Sunday, 21 May 2017

Chapter 33 - Old Friends

'Get your dumb asses down from that platform!'

Just about the best thing you could say about being underneath the Burning Man was that from here, you couldn't see its ugly face. The base was a raised concrete platform that they'd bolted the outer shell to. Inside, a wooden scaffold showed where they'd worked on the reconstruction. Mostly though, what was left within was waste wood, debris, and dust. Whoever worked on this had used it as a dumping ground for whatever spare materials they needed rid of.

I had my pistol up and raised – the night was so light and warm that it was charging even as I held it up. What I hadn't banked on was that alcohol and lack of brains are two sure-for-certain indicators of blind courage, and these two men were about as blind as it got.

'Blondie! Fuck me, man, it's been ages. How are the kids?' The first man tugged at his crotch, as if I needed reminding of what he was talking about.

If there was anyone I wanted to see less right now than Waylon goddamn Boggs, it was his angry, joyless brother. Right on cue, Opie stepped out from the mess with a face like a puckered ass. Above them, angry flames were already climbing up the wooden skeleton, turning it and the metal outer shell black.

'What in hell have you two idiots done?' I said.

'What?' Waylon looked up to where the fire was spreading upwards and shrugged. 'Oh. Well, we was just havin' a little fun. Accidents happen, you know.'

'I oughta haul your wise ass down to the station,' I said.

'You oughta,' Waylon agreed. ''Cept, there ain't no station anymore, is there? And you...well, you remind me. Ain't you the criminal these days?'

There was a ripple of noise and I turned to see a crowd building behind me. Most were looking up, but the ones at the front were keen not to miss out on any drama down at floor level. If there were any of Di Vio's men still in the town, they'd be finding out about this pretty quickly, and that put me in a bit of a delicate position, to say the least.

'That's right, folks,' Waylon Boggs said, 'this here dangerous criminal is wanted by the town! Doesn't it just make you sick? He's willing to defy the law to come here today, invade our party and set light to our brand new mascot! I tell you now; it's a damn shame, is what it is!'

Waylon had enough going on in the short-term to be a decent showman. It wasn't hard to imagine him in a wool suit and tie, hawking nerve tonic from a cart to dimwitted farmhands out in the wastes. Actors have long believed that the show must go on, but sometimes things have gotta stop before they get out of hand. While his attention was focused on the audience, I swung my mom's pistol barrel-first into the back of Waylon's head and knocked him out cold. If only it had been that easy last time. Regardless of their feelings about me and my supposed criminal status, Hole Town still loved theatre and there were a few cheers as Waylon landed on his face in the dirt.

What I hadn't bet on was Opie finding courage somewhere in his britches. I looked up straight into the barrel of his gun.

'Fuckin' sonuvabitch...' he spat, and that was all he got, because someone standing nearby grabbed his arm and used it to swing him round into the platform. He landed unconscious next to his brother, sweet as you like.

'Thanks,' I said to my savior, who was hunched low inside a dark jacket. I'd half-expected it to be Cass or Mar, turning up again at a very handy moment. What I didn't expect was to look down into the hard eyes of Sergeant Carter.

'Sergeant?' I said.

'Not any more,' she replied, taking my arm and leading me into the crowd. In our stead, the fire continued to climb up the Burning Man.

'What in hell are you doing here? I thought you cleared out when the Army left.'

'Army don't need me no more,' Carter said, no longer meeting my eye. 'They're on the other side of the world, fighting with bombs they're aiming from space. Ain't nobody caring about one pair of boots on the ground. Besides, this felt wrong. These mercenaries aren't our friends. I'm afraid for the town.'

'You ain't wrong,' I said.

'What do you know?'

'Nate Di Vio's men have cleared out. They're all heading back to the reservoir under the mountains. They think that the world is gonna catch fire on sun up.'

Carter's brow clenched. 'But that's crazy!' she said.

'Is it?' I replied. Sweat was flooding down my cheeks, my arms, my back. From the dark pools of her clothing, I could tell that Carter was suffering the same. 'Have you ever seen a night like this one – a night that's so hot, so bright, it could be a day?'

