Sunday, 23 July 2017

Epilogue - Grand Destiny

Springtime brings the rain in desert country, and in the last few weeks, the Sands have seen rain like they've never seen before.  I know this, 'cause I was one of the few people that were outside when they began.

Gregor said that much of the water on the surface had condensed at the time of the perihelion, but now as the sun slips back into frozen space, things have cooled.  Everything that goes up must come down, and water is no exception.

We were worried at first because all that rain had to go somewhere, and if too much leaked down into the caves, it could have drowned everyone like rats.  But the old tunnels did their job, draining away the flow, and the reservoir below filled to the point of overflowing.  There was, after all, water enough for everyone.

Most people were itching to get back to the surface, but Gregor stayed in the caves and built hisself a workshop.  To survive for the weeks we'd been stuck below the ground, some people had taken to eating lichen off the rocks.  In no time at all, Gregor was creating recipes and testing it for nutritional content.  He's shown little interest in returning home, and often warns Phoenix and me all about the dangers of lingering solar radiation, but we figure that people gotta live before they die, and that's that.

Di Vio's people had bought animals, fertilizer and seeds so that they were ready for when civilization regrowth could begin. Outside, the torrential rains had created new water courses, new delta lands.  Building materials were hard to come by, but people were ready to return to Hole Town to scavenge what they could.  We woke up to a whole new world.

Heat had caused fire, and most everything in the town itself had burned.  But one thing at least had survived – the skeleton of the Burning Man, scarred blacker than night, that giant, twisted face visible in the distance as we emerged from our burrows.  Phoenix wanted to pull the Burning Man down and turn him back into a cross, but I told him there were other, more important things to do first.  He, and many of the others, want to go straight back and rebuild the town.  I'm sure that somewhere out there, by dint of circumstance or of good fortune, there'll be other people who've survived the perihelion.  I mean to find them.

But first.  We still have the hovertrikes that Di Vio's men had been using beneath the mountains, and a couple of them still have enough of a charge to get us north to the Oasis and back.  Mama Smokes, Mar and Rat take one, and Phoenix and me take the other.  I lock my arms around his waist for the duration of the journey, just as he does to me in his sleep at night.

When we arrive, the trikes pull up to the high wall that I'd seen protruding from the dunes when I returned here before.  A large amount of sand has built up on one side, forming a slope.  An empty arch leads through to the pathway beyond.  The stones of the arch are blackened, as if by flames.

'There used to be a door there,' Mar says, looking through the gap. 'And a garden.'

I remember the ring of trees that I saw here.  The perihelion has destroyed them all.  When we walk through the arch, it's clear that everything in the garden has been burned away to ankle height and then sodden by the rain.  In the distance, the vegetation around the water has been scorched in the same way.  The water level in the oasis itself is much lower than it was before, darker, more silty.  Only when we get close and Mar moves aside some of the blackened stalks do we see the new, tiny, precious green shoots emerging.

'Life finds a way,' I say.

Shortly after, Mama Smokes walks with us around the other side of the wall where a stone path leads through the sand.  There's a small enclosure out on its own, with half a dozen raised patches of earth, each marked with a cairn of stones.

'This is where we remember her,' Mama Smokes says.

The rightmost one; the most recent.  I touch the top stone, which threatens to crumble under my touch, and then for a moment there's just me and the wind and the world.  When I turn, I half expect everything I know to have fallen away, but there are just the others and their stoic, earnest faces.

Mar and Rat busy themselves collecting stones to build a new cairn for sisters lost, and one lost sister in particular.  When the cairn is complete, they place Cass's knife upon it.

While they're busy, Phoenix and I stay at the spot Mama Smokes pointed out earlier.  The old soldier puts a hand on Phoenix's shoulder.  'Your mama was fierce.  Fierce and courageous, but there was something that was eating her up inside.  She was fast – faster on the draw than anyone I've ever seen, before or since.  But she couldn't outrun the demons in her head.'

A little time passes; the wind brings with it slight hints of something like music, but as the ear strains for them, they're gone just as quickly.  I'm just wandering, letting the details pass me by, until Phoenix slowly removes his mom's pistol from his pocket and places it gently next to her cairn.

'Hello, mom,' he says.

I walk away a little while, wanting to give him his space, and as I walk, the hints of the tune I'd heard earlier grow stronger until I look around and the world has taken on an unlikely shape.  Phoenix is still there, staring at me uncertainly from the end of a corridor of sand, but everything else has done pinched itself in at the sides, like the ends of a bow.

'You'd be right to say that this isn't a normal occurrence,' a smooth, cultured Southern voice says.  When I turn I can see the speaker, dressed in a pressed shirt and waistcoat and seated against all laws of probability in front of a grand piano in a perfectly-rounded dip in the sand.

Phoenix's eyes are focused on me, but they pass across the space and his brow darkens.  When it comes to danger, that boy has fine perception.  They're the kind of finely-tuned instincts that keep him alive out in the Sands.

'Technically, it's not just his instincts that are keeping him alive,' the Piano Man says, reading my mind.

'What do you mean?'
'There's something more...ineffable than that watching over him.  What it is, I just couldn't say.'

There's a lot I could say in this moment, but I can sense the world straining around this little ripple in reality, threatening to do something that won't end well.  So I stay safe with my question.

'Can he see you?'

The Piano Man turns round warily in his seat to look at Phoenix, never once slowing down or missing a note as he plays.

'No,' he says.  'But he suspects something is amiss.  Like you were thinking, he has instincts sensitive to danger.'

I want to ask him how he knows what I was thinking, but there's a bigger question, and I ask that.

'You're death, right?  It's obvious that's what you are.  Are you here for me?'  As I ask, he turns around to look at Phoenix once more.  'You're not here for him.'  This isn't a question, in any shape or form.

He considers this and continues to play, and all the time I'm standing there, I can feel the world stretching out beneath me like it's made of rubber.  This is not a good feeling.

'Some of us have a way of bending the world around us,' he says.  'And when circumstances dictate, your young man is one of those.  Of course, you should never go and have children with him.  There's all sorts of potential for cosmic issues...but even as I say it, I'm seeing that that's not a problem.' 

It is a problem, because I'm leaving soon and I haven't told Phoenix my plans yet.  It's a problem because he might want to come with me when I don't want him to, and it's a problem because he might not want to come with me, and I kind of want him to want to come, even if I don't want him to come.

I still care for him.  I still care a ton, and I'm not sure yet which way is going to hurt us both the least.  'So anyway,' I say.

'So anyway,' the Piano Man smirks.

The stretching continues.  I wonder how long the world will bear the strain.  I wonder if it's my fault that it's stretching, and if someone will blame me if it snaps.

'This being here...' I say.  'This is all linked to him coming back from the dead, isn't it?  He has some kind of grand destiny or something.'

Piano Man looks amused.  'Grand destiny?  Little lady, he already did his part ensuring that his town survived the apocalypse.  How much more grand does it get than that?'

'Oh.  Well, if his destiny is all played out, why are you here?'

'Phoenix has some quiet times ahead for now,' Piano Man says, and his eyes begin to sparkle.  'But you, Jayci Clemence...your story is just about to begin.'

Chapter 39 - Starting Over

Mar and I helped one another upright.  I think it was the first time we'd ever actually touched.  I wasn't sure who was providing most help to who.  Certainly, I was grateful she was there.

'Nice moves there,' I said, always ready with an understatement.

'I always had it under control,' she replied, acid tongue firmly in cheek.

