Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chapter 22 - Piano Man (Reprise)

Now that he had my attention, Piano Man led with Yankee Doodle Dandy once more.

'I met a guy with just one eye and fartin' was his humour, he smelled as bad as Satan's dad and sounded like a tuba!'  He spent the next whole minute laughing while I kissed ground and ached.

Just another crazy day in the Sands. A headlong flight into limbo that ended up with me trapped in an underground tunnel and falling through space until I landed once more on the other side of reality. I began to wonder if I was suffering a reaction to the Candy Jacks. You weren't supposed to take so many back-to-back. Or maybe just lately, I'd had one too many blows to the head. Perhaps Waylon Boggs had caught me clean a while ago and everything since had just been a fever dream. Somehow, another kick to my crotch seemed preferable to another discussion with a madman.

Piano Man nodded down towards my cassock and the cross hanging round my neck on its string of beads. 'I see you've taken another step closer to the Almighty. All considered, I find that a curious decision when you're trying everything you can to avoid meeting Him in person.'

'I'm sure He understands my position,' I replied cheerfully. 'Everything in good time.'

'A good time is the one thing you definitely don't have in your future.'

'Oh yeah, more tales from the crystal 8-ball. That's just what I need right now.'

He glanced at me as he played. 'You know, you'd think with everything that's happened so far, you might actually be inclined to trust me a bit. Instead, you come barging in here, dressed up all holy and shooting your mouth off like a dumbass. I can't help thinking I deserve better. If it weren't for me, you'd have died in Grafton Brown's farmhouse.'

Somehow, the passage of time had blurred that memory and I couldn't recall where my mind was when I'd fired through that curtain. For all I could say, I might have made my own mind up what to do, and I couldn't be sure that anything we'd discussed before had played a part in that decision.

I said, 'When you're done with your State of the Union...'

He glared.  'Don't go thinking you're funny, now.'

'What you deserve, what I deserve. Ain't none of that stuff matters,' I said. 'We all get what we get, and we all get the same in the end. Everyone gotta die. It's just about the when and where.'

'What you don't seem to realize is that when and where are malleable concepts.'

'Them's big words,' I said, laying back down on the warm sand and staring up at the yellow sky above. Wisps of cloud moved around slowly, hinting at a wind somewhere up in the heavens that could descend at any time. The air was warm, and there were worse places a man could lie than where he fell. I kind of felt like if I stayed perfectly still, time itself would stop and day might never turn to night.

Piano Man picked out a slow, careful melody and carried on playing through feel even when he looked around again. 'Seems to me like maybe you're suffering some kind of existential crisis. That's okay, I get it. This desert here is a weird old place. It plays with the mind, and you've been under a lot of stress lately.'

'They done away with us,' I said.

'No more bounty hunters, huh.'

'Gregor thinks the world is heating up. He thinks that soon, it's gonna lead to catastrophe.'

'That sucks, for sure.'

'And I'm still no closer,' I said, closing my eyes and spreading my arms, 'to finding out what happened to my mom.'

Piano Man's tune quickened briefly and then stopped abruptly.

'Am I dreaming?' I asked.

Five more seconds passed peacefully, and then my world exploded in pain. I sat bolt upright, wincing and curling in on myself, my hands closing around the fist-sized rock that had hit me full in the stomach.

'What the fuck?!'

Piano Man's glowing tip jar was resting next to the piano on a neat cairn of stones. It balanced improbably above a gap in the pile that was exactly the size of the rock I was holding.  The man himself was staring at me, his coal-black pupils shrinking and expanding furiously within his white irises.

'Phoenix, get your tired, lily-livered, liberal ass out of the dirt and start acting like a man. Your town has fallen to the Yankees, your loved ones are in danger and you're staring at the sky like it's made of goddamn treacle. Now, I can handle you taking a moment when things get tough, but the minute you start making sand angels and talking about dreams, then we gotta have words. You get me?'

'Fuck you.' I pitched the rock back at him. He ducked at just the right moment for it to pass over his head and came back up with that same stupid, ugly lunatic grin that I knew from before.

