Sunday, 2 July 2017

Chapter 36 - Taking Us Home

Staring eyes, scorched earth. Cassie sprawled, limbs loose among the glass and metal.

As soon as the image hit my eye, the bottom fell out of the world, and we were falling forever. There was only one way to go, and we were set to hit the ground like a fist from heaven.

Rat was clutching at me, screaming all the way. I think I was screaming too. But more than that, I was thinking. There was a chance.

There was one solitary chance.

With Rat still clamped around me, I threw us away from the plummeting chain and aimed straight at the water tower.  In the distance as we dropped, I was able to pick out Di Vio's giant monster truck. It was tearing out of the dust cloud I'd seen earlier, travelling in reverse at unnatural speed.

It was ridiculous. It should have been funny. But Cassie. Oh God, Cassie.

Rat and I hit the water together and I lost my grip on her. There was enough water left in the tower – just – to cushion our fall. I touched bottom and concertinaed back upwards to the surface. Rat's head appeared a half-second later. She spluttered, kicked and made her way over to the lip of the tower. When she got there, she lifted herself up and threw up over the edge.

* * *

By the time I got to the cab, limping, soaked through and with clouds of steam rising off my clothes, Mar was already there, cradling Cassie in her arms. The dark angel's face was pale and completely empty. She could have been a tree in winter.

I hated asking. I half-expected her to take a swing at me. But I had to know. 'What happened to him? What happened to Jensen?'

'He ran,' she said simply. 'Jumped on a trike and took off at speed. His men went with him.'

Then Rat was there, shrieking. The shrieks became tears as she gave her friend a final bloody embrace. The crowd, who'd scattered when the gunshots had begun below, were returning slowly now. It wasn't every day you saw someone throw themselves off a giant statue and land in a water tank. That was like something right out of the circus.

At the head of the crowd came Mayor Belasco, holding a pair of magnificent pistols with polished mother-of-pearl handles. He was a proper statesman; ready to defend his town to the death if need be. Like me, though, he was less use when the fighting was over. When he saw the girls fortressed around our dying friend, he lowered his arms and looked around for Sergeant Carter, who took a step forward.

Before she could say a word, Di Vio's truck burst out of the dust cloud that had rolled as far as the edge of the bowl, turning a full one-eighty and resting perfectly in the basin as though it'd been parked there specially. From this angle, you could see most of the rear shielding had been torn away and bastardized into a massive trailboard that was hanging dangerously off the front of the truck.

'Right on time,' I murmured.

Carter looked at the transport and back to me. 'Where are Di Vio's men?'

'They're gone,' I said. 'Back to the water.'

She looked past me. 'And this is our transport?'

Even before the hasty adjustments that Mama Smokes' outlaws had worked on, there'd been enough room inside the truck for Di Vio's small army. With people stacked onto the people stacked onto the trailboard, it might just be big enough.

A chubby figure with a facescarf stepped out of the dust cloud and looked around for a moment, finally setting eyes on me and stumbling over. I knew Gregor from his shambling walk long before he got close, and I eyed the sweat patches on his shirt and trousers as he approached. They were a handy reminder of our fast-approaching hot deadline.

'Phoenix,' he said. 'We have to go now.'

'No-one's going anywhere until I say so,' Mayor Belasco said. 'We need to understand what's happening here.'

'There's no time.' Gregor pulled down his facescarf and spun to face the mayor without breaking stride.  There was something new in his manner, something that a crisis had brought to the surface. 'We have to get everyone on board the truck now.'

'Everyone?' Mayor Belasco looked mystified.

'The entire town,' Gregor said. He turned on his heel with a sense of timing I'd have been proud of, only to call over his shoulder, 'Now, and I mean now. Anyone not on that truck when it leaves in five minutes is going to have a really bad day.'

Carter turned to Belasco. 'Mayor, you have to tell the people to get on board. Use the speakers they were using for the celebration.' Belasco still looked bewildered, but he was sweating as badly as anyone else as he followed Carter over to the edge of the bowl, and I could tell he sensed the events running away beneath him, flowing freely like a river.

'Phoenix,' said a small voice behind me. 'Will you help us?'

Rat and Mar were kneeling next to Cassie's body. As I watched, Mar reached down and tugged her late friend's knife from its sheath, placing it in her belt next to her own. When this was done, she closed Cassie's eyes gently with her forefingers and stood up.

'She comes with us,' Mar said. 'I won't leave her to the sun. We need to find a blanket or a tarpaulin.'

