Sunday, 21 August 2016

Chapter 17 - The Good, The Bad and The Oh-So Ugly

The three of us stood there like we were dumb while a whole battalion of men in black leather lifted visors and stepped off of motorbikes or leaned out of trucks and pointed weapons at us.  The whole scene was silhouetted against the backdrop of a light bright enough to blind a man, brighter even than the sun.

Slowly, the three of us raised our hands.  Jayci was close enough to me that when she whispered in my ear, her breath tickled.  'If you had any plans saved up for what to do if an army invaded the desert, now would be a good time to share them.'

'Me?' I said.  'I thought you were the one with ideas of global domination.'

'Gregor?  You got anything?'

'My usual forte is running.  And I don't think that's going to work here.'

So, we still had a ways to go before we were big league.  But then it's not every day that an army strolls over the horizon and faces you down.  What would you do?

I stepped forward and called out, 'What do you want?'

'You to shut up.'  The man who responded walked towards us awkwardly, as though his clothes were maybe a size too small for him, but the rifle he was carrying was as tall as he himself, and he wasn't a short man.  He waved an arm and with a distant slam, the light level dropped considerably.  Now I could pick out faces in the gloom, and none of them were friendly.

The man who'd approached us had a jaw so square it might have been panel beat.  His hair was grey and the rest of his face was scarred, like he'd been chewed up and spat out by something.  If I'd seen this guy's face on a wanted poster, I'd have been tempted to look around for something a bit easier to deal with.  For his part, he looked about as impressed with us as I was by him.  He stood the rifle upright in one hand, pulled out a pistol with the other and pointed it at my head.

'You ain't Bennett Brown,' he said.

'Bennett's back inside,' I said.  Hey, he might have been chained to a radiator, but it wasn't a lie.

The man walked around me at a safe distance, careful to have one eye spare for Jayci and Gregor.  It was clear he wasn't taking us lightly.

'You in charge here?' he said.

'Girl here is the smart one and Fat Boy back there does the navigating,' I said.  If I could get him to focus on me, that might leave a window for one of the others to do...something.  'I'm the one with the gun.' 

He tipped his head to look at the laser and whistled through his teeth.

'Very nice gun that is too.  A classic model.  They hand-built all them lasers, none of this production line shit.  Real craftsmanship.  You just don't get stuff like that any more.  Take Betsy, here.'  He tipped the rifle towards me.  'I built her myself after I dropped out of the military.  You know, they spend all their time, chasing round the desert in sandy environments that fuck up their weapons in hours.  Hey, it don't matter none.  It's all about the bombs these days.  'Course, every one they drop breeds a hundred more men that stand and fight...but then, no-one getting rich from war is interested in war coming to an end, are they?'

Jayci was leaning into me and I could feel her body stiffening.  I could tell she was thinking the same as me - this guy knew too much.  He wasn't going to be someone you could fool with a cheap trick.

Grey Hair pointed his rifle at the horizon across from us and sighted her.  'Betsy and me, we've killed fifty men.  And of course, there was more before I made her, but I didn't ever keep a count of those.  You probably killed a few yourself...' and here, he allowed the sentence to dangle like a baited hook.  When I didn't reply, he shrugged.  'If I'm right, in your line of work, you prefer to take 'em alive.'

He saw me sideglance at Jayci.  'Your guild badge is a dead giveaway, son.  Now, for a moment, I was thinking you were just some mud-dweller...but that laser is something serious.  You're way too young to have been around when they was made, so I'm guessing you either looted that or inherited it.  If it's the latter, my commiserations. If it's the former, I suggest you don't try to fire it.'  He even knew about the laser.

A different, younger voice drifted down from on high.  'Captain Jensen, how long is this going to take?'

We looked upwards, to where a younger man was sitting on an improvised throne atop the Monster Truck that had been leading the fleet.  He was wearing strange, light clothes under a leather cloak the same colour as the tight copper curls on his head.  As we watched, his legs swung out and rested on the dashboard.  The boots he was wearing stopped at the ankle, and looked like they were made out of some futuristic material, the like of which I'd never seen before.