'Cass would have been proud of you, Marigold.'  Those words slipped out before I could stop them, and then I found myself thinking that it was true and that it was a good name, and there was no shame in saying anything that I had.

Still, I was surprised when Mar half-smiled, and then full-smiled.  She grew in that moment as her face came to life, holy in the dark.

'I felt like she was there, watching me,' she said, and side-eyed me, like she expected me to judge her.  After what I'd seen, I couldn't say for sure what was true and what was not.  There was only what I said, and what needed to be said.

'You saved my life,' I said.  'Again.  Thank you.'

Mar waved a hand like bets were off.  'No big deal.  Anyone could get run over by a hovertrike.  Keep a tab.  Buy me a drink for each one.'  What was unspoken was us knowing that every fully-stocked bar on the planet was burning to a crisp as we spoke. 

Everything, everywhere, was burning.

Everything except us, the Hole Town army, people who'd made it to a place of sanctuary, provided we could take back ownership of our own.  And somewhere way beneath the last battle as it played out, two people, tired from their own fight, lying down in the cool like it was all over.

It wasn't, of course.

'Did you hear what he said about your girls in the barracks?' I asked.

That put the fire back in Mar's limbs.  'That's where he took them?'

'That's what he said.'

'Then that's where I'm going,' she replied, walking back the way she'd come in, dragging the unconscious soldier behind her by the collar.  'Are you coming?'

'Nope.'  I shook my head.  'You got to avenge Cassie and save your sisters.  But there's a bad still standing and I have a job to do.  Di Vio is mine.  He started this whole thing – he's the bounty.'

Perhaps she was hurting more than she was letting on; for a moment, Mar stopped, like she didn't want to leave me to fight alone.  But I knew she'd already chosen, and I wasn't the choice she'd make.

'Go to them,' I urged.

'Be careful in there,' she warned.

'Don't worry about me.  I'm a hunter,' I said.  'This is what I do.'

When she'd gone, I hauled up the scientist from earlier, marched him down the stairs and pressed his face into the steel door next to the entry panel.

'I can handle you lying to me earlier,' I said, 'But your ambush with the hovertrike, well, that was just unfriendly.  You might wanna reflect on that now.'  I pressed the barrel of the pistol into his cheek, just below his eye. 

'I...won't do it,' he whimpered.

'Oh, you will,' I said, leaving him in no doubt as to what I'd do to him if he didn't.  'The lights on the side here tell me that I've got one good charge left in this baby.  A laser will burn through a door, even a steel one.  Of course, I'd rather save the charge for something else, but it's up to you.'

Slowly, the scientist lifted a shaky bloodsoaked hand to the panel, entered a four-digit number and the panel above us went green.  As it hissed open, I banged his head on the door a couple of times for good measure and left him unconscious on the walkway.

And now.  Time for one more prayer, one last candy jack, and then it's the big bad.  This is what it's all about.  Doing the job, bringing it home.

Immediately beyond the doorway, the walkway split in two either side of a huge, flourescent-lit pool beneath a rocky, domed ceiling.  A generator hummed to one side as I stepped slowly into the room.

I was readying my taser when I saw Di Vio, dressed in a lab coat beneath his silver cloak, standing on a raised platform above the reservoir.

'Nate Di Vio,' I called. 

Di Vio looked around when he saw me.  The whole right side of his face was a purple knot of bruising and crumpled bone.  He began to twitch furiously, though I couldn't be sure if this was related to his anger or his injuries.

'Seeing as I wouldn't give a snowball's chance in hell of your boy Jensen living long enough to stand trial, I'm holding you personally responsible for the murder of my friend Cassie, shot down a couple of hours ago at the celebration you organised out in the desert.'  I took a couple of steps towards him.  'I'm also holding you responsible for all of the deaths of the citizens of Hole Town and of your own men in the fight going on upstairs right now.

I hadn't expected him to come quietly, and Nate Di Vio didn't disappoint.  'You.  I recognise you from the camp.  Who in hell do you think you are?  First of all you destroy my cannon, and now you've brought barbarian hordes to my door!'

'You're also the chief suspect in the kidnapping of a number of young women, including my sister Rat, who your men left to burn in a ceremonial effigy.'

'Thanks to you,' he screamed, 'I nearly died!'

'In addition to those heinous crimes, you stand accused of one count of religious desecration within jurisdiction of a President's quartermaster.  Not to mention you've committed about a million other crimes against humanity and all that's holy in the meantime.'

I was a hundred percent by the book on this one.  It had been so long since I'd actually said the subsequent words to anyone that I was surprised I remembered them.  But some things are like day and night.  They stay with you and become part of you.

'With the authority afforded to me by the state of Arizona, I am placing you under arrest for your crimes.  Surrender your weapons and come peacefully.'

That cratered face sneered, tapered lines running across the space between his bright red hair and the top of the silver cloak that had saved his life earlier by protecting him from the explosion in the cab.  He said, 'Everything.  I could have given you everything.  There were enough supplies here that you could have bought every friend you ever made over this threshold.  We have food, water, livestock, fertiliser, a seed bank.  We have everything we need to build the world again.'

'And we'll rebuild it.  Best believe it.'

He sneered.  'What do you know about farming and harvests?  About crop rotation, animal husbandry, plant bioscience?'

'Not much, it's true.  But I do know you have an appointment with a gallows, and I'm gonna make sure you make it on time even if I have to learn carpentry and build the damn structure myself.'

He spat at me.  I heard it plop into the reservoir beneath him.

Di Vio was a long way out of taser range, so I took to walking towards him.  'You brought this on yourself, y'know.  Tell a lot of lies, hurt a lot of people, that's gonna come home to roost.'

'You're an idiot.  You're all idiots!  Right above you now, right now, the Earth is dying.  You get that, you dumbass hick?  Everyone, everyone you ever knew who isn't deep underground right now is getting their ass fried.'

'You knew about it earlier than anyone,' I said.  'You could have warned people.'

'I didn't want to!  I think it's a good thing!  Earth was a cesspit of morons and fools.  They all deserved to die.  Them, and you.'

Both the scientist and Jensen had said that the earlier fall had changed Di Vio.  In precisely what ways they hadn't gone into, but it was pretty clear that it hadn't made him more stable.  I'd spent my life chasing toothless hillbilly lunatics around and I was dead set that I'd never faced a man more ruthless and crazed than this one.

He shifted in the shadow that was afforded to him by the platform and yelled at me.  'You're nothing!  A nothing person.  A tiny mind.  You don't get the implications of this.  You don't see the opportunity we have to start humanity over.'

'You had a chance to warn the world about the perihelion,' I said.  'A chance to stop millions of people dying, and you chose not to take it.  Now I ain't too sure exactly where that stands as far as the law is concerned, but it sure as hell breaks a few personal rules of mine.  And as God is my witness, I'm going to take you down first and worry about the why later on.'

He was just about in taser range now, and I had it half-raised when he said, 'Stop.  I know what you're planning.'  He lifted his own hand, and I could see he was holding a tiny unstoppered vial filled with sludgy yellow liquid.

'One more step, and I drop this poison in the water supply.  One more step, and everybody who came down here is going to die of thirst before the surface becomes liveable again.'

If Jayci was here, she'd tell me to talk down the crazy.  Lord, was I missing that girl right now, but I couldn't afford to lose focus.  'C'mon now, let's not do anything we regret, hey?'

'Regret?  Oh, no,' Di Vio said, following this up with a raspy, asthmatic laugh.  'I won't regret killing you and your disgusting comrades at all.'