'There we go, that's the boy! There's that fire. Now, you save that, you're gonna need it. You got a real battle coming up.'

'Is this the point where you tell me something that saves my life?'

'Funny you should say that.' He thumped at the ivories, portending apocalypse. 'Time, as they say, is of the essence. After you came here, your friends headed back home to pack up. They're waiting for you there right now. You're on the clock though, because your other buddy Captain Jensen's coming for you all and he's in no mood for reconciliation. He knows that the Bounty Hunters are the only ones that can stop his boss.'

I pressed down on my bruised belly and looked around desperately at the empty landscape. 'Then maybe you should stop wasting my time and get me back there?'

Piano Man raised a finger. Predictably, the harmony of the tune was unaffected, just sustained briefly with one hand. 'In two shakes of a mule's tail. First, there's more you need to know. The blonde girl from the meet at the the canyon. You remember her, right?'

Sure do. 'Uh, yeah.'

'All that lovely long hair, framing that soft, beautiful face and them big blue eyes. You thought she was pretty, right?'

Sure did. 'I guess.'

'Don't go there. She's your sister.'

What. 'WHAT?'

'You heard me. Now, I'm sure that you're gonna have all sorts of interesting family stories to catch up on round the campfire, but when you next meet, you won't have time. You're gonna have to persuade your sister - her and all her friends - to take you back to Hole Town straightaway. You're gonna have to sneak in under cover of darkness and pick up those other two idiots of yours. Storm's a comin', and there ain't no way they're getting out of town on their own.'

I felt that sinking feeling again, the one I was getting far too familiar with. I couldn't even begin to process anything about my having a sister, and whether that was true or not, it was all going south if it rested on her friends. Somehow, I didn't see Pink Hair taking my side in an argument anytime soon.

'Her friends,' I said. 'What if they won't listen to me?'

Piano Man plinked dexterously away at the keys. 'Only way to keep things on the straight and narrow is for them to go along with you. You're gonna need firepower, see. One chance to persuade 'em is all you're gonna get, so best dial that charm up to eleven.'

I didn't understand what he meant, but above me, I could see the clouds being sucked into the middle of the sky and the hairs on my arms were standing up. I was about to go center stage, and there wasn't going to be a second chance to get this right.

Piano Man began to build his tune into a crescendo. 'Don't you delay now, not even an hour. Everything is finely balanced right this second, but it'll tip on the tiniest things. Use your better judgement, and use it quick.'

'Gotcha,' I said, not all sure that I did.

When Piano Man turned again, his face had become pallid, the skin stretched tightly across his skull. The fullness of his eyes could be seen, and they rolled in his head like billiard balls. 'Pressure, Phoenix. You remember your friend talking about that, right?'


'Here's another example of it in action. When you're faced with a choice between left and right, choose straight ahead.'

'That's it?' I said.  'That's your warning?'

As I watched, I realized that it wasn't that Piano Man's skin was stretching across his frame so much as the frame itself was expanding, his skeleton growing through his flesh.  His lips stretched back across broken teeth, until he was grinning without trying to do so.  The wind became a high-pitched whine and whirled down upon us.

'It's all you have time for! One more thing. You remembered to bring money, right?  Everyone has to pay the toll. You know what happens to people who don't pay the toll.'

His bulging face abruptly split in two, showering me with blood. I just sat there dumb, staring down at my dripping hands. He stood up, and a fat, hungry tongue lolled beneath the ruined bone, beckoning at me.

A cassock doesn't have pockets, I thought, my eyes travelling slowly down my own body with growing dread.  Finally they moved to the space below my still-throbbing belly to the half-buried bag that lay beneath me. I remembered now - Jayci had thrown it to me so that Gregor could fit down the tunnel.  Everything stopped still as I tugged at the drawstring and frantically searched the dark interior, hoping against hope that one of them had thought to pack some chits...

GO TO CHAPTER 23 > > >

Monday, 17 October 2016

Chapter 21 - Cut Adrift

You've probably had that dream, the one where you're being chased.  Perhaps it's dark, confusing, with the light only touching the edges of your vision.  When you look its way, it slides into the corners, bleeding around the edges, seeping back in where you least expect.  Soon, every way you look, you see danger.

