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Jack Vance: The Boy in the Box

 

 

 

 

Jack Vance: The Boy in the Box

 

By Peter E. Bruin

 

Chapter 1: Dark Beginnings

Chapter 2: 6 Hours Earlier…

Chapter 3: Vance Industries

Chapter 4: The Twin Dilemma

Chapter 5: Strange Figures

Chapter 6: The Firestone

Chapter 7: The Crate Escape

Chapter 8: The Boy in the Desert

Chapter 9: Driving With Miss Daisy

Chapter 10: Bed, Breakfast and the Blonde

Chapter 11: The Grand Tour

Chapter 12: F.A.T.E

Chapter 13: The Depths of Mt. Marron

Chapter 14: The Other Side of the Dime

Chapter 15: Diía de los Muertos

Chapter 16: Fiesta Fracas

Chapter 17: Jeeps and Generals

Chapter 18: Into the Breach

Chapter 19: Action Stations

Chapter 20: Fire and Blood

Chapter 21: Downhill Struggle

Chapter 22: Consequences

Chapter 23: Prom to Pacific

Chapter 24: The Adventure Begins

 

Contents

Chapter 1; Dark Beginnings. 4

Chapter 2: 6 Hours Earlier… 9

Chapter 3: Vance Industries. 19

Chapter 4: The Twin Dilemma. 35

Chapter 5: Strange Figures. 50

Chapter 6: The Firestone. 54

Chapter 7: The Crate Escape. 60

Chapter 8: The Boy in the Desert. 72

Chapter 9: Driving With Miss Daisy 81

Chapter 10: Bed, Breakfast and the Blonde. 92

Chapter 11: The Grand Tour 101

Chapter 12: F.A.T.E. 117

Chapter 13: The Depths of Mt. Marron. 130

Chapter 14: The Other Side of the Dime. 146

Chapter 15: Dia de los Muertos. 160

Chapter 16: Fiesta Fracas. 182

Chapter 17: Jeeps & Generals. 194

Chapter 18: Into the Breach. 207

Chapter 19: Action Stations. 218

Chapter 20: Fire and Flood. 226

Chapter 21: A Downhill Struggle. 240

Chapter 22: Consequences. 253

Chapter 243: Prom to Pacific. 266

Chapter 264: The Adventure Begins. 280

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1; Dark Beginnings.

 

As he awoke from his dreamless sleep, Jack Vance questioned himself as to when he had ever had such a deep rest. Slowly, his body slowly woke itself from the dark veil of slumber. His eyes peeled open, braced for the onslaught of light that was sure to burn his retinas.

Oddly enough, it never came. Nowhere to be seen was the piercing sunlight that regularly filtered through the curtains to wake him. Absent was the familiar scent of burning coffee from downstairs, ready to invade his nostrils. He wondered where the usual rumble of noise that usually emanated from the house had gone. It was usually his uncle with his morning chores that selfishly tore him from his weekend lie-ins. But today there was nothing. Nothing at all. Only darkness.

This time it was pitch black darkness, the only thing that managed to pierce it was a strange sound, a continuous whining that sawed through his fuzzy head. A continuous scream, it added to his confusion. Bemused, he blinked tightly as he screwed his eyes up as tightly as he could, only then did he open them again. Still there was nothing, only the same blackness that he had woken to. There was nothing.

Had he gone blind overnight? No…impossible! Besides, there in the corner of his eye he could see coloured spots, the same kind that come from rubbing one’s eyes too harshly.

The boy’s baffled eyes immediately called on to his brain to ask his arms for help. They were next to be awoken from their slumber. He could swear his eyes were open but just needed to give them a good rub to be sure. But this mundane task too proved harder than he expected.

Upon attempting to move them, he found that rather than his arms luxuriating in a well needed stretch, they met with a solid resistance, only moving inches away from his body, but no more.

Frantically, he tried to move his arms again, slamming them against this new wall of resistance in the vain hope of somehow being able to reach his face. But to his horror, he could only feel the rough, hard texture of splintering wood that scratched and grazed his hands and elbows. Panic began to set in.

Surely his legs would free him from this bizarre situation, he thought as he tried to move them. But again no, the same resistance that had previously met his arms was also stopping his legs from extending fully, leaving him curled up, nearly doubled over. His thighs cramped and burnt, unable to stretch his body. He was trapped.

