Saturday, 22 April 2017

Chapter 31 - Taking it to the Man

'I don't know what he wants them for!' 

Jayci's prisoner was kneeling in the dust, hand outstretched to try and buy himself some distance.  At first, I thought Jayci might want to be the one doing the questioning, but she'd deferred to Mar without so much as an argument.  In fact, since she'd got back to camp, Jayci had taken a full step back.  She was standing on the fringes, calm, ready, but not part of what followed.  She was ready to chase Di Vio's army down, alone if need be, punch straight through them and be hiding in the mountains by sunset.  But Mama Smokes was leader of this band and Mama was more patient, more inclined to plan.

Mar, meanwhile, was straight to the point.  Her expression could have curdled milk.

'I think you know why he wants them,' she said, her voice low and dangerous.  'I think it has everything to do with the fact that in all the time we've seen Di Vio and his army, we've not seen a single woman at any point.'

Mama Smokes had a cheroot lit and was letting it burn away in her hand.  'Your boss wouldn't have 'em all taken to the compound.  He knows we won't abandon anyone, so he'll split the group up.  Half to the mountains, half somewhere else a ways away.'

'I don't know what you're talking about.'  The prisoner wouldn't look at her.

Cassie and Mar glanced at one another.  'Their celebration is starting out in the desert on the other side of Hole Town tonight.'

The cheroot continued to smoke in the silence, the orange tip shrinking away until it seemed to be resting on the old soldier's fingers.

'You know his plan, don't you?' she said to the prisoner, finally.  'He's going to condemn a whole town to death by leading them out into the desert when they could be heading for safety.'

The prisoner snarled, 'There's only so much water and food stored.  It's survival of the fittest.  I'm sure that's a concept your little bitch pack can get behind.'

'So you know the plan, and you ain't no-one special.'

'You don't even know my name.'

Mama Smokes chewed on her dog-end.  'That's 'cos I don't care to ask you what it is.  But you know the plan, so everyone knows the plan.  Which means it's straightforward, and planned well in advance.  With the town at the funfair, you guys swoop in there to pick up your buddies and then head hell for leather back home in time for the sun to rise and burn everything to a crisp.'

The prisoner stared back, giving his best impression of a man resigned to death.  'I ain't ashamed of this.  It's the end of the goddamn world.  We gotta do what it takes to save the race, to save ourselves.  Whatever else happens to 'em, the girls they take to the compound will get to live.  Which is more than can be said for the rest of you.'

That guy probably looked into more dead eyes right there than an undertaker in his whole career.

'It's fair to say you've lost your audience.  On your feet,' Mar said.  The prisoner stood up slowly.  The girl nodded to the distant horizon and said, 'Run.'

He waited a moment, and so did I.  I was expecting Cassie to slide a round into the chamber of her rifle, but there was no movement.

'You're gonna shoot me when I turn my back,' he said.

Cassie just sat impassively, a small, strange smile on her face.  Mar replied, 'We ain't gonna waste the bullet.  You think you're gonna walk halfway across the desert before sunrise?'

He didn't have a reply for that one.

'Course, I watched him, and they were watching him too, and I'm guessing that that thought musta been playing on his mind, 'cause about fifty yards out, he stole a glance over his shoulder and made a beeline through the sand for a trike that had tipped on its side and was lying on the top of a dune.  I'd taken two steps in his direction before Mar put her arm out to block my path.

'No,' she said.

I watched and waited, saw him get it upright, kick it into life and climb aboard.

'We need those trikes,' I said.  The camp's petrol store was a distant memory thanks to Nate Di Vio's fancy cannon.

'I know,' Mar said, her arm unmoving.

He reached the top of the next dune along when Cassie finally began to move.  She cracked the rifle, slipped in a round, pulled it upright and pressed the stock into her shoulder in one movement.

Three hundred yards out, he began to weave left and right along the ridge of the dune, aiming to head over the top and to safety as soon as the sand beneath became shallow enough.

You know what happened next.  I'd already turned away to watch Cassie as the shot rang out.  In the instant before she pulled the trigger, she made one movement - just one - for all of his.  When she lowered the rifle, I studied her face carefully.  For a while, I'd wondered if her aloof manner came down to the fact that she just didn't care for people at all.

