Sunday, 22 May 2016

Chapter 11 - Cross Words

The doors to the bar crashed open and Jayci was through them with a flourish.  All eyes were on her and her trailing braids, giving Gregor and I the chance to sneak in behind her unnoticed.

Before she'd even made it as far as the candlelit bar, two burly farmhand types fell in beside her, their obvious enthusiasm for her company making up for their relative lack of teeth.  She smiled and said, 'Boys, it's mighty fine to meet you both.  Buy the drinks, say nice things, keep your hands where I can see 'em and we can play nicely.  Let 'em wander, now, and we'll have cross words.  Just so you know, I've broken more than hearts in the past.'

I kept an eye on her while Gregor stole into a booth, air-washing his hands all the time like a crazy person.  I sat opposite him, gave the bar a quick once over.  Low light, a single soulful girl singer in the corner, cheap booze, clientele more likely to pass out than fight.  Just how I liked my drinking holes.

'Doing okay over there?' I said.

'I'm anxious,' Gregor said, like that wasn't obvious to everyone.  'I don't really come out that much.'

'Yeah, well,' I replied, following Jayci with my eyes.  'This keeps her occupied while we talk.'

Gregor reached down inside his coat.  The movement was downright furtive.  For a moment, I thought he was going to draw a gun or some other mad shit, but instead he pulled out a screwdriver and the electronic device he'd been working on before we left.

'Don't mind me,' he said, looking past me at the wall behind.

I lowered my face so he could see my eyes.  'Still gonna talk, you know.'

'I'm resigned to that fact.'  He pressed the tip of the screwdriver delicately into one of the screw holes and balanced it there. 

'So tell me what you know about the Piano Man.'

Gregor's eyes searched for a way out.  When they didn't find one, they rolled around inside their sockets.  He laid the screwdriver carefully on the table and said, 'He's an urban myth.'

'So he is,' I said.  'He's real too.'

His engineer fingernails found small grooves in the wooden surface of the table and tugged at them.  'Wisdom of crowds.  People hear stories and when they retell 'em, they exaggerate the detail.  Once you've heard a story, it sticks in your mind, even if you don't think you remember it.  Then you're out one day, you see a shadow, your brain puts one and one together and makes three...'

He tailed off as a waxy-faced foreign server in a dirty white shirt appeared by the table with two drinks on a tray.  One large gutburner hooch, one tall glass of water.  'From the woman at the bar,' the server explained, and left.  I glanced over at Jayci, who was half-buried under attentive boys.  She winked at me.

When I turned back to Gregor, he was balancing the screwdriver between his thumbs.  The narrow end was short, no more than three or four inches.  Still, in a pinch, you could use it to do someone a serious misservice.

Seeing things as weapons came with the territory in my line of work.  In Gregor's hands though, the screwdriver looked bland and functional.  Like if he held it to your throat, you'd laugh and play along with the joke.  Only when he was on one of his pet subjects - science, history, obscure general knowledge - did he muster any kind of authority.

I said, 'When you found that village, you knew that something was wrong.  Energy, you called it.  But you meant him, didn't you?  You saw him and you fled.  That's why you never had a chance to collect what was there.'

Gregor rolled the screwdriver back and forwards under his fingertips.  I could imagine him and Jayci, newly acquainted and sitting in a room just like this one, her explaining that she'd paid his fine but that now he owed her, owed her big time...

For the first time since we arrived Gregor looked up, but rather than glancing at me, he stared over at Jayci.  Distracted as she was, she didn't notice his gaze, resting there on her, on what she was to him.  The point of the screwdriver turned downwards, began to gouge at the surface of the table.

'Do you like her?' he said.

'Do I what?'

'Do you like her?'  His voice was strained, like the question was hard to ask, but the answer might be harder to listen to. 

For the first time, I found myself on the defensive in Gregor's company.

'Jayci?  She's okay,' I said.  'Not my thing, not in that way.'

Gregor gently lifted the screwdriver and brushed away the curl of wood that had formed when he scratched at the table.  Slowly, deliberately, he began to unscrew the back panel of his device.  In no time, one removed screw became four.  One panel became several, and he pressed a tiny chip into a slot on a small board with his thumb.  'That should do it.  I'll have to solder it later.  I can't test it in here anyway.'  