Unable to move at all, he had no option left but to scream at the top of his lungs, yelling helplessly into the empty void for help, whilst at the same time trying once again to kick and punch at his new dark, wooden prison.

But no matter how loudly he screamed, no matter how hard he tried, his cries fell on deaf ears. The only response he received was the same continuous and high pitched humming noise that had been there when he first awoke.

His futile screaming meanwhile brought him to a new realization. Other than his throat searing with pain, he was finding it increasingly hard to breathe. What little air there was in this prison felt warm, stale and most frighteningly of all, limited. Crying for help was a waste of precious oxygen.

Gasping for air and holding back tears of terror, the boy tried bravely to stay calm. He needed to understand where he was and why he was in this precarious position. He needed to focus. With all the self-discipline he could muster, he took a deep breath of warm dusty air, doing his best to regain some calm. Where was he?!

He needed at least some idea of where he was, he needed to use what little he had of his senses to get some answers and if possible find a way out of his own personal hell.

His first plan was to use his sense of touch, his hands and feet, despite their limited movement, could at least lay out the shape of his prison for him, perhaps find an escape. Slowly, he moved his hands along what appeared to be the walls of his makeshift cell. It was wooden, a rough, raspy feeling wood that left sharp splinters in his hands wherever he laid them. He carefully proceeded to explore as much of the harsh surface as he could, managing to slowly follow and map it until he reached a corner. From this corner the walls surface changed direction from being a wall, to a floor.

Using touch, he had mapped out what seemed to be wooden walls, a ceiling and a floor that surrounded him tightly, forming a box shape. He decided to stamp his feet as much as he could with his limited movement to test the integrity of the wall, maybe he could break out? But all the kicking in the world was not going to release him, he just didn’t have the leverage, or for that matter, the oxygen. The boy eventually came to a decision as to where he was.

He was stuck in some form of wooden box! Or perhaps a crate? This would explain why he was crouched uncomfortably on his back, unable to extend any of his limbs, or most frighteningly of all, breathe clearly. So he knew what his prison was, but why the hell he was trapped there in the first place? No idea!

His next job was to somehow discover what kind of a world if any lay immediately outside of the crate. His only tool left at his disposal was his sense of hearing, which all of a sudden drew him back to the constant ambient humming noise that droned on. Jack slowly and awkwardly shifted himself slightly in order to place his ear to the splintered wall of the box, the rough, raspy wall brushing against his cheek as he did so.

Well it was certainly no natural noise he assumed, it was mechanical if anything. A continuous, high pitched whining sound that he could only describe as that of some sort of jet engine! The only other noise that he could make out over the whining was the occasional metallic jangling of what sounded like chains that he guessed were suspended from the ceiling, ringing whenever there was any movement on board.

The occasional bump or jolt that he assumed was down to turbulence caused the chains to ring and tingle, just like the wind chimes in his garden at home. These were equally as annoying.

The penny finally dropped for him seconds later when his ears filled and began to feel as if they were going to pop. It happened all the time to him when he had travelled by air before, the pressure in his ears caused minor pain but also added to his greater sense of discomfort of being trapped and restrained. A trick his mother had taught him to remedy this came to mind.

Miraculously he found he still had enough room for his hand to reach his nose. Scraping his elbow further in the process, Jack used his fingers to pinch his nostrils together. Whilst doing this, he tried to blow out of his nose as hard as he could. The resulting equalization in pressure gave him blessed relief as his head cleared, at least that pain had passed. Well that settled it for the boy, there could be little room for any argument. He was on a bloody plane!

There were also no other voices to be heard. Nobody had even responded to his futile screaming and kicking, only the constant whining of the jet engines and the clanging of the chains remained. He decided that due to lack of company, he was more than likely on some type of cargo plane. At least that would explain the crate he was trapped inside. Not that this revelation made him feel any better!

He was bewildered beyond belief. In what world did a sixteen year old school boy such as himself end up boxed up in a crate and flown away in a plane?! Struggling to remain calm, he took another deep breath. He tried to refocus, banging his head on the side of the crate. He scoured his brain as he tried to shake the initial fuzziness away.

He had to clear his head, he had to remember. What happened to him?

 

After a few breaths, Jack Vance begun to remember…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2: 6 Hours Earlier…

 

The English countryside was zooming past Jack’s eyes at a maddening pace. Its rolling hills, fields and livestock looked nothing more to him than a constant blur. His eyes found it hard to focus as they proceeded to fly past him in the blink of an eye. Not that this fazed Jack one bit. He was too lost in his thoughts as the school bus which carried him raced along the motorway towards its destination.

