Bridge Over Paradiso

Almost a year ago, I started working on a serialized fiction. My busy lifestyle ended up putting it on the backburner, but I’m far fr

om done with it. Right now, I’m attempting to prioritize my projects, so I’m wondering what level of interest this project has. If nobody’s interested, I’ll just shelf it until the major projects are done, but if anyone is actually interested, I’ll put it to the front of the heap. It’s a space-western that follows Noah Wimmer, a kid who discovers that the rock formation on the outskirts of town is actually something much more. It’s something that could change the fate of the universe and it’s only protector is a tired old man.

At the end of this sample (the first episode), I’ll have a poll. If you want to read more, let me know. I’ve also been toying with the idea of turning it into an audio show, where I narrate the whole thing into a free podcast.

********************

Dust kicked up behind Noah Wimmer’s truck. The wide tires carried Noah over the vast purple desert that was the world of Paradiso.
The truck itself was a marvel of engineering. Originally an X10-80 Hauler, built long before Noah’s mother was a gleam in her daddy’s eye, it had since been modified, repaired, torn apart, rebuilt, and worn back down at least a hundred times. Most of those were by Noah own engineering skills. Even though the truck was a tool for work, it was Noah’s freedom.
The old X10 had a large flatbed for hauling supplies, and that’s how Noah was using it. Noah wanted to just forget his cargo and drive on, forever chasing that feeling of escape that the X10 gave him.
He could, too. He could drive forever on this large planet.
Mostly because of the solar-panels on top of the truck.
The planet of Paradiso was in a binary star system and the stars were spaced out enough to only afford Paradiso with a little over an hour of dark per 24 hour day. Solar power wasn’t only abundant, it was in surplus.
The wind tore through Noah’s chin-length blond hair as he crested another dune. At 17, Noah wasn’t happy with any of his prospects. He was taller and thinner than the average and that same height kept him from working in the mines like most of his peers. He had planned on joining the WaterCorp, but they had an age limit that he was four years too young for. That left the Freight Teams.
Paradiso’s one moon was called Crypta. Crypta was a lush forest, filled with everything that Paradiso lacked. That included carnivorous plants and animals that were so fierce it made the planet uninhabitable. Fortunately, it didn’t make it impossible to visit. The resources, such as food, building materials, water, and exotic souvenirs made for a lucrative trade on Paradiso. The Freight Team, taking advantage of the weakened gravity caused by Crypta’s close proximity, launched ships onto the moon and collected the resources before returning to Paradiso the next day.
Whether you were a pilot, a loader, or security, the job was incredibly dangerous. Most of the plants caused negative allergic reactions in humans, and the beasts of the planet were excellent hunters.
Noah shook the thought from his head and returned his focus to driving. He hadn’t mentioned to his mother that he was interested in joining the Freight Teams. He had no doubt what her reaction would be.
She’d kill him long before the moon did.
It had been at least thirty kilometers between the supply drop from Crypta and Noah’s mother’s store. Cresting the next dune, the store came into Noah’s view.
The store was officially nameless, but known to the locals of Paradiso as Wimmer’s Place. Noah’s family had owned and operated it in some capacity or another for the last four generations. Noah could feel the pressure for him to continue the business, but he couldn’t break his mind from wanting a new experience.
Or new experiences with The Freight Team.
Even with the pressure that he was feeling, Noah knew that his family didn’t actually expect him to take over. They knew him for what he was and all hoped, and bet on, his sister, Tessa to take over. To be fair to his family, even Noah knew that they encouraged his ambitions. They wished for him to reach for the stars, only not so literally.
Noah pulled up to the store. It was a large brick and metal structure, built to withstand sandstorms and whatever else anyone could throw at it. The windows were vertical slits, mostly to allow weapons to slide out in the case of a siege, but also for allowing light in, while protecting from the storms.
It had been months since anyone had tried to lay siege to the store, although robberies themselves were more recent. Noah and his family, as well as some of the more loyal locals, had become quite the impressive little army in this lawless land. The last siege had ended with the loss of only one barrel of water and a few lives lost on the side of the attackers.