There was pride there, of course there was.  It was a job well done, after all.  But in her eyes, I could see that it wasn't that she didn't care, but that maybe she cared too much.  If you were Cassie's people, that was good enough for her, and she'd do what it took, whether she agreed with you or not.  That didn't mean that it sat easy with her.

Mar lowered her arm and walked away without another word, the better to prepare.

Cassie remained, standing still, inscrutable once more.  Doing my best to read her mind, I said, 'Don't sweat it.  You had no choice.'


'Neither did he,' she replied.  And she was right.

Still, that moment might have been the first one that I began to warm to her.

In the distance, the trike, shorn of its rider, pulled a lazy u-turn and came to a stop on the tip of the ridge.  After a minute or two, a carrion bird began to circle.

---

Things happened quickly after that.  We had no time to stop and take stock.  People got to trikes, either their own or those scavenged from the dead.  I found a two-person trike with a half tank of petrol and a minimum of fuselage damage.  I'd just got it upright when Mar roared up beside me.

'Hurry up and get yourself sorted,' Mar said.  'I need you at the celebration.'

I kicked at the starter.  It spluttered.  'I'm going to find Rat,' I said.

'We're going for all our people.'

I was with her on that, but every minute was making me feel worse.  Night had fallen, but the air was hotter than day and the sky was qualmish.  Yellow like jaundice, like a migraine, like a sick dog.  My temper was short and bits of me were starting to stick to other bits.  

Jayci appeared at Mar's elbow.  

I gestured to the space behind me, expecting her to hop on.  Instead, she turned to Mar. 

'We're working on a way to get us from the celebration to the caves in time.'

'You need to speak to Mama,' Mar replied.

'Already sorted.  We're doing what needs to be done,' Jayci said.  She pointed to Gregor, who was being led away gently by a group of the outlaws' own engineers.  'If you guys have the tools, I have the genius.'

'There's a store of electrical supplies in the workshop,' Mar said.  'The group's been scavenging in the wastes for years.  Get your man working as fast as you can, though.  We don't have time for bells and whistles.  This is time for duct tape and prayers.'

Jayci shrugged.  'It's what he does best.'  Then she turned to me.  'Sorry, but you're gonna have to do this one without me.  I need to stay and keep him focused on the job.'

'Sure.'

'Try not to get shot, okay?'  She grinned at me, all crooked teeth, and just for a second, held the fabric of her dress tight across her breasts.

'I got that by now,' I said, and pressed the starter again.  This time it kicked in.

Cass appeared on her own trike, gun slung across her back.  'Ready,' she said.

I looked around, but it seemed like just the three of us were formed up.

'Nobody else?'

'We're the scouting party.  Gotta call in the heat to the chuck wagon.'  There was a group of other girls preparing in the distance behind us.  What was shocking was just how few remained.  I found myself hoping Gregor had something substantial up his sleeve.


The trikes ate up the miles in no time, and the hissing sound of the engines tried to lull my mind as they blew away the sand beneath them.  There was no getting away from this, though - up to this point, I'd been thinking about how the group would save itself, but we were going to need to save the whole population of Hole Town.  They'd be out in the desert, drinking, fighting, having a good time - they weren't to know that they were in danger.

They were going to find out.  I was gonna tell them.

I was so absorbed in my plans for what would happen when I arrived that I was slow to realize the others were slowing down.  I had to brake sharp to pull up with them.

'What's going on?'

'That.'

I followed Cass' pointing finger to the glowing shards of the celebration on the horizon.  In the half-light, I'd not been absorbing any details, but now, rising high above the desert, one structure could clearly be seen.

'What in living hell is that?'

I suddenly remembered what Padre Reyes had said in my fever dream.  The Fallen Cross, former symbol of Hole Town's piety and shared purpose, had been cut down, burned, reformed.  Standing what seemed like its full two hundred feet height above the desert floor, it had been repurposed into the shape of a tall, thin man with a horrific rictus face, the top cut away and curved across to form a oval-shaped skull with lights burning in the eyesockets.

'Why would they do that?' I breathed, more as a question to myself than the others.

'I think it's watching us,' Cass said.

'When the abyss looks at you,' I said, 'you should look right back.'

'Ain't no abyss,' Mar said, accelerating as she did so.  'It's Hole Town's own personal demon, right there.'

