Sunday, 18 June 2017

Chapter 35 - One Shot

'Brother?' Rat's face, confused, dirty, scared. 'What's the matter?'

I expected Piano Man to laugh or pull off one of his vile rhymes to mock me, but now he was looking straight past me at Rat. Looking at her the same way that wild dogs look at a straggler.

'Rat, get back,' I warned.

'What do you mean? Where am I supposed to go?'

'Just get back,' I pleaded. Back, into the fire, as though that was somehow safer. Maybe it was.

'You're scaring me,' Rat said.

Piano Man's tune was low, melancholy. 'Phoenix,' he said, 'ain't you gonna introduce me to your little sister?'

Nothing I could think of to say in that moment was going to earn me a place in heaven. Though maybe I should have just gone wild, because staying silent wasn't about to earn me any favours either.

'If I were you, I'd want to get down from here,' Piano Man said amiably. 'It's pretty damn hot.'

'No hurry,' I growled. 'If you've got something to say, I'll wait to hear you out.'

'C'mon now, I saved your life twice already,' Piano Man said, the tune gaining a tempo, his hands a fury as they rattled at the keys before him. 'Are you still so bothered by me?'

I was dimly aware that the world was fraying around the edges, the flames climbing too slowly to be real. Rat's cries slowed down and she faded into the background, like someone calling my name from a street away.

The Piano Man's fingers blurred. They might have been the only thing that was still moving. 'Here's the thing. We've spoken a few times now, and that's not a common occurrence for me. Most people tend to find that once is enough for them. Now, first time we spoke, you should have died. Second time, pretty much the same. Third time, you actually did. Put all of them events together, and by rights, you shouldn't be here to engage in polite discourse, you get me?'

I still said nothing. No words felt safe.

'Phoenix, you seem to have a taste for a particular kind of danger, and frankly, you've been pushing and pulling the boundaries of reality every which way for a while. Now, that's a high-risk strategy, and no mistake. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that you ain't so much burning a candle at both ends as trying to bring one intact outta Hell. You get what I'm saying?'
 
I was a man walking a tightrope. A tightrope that reached out beyond this devil from the Sands, and down to earth and something like safety. I didn't want to have to go through the Piano Man – hell, I didn't even know if I could walk right through him like he was made of air - but if I stayed to hear to what he had to say, there was every chance Rat and I would be burned to cinders before he was done listening to the sound of his own voice.

'But you have a saving grace,' Piano Man continued, closing his eyes and playing by feel. 'The toll. Whatever you do, whatever crazy risks you take, it's okay, because you always pay the toll. Ain't that right?'

'I always pay my debts,' I said. If I threw my whole weight into that piano...

His voice cut through me, and I was sure he could tell what I was thinking. 'Why, if only everyone was as trustworthy as you. Here you are, a veritable Southern gentleman, honest, reliable, virtuous. If there was more people like you in the world, why, then it wouldn't be about to burn to a crisp, would it now?'

'Burn up here, or burn down there. Hell looks the same from every angle.' That thought stayed hanging there. Heat crawled up my neck, blistering the skin as it went. I could hear Rat whimpering.

'If only being deserving of a future was enough to earn you one, huh.' Piano Man's eyes flicked open and he looked over his shoulder and downwards. Instinct caused me to follow his eyeline and I saw Jensen a hundred and fifty feet below, standing on a raised platform at the edge of the bowl, Betsy at his shoulder. The barrel of the gun seemed to widen in a yawn, waiting for its moment.

Up here on the platform, we were sitting ducks. I had no time, had nothing, no threat, only an offer. 'You can do what you like to me. Ain't no need for me to fear death. It ain't nothin' new, after all. But don't take my sister. She's young. There's hope for her.'

'People say it's the hope that kills you.  'Course, a bullet'll do that too.'

'People say a lot of shit,' I said, levelling my pistol.

Piano Man blinked as I brought it up to his face, and then pointed it past his shoulder at Jensen below. Time was standing as near as possible to still. I figured this probably wasn't a fair advantage, but I was gonna take any one that I could get.

I wasn't too sure what I'd expected to happen when I squeezed the trigger. Was I subject to the same rules as usual? Would I watch the laser beam scream across the distance like a rope and grapple? Would it burn through Jensen and leave him standing there dumb until the world turned again?

Instead of any of the above, the trigger clicked away to nothing. Piano Man raised an eyebrow. 'Nice try. But you used all your charge getting the young lady free.'

'Just out of interest,' I asked, deadpan, 'what would happen if I picked you up from your stool and threw you at that guy down there?'

Piano Man laughed in his wheezy way. 'Dyin' didn't affect your sense of humour, boy.'

He broke out of his tune for a moment to play the low, sombre bars from the Funeral March, ending at once in a single flat note that raised the hairs on my neck. But he continued staring, straight past the gun, straight past me.

'Whatever the price is,' I said, desperate, 'I'll pay it. However long it takes. I'll pay it.'

When he spoke, it was in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

'I don't doubt you would. But son, this isn't your toll to pay.'

There was a crash beside me as the climbing flames reached the support beams on our floor. I couldn't turn my head, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see them, smouldering chunks of wood, floating, suspended in the air.

'So why are we even having this conversation?'

He fixed me with a hard stare. 'Because you have to learn that it's not always about you.'

Suspended, like a life on hold. Like borrowed time, time I'd been living on since the day I'd first seen the Piano Man. The day after I'd met Jayci and Gregor. So recent, but to me it could have been lifetimes ago.

There were no words.

'Phoenix!' Rat pulled me around and screamed in my ear. The floating beam crashed down beside me, rocking the floor we were standing on. 'Stop it! There's no-one there!'

All at once, she was right. Piano Man was gone.

I grabbed Rat, hugged her close to me, as though my body could somehow shield her from a high-calibre bullet. Tears were flooding down my cheeks and hissing as they fell onto the wooden beams below. My little sister. I'd only just got to know her.

And then, as I looked down from the space on the platform where the Piano Man had been, I understood. A hundred and fifty feet below, Jensen was standing, Betsy still at his shoulder, but with the barrel pointed not up at us but down towards the crane cab. Cassie was sitting with her back to him, staring at the Burning Man.

'Cassie!' I yelled. To no avail.

'It's not always about you...'

It might not have been about me, but it still felt like it should have been. Clutching onto Rat with all the strength I had left, I dived for the hook of the crane just as Betsy sang out below us and a bloody splat shattered the window of the cab.

CHAPTER 36 OF 'THIS BURNING MAN' WILL BE RELEASED ON SUNDAY 2nd JULY

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Chapter 34 - Fire in the Sky, Fire in the Soul



'Up, up!' I grabbed the chain and pointed at the sky, which seemed darker every second as the Burning Man belched out huge plumes of smoke. The crane's hook lifted fifteen feet off the surface before lurching sideways and nearly throwing me off. I clung tightly to the chain, knotted my arm around it.