As he tipped the vial, I did what I do best.  I dropped the taser and had the gun out in one movement.  Squeezed the trigger.  It was my gun, but maybe my mom's finger was right there alongside mine, showing me the way.

The laser beam hit the vial full on, shattering the glass and vaporising the contents.  Not a single drop hit that water.

Di Vio looked shocked for a second, but rather than retreat, he advanced on me at a walking speed that would have matched most runners.  I felt the full force of his fury.  'Look at you with the laser.  The boy with the Old Tech!  I heard my own people talking about you in hushed voices, like your stupid weapon is something special.  If I had a month, I could produce something a hundred times the size!  Do you appreciate that?  Anything you can do, I've already done better.'  

I dropped the now-useless pistol and grabbed the taser.  'Funny story.  This probably runs on one of your batteries.'

He was twelve feet away when I hit him, but there was no reaction.  Instead, he whipped his cloak and lab coat off, revealing the armored vest underneath that shielded him from the impact of the taser.  Before I could move, he struck me with a glancing blow that still knocked me head over heels.

When I rolled over and shook myself, trying to clear the cobwebs, I saw a device around his arm that was hooked up to a piston behind his knuckles.  It glowed with the same blue light as the ones round the pool.

'What?' he said, when he saw I'd noticed it.  'You think you're the only one with Old Tech?'

He swung a punch that would have separated head from shoulder if I hadn't ducked and rolled away.  Fortunately, while the device made him incredibly powerful, it was also heavy enough to make his swings wild and uncontrollable.  I dodged the next one and kicked out at his chest, knocking him backwards.  He grunted with the impact.  I could still hurt him, for sure, but if he got one blow in, it would pulversise my face like it was beefsteak.

With no usable weapons, I needed time to formulate a plan.  He chased me down the walkway and back to the doorway.  I got a couple of numbers into the panel before his power fist crashed over my shoulder and into the door, leaving a crumpled dent the size of my head.

'No way out,' he snarled.  'You die here.'

'Not if I can help it,' I said.

I retreated once more, trying to judge a feint, and Di Vio pushed me back into the generator.  My ribs, still sore from earlier, sang out with all kinds of hurt, but I couldn't afford to lose focus even for half a second.  I sidestepped a downward blow that would have cut me in half, but that only succeeded in carving a hole in the generator.  The lights wavered, and then flickered repeatedly between on and off.  DiVio's power fist gave his body a blue wavering outline in the dark.  It was like being attacked by a spirit.

A quick swipe left and right as he advanced took the safety barriers off both sides of the walkway.  I continued to step away from him.  DiVio's features seemed twisted upon themselves, rippling like the water.  His laughing face looked nothing short of demonic.  'Are you having fun yet?' he snarled.

'This is strictly business,' I said. 

'You should never mix business and pleasure.  It never ends well.'  He laughed maniacally as he wrenched one of the broken barriers and hurled it at me.  It missed – barely – and splashed into the water behind me.

I backed off, and then backed off some more, 'cause he was going to keep on coming and there was no way to dodge on this tiny platform.  Growing increasingly desperate now, I looked around for a weapon.  One good blow with something heavy would incapacitate him.  But I saw nothing.

Desperate now, I ran from the gangway to the island on the other side.  Too late, I realised the water level dropped away beneath there.  I was in a bind.  The only way back was the way I had come, and the sneering Di Vio wasn't about to let me past.  In between the moments of intermittent light, he crept closer without ever seeming to move, more apparition than man, more shade than flesh.

With nowhere else to go, I hurdled the wall that went down to the water.  At the split second I jumped, DiVio's fist crashed into the wall underneath me.  I went straight down into ice cold water and half a ton of concrete crashed down around me.  I swam through the darkness, lost in the confusion, until I finally broke surface, my muscles numb.  Above me, a vaguely human-shaped silhouette flickered in and out of my consciousness.

My foggy brain registered what was happening just a little too late.  Di Vio yelled another stream of abuse at me and punched the wall on the other side.  A chunk of concrete the size of a suitcase hit me full in the chest, breaking ribs on both sides and dragging me down beneath the surface.

I hit the bottom and rested there for a moment, and then I realised the space inside my chest was constricted, and there wasn't much there to begin with.  So much pain, so much anger to have got myself to this point.  So few answers, so little reward.  A tiny part of my brain was thinking that maybe it was better this way.  Cleaner somehow.

No-one had told my arms and my legs, and they were thrashing and kicking, trying to free themselves.  This was instinct, nothing more.  A natural desire to break free from anything that held you down.  I tipped myself to one side, though it was agony to do, and the weight of the concrete dropped away.  Now it was just me.  I looked through the water and saw, all around me, a thousand miles of scrubland, adventure and freedom waiting.  In the distance, the walls of the canyons towered over my blistered hometown.

Cut free from my roots, in this new world, I could fly.  Half-believing, I scaled the canyon wall and lifted myself to freedom.

The moment when I came out of the water and landed chest first on the walkway opposite Di Vio might have been the worst of my life.  I was frozen solid and on fire all at once.  I hurt like a fat guy had been using me as a trampoline.  Worse still, Di Vio was screaming at me like a wounded animal.  Guttural, bestial, terrifying.  Now I saw what Jensen had meant.  His damaged mind was ten times more messed up than his face.

As I took whole, precious seconds to stand upright, he rounded the V at the end of the walkway and charged at me, rhino-style.  I saw him coming a long way off, with a head of steam like a Mack truck, but there was nowhere for me to go.  The water beckoned once more, but I had nothing left in my tank.  If I went in there again, I wouldn't be coming out.

I tried to prep myself, to tackle DiVio as he ran, but I might as well as well have tried to stop a landslide.  The force of his body slam threw me up against the cavern wall.  It took all my remaining strength to stay standing.  DiVio grabbed my chin with his left hand, and pointed the piston at my face.  He sneered, this evil fucker, this rabid genius, sneered like a man who got the drop.  It's a face I've seen a hundred times on someone who swung the lead or shot someone else in the back.  It's a face I'll never make.  There's losing a fight – something I've done a lot – and there's losing a fight – something I don't do, ever.

'Sad,' Di Vio said triumphantly, shocking me with a sudden chilling return to lucidity.  'But that's evolution for you.  Winners and losers.  Only the most adaptable survive.  Only those willing to fight.'

I was angry then, real fucking angry, 'cos he was talking like some street-corner slugger who takes a couple of hits and thinks that'll make him a champion.  He might have come prepared to face a laser and a taser, but Nate Di Vio wasn't a streetfighter.  He might have been a brilliant man, but there were some skills he'd never learned – and he was firmly in my territory now.

There was a lesson in there somewhere.  It isn't always about me.  But sometimes, it is.

'There's fighting,' I said, 'and there's fighting dirty.'  With that, I summoned up all the lessons I'd learned at the Waylon Boggs Prepatory School for Wayward Gentlemen, and kicked him in the crotch with all the strength I had left.

Di Vio groaned and curved into a v-shape.  I grabbed his wrist and fell away as the piston engaged, edged metal slamming into the rock a centimetre from my head.  The boulders fractured with the impact.  An immense crack climbed up the wall and into the ceiling.  I fell to my knees and crawled, underneath Di Vio, past him, away.  There was this deep, deep, terrible rumbling, like the earth itself was choking on bile, and when I looked back, I saw a weak, trembling man, stuck fast, with his fist burrowed deep into the cavern wall. 

'Help me,' he said.

A hundred tons of rock came crashing down from the broken ceiling directly onto Di Vio, rendering all further actions moot.