GO TO CHAPTER 32 > > >

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Chapter 30 - Biting Back


Think how I felt.  Think how you'd feel.  You just regained consciousness after a two-week coma.  You had to die and play games and catch fire to come back.  You had to defend yourself from an armed man with nothing but a tentpole and a killer sense of timing.  And every bit of you, from your aching head to your twisted guts, hurts like it ain't never hurt before.

But I was still standing.

I was about to be vaporized, but I was still standing.

'Remember that you brought this on yourselves.  You had a chance to surrender' – Di Vio again, over the radio, broadcasting to anyone and everyone – 'but you chose to die.'

'You ain't giving anyone no goddamn choice,' I growled back, even though I knew he couldn't hear me, and wouldn't listen if he could.

Running wasn't an option - my limbs weren't doing all the things I wanted them to.  And yet, it felt pretty apt that I was watching the biggest bad in the Sands crouch down inside his bunker like the worst kind of coward.  You learned a lot of things about a man when he pointed a gun at you - whether his eyes met yours, whether his hands were shaking.  It's a darn sight harder to kill a man when you're looking him in the eye.

Everything pointed to a man with a complex.  Nate Di Vio had the biggest army, the biggest vehicle, the biggest gun and every kind of technological advantage, yet he was still hiding.  He was a desperate man, and I took down desperate men.

Calmly, like Di Vio's superweapon wasn't screaming in my ears and the ears of everyone for miles around, I bent down to where my pistol was lying at my feet, picked it up, focused the beam on Di Vio's bunker above me and moved it slowly across the metal fortress from left to right, about halfway up.  Cassie might have been a deadshot, but I alone had a way to punch through his armor. 

I finished my sweep to find the laser was out of charge again.  It was designed for one-off shots, not sustained beams, but it had done its job today. 

Everything went silent.  Like dead, dead silent.  The fighting had stopped.  Mama Smokes' girls had nothing left in the tank, and Di Vio's troops already thought they'd won.

A hundred pairs of eyes turned to the sky as the sundered roof of the bunker tipped and fell away with a clang.  I held Jayci's binoculars up to my eyes, looking to see if I'd literally cut the head off the beast.

For a second, nothing moved beyond the smoking, severed tip of the August Cannon.  Then, a tight mass of smouldering copper curls emerged atop a futuristic-looking metal cloak.  Nate Di Vio was singed, but he was very much alive.  Through the binoculars, I saw his smug grin, like he knew I was watching him.  As he stood up, his army began to cheer.  My heart sank.  A way away on the ridge, the weary remains of our own force must have been feeling that an unlikely victory had been ripped away from them.

That's when the August Cannon exploded.

The wave that the destroyed cannon threw out blew over the men standing beneath the truck fifty feet below.  Di Vio dropped out of the broken cabin like a rock off a bridge, plummeting down the side of the truck, crashing off the wheel arch and landing face down, motionless, in the sand.  For a moment he lay prone beneath a blanket of dust and fused metal, and then his panicked charges dug him out, threw his ass on the back of a trike and sped away.  Meanwhile, his crippled monster truck ground to a complete halt.  There was ragged empty space where his bunker had been, and the truck looked for all the world like a hill after mining charges had torn out its heart.  Of course, what was showering down on those below wasn't dirt but red hot metal shards.  The radio cut to immensely loud static, deafening anyone left in the valley who still had their hearing.

The ground shook again beneath me with the force of trike engines, and I turned, thinking I was going to have to face down another assault.  The group that swept past me in the blink of an eye and away down the hill was in perfect tight arrowhead formation, and led by a pink-haired figure dressed all in black, her jaw set and her long shirt tails flapping out behind.  Now that the August Cannon was out of action, Mar, the avenging angel, could lead a decisive counterattack.  Before her and the wings in her wake, Di Vio's army broke and fled back across the desert, the same way that they'd come.  They escaped with a small number of prisoners, and leaving more than half their number behind.  Just more nameless dead in the Sands.

It took me a few minutes to compose myself after switching the radio off.  Di Vio's men had taken the lion's share of the damage, but Mama Smokes' own had suffered horrible losses too.  When I reached the bottom of the hill, she was detailing her troops to gather the bodies of the dead from both sides and lay them in an area outside of the camp.  She herself disappeared to use her medical skills to help anyone she could.  Even though I'd brought down Di Vio single-handedly, no-one said a word to me.  I was a rock in a stream, beyond the flow.  As I watched, a female priest came out in sombre robes at the edge of the battlefield and offered blessings to all of those that had passed.  I'd never seen a female priest in all my years at Twelve.  I wanted to watch her do her thing, see if she did things the same as they would have in the compounds, but it was too hard.  I felt responsible for the dead, like I'd brought a plague with me when I arrived.