The wooden platforms inside the Burning Man were all ablaze. Even if I could have fought through the flames, there was no way they would've held my weight. There was only one other way to get up to Rat. Cassie had spent an eternity of seconds hotwiring the crane and testing the controls. I'd pushed back through the crowd, climbed on top of the gantry, and we were ready to go.

Like being jerked upwards by an invisible arm, I gained purchase from nowhere and sprawled into the air. From then on, it was just me and the sky. I could hear screaming below, but my eyes were focused on the charred wooden bones and panel-beaten frame of the Burning Man. Fires hotter than hell crawled up its limbs and emerged from its belly. The stars dipped low, the wind blew. Somewhere up above, Rat was crying and calling out my name. Beneath me, stretching out ready in the event of a misstep, I could sense the open arms of God Himself.

I'd just gotten used to the flight when somewhere below, gunshots rang out. Spinning on my tiny rising world, I had no idea who was fighting. Hang on tight, boy. It's just one more thing you can't do nothing about.

Eighty feet up, gaps in the metal opened out big enough to climb inside, but smoke made it impossible to see if it was safe to do so. There was a whine as a bullet - aimed or stray, I had no way to tell - spun off the chain inches above my head. Keep climbing, keep climbing, embrace that good air. I'd already tried looking down once - when I stole a quick glance past my own feet, I began to get sick in my belly and turned my face up again quickly to make it stop.

A hundred feet, more and still rising, too many storys to count. I was getting light-headed, but I could see the dome of the towering icon rounding off above me, the torn metal a jagged sneer beneath its devil eyes. On a level with my head, a raised platform came into view. At the end of that platform, I could see a small figure crouched down, facing away from me, a silhouette against the rising flames. Before I could reach across to climb off, the ascent stopped abruptly.

Before I could do anything, the arm of the crane swung twice into the shell of the effigy. The first slam surprised me, the second shook me clean off the chain and I fell loose. For a moment, there was the sensation of falling, and then the world turned upside down, along with my stomach. I didn't even have time to scream.

The world rushed by, left, right, and I was seeing everything upside down. Glancing up, the tip of the crane's hook had snagged my trousers, right near my ankle. I was hanging in space with only a few strands of cotton between me and the last fall I'd ever take. Twisting around, trying to pull myself upright, I could see Cassie, a shadow in the distance far below, wrestling in the cab with one of Di Vio's greycoat goons.

The crane lurched into life again, up, down, sideways, taking a dozen orders all at once as the pair below struggled over the controls. The hideous face of that damn metal golem swung into view and I bounced off the side again with a sound like the gong they bought out for tourists in Hole Town's eastern-themed brothels. At the same time, I felt myself slip lower as a couple of the remaining threads tore on my trousers.

I could see what I thought was Mar, pinned down behind some barrels by gunfire. People were screaming and running, and everything looked like a hot mess. Up here, the world just kept spinning, leaving me dizzy. The shell of the effigy roared around again and I tensed my body up, kicking away with my free foot, taking the impact and saving myself more bruises. A twang above signified another thread giving way. There was just one left. With an increasingly fragile grip on both the crane and my sanity, I turned in even more chaotic fashion, knotting myself around. Then the crane itself loosed, dropping me twenty-five feet in a single heart-stopping second before pulling me up short with a thump that scrambled my brain.

It looked like the goon had his hands on Cassie's neck, choking her even as she tried to keep the crane steady. When she tried to free herself from his grasp, he went for the controls, stabbing at buttons and wrenching at the joystick she was using to control the arm. On cue, I span around once more, heading back towards the Burning Man just as Cassie smashed the merc face first into the control panel. I went clear through a gap in the effigy's outer shell just as the final thread at the bottom of my trousers gave way.

I was launched straight through a pile of burning planks, bringing an avalanche of loose masonry and sheeting down upon my head. I grabbed a hold of the one beam wide enough to hold my weight and clung on for dear life. The rest of the scaffolding tinkled and thumped before being consumed in the white-hot nightmare below. It was a handy reminder of what I was due if I let go.

Here, swinging below the platform I'd seen earlier, the heat was intense, unbearable. A hundred separate blazes crackled around me, catching on my skin and my clothes. Clambering on top of the beam as the structure around me glowed, I whipped my smouldering jacket off, dropping it into the void. It burst into flame before it was halfway down. And then I climbed the scorched beam, one foot above the other, pushing the weight out and up. Pretend it's a hot summer's day and you're climbing a tree. A tree that's definitely not a cauldron of fiery death. A real goddamn hot summer's day. The inner walls of the Burning Man closing round me like an oven. Seemed I could smell myself cooking. Sweat dripped down my arms, making the climb up the wood ever more slippery and dangerous.

Finally, having worked well past the point of exhaustion and with my blood roaring as it pumped at speed through my temples, I dragged my body onto the top platform inside the head of this wicked construction. The heat was rising, trapped in this chamber like it was a fishbowl turned on its head. I had to get out, and right on cue, the hook of the crane appeared at the end of the platform and hovered invitingly. Bless you, Cassie. No other women in the world had ever made me more grateful than she did right that moment.

'Phoenix...brother...that can't be you...'

Rat was kneeling where I'd seen her earlier, coughing, choking, but still fighting to stay alive. The will to live is in the genes, of that I was sure. Di Vio had had my sister chained to a spot in the plating, right behind the Burning Man's soulless eyes. From here, I realised Rat had been able to see everything that was happening below - a cruel touch someone was gonna pay for. Now, when she saw me, I could tell she thought she was dreaming. But I had her upright in a second, and the charge I had left in the laser was enough – blessedly - to cut her loose.

'Is there anyone else?' I yelled.

'Just me,' Rat cried. She opened the locket around her neck, showed me the picture we'd looked at together when we'd first met. 'Their leader saw me looking at your picture.'

She stood upright, embraced me, and I turned to lead her back to the crane so we could head down safely.

When I turned back, the platform was blocked by an immaculately-dressed man sitting at a piano. He nodded to me, smiled evilly, and held my gaze as he began to play.

'Brother,' Rat said, 'What are we waiting for?'

Moving myself between her and Piano Man, I lifted my pistol. 'Someone's about to go to hell, Rat. But it ain't gonna be us.'

CHAPTER 35 OF 'THIS BURNING MAN' WILL BE RELEASED ON 18th JUNE 2017

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Chapter 33 - Old Friends

'Get your dumb asses down from that platform!'

Just about the best thing you could say about being underneath the Burning Man was that from here, you couldn't see its ugly face. The base was a raised concrete platform that they'd bolted the outer shell to. Inside, a wooden scaffold showed where they'd worked on the reconstruction. Mostly though, what was left within was waste wood, debris, and dust. Whoever worked on this had used it as a dumping ground for whatever spare materials they needed rid of.

I had my pistol up and raised – the night was so light and warm that it was charging even as I held it up. What I hadn't banked on was that alcohol and lack of brains are two sure-for-certain indicators of blind courage, and these two men were about as blind as it got.

'Blondie! Fuck me, man, it's been ages. How are the kids?' The first man tugged at his crotch, as if I needed reminding of what he was talking about.