Are you alone, in that dream?  Or is it worse somehow to know that your own are with you, and you have to make sure that you don't lose them along with yourself?

Your friend has a hold of you and a hold of your other friend too, but you're moving this way and that, tugging at each other, and any move might be one too far, the one that separates you.  You can't move too slow, because that bad behind you will catch up but you can't move too fast or you'll attract the attention of the bads in front, and they'll scream into life and bring you down.  All around, people are watching.  Starting to run, just because.  Their knees and elbows crash into you, needle-sharp, tearing your skin and scratching at your eyes.
Ignore the pain, keep moving forward and you might just live.

'Which way?'

Jayci was flying beneath the clouds and her voice came out as a furious whisper.  She was pulling me along like a steer dragging a plough, but she didn't have muscles for me and Gregor both.  A liability in a spot this tight, Gregor blundered into the back of a farm girl, sending her sprawling.

'Which way, goddamnit?'

This time she did shout to make herself heard over the apologies and the anger, and her words dragged me along better than she could have done with strength alone.  My mind was torn between Jensen, whose hand I was expecting to land on my shoulder any second, lawman-style, and the blonde girl who I'd seen once and spoken not one word to, and yet shared...something.

'Godsake Phoenix, help me out here!'

'Duck low,' I said, and she let go of my sleeve and glared at me when she realised I was back with her.  Gun in hand, I was myself again.  'Aim back the way we came in.  That's where the crowds are.  We can hide there.'

Bowed forward, like a tree in the wind, we were able to sneak past one of Di Vio's patrols in the confusion.  Turning away from the flow, I looked around for Jensen, but he was lost somewhere behind us.  Anyway, even if I could see him, there'd be too many people for me to take a pop at him.  You're gonna shoot at the Devil, you don't want to go missing, now.

We bore left, jostled through crowds of people who bitched at the way we shoved them aside and then went dead quiet when they saw the guns in our hands.  We were doing okay until the mouth of the canyon came into sight.  There was a high pitched whistle behind us, someone raising the alarm, and instantly four more of Di Vio's armed militia spread out as a band across the exit.  The residents of Hole Town filtered through the gaps, suspicious but unsure what had changed.

Jayci inclined her head towards me.  'Any bright ideas?'

I looked down at my gun.  'No good ones.  I've got a few shots, but if we start a fight in this crowd, innocent people are going to die.'

'We should run,' Gregor said, stumbling around behind us.

'There's troops to the front and Di Vio's bodyguards coming up behind.'

'Pressure,' Gregor replied.

'What?' Jayci said.

'Pressure.   The sum total of the kinetic energies of a substance contained within a vessel.'

'This needs to go somewhere quickly,' I warned.  The soldiers at the mouth of the canyon hadn't seen us yet, but they were radioed up, walking our way, and you can be sure that they knew what they were looking for.

'When you apply pressure to an object, it transfers momentum,' Gregor explained.  'The pressure inside the vessel seeks to normalise with the external pressure through the most direct route possible.'

'What are you saying?'

'If we can't go forward or back, we go sideways.'

'Side passages?  Even if there were any, they're only going to lead away from the city out into the desert.'

Gregor shrugged.  'I'm an ideas man.  This is what I have.'

I could hear Jensen bellowing orders over the crowd.  'Any idea is better than none.  We find a passage, escape first.  We can double back into town later on.'

Jayci made for the far wall; Gregor and I went near.  I could hear him burbling, see the backlit sweat dripping off him as we moved in opposite directions.  I was the only one that went against the flow of people, squeezing my way along the walls.  It was slow, and all I could see was row after row of vacant eyes coming towards me.  Padre Reyes had never told me what hell looked like, but I'm willing to bet it was like that crowd, foreign and forceful, marching on forever.

Every step took three steps worth of effort to fight for, and I'd reached a spot that looked half-promising when one of the grey jackets rolled up alongside me.

'Captain Jensen,' he yelled over his shoulder, 'I've got one of them here!'