The store was a resource, and destroying it wasn’t what the attackers ever wanted. They wanted the supplies without paying for them, but they also wanted there to be more supplies in the future. So, even with the loss of some life, they still planned to attack the store without grinding it in the dust.
It had been that way for the entire four generations. It even became habit about sixty years ago to leave one of the barrels poisoned. Only the Wimmers ever knew which one it was.
Parking his X10, Noah hopped from the cab and grabbed a crate from the bed of the truck before walking in. He walked by more vehicles on his way in. Noah recognized all of them.
Kreager Evans’ skimmer was parked directly next to where Noah had parked the X10. Kreager was about Noah’s age and mute. He was hellbent on building a a better dehumidifier for pulling water from the air. On a desert world, water was the most valuable commodity, even with Crypta within reach, and such a device was a worthy cause. Unfortunately, Kreager was entirely self-taught, and hadn’t made any breakthroughs in water collection yet.
Parked tightly next to Kreager’s skimmer was Chartrand family wagon. A group of farmers with a greenhouse about a hundred kilometers to the south of the store. They were one of the bigger traders with the Wimmer store, trading rare vegetables for large quantities of water.
Karen White’s old rover was parked so close to the front entrance to the store that Noah had to squeeze by it just to get in. Karen was a sour older lady who was quite fond of her chew sticks.
Karen was the first person that Noah came across when he made had finally squeezed into the store. He set his crate down on the counter just as his mother came out of the back carrying a stack of boxes tied with twine. Karen eyed him and began to waggle her finger while gnawing on a chew stick.
Noah rolled his eyes at her, but stepped up and grabbed the boxes from his mother.
Annie Wimmer was in her late forties and lean from many years working the store on the dried out desert world. She wore glasses, but Noah was pretty sure that she didn’t need them for anything other than reading. She was sharp and quick witted and a dangerous woman with her rifle.
As Noah took the boxes, Annie turned toward Karen and smiled, “Thank you, Karen.” She turned back to Noah. “Take the top two boxes out to Karen’s wagon. She pointed to the bottom and much larger of the boxes that he had taken. “That one belongs to Eckhart, you can just set that anywhere until he gets here.”
Karen spoke around her chew stick upon hearing Eckhart’s name. “You mean that crazy old man that sets up by the Bridge?”
Noah rolled his eyes, and if Karen hadn’t been looking directly at Annie when she’d asked about Eckhart, Annie would have rolled her eyes as well. Many were surprised that Karen was still alive, so the irony wasn’t lost on either of the Wimmers that she had just referred to Eckhart as an ‘old man.’
The Bridge in question was a relic from some long past war. Back before the migration, Paradiso has been part of some galactic conflict and the Bridge had been used as some sort of landing pad for ferrying soldiers to and from the dust covered planet. Humanity hadn’t faired well during that war, and by all accounts Paradiso was all that remained of the human race. Once the battle had been lost, whatever connection had allowed people to ferry over the Bridge was cut, Paradiso was cut off from the Universe, and the Bridge became a large stone memory.
It was called the Bridge because of it’s general look. It was a set of stone stairs that lifted off of the desert and then arced over and flattened out, much like an actual bridge. Unlike an actual bridge, the Bridge stopped abruptly right in the middle of the would be bridge. That mid-air terminus led many to believe that it was a loading platform for spacecraft. People would load up onto the bridge and then step from it into the open doorway of a spacecraft, prepared for battle.
“Old, yes,” Annie remarked, “but I don’t know about crazy. He’s sane enough to somehow make a profit doing whatever he does out by the Bridge.”
“That’s a good point,” Noah said, wondering not for the first time about old Eckhart’s ability to make money. He always had enough for the supplies he came and picked up, but for all of Noah’s subtle investigation, he still had no idea what Eckhart did to make money. “How does he get his money?”
Annie frowned, “Johnny Marcuro came in here mumbling a theory the other day about that.” Noah set Eckhart’s box on the counter next to Karen and scooped back up Karen’s boxes while his mother explained. “He seems to think that Eckhart takes half of his supplies that he gets from us and resells them on the far side of the planet.”
It makes sense, Noah thought. Wimmer’s Place was the better of all the stores on Paradiso, having been around long enough to build a good relationship with The Freight Teams. It as possible that The Freight Teams gave better product to the Wimmers.