If there was anyone I wanted to see less right now than Waylon goddamn Boggs, it was his angry, joyless brother. Right on cue, Opie stepped out from the mess with a face like a puckered ass. Above them, angry flames were already climbing up the wooden skeleton, turning it and the metal outer shell black.

'What in hell have you two idiots done?' I said.

'What?' Waylon looked up to where the fire was spreading upwards and shrugged. 'Oh. Well, we was just havin' a little fun. Accidents happen, you know.'

'I oughta haul your wise ass down to the station,' I said.

'You oughta,' Waylon agreed. ''Cept, there ain't no station anymore, is there? And you...well, you remind me. Ain't you the criminal these days?'

There was a ripple of noise and I turned to see a crowd building behind me. Most were looking up, but the ones at the front were keen not to miss out on any drama down at floor level. If there were any of Di Vio's men still in the town, they'd be finding out about this pretty quickly, and that put me in a bit of a delicate position, to say the least.

'That's right, folks,' Waylon Boggs said, 'this here dangerous criminal is wanted by the town! Doesn't it just make you sick? He's willing to defy the law to come here today, invade our party and set light to our brand new mascot! I tell you now; it's a damn shame, is what it is!'

Waylon had enough going on in the short-term to be a decent showman. It wasn't hard to imagine him in a wool suit and tie, hawking nerve tonic from a cart to dimwitted farmhands out in the wastes. Actors have long believed that the show must go on, but sometimes things have gotta stop before they get out of hand. While his attention was focused on the audience, I swung my mom's pistol barrel-first into the back of Waylon's head and knocked him out cold. If only it had been that easy last time. Regardless of their feelings about me and my supposed criminal status, Hole Town still loved theatre and there were a few cheers as Waylon landed on his face in the dirt.

What I hadn't bet on was Opie finding courage somewhere in his britches. I looked up straight into the barrel of his gun.

'Fuckin' sonuvabitch...' he spat, and that was all he got, because someone standing nearby grabbed his arm and used it to swing him round into the platform. He landed unconscious next to his brother, sweet as you like.

'Thanks,' I said to my savior, who was hunched low inside a dark jacket. I'd half-expected it to be Cass or Mar, turning up again at a very handy moment. What I didn't expect was to look down into the hard eyes of Sergeant Carter.

'Sergeant?' I said.

'Not any more,' she replied, taking my arm and leading me into the crowd. In our stead, the fire continued to climb up the Burning Man.

'What in hell are you doing here? I thought you cleared out when the Army left.'

'Army don't need me no more,' Carter said, no longer meeting my eye. 'They're on the other side of the world, fighting with bombs they're aiming from space. Ain't nobody caring about one pair of boots on the ground. Besides, this felt wrong. These mercenaries aren't our friends. I'm afraid for the town.'

'You ain't wrong,' I said.

'What do you know?'

'Nate Di Vio's men have cleared out. They're all heading back to the reservoir under the mountains. They think that the world is gonna catch fire on sun up.'

Carter's brow clenched. 'But that's crazy!' she said.

'Is it?' I replied. Sweat was flooding down my cheeks, my arms, my back. From the dark pools of her clothing, I could tell that Carter was suffering the same. 'Have you ever seen a night like this one – a night that's so hot, so bright, it could be a day?'

Carter said nothing, but she was thinking hard and I could see the doubt in her eyes. At the same time, I was remembered how complete her authority had been when she was uniform, leading the way. Things had changed. A few short weeks had been all it took to turn the world on its head. Now, we were all rebels in disguise.

'We live in a desert,' she said finally. 'You're gonna have to do better than that.'

I held up my gun so she could see it clearly, tapped the green light running along the barrel. 'This is a solar cell. It charges under light – specifically, daylight. And yet, it's charging now, though it's supposed to be the middle of the night.'

Carter's face was grim. 'This still ain't much to go on.'

'Unless you've got a telescope handy, I'm giving you all the proof I can. Di Vio's men are all set to head out to the mountains. They're going to ride the crisis out there while we burn.'

'Goddamn it. I knew those assholes were up to something. And that must be why there are so few of them here.'

I nodded.  No-one had come to attend to the fire.

'When I was exploring earlier, there was a pool of them guarding vehicles at the far end of the bowl. I saw the Mayor down by the water tower. He was saying that he was going to speak to them, find out why they're not patrolling like they should be.'

'Save him a trip,' I said. 'Find him and tell him that we need to get everyone over to the mountains as quickly as possible. We have a guy sorting the transport right now.' As I finished speaking, I looked out into the desert the way we'd come here. There was a dust cloud forming in the distance.

'Transport?'

'It's gonna be fast, like lightning fast. It's gonna have to be to get everyone in the town to the mountains before sun up.'

Carter's face was a joy. 'And where is this transport?'

'You'll know it when you see it,' I said, crossing my fingers behind my back. Not for the first time, I was silently acknowledging Gregor's role in delivering the whole town before he'd even done arrived on the scene.

'You're asking too much,' Carter gasped. 'Mayor Belasco's not gonna believe me if I tell him that the world's gonna end.'



'Then don't tell him that. Tell him that we found out Di Vio's men have gone rogue, decided to take the water for themselves. Tell him that they're sending an army here from the town. Remind him that he'll need people he knows he can rely on to help him take everything back. Which is where we come in.'

Carter followed my eyeline to where the dust was boiling on the horizon. 'Storm?'

'I hope so,' I said. 'and you'd best believe that it's on our side.'


---

Carter was every kind of skeptical, I could tell, but the years I'd spent building a reputation as a hunter hadn't been in vain. Whether she believed the world was ending or not, she went off in search of the Mayor, to tell him that Hole Town was set to lose our water unless he could convince everyone to shoulder arms, jump on our invisible magic carpet and fly across the desert to safety.

I stopped short of telling her to hold Waylon Boggs' head under the pipe at the water tower. His loud mouth might have come in useful, but she was going to have to sell that pokery herself.

For me, that was one job done. I'd looked everywhere twice, and there was no signs of any of our people at the fairground site. Now I just had to grab Mar and Cass, and hope that Padre Reyes wouldn't be too unhappy that the Burning Man was literally on fire.

That fire was pretty goddamned big by now too. The crowd around it was getting bigger, and people were pointing up the structure. I couldn't blame them. It was one hell of a show.

People screaming. And then Mar, at my shoulder.

'Phoenix! Don't just stand around! We've got to get up there!'

'What?'

'Look!' She thrust a pair of binoculars up to my eyes, and only then did I see what she and everyone else was pointing at.

On the highest platform, where the climbing flames touched the eyes of the Burning Man, I could see Rat's face.

GO TO CHAPTER 34 > > >

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Chapter 32 - The Last Party on Earth

We pulled up a few hundred yards short of the dust bowl they'd chosen to host the celebration.  No point in hiding the trikes.  They weren't going to be fast enough to get us to the mountains after we were done here.  Unless Gregor came up with something, we were doomed either way.  And so - hats pulled down low, neckerchiefs pulled up high - we went forward. 

