She glanced up at Miles, “Get to your tractor, we’re getting out of here.”
Miles nodded and hopped down from the tub, keeping his gun trained on the crowd the whole time. The two started their vehicles and slowly pulled away from the people, moving off down the street. Kappy drove with one hand, keeping her gun pointed back towards the crowd. No one moved and the two of them were soon passing the last buildings on the opposite edge of town. Once outside they sped up, hoping to quickly put some distance between themselves and Taggen.
Two officers on horses appeared at the edge of town, but neither followed the retreating pair. The trouble had left town and the officers weren’t going to risk a firefight, no matter what their mayor said.