“That sure doesn’t seem fair to you,” Karen mumbled.
Annie shrugged. “As long as he keeps buying from me, I don’t care what he does with his supplies.”
“Well,” Karen continued. “I don’t think that’s what he does, anyway.”
“Oh?” asked Noah, genuinely curious.
Karen waved her hand, as if using it to summon some old memory. Still looking at Annie, she continued. “Old Eckhart used to tell your father that he was on a research grant to study that Bridge. If you can believe anything he says, that is. It was well over thirty-five years ago. Do you really think that he still gets grants? Who hands them out? What could there be left to study in that unchanging rock?”
Noah’s mother shrugged. “Mine isn’t to wonder about my customers, Karen, or I’d be wondering why you’d be buying all of that cabling. Some would wonder if you were building a private comm tower to hear when the shipments would be arriving…”
Karen’s face blanched at that and Noah had to turn his head to hide his smirk. Karen then turned away from Annie and started pushing Noah and her boxes toward the door.
Loading Karen’s small rover was a more a matter of holding her boxes of cabling while she maneuvered her mess around to make room. About five minutes after reaching her vehicle, Karen finally stepped aside and let Noah set the boxes into her rover cab.
The moment that he had stepped back from setting down the boxes, Noah heard the whine of another vehicle. In unison, he and Karen turned to see Eckhart and his solar buggy pull up beside them.
Eckhart wasn’t as old as ancient Karen, but he was definitely in his higher years. His olive skin glistened with sweat as he stepped out onto the purple sand. His hair, once black, was white and cut very close to his scalp. His head and his beard must have been shaved at about the same time, as his white beard was the same length as his hair on top of his head. He was dressed in a loose brown robe made from a light material. Covering the top of his close cropped hair, Eckhart wore a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun from his eyes.
“Boy,” his voice was low and rough, sound as weathered as his sun-aged skin. “Your mother in?”
Noah nodded and tilted his head toward the shop. “She’s inside.”
Eckhart returned Noah’s nod, dipped his hat to Karen, and then headed toward the store.
He stopped as he came shoulder to shoulder with Noah, tilting his head as if attempting to hear something. “Get Karen out of here. Now. I saw riders coming this way.” Eckhart hesitated. “They didn’t look…respectable.” He slid past Karen’s rover and into the store.
“Karen, I think you’re all loaded up. How about we get you on your way?” Noah sealed the back of the rover and watched as Karen climbed in and pulled away, mumbling something about pushy youth.
Once Noah was sure that Karen was good and gone, he turned and watched as three riders on glider bikes crested the same dune that he had also crested earlier in the X10.
Inside, Eckhart was throwing some more goods from the shelves and into the box that was still where Noah had left it. As he did, Annie was rattling off prices, but there was no sign in Eckhart’s eyes that he cared at all what the price was.
The sound of the riders’ glider bikes interrupted Annie’s pricing and halted Eckhart where he stood.
Eckhart looked at Annie, “I’ll check on your boy. You hide the valuables, get your gun, and stay here.”
Annie was about to protest being told what to do in her own store, but Eckhart held up a hand and a slight smile. “I can handle this, your customers will need to be kept calm.”
He nodded toward the Chartrand family looking concerned by the sudden change in the atmosphere. Annie hesitated and then nodded. She didn’t need panicked customers, and Eckhart seemed sure enough of himself.
“They could be customers,” Annie tried.
Eckhart shook his head and said quietly, “We both know that they’re not.” With that he turned and headed back toward the door.
Outside, the three riders climbed from their glider bikes and straightened their jackets. On their sides, plasma pistols hung on loose holsters. Each of them was at least a decade older than Noah and they were smiling to themselves as they took in the wiry boy.
“Can I help you gentleman?” Noah asked.
Instead of answering, the rider in the lead pointed at Noah, eliciting a laugh from his companions.
The rider in the back of the trio said loudly, “Go home, boy. We’re looking for a fight, and you’re not it.”
They moved to walk past Noah and into the store, but Noah’s hand shot out and grabbed the nearest one by the arm.
“This is my home,” Noah said, “and I’m the only fight that you’re going to find.”