As soon as we were close, we realised we may as well not have bothered with the stealth approach.  There was no gate or entranceway, no charge for admission.  Every slope in the dunes poured more people into the bowl.  The celebration was huge, a triumph of the high-tech and the low-tech.  It seemed that the whole of Hole Town had showed up and the crowds were big enough that we could just blend right in.

They'd set up torches on poles every few feet, creating pathways through the sand that people had exploited by moving around to direct customers to their enterprises.  A tall, thin silo with an open top had attracted a large crowd.  When we got close, we could see why.

Mayor Belasco was leading from the front, as any politician would be – helping a crew of locals drain water from the tower into earthenware cups.

'Step right up, ladies and gentleman!  Yes, you can believe your ears and eyes – we're giving away water, free, to everyone in Hole Town for the duration of the festival!'

That was a big enough thing that it invited gasps from those stood around.  And then, when they were done gasping, they stepped up and took full advantage.

'Plenty of time, folks, no need to rush, no need to spill.  I've been down to the reservoir and I've seen for myself that we have water enough down there to supply an army.'  That prompted Mar to raise her eyebrows in my direction.  'And thanks to our new benefactor, we don't have such a pressing need for town funds, so even after the festival has ended, I'll be looking to reduce the cost of water in the long term.  And on such a hot day...I mean, hot night, why wouldn't you look to drink all that you can?'

It wasn't likely that Belasco would recognise any of us, but with skins from the Oasis, we didn't need to take the risk.  We moved in the other direction, past the immense iron statue and the crane they'd used to convert it, following huge, heavy cables that ran down beneath the surface – perhaps leading all the way to the Silver Sea itself, who knew – superpowering thousands of coloured fairground lights, mine carts running round on an oval-shaped track and even a galloper, which lurched around like something dead come to life. 

Nate Di Vio had spared no expense for his city-sized distraction.  On every corner, there were musicians playing instruments.  People crowded into areas roped off as dancefloors.  Kids were screaming and throwing firecrackers, a dozen different meats roasted on the spit.  Beer flowed from kegs that seemed to magically appear in our stead.  Gamblers were holding live games, cut cards in hand, fortune tellers were staring into crystals and reading entrails.  The priests rubbed shoulders with the whores, who'd set up their own tent city within the wider city, touting for the easy business.  A dozen bored-looking giants guarded the entrance, smoking cheroots or gnawing their way through corncobs and turkey legs.  The air was hot as shit and everything was bathed in the sky's unnatural light.  You could almost believe we were ready to catch fire.

Cass watched it all with wide eyes.  'This is like something from another world.'

'Last party on earth and we didn't even get an invite,' Mar said.

In fact, the only thing that was missing as Mar, Cass and I sidled through the town, seemed to be security.  That was fine with Hole Town's own, who were great believers in natural justice rather than word of law.  We saw one gentleman try to sneak his way into the whore tent, and get shown out, none too gently.  When he hollered, they smacked him around good.  When he was finally done, they dumped him in the sand in full view of everyone.  Passersby didn't so much as blink, stepping round him or on him as they chose.

'Debauchery,' Mar said as we passed, in a voice that could have been approving and could have been not.

'Big city life,' I replied, keeping my face turned to the ground.

'Give me the desert every time,' Cass said.  I could feel her twitchiness around the crowds.

We toured around the main thoroughfares quickly, glancing through gaps or under tarpaulins, looking for anything suspicious or even signs of Di Vio's men, but they seemed about as rare as hen's teeth.

'We don't have time to keep wandering,' Mar said after we'd circled the dancefloor in the centre twice.  'We're going to have to split up to find them.'

'Maybe our friend was bluffing,' I said, 'Or maybe he got given bad intel.  Perhaps the girls they took prisoner all went back to the mountains after all.'

'I don't believe it,' Mar said.  We split up the turf, and the pair of them slouched away.  'Keep your eyes open, your head down and stay out of the whore tent.'

Not that it wasn't my scene, but I'd busted a whole lot of fellas over the years that looked like the ones now coralled out front in Pimptown Central, and the last thing I needed right now was trouble like that.  Besides, I had someone else to look in on.

There were fourteen Compounds stretching out from the dry Southern roads to a safe middle distance in the Sands.  They featured heavily in Hole Town life and they'd come together to construct an edifice for worship directly across from the statue.  In the middle of the floor, a new cross in miniature – as big only as two men, but with all the severe right angles that made you think of a man's suffering after he'd been nailed to it.  The Deacons – every bit as large and certainly no prettier than the men guarding the whores – stood before the crowds, quoting scripture and enacting scenes from the Holy Book.  Even the Catholic Church could do theatre when it needed to.

They checked me when I approached, noted the gun, made no attempt to take it.

'Is Padre Reyes here?' I asked.

They pointed me through the tables where the priests sat and somewhere in among the general confusion of bodies, I found my way to a small section in the back where the older holy men had been placed.  Four men, none younger than eighty years old, and each with his own direct hotline to God.

'Padre,' I said, addressing my old mentor.

'What?'  The second man, sitting just behind Padre Reyes, had a nose that took up most of his face.  It was swollen and flattened, like it had been punched a lot, or inflated and then punctured.  It still managed to hold in place a pair of old, twisted spectacles that were probably more about habit than allowing their wearer to see straight.

Padre Reyes turned around and shushed him.  'Phoenix!  It's you!'

'Padre. It's good to see you.  I was worried that you might have stayed in the compound.'

'Stayed in the compound?  After they turn our town's spiritual landmark into this monstrosity?  Never!'

'It's appalling,' another of the priests, an old black man with a long grey beard, said.  The final one of the group was the oldest of all, completely toothless, staring into the middle distance and drooling slightly with a distant smile on his face.

'True, Father Christopher,' Padre Reyes said.  'Ay, I'm suffering in this heat.'  He tried to fan himself with the corner of his robe.

'What?'

'I said, it's hot!'

'It's what?'

'Padre,' I said, 'we don't have time for this.'

'We don't!'  The old man took my hand and tugged on it furiously.  'Phoenix, it's a travesty!  You can see their desecration for miles around!'

'Padre, you have to listen to me,' I said.  'This is more important.  Life or death!'

'Now there's a choice to go offering to an old man.'  The black priest wheezed and began to laugh.  Padre Reyes just gaped at me. 

'Boy, this is more important than life or death, don't you see?  We can't let them get away with it!'  The enraged old man pointed at the sky.  'Do you know what He might do to this town for allowing this desecration to go unchallenged?'

'Burn us all in fire and brimstone,' I replied automatically.

Padre Reyes shrank back into his chair.  'If you can't take this seriously, then you should go.'

I checked myself.  'Fine.  I'll challenge it.  In fact, I'll go speak to Mayor Belasco right now.'

'Demand he restores the Fallen Cross,' the Padre said.  'And that he orders prayer and penance from the entire town!'

'I will do all of that,' I said.  'And in return, when my friends come, you have to go with them.  It's the only way for you all to be safe, do you understand?  Tell them my name – tell them you know Phoenix.  There'll be at least two of them – a big fat genius guy and a skinny, young attractive woman with braids...'