It was a typically British grey and cloudy Monday morning, without a single ray of light penetrating the thick gloomy cloud that dominated the skyline. The weather was the cherry on the cake that made up a particularly depressing Monday morning. Yet inside the coach it was stiflingly warm, the driver having failed to switch on any form of air conditioning in his coach. This oven on wheels had left Jack and his classmates stuffy as the windows began to mist up with condensation from their constant breathing and nonsensical chattering.

Jack continued to stare out of the window glumly with his chin on his hand, his uniform felt tight and constrictive. He cursed the tie and blazer he wore, wishing he had taken them off before the long journey. After a while he let lethargy take over and rested his heavy head on the glass making a dull ‘bonk’ sound as it struck. Fed up, he let out a long sigh as his own breath slowly crept from his mouth to the window and created a misty pattern that grew and spread, obscuring his vision of the rolling world outside. As he stared, he relished in his own personal thoughts uninterrupted.

‘Ah c’mon Jackie boy! What’s eating ya up? It can’t be all that bad surely?’ A brash and flighty Scottish accent shattered Jack’s daydream, bringing him back to reality with a crash. So much for uninterrupted thoughts.

There were only a couple of people on the coach that Jack had time for, and Dickie, the bright and cheery Scotsman sat to his left was certainly one of them. He was a small wiry lad with a thatch of even more wiry brown hair. To complete the scampish look his face wore an ever present cheeky grin.

Dickie had arrived to the school from Scotland over two years ago and had instantly gelled with Jack. It might have had something to do with the fact they were both outsiders. Being a brash Scotsman in an establishment predominantly made up of bratty rich kids was tough enough for Dickie. His inability to fit in with the ‘it’ crowd resulted in a strong friendship with his English friend. They’d always stuck by each other if either one of them were in trouble, which with Dickie’s smart mouth was only too frequently.

‘I’m bored Dickie.’ Brooded Jack, not even bothering to turn his head away from the window, ‘Just plain bloody bored.’ He looked it too, the reflection in the window showed an impassive face, matching the grey, dull day that loomed outside of the coach. Even his usually bright blue eyes and blonde hair permeated dullness.

‘You’re a moody little Bugger ain’t ya Lad?’ Dickie chuckled teasingly. ‘I mean not only are we are out of that poxy school but we’re on a trip out! That’s pretty sweet in my books if you ask me!’ Jack slowly turned his head and stared at him in disbelief.

‘Are you bloody kidding me Dickie?’ Jack stared at his friend as he barked a short laugh of disbelief. He raised his hand to his friend, extending one finger in the air sharply as if to make a point, ‘First of all it’s a trip to my Uncle’s factory, not the zoo!’ Another finger sprung from Jack’s hand as he continued, ‘Secondly, whose idea was this bloody journey ey? Only my bloody mad uncle that’s who! So not only are we going on this boring trip, I also have a bloody coach load of bored and angry bloody students who are now all out to clobber me for this bloody rubbish idea!’

His tirade over, Jack slumped back into his seat as he sighed through gritted teeth. He shook his head, annoyed at the situation and at for letting it get to him. A few seconds of silence passed as his classmates in the seats in front and behind of Jack nosily peered through the gaps between the seats to see what all the commotion was. Satisfied it was all over, they slunk back, before continuing to chat amongst themselves.

‘Hmmm, I think you missed out a bloody somewhere there Jack me’ lad…’ The Scot teased smirking. Jack smirked back trying his best not to laugh. ‘Besides.’ Dickie continued merrily, ‘I think it’ll be fun. I’ve always wanted to meet that mad uncle of yours. Especially after the stories you come to me with each day!’

Jack rolled his eyes. ‘They’re not stories Dickie. They’re genuine problems! He runs that house like an army camp! If I’m not continuously exercising, I’m either studying or cleaning. Living with him is hellish enough as it is yet alone having to visit him at his work with my entire class!’

Jack simmered down after his second rant of the day in as many minutes, exhausted at it all. He rubbed his hands through his messy blonde hair as he thought to himself.