He clipped the final panel back into place and held the device up for me to look at.  It was simple, a small screen above a tiny button panel.

'GPS,' he explained.  'Military doesn't fire satellites into space any more, but some of the old ones are still up there.  You and I both know the Sands is a funny place, and kinda has its own rules - but if Jayci has this, and I can program a few landmarks into it, it should make it easier for her to find where she's going and stay safe.' 

This was what our efforts were all about.  Jayci staying safe, when right now everything was pointing to the three of us being dead in less than a day.  I downed my moonshine.  It was strong stuff, stronger than I reckoned.

'I spoke to Piano Man,' I whispered.

'I never saw him.'  Gregor's eyes did that thing again, and I had to fight the urge to bang his head on the table to make him focus.  'But I heard the piano.  I knew what it was.  And then once I heard it the first time, I heard it everywhere I went.  The only way to stay safe is to stay out of the Sands.'

'I spoke to him and he told me that we're all going to die tomorrow.'

Gregor spat his mouthful of water away, over my shoulder.  'What?  Tomorrow.  No.  You're lying.  He didn't say that.  I don't believe it.  You didn't even speak to him at all.'

'I don't care what you believe,' I said.  'But here's the kicker.  For us to all die together, we have to be together.  So that's why you're gonna tell me where that oasis is, and I'm gonna leave.  Right now, this second.'

He stared at me for a moment, his little piggy eyes in that squashed up face, and I felt right then that what he said next sat better with him than anything else he'd done or said up to that point.

'There is no oasis.  There never has been.  I don't know of any gang of women hiding out in the Sands.  It was all Jayci's idea - she wanted someone to come along and help out at the school.  As it turns out, having you there caused more problems than it solved.  Just like I told her it would.'

I eyed him carefully.  'And you're not saying this 'cause you got some crazy idea that I'm a rival for your affections?'

He practically burst with contempt.  'You just ask her.'

I didn't need to.  Gregor was more confident just then than I'd ever seen him.  Instead, I stood up and walked away.  In my heart, I'd known it was a fast one all along.  This is why I worked alone.  You just can't trust people.

I was at the door to the street when Jayci appeared, grabbing at my elbow.  'And where exactly are you goin'?'

'Get your hand off me,' I said automatically.

Her look was fire.  'I ain't letting go till you tell me what's up.'

'You should know.  Your man over there tells me you've been lying to me all along,' I said.  'He told me that the oasis is a crock of shit.

'Ah.'  The little smirk on Jayci's face said all it needed.  She shrugged and said, 'Come on, did you ever believe it, really?  Phoe-phoe, when I found you lying under the rubble in the church, you were a man at rock bottom.  You done fucked up that job.  You got no family, and apart from us, no friends in the world.  You're, what, twenty years old?  Twenty-five?  Looking for a mama who's been gone for a decade?  Sad is what it is.  But things are looking up for you now.  You got us.'

'Fuck you, Jayci.  Sideways.'

Her two new farmboy friends flanked her out of nowhere and loomed .  I popped a candy jack in case they got frisky.  'Don't go there,' she commanded them when they looked ready to advance.  'You'll regret it.'

I took a step backwards, but Jayci took it as an invite to step forwards.  'You can leave if you want, I ain't gonna stop you.  But where you gonna go?  What are you gonna do?  Go back to bringing in small fry bads for rent money.  Spending your evenings prayin' outside ha'penny whorehouses rather than shooting the shit with us.'

Then she smiled wickedly and imitated my accent damn as near perfect.  'Going your own way is a step backwards. Best believe it.'

Something clicked in my head.  By now I was as pissed as I get, and I ain't responsible in those moments.  All fire and brimstone, I leaned into Jayci and said, 'You like your secrets.  You should go ask Gregor about the Piano Man, and why it is you're gonna die tomorrow.'

The candy jack kicked in, and my limbs fired into life.  I pulled myself away from the girl with ease and made for the door, which the singer from earlier was now holding open. 