He got one for sure, flush on the jaw, and he dropped like wet sand.  As he went down, there was an explosion in the distance that tore a chunk of the rock out of the canyon wall next to my head, and then the world went crazy, all screaming and yelling and falling.  I popped a candy jack and turned away towards Gregor, hopping over, past or through the people in the way.  I was done with home town solidarity now.

I'd covered half the distance when I heard Jayci calling both of us.

'Here!  Over here!'

I elbowed someone aside and saw the girl ducking next to a lip in the rock.  The surface above it was solid, something I confirmed when I slapped my palm into it.
'This is no good!'

Gregor appeared to my left, and then there was another crack and a whine as a rifle round soared past my right shoulder and gouged the wall, leaving an opening that looked like a staring eye.

'Down!  In!'  Jayci tore the bag off Gregor's back and slapped him so hard on the shoulder that she knocked him to his knees.  His chunky ass disappeared into an unseen cleft beneath the lip and only then did I understand.

Jayci threw the bag to me, and then she was gone too, following the big man and his bright idea.  I took one last look behind before I followed.  Jensen's scarred face tore through the screaming crowd, and then he saw me and sneered.  Each of us could have taken a shot at the other, but neither of us did.  I didn't ask myself right then why not.

'Well, you keep on running, boy!  You go in there and bury yourself, it saves me a job!'

I was all out of pithy comebacks.  For all I knew, the space under that rock might be fifteen feet deep, and then soon I'd be coming out backwards, trussed up like a turkey at Thanksgiving.  Better to save my words for when I had some way to back them up.  I gritted my teeth and followed the others.

Ten seconds into perfect darkness and sound ceased to have any meaning.  The outside died away and the space filled with my own echo, disorienting me.  There was just my breath and my knees shuffling urgently through the dust, splayed fingers reaching out to avoid holes or unpleasant surprises.  When I called for Jayci and for Gregor, the closeness of the walls deadened my voice so much that I could barely hear it myself.  I knew they had to be still going forward because I hadn't run into the back of them, but I could no longer tell whether I was headed in a straight line.  In no time at all, my shoulders were pressing on the walls, and I got the sensation that I was digging my own grave.  Still, there weren't no way to go back, or I would have been for certain.

Eventually the rock loosened around me, and then opened outright into empty space.  My fingers pressed through the rough sand, touching crevices and spars.  The skin on my palms was already grazed from the progress I was making.  Keep moving, keep moving forward.

Ignore the pain, and you might just live.

Panic growing in my heart, I leaned into the night and the air began to get cooler, like I was coming into a wider passage or getting close to water.  If I overreached in my flight, I might tip over a ledge and find myself drowning in an underground pool.  What kind of hero drowns in a desert?  Not one who's going to be remembered, or one who'd want to be.

The cool breeze grew suddenly in strength, and then, like that fever dream from earlier, the light bled in from the edges and formed a silent glowing dot in the distance.  I knew it couldn't be daylight, because darkness had already fallen, but I had no idea what else it could be.  I headed towards it, and at the same time it seemed like it headed towards me.  When the two of us met, the glare enveloped me, like I got swallowed by a frozen sun, and then I was falling through clouds, through empty space, through a blazing void, finally landing in a sand dune at the bottom of an immense bowl-shaped depression in the Sands.

I sat upright, brushed off my cassock and turned to see a familiar face.  Impeccably dressed in the same white shirt and long coat as before, Piano Man sat before his keyboard and spread his fingers across the keys.  Rather than play, he raised an eyebrow and grinned at me.

'Ah, Phoenix.  Welcome back.'

GO TO CHAPTER 22  > > >

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Chapter 20 - The Party in the Canyon

Gregor turned up before the sun dipped close to the horizon.  He was sweating like a mule and muttering to himself as he approached.  A dark, wet stain filled the hollow between his shoulders and crystallised white at the edges.