The rider that Noah grabbed looked down at Noah’s hand and then at Noah before yanking his arm back.
“I guess we’ll start with you then.”
The rider reached for his plasma pistol and his companions followed suit.
“Are you the boys who mess with Roger Lincoln’s barn?” Eckhart said from the door to the store with his arms crossed.
Distracted, the riders left their hands resting on their pistols but didn’t draw them.
The rider that Noah had grabbed said, “It’s a desert world. Fires happen.” His companions didn’t even attempt to hide their snickering.
Eckhart nodded slowly and slid aside his robe, revealing his own plasma pistol. He walked forward, stepping closer to the group.
The mirth left the riders as they saw the gun and they tightened their grips on their own holstered weapons.
“Roger,” Eckhart continued, “is a good man and a friend of mine.” He unclipped something from just behind the pistol and brought his hand forward slowly, letting the robe fall back over the pistol.
All that Noah could see was a small flat disk that fit into the palm of Eckhart’s hand. With a flick of his wrist, the disk flew past the riders and Noah coming to a rest underneath the glider bikes.
Eckhart reached out and touched Noah’s shoulder. “Get inside and check on your mother.” There was no room for arguing in Eckhart’s tone, and Noah didn’t hesitate to move back toward the store. He didn’t get as far as his mother, though, instead choosing to stand inside the door to watch Eckhart and the riders.
“Get out of our way, old man. We’ll kill you if you don’t,” said the same rider as before.
Eckhart ignored them and pointed in the direction of their bikes. “Do you know what that is?” He didn’t wait for them to answer. “Figured not. There ain’t too many around here who would.” He brought his hand back and shoved both hands into the pockets of his robe. “It’s a Newton 4. Designed a long time ago, it has the ability to magnify gravity within a small radius for a short time.” Eckhart pulled a small red clip out of the pocket of his robe and held it up in front of the riders. “We used them all the time during the war. I set the timer to 45 seconds.”
He took a breath and looked between them before realizing that they still didn’t understand what he was talking about.
Eckhart didn’t flinch or move. Instead, he sighed. “It’s a grenade, boys, and the time is ticking!” He waggled the red clip. “If you don’t get out of here now, I won’t turn it off.”
The lead rider wavered just a bit and glanced back toward his bike. Following their elected leader, the other riders looked back at the bikes.
When nothing happened they turned back to Eckhart with ear to ear grins.
Then a loud whumph! sounded. It was followed by an equally loud crunch of metal.
Spinning back around, the riders and Noah could see that two of the bikes were destroyed. They had been flattened into the sand. The third back had missed the pull of the Newton 4 and survived.
Before they could fully process what they were seeing, Eckhart stepped forward and pulled the plasma pistol from the holster of the nearest rider. Just as quickly as he pulled the pistol, he put a bolt of plasma into the knee of the rider in the middle. Turning slightly, Eckhart aimed the plasma pistol at the final rider before he could draw his own weapon.
“The way I see it, you’re lucky in that y’all still have one bike.” Eckhart waved his free hand at the middle rider who was missing half of his knee. “Now you can take your moaning pal and head back to wherever you call home, or I can do ole Roger a solid and end this now.” He looked at each of them, the plasma pistol never moving.
The rider who’s gun Eckhart took stepped back from Eckhart and helped get the middle rider up and onto his one good leg. While he and his wounded companion hobbled toward the remaining bike, the last rider stared daggers at Eckhart.
“Drop your pistol and go.” Eckhart shook his head. “I won’t ask again.”
A loud clunk signaled a side panel in the wall of the store sliding aside. A rifle barrel slid out and Noah could hear his mother’s voice as she called out. “You have until the count of ten.”
The final rider unholstered his plasma pistol slowly and then dropped it at his feet.
The wounded rider took that moment to pull his own pistol and take aim on Eckhart.
Before Noah could call out, a shot rang out and the wounded rider was quickly sporting a plasma hole in his chest. He collapsed to the ground as Annie shouted, “Ten!”
The two remaining riders climbed up onto the bike and everyone in the store could hear the strain on the engine as they revved it up.
The rider sitting on the back of the bike shouted over the loud engine, “We won’t make it far like this. We’ll die out there.”