I should have had a one-liner saved up for a moment like this, I thought, as I lay curled up and shivering on the platform.  But I didn't.  Instead, I spat up the blood in my mouth and I stayed where I was lying for a long, long time.


Chapter 38 - The Dark Angel Rises

'End of the line, kiddo.'

'Looks like it,' I said.

'It's real good timing you came down here now,' he said.  'I could use a man like you.  Most of the guys I got left here are cattle thieves and mine rejects.  They talk a good game but some of them ain't never even fired a gun.  It's fucking amateur hour, I tell you.'

I wasn't in the mood for light conversation.  'Shouldn't you be down in the reservoir, guarding the boss man?'

'Not any more.  When you pitched him out of his truck, he fell pretty hard on his head.  All the genius is still in there, it's just got kinda...scrambled.  But whatever, it don't matter, not anymore.  If we lose, there's a million tunnels in here for a man to hide in.  If we win, well, we don't really need him anymore.'

'You'd kill Di Vio yourself?' I said.

'If I had to.  Getting here was the hard part.  He might have money coming out of his ears, but that ain't gonna mean shit when the world burns.  Going forward we're gonna need men that can build and men that can fight...and we're gonna need women to help us repopulate.'

'There are plenty of women upstairs just dying to meet you.'

'They can die just fine without me.  I got a pile more in the barracks that we pulled from the battlefield back at the Oasis.  They're a bit anxious just now but when they see what's going down outside, they'll come round to my way of thinking.'

'I doubt that very much,' I said, with feeling.

'So here it is,' Jensen said, while Betsy probed for my heart place.  'You can still come over to the winning side.  You trot yourself back upstairs, acquit yourself well and when things are all over and done, I'll give you a commission in my private army.  You can pick any girl out of the barracks and play your part in rebuilding the world.  What do you say?'

'I say you haven't got a hope in hell of beating Hole Town's finest.  All of that, and it's pretty damn sad that you can't even give away tickets to the end of the world.'

'Well, if that's all you got.' Jensen sighted his rifle on my chest with a final, deliberate movement.  'You'll forgive me, but I got places to be.'

'I'd hate you to miss the end,' I said.

He clicked the bolt on the rifle.  'Go ahead of me.  You can fill me in later.'

'In the front?'  I was playing furiously for time.  'Isn't it more your style to shoot someone in the back?'

It was the right ploy.  Or at least, the rifle lowered just long enough for him to snarl, 'Don't try to shame me.  I spent my entire life in the army, travelling the world, fighting for your freedom.  I don't owe you shit.'

'Whose freedom were you fighting for when you killed Cassie?'

His face twisted, like he didn't know whether to laugh at me, yell abuse or apologise and beg my forgiveness.  Then his features relaxed.

'The bitch in the crane,' he said.  'I see now.  Well, I'm sorry if she was precious to you, but Betsy and me have killed a lot of people in our time.'

'And your time ends here,' said a voice in the doorway.

Mar stepped into the chamber with all the grace of a furious cat and began to circle around.  Her hair glowed eerily in the low light, and her long coat tails splayed out behind her like the wings of the dark angel she was.

Jensen was distracted enough for me to pull out my pistol as he bought the rifle around towards her.  I sighted him and he backed away slowly so he could keep wary eyes on each of us.

'Now, boy, you must have fired at least a few shots with that thing just getting down here,' he said.  'Ain't no sun for you to go recharging it, so it could just be that you're pointing that as an empty threat.'

'Try me,' I said.

He was a cool one, Jensen.  'If you can fire it, maybe you should.  Otherwise, it's just bravado, ain't it?'

'Phoenix, if you kill him while I'm still alive, I'll cut your balls off.'  Someone who had spent less time with Mar than I had would surely have believed that she meant it.

Jensen wasn't going to be fooled.  He knew he was up against pros, and he also knew that a rifle is not the gun you want in an enclosed space.  He brought it up as Mar's own pistol came down.  The two weapons clashed and both spun away like lost cartwheels.  Jensen retreated to the far end of the cavern as Mar approached, moving in front of my line of fire.

'Mar, I can't get a clean shot at him.'

'Then don't take one.'  Mar stopped for a moment as Jensen skulked away, and she lifted her arms and allowed her coat to slip off her shoulders.  The clothes beneath were non-descript – a ragged, dirty top and khaki combats – but I knew the message she was sending.  The show was over, it was time to fight.  No image, no distractions.  One-on-one.  The way that bounty hunters had always fought.

Jensen watched the girl intently as she drew Cass's knife from her belt and brandished it in his direction.

'This is my friend's knife, the one you killed.  Her name was Cass.'

Jensen didn't blink.  'Cass should have watched her back.  Maybe she'd still be alive now.'

'Are you ready?' Mar said.

Jensen laughed to himself, though it was a weary, sluggish gesture.  Turning half away from Mar, he shrugged in my direction.

'This is where we are now?  You're gonna let the women do the fighting?'

'I reckon she does it best,' I said, and was shocked to find that I actually believed it.

'You know, I always liked you, boy.  But you're letting the side down here.  This is sad for everyone.'  I was reflecting that it sounded like something Piano Man might have said when Jensen whipped around, slipped a machete out from somewhere within the folds of his combat jacket and brought it down on Mar with all his strength.

His blade was bigger than hers, and his muscles were too.  But that girl was smart; she didn't try to block his swing outright.  Instead, she just deflected it away with the flat, using Jensen's own momentum against him.  A lesser opponent would have stumbled but Jensen was balanced in a flash, moving around, making sure his back was never open to me.  As the fight began in earnest, I saw a flash of doubt in Mar's eyes.  She'd expected Jensen to be fast, but maybe he was faster even than that.

I watched her dive in, feint, swing her blade back around only for him to drift in and out of range like a ghost in the night.  As Jensen orbited Mar, probing at her defenses, so I circled around myself in the space, trying to find an angle.

There was a fourth body too, and I remembered the scientist from earlier all too late as he appeared from nowhere and pushed the hovertrike into my side, sending me sprawling.  I was only half-up when the trike hit me again, in the side of the face.  The next thing I knew was the immense weight of the truck as it landed on my chest, grinding me down into the dirt of the cavern, crushing the breath and the life out of me.

The trike throbbed with spent power, roaring, tearing my flesh as it rolled over and off me.  There was a flash of pink in the near-dark as Mar produced a flying kick that launched its driver into the wall and down onto his face.  With her distraction came Jensen's moment.  Stalking her, seizing her neck between his hands, he lifted Mar upright and slammed her down next to me.  The girl lifted Cassie's knife, but he was easily able to turn it in her grasp and point the blade down at her heart.

Kneeling astride her, Jensen barked at me.  'Get up!  I want you to see this.  I want you to watch her die.'

My pistol had to be here somewhere, within reach, but I didn't even know whether it still had charge.  Just sucking in air was painful enough to make my vision go black.  A hero would find the energy, but I didn't know if I was hero enough.

I looked to Mar to see Cassie's dark eyes staring back at me.  She opened her mouth wide, wider than human.  A dark, spirit tongue licked out from within, and Piano Man's voice hissed from her mouth.

'It's not always about you,' she said, and the lights flickered.

Jensen's eyes were searching for me, desperate for my attention.  His teeth gritted as he tried to force the blade down, but by the time he did so, Mar had wriggled away beneath him, sliding away between his legs.  He tried to get upright but the second he had spent staring at me was all the time the dark angel needed.  Standing above him as he was trapped on his knees, she pinned one of his arms in a perfect hammer lock and brought Cassie's blade, still between the fingers of his other hand, up to his throat.  Where the blade touched his skin, the tiniest red line formed and a single drop of blood oozed to the floor.

