Hole Town is my hometown. Her people are my people, and I will know no other. The water beneath her mount sustains me. Her dusty streets are the arms that enfold me. The Fallen Cross is our reminder of the grace that we strive for.
This visored, faceless man that stands between us. His gun, the very wings of the Angel of Death.
I could taste the blood on my lips. And in the distance, I could hear music play. It was a simple piano melody.
The thud that followed was the sound of a bullet tearing through a brain. A head shattered within a helmet, a man slumping forward over his motorbike. Behind where he'd been standing, a girl with pink hair, holding a smoking pistol.
A crowd was gathering at a safe distance as she walked over to where the gunman lay. Her step was deliberate, focused. She picked up the fallen gun, thrust it into a bag on her hip. Then as people watched and whispered, she went through the dead man's pockets, taking his wallet and personal effects.
Without looking up, she said, 'Gonna sit in the dirt all night?'
I eased myself upright. 'Are you a hunter?'
'Nope, but I think in this instance they'll pay bounty regardless. Gotta take your money where you find it.' She looked around. There were more shots from round the back of the building.
'It's you, isn't it?' I said. 'Girl from the bar. The singer.'
She looked at me for the first time. Eyes like ice, just as brilliant, just as cold. 'I don't just sing. Having a lot of skills keeps me in demand.'
'You have a name?' I said.
'I do,' she replied, turning away.
'Gonna share it?'
'Does it look like it?'
I grinned, popped a candy jack and checked my taser and pistol. 'There's more going on round back.'
The girl grabbed the dead gunman by his collar and began to drag him through the dust towards the front of the post. The heels of his boots bit furrows into the sand. 'I think I done my bit for today. You knock yourself out.'
I left her behind and strode down the alleyway. As I reached the back door, the truck I'd seen pull up earlier roared away, burning oil and firing a cloud of smoke out of the exhaust. Another helmeted trooper appeared with his back to me. He ran out of the door, traded rounds with figures in the shadows opposite and vaulted onto a hovertrike leaning against the wall. Through the door, I could see bloodstains, bullet holes and crumpled drywall. Right at the very back, the cage containing Carter's armory had been popped with some kind of charge. All of the weapons had gone.
The trike piked towards me, but the rider was still looking the wrong way. Jacked up, I had the strength of three. He never even saw the punch coming.
That boy had barely bounced before Jayci Clemence flew out of the shadows and scooped up both his gun and the hovertrike.
'Turns out you're not as useless as I thought, Phoe-Phoe,' she jibed. 'Now, quick! Drive this damn thing.'
I wrapped my fingers around the handgrips and she perched on the back. Her spare arm snaked under mine and across my shoulders.
'What in hell are you doing?' I yelled above the roar of the engine.
She waved the stolen automatic. 'This thing's gonna have one hell of a kick. I don't want it blowing me straight off the back.'
We were picking up speed now, weaving through the narrow street. 'You didn't bring your own gun?' I said.
'I want something that's gonna stop that van. These fuckers are tooled to take on military. No messing around.'
The trike was sleek and fast, and rode smooth over the dirt, but I had to be careful. The light was poor and the smoky air made it difficult to judge how fast the truck in front was going. People were looking out of windows, ducking out of passageways on both sides. Any of them might panic and run in front of the trike, or take pot shots at us thinking we were bads. To top it all, I had Jayci whooping in my ear and the barrel of her new friend resting on my shoulder.
'Go for it, cowboy! Chase those fuckers down! Wooo!' Jayci fired a wild burst with her handheld, throwing the trike left and right and deafening me all at once. We were answered at once by a couple of static pops from the driver's side up front. The bullets sang as they passed by my head.
I still had no idea who the attackers were, but I had that good blood running through my veins now. Whoever they were, I weren't about to let them shoot up my town and just ride away. There was the chase, and that's all a hunter needs.
Jayci was practically climbing on my shoulders, roaring in my head. 'Get up closer to them! C'mon!'
'What you gonna do when we catch up?'
'I'll think of something!' The girl took aim and squealed as kickback from the gun nearly threw us off the side. Her braids swung around like trail ropes.
'Thinking's not your strong suit,' I yelled back.
'On that subject, don't think you're forgiven for being rude earlier. We're gonna have a conversation, you and me.'
