Far future fantasy.
|I saw the town of Ochremond rise above me as I rode in on an ancient, touring style motorcycle. Something I wouldn’t normally travel on, neither the motorcycle nor a touring one, but I had to seem unapproachable, without appearing like trouble. My masters gave me a mission. Roll into this old burg, access the mine at its center that history had mostly forgotten, and exit with the weapon buried there. A very compact and powerful device from centuries ago. What year exactly I didn’t know, and asking would have meant clarifying under what calendar, another bad idea these days.
Whoever still lived here, saw a bleak and constantly diminishing life. Gold, wine, and the road were all that was left here. Only a few hundred men worked the mines outside of town, increasingly rarely getting the choice nuggets that would justify continuing. While the first, richest mine lay deserted beneath Ochremond. Most everybody else provided for what few travelers came down the great eastern highway that took people beyond the deserts to swamp or snow. Those few others brewed a simple, strong red wine made of a field blend varietal whose ancestors were unknown.
You could see the ruins all around. This town on rolling hills had once been a retirement destination for the middle class of the first techno culture, just before its fall. Now less than a tenth of the buildings had occupants. Of empty ones, some were so old as to be virtually unrecognizable with regard to any previous function, while others had such poorly thought out additions through the years they could only be seen as comical. But the lesser south road was still used, though no authority maintained it except where it bisected the east road at the center of Ochremond.
Even though this crushing weight of history slightly distracted me, in the here and now I concentrated on my only task. The information we had was fresh, or so I was told. It wouldn’t be likely anybody knew it actionable so soon. The asset who gave it up, I didn’t know how, wasn’t known to be compromised to any but us. The odd feeling I had seemed to come from the sense that it shouldn’t be this easy in the grand scheme of things to take this device. It wouldn’t be easy for me, of course. In this time we could not own or use the ancient chemical propelled projectile weapons. Some on my side had these, but the penalty in law and custom was high. I only wielded the blade and bow myself. Our way of life dictated one clear method for resolving all conflicts, the duel. Mass casualty war had taken its toll, leaving us with nothing but warrior against warrior. It was true, possibly they would greet me as a mob, doing what they will. More likely, this town only had one champion, or none. But if I could use stealth to achieve my objective, I must.
As I came nearer to the town center, everybody about had clearly been through the ten thousand foot high pass to the east, and was taking a rest before moving on to the great valley below. I began to think finding what I sought would be as easy as waiting for nightfall, after posing as a man interested in nothing more than motorcycle maintenance and a good meal. Pulling into the town’s main thoroughfare quickly ended that notion.
What in my experience must probably be close to the entire community was assembled, as if waiting for someone, namely me. A few of them stared at me but most were casually engaged with their neighbors as one is before a festive occasion. Several of the faces were as inscrutable as any of your imagining. Almost absent was gleeful malice, they could play it very cool here, but it shined through clear on some. Someone had gotten here first with the information I had. The small scale excavation equipment and small, sealed dirt caked box on a hastily laid table in the town square told me they had what I wanted.
In the center of the square lounged one of the self styled traveling lords of these parts, Elden Hawley. He had been picked as the town champion. Not many could be worse than him if he retained possession of this artifact, and it could deliver on its destructive promise, his connections were countless and loathsome.
Coming into a situation without previous knowledge had always seemed the best idea to me. Whatever happened in any conflict should be quick. It just did not pay to drag things out in this line of work. I wasn’t like the past where everyone tried to plan everything, now we lived quicker, somehow.
Dismounting, I strode right up to Elden and said, “The artifact falsely in your possession belongs solely to me.”
Elden replied, “I am a dueling master, known this part of the world. Your bluster about a thing which has always belonged to those around you here does not become a humble traveler.”
“I am not a traveler but one such as you. Your grandiosity aside, the fact is this device belongs to those men and women possessing knowledge of its nature, and that can use it wisely. The last person who handled it well buried it, so that persons like unto yourself may never see it.
“Its existence has always been known to a select few, we would destroy an evil like this but the art of doing so has left my allies. Digging it up is only for its transplantation to greater safety and anonymity. Meddlers and thieves, in buying and sending you, made a grievous error. If I may know your name before you are vanquished?”
Using the word vanquish revealed to me the dueling discipline he followed. It meant that I could surrender and walk away at any time, but in return must give way to him in any future duel. While being free to fight others he would be my master in any fight he stood for. If I did not yield, it would be a death fight. My discipline was the mission, whatever it took to complete it ruled me.
I told him, “My kind have a glorious mission, and I serve clearly before all. We, having not names among ourselves, give them freely to outsiders. Grayson is my name.”
At that, drawing my boron-aluminum sword, I advanced on him, as he drew his more traditional steel sword. Dueling is a quick thing, with a few thrusts it can be over. We naturally wore no armor. The action was too fast for any but we two duelists to track, that I knew. The seconds were only a double handful, but it was over. He was wounded on the left knee, left elbow, and top middle right arm. Each limb rendered nonfunctional, for now. I had multiple scores on the torso, deeper than I liked, but survivable. Wordlessly, Hawley was taken away to be tended to. I let myself be bandaged, both to show that the town served me, and not to get blood on my prize. After these begrudging ministrations I hastily collected the object of my mission, an ancient stainless steel case that I was not allowed to open, and departed.
Riding leisurely down the highway, watching the evergreens all around me, feeling the aftereffects of my struggle, I daydreamed of return. In a hidden place, surrounded by the great lake and two ancient highways making an impenetrable triangular mountain redoubt, I would meet with my people as we planned our further advance.