I stayed still, sitting before him.  Beaten, stuck tight in Mar's grip, Jensen could only spit at me through his teeth.

For a second, the silence was perfect.  Then Jensen began to wail, sounds of some deep inner humiliation from a time before he had words, and he tried unsuccessfully to shake himself free.

'That's why she does the fighting,' I said, and kicked him unconscious from my sitting position before he could reply.

GO TO CHAPTER 39 > > >

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Chapter 37 - End of the Line

I leaned back into the hard metal surface of the monster truck as Jayci pressed her weight into the pedal and tiller bar. I'd been expecting a slow accumulation of speed, building up as we skirted over the first dune, but we seemed to go from nought to Lord-knows-what in a heartbeat. My breath vanished in a gulp, my stomach tipped away from the rest of me and my eyeballs did their best to flee through the back of my skull. We didn't so much crest that first peak as glide.

I turned my head side on to see Carter doing the same thing.  'Holy fuuuuuuuu-', she said, and then we were both pinned to the chassis by the movement.

If the burst of speed pinned us where we were, that was nothing to what it did to Jayci.  The burst tipped her over onto her back, so it looked like she was lying down, with only the tiller bar stopping her from being thrown up and over the roof. I could see now why she needed grip on the pedal. Still, that girl was made of strong stuff. She snarled back, using all her weight to turn the truck towards the distant lights of the reservoir complex that twinkled on the horizon.

We were in transit no more than a few minutes, but they were sweltering, soul-crushing minutes that seemed to last for hours. By the end, the speed was such that the stars in the yellow sky above were strobing. And let's not forget that I had the most comfortable seat in the house. Best hope those guys in the back were holding on tight.

All at once, Jayci shifted weight off the pedal and locked her legs around the tiller bar, swinging it rapidly to and fro, causing the drag that would slow us down.  The wheels were throwing up enough sand that you could have seen us coming half a country away. 

Two hundred yards of heat and flying sand to the compound, and we'd slowed just enough that Carter and I could stand upright. There was no respite in the approach. Di Vio's men opened up with everything they had, and the chassis around us rattled with blind-fired automatic rifle rounds.

'Down!' Jayci slid across the surface and hit the hatch she'd emerged from earlier feet first, popping it open.  With the truck now lurching across the sand with no-one at the helm, we took cover inside the small space.  The truck rocked from several blasts as Di Vio's army targeted it with missiles and then finally stopped with a massive thump as it careered into the gate at the edge of the complex.

Jayci slipped on and laced up a pair of boots that were nearly the same size as her. Outside, the furious onslaught continued, with multiple bursts of light tearing up the invisible horizon.

'Looks like they've got a nest above the entranceway,' Carter said, kneeling by the hatch and squinting through the gap.  'Pass me my bag.'

I did as she asked, and she pulled out a long tubular device with a twin stock and sights. A few seconds passed while she methodically moved through the controls, ending by screwing a bulb-shaped round into the end.

'Lend me a shoulder,' she said, and I did so. We waited a few seconds longer for a brief lull in the assault, and when one came, Jayci rolled clear. Carter kicked the hatch door open and fired into the hellstorm below. A huge flare went off in the distance, accompanied by screams. Before the first rocket had even landed, Carter had calmly reloaded, and then she fired again, reloaded and fired again. By the time of the third impact, the nest was silent and the approach was clear.

Meanwhile, Jayci had scuttled down the chassis ahead of us and jogged towards the compound. An enemy soldier came screaming out of a nearby hut with an axe, and Jayci tased his ass back to Christmas before he'd taken three steps. It was a moment of beauty.

Finally, the sand cloud broke and Mar emerged on her trike at the head of a spear-shaped crowd of Hole Town's finest, armed to the teeth and shouting their rage loud enough for it to echo off the sky. My heart began to beat double-time. We're coming, Nate Di Vio, coming for you. Over you and through you, and we're taking back what's ours.

The fighting was already well underway by the time I got down there. Di Vio's men had been busy, barricading internal walls with whatever they could find. They might have proved useful in the face of a casual skirmish, but Hole Town was good and angry, and no metal sheet will stand up long against a laser.

I bypassed the main defensive lines and followed the natural curve of the cavern around to where a low-roofed cave led deep into bedrock. Carter had followed me all the way, and now she pointed down the stairs. 

'The reservoir is that way. There's a couple more chambers before you get there. The scientists use them for testing and quality control.'

'Thanks,' I said, checking my gun one last time.

We had a moment of mutual respect there in the corridor, two soldiers of fortune set to play two different roles in the final battle to come.

'You want me to come down there with you?' she said.

I shook my head. 'Find Mama Smokes. Some of her people are still missing. Jensen's men must have brought them here and stashed them somewhere. Other than that, the Hole Town army could use another leader, I'm sure. Ain't no-one better than you when it comes to crowd control.'

She nodded and her lips softened, though not quite as far as to smile. 'And you're sure you'll be okay down there?'

'Our bad's a pimply no-good from an Ivy League college. How hard can it be?'

Carter looked all kinds of skeptical, and I wasn't about to blame her for that. Nevertheless, she headed back up the stairs the other way.

After she was gone, I started to make my way downstairs, leaning into the wall and scanning the shadows, but nothing was moving below. In the distance, somewhere way above, gunfire echoed in the chambers and I could hear shouting. That shouting would make its way down here eventually, but the quicker I got done, the quicker I could come back up to help my friends.

As I stepped downwards, I could see rows of dusty shelves leading down to machinery designed to pump and filter water. A chemical smell leaked out of the chamber, and the sound of water rushing underfoot grew as the sounds above faded away.

The last of Di Vio's scientists was here, shifting crates onto a hovertrike. He glanced at me twice before he seemed to see me, and then he quickly raised his hands.

'Enough,' he called. 'I'm done here. I never wanted anyone to get hurt.'

'Little late in the day for that,' I said.

'Are you going to shoot me?' he cried.

'You're safe if you stay still and show me your hands.'

He offered them out in front, before adjusting himself and raising them above his head. 'Is this it? Are the townspeople coming down? Is it over?'

'Looking more and more like it,' I said. As we talked, I scanned the room, ceiling to floor, careful to keep one eye on the man at all times. 'What are you doing down here anyway?'

'Water testing. Keeping the machines running and ensuring quality. The water here has some really interesting trace qualities, a product of the rocks in the mesa, I expect. Of course, you're probably not really interested in that.' He looked down at the floor sadly for a second, reminding me of the way Gregor sometimes looked when I asked questions about things he mentioned.

'What about military?' I asked.

'Oh, the last of them went upstairs a few minutes ago. I guess things are going badly for them.' He inclined his shoulders away from me.

'Doesn't sound like you care that much,' I said.

'I'm not here to fight. I'm here to do my job and survive the perihelion. Long as I do that, I don't care who's in charge.'

'Talking of the man in charge, where's your boss?'

'Oh, yes.' He pointed at the door on the far side of the chamber. 'He's down there in the reservoir.'

'How many of his men are in there with him?'

'None,' and he flinched for a moment that made me think he might be lying.  'He's...been having some trust issues since he got back from the Oasis. His injuries were serious, and his temper's'

I waited for a moment to see if he'd say more, but the silence just lengthened long enough for him to shrug.