I found Mar and Cassie working together with the clean up crew.  I was pretty much on top of them before they saw me.  Neither of them stopped what they were doing.

'Good shooting there,' I said to Cassie.  The girl grunted, pulled up a dead companion by her arms and dragged her away.  Now clearly wasn't the time.

'You got strength to help?'  Mar asked.

'No,' I said truthfully, and feeling pretty damn wretched about it.  The girl nodded, as if she'd expected this.  Then she said, 'Then at least look around and try to find Rat.'

My gut lanced with pain again, though I wasn't sure that this one wasn't in my mind.  'She wasn't with you?'

Mar was working overtime to not meet my eye.  'She was on patrol on the near side, the one that they came from.  It was Rat's team that radioed in the attack, and they were the ones that engaged first.'

I stood there, stunned.  Di Vio's numbers were enough to overwhelm the whole camp.  The first skirmish wouldn't have been worthy of the name.  I thought of my new sister, not two weeks fresh in my mind, gunned down and left to die a mile away while I was lying on my back.

'Maybe they captured her,' Mar said.  To what end, or how that was better in any meaningful sense, was best left to her imagination.

Other thoughts arrived, the better to crowd that one out.  Sad thing was, these ones were no better.

'Have you seen Gregor or Jayci?'  I said.

'Neither,' Mar said, matter-of-fact.  I scanned the ground in a panic, hoping all at once to see that white dress with the colored hem, before I remembered what that would mean, and opting once again for the horrible uncertainty.

Cassie brushed past me and I realised I was in the way of the moving detail.  I wanted to say something to them, about how the women had fought bravely, about how they'd resisted horrible odds to earn a victory, but nothing I had was going to cut it, and so I just stood there dumb.

'Make yourself useful, Phoenix, or make yourself scarce.'  Mar sounded more weary than I'd ever heard her.  I chose the latter option.  It was all I could cope with.


When I'd got clear of the battlefield, I leaned up against one of the camp's few brick structures, a wall that looked out over a dune.  There was a path leading out behind the wall from a low archway to a small ring of trees away from the water.  Inside the ring, I could see a handful of raised stones the same color as the sand. 

It was the camp cemetery.  For all I knew, there might have been fifty years of female outlaws buried there.  Even if all the space had been empty right now, it wouldn't have been big enough to hold a quarter of the bodies being stacked up below me.

When I looked out to the horizon, two silhouettes were walking towards me across the sand, a huge, momentous golden sun blazing in their wake as it set.  The silhouette on the left was perfectly round and waddling for all it was worth.  The one on the right was short and slight in every way the other was wide.  A pair of trailing braids had spawned a third line the width of a lasso rope, and at the end of that, a struggling man fought unsuccessfully to resist being dragged towards what was left of the camp.

I was still leaning on the wall, dripping with sick sweat, my face numb and neutral when they approached.

'Rat,' I said, my mouth parched.

'They took her,' Gregor said.  'They captured them all.  I saw it with my own eyes.'

'And you did nothing.'

'What was I supposed to do?  I didn't even have a gun.  I wasn't about to let them capture me too.'

Jayci stepped between us.  'Everyone does what they gotta.  We've no time to fight amongst ourselves.  Clear?'

Maybe it was enough to know that Rat was alive – or had been when they'd taken her.  'Mama Smokes' girls have taken huge losses,' I said.

'I know.'  Jayci was every kind of practical, and her eyes could be hard and soft all at once.  'I saw what you did to Di Vio's cannon.  Nice work.'

Gregor broke in again.  'Look at the sun.  Feel the heat.  We don't have too long before the perihelion.  Even when the sun sets, the light will be so strong that we'll be lit up like daytime.  We need to get to the caves as soon as possible.'

'First, we need to get our people,' I said.

Jayci wrenched at her struggling burden.  On the end of the rope was one of Di Vio's underlings, bound, gagged and terrified.

'We're going to get them,' she said, 'and this guy's going to tell us where to find them.'

GO TO CHAPTER 31 > > >