'A woman?'  The padre scoffed.  The three other men all sat up in their chairs at the mention of that word.  'Get on with it!  There's no time to be chasing women!'

'Where are these women?'

'Shut up, Father Hernandez.  I'm trying to talk this young fool into making them restore the Fallen Cross!'

'Besht hurry,' the oldest priest said in a scratchy, high-pitched tone, pointing through a gap in the crowd in the distance.  'Shey're out there underneash it righ' now, playing abou' wish torchesh.'

'What?  Where?'


He might've been as gummy as a stuffed gator, but the old man wasn't wrong.  A pair of Hole Town's finest were shoving one another drunkenly round the base of the statue, waving torches like baseball bats.  'If shey ain't careful, shey'll shet fire to the whole shebang.'





The good thing was, at a sprint it took me less than a minute to get from the back of the Church's edifice to the base of the statue.  The bad thing was that by the time I got there, the fire had already been burning for thirty seconds.

GO TO CHAPTER 33 > > >

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Chapter 31 - Taking it to the Man

'I don't know what he wants them for!' 

Jayci's prisoner was kneeling in the dust, hand outstretched to try and buy himself some distance.  At first, I thought Jayci might want to be the one doing the questioning, but she'd deferred to Mar without so much as an argument.  In fact, since she'd got back to camp, Jayci had taken a full step back.  She was standing on the fringes, calm, ready, but not part of what followed.  She was ready to chase Di Vio's army down, alone if need be, punch straight through them and be hiding in the mountains by sunset.  But Mama Smokes was leader of this band and Mama was more patient, more inclined to plan.

Mar, meanwhile, was straight to the point.  Her expression could have curdled milk.

'I think you know why he wants them,' she said, her voice low and dangerous.  'I think it has everything to do with the fact that in all the time we've seen Di Vio and his army, we've not seen a single woman at any point.'

Mama Smokes had a cheroot lit and was letting it burn away in her hand.  'Your boss wouldn't have 'em all taken to the compound.  He knows we won't abandon anyone, so he'll split the group up.  Half to the mountains, half somewhere else a ways away.'

'I don't know what you're talking about.'  The prisoner wouldn't look at her.

Cassie and Mar glanced at one another.  'Their celebration is starting out in the desert on the other side of Hole Town tonight.'

The cheroot continued to smoke in the silence, the orange tip shrinking away until it seemed to be resting on the old soldier's fingers.

'You know his plan, don't you?' she said to the prisoner, finally.  'He's going to condemn a whole town to death by leading them out into the desert when they could be heading for safety.'

The prisoner snarled, 'There's only so much water and food stored.  It's survival of the fittest.  I'm sure that's a concept your little bitch pack can get behind.'

'So you know the plan, and you ain't no-one special.'

'You don't even know my name.'

Mama Smokes chewed on her dog-end.  'That's 'cos I don't care to ask you what it is.  But you know the plan, so everyone knows the plan.  Which means it's straightforward, and planned well in advance.  With the town at the funfair, you guys swoop in there to pick up your buddies and then head hell for leather back home in time for the sun to rise and burn everything to a crisp.'

The prisoner stared back, giving his best impression of a man resigned to death.  'I ain't ashamed of this.  It's the end of the goddamn world.  We gotta do what it takes to save the race, to save ourselves.  Whatever else happens to 'em, the girls they take to the compound will get to live.  Which is more than can be said for the rest of you.'

That guy probably looked into more dead eyes right there than an undertaker in his whole career.

'It's fair to say you've lost your audience.  On your feet,' Mar said.  The prisoner stood up slowly.  The girl nodded to the distant horizon and said, 'Run.'

He waited a moment, and so did I.  I was expecting Cassie to slide a round into the chamber of her rifle, but there was no movement.

'You're gonna shoot me when I turn my back,' he said.

Cassie just sat impassively, a small, strange smile on her face.  Mar replied, 'We ain't gonna waste the bullet.  You think you're gonna walk halfway across the desert before sunrise?'

He didn't have a reply for that one.

'Course, I watched him, and they were watching him too, and I'm guessing that that thought musta been playing on his mind, 'cause about fifty yards out, he stole a glance over his shoulder and made a beeline through the sand for a trike that had tipped on its side and was lying on the top of a dune.  I'd taken two steps in his direction before Mar put her arm out to block my path.

'No,' she said.

I watched and waited, saw him get it upright, kick it into life and climb aboard.

'We need those trikes,' I said.  The camp's petrol store was a distant memory thanks to Nate Di Vio's fancy cannon.

'I know,' Mar said, her arm unmoving.

He reached the top of the next dune along when Cassie finally began to move.  She cracked the rifle, slipped in a round, pulled it upright and pressed the stock into her shoulder in one movement.

Three hundred yards out, he began to weave left and right along the ridge of the dune, aiming to head over the top and to safety as soon as the sand beneath became shallow enough.

You know what happened next.  I'd already turned away to watch Cassie as the shot rang out.  In the instant before she pulled the trigger, she made one movement - just one - for all of his.  When she lowered the rifle, I studied her face carefully.  For a while, I'd wondered if her aloof manner came down to the fact that she just didn't care for people at all.

There was pride there, of course there was.  It was a job well done, after all.  But in her eyes, I could see that it wasn't that she didn't care, but that maybe she cared too much.  If you were Cassie's people, that was good enough for her, and she'd do what it took, whether she agreed with you or not.  That didn't mean that it sat easy with her.

Mar lowered her arm and walked away without another word, the better to prepare.

Cassie remained, standing still, inscrutable once more.  Doing my best to read her mind, I said, 'Don't sweat it.  You had no choice.'


'Neither did he,' she replied.  And she was right.

Still, that moment might have been the first one that I began to warm to her.

In the distance, the trike, shorn of its rider, pulled a lazy u-turn and came to a stop on the tip of the ridge.  After a minute or two, a carrion bird began to circle.

---

Things happened quickly after that.  We had no time to stop and take stock.  People got to trikes, either their own or those scavenged from the dead.  I found a two-person trike with a half tank of petrol and a minimum of fuselage damage.  I'd just got it upright when Mar roared up beside me.

'Hurry up and get yourself sorted,' Mar said.  'I need you at the celebration.'

I kicked at the starter.  It spluttered.  'I'm going to find Rat,' I said.

'We're going for all our people.'

I was with her on that, but every minute was making me feel worse.  Night had fallen, but the air was hotter than day and the sky was qualmish.  Yellow like jaundice, like a migraine, like a sick dog.  My temper was short and bits of me were starting to stick to other bits.  

Jayci appeared at Mar's elbow.  

I gestured to the space behind me, expecting her to hop on.  Instead, she turned to Mar. 

'We're working on a way to get us from the celebration to the caves in time.'

'You need to speak to Mama,' Mar replied.

'Already sorted.  We're doing what needs to be done,' Jayci said.  She pointed to Gregor, who was being led away gently by a group of the outlaws' own engineers.  'If you guys have the tools, I have the genius.'