She was a beautiful girl indeed, about my age, the bluest eyes, hair dyed mallow pink and hot-curled into ringlets.  As I walked past, I said, 'Hey sweet thing, what are you doing tonight?'

'Not you,' she replied with feeling, before closing the door on the whole sad affair.

GO TO CHAPTER 12 > > >

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Chapter 10 - Spoils of War

When Jayci got through her front door, Gregor pretty much pounced on her.

'Jayci!  Are you okay?  Do you have it?  Was it there?'

'It was there, G.  All of it.  Just like you said.'

Watching the two of them poring over Jayci's bag was like watching kids in the fall, coming back from the Hallowfest with armfuls of candy.  Despite myself, I realized I wanted to see what she'd found that made that crazy trip worth my while.

When she reached in the bag and pulled out a mass of wires and boards, Gregor pretty much shot his load.  Me, on the other hand...well, let's just say I was distinctly underwhelmed.

'Wires?  That's all we went there for?'

Gregor gave me the kind of look you give a dog when it pisses on your bed.  'It might look like wires to you, Einstein, but this is our key to a better life.'

I squinted at him.  'What's an Einstein?'

'I rest my case.'

Jayci stepped in before I could rest his case up his ass.  'Electronics, that's the key.  It's a rare skill, and it's expensive.  If your taser died, it'd cost you three months of work to replace it.  If your laser died...well, that's Old Tech.  Ain't no man alive that could fix it.'

Gregor coughed, and Jayci smiled at him.  'Even so, we still have one of the best engineering minds you could ever wish to meet on our side, and the more practise he gets with these things, the more awesome shit he can build us.  The school we visited was full of old, busted up computers.  I found an actual science lab last year and Gregor built us a hovertrike.  A hovertrike, for God's sake.  Out in that desert, within our reach, there's Old Tech that's so incredible it'd make your damn eyes bleed.'

Gregor looked sideways at her.  'Once upon a time, they had military tech that actually would make your eyes bleed...'

'And when we find that, I'm going to point it at the world 'til they proclaim me Supreme Leader.  But 'til then, we work with what we can find.  Which reminds me...'

Jayci dived so deep into the mass of wires in the bag that only her skinny ass was left poking out.  It would have been a five second job to tip the rest of her into the sack and tie a knot in the top.  I entertained myself with amusing thoughts of doing just that until she came out again, holding a narrow device with a dead screen.  It was no bigger than the palm of her tiny hand.

'Oh, man,' Gregor said, grabbing it from her hand and turning it over.  'A digital thermometer.'

'A what now?' I said.

'Don't ask,' Jayci said, her voice deadpan.

'It tells you the temperature,' he said.

'Hot,' I said.  'It's always goddamn hot.  We live in a desert.'

'Q.E.D.'  Gregor pulled that face again, like he often did when I was talking.  'It probably needs a new battery, that's all.  We must have one in supplies.'

'There's more in the bag,' Jayci said.  Now it was Gregor's turn to go fishing.  If Jayci hadn't been there to stop me, the temptation to kick our resident engineer in his fat, arrogant butt might have been too much to resist.  Instead, I leaned towards Jayci.

'That's the run done,' I said.  'I went with you, as agreed, and now you need to pay up your half of the bargain.  The Oasis.  I need to know where it is.'

Jayci was watching Gregor wrestle with the bag.  She had this whole peaceful motherly expression on her face, and I realized she hadn't been listening to a damn thing I said.  I snapped my fingers in front of her eyes.


'Oh.  What?'  She looked back at me, and her face once again took on her usual look of casual annoyance.

'Tell me where the Oasis is.  I have to go find my Mom.'

'Oh, Jesus, Phoe-phoe, really?  Right now?  She's been gone ten years.  She'll wait another day, you know?'

'I know you need to stop taking the Lord's name in vain.  Also, I know you promised to help me, and good people keep their promises.'

'Since when are we good people?'  She smirked and then stood up before I could reply.  'Okaaaaaayy.  Okay.  We'll tell you.  We really will.  Hell, I'll even go there with you on the hovertrike so you've got someone to chat to on the way home when you find nothin'.  But this has been a good day, right?  A long journey, we found the treasure, and there was no bad juju whatsoever.'