'Can you get me through the door?' I said.

He paused and then nodded. 'I know the code.'

'C'mon then.'

I jogged out of the entranceway towards him. Instead of moving for the door, he looked past me and I heard a distinctive click from a spot in the wall that stopped me in my tracks and left me cursing my lack of care. I looked over my shoulder to see Jensen standing in an enclave laid well back from the chamber itself. Where he was standing, he was invisible from the doorway. Still, he was there, and he had the drop on me. Betsy seemed to rise up in his hands, like she recognized me.

'End of the line, kiddo,' he said.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Chapter 36 - Taking Us Home

Staring eyes, scorched earth. Cassie sprawled, limbs loose among the glass and metal.

As soon as the image hit my eye, the bottom fell out of the world, and we were falling forever. There was only one way to go, and we were set to hit the ground like a fist from heaven.

Rat was clutching at me, screaming all the way. I think I was screaming too. But more than that, I was thinking. There was a chance.

There was one solitary chance.

With Rat still clamped around me, I threw us away from the plummeting chain and aimed straight at the water tower.  In the distance as we dropped, I was able to pick out Di Vio's giant monster truck. It was tearing out of the dust cloud I'd seen earlier, travelling in reverse at unnatural speed.

It was ridiculous. It should have been funny. But Cassie. Oh God, Cassie.

Rat and I hit the water together and I lost my grip on her. There was enough water left in the tower – just – to cushion our fall. I touched bottom and concertinaed back upwards to the surface. Rat's head appeared a half-second later. She spluttered, kicked and made her way over to the lip of the tower. When she got there, she lifted herself up and threw up over the edge.

* * *

By the time I got to the cab, limping, soaked through and with clouds of steam rising off my clothes, Mar was already there, cradling Cassie in her arms. The dark angel's face was pale and completely empty. She could have been a tree in winter.

I hated asking. I half-expected her to take a swing at me. But I had to know. 'What happened to him? What happened to Jensen?'

'He ran,' she said simply. 'Jumped on a trike and took off at speed. His men went with him.'

Then Rat was there, shrieking. The shrieks became tears as she gave her friend a final bloody embrace. The crowd, who'd scattered when the gunshots had begun below, were returning slowly now. It wasn't every day you saw someone throw themselves off a giant statue and land in a water tank. That was like something right out of the circus.

At the head of the crowd came Mayor Belasco, holding a pair of magnificent pistols with polished mother-of-pearl handles. He was a proper statesman; ready to defend his town to the death if need be. Like me, though, he was less use when the fighting was over. When he saw the girls fortressed around our dying friend, he lowered his arms and looked around for Sergeant Carter, who took a step forward.

Before she could say a word, Di Vio's truck burst out of the dust cloud that had rolled as far as the edge of the bowl, turning a full one-eighty and resting perfectly in the basin as though it'd been parked there specially. From this angle, you could see most of the rear shielding had been torn away and bastardized into a massive trailboard that was hanging dangerously off the front of the truck.

'Right on time,' I murmured.

Carter looked at the transport and back to me. 'Where are Di Vio's men?'

'They're gone,' I said. 'Back to the water.'

She looked past me. 'And this is our transport?'

Even before the hasty adjustments that Mama Smokes' outlaws had worked on, there'd been enough room inside the truck for Di Vio's small army. With people stacked onto the people stacked onto the trailboard, it might just be big enough.

A chubby figure with a facescarf stepped out of the dust cloud and looked around for a moment, finally setting eyes on me and stumbling over. I knew Gregor from his shambling walk long before he got close, and I eyed the sweat patches on his shirt and trousers as he approached. They were a handy reminder of our fast-approaching hot deadline.

'Phoenix,' he said. 'We have to go now.'

'No-one's going anywhere until I say so,' Mayor Belasco said. 'We need to understand what's happening here.'

'There's no time.' Gregor pulled down his facescarf and spun to face the mayor without breaking stride.  There was something new in his manner, something that a crisis had brought to the surface. 'We have to get everyone on board the truck now.'

'Everyone?' Mayor Belasco looked mystified.

'The entire town,' Gregor said. He turned on his heel with a sense of timing I'd have been proud of, only to call over his shoulder, 'Now, and I mean now. Anyone not on that truck when it leaves in five minutes is going to have a really bad day.'

Carter turned to Belasco. 'Mayor, you have to tell the people to get on board. Use the speakers they were using for the celebration.' Belasco still looked bewildered, but he was sweating as badly as anyone else as he followed Carter over to the edge of the bowl, and I could tell he sensed the events running away beneath him, flowing freely like a river.

'Phoenix,' said a small voice behind me. 'Will you help us?'

Rat and Mar were kneeling next to Cassie's body. As I watched, Mar reached down and tugged her late friend's knife from its sheath, placing it in her belt next to her own. When this was done, she closed Cassie's eyes gently with her forefingers and stood up.

'She comes with us,' Mar said. 'I won't leave her to the sun. We need to find a blanket or a tarpaulin.'

Rat and I hightailed, and we found a blanket in an abandoned hut by the side of one of the torchlit pathways. We'd just made it back when the PA system kicked in. There was no time for lengthy speeches, and Belasco was admirably quick. He made it clear that Di Vio's men had seized the water, and survival depended on the entire town, every man, woman and child, loading themselves onto Di Vio's truck and doing their part to help take it back.

The bounty hunters, overlooked once and never again, helped police people onto the truck. If people didn't want to go, no-one remonstrated with them, just let them be. But there weren't too many of those – Hole Town was incensed at those who would harm it, and parching in the rotten heart of the desert, people would need to drink pretty soon.  That focused the mind in a way that stirring words never would.

Carter reappeared at my side as I was helping Rat and Mar load Cassie's body onto the truck. She'd dumped her military jacket in favour of a loose khaki vest. A large bag was swinging in an eyecatching fashion from one shoulder.

'You bringing supplies for the journey?' I asked.

'Taking a little something that Jensen's men left behind when they hit the station,' she replied. 'I wouldn't want them to miss out on anything. You need any help there?'

'Pretty much done here,' I said, leaving the others to move her to a quiet spot away from the crowd. 'Cassie's coming with us. Mar would never have agreed to anything else.'

'I'm sorry for your loss,' Carter said, bowing her head ever so slightly.

I kicked at the sand beneath my feet, looked over my shoulder. No-one nearby was paying any attention. Coming closer and stretching out in the distance like veins through flesh, Hole Town was filtering quickly onto the last transport home.

'I didn't really know Cass that well,' I admitted. 'She was quiet, and at the start I thought she was aloof. I guess if she'd really been that way, they wouldn't have loved her the way that they do.'

Carter nodded, and I could tell she was thinking about someone else, someone who was no doubt special to her, someone not here. We'd all been there – hell, you live a while on this squalid rock and that's what you get. Loss – but first, love.

I wondered about Padre Reyes and the preachers from the celebration. Hopefully someone had loaded them onto the truck. I even thought for a moment about Waylon and Opie Boggs. No doubt they'd be here somewhere, crawling to safety on their hands and knees if need be. They were that type, but it would take a harder-hearted man than me to deny them today.

Gregor appeared in the crush. 'Phoenix, I was asked to save you a seat up top.'

I followed where he was pointing – to a small platform on the exact opposite side of the vehicle to the shattered space where Di Vio's bunker had been.

'Are you driving?'

'I leave that sort of thing to the professionals,' he said mysteriously.

'I'm coming with you,' Carter said, and we climbed together up the chassis, picking hand and footholds wherever the tortured metal allowed.