Life had certainly been challenging for the Essex boy since the sudden and tragic death of his Mother ten years ago. His father, unable to cope, had shortly afterwards sent him to live with his uncle in the windswept wilds of Otterburn in the Northumberland countryside. It was the

Polar opposite from his urban Essex life and like Dickie had become a target for his classmates. Jack didn’t blame his Father, he had tried his best to cope. He just wished he’d been sent anywhere else but his uncles.

Living in a tiny country cottage surrounded by nothing but miles of barren green and rocky hills, his uncle was a tough man who ran a tight ship. He had often wondered why his father chose the man to look after him.

A large, stocky character with a stern craggy face, (former Special Forces or so the family rumour went) his uncle was nothing short of unbearable to live with, but then again he certainly distracted Jack from the loss of his mother. A strict, ruthless man, he would ensure Jack ran daily at least three miles across the ragged hills and valleys that surrounded his home no matter what the weather, gave him a daily quota of push-ups, or worse of all, subdued him to nightly boxing sessions with him, after which he was ordered to complete his studies before bed.

It was a strange, lonely life, he wondered why his father didn’t just send him to a military college. Dickie’s next comment reminded him further of his predicament.

‘Oh well just you remember Jackie boy I’m all you’ve got and you know it you miserable English wuss! Plus ya love me really pal!’ Dickie affirmed smugly, beaming his trademark smile whilst elbowing Jack in the arm with some force, catching him off guard.

‘Ow you git!’ Jack exclaimed in surprise to the attack. Laughing, he nudged back, a pathetic elbow battle between the two ensued, the two of them laughing whilst trying to win blows.

The pithy battle continued for a few minutes, with neither winning, when suddenly out of nowhere, in the middle of the fun, Jack felt a huge blow to the back of his skull causing his head to crash into the back of the seat in front of him. His head in pain, he wondered how Dickie had managed such a strike. Only he wasn’t the culprit.

‘OI! Jack you scumbag!’ Spat a low, booming voice from the aisle of the coach. Clutching the back of his skull in pain, Jack turned to face the culprit.

Stood in the aisle looming menacingly down on him was the thug in question, Clubber Harris. The searing pain in the back of his head was testament to the nickname. A huge, almost spherical boy, Clubber was an impenetrable wall of mass (or one too many school dinners behind him to boot too.)

Jack was frozen in terror and confusion. Firstly why had he decided to hit him, and secondly, how on earth had he and his massive width made it down the aisle of the coach so stealthily? To look at him it looked physically impossible! Behind Clubber, sniggering menacingly, were his two cronies. Weasel like in their appearance, they were the Glover twins, always to be found wherever Clubber was. No prizes were given for knowing that they weren’t good news either.

‘Well, well if it isn’t Jack Prance! You alright Prance?’ Clubber Harris let out a bellowing laugh at his own ‘ingenious’ word play. It didn’t even make any sense! The Glover twins behind him cackled in unison in appreciation of their bosses ‘joke’.

‘Ha-ha! Jackie Prance! It’s Jackie Prance!’ They cackled almost repeating in unison, jubilant with the new ammunition they could use on Jack in the corridors on their return to school.

Jack sighed for what felt like the hundredth time that morning. ‘What now?!’ He thought to himself, shaking his head disapprovingly as he turned to glare at Clubber.

‘What the hell do you want Butter Ball?’ Goaded Jack. He immediately regretted uttering the words as soon as they left his mouth.

Silence fell and Jack’s regret was confirmed as he saw Clubber Harris’s face grow red and impossible as it seemed, grew even bigger with rage. Clubber surged forward from the aisle to Jack’s seat, crushing poor Dickie out of the way in the process. He grabbed Jack by the collars of his blazer, lifting him in the air effortlessly, slamming his body like a rag doll against the condensation covered window, rattling the glass. The coach went silent.

‘Listen here you little piece of dirt!’ Spat Clubber, drenching Jack as he roared. ‘You really do think you’re something don’t ya? Thinking you’re above the rest of us lot with your nose in the air. Well you ain’t! We all know your weirdo uncle gave the school the idea to come on this boring trip, and trust me we all want your head for it, me especially! But that ain’t my main beef with you VANCE!’ Clubber inched closer to Jack’s face, grabbing his chin and turning it so that it was facing towards the rear seats of the coach and pointed. ‘You see that bird sat there! You know the one I’m pointing at! SAY HER NAME!’

Jack’s gaze strayed from the muscular skinhead and his scarred face, following his tree trