Saturday, 25 March 2017

Chapter 29 - The August Cannon

Things were just starting to get interesting when there was a rumbling beneath us, and a hum we'd heard before.  Jayci's eyes widened, and she flipped herself up onto the balls of her feet in a single movement.  Her trailing braids fell loose.  The heat gathered as she gazed through the flaps of the tent and I could see movement outside as the camp's residents assumed defensive positions.

'Di Vio?' I said.

'He knows we're coming for him,' Jayci murmured.  'Makes sense for him to get his reply in first.'

I sat upright, my stomach stinging.  'How does he know where we are?'

'There's been skirmishes out in the desert while you were out.  They've been trying to find us since the meet at the canyon.'  She opened the tent just enough for me to see the dust cloud boiling on the horizon.  'And now they have, and they're sending in the cavalry.'

Girl pulled up her hat in one hand and her gunbelt in the other.  She placed the former on her head with no small degree of ceremony and wrapped the belt round her hips, clipping it tight over a stomach so flat you could have played cards on it.  The black accessories looked wrong against the white cotton of her dress, like they were from an alien world.

'Take these,' she said, dropping a radio and a small set of military binoculars next to me.  'This way you'll be able to see and hear what's going on.'

'What about you?' I asked.

'I'll be fine.  I'm going out on my own anyways.'

I'd rolled onto my side and was already regretting it when Jayci pointed a spindly finger at me.  'Don't even think about it.  You stay,' she commanded, and slipped out.

I lay back down into a prone position and stayed there for a minute or two, panting with heat and exertion.  Maybe Jayci was right and I was still feeling the fever.  My head felt like it was floating, pain raged inside of me and it was like the flames from my mom's fire were still burning.  The rumble from Di Vio's distant army grew all the time, stirring the very sand I was laying on, and all I could do was turn side-to-side beneath my blanket, useless when it mattered.

I thought of them, all of them, where they'd be, what they'd be doing.  Gregor would be in his tent on the outskirts.  At the first sign of danger, he'd have packed away his tools and fled to high ground.  Mar would be marshalling the troops, leading by example.  Cassie would be tucked away beneath a ghillie-suit on some distant ridge, calling down death from afar.

Rat had never arrived.  She'd been out on patrol.  I was hoping she was somewhere out on the far side of the camp, two miles or more away.  If we were overrun, there was a still a chance she could flee to safety.

'You can say what you like,' I whispered to the empty space where Jayci had been, 'but there ain't no way I'm lying back and leaving everything up to others.  I might be sick but they took me in, and I owe them.'

Fine words for sure, but I wouldn't be doing anything without a gun.  No way would Jayci leave me unarmed, whatever the camp rules were.  I checked the pack behind my head and allowed myself a grim smile when my fingers touched the sleek metal sides of my laser. 

Yeah, you heard me right, my laser.  Whether what I'd seen was all in my head or not, I still remembered what my mom had said.  It's a gift.  No longer my mom's weapon.  Now, it was mine, and I'd be putting it to use to help my friends.

Beneath the gun, my clothes, some clean bandages and a small plastic bottle that rattled in the palm of my hand.  I said a little prayer as I cracked it open and a couple of candy jacks popped into my hand.  Somewhere inside me, a voice urged caution.  You had a bullet in your gut, it said.  Who knows if your system will still be able to cope with stimulants?  This wasn't a time for questions, though.  There was a couple of minutes at most to finish getting ready.  I was going to have to find out the hard way.  I pulled on my pants, pressed a candy jack onto my tongue and swallowed.  Only then did I crawl to the entranceway, exposing my gun to the light and myself to fate.  

Mama Smokes' gang were moving, preparing, talking on their radios, guiding one another to where they needed to be.  I clicked mine on, the better to listen.  The signal went in and out as people sprinted among dunes that reached fifty feet high or more.  There wasn't much natural cover in a desert, so they'd stacked up sandbags to make makeshift defences.  Down by the water at the rear of the camp, they'd built a wooden platform for the snipers.  I could see Cassie and a couple of others lying on there now, sighting the enemy army as it came.

And come it did, and how.

What was immediately clear is that we were outnumbered at least two to one.  Di Vio's force was mostly skirmishers, fifty or sixty trikes on the approach.  Each had a driver and a weapons man stood behind.  Beyond the first wave, I counted three heavy jeeptrikes, not cresting the dunes with hovertech but climbing them on snarling tracks.  What they lacked in movement they made up for in armor.  They could easily carry five men each inside their tough outer shell. 

Behind the rest of his troops, dominating the horizon, Di Vio's own immense monster truck straddled the landscape like a wonder of the world.  The massive vehicle sat low in the sand, wheels and engine guarded by welded plates that were probably inches thick. 