When we climbed into the cockpit, it was empty.

'I thought the driver would be up here,' I muttered.

Carter laid her bag down.  'I don't see any seatbelts.  How fast is this thing gonna go with a whole town's worth of people on it, anyway?'

There was a metallic clang as a heavy plate shifted aside and a tiny figure jerked out of a hidden compartment in the floor.  I was alarmed for half a second until the figure lifted the massive pair of goggles off her face and cackled evilly at the question.

'Turned out it took a lot of fuel to power that damn cannon of his,' Jayci Clemence said, treating me to her widest tombstone grin.  'Though it came in handy in the end. Gregor was able to refine some of the fuel to superpower the engine.'

'He's using military grade weapons fuel in the engine?' Carter asked, shooting me the kind of look that she normally reserved for madmen.

'Hey, we don't really have much of an option. But look at it this way - it got us this far. And if it all goes wrong, we're going to leave a crater the size of a city! So one way or another, history's gonna remember us.' Done with talking and bubbling over with nervous energy, Jayci turned away and perched on the very edge of the platform, where a tiller bar tapered down to a pedal with a strip of carpet across it. She was barefoot and her toes tapped impatiently at the pedal.

'C'mon, c'mon,' she murmured into the radio strung across her chest.

'Belly of the Beast calling Crow's Nest,' the radio buzzed. 'The snacks are in the wagon and it's time for the main event.  Repeat, the snacks are in the wagon.'

'10-4, good buddy. This is Crow's Nest, taking us home.' Jayci's smile was the same one she'd pulled when she was perched on top of me in the tent in the desert. She snapped the googles down onto her face and called to me and Carter, 'Hang on tight. And I do mean tight, 'cos this thing is faster than you'd believe, and we ain't going back if you leave any bits of yourself behind.'

Over the horizon to our left, the rising sun cut a fatal path towards us. To our right, the Burning Man roared with flame. We were the middle road, Hole Town's only hope. And we were ready for the final battle.

GO TO CHAPTER 37 > > >

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Chapter 35 - One Shot

'Brother?' Rat's face, confused, dirty, scared. 'What's the matter?'

I expected Piano Man to laugh or pull off one of his vile rhymes to mock me, but now he was looking straight past me at Rat. Looking at her the same way that wild dogs look at a straggler.

'Rat, get back,' I warned.

'What do you mean? Where am I supposed to go?'

'Just get back,' I pleaded. Back, into the fire, as though that was somehow safer. Maybe it was.

'You're scaring me,' Rat said.

Piano Man's tune was low, melancholy. 'Phoenix,' he said, 'ain't you gonna introduce me to your little sister?'

Nothing I could think of to say in that moment was going to earn me a place in heaven. Though maybe I should have just gone wild, because staying silent wasn't about to earn me any favours either.

'If I were you, I'd want to get down from here,' Piano Man said amiably. 'It's pretty damn hot.'

'No hurry,' I growled. 'If you've got something to say, I'll wait to hear you out.'

'C'mon now, I saved your life twice already,' Piano Man said, the tune gaining a tempo, his hands a fury as they rattled at the keys before him. 'Are you still so bothered by me?'

I was dimly aware that the world was fraying around the edges, the flames climbing too slowly to be real. Rat's cries slowed down and she faded into the background, like someone calling my name from a street away.

The Piano Man's fingers blurred. They might have been the only thing that was still moving. 'Here's the thing. We've spoken a few times now, and that's not a common occurrence for me. Most people tend to find that once is enough for them. Now, first time we spoke, you should have died. Second time, pretty much the same. Third time, you actually did. Put all of them events together, and by rights, you shouldn't be here to engage in polite discourse, you get me?'

I still said nothing. No words felt safe.

'Phoenix, you seem to have a taste for a particular kind of danger, and frankly, you've been pushing and pulling the boundaries of reality every which way for a while. Now, that's a high-risk strategy, and no mistake. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that you ain't so much burning a candle at both ends as trying to bring one intact outta Hell. You get what I'm saying?'
I was a man walking a tightrope. A tightrope that reached out beyond this devil from the Sands, and down to earth and something like safety. I didn't want to have to go through the Piano Man – hell, I didn't even know if I could walk right through him like he was made of air - but if I stayed to hear to what he had to say, there was every chance Rat and I would be burned to cinders before he was done listening to the sound of his own voice.

'But you have a saving grace,' Piano Man continued, closing his eyes and playing by feel. 'The toll. Whatever you do, whatever crazy risks you take, it's okay, because you always pay the toll. Ain't that right?'

'I always pay my debts,' I said. If I threw my whole weight into that piano...

His voice cut through me, and I was sure he could tell what I was thinking. 'Why, if only everyone was as trustworthy as you. Here you are, a veritable Southern gentleman, honest, reliable, virtuous. If there was more people like you in the world, why, then it wouldn't be about to burn to a crisp, would it now?'

'Burn up here, or burn down there. Hell looks the same from every angle.' That thought stayed hanging there. Heat crawled up my neck, blistering the skin as it went. I could hear Rat whimpering.

'If only being deserving of a future was enough to earn you one, huh.' Piano Man's eyes flicked open and he looked over his shoulder and downwards. Instinct caused me to follow his eyeline and I saw Jensen a hundred and fifty feet below, standing on a raised platform at the edge of the bowl, Betsy at his shoulder. The barrel of the gun seemed to widen in a yawn, waiting for its moment.

Up here on the platform, we were sitting ducks. I had no time, had nothing, no threat, only an offer. 'You can do what you like to me. Ain't no need for me to fear death. It ain't nothin' new, after all. But don't take my sister. She's young. There's hope for her.'

'People say it's the hope that kills you.  'Course, a bullet'll do that too.'

'People say a lot of shit,' I said, levelling my pistol.

Piano Man blinked as I brought it up to his face, and then pointed it past his shoulder at Jensen below. Time was standing as near as possible to still. I figured this probably wasn't a fair advantage, but I was gonna take any one that I could get.

I wasn't too sure what I'd expected to happen when I squeezed the trigger. Was I subject to the same rules as usual? Would I watch the laser beam scream across the distance like a rope and grapple? Would it burn through Jensen and leave him standing there dumb until the world turned again?

Instead of any of the above, the trigger clicked away to nothing. Piano Man raised an eyebrow. 'Nice try. But you used all your charge getting the young lady free.'

'Just out of interest,' I asked, deadpan, 'what would happen if I picked you up from your stool and threw you at that guy down there?'

Piano Man laughed in his wheezy way. 'Dyin' didn't affect your sense of humour, boy.'

He broke out of his tune for a moment to play the low, sombre bars from the Funeral March, ending at once in a single flat note that raised the hairs on my neck. But he continued staring, straight past the gun, straight past me.

'Whatever the price is,' I said, desperate, 'I'll pay it. However long it takes. I'll pay it.'

When he spoke, it was in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

'I don't doubt you would. But son, this isn't your toll to pay.'

There was a crash beside me as the climbing flames reached the support beams on our floor. I couldn't turn my head, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see them, smouldering chunks of wood, floating, suspended in the air.

'So why are we even having this conversation?'

He fixed me with a hard stare. 'Because you have to learn that it's not always about you.'

Suspended, like a life on hold. Like borrowed time, time I'd been living on since the day I'd first seen the Piano Man. The day after I'd met Jayci and Gregor. So recent, but to me it could have been lifetimes ago.

There were no words.

