The angel of death loomed over my cradle the day I was born with the umbilical cord lassoed around my neck, and that bastard has stalked me ever since. He never finishes the job, though, no matter how many opportunities I give him.

Today’s the last he has to do it with any kind of dignity. Hopefully, it’ll be a hole through the stomach or getting my head beaten in with a blunt object. Something slow, gruesome, and messy. That would sum up my life pretty well.

With my dwindling luck, I’ll end up in some shitty hospital, sitting next to a shitty window with some lace-and-lilies quilt tucked around my legs, watching the sun rise and sink below the crisp, blue, shitty skyline, wondering which day will be my last—if I even know what day it is by that point. There’s not much that scares me in this world except fading away.

I’ve been alive more years than I care to count. But through those years comes experience, and I’ve learned the best way to drown your fears, especially the ones you can’t do nothing about, is at the bottom of a 24-ouncer. I’m sure any shrink would tell you otherwise until you got a few beers in them, too.

So, that’s what I was doing—drowning my fears at Jules’ bar when Pacific Union sent my final job. Well, actually, they sent it to Rebecca, my counterpart perched on the stool beside me. The Union knows she’ll read the message on time. Me? I snort into my glass and wash back another swig of the acid vinegar Jules calls beer.

The chime on Rebecca’s vidscreen doesn’t even finish its first buzz before she snatches it up, pops off her stool, and stands at attention as if a general just walked into the room. Her gray camo pants and fitted tee are perfectly clean and pressed. If it weren’t for everyone else in here wearing the same uniform, she’d look as if she didn’t belong in this dump.

“Miller,” she says, and I barely catch the robotic hum in her voice. I’m so used to it now that I only hear it when I’m trying to. “Our assignment is up.”

She couldn’t be more opposite of me and not just in personality. She’s young, though I suppose she’ll always look young, and she’s not an inch over five-two. Everything about her is just small. Don’t let that fool you, though. She could beat me in an arm wrestle even though my biceps are wider than her thighs. One of the benefits of being what she is, I suppose.

It’s her eyes that give her away. Our coloring might be damn near opposite too, what with my light skin to her dark. But the silver in my hair? She’s got the same color through her irises. Funny thing about humans: they like machines to look like them—just not exactly like them, or it freaks them out. So Rebecca’s silver eyes are just inhuman enough to put most humans at ease.

“What’s the damage?” I ask her. I’m only half-listening as I rest my elbows on the bar, ignoring the dull ache in my joints and nursing a glass that’s already half gone. Not bad for a mid-morning. I rotate the glass in my hand, and the entire bar behind me reflects back. Hanging lamps create spotlights through the bar, and pinpoints of sunlight peek through the red-stained glass. It’s dim and dank and a little dirty—just how we all like it. There’s a handful of guys and gals sprawled amongst the tables, glasses clicking against the table or each other’s. This place is half full of bulls who prefer a little hair of the dog for breakfast instead of the quiche and blueberries the bubble’s known for.

Rebecca clears her throat, eyes glued to her vidscreen. “Escort a supply train to the Redding City bubble—”

I nearly choke on my drink, and the rancid taste burns the back of my throat. Redding City? What kind of shitty mission was this? A two, three-hour ride tops. Minimal raider hideouts. There are even some trees still standing in that part of the Void.

Why the hell would the Union give me a mission as simple as Redding City? That run was for testing newbies to see if they really have what it takes to be a railroad bull. I’ve been at this gig for three decades, never lost a train yet.

Three decades.

I snort. They think I’m a feeble, old fart. That’s why I’ve got this mission—especially with my last medical check. Did they get that report from the doc already? Shit.

Beside me, Rebecca’s still droning on about the mission’s parameters. “… scheduled departure time is oh-nine hundred hours.” Her gaze flicks to the wall clock, though her internal mechanisms already know exactly what time it is. It’s a human trait they have programmed her to exude. “It’s eight forty-five. We must leave now.”

See? On time.