'There's a store of electrical supplies in the workshop,' Mar said.  'The group's been scavenging in the wastes for years.  Get your man working as fast as you can, though.  We don't have time for bells and whistles.  This is time for duct tape and prayers.'

Jayci shrugged.  'It's what he does best.'  Then she turned to me.  'Sorry, but you're gonna have to do this one without me.  I need to stay and keep him focused on the job.'

'Sure.'

'Try not to get shot, okay?'  She grinned at me, all crooked teeth, and just for a second, held the fabric of her dress tight across her breasts.

'I got that by now,' I said, and pressed the starter again.  This time it kicked in.

Cass appeared on her own trike, gun slung across her back.  'Ready,' she said.

I looked around, but it seemed like just the three of us were formed up.

'Nobody else?'

'We're the scouting party.  Gotta call in the heat to the chuck wagon.'  There was a group of other girls preparing in the distance behind us.  What was shocking was just how few remained.  I found myself hoping Gregor had something substantial up his sleeve.


The trikes ate up the miles in no time, and the hissing sound of the engines tried to lull my mind as they blew away the sand beneath them.  There was no getting away from this, though - up to this point, I'd been thinking about how the group would save itself, but we were going to need to save the whole population of Hole Town.  They'd be out in the desert, drinking, fighting, having a good time - they weren't to know that they were in danger.

They were going to find out.  I was gonna tell them.

I was so absorbed in my plans for what would happen when I arrived that I was slow to realize the others were slowing down.  I had to brake sharp to pull up with them.

'What's going on?'

'That.'

I followed Cass' pointing finger to the glowing shards of the celebration on the horizon.  In the half-light, I'd not been absorbing any details, but now, rising high above the desert, one structure could clearly be seen.

'What in living hell is that?'

I suddenly remembered what Padre Reyes had said in my fever dream.  The Fallen Cross, former symbol of Hole Town's piety and shared purpose, had been cut down, burned, reformed.  Standing what seemed like its full two hundred feet height above the desert floor, it had been repurposed into the shape of a tall, thin man with a horrific rictus face, the top cut away and curved across to form a oval-shaped skull with lights burning in the eyesockets.

'Why would they do that?' I breathed, more as a question to myself than the others.

'I think it's watching us,' Cass said.

'When the abyss looks at you,' I said, 'you should look right back.'

'Ain't no abyss,' Mar said, accelerating as she did so.  'It's Hole Town's own personal demon, right there.'

GO TO CHAPTER 32 > > >

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Chapter 30 - Biting Back


Think how I felt.  Think how you'd feel.  You just regained consciousness after a two-week coma.  You had to die and play games and catch fire to come back.  You had to defend yourself from an armed man with nothing but a tentpole and a killer sense of timing.  And every bit of you, from your aching head to your twisted guts, hurts like it ain't never hurt before.

But I was still standing.

I was about to be vaporized, but I was still standing.

'Remember that you brought this on yourselves.  You had a chance to surrender' – Di Vio again, over the radio, broadcasting to anyone and everyone – 'but you chose to die.'

'You ain't giving anyone no goddamn choice,' I growled back, even though I knew he couldn't hear me, and wouldn't listen if he could.

Running wasn't an option - my limbs weren't doing all the things I wanted them to.  And yet, it felt pretty apt that I was watching the biggest bad in the Sands crouch down inside his bunker like the worst kind of coward.  You learned a lot of things about a man when he pointed a gun at you - whether his eyes met yours, whether his hands were shaking.  It's a darn sight harder to kill a man when you're looking him in the eye.

Everything pointed to a man with a complex.  Nate Di Vio had the biggest army, the biggest vehicle, the biggest gun and every kind of technological advantage, yet he was still hiding.  He was a desperate man, and I took down desperate men.

Calmly, like Di Vio's superweapon wasn't screaming in my ears and the ears of everyone for miles around, I bent down to where my pistol was lying at my feet, picked it up, focused the beam on Di Vio's bunker above me and moved it slowly across the metal fortress from left to right, about halfway up.  Cassie might have been a deadshot, but I alone had a way to punch through his armor. 

I finished my sweep to find the laser was out of charge again.  It was designed for one-off shots, not sustained beams, but it had done its job today. 

Everything went silent.  Like dead, dead silent.  The fighting had stopped.  Mama Smokes' girls had nothing left in the tank, and Di Vio's troops already thought they'd won.

A hundred pairs of eyes turned to the sky as the sundered roof of the bunker tipped and fell away with a clang.  I held Jayci's binoculars up to my eyes, looking to see if I'd literally cut the head off the beast.

For a second, nothing moved beyond the smoking, severed tip of the August Cannon.  Then, a tight mass of smouldering copper curls emerged atop a futuristic-looking metal cloak.  Nate Di Vio was singed, but he was very much alive.  Through the binoculars, I saw his smug grin, like he knew I was watching him.  As he stood up, his army began to cheer.  My heart sank.  A way away on the ridge, the weary remains of our own force must have been feeling that an unlikely victory had been ripped away from them.

That's when the August Cannon exploded.

The wave that the destroyed cannon threw out blew over the men standing beneath the truck fifty feet below.  Di Vio dropped out of the broken cabin like a rock off a bridge, plummeting down the side of the truck, crashing off the wheel arch and landing face down, motionless, in the sand.  For a moment he lay prone beneath a blanket of dust and fused metal, and then his panicked charges dug him out, threw his ass on the back of a trike and sped away.  Meanwhile, his crippled monster truck ground to a complete halt.  There was ragged empty space where his bunker had been, and the truck looked for all the world like a hill after mining charges had torn out its heart.  Of course, what was showering down on those below wasn't dirt but red hot metal shards.  The radio cut to immensely loud static, deafening anyone left in the valley who still had their hearing.

The ground shook again beneath me with the force of trike engines, and I turned, thinking I was going to have to face down another assault.  The group that swept past me in the blink of an eye and away down the hill was in perfect tight arrowhead formation, and led by a pink-haired figure dressed all in black, her jaw set and her long shirt tails flapping out behind.  Now that the August Cannon was out of action, Mar, the avenging angel, could lead a decisive counterattack.  Before her and the wings in her wake, Di Vio's army broke and fled back across the desert, the same way that they'd come.  They escaped with a small number of prisoners, and leaving more than half their number behind.  Just more nameless dead in the Sands.

It took me a few minutes to compose myself after switching the radio off.  Di Vio's men had taken the lion's share of the damage, but Mama Smokes' own had suffered horrible losses too.  When I reached the bottom of the hill, she was detailing her troops to gather the bodies of the dead from both sides and lay them in an area outside of the camp.  She herself disappeared to use her medical skills to help anyone she could.  Even though I'd brought down Di Vio single-handedly, no-one said a word to me.  I was a rock in a stream, beyond the flow.  As I watched, a female priest came out in sombre robes at the edge of the battlefield and offered blessings to all of those that had passed.  I'd never seen a female priest in all my years at Twelve.  I wanted to watch her do her thing, see if she did things the same as they would have in the compounds, but it was too hard.  I felt responsible for the dead, like I'd brought a plague with me when I arrived.

