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.

'Phoenix...brother...that 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 > > >

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