Hot, dry wind rolled over the lifeless plateau. The sunlight beat down from the sky, only ever interrupted by passing clouds.
A herd of cattle stampeded through the desolate plain, their hooves tromping the cracked, dusty ground. From the rear of the herd came a speeder, mounted by a masked man. The trails of his ragged cloak fluttered behind him as he zipped around the flank of the herd, the hefty engines of his vehicle rattling with a multitude of neglected mechanical flaws.
Allowing the cattle to pass him, he stopped and pulled out a pair of binoculars from his leather satchel and scanned the horizon. In the distance he could see three dark vehicles approaching, spewing exhaust in their wake. Twisting the knobs, he magnified the vision and saw the pirate markings on the hulls. “Third time this month,” he muttered, then slipped the binoculars back into his satchel. He revved the motor on his speeder and boosted to the front of the herd, then cycled round to stop the herd from advancing any further. Then he waited.
Two minutes later, the three pirate ships pulled up in front of him and his cattle, who were more than happy to mull about in the general area. Hydraulic pipes lifting, the hatches on the three ships slowly turned open, unleashing a small mob of pirates. The man on the speeder dismounted, then stepped up a few paces to face the brigands. One of the pirates, evidently the leader, stepped forth, the decorative chains on his rough attire clinking with every step. He tapped the side of his head, near his temple, and a visor flipped up from a small mechanism, revealing his sharp, blue eyes. “I seen what you done to my men, Traw. I don't like it. Seven dead men and three totaled speeders. You know how much that's gonna cost me? Twelve hundred thousand Kaoris, plus the trouble of finding some new recruits. You done made me angry.”
Traw pulled off his face mask and lifted up his goggles, resting them in his dust-infested brown hair. He answered, keeping his distance, “If some band of pirates is attacking my homestead and goin' after my daughter, I find myself inclined to put a bullet in each of their heads. Or two per bastard. Just to be thorough.”
The pirate leader snarled, whipping out his pistol. It whirred and the six chambers began spinning. “You got a smart mouth, Traw,” he yelled. “Y'know, I was just gonna take some cattle and be on my way. But now that you went and said that, I might take 'em all, then pay your family a visit...maybe bring your dead body along for the ride.”
Without missing a beat, pulled out a rifle from his cloak, fired off two fatal shots at the captain, then dove behind his speeder. Needless to say, there was a swarm of shots from the rest of the pirates, many of which hit his speeder. Traw pulled open a flap on the side of his speeder, revealing a small screen. He pressed several buttons on the screen with his glove-clad hands, then took a moment to check the condition of his gun. It had a hole punched through it, wires sparking and mechanisms fried. Must have been one of the shots when I dove over. I'm getting too old for this, he thought.
As he commanded into the touchscreen, a small humanoid drone unfolded flawlessly from a compartment on the back of the speeder and rushed toward the pirates. They fired several direct hits at the drone, but it sustained them without hindrance. With its poorly oiled metal joints, the stocky drone plowed through the crowd and threw itself at one of the pirate ships. It sealed itself magnetically to the hull and began beeping. Few of the pirates still interested in Traw or his livestock, he mounted onto his speeder and zipped away, kicking up orange desert dust in his wake. My cattle will make it back to the homestead. I'm sure of it, he thought.
Amidst the clamor and mob of panicking raiders, the drone remained latched onto the hull of the middle ship, the magnetic seal too strong for any man to pry it off. Finally, the beeping stopped, though no one noticed. A short second afterward, the drone exploded into a thousand pieces, igniting the ship with it.
Traw pulled on the handle of his speeder, stopping it short. His goggles and mask on, he watched from afar as the spewing flames from the middle vehicle burst onto the other two, igniting their fuel tanks. Raiders ran in all directions, an unfortunate few scrambling amongst the wreckage to salvage one or two of their personal belongings, only to be engulfed in roaring flame. Traw's cattle stampeded in his direction, ultimately fleeing back to the ranch.
Without a last remark, Traw revved his engines again and sped home, knowing his livestock would eventually join him. They always found their way home.
He stepped through the rickety front door of his homestead, setting his keys, mask and goggles in a small bowl on a pedestal by the entrance. Traw pulled off his dusty coat and hung it on a rack, then walked into the small living space beside the entrance. Stretching his neck out, he pressed a button on a small remote, turning on a slim screen mounted to the wall across the room. The news was hectic, as usual. He laid his head back against the torn cushion and closed his eyes, listening to the female anchor's urgent voice.