I'd managed to put Piano Man to the back of my mind, but in that moment, he came back with a vengeance.  Tomorrow night, a house I didn't know.  A blue curtain, hesitation.  Everyone, all of us here, dead.  Suddenly the whole process, the bickering, the search for a stupid battery, everything seemed pointless.

I didn't have the words for what I wanted to say.  Instead, I said, 'Gregor, who's Robert E. Lee?'

Gregor popped out of the bag in an instant, just like I'd known he would.  'Confederate general in the Civil War.  Widely regarded as one of the finest military tacticians of his era.'  He held up a tiny battery between finger and thumb and appraised it before slotting it into the thermometer.

'Um, Confederate generals?  Guys!  A little attention here?'  Jayci tried to focus us, but Gregor was lost in tech and I was still halfway stuck in somewhere altogether nasty.  'Come on!  We should celebrate!'

Gregor carefully explored the buttons on the device until it beeped into life and numbers spread across the liquid display.  'Aha!  I knew it!'

'Knew what?' I said.

'Oh, dear God, do not ask,' Jayci said, collapsing theatrically onto the sofa.

Gregor held up the device with all the dooming demeanor of a man with one of them "The End is Nigh" boards, except that the screen on the device read a slightly less dramatic "140F err".

'So what does that mean?'  I asked.

Gregor sighed and wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve.  'It means that it's really damn hot.'

* * *

With the light low in the sky, Gregor took me up to a concealed space on the roof of his building.  Inside, there was a drainage pipe and a long, heavy tube on a tripod.  He shifted his bulk so I could stand behind the tube.

'This is a telescope.  Some nights I come up here and use it to look at the stars.'

'Sure.  But it ain't night right now, though,' I said.

'Right,' Gregor replied, looking kinda pleased that I had any deductive skills at all.  'Which is where this comes in.'

He produced a thin sleeve from his pocket and took out a narrow disc, which he slipped onto the end of the telescope.  'Solar filter,' he explained.

'So you can look at the sun?'

'Two for two,' he said, nodding approvingly.

Jayci's voice echoed up from the bottom of the ladder below.  'You're on a roll!  Best quit while you're ahead.'

Gregor called down to her.  'Don't distract him.  This is important.'

'What's more important is that you two stop messing around, take me out and get me drunk.'

'Ignore her,' he said to me.

'I heard that.'  Jayci was never going to lose her smart mouth, but for the first time I saw the other side of their relationship - the one where he got to talk and she rode shotgun.  It was an interesting contrast.

Gregor pointed down the length of the telescope.  'It's safe.  You can look now,' he said.  I did.

The sun was a bright orange ball against an eternal black backdrop.  Lights played around the surface, like embers at a campfire.

'What do you see?' Gregor said.

'It's orange.'

'What else?' he asked patiently.

I felt pretty dumb just then, but my grasp of what he was expecting to see didn't fit with the words I had.

'It's big,' I tried.

'There we go,' he said.

I was proper confused now.  'So, brought me up here to point out that the sun is big?'

He snapped the telescope around so he could look through it himself and the concern on his face was both genuine and total.  'Not that it's big.  That it's too big.  Too big and too hot.  Hotter than it should be.  Hotter, I think, than it's ever been.'

'You think you know why?'

'Perihelion,' he said promptly.  'The planet is getting close to the sun.  That happens every year, as you'd expect - except something has changed, something is different from usual.  It's too big to be a natural variation in solar radiation.  Perhaps it's the impact of war abroad.  They might have let off enough nuclear detonations by now that it's affected the orbital path - or dust and gases are getting trapped in the atmosphere and affecting the light...I don't know.  But whatever is causing it, it's really bad news.'

'Like bad juju?' I asked.  He blinked in response, but I could see wheels turning behind his eyes.

I looked down past the ladder.  Jayci was nowhere in sight, so I decided to go for broke.  'What can you tell me about the Piano Man?'

Gregor's face went white, and for once I knew I'd asked the right question.

GO TO CHAPTER 11 > > >