Dozens of troops disgorged from within as it rolled to a stop.  The battle began as some took potshots from shielded firing positions behind the wheelarches.  Atop the chassis, front and center, Di Vio sat upon his throne.  The seat had been adapted into an armoured bunker with a long-barrelled cannon in the front.  Nate Di Vio wasn't trusting this job to Jensen – he was taking charge directly.

The trikes peeled off and snaked towards the camp, opening fire as they came within range.  One passenger was hit early on and cartwheeled away off the back of his vehicle, while one of the drivers slumped over his controls and veered into one of the camp's tents, taking it down with him. 

As well as gunners, there were also trikemen armed with stun batons.  One roared around a defensive position, striking down one of the girls as she tried to flee.  As I watched, he stooped and dragged the unconscious woman onto the back of the trike before turning and roaring away.

'C'mon, damn you,' I hissed at the pistol.  The green bar that denoted the charge was filling, but all too slowly.

The jeeptrikes kicked in next.  Heavy rifles opened up and bullets raked a position marked with sandbags a short distance away, causing the women there to duck for another source of cover.  Behind me and away to my right, Cass' rifle popped, taking down a runner that had leapt off his trike and was scavenging our supplies.

'Riders heading into camp,' the radio blared.  'Snipers, be aware.'

Some of the trikes had broken formation and had indeed headed into the camp itself, looking to steal supplies, lay boobytraps or capture any of the girls who were moving from one position to another.  Whatever it took to flush us out, whittle us down, force our hand.  One roared up across from me and began rifling through the tent opposite.

The scavenger was wearing a grey combat jacket with built-in armor plates that clinked together as he moved.  The jacket looked custom-fitted, pulled over his head and up tight to his face.  By rights he should have been cooking in something that heavy, but he didn't look to be suffering due to the heat at all – no doubt the jackets were another of Nate Di Vio's little innovations.  The clothes, the modern guns, sheer weight of numbers.  They had a dozen small edges that were making the difference.

I'd ducked back inside the tent and the scavenger made it right up to the entrance before he saw me.  My new friend clearly hadn't been expecting resistance on his little side mission, much less resistance from a half-naked hillbilly with a three-week beard.  He had one of the T-shaped automatics from earlier hanging from a sling around his neck but he didn't have his hands on it, and he was slow to bring it around.  That is, just slow enough for the candy jack to fire in my brain.  With my gun still not charged and no faith in the strength in my arms, I pushed the heavy tentpole down in his direction.  It popped loose from the canvas, cracking him on the bridge of his nose, knocking him down onto his knees.

I was poised to finish the fight when an fierce streak of pain lanced up my insides, balling in the space around my wound.  I doubled over as the tent collapsed behind me and Di Vio's henchman took this as an invite to rush me.  It took everything I had to lift the tentpole again and heave it in his direction.  He stopped, seeming surprised as the tapered end of the pole pierced his throat.  I pulled back on it once more, and he choked and fell away.

Behind me, the battle wasn't going well.  The camp's outer defences had fallen quickly, the women within either captured or dead.  This was no time for finesse.  I took the henchman's automatic pistol from around his neck and emptied the chamber into the trikes still pouring down the hill.  When the chamber clicked to empty, I threw the gun after the bullets I'd fired.  It was all doomed effort.  The jeeptrikes were coming and when they rolled into the heart of the camp, that would be that.

Or so I thought.  The jeeptrike that was leading the way was suddenly engulfed in an explosion that tore away the track on the right hand side and sunk it into the hot sand.  Two men stepped out of the smoking wreckage and were promptly picked off by Cass' sniper squad down by the water.  The second trike veered to avoid the booby-trapped approach that had accounted for the first one and was pierced by a rocket from a dune-topping defensive position up above me.  A second rocket quickly followed the first and I could hear cheers from the radio.  Mama Smokes' charges might not have had many resources at their disposal, but they were using what they had to devastating effect.

The cheers cut off abruptly, replaced for a few seconds with white noise.  Then Di Vio's voice invaded the airwaves and spread out through the defensive positions like scorpion venom..

'So you have a rocket launcher,' he said.  'That's nice for you.  But you should know that I'm not here to mess around.  I have a town to run and an apocalypse to avoid.  So in the interests of getting this battle over and done with, allow me to demonstrate my newest invention  – the August Cannon.' 

The air changed around me as he spoke, growing cool and hissing.  I stared up at his truck-mounted cannon.  The pitch of the sound grew and grew until the weapon was whistling like an old-world kettle.  The barrel began to glow with ruby-coloured light.  Di Vio knelt in the space behind and turned the gun onto the defensive position that had destroyed his second jeeptrike.

I wasn't the only one paying attention.  Cass saw the danger, but her rounds pinged off the armor-plating shielding the gunner.  The whistle of the cannon became a scream as it fired, superheating the air, obliterating the defensive position in the blink of an eye and turning the sand around it into vast bubbles of glass.  There was a lull in the aftermath, as if no-one could quite believe the power of the weapon we'd just seen.