Beside me, Jayci squinted beneath her hat, looking all kinds of hot and irritated.  To her front, a crowd of people a hundred bodies deep stretched from the mouth of the canyon all the way back to the ridings of Hole Town.  Looking around, I could see all the kinds of people that made up a community - the mine workers, with their empty eyes, the bordello girls, who came in stern, no-nonsense packs.  The farm workers tied cloth around their faces and supported one another with calloused hands.  Street-sellers had brought their carts down the rocky path and into the canyon itself.  It might not have been an easy trip, but there was always money to be made from a crowd, and it was better to have your livelihood with you than to trust it to good fortune in an empty town. 

There were even one or two seminary boys close by.  Their hair was too tidy for them to have ever done useful work.  They took one look at my cassock and sidled away as quickly as they could.

Gregor offered us water bottles and then crouched down, gulping for air. 

Jayci tipped her head slowly and gazed at Gregor like she was waking from a dream.  'You okay, G?'

The big man wiped himself down on a cloth he pulled from a pocket.  'It's too hot, I pretty much had to sprint to get here and I certainly don't like being near this many people.'

Jayci patted him on the back.  'Hang in there.  We're only here to see what they've gotta say, then we can get ourselves back home and come up with a plan.'

Mayor Belasco was a weathered man but he was dignified, and he walked up to the lectern at the end of the valley like one half his age.  His beard was the colour of the wind, and he'd managed to get this far out into the wastes with something approximating a clean shirt and tie.  In his lapel he'd stuffed a clementine blossom, showing how he'd started his days working on the farms hereabouts.  It ain't much, you can say, but these are the little things that matter to people.  He might have been a politician, but he was Hole Town through and through.

No, it wasn't Mayor Belasco that concerned me.  He was just one man, making a decision that was no decision at all.  It was the smirking younger man standing beside his shoulder that concerned me.  Nate Di Vio.

Belasco began.  'Ladies and gentlemen of Hole Town.  Thank you for coming out here to hear about the security arrangements in our fine town.  Now, it can't have escaped anyone's notice that the army have been called out at short notice to deal with operational matters abroad.  In their stead, I've had to decide how we deal with the problem of keeping people safe - and happily, a solution has arrived that also addresses some other problems we've been having.

'As you know, we've been experiencing issues with securing reliable sources of power to develop our industry.  It's not easy to run production lines if you can't find solar tech, or the underground lines are only working four hours a day.  For that reason, I'm delighted to introduce you to the man who'll be taking charge of both our power and security needs.  He's the owner of the Silver Sea, which powers all of the lands north of the Sands, and he has some exciting ideas to help our town grow.  Ladies and gentlemen, Nate Di Vio.'

With his futuristic looking clothing, Nate Di Vio was something of a strange sight.  He had all the time in the world as he stood forward and lifted the copper cloak off his shoulders.  Two of his lackeys stepped along with him to take it from his hands.  He sauntered to the lectern and once there, gripped the edges with his hands.

'Thank you, Mayor Belasco,' he said, his voice strong and clear.  'It's great to see so many people here today, taking an interest in matters of civic importance.  It speaks volumes about your town that you've made the effort.

'Ten years ago, I came out of a tech institute with nothing more than a rapacious interest in engineering and a plan for the future.  Everyone I worked alongside was interested in military applications, building vehicles, munitions, bombs, so that our armies could better fight abroad.  I always had loftier ambitions - I wanted to make the world a better place.  In my first year in industry, I devoted all my time to tracking down Old Tech - things we'd lost, things we'd forgotten after the constant civil wars of the last century.  I found them, reverse-engineered them, learned the stories of our past all over again.  Thanks to the work I carried out in that year, we were able to build the workshops that made it possible to mass-produce self-cleaning solar panels more efficient than the Old Worlders could even dream of.  In the north, we now have power, so much power that we don't know what to do with it.'

He raised his arms.  'Some of you may be asking, why are you here?  Why now?  I'm not just a man who likes to help others, I'm a man who likes to travel.  And so I came south, looking for somewhere new that I could assist.  When I reached the outskirts of Hole Town, I realised that the fields here are drier and emptier than they should be.  This is a harsh land, but it's rich with mineral wealth, and with my help, you could become an industrial heartland.