Eckhart shouted back, “It’s a desert world. Accidents happen.”
The engine of the glider roared to life and carried the two men off into the desert.
Ignoring the body still smoking on the purple desert sand, Eckhart stomped into the store, pushing past Noah.
“Annie,” Eckhart says, leaving Noah standing shocked in the doorway. “Did the Freighters bring down any of that aloe?”
Noah’s mother tossed the rifle onto the counter top and walked behind it to check her invoices. Out of habit, Noah’s legs started moving. He was well into packing up the last of Eckhart’s supplies into the crates when an idea finally surfaced through his shock.
It wasn’t until Annie and Noah were carrying the supplies to Eckhart’s buggy, when Noah asked his mother, “Where did Eckhart get a grenade?”
“What?” Annie asked her son.
Noah stepped around the body that was still laying in the sand and set the crate down in Eckhart’s vehicle. “Eckhart used that gravity grenade on the gliders.” Noah shrugged, “I’ve never even heard of anything like that. Where did he get?”
Annie returned her son’s shrug. “You shouldn’t worry about things like that. It was probably a left-over from his time in the war.”
Noah had heard that phrase before, usually whenever someone tried to explain the oddness that defined Eckhart. Except that no one ever knew what war that was.
“What war?” Noah asked his mother, and it wasn’t for the first time.
Annie was obviously getting frustrated with her son. She’d just killed a man and avoided another robbery of her store. She was stressed to her very limit, and her son was asking her what seemed like ridiculous questions.
“Obviously, it’s that war that he’s always talking about.” Annie started the march back toward the store, giving the body a wider birth than she had during her first path.
Noah followed her and thought back to the numerous times that Eckhart had mentioned this forgotten war. He couldn’t even count the number. Eckhart was notorious for starting any story that he felt worth telling with “Back in the war,” or “Before the war.”
Except that made absolutely no sense. The Bridge had been closed for hundreds of years, restricting all travel from Paradiso to its nearby moon. Since the closing of the Bridge, their had been no actual wars on Paradiso since the closing of the Bridge.
Survival was hard enough on the harsh desert world without adding wars into the mix.
At least, that’s how Noah knew it to be.
Noah hadn’t realized it, but Eckhart had been within earshot for the entire conversation with his mother.
“There was no war, kid,” Eckhart said, suprising Noah. “Put it out of your mind.”
That made even less sense to Noah. There was already ‘no war,’ and then Eckhart had talked of ‘the war,’ and now he was going back to saying that there was ‘no war?’
“Than why do you talk about ‘the war’ all of the time?” Noah pressed.
Eckhart snorted, stepping past Noah and into the store, “Because I’m an old man with little to do other than wish that I would have had a war to fight in.”
Eckhart’s tone carried finality with it, and only led Noah to believe even more that Eckhart was hiding something.
Once they were all three in the store, Noah was surprised to hear his mother ask the next question, “Then where did you dig up a gravity grenade?”
Noah scooped up the last crate from the counter and handed it off to Eckhart.
Eckhart sighed as he took the box, “I make bombs. It’s a hobby. I get bored living as far out as I do.” He shrugged with the box. “I had a finicky repulsor that I retrofitted with a power oscillator and a crystal-based timer. The effect was better than I could have hoped for.” Eckhart frowned and looked directly at Annie, “Do you always interrogate the folks who save your store?”
Suddenly embarrassed, Noah’s mother began stuttering an apology.
Eckhart smiled and Annie felt even more embarrassed having been caught in his little joke. “I’m only giving you a hard time, Annie.”
With that, Eckhart walked from the store and loaded the last crate into the back of his buggy. Much to Noah and Annie’s surprise, he then scooped up the body of the last bandit and threw it on top of the buggy.
With a final nod to the Wimmers, Eckhart climbed aboard and drove off.
They both watched him go and didn’t say a word until he was out of sight.
Once they couldn’t see Eckhart anymore, Annie said, “Stay away from him, Noah.”
Noah didn’t look away from where he’d last seen Eckhart on the horizon. “Why, mom?”
Annie shook her head and headed back toward the store while her son continued to stare. “Because he’s weird, and probably dangerous. Just do as your told.”

* * *

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