“Ah, it’ll wait,” I say with a wave of my hand, the one not holding my beer. I’ve never been one to rush anywhere, especially not Redding City. “Lemme finish my drink.”

She shoves the vidscreen in front of my face, two inches from my nose. Ironically, it’s so close I can’t even read it. “Oh-nine hundred hours.”

I scoff and push the vidscreen away. “Just relax, will ya?”

Rebecca sighs, one of those I’m-losing-my-patience sighs. I get those a lot from her, and she doesn’t even need to breathe air. “In fifteen minutes, the train will leave.”

“You’re the engineer,” I tell her between sips. “How’s the train gonna leave without you in it?”

She starts pacing around behind me. I’ve got my back to her, but the steady clack-clack-clack-pivot of her boots echoes against the concrete floor. “Every assignment, you do this.”

I nod and shrug. Let her think I’m stubborn. Truth is, being late is one of the few things I can still control in my sorry existence. For instance, I can’t control when I’m done working, it seems. They’re shipping me off to pasture tomorrow. Forced retirement. Won’t be long before my mind slips or my bladder goes or something equally embarrassing. But what time I show up for my last assignment? That’s my choice, dammit. Plus, it reminds the Union they’re not the ones doing the dirty work. The bulls are.

Which means I don’t have to take Redding City.

“Is the full schedule up?” I ask.

Her boots halt mid-turn. There’s a pause, and then Rebecca’s steel fingernails click against her vidscreen. “Yes,” she says slowly, in a tone that reveals she doesn’t trust me. “Why?”

I swivel on my stool to face her—beer still in my hand, of course—rest my elbows back against the bar. “Is there a Mojave run?”

Now, Mojave. That’s a ride. Enough raiders for a small army. Regular sandstorms. Hell, sometimes the temp gets so hot, even the tracks warp, and then the real fun starts. To almost anyone else, it would be punishment. To me, it’s freedom.

Rebecca flicks through her vidscreen. “There’s one,” she reveals. “It leaves in thirty minutes.”

“Who’s got it?”

She presses the vidscreen against her forehead. “Miller—”

“Who’s got it?” I press.

She relents and reads out the name. “Sanders.”

“That dolt?” I bellow so loud, half the bar startles. “He’s lost three trains this year.”

“Perhaps he’s less of a pain in the ass,” she retorts.

It’s pretty uncommon for her to get sassy, and it’s got me grinning from ear to ear. “Think about it like this,” I say, “you won’t have to put up with me anymore after today, darlin’.”

She eyes me in a way that, if I didn’t know better, I’d almost describe as wistful. She lets out another sigh, ‘cept this one isn’t triggered by her lack of patience. “I suppose,” she murmurs.

She’s not really sad to be rid of me. She’s not really anything, at least in the emotions department. She’s programmed to act like she feels things, and that’s about it. It’s supposed to help us create a connection, but that’s all for my benefit. Humans can feel things for machines if we think of them as human enough. But she could never form an attachment to me. That’s the benefit of not having a heart. You never have to worry about it gettin’ ripped out of your chest and stomped on—figuratively or literally.

I can’t keep looking into her sad eyes anymore, so my gaze wanders the walls of the bar. It’s decorated with empty bottles, dart boards, and black-and-white photos of soldiers in fatigues. I snort at the photos. Black and white. That tech has got to be a few hundred years old.

If I’m going to get a better mission, I gotta hit the higher-ups. That means talking to Marge. She’s a stickler for the rules, but she’ll listen to reason, too. And by listen to reason, I mean she’ll cave just to get rid of me.

I stand, and Rebecca’s face lights up until she sees me raising my glass to the room. “Listen up,” I bellow. The general chatter of the bar cuts to silence, and every eye flicks my way. I raise my glass a little higher. “In thirty minutes—”

“Fifteen.” Rebecca waves the vidscreen in my face again. I push it away.