The man we now knew to be Captain Jensen said, 'Sir, I'm just doing a little recon work right here, find out what we're dealing with.  See, I was expecting to meet with one man, and I get a little itchy when every man and his dog turns up instead of them.'

'Who's the dog in this story?' Jayci asked.

Before anyone else could reply, Gregor lifted his telescope to his eye and looked upwards.  He adjusted the lens while I watched, and then he let it hang loose in his hands, a troubled look on his face.  'Is that...Nate Di Vio?'

'Who the hell is Nate Di Vio?' I asked.

'He's the man who owns the Silver Sea,' Gregor exclaimed.  'It's the solar farm where the panels cover the entire county.  It's the reason why the North hasn't collapsed completely.  It powers everything from the far side of the Sands to the northern point of the continent.'

'Oh,' I said.

'He's rich beyond our imagination,' Gregor replied with a sigh.  'And he's a genius.'

Jensen looked at Gregor for a moment with the sour expression of the long-serving and underappreciated underling who hears someone else praising his boss.  Then he called up again, 'See, I'm just a little bit unsure about handing over a large sum of money to these guys when I don't even know who they are.'

'Give them the money or shoot them,' Di Vio said.  'I don't care which.  Just get it done before we die of old age.'

Jensen smiled unpleasantly.  'You heard the man.  Let's take a little walk!'

His men fell in behind us and began looting the crate that Bennett and his brothers had filled before we arrived.  Jensen and a couple of his underlings rolled along behind us and instructed us to walk out toward the ridge that Jayci had been using as cover when she'd been sharpshooting earlier.

Jayci sighed.  'There goes my plan to rule the Sands.'

'Yeah, well, I'm just concerned that we get out of this alive.'

She gave me a small smile, and her eyes were luminous.  'Something'll come along, Phoe.  Something always does.'

'I guess I want something a bit more certain than that,' I said.

'Oh, come on.  What are you now, Mr Man-With-A-Plan?  Let it flow, boy.  Have a little faith!'  I was about to argue with her about how I was the religious one and could tell her some things about faith, but she slipped her hand into mind as we were walking, and suddenly, with her warmth, all words escaped me.

I was only a little disappointed when I noticed her holding Gregor's hand on the other side.

Still, a little is something.

Jensen was slow-riding a massive Goldwing over the firm sand, Betsy strapped over his back.  His boys were carrying the T-shaped pistols I'd seen in town before.  They were piloting trikes built for three, with all of the heavy inertia you got with those things.  Before we reached the ridge, the sun started to peer over the horizon.  I popped a candy jack and glanced back at the girl.  Jayci's face was set now, going to that place where you needed the focus, where focus was all there was.

'Got one of those for me?' she whispered.  I placed one on the tip of her tongue, brushed my fingers over her cracked lips.  Wondered if she noticed.  Wondered if she cared.

When we reached the ridge, Jensen turned his bike around.  In the distance, the rest of his boss's cavalcade was already moving on in the direction of Hole Town.  We'd been dust motes in Di Vio's universe, brushed away with the same sort of ease.

What I hadn't expected was for Jensen to hand over a pouch that was weighed down with enough chits to damn near double my weight.

'What's this?' I said.

'Payment for the guns we're taking.  Mr Di Vio said payment or shoot you.  I'm assuming you prefer this arrangement?'

'Damn right,' Jayci said, taking it out of my hands with practised ease and slipping it under her coat.

 'Is Bennett still alive?' Jensen said.

'He is, and one of his brothers.  We tied 'em up in the house.  The others got a little crazy.'

He nodded. 'That'll happen. We'll take them into town with us, find somewhere to drop them off.  My boys here will take you north, as far as you want to go.  I suggest out of the Sands altogether.  A man'll make a better fortune up where things are still civilised.'

'And what's to stop your boys shooting us and stealing our chits the minute you turn your back?'

'You tell me, son.  Are you really as good as you think you are?'  Jensen grinned, just one more tear in a face already shredded.  The faces of his underlings were mostly hidden by cloth, but they didn't exactly look like moral souls.

'What are you planning when you get to Hole Town?' I asked.  In this poor world, a man shouldn't get too sentimental about the place he lives but Hole Town, with Preacher Man and the Fallen Cross and memories of my mom, well, it was everything I knew, and the thought of that falling to a hostile army bothered me more than the thought that I was going to die.