Carter said nothing, but she was thinking hard and I could see the doubt in her eyes. At the same time, I was remembered how complete her authority had been when she was uniform, leading the way. Things had changed. A few short weeks had been all it took to turn the world on its head. Now, we were all rebels in disguise.

'We live in a desert,' she said finally. 'You're gonna have to do better than that.'

I held up my gun so she could see it clearly, tapped the green light running along the barrel. 'This is a solar cell. It charges under light – specifically, daylight. And yet, it's charging now, though it's supposed to be the middle of the night.'

Carter's face was grim. 'This still ain't much to go on.'

'Unless you've got a telescope handy, I'm giving you all the proof I can. Di Vio's men are all set to head out to the mountains. They're going to ride the crisis out there while we burn.'

'Goddamn it. I knew those assholes were up to something. And that must be why there are so few of them here.'

I nodded.  No-one had come to attend to the fire.

'When I was exploring earlier, there was a pool of them guarding vehicles at the far end of the bowl. I saw the Mayor down by the water tower. He was saying that he was going to speak to them, find out why they're not patrolling like they should be.'

'Save him a trip,' I said. 'Find him and tell him that we need to get everyone over to the mountains as quickly as possible. We have a guy sorting the transport right now.' As I finished speaking, I looked out into the desert the way we'd come here. There was a dust cloud forming in the distance.

'Transport?'

'It's gonna be fast, like lightning fast. It's gonna have to be to get everyone in the town to the mountains before sun up.'

Carter's face was a joy. 'And where is this transport?'

'You'll know it when you see it,' I said, crossing my fingers behind my back. Not for the first time, I was silently acknowledging Gregor's role in delivering the whole town before he'd even done arrived on the scene.

'You're asking too much,' Carter gasped. 'Mayor Belasco's not gonna believe me if I tell him that the world's gonna end.'



'Then don't tell him that. Tell him that we found out Di Vio's men have gone rogue, decided to take the water for themselves. Tell him that they're sending an army here from the town. Remind him that he'll need people he knows he can rely on to help him take everything back. Which is where we come in.'

Carter followed my eyeline to where the dust was boiling on the horizon. 'Storm?'

'I hope so,' I said. 'and you'd best believe that it's on our side.'


---

Carter was every kind of skeptical, I could tell, but the years I'd spent building a reputation as a hunter hadn't been in vain. Whether she believed the world was ending or not, she went off in search of the Mayor, to tell him that Hole Town was set to lose our water unless he could convince everyone to shoulder arms, jump on our invisible magic carpet and fly across the desert to safety.

I stopped short of telling her to hold Waylon Boggs' head under the pipe at the water tower. His loud mouth might have come in useful, but she was going to have to sell that pokery herself.

For me, that was one job done. I'd looked everywhere twice, and there was no signs of any of our people at the fairground site. Now I just had to grab Mar and Cass, and hope that Padre Reyes wouldn't be too unhappy that the Burning Man was literally on fire.

That fire was pretty goddamned big by now too. The crowd around it was getting bigger, and people were pointing up the structure. I couldn't blame them. It was one hell of a show.

People screaming. And then Mar, at my shoulder.

'Phoenix! Don't just stand around! We've got to get up there!'

'What?'

'Look!' She thrust a pair of binoculars up to my eyes, and only then did I see what she and everyone else was pointing at.

On the highest platform, where the climbing flames touched the eyes of the Burning Man, I could see Rat's face.

GO TO CHAPTER 34 > > >

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Chapter 32 - The Last Party on Earth

We pulled up a few hundred yards short of the dust bowl they'd chosen to host the celebration.  No point in hiding the trikes.  They weren't going to be fast enough to get us to the mountains after we were done here.  Unless Gregor came up with something, we were doomed either way.  And so - hats pulled down low, neckerchiefs pulled up high - we went forward. 