“In thirty minutes, I’m shipping out for my last assignment.” There are a few grunts and nods of sympathy. Everyone here knows that day is coming for them, too, and most of them would rather die first. “So, say a prayer for me to whatever gods you believe in. Don’t pray I make it back. Don’t pray for an easy trip. Pray those raiders give me a helluva last ride.”

A round of cheers and hollers erupts from the crowd, a few hear-hears, and even a fuck the man. Then everyone tips their glasses at me and slams back a swig in my honor. I keep to myself a lot, so I don’t even know the names of half the people in here. But there’s a kind of comradery about us, anyway. We’re all cut from the same cloth. We like things a little wild and messy and outside of the law. There’s a reason why Jules never sweeps the floor, and it’s not because she’s lazy. This bar is home, more than home, for most of us. Real home is a ten-by-ten tin can of an apartment. A place to shit and sleep. That’s about it. That’s all you get anymore as a veteran. There’s not much space inside the bubbles, and we’re here to serve the people. Still, that rule never seems to apply to those senators and other higher-ups, who get enough square footage to host a ballgame. Funny how that goes, ain’t it?

I toss back my glass and finish the rest in a single gulp.

“Good. You’re done,” Rebecca announces. “We should go.” She turns toward the door.

Instead, I slam my glass down, sit on the stool, and swivel back to the bar. “One more,” I tell her. “To celebrate.”

“Miller . . . ” She’s pleading now. Beside me, she rests her forehead against the bar and sighs. She’s back to the losing-patience kind of sigh.

Jules emerges from the backroom, pushing through a curtain of beads that separates the bar from the “employees only” area. She staggers under the weight of the crate she’s carrying. Glass bottles clang together inside as she wrestles it onto the counter. The base of my brain tells me to help her, but my higher thinking keeps me glued to the stool. Jules would probably stab me in the kidney if I tried to carry something for her.

She lets out a puff, blowing her mop of mousy brown curls out of her eyes—the kind of hair that has a life of its own. Like most of us in here, Jules is the rough-around-the-edges type. She wears an army-gray jacket with the sleeves cut off, no makeup, and her skin is tanned and leathered, though her smile is perfectly white. I’m not sure if she’s gruff because she has to be dealing with us lug-heads or if she was born that way.

“Miller, for god’s sake,” she mutters, glaring at me. It’s not any old glare, though. It’s the one she reserves for the worst of the lost causes that stumble into her establishment. I get that glare at least twice a week. Jules nods at Rebecca. “Why do you torture her? She’s gonna pop a coil or something.”

Rebecca raises her chin. “I do not have coils, ma’am.”

“You also don’t drink, but I still let you into my bar.”

Rebecca opens her mouth to say something, thinks better of it, and shuts her lips. Jules grabs a few bottles out of the crate and begins stacking them on shelves behind the bar.

“Why are you fighting this?” she asks with her back to me. “You live for getting out of this pollution-free, solar-powered hellhole.”

She’s saying “hellhole” for my sake, I’m sure. I don’t think Jules minds the bubble so much. Most people don’t—as long as they don’t mind obeying every law, right down to chewing gum or spitting on the sidewalk. Me? I like rules only when they exist to be broken.

“I show up when I show up,” I tell her, “not when I’m called to heel.”

“Stop being a dick.” More bottles clang together as she fishes them out of the crate. “You’ll get an honorable discharge with your retirement.”

I scoff under my breath. Jules thinks I’m retiring because I want to, not because the doc is saying I need to. And an honorable discharge? I might get a general discharge, given that sometimes my conduct is a little less than honorable. Just a smidge.

Something soft and black pushes against my arm and arcs up until it nuzzles into my hand and purrs. I grin down at Trouble, the bar’s unofficial mascot. “Hey, sweetheart.”

Jules whips around, bottle clutched tight in her hand like she’s gonna whack me with it, ’til she sees I’m talking to the cat, not her. The tension in her shoulders leaks out, and she frowns. “Damn thing loves you at least.”

“Course she does.”