Jensen said, 'We have a proposition for them they can't refuse.  Don't worry, the sun will be rising here for a while yet.  And if you take my advice, you'll be taking shelter from it before it does.  From the looks of things, it's gonna be a long, hot day.'

He roared off, throwing up a thin dust trail that soon faded into the wider cloud that travelled around Di Vio's convoy.  I felt sweat dripping down my arms.  As he disappeared into the yellow void, I thought to myself, hot is right.

'Phoenix,' Jayci said.

When I looked around, Jensen's men were pointing their pistols at me.  All considered, it was a good time for the candy jack to kick in.  The sun was up for real now, and like the girl said, something always comes along.

GO TO CHAPTER 18 > > >

Monday, 1 August 2016

Chapter 16 - Hesitation Lives

Hesitation is a live one.  No cautious man ever fell from the sky, or rushed into fire in a damn fool mission to save a loved one.  Hesitation waits, hesitation thinks, hesitation plans.  Hesitation lives.

Course, you'd best believe that I took out my mom's laser and I shredded that curtain and everything behind it before any of those thoughts grew wings.

Gregor came sprinting round the corner and ran chest-first into my outstretched arm.

'Back,' I commanded.  'Whatever happens, don't come round here.  If you hear any more gunfire, you run. You run quick, and you run far.  Pick up Jayci, physically if you have to.  Ignore anything she says.  Take her with you and keep going south until morning.'   I felt him melt away.

It wasn't ten yards but that corridor was the longest one I've ever taken.  I wanted reassurance, wanted to wait, but maybe I'd already waited too long.  If I stayed there 'til Jayci arrived, I could be condemning us all to death.  I strained my ears for noises, for piano music in the distance.  There was nothing at all to guide me.  I was totally alone.

Is this what happened to her, to my mom?  Did she die sitting still, crouched like a prey animal?  Was she straining her ears for sounds when the moment came?  Was her skin prickling like mine in the darkness, like she could feel the bad, like she could taste it?  Would her way be my way, the words of a spirit enough to send her to her death?

The sound of another set of footsteps began behind me.  Bird-light but with the purpose of a man twice her size, Jayci rounded the corner.  There was no way I was letting her put herself in danger.

'Back,' I snarled, before she could even open her mouth.  Her eyes widened as she subsided.  That might be the only time ever that that girl listened to something I said.

The failing light meant that I had to get right on up in the cubbyhole before I could see what was there.  It might have been storage once, a cupboard or an airing space or who knows what.  What was sure was that it was filled now with the corpse of a man, an unseen brother who was sitting jammed in the hole with a shotgun resting on his knees.  General Lee had been right all along.

I stood there for a few seconds more, taking in the silence, revelling in the absolute stillness in the whole scene.  It wasn't that one man's life had ended, but that for the three of us there, ours could begin again.

'Is it done?' Gregor called.

'Yes,' I said quietly, my mind filled with distant flames.  'It's done.'

* * *

'So the question you're asking,' Jayci said slowly, 'is what makes a bunch of two-bit, no-goods fresh from the Pen into hardened criminals.'

'I said, what makes a bunch of guys with a petty history suddenly decide to go all scorched earth on us,' I replied.

'Desperate men,' Jayci said with a shrug.  She was chewing on a toothpick and as she was thinking, she was moving it from side to side in her mouth.  'I got more important things on my mind.  Like, if these guys took all of Carter's weapons, where did they stash them?'

'Why don't we ask one of these guys when they wake up?' Gregor said.  He gestured at the surviving brothers, who we'd cuffed unconscious to a radiator and stacked up against the wall.

'Could be hours before they wake up.  I'm not keen on spending the night out in the Sands.  Reckon we'll just load 'em up and deliver them to Carter.'  I nudged one of the unconscious men with the toe of my boot.  'She'll be all keen to speak to them.'

'And then they go back to the Pen?'

'Not these guys,' I said, shaking my head.  'These guys are looking at a long uncomfortable talk followed by a short-and-even-less-comfortable rope.'

'And you guys are looking at enough cash to cover the bills for a few more weeks,' Gregor said.

