Saturday, 15 July 2017

Chapter 37 - End of the Line

I leaned back into the hard metal surface of the monster truck as Jayci pressed her weight into the pedal and tiller bar. I'd been expecting a slow accumulation of speed, building up as we skirted over the first dune, but we seemed to go from nought to Lord-knows-what in a heartbeat. My breath vanished in a gulp, my stomach tipped away from the rest of me and my eyeballs did their best to flee through the back of my skull. We didn't so much crest that first peak as glide.

I turned my head side on to see Carter doing the same thing.  'Holy fuuuuuuuu-', she said, and then we were both pinned to the chassis by the movement.

If the burst of speed pinned us where we were, that was nothing to what it did to Jayci.  The burst tipped her over onto her back, so it looked like she was lying down, with only the tiller bar stopping her from being thrown up and over the roof. I could see now why she needed grip on the pedal. Still, that girl was made of strong stuff. She snarled back, using all her weight to turn the truck towards the distant lights of the reservoir complex that twinkled on the horizon.

We were in transit no more than a few minutes, but they were sweltering, soul-crushing minutes that seemed to last for hours. By the end, the speed was such that the stars in the yellow sky above were strobing. And let's not forget that I had the most comfortable seat in the house. Best hope those guys in the back were holding on tight.

All at once, Jayci shifted weight off the pedal and locked her legs around the tiller bar, swinging it rapidly to and fro, causing the drag that would slow us down.  The wheels were throwing up enough sand that you could have seen us coming half a country away. 

Two hundred yards of heat and flying sand to the compound, and we'd slowed just enough that Carter and I could stand upright. There was no respite in the approach. Di Vio's men opened up with everything they had, and the chassis around us rattled with blind-fired automatic rifle rounds.

'Down!' Jayci slid across the surface and hit the hatch she'd emerged from earlier feet first, popping it open.  With the truck now lurching across the sand with no-one at the helm, we took cover inside the small space.  The truck rocked from several blasts as Di Vio's army targeted it with missiles and then finally stopped with a massive thump as it careered into the gate at the edge of the complex.

Jayci slipped on and laced up a pair of boots that were nearly the same size as her. Outside, the furious onslaught continued, with multiple bursts of light tearing up the invisible horizon.

'Looks like they've got a nest above the entranceway,' Carter said, kneeling by the hatch and squinting through the gap.  'Pass me my bag.'

I did as she asked, and she pulled out a long tubular device with a twin stock and sights. A few seconds passed while she methodically moved through the controls, ending by screwing a bulb-shaped round into the end.

'Lend me a shoulder,' she said, and I did so. We waited a few seconds longer for a brief lull in the assault, and when one came, Jayci rolled clear. Carter kicked the hatch door open and fired into the hellstorm below. A huge flare went off in the distance, accompanied by screams. Before the first rocket had even landed, Carter had calmly reloaded, and then she fired again, reloaded and fired again. By the time of the third impact, the nest was silent and the approach was clear.

Meanwhile, Jayci had scuttled down the chassis ahead of us and jogged towards the compound. An enemy soldier came screaming out of a nearby hut with an axe, and Jayci tased his ass back to Christmas before he'd taken three steps. It was a moment of beauty.

Finally, the sand cloud broke and Mar emerged on her trike at the head of a spear-shaped crowd of Hole Town's finest, armed to the teeth and shouting their rage loud enough for it to echo off the sky. My heart began to beat double-time. We're coming, Nate Di Vio, coming for you. Over you and through you, and we're taking back what's ours.

The fighting was already well underway by the time I got down there. Di Vio's men had been busy, barricading internal walls with whatever they could find. They might have proved useful in the face of a casual skirmish, but Hole Town was good and angry, and no metal sheet will stand up long against a laser.

I bypassed the main defensive lines and followed the natural curve of the cavern around to where a low-roofed cave led deep into bedrock. Carter had followed me all the way, and now she pointed down the stairs. 

'The reservoir is that way. There's a couple more chambers before you get there. The scientists use them for testing and quality control.'

'Thanks,' I said, checking my gun one last time.

We had a moment of mutual respect there in the corridor, two soldiers of fortune set to play two different roles in the final battle to come.

'You want me to come down there with you?' she said.

I shook my head. 'Find Mama Smokes. Some of her people are still missing. Jensen's men must have brought them here and stashed them somewhere. Other than that, the Hole Town army could use another leader, I'm sure. Ain't no-one better than you when it comes to crowd control.'

She nodded and her lips softened, though not quite as far as to smile. 'And you're sure you'll be okay down there?'

'Our bad's a pimply no-good from an Ivy League college. How hard can it be?'

Carter looked all kinds of skeptical, and I wasn't about to blame her for that. Nevertheless, she headed back up the stairs the other way.

After she was gone, I started to make my way downstairs, leaning into the wall and scanning the shadows, but nothing was moving below. In the distance, somewhere way above, gunfire echoed in the chambers and I could hear shouting. That shouting would make its way down here eventually, but the quicker I got done, the quicker I could come back up to help my friends.

As I stepped downwards, I could see rows of dusty shelves leading down to machinery designed to pump and filter water. A chemical smell leaked out of the chamber, and the sound of water rushing underfoot grew as the sounds above faded away.

The last of Di Vio's scientists was here, shifting crates onto a hovertrike. He glanced at me twice before he seemed to see me, and then he quickly raised his hands.

'Enough,' he called. 'I'm done here. I never wanted anyone to get hurt.'

'Little late in the day for that,' I said.

'Are you going to shoot me?' he cried.

'You're safe if you stay still and show me your hands.'

He offered them out in front, before adjusting himself and raising them above his head. 'Is this it? Are the townspeople coming down? Is it over?'

'Looking more and more like it,' I said. As we talked, I scanned the room, ceiling to floor, careful to keep one eye on the man at all times. 'What are you doing down here anyway?'

'Water testing. Keeping the machines running and ensuring quality. The water here has some really interesting trace qualities, a product of the rocks in the mesa, I expect. Of course, you're probably not really interested in that.' He looked down at the floor sadly for a second, reminding me of the way Gregor sometimes looked when I asked questions about things he mentioned.

'What about military?' I asked.

'Oh, the last of them went upstairs a few minutes ago. I guess things are going badly for them.' He inclined his shoulders away from me.

'Doesn't sound like you care that much,' I said.

'I'm not here to fight. I'm here to do my job and survive the perihelion. Long as I do that, I don't care who's in charge.'

'Talking of the man in charge, where's your boss?'

'Oh, yes.' He pointed at the door on the far side of the chamber. 'He's down there in the reservoir.'

'How many of his men are in there with him?'

'None,' and he flinched for a moment that made me think he might be lying.  'He's...been having some trust issues since he got back from the Oasis. His injuries were serious, and his temper's'

I waited for a moment to see if he'd say more, but the silence just lengthened long enough for him to shrug.

'Can you get me through the door?' I said.

He paused and then nodded. 'I know the code.'

'C'mon then.'

I jogged out of the entranceway towards him. Instead of moving for the door, he looked past me and I heard a distinctive click from a spot in the wall that stopped me in my tracks and left me cursing my lack of care. I looked over my shoulder to see Jensen standing in an enclave laid well back from the chamber itself. Where he was standing, he was invisible from the doorway. Still, he was there, and he had the drop on me. Betsy seemed to rise up in his hands, like she recognized me.

'End of the line, kiddo,' he said.

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