This here feline owes me one of her lives, and I think she knows it.

Here’s the thing: I’m a big guy. Six-three, solid muscle, even at my age. I’ve lost some weight recently—about twenty pounds, if I’m being honest—but I’m still a bit of a hulking beast compared to most. I’m not saying it to brag. It’s just the truth, and I don’t bullshit. Much. But I never use my size to get what I want or push people around. Not unless some young’un needs to be put in their place, like if they’re being a meathead to someone smaller than them, especially a kid or a dog or something.

That’s where the cat comes in.

A few months back, I was trudging through the spotless streets of our miraculous city-in-a-bubble when some sort of terrible, high-pitched, frantic scream pierced the air. Not a human scream, mind you. Definitely something much smaller and even more helpless.

I’d never heard such a noise before, but the way my heart twisted my instincts knew it wasn’t good. A hard pivot on my heel had me heading down an empty alleyway, one with dumpsters and the like. About halfway through, I found a skinny little weasel of a guy hunched over something black and fuzzy. I don’t know what he was doing to it. I didn’t ask. I just grabbed the back of his skull and slammed him face-first into the wall so hard the bricks crumbled.

While that jerk was passed out and bleeding all over the ground, a scrawny little mess of fur came sauntering over. All black except her paws were white, like she had little socks on. Not gonna lie, it was damn cute. Then she slunk around my legs, arching into me and purring. I hadn’t even had a human woman do that to me in a decade. She knew I’d saved her from some misery, and now she was looking for me to take her home. Hadn’t had a human woman do that to me in a decade, either. But hell if I know how to keep a cat alive. So I dropped her off with Jules. Figured that tuft of fur would get plenty of lovin’ that way, given that Jules’ bar is teeming with hard, old men with soft hearts. None of the guys would admit that, though. Tough as stones, they like to think—they like everyone to think. But whenever she slinks up to them, they eventually break down and stroke her backside till she’s purring.

The cat. Not Jules.

None of the men here dare to look at Jules too long or even think about pinching her ass, or she’d cut their fingers off and stick them as trophies on her wall. Jules named the cat Trouble, knowing it would be a hit with the guys. She was right. They all watch her moseying up to them and mutter, “ah shit, here comes Trouble.” Then there’s always a pause, and they bowl over with laughter. Gets ’em every time.

I slide my glass over to Jules and nod for a refill, but she swipes it off the counter and conceals it beneath the bar.


Jules splays her hands on the bar and clicks her tongue. She does this whenever she’s about to say something profound. “The saddest story in the world is about a man who arrives just a little too late.”

See? Might as well be a fucking proverb.

I wipe my mouth and push up to my feet. “Inspirational. Just enough to get me off my ass.”

The corner of her mouth twists up. “Thanks. I’ve been sitting on that one for a week.”

“I meant taking my glass away. Why would I keep sitting if I’m not drinking?”

Her grin drops into a scowl. “Asshole.”

She says that a lot, but she loves us. You know it ’cause she smiles when she sees you walk through the door. Not the standard greet-the-customer smile. It’s a relieved, thank-god-you’re-still-alive smile. Her shoulders sink, and her eyes light up, and you can pretty much see her heart untwisting right there. Because she knows what we do, and she knows we don’t all come back.

My partner’s right, though. If I’m going to make my last ride one that counts, I gotta get to the Union and make my case for Mojave. Or at least something better than Redding City.

Rebecca’s already marching toward the door. “If we hurry, we can still make it on time.”

She disappears through the swinging door. I lag behind.

“Hey, Miller,” Jules calls out. I glance back at her, and she gives me a curt nod. “Take it easy.”

That’s another thing she says a lot. She won’t say goodbye. She won’t tell us to be careful. But this is her way of saying both without saying either.

I grin so wide it doubles the creases around my eyes and jaw. “Not on my life, sweetheart.”

Before she can whip something at my head, I give her a wink and duck out the door.

For a look at the action and fight scenes, read Chapter 11 here.

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