As soon as we were close, we realised we may as well not have bothered with the stealth approach.  There was no gate or entranceway, no charge for admission.  Every slope in the dunes poured more people into the bowl.  The celebration was huge, a triumph of the high-tech and the low-tech.  It seemed that the whole of Hole Town had showed up and the crowds were big enough that we could just blend right in.

They'd set up torches on poles every few feet, creating pathways through the sand that people had exploited by moving around to direct customers to their enterprises.  A tall, thin silo with an open top had attracted a large crowd.  When we got close, we could see why.

Mayor Belasco was leading from the front, as any politician would be – helping a crew of locals drain water from the tower into earthenware cups.

'Step right up, ladies and gentleman!  Yes, you can believe your ears and eyes – we're giving away water, free, to everyone in Hole Town for the duration of the festival!'

That was a big enough thing that it invited gasps from those stood around.  And then, when they were done gasping, they stepped up and took full advantage.

'Plenty of time, folks, no need to rush, no need to spill.  I've been down to the reservoir and I've seen for myself that we have water enough down there to supply an army.'  That prompted Mar to raise her eyebrows in my direction.  'And thanks to our new benefactor, we don't have such a pressing need for town funds, so even after the festival has ended, I'll be looking to reduce the cost of water in the long term.  And on such a hot day...I mean, hot night, why wouldn't you look to drink all that you can?'

It wasn't likely that Belasco would recognise any of us, but with skins from the Oasis, we didn't need to take the risk.  We moved in the other direction, past the immense iron statue and the crane they'd used to convert it, following huge, heavy cables that ran down beneath the surface – perhaps leading all the way to the Silver Sea itself, who knew – superpowering thousands of coloured fairground lights, mine carts running round on an oval-shaped track and even a galloper, which lurched around like something dead come to life. 

Nate Di Vio had spared no expense for his city-sized distraction.  On every corner, there were musicians playing instruments.  People crowded into areas roped off as dancefloors.  Kids were screaming and throwing firecrackers, a dozen different meats roasted on the spit.  Beer flowed from kegs that seemed to magically appear in our stead.  Gamblers were holding live games, cut cards in hand, fortune tellers were staring into crystals and reading entrails.  The priests rubbed shoulders with the whores, who'd set up their own tent city within the wider city, touting for the easy business.  A dozen bored-looking giants guarded the entrance, smoking cheroots or gnawing their way through corncobs and turkey legs.  The air was hot as shit and everything was bathed in the sky's unnatural light.  You could almost believe we were ready to catch fire.

Cass watched it all with wide eyes.  'This is like something from another world.'

'Last party on earth and we didn't even get an invite,' Mar said.

In fact, the only thing that was missing as Mar, Cass and I sidled through the town, seemed to be security.  That was fine with Hole Town's own, who were great believers in natural justice rather than word of law.  We saw one gentleman try to sneak his way into the whore tent, and get shown out, none too gently.  When he hollered, they smacked him around good.  When he was finally done, they dumped him in the sand in full view of everyone.  Passersby didn't so much as blink, stepping round him or on him as they chose.

'Debauchery,' Mar said as we passed, in a voice that could have been approving and could have been not.

'Big city life,' I replied, keeping my face turned to the ground.

'Give me the desert every time,' Cass said.  I could feel her twitchiness around the crowds.

We toured around the main thoroughfares quickly, glancing through gaps or under tarpaulins, looking for anything suspicious or even signs of Di Vio's men, but they seemed about as rare as hen's teeth.

'We don't have time to keep wandering,' Mar said after we'd circled the dancefloor in the centre twice.  'We're going to have to split up to find them.'

'Maybe our friend was bluffing,' I said, 'Or maybe he got given bad intel.  Perhaps the girls they took prisoner all went back to the mountains after all.'

'I don't believe it,' Mar said.  We split up the turf, and the pair of them slouched away.  'Keep your eyes open, your head down and stay out of the whore tent.'

Not that it wasn't my scene, but I'd busted a whole lot of fellas over the years that looked like the ones now coralled out front in Pimptown Central, and the last thing I needed right now was trouble like that.  Besides, I had someone else to look in on.