Twice more Di Vio swung the cannon around, twice more the screech rang out.  First, he destroyed the camp's fuel depot and after that, the sniper outpost at the rear.  The snipers had already abandoned it after the first attack.  The aftermath of the final blast boiled the water into steam at the edge of the oasis.

A beep from the ground between my feet told me that my laser was finally charged.  I had just picked it up when the tell-tale whistle of the August Cannon started up again – and this time, it was pointed directly to where I was standing at the heart of the outlaw camp.

GO TO CHAPTER 30 > > >

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Chapter 28 - Talk of the Tent

I could hear movement outside the tent but Jayci stayed within, staring at me through pinprick pupils, like she still couldn't quite believe I'd come back to her.

Girl had swapped her long, dark coat for a short, white cotton dress with a brightly-colored trim sewn into the hem.  It looked handmade.  Also, it looked good on her, real good.  It just looked entirely unlike her.

I tried to say her name, tell her everything was gonna be okay, but my tongue was swollen, sitting in my mouth like I was trying to swallow something dead.  I coughed, and she quickly came to me, holding my hand, offering me water from an old-style skin.  The liquid trickled down my throat, slow, cool.

'Take your time,' she said.

She didn't let go of my hand until I stared down at hers.  Maybe she thought I felt she was taking liberties, but really I was just marvelling at the feel of her palm.  Her skin was warm, rough textured, cross hatched.  It felt like my mom's hand in my dream.

She adjusted the pile of cloth beneath my head, fussing, all efficient, while I stared past her through the entrance to the tent.  Beyond that I could see the heat haze rising off the sand.  Outside, the air wasn't just warm, it was hot, scorching hot.  Two minutes out there and you'd be glad you had a tent to come back to.

'You all comfy?'  Jayci settled back to what to her passed for a modest sitting position.

'I guess.'

'You've been out a while.'

'I saw my mom,' I said.

Jayci's expression was already soft, but it got more so.  'For real?  What'd she say?'

'Nothing much.'  She set me on fire and that's what brought me out of my coma.  Except that her hands felt like yours and now I'm wondering what that means and everything is so damn confused, I don't know what to think.

Jayci wiped her brow.  'You probably noticed the heat.  I'm doing everything I can to keep you cool.  G is still doing his research out on the outskirts.  He says we're past the point at which we can do anything to stop the peri-whatsit.  He says all we can do is take cover out of the sunlight - somewhere underground, the darker and deeper the better.'

My brain was slower even than usual.  'There ain't nowhere close like that except for-'

'The caves.'  Jayci nodded.  'So we've got to get in there somehow, and soon.  It's our only option.'

I tried to think of an idea but my brain was fried and that was that.  Instead, I asked, 'How long you been sitting there?'

'A while.'

'I was dreaming,' I said.

'You were talking to yourself.'


'Mouthing words, occasionally yelling stuff about God.   I been feeding you water.  Though half the time you spat it back up over me.'

'Oh,' I said, not knowing what else to say.  'Sorry.'

'Don't apologize.  This is what you expect when you start up a posse.  At some point, some dumbass is gonna get hisself shot and then dribble spit and blood all over you.'

Her face was hard to read.  I couldn't tell if she was angry or concerned or both.  We sat in silence for a little while, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  Jayci and I hadn't ever just sat together before without talking.  Something had changed between us.  I could feel it.  I wondered if I'd said something about her when I was in my fever.

'I thought about cutting my braids,' she said finally.

'Why?' I asked.

'Because.'  When I didn't say anything, she quickly tried to fill the quiet.  'Because I wanted to do something...offer something.  I don't really have nothing else.'

I was amazed.  'But your braids are what make you you.  You said before.   It's your reputation, right there.'

'What good is a reputation if your closest friend is dying and there's nothing you can do to help?'

I was surprised, but I shouldn't have been.  It's not as if I was closer to anyone than her.  

'You still have Gregor.'

'Yeah, well, he's banned from the encampment.  No men allowed, remember, except for the nearly dead ones.  They set him up a tent a mile out, on their patrol route.  And you're getting sent out there the minute you stand upright.'

'They take this place pretty damn seriously.'

'I got a potted history a few days ago.  There's been a colony of female hunters and outcasts sheltering here for nearly forty years.  They've done a lot in that time, like setting up a tent for field surgery.  You should probably save your thanks for Mama Smokes.  Turns out she used to be a military surgeon a few years back.'

I'd already be imposing on Mama Smokes to find out about my mother, now I'd owe her another favor and these kind of debts would be the ones that racked up quick.  I did a quick mental calculation of the chits I had, and then it came home that the only thing they'd want would be help breaking into the caves.  That's why me and Gregor were tolerated.  We were extra guns.

