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 > > > 

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