Nyriki Rocco sat in a rusted empty car at the back of a train on the Lost Coast, one eye on the diminishing landscape and one on his watch.
6:51. Almost dusk, he thought.
He checked his pistol and saw the charge: 46%. Soon night would fall and he wouldn’t be able to see. Starlight and moonlight would be hidden by the clouds. It was always cloudy. Always cloudy, but never raining. Rocco stood up, brushed the rust flakes and dirt from his battle-scarred duster, and stretched. It would be a long ride. He still had 18 miles until the next station, and more than a hundred until his destination. He doubted anyone would be at the station. They almost never were. The trains were automatic, and ran perpetually. Until they broke, that is. Not many people were around to fix them.
Every damn thing in this world is falling apart.
The train went into a tunnel. He shut his eyes. Wonderful. Total darkness–just what he needed during the last few minutes of light. Perfect spot for an ambush. He couldn’t afford to waste his pistol’s charge on its flashlight, so he stood in the darkness, waiting. He also dialed down its power to save charge, just in case. He could settle for scorching them instead of blasting a hole in them, at least for the moment.
Darkness overcame his vision; the dimming light from outside diminished as he went into the tunnel. Every muscle in his body tensed, waiting for anything.
Seconds passed like minutes. He calmed himself, not wanting to waste precious vigilance on fury. A boom ripped through the air as the train shot out of the tunnel. Dim evening light flooded back into his vision, and pain flooded into his spine as a boot shoved itself in his back. He spread his arms to grip the edges of the doorway to stop himself from falling out. He then became intensely aware of how fast the train was going, and how hard the metal of the track looked. He jumped up and kicked backward blindly with both feet. He made contact, and used the two seconds he gained to pull himself back in and turn around.
Dusk approached, extinguishing his much-needed light. Rocco leveled his gun, but his adversary knocked it away with his left hand, and landed a fierce punch at Rocco’s heart with his right.
Rocco swung a right hook, but the blow was deflected; jabbed with his left, but his adversary redirected the punch and countered with a solid strike on Rocco’s left ear. The paroxysm of throbbing disoriented him. The assailant took the opportunity to land a kick to Rocco’s gut, sending him back toward the door. Rocco raised both arms and brought his forearms down, but his assailant backed up a step, then lunged forward with a strong punch. Rocco began to get his bearings again, redirected the punch with his left hand and struck with his right, landing a solid punch on the attacker’s nose. While he stumbled back, Rocco unleashed a short volley of quick, precise strikes, weakening his opponent, who jumped to the side, bouncing off the wall, using his momentum to slam into Rocco, knocking him down.
They exchanged blows, each man trying to get on top of the other. Rocco let his opponent roll over, then used the leverage to continue the roll so that Rocco ended up on top. He wasted no time shattering the man’s nose with a sharp jab. He stood up, stomped on his attacker’s groin, retrieved his pistol, and pointed at his head.
“Talk,” Rocco said, steadying his breathing as he tried to stand.
“And what good would that do, Nyriki?” His voice sounded almost wet, like he was talking through the blood pooling in his mouth. Rocco was unnerved that the man knew his name; he’s probably an assassin, if he knows that much, he thought.
“More good than pissing me off,” Rocco said, dialing down his pistol’s power. If this guy wasn’t going to talk, he might have to persuade him.
“You’ve rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, Nyriki. Powerful people. Makes sense they’d hire someone like me.”
The man laughed. “You think they want you dead? No. You’re much too valuable to be reduced to a pile of ashes. If they wanted you dead, I’d have incinerated your head before you had time to scream.”
“So a bounty hunter. How much am I worth?”
He smiled. “A sum bigger than one Estate should have. Worth every dollar.”
“Thank you. Always nice to know my work is appreciated.” He pointed the pistol at the man’s knee. “Which Estate?”
“Information’s not cheap, Nyriki.”
The assassin’s knee exploded with fire. His screams echoed and multiplied through the small car. He slapped furiously at his knee to put the fire out. Through the dim light of the flame, Rocco saw his face. Bloody, broken, and contorted with agony. Rocco pointed the gun at his other knee.
“Still a lot of you left to burn. Which Estate hired you?”
“Damn you to the blackest hell! I’m a dead man no matter what I tell you.”
“Then tell me what I want to know, and I’ll ease your passing.”
There was a moment of silence as the bounty hunter considered the proposal. Whoever had hired him must be cruel. Unnaturally so.
“Do you promise?” he asked.
Rocco dialed the power up a few notches. “Yes. You have my word.”
The man coughed and leaned back against the wall. “All right.” He hesitated. “Hyperion. It was the Hyperion Estate.”
A sickening feeling rose up in Rocco’s gut. He hoped the man was lying. He couldn’t read his facial expressions, but the threat of pain does wonders for bringing out the truth. But was he lying to save himself more pain? No way to know.
“All right. Deal’s a deal.” Rocco pointed the gun at the bounty hunter’s head.
“Thank you, Nyriki.”
“You can thank me when we’re both in Hell.” He squeezed the trigger and blasted the man’s head into a scorched, bloody crater. The flickering light of the flame showed the gruesome inside of his skull. Rocco searched his body, retrieved a short-bladed knife, a ration bar, and $86, a hefty sum to be carrying around. He was probably paid some in advance. Rocco lifted up the dead man and heaved him out of the moving train car so that the smell wouldn’t be as bad. There was still the stinging stench of burnt flesh, but at least it wouldn’t be rotten burnt flesh. He checked the charge on his pistol: 39%. He sat back down, and looked at his watch.
* * *
A kind-looking old man sat behind an ornate mahogany desk, looking at one of the three viewscreens in front of him. His operations spread across the entire west coast and much of the land to the east. He ran a hand through his thin white hair and tapped the screen, enlarging a sector with a power plant to check on its progress. Still too slow. He typed up a brief message, urging them to get back online quicker. There was precious little power around, and the loss of a power plant was devastating. He’d hate to have to send a representative down there to get them back on schedule.
A young, pretty woman in modest office attire stepped in the doorway. “Mr. Hyperion?” she said timidly.
“Agent 4 in Sector 3 is down, sir.”
“Thank you.” He turned his attention to another viewscreen. She bowed quickly and left. He looked at Sector 3 and tapped it, bringing up information on all of his agents in the area. Agent 4: indispensable mercenary on assignment to bring in Nyriki Rocco, deceased. Apparently he had underestimated this rebel. Whatever his mission was, Rocco was now free to do it. He tapped two Agents and reassigned them to the case, then typed in an order to refill the now-vacant positions.
Mr. Hyperion let the incident drift from his mind as he returned his attention to the construction of power plants along the coast.
* * *
John’s wristband beeped. He looked down at the message. He grabbed a passing miner by the arm. “Get me Fox.” The man nodded, turned back, and left. John removed his hardhat and turned off its light. Reassignment from overseeing mining operations was rare. Mining was a very important part of the fragile economy. Whatever the mission was, it was clearly urgent.
A moment later, a large, muscular man walked briskly over to John. “You got the message?” Fox said.
“Of course. Why the hell else would I call you over here? Mr. Hyperion sent me a reassignment notice. He gave you the dead drop location?”
“Of course,” he said, mockingly. His tone was acrid. “Do we wait for our replacements?”
“Nah, this is priority one. We go now. Grab what you need and tell your second-in-command. We’ll meet outside by the rails. Five minutes.”
John and Fox rushed off.
* New installments of The Hyperion Estate appear every three weeks.