Another thought then occurred to me.  I said, 'So wait.  You said days ago.  How long have I been out?'

She looked uncomfortable.  'I don't know for sure.  I stopped counting time after a while.  Like, three weeks?'   

'Three goddamn weeks?'

'You got an infection.  That's what happens when you do life-saving surgery in a desert.  Rat sent Cass and Mar out to get pills for you.'

Ugh.  I was going to end up owing my life to everyone.  Years of returning favors loomed ahead of me.

'I prayed too,' Jayci said, in a smaller voice.  'To a God I don't believe in.  For you.'

I smiled then, because I knew she was every kind of uncomfortable with that, and it was all too funny not to. 'Really?  What did you say to Him?'

'I told him that I didn't know him but he'd know you, and when you got there he'd better damn well send you back here straightaway or I'd be directing everyone that I met from that point on to the other guy down below with the fire.'

I grinned.  'We got you, so we got plenty of fire right here.'

We were silent again right after that, but this time it was nice, something shared.  I wondered what she'd have done when the heat got too much.  Would she have taken me along when they went to storm the caves, even though I'd have been an empty shell?  I wanted to ask, because I felt like she would have, like she'd have never left my side.

My posse of two.  Well, two and a few.

She stole a glance at me, lifted her arms, stretched and yawned.  I said what was on my mind because it didn't seem like there was gonna be a better time to say it.

'He threw away the mold when He made you.  Just so you know.'

Jayci turned away quickly towards the entrance, but her smile was just about quicker than her turn.  'Nobody made me.  I made myself.'

'Then I appreciate the job you did,' I replied.  I could still feel her smiling as she gazed out at the oasis.  I gave her a few more moments and added, 'You know, the only thing worth looking at is in here.'

'Is it now.'

'Hell yeah!'

'The first thing I'm gonna do when I get you upright is take you over to the water and hose you down,' she said, laughing.

'Hey, you don't smell so great yourself.  Though if you've been sitting by my side for three weeks, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.'

She kicked me with her trailing leg.  'As it happens, I've actually been out making myself useful.  I just pop in from time to time to make sure they don't toss you out with the trash.'  I trailed a path down her bare leg with my eyes, only to stop when I reached the foot resting on me.

'Jayci,' I said, 'are you wearing...nail polish?'

'What?'  She pulled her foot back out of the light like it was lava.  'I reckon you're still having fever dreams.'

'Three weeks in an all-girl encampment and Little Miss Badass Bounty Hunter is getting in touch with her feminine side.'

Jayci stretched and poked me again with one cherry-colored toe.  'Don't go straining that tiny brain of yours, now.  Take it easy.  You won't get your strength back for a while.  Plus if it was possible, you're even skinnier now than you were before we started this shit.'

'So what now?' I asked.

'Like I said, we have to move and soon.  The girls are back and forward to the town, picking up info.  Gregor's quite happy out in the wastes.  Rat is spending a lot of time out there, kinda to keep him company but also because she likes learning about the science.  We're tooling up as quiet as we can.  Di Vio's little party in the Sands is this weekend.  We think he's going to use that as a distraction - when people are out there having fun, he's going to take the mountains into lockdown.'

'And leave everyone to die,' I said.  'That son of a bitch.'

'Yeah, well, you're gonna get a chance to piss on his parade.'  Jayci looked up and over her shoulder and scowled.  'I was kind of thinking Rat would be back here by now.'

I was keen to get what I had to say out of the way now.  'Jayci, thank you.  For everything you've done.  Basically since I met you.'  I felt like there was more I wanted to say, more that she wanted to hear, but maybe that could wait till later.

For her part, my one-of-a-kind girl stared back at me, hiding something behind her eyes.  'It's okay.  For what it's worth, I'm pleased you're feeling better.'  She leaned over me again, adjusting what passed for my pillow one more time, but this time her dress hung a little low, and I couldn't help but look down.  She followed my eyes, grinning all the way, and when I saw her looking at me, I instinctively looked away.

'See anything you like?'  She was still leaning over me, loving my discomfort.

'Oh, I didn't see nothing.'

She gazed down into my eyes, tempting me something fierce now.  'Sure about that?'

'Damn sure.'

'For a holy man, you lie like a sinner.'

No one feature made Jayci's face special, but all together they were way more than the sum of their parts.  She was tanned like she hadn't been before, and then there was the dress that showed a different side to her.  Right there and then, she was stunning to me.  I might have been every kind of weak at that moment but something stirred within me nonetheless.  Reaching up, I lifted a heavy braid away from her face.  'You'd know sin, Jayci Clemence.'

She stroked my cheek with the tips of her fingers and lowered her lips so they brushed against mine.  'When you get your strength back, maybe you'll know it too.'

GO TO CHAPTER 29 > > >