The truck took a corner hard, tilted on two wheels. The passenger side window shattered from Jayci's next burst and they replied in kind with something heavy, a military rifle. I was in the zone and my reactions were faster than the light. I steered around the hail of bullets and closed in, taking away any angle of fire. Still, they blazed away anyhow, and I could hear the rounds as they screeched off the road around us.
Within a minute, the truck turned out onto hard dirt and pointed straight out to the Sands. They were headed north, away from the city. I gave it maximum throttle. As we drew alongside, the driver tried to steer into us. I braked hard. Jayci bounced around on the back and her arm gripped around my neck so tight that she damn near throttled me.
'Godsake, Phoenix! Pick a speed and point the damn thing straight!'
'I will if you stop choking me! And I told you not to take His name in vain.'
The truck found another burst of juice and zipped ahead. Immediately, something small rumbled past the bike. At first I thought it was a rock, but the light glinted off the surface for just a moment, and I hit the accelerator hard. Two seconds later, the grenade exploded. The road we'd just been driving on cratered and the concussion wave threatened to throw us into the air. The dust blinded me and dried my mouth out. My tongue just flapped there, like the sole on a dead shoe.
'Don't let 'em get away!' Jayci was far from done. She fired at the van's rear tires, which exploded and exposed the wheelbase on each side. The truck swerved violently and slowed. The passenger started shooting again but it was wild, desperation stuff. Jayci unloaded the rest of the magazine, keeping her finger pressed down on the trigger until the heat from the barrel was burning my face. The truck rolled across our path and headed for a building site off the road.
Preacher Man had told me that once, back when the states were still united and people travelled for fun, they'd tried to market the desert as a tourist place. Rich men were gonna build hundred-floor hotels out here in the wastes, and the good people of of the world were going to stump up their life savings for the chance to live a few weeks of luxury in the sweltering Arizona heat.
Like all things that man conceives, that dream had died. Penniless and called to war, workers had abandoned sites in droves, leaving everything where they'd dropped it. Now, smoking, wheezing and filled with more lead than a pencil, the truck rumbled towards one of those abandoned building sites, ready for one last show of resistance.
At the edge of the site, the van turned through ninety on a sixpence, spiralling to a halt and knocking a whole pile of wood and pipes over and spilling them into the street.
Jayci said, 'They're done, we can take them!' And then, 'Oh, shit.'
The driver swung round in his seat. On his shoulder, he was balancing a fat tube about as wide as his arm. A metal bulb poked out the end.
I didn't need Jayci's warning. I didn't need to hear the thump-hiss of the rocket, or see the trail of smoke as it streaked towards us. All I could do was aim the front of the trike at the big pile of debris that had fallen directly in front of us and give the throttle everything I had left.
About twenty feet up I lost the trike, and it fell away. Jayci let go of me, and then she was gone too. Somewhere below and behind, the world erupted in a ball of black flame and then everything was air and panic and watching the earth welcome you back all too quickly...
I landed in a patch of dark, damp sand somewhere below a garbage chute. All the wind got done knocked out of me. In the distance, I could hear metal protesting as the truck limped away from the scene. When that sound had faded away into the desert night, I could hear a familiar voice cursing. I looked sideways to see Jayci spreadeagled upside-down in some netting hanging from a gantry.
'Fuck! Motherfuckers! They had a fucking rocket launcher! That's how badly they wanted to stop us!'
I rolled over, every bit of me aching. 'Probably one they took from Carter. Reckon that's why they were there, the weapons. Military is the only place you get that kinda kit these days.'
She might have been blown fifty feet through the air and hung upside-down in a plain undignified way, but it was gonna take more than that to quench Jayci's fire. 'They don't scare me, and I ain't done. We're gonna find those assholes. But first...you gotta get me out of here.'
It took some climbing and some cutting, but eventually Jayci and I fell down next to one another in the sand. By now, she'd moved back from angry to exhilarated. Me? I was just plumb exhausted.
'Hoowee! Phoe-Phoe, we have the best adventures!' Jayci began to laugh, high-pitched, infectious. As I listened, I even found myself smiling, something I didn't do much.
'Got time for that serious conversation?' I said.
'Why not? I ain't going nowhere.' She laughed again and coughed. 'Oh, man, I think I broke a rib.'
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