'Phoenix!' Rat pulled me around and screamed in my ear. The floating beam crashed down beside me, rocking the floor we were standing on. 'Stop it! There's no-one there!'

All at once, she was right. Piano Man was gone.

I grabbed Rat, hugged her close to me, as though my body could somehow shield her from a high-calibre bullet. Tears were flooding down my cheeks and hissing as they fell onto the wooden beams below. My little sister. I'd only just got to know her.

And then, as I looked down from the space on the platform where the Piano Man had been, I understood. A hundred and fifty feet below, Jensen was standing, Betsy still at his shoulder, but with the barrel pointed not up at us but down towards the crane cab. Cassie was sitting with her back to him, staring at the Burning Man.

'Cassie!' I yelled. To no avail.

'It's not always about you...'

It might not have been about me, but it still felt like it should have been. Clutching onto Rat with all the strength I had left, I dived for the hook of the crane just as Betsy sang out below us and a bloody splat shattered the window of the cab.

GO TO CHAPTER 36 > > >

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Chapter 34 - Fire in the Sky, Fire in the Soul

'Up, up!' I grabbed the chain and pointed at the sky, which seemed darker every second as the Burning Man belched out huge plumes of smoke. The crane's hook lifted fifteen feet off the surface before lurching sideways and nearly throwing me off. I clung tightly to the chain, knotted my arm around it.

The wooden platforms inside the Burning Man were all ablaze. Even if I could have fought through the flames, there was no way they would've held my weight. There was only one other way to get up to Rat. Cassie had spent an eternity of seconds hotwiring the crane and testing the controls. I'd pushed back through the crowd, climbed on top of the gantry, and we were ready to go.

Like being jerked upwards by an invisible arm, I gained purchase from nowhere and sprawled into the air. From then on, it was just me and the sky. I could hear screaming below, but my eyes were focused on the charred wooden bones and panel-beaten frame of the Burning Man. Fires hotter than hell crawled up its limbs and emerged from its belly. The stars dipped low, the wind blew. Somewhere up above, Rat was crying and calling out my name. Beneath me, stretching out ready in the event of a misstep, I could sense the open arms of God Himself.

I'd just gotten used to the flight when somewhere below, gunshots rang out. Spinning on my tiny rising world, I had no idea who was fighting. Hang on tight, boy. It's just one more thing you can't do nothing about.

Eighty feet up, gaps in the metal opened out big enough to climb inside, but smoke made it impossible to see if it was safe to do so. There was a whine as a bullet - aimed or stray, I had no way to tell - spun off the chain inches above my head. Keep climbing, keep climbing, embrace that good air. I'd already tried looking down once - when I stole a quick glance past my own feet, I began to get sick in my belly and turned my face up again quickly to make it stop.

A hundred feet, more and still rising, too many storys to count. I was getting light-headed, but I could see the dome of the towering icon rounding off above me, the torn metal a jagged sneer beneath its devil eyes. On a level with my head, a raised platform came into view. At the end of that platform, I could see a small figure crouched down, facing away from me, a silhouette against the rising flames. Before I could reach across to climb off, the ascent stopped abruptly.

The arm of the crane swung round in a wide arc and crashed twice into the shell of the effigy. The first slam surprised me, the second shook me clean off the chain and I fell loose. For a moment, there was the sensation of falling, and then the world turned upside down, along with my stomach. I didn't even have time to scream.

The world rushed by, left, right, and I was seeing everything upside down. Glancing up, the tip of the crane's hook had snagged my trousers, right near my ankle. I was hanging in space with only a few strands of cotton between me and the last fall I'd ever take. Twisting around, trying to pull myself upright, I could see Cassie, a shadow in the distance far below, wrestling in the cab with one of Di Vio's greycoat goons.

The crane lurched into life again, up, down, sideways, taking a dozen orders all at once as the pair below struggled over the controls. The hideous face of that damn metal golem swung into view and I bounced off the side again with a sound like the gong they bought out for tourists in Hole Town's eastern-themed brothels. At the same time, I felt myself slip lower as a couple of the remaining threads tore on my trousers.

I could see what I thought was Mar, pinned down behind some barrels by gunfire. People were screaming and running, and everything looked like a hot mess. Up here, the world just kept spinning, leaving me dizzy. The shell of the effigy roared around again and I tensed my body up, kicking away with my free foot, taking the impact and saving myself more bruises. A twang above signified another thread giving way. There was just one left. With an increasingly fragile grip on both the crane and my sanity, I turned in even more chaotic fashion, knotting myself around. Then the crane itself loosed, dropping me twenty-five feet in a single heart-stopping second before pulling me up short with a thump that scrambled my brain.

It looked like the goon had his hands on Cassie's neck, choking her even as she tried to keep the crane steady. When she tried to free herself from his grasp, he went for the controls, stabbing at buttons and wrenching at the joystick she was using to control the arm. On cue, I span around once more, heading back towards the Burning Man just as Cassie smashed the merc face first into the control panel. I went clear through a gap in the effigy's outer shell just as the final thread at the bottom of my trousers gave way.

I was launched straight through a pile of burning planks, bringing an avalanche of loose masonry and sheeting down upon my head. I grabbed a hold of the one beam wide enough to hold my weight and clung on for dear life. The rest of the scaffolding tinkled and thumped before being consumed in the white-hot nightmare below. It was a handy reminder of what I was due if I let go.

Here, swinging below the platform I'd seen earlier, the heat was intense, unbearable. A hundred separate blazes crackled around me, catching on my skin and my clothes. Clambering on top of the beam as the structure around me glowed, I whipped my smouldering jacket off, dropping it into the void. It burst into flame before it was halfway down. And then I climbed the scorched beam, one foot above the other, pushing the weight out and up. Pretend it's a hot summer's day and you're climbing a tree. A tree that's definitely not a cauldron of fiery death. A real goddamn hot summer's day. The inner walls of the Burning Man closing round me like an oven. Seemed I could smell myself cooking. Sweat dripped down my arms, making the climb up the wood ever more slippery and dangerous.

Finally, having worked well past the point of exhaustion and with my blood roaring as it pumped at speed through my temples, I dragged my body onto the top platform inside the head of this wicked construction. The heat was rising, trapped in this chamber like it was a fishbowl turned on its head. I had to get out, and right on cue, the hook of the crane appeared at the end of the platform and hovered invitingly. Bless you, Cassie. No other women in the world had ever made me more grateful than she did right that moment.

' can't be you...'

Rat was kneeling where I'd seen her earlier, coughing, choking, but still fighting to stay alive. The will to live is in the genes, of that I was sure. Di Vio had had my sister chained to a spot in the plating, right behind the Burning Man's soulless eyes. From here, I realised Rat had been able to see everything that was happening below - a cruel touch someone was gonna pay for. Now, when she saw me, I could tell she thought she was dreaming. But I had her upright in a second, and the charge I had left in the laser was enough – blessedly - to cut her loose.

'Is there anyone else?' I yelled.

'Just me,' Rat cried. She opened the locket around her neck, showed me the picture we'd looked at together when we'd first met. 'Their leader saw me looking at your picture.'

She stood upright, embraced me, and I turned to lead her back to the crane so we could head down safely.

When I turned back, the platform was blocked by an immaculately-dressed man sitting at a piano. He nodded to me, smiled evilly, and held my gaze as he began to play.

'Brother,' Rat said, 'What are we waiting for?'

Moving myself between her and Piano Man, I lifted my pistol. 'Someone's about to go to hell, Rat. But it ain't gonna be us.'

GO TO CHAPTER 35 > > >