I found Mar and Cassie working together with the clean up crew.  I was pretty much on top of them before they saw me.  Neither of them stopped what they were doing.

'Good shooting there,' I said to Cassie.  The girl grunted, pulled up a dead companion by her arms and dragged her away.  Now clearly wasn't the time.

'You got strength to help?'  Mar asked.

'No,' I said truthfully, and feeling pretty damn wretched about it.  The girl nodded, as if she'd expected this.  Then she said, 'Then at least look around and try to find Rat.'

My gut lanced with pain again, though I wasn't sure that this one wasn't in my mind.  'She wasn't with you?'

Mar was working overtime to not meet my eye.  'She was on patrol on the near side, the one that they came from.  It was Rat's team that radioed in the attack, and they were the ones that engaged first.'

I stood there, stunned.  Di Vio's numbers were enough to overwhelm the whole camp.  The first skirmish wouldn't have been worthy of the name.  I thought of my new sister, not two weeks fresh in my mind, gunned down and left to die a mile away while I was lying on my back.

'Maybe they captured her,' Mar said.  To what end, or how that was better in any meaningful sense, was best left to her imagination.

Other thoughts arrived, the better to crowd that one out.  Sad thing was, these ones were no better.

'Have you seen Gregor or Jayci?'  I said.

'Neither,' Mar said, matter-of-fact.  I scanned the ground in a panic, hoping all at once to see that white dress with the colored hem, before I remembered what that would mean, and opting once again for the horrible uncertainty.

Cassie brushed past me and I realised I was in the way of the moving detail.  I wanted to say something to them, about how the women had fought bravely, about how they'd resisted horrible odds to earn a victory, but nothing I had was going to cut it, and so I just stood there dumb.

'Make yourself useful, Phoenix, or make yourself scarce.'  Mar sounded more weary than I'd ever heard her.  I chose the latter option.  It was all I could cope with.


When I'd got clear of the battlefield, I leaned up against one of the camp's few brick structures, a wall that looked out over a dune.  There was a path leading out behind the wall from a low archway to a small ring of trees away from the water.  Inside the ring, I could see a handful of raised stones the same color as the sand. 

It was the camp cemetery.  For all I knew, there might have been fifty years of female outlaws buried there.  Even if all the space had been empty right now, it wouldn't have been big enough to hold a quarter of the bodies being stacked up below me.

When I looked out to the horizon, two silhouettes were walking towards me across the sand, a huge, momentous golden sun blazing in their wake as it set.  The silhouette on the left was perfectly round and waddling for all it was worth.  The one on the right was short and slight in every way the other was wide.  A pair of trailing braids had spawned a third line the width of a lasso rope, and at the end of that, a struggling man fought unsuccessfully to resist being dragged towards what was left of the camp.

I was still leaning on the wall, dripping with sick sweat, my face numb and neutral when they approached.

'Rat,' I said, my mouth parched.

'They took her,' Gregor said.  'They captured them all.  I saw it with my own eyes.'

'And you did nothing.'

'What was I supposed to do?  I didn't even have a gun.  I wasn't about to let them capture me too.'

Jayci stepped between us.  'Everyone does what they gotta.  We've no time to fight amongst ourselves.  Clear?'

Maybe it was enough to know that Rat was alive – or had been when they'd taken her.  'Mama Smokes' girls have taken huge losses,' I said.

'I know.'  Jayci was every kind of practical, and her eyes could be hard and soft all at once.  'I saw what you did to Di Vio's cannon.  Nice work.'

Gregor broke in again.  'Look at the sun.  Feel the heat.  We don't have too long before the perihelion.  Even when the sun sets, the light will be so strong that we'll be lit up like daytime.  We need to get to the caves as soon as possible.'

'First, we need to get our people,' I said.

Jayci wrenched at her struggling burden.  On the end of the rope was one of Di Vio's underlings, bound, gagged and terrified.

'We're going to get them,' she said, 'and this guy's going to tell us where to find them.'

GO TO CHAPTER 31 > > >

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Chapter 29 - The August Cannon

Things were just starting to get interesting when there was a rumbling beneath us, and a hum we'd heard before.  Jayci's eyes widened, and she flipped herself up onto the balls of her feet in a single movement.  Her trailing braids fell loose.  The heat gathered as she gazed through the flaps of the tent and I could see movement outside as the camp's residents assumed defensive positions.

'Di Vio?' I said.

'He knows we're coming for him,' Jayci murmured.  'Makes sense for him to get his reply in first.'

I sat upright, my stomach stinging.  'How does he know where we are?'

'There's been skirmishes out in the desert while you were out.  They've been trying to find us since the meet at the canyon.'  She opened the tent just enough for me to see the dust cloud boiling on the horizon.  'And now they have, and they're sending in the cavalry.'

Girl pulled up her hat in one hand and her gunbelt in the other.  She placed the former on her head with no small degree of ceremony and wrapped the belt round her hips, clipping it tight over a stomach so flat you could have played cards on it.  The black accessories looked wrong against the white cotton of her dress, like they were from an alien world.

'Take these,' she said, dropping a radio and a small set of military binoculars next to me.  'This way you'll be able to see and hear what's going on.'

'What about you?' I asked.

'I'll be fine.  I'm going out on my own anyways.'

I'd rolled onto my side and was already regretting it when Jayci pointed a spindly finger at me.  'Don't even think about it.  You stay,' she commanded, and slipped out.


I lay back down into a prone position and stayed there for a minute or two, panting with heat and exertion.  Maybe Jayci was right and I was still feeling the fever.  My head felt like it was floating, pain raged inside of me and it was like the flames from my mom's fire were still burning.  The rumble from Di Vio's distant army grew all the time, stirring the very sand I was laying on, and all I could do was turn side-to-side beneath my blanket, useless when it mattered.




I thought of them, all of them, where they'd be, what they'd be doing.  Gregor would be in his tent on the outskirts.  At the first sign of danger, he'd have packed away his tools and fled to high ground.  Mar would be marshalling the troops, leading by example.  Cassie would be tucked away beneath a ghillie-suit on some distant ridge, calling down death from afar.

Rat had never arrived.  She'd been out on patrol.  I was hoping she was somewhere out on the far side of the camp, two miles or more away.  If we were overrun, there was a still a chance she could flee to safety.

'You can say what you like,' I whispered to the empty space where Jayci had been, 'but there ain't no way I'm lying back and leaving everything up to others.  I might be sick but they took me in, and I owe them.'

Fine words for sure, but I wouldn't be doing anything without a gun.  No way would Jayci leave me unarmed, whatever the camp rules were.  I checked the pack behind my head and allowed myself a grim smile when my fingers touched the sleek metal sides of my laser. 

Yeah, you heard me right, my laser.  Whether what I'd seen was all in my head or not, I still remembered what my mom had said.  It's a gift.  No longer my mom's weapon.  Now, it was mine, and I'd be putting it to use to help my friends.