'I can bring enough juice to power a thousand factories, and you have the space to build them and the people to work them.  Working together, we can generate wealth and create prosperity.  If you're willing to embrace me as a partner, I'll help you to make Hole Town into the new capital city of the South.  From El Paso to Miami, everyone will know you, and everyone will want to come here and make their fortune.  Embrace me, and together, we will build the future!'

There was cheering then, the stunned, stilted kind that you might feel if you ever won a lottery.  Even Jayci and I could have got involved, though we were both brought down when we turned to see Gregor shaking his head.

'What do I need from you?' Di Vio continued.  'Your labour...your patience...your understanding.  This is your town, and as your honoured guest, I'm keen that you're the driving force in building this great new tomorrow.  Something else I need is a reasonable degree of assurance that comes with security, and in the absence of the army being here to keep people safe, I've agreed with Mayor Belasco that my own private security people will take over duties in and around the town.  You might have seen them around - look out for the grey jackets.  We're asking you to respect them in the same way that you'd respect any lawman, and follow their instructions to stay safe.'

Looking around, I could see now that large clutches of Di Vio's security detail were spread out among and around the crowd, meeting stares with firm nods, each of them criss-crossed with bandoliers and weighed down with guns big enough to shoot down the moon.

'Friendly fellas,' Jayci observed.  Gregor grimaced.

Mayor Belasco interjected, sharing a few words with Di Vio, and the latter nodded before turning back to the crowd.  'Mayor Belasco has just pointed out to me that we don't want...what we don't need right now, is to have civilians moving around, doing the work that my security team have agreed to pick up.  Of course, civilians will retain their constitutional right to bear arms, but for now and the foreseeable future, we're standing down the bounty hunters.  Existing bounties will be honoured, but no new ones will be offered.'

A ripple ran through the crowd at that point.  I looked at my feet, and then up at Jayci.  Her lips thinned slightly, oh-so-slightly, but she made no other reaction.

'Finally,' Di Vio said, 'necessity has meant that things here are moving at a fast pace, and it's important that you all have a chance to meet and get to know me - if that's what you want to do.'

There were a few whistles from the crowd, and a woman in front of us yelled, 'Will you marry me?' to general amusement.

Di Vio smiled.  'A century ago, in a desert hundreds of miles to the north, the people used to hold a festival each year to celebrate their identities.  A celebration, the likes of which you've never seen before.  It's a party for the ages, and we're going to bring that spirit to Hole Town.  There'll be a chance for everyone to reconnect with your wild, spiritual side - to celebrate our self-reliance and our self-expression.  I'm going to build you a metropolis in the desert, a new city in the Sands.  That's where we'll get to know one another, and that's where we'll become friends.'

The sun fully set at the precise moment that Nate Di Vio stepped away from the lectern.  In the new darkness in the valley, the applause began slowly at first, building and cresting as even sceptics joined in, and people yelled and hooted to one another.  What had started as a discussion about security had ended with the promise of the biggest party Hole Town, or anywhere south of the Sands, had ever seen.

Torches popped up at the fringes of the crowd, bathing everywhere in dirty yellow light.  I looked around through a sea of clapping, cheering bodies to a small group as motionless as our own.  The pink-haired singer from the drinking hole who saved my life in the gunfight after was just a few yards away to my right, standing with a posse of her own.  A group of women, aged from teens to toothless, gathered in a loose circle.  One in particular caught my eye - perhaps the same age as the singer herself, short hair the colour of the sun and a hollow-cheeked face striking for its intensity.  She saw me staring, and stared back for a few seconds before nudging the singer.

Pink Hair recognised me straightaway, despite the cassock.  Behind her, an impossibly tall woman with narrow limbs and a long rifle strapped over her shoulder gave me the coldest look I think I've ever had from a woman.  She moved protectively around the blonde girl, who continued to meet my eye even as the group ushered her away through the crowd.

'Huh,' I said, turning as Jayci tugged on my sleeve.

'Time to go,' Jayci said, and between her, the rumbling figure of Gregor and a hundred other limbs beside, I could see the sneering face of Captain Jensen as he strode towards us.

GO TO CHAPTER 21 > > >