She said, accompanied by the sounds of laser fire and crushing metal, “As you can see, the Nektro fleet has broken through the defensive blockade at Golgoix. They appear to be stronger than we last saw them, three weeks ago. Our sources at the Galactic Armored Marines headquarters have told us that the Nektro fleet is likely on a course for the planet Sino. To the Sinoans, you are advised to begin stocking up on canned goods and weapons for the next 48 hours, and then make your way to the closest military shelter and remain there. Do not try to fight the Nektro ground forces. I repeat, do not try to fight the Nektro ground forces. This may be your last transmission from the Galactic Informers' Guild, as the Nektro will begin jamming interplanetary transmissions soon. Stay strong. For all of us.”
“Nothing?” a different voice interrupted, after the screen turned off. Traw looked up, blinking. His wife, clad in a modest dress and an apron was standing on the staircase, holding another screen remote. Her lips were tight.
“Sorry, darlin',” Traw apologized, rising slowly. “I didn't know if you were home, or if you were out in the town shoppin'.”
“You know I never go shoppin',” she corrected, descending the stairs to meet him. Her voice was less terse. “I know you just wanted to hear that pretty news gal's voice again.”
“Nah. You're the prettiest gal this planet's ever seen,” Traw told her, taking her in his arms. They kissed. It was not the passionate kiss of youth; it was the kiss of rugged, tough lovers. It was the kiss of two who were beyond lovers, more like old friends. “I love you, Louise.”
“Why so romantic and all that?” Louise asked, withdrawing her head so she could meet his gaze. “I mean, not that I don't like it, but it's just...y'know, new. The great Sebastian Traw, a farmer, father and lover. So what happened out there?”
“Ran in with some raiders again,” Sebastian muttered, dropping his arms from her back, and they retreated smoothly from their embrace. “Apparently the boss wasn't all that thrilled about me puttin' laser holes in seven of his boys last week.”
“And what happened?” Louise inquired, walking into the kitchen to prepare supper.
“Lit up the bastards with one of those explosive drones Carl gave me for my birthday a few years back. It's a shame, really. That was the last one I had left. Maybe if I can scrounge up the Kaoris from our crop profit, I can pick me up one or two after harvest season.”
“What about the cattle?”
“They should be here in the next twenty minutes or so. They know their way home. I guarantee it.”
“Well, they better be. That's a lot of money we're losin' if they get lost. Oh, and Luella's at Mary-Anne's house again. Her parents said she'd bring Luella home around eight tonight.”
“Alright. Kripes, it seems like that girl's spending more time at her friend's house than our own. I get home after a long day, and she's gone again. Hey, babe, I'm gonna go and drop somethin' off at Mike's house. I'll be back before dusk, I promise.”
“You'd better be.”
After a twenty minute ride on the open, unkempt road,Traw pulled into a driveway, illuminated by a single street lamp standing at the end of it. He dismounted his speeder, and, brushing the dust off his cloak, walked up the driveway. After knocking on the shabby screen door, Mike came to the door, in a food-stained tanktop and a pair of overalls. “Good old Sebastian Traw,” Mike greeted, stepping onto his porch and shutting the screen door behind him with a bang. “Good to see ya again. Ya got what I lent ya?”
“Yeah, here you go,” Sebastian replied, pulling a rifle out from beneath his cloak. “All fixed up. Is there a reason you called me up last night for it?”
“Haven't you heard?” Mike asked, dumbfounded as he took the rifle. “The invasion?”
“Oh, yeah, I might've heard somethin' like that on the news...”
“I'm packin' all my valuables an' food, then hoofin' it to them mountains first thing tomorrow mornin'. I ain't gonna get bombed in my house by some alien snots. That's crap. If you wanna join us, me and some of the town boys are gonna set up a shelter and hold out there.”
“Kripes, man, get a grip. This whole alien invasion ain't all it's cracked up to be. Just watch. We ain't never gonna see any action out here. There might be some space fightin' outside the planet, but there won't be none of them dogs down here.”
“Do what you're gonna do, Sebastian. I'm outta here.”
Mike rushed back into the house to pack and shut the door behind him. Sebastian remained on the porch a minute, looking at the floor as his thoughts collected. He made his way back to his speeder, but before he left, he looked to the sky. It was like a fiery blaze, but more serene. Though it wasn't the color of the sky he was thinking about. It was what could be beyond it.