Beneath the gun, my clothes, some clean bandages and a small plastic bottle that rattled in the palm of my hand.  I said a little prayer as I cracked it open and a couple of candy jacks popped into my hand.  Somewhere inside me, a voice urged caution.  You had a bullet in your gut, it said.  Who knows if your system will still be able to cope with stimulants?  This wasn't a time for questions, though.  There was a couple of minutes at most to finish getting ready.  I was going to have to find out the hard way.  I pulled on my pants, pressed a candy jack onto my tongue and swallowed.  Only then did I crawl to the entranceway, exposing my gun to the light and myself to fate.  

Mama Smokes' gang were moving, preparing, talking on their radios, guiding one another to where they needed to be.  I clicked mine on, the better to listen.  The signal went in and out as people sprinted among dunes that reached fifty feet high or more.  There wasn't much natural cover in a desert, so they'd stacked up sandbags to make makeshift defences.  Down by the water at the rear of the camp, they'd built a wooden platform for the snipers.  I could see Cassie and a couple of others lying on there now, sighting the enemy army as it came.

And come it did, and how.

What was immediately clear is that we were outnumbered at least two to one.  Di Vio's force was mostly skirmishers, fifty or sixty trikes on the approach.  Each had a driver and a weapons man stood behind.  Beyond the first wave, I counted three heavy jeeptrikes, not cresting the dunes with hovertech but climbing them on snarling tracks.  What they lacked in movement they made up for in armor.  They could easily carry five men each inside their tough outer shell. 

Behind the rest of his troops, dominating the horizon, Di Vio's own immense monster truck straddled the landscape like a wonder of the world.  The massive vehicle sat low in the sand, wheels and engine guarded by welded plates that were probably inches thick. 

Dozens of troops disgorged from within as it rolled to a stop.  The battle began as some took potshots from shielded firing positions behind the wheelarches.  Atop the chassis, front and center, Di Vio sat upon his throne.  The seat had been adapted into an armoured bunker with a long-barrelled cannon in the front.  Nate Di Vio wasn't trusting this job to Jensen – he was taking charge directly.

The trikes peeled off and snaked towards the camp, opening fire as they came within range.  One passenger was hit early on and cartwheeled away off the back of his vehicle, while one of the drivers slumped over his controls and veered into one of the camp's tents, taking it down with him. 

As well as gunners, there were also trikemen armed with stun batons.  One roared around a defensive position, striking down one of the girls as she tried to flee.  As I watched, he stooped and dragged the unconscious woman onto the back of the trike before turning and roaring away.

'C'mon, damn you,' I hissed at the pistol.  The green bar that denoted the charge was filling, but all too slowly.

The jeeptrikes kicked in next.  Heavy rifles opened up and bullets raked a position marked with sandbags a short distance away, causing the women there to duck for another source of cover.  Behind me and away to my right, Cass' rifle popped, taking down a runner that had leapt off his trike and was scavenging our supplies.

'Riders heading into camp,' the radio blared.  'Snipers, be aware.'

Some of the trikes had broken formation and had indeed headed into the camp itself, looking to steal supplies, lay boobytraps or capture any of the girls who were moving from one position to another.  Whatever it took to flush us out, whittle us down, force our hand.  One roared up across from me and began rifling through the tent opposite.

The scavenger was wearing a grey combat jacket with built-in armor plates that clinked together as he moved.  The jacket looked custom-fitted, pulled over his head and up tight to his face.  By rights he should have been cooking in something that heavy, but he didn't look to be suffering due to the heat at all – no doubt the jackets were another of Nate Di Vio's little innovations.  The clothes, the modern guns, sheer weight of numbers.  They had a dozen small edges that were making the difference.

I'd ducked back inside the tent and the scavenger made it right up to the entrance before he saw me.  My new friend clearly hadn't been expecting resistance on his little side mission, much less resistance from a half-naked hillbilly with a three-week beard.  He had one of the T-shaped automatics from earlier hanging from a sling around his neck but he didn't have his hands on it, and he was slow to bring it around.  That is, just slow enough for the candy jack to fire in my brain.  With my gun still not charged and no faith in the strength in my arms, I pushed the heavy tentpole down in his direction.  It popped loose from the canvas, cracking him on the bridge of his nose, knocking him down onto his knees.

I was poised to finish the fight when an fierce streak of pain lanced up my insides, balling in the space around my wound.  I doubled over as the tent collapsed behind me and Di Vio's henchman took this as an invite to rush me.  It took everything I had to lift the tentpole again and heave it in his direction.  He stopped, seeming surprised as the tapered end of the pole pierced his throat.  I pulled back on it once more, and he choked and fell away.

Behind me, the battle wasn't going well.  The camp's outer defences had fallen quickly, the women within either captured or dead.  This was no time for finesse.  I took the henchman's automatic pistol from around his neck and emptied the chamber into the trikes still pouring down the hill.  When the chamber clicked to empty, I threw the gun after the bullets I'd fired.  It was all doomed effort.  The jeeptrikes were coming and when they rolled into the heart of the camp, that would be that.

Or so I thought.  The jeeptrike that was leading the way was suddenly engulfed in an explosion that tore away the track on the right hand side and sunk it into the hot sand.  Two men stepped out of the smoking wreckage and were promptly picked off by Cass' sniper squad down by the water.  The second trike veered to avoid the booby-trapped approach that had accounted for the first one and was pierced by a rocket from a dune-topping defensive position up above me.  A second rocket quickly followed the first and I could hear cheers from the radio.  Mama Smokes' charges might not have had many resources at their disposal, but they were using what they had to devastating effect.


The cheers cut off abruptly, replaced for a few seconds with white noise.  Then Di Vio's voice invaded the airwaves and spread out through the defensive positions like scorpion venom..


'So you have a rocket launcher,' he said.  'That's nice for you.  But you should know that I'm not here to mess around.  I have a town to run and an apocalypse to avoid.  So in the interests of getting this battle over and done with, allow me to demonstrate my newest invention  – the August Cannon.' 



The air changed around me as he spoke, growing cool and hissing.  I stared up at his truck-mounted cannon.  The pitch of the sound grew and grew until the weapon was whistling like an old-world kettle.  The barrel began to glow with ruby-coloured light.  Di Vio knelt in the space behind and turned the gun onto the defensive position that had destroyed his second jeeptrike.

I wasn't the only one paying attention.  Cass saw the danger, but her rounds pinged off the armor-plating shielding the gunner.  The whistle of the cannon became a scream as it fired, superheating the air, obliterating the defensive position in the blink of an eye and turning the sand around it into vast bubbles of glass.  There was a lull in the aftermath, as if no-one could quite believe the power of the weapon we'd just seen.

Twice more Di Vio swung the cannon around, twice more the screech rang out.  First, he destroyed the camp's fuel depot and after that, the sniper outpost at the rear.  The snipers had already abandoned it after the first attack.  The aftermath of the final blast boiled the water into steam at the edge of the oasis.

A beep from the ground between my feet told me that my laser was finally charged.  I had just picked it up when the tell-tale whistle of the August Cannon started up again – and this time, it was pointed directly to where I was standing at the heart of the outlaw camp.

GO TO CHAPTER 30 > > >