'Hey, one of those live ones is yours,' I replied.  'Turns out you're a handyman in more ways than one.'

Gregor looked pained.  'If someone has to die, I don't think I want the money.'

I shrugged.  'They made their choice, and you will too.  If you're still bothered, give it to Jayci.  She'll find something to do with it.'

Gregor looked around.  'Speaking of Jayci...'

The girl had crept out of the room.  We followed her trail outside, where she was a hard shadow kneeling in the dust underneath the spotlight in the yard.

'Jayci?  Is everything okay?' Gregor asked.

'Everything's fine,' she said.  It was hard to see in the light, but the girl seemed to be shifting the sand with her hands, like a child in a playpit.

'You sure?'

'Fine and dandy.  You can come over here, join in if you want.  And you're gonna want.'

Gregor scampered past me.  I was all ready to walk down with him until another detail caught my eye.  In addition to the shadow Jayci was casting from the spotlight on the farmhouse, another weaker shadow was cutting across the first.  I looked up past her, where the horizon was glowing yellow.  At the same time, I became aware of a humming on the edge of my hearing, distant, but growing louder.

Gregor knelt down next to Jayci, shared a few words that I didn't hear and scuffed up the sand next to her.

'Gregor,' I said, looking back out to the horizon, 'what in hell is causing that light?'

'Forget about the light,' Jayci ordered.  'Get your ass down here and help us search.'

'What are you even looking for?'

Jayci gestured with the toothpick to a space back below the porch, where a chain was hanging from the timbers.  Heavy links snaked down from the rotting timbers and disappeared beneath the surface.  'I think this might be our lead.  But first, we gotta dig that fucker out.'

I went down on my knees with the the pair of them, tracing the path of the chain in the sand.  It went deeper as it went out, meaning we had to dig more the longer we stayed with it.  As I did, the light got brighter and the hum got louder.  I kept looking up, hoping I might see something, but there was nothing beyond the light.

'Is that not bothering you?' I asked.  'Whatever that is?'

Jayci wiped her forehead and squinted into the distance.  Gregor glanced only at her.  'Keep working,' she said.

Finally, Gregor let out a little shriek and his hands scrubbed sand off the lid of a buried metal crate.  With another few minutes of work, we shook the top of the crate completely free of sand.  The crate was fifteen feet long and twice as wide.  Deepness, I could only guess at.  It was Jayci, grinning eerily in the chequered light, who took it upon herself to pop the lid.  

Inside, there was an immense host of weaponry, the likes of which I'd never even seen.  There were handguns, automatic rifles, military shotguns, grenades.  Some things I didn't even recognise.  No-one outside of the military could ever have afforded this amount of armaments.  It was an arsenal that could take a city.  Hell, maybe even a country.

Jayci swept her braids behind her and leered at me.  'I told ya, didn't I?  I told ya!  The fucking motherlode.'

'There's more here than Carter's guns.  They must have been raiding, stockpiling for...ages.'  I couldn't even guess how long it had taken to build up this stash.

'The fucking motherlode,' Jayci repeated.

'This has to go back to Carter.  All of it.'  

'We could do that,' Jayci said.

I stared at her.  'What are you thinking?'

'Well, we could give most of it back, sure.  But there's enough here that they won't notice a few items, carefully hidden away...and then we'd be better armed than any goddamn bad we ever ran into again.  You and I, Phoe-Phoe.  Think about it.  We could be the baddest hunters in the whole of Hole Town history.'

'Guys,' Gregor said

I looked up.  The light was now as bright as day, the hum a roar, and I'd been staring into the crate, distracted and not looking at what was coming.  The three of us got to our feet in time to see an armada of vehicles, trucks, motorbikes and jeeps approaching.  Their headlights crested the horizon, their engines roared, and they bathed us in light.  The other vehicles were flanking a giant armoured monster truck that was surely the single biggest vehicle in Christendom.  You could have stood me on Gregor's shoulders and Jayci on mine, and I'm not sure we could have climbed one of the wheels.

Jayci's mouth opened so wide that she dropped the toothpick.  It dropped to the sand, where it was swept away by a breeze on the grainy surface.  'The fucking motherlode,' she said again.

Go to Chapter 17 > > >