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.
'Hurry up and get yourself sorted,' Mar said. 'I need you at the celebration.'
'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.'
'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.
I looked around, but it seemed like just the three of us were formed up.
'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.
They were going to find out. I was gonna tell them.
'What's going on?'
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.
'Why would they do that?' I breathed, more as a question to myself than the others.
'I think it's watching us,' Cass said.
'Ain't no abyss,' Mar said, accelerating as she did so. 'It's Hole Town's own personal demon, right there.'
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