Rat and I hightailed, and we found a blanket in an abandoned hut by the side of one of the torchlit pathways. We'd just made it back when the PA system kicked in. There was no time for lengthy speeches, and Belasco was admirably quick. He made it clear that Di Vio's men had seized the water, and survival depended on the entire town, every man, woman and child, loading themselves onto Di Vio's truck and doing their part to help take it back.

The bounty hunters, overlooked once and never again, helped police people onto the truck. If people didn't want to go, no-one remonstrated with them, just let them be. But there weren't too many of those – Hole Town was incensed at those who would harm it, and parching in the rotten heart of the desert, people would need to drink pretty soon.  That focused the mind in a way that stirring words never would.

Carter reappeared at my side as I was helping Rat and Mar load Cassie's body onto the truck. She'd dumped her military jacket in favour of a loose khaki vest. A large bag was swinging in an eyecatching fashion from one shoulder.

'You bringing supplies for the journey?' I asked.

'Taking a little something that Jensen's men left behind when they hit the station,' she replied. 'I wouldn't want them to miss out on anything. You need any help there?'

'Pretty much done here,' I said, leaving the others to move her to a quiet spot away from the crowd. 'Cassie's coming with us. Mar would never have agreed to anything else.'

'I'm sorry for your loss,' Carter said, bowing her head ever so slightly.

I kicked at the sand beneath my feet, looked over my shoulder. No-one nearby was paying any attention. Coming closer and stretching out in the distance like veins through flesh, Hole Town was filtering quickly onto the last transport home.

'I didn't really know Cass that well,' I admitted. 'She was quiet, and at the start I thought she was aloof. I guess if she'd really been that way, they wouldn't have loved her the way that they do.'

Carter nodded, and I could tell she was thinking about someone else, someone who was no doubt special to her, someone not here. We'd all been there – hell, you live a while on this squalid rock and that's what you get. Loss – but first, love.

I wondered about Padre Reyes and the preachers from the celebration. Hopefully someone had loaded them onto the truck. I even thought for a moment about Waylon and Opie Boggs. No doubt they'd be here somewhere, crawling to safety on their hands and knees if need be. They were that type, but it would take a harder-hearted man than me to deny them today.

Gregor appeared in the crush. 'Phoenix, I was asked to save you a seat up top.'

I followed where he was pointing – to a small platform on the exact opposite side of the vehicle to the shattered space where Di Vio's bunker had been.

'Are you driving?'

'I leave that sort of thing to the professionals,' he said mysteriously.

'I'm coming with you,' Carter said, and we climbed together up the chassis, picking hand and footholds wherever the tortured metal allowed.

When we climbed into the cockpit, it was empty.

'I thought the driver would be up here,' I muttered.

Carter laid her bag down.  'I don't see any seatbelts.  How fast is this thing gonna go with a whole town's worth of people on it, anyway?'

There was a metallic clang as a heavy plate shifted aside and a tiny figure jerked out of a hidden compartment in the floor.  I was alarmed for half a second until the figure lifted the massive pair of goggles off her face and cackled evilly at the question.

'Turned out it took a lot of fuel to power that damn cannon of his,' Jayci Clemence said, treating me to her widest tombstone grin.  'Though it came in handy in the end. Gregor was able to refine some of the fuel to superpower the engine.'

'He's using military grade weapons fuel in the engine?' Carter asked, shooting me the kind of look that she normally reserved for madmen.

'Hey, we don't really have much of an option. But look at it this way - it got us this far. And if it all goes wrong, we're going to leave a crater the size of a city! So one way or another, history's gonna remember us.' Done with talking and bubbling over with nervous energy, Jayci turned away and perched on the very edge of the platform, where a tiller bar tapered down to a pedal with a strip of carpet across it. She was barefoot and her toes tapped impatiently at the pedal.

'C'mon, c'mon,' she murmured into the radio strung across her chest.

'Belly of the Beast calling Crow's Nest,' the radio buzzed. 'The snacks are in the wagon and it's time for the main event.  Repeat, the snacks are in the wagon.'

'10-4, good buddy. This is Crow's Nest, taking us home.' Jayci's smile was the same one she'd pulled when she was perched on top of me in the tent in the desert. She snapped the googles down onto her face and called to me and Carter, 'Hang on tight. And I do mean tight, 'cos this thing is faster than you'd believe, and we ain't going back if you leave any bits of yourself behind.'

Over the horizon to our left, the rising sun cut a fatal path towards us. To our right, the Burning Man roared with flame. We were the middle road, Hole Town's only hope. And we were ready for the final battle.

GO TO CHAPTER 37 > > >

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