There were fourteen Compounds stretching out from the dry Southern roads to a safe middle distance in the Sands.  They featured heavily in Hole Town life and they'd come together to construct an edifice for worship directly across from the statue.  In the middle of the floor, a new cross in miniature – as big only as two men, but with all the severe right angles that made you think of a man's suffering after he'd been nailed to it.  The Deacons – every bit as large and certainly no prettier than the men guarding the whores – stood before the crowds, quoting scripture and enacting scenes from the Holy Book.  Even the Catholic Church could do theatre when it needed to.

They checked me when I approached, noted the gun, made no attempt to take it.

'Is Padre Reyes here?' I asked.

They pointed me through the tables where the priests sat and somewhere in among the general confusion of bodies, I found my way to a small section in the back where the older holy men had been placed.  Four men, none younger than eighty years old, and each with his own direct hotline to God.

'Padre,' I said, addressing my old mentor.

'What?'  The second man, sitting just behind Padre Reyes, had a nose that took up most of his face.  It was swollen and flattened, like it had been punched a lot, or inflated and then punctured.  It still managed to hold in place a pair of old, twisted spectacles that were probably more about habit than allowing their wearer to see straight.

Padre Reyes turned around and shushed him.  'Phoenix!  It's you!'

'Padre. It's good to see you.  I was worried that you might have stayed in the compound.'

'Stayed in the compound?  After they turn our town's spiritual landmark into this monstrosity?  Never!'

'It's appalling,' another of the priests, an old black man with a long grey beard, said.  The final one of the group was the oldest of all, completely toothless, staring into the middle distance and drooling slightly with a distant smile on his face.

'True, Father Christopher,' Padre Reyes said.  'Ay, I'm suffering in this heat.'  He tried to fan himself with the corner of his robe.

'What?'

'I said, it's hot!'

'It's what?'

'Padre,' I said, 'we don't have time for this.'

'We don't!'  The old man took my hand and tugged on it furiously.  'Phoenix, it's a travesty!  You can see their desecration for miles around!'

'Padre, you have to listen to me,' I said.  'This is more important.  Life or death!'

'Now there's a choice to go offering to an old man.'  The black priest wheezed and began to laugh.  Padre Reyes just gaped at me. 

'Boy, this is more important than life or death, don't you see?  We can't let them get away with it!'  The enraged old man pointed at the sky.  'Do you know what He might do to this town for allowing this desecration to go unchallenged?'

'Burn us all in fire and brimstone,' I replied automatically.

Padre Reyes shrank back into his chair.  'If you can't take this seriously, then you should go.'

I checked myself.  'Fine.  I'll challenge it.  In fact, I'll go speak to Mayor Belasco right now.'

'Demand he restores the Fallen Cross,' the Padre said.  'And that he orders prayer and penance from the entire town!'

'I will do all of that,' I said.  'And in return, when my friends come, you have to go with them.  It's the only way for you all to be safe, do you understand?  Tell them my name – tell them you know Phoenix.  There'll be at least two of them – a big fat genius guy and a skinny, young attractive woman with braids...'

'A woman?'  The padre scoffed.  The three other men all sat up in their chairs at the mention of that word.  'Get on with it!  There's no time to be chasing women!'

'Where are these women?'

'Shut up, Father Hernandez.  I'm trying to talk this young fool into making them restore the Fallen Cross!'

'Besht hurry,' the oldest priest said in a scratchy, high-pitched tone, pointing through a gap in the crowd in the distance.  'Shey're out there underneash it righ' now, playing abou' wish torchesh.'

'What?  Where?'


He might've been as gummy as a stuffed gator, but the old man wasn't wrong.  A pair of Hole Town's finest were shoving one another drunkenly round the base of the statue, waving torches like baseball bats.  'If shey ain't careful, shey'll shet fire to the whole shebang.'





The good thing was, at a sprint it took me less than a minute to get from the back of the Church's edifice to the base of the statue.  The bad thing was that by the time I got there, the fire had already been burning for thirty seconds.

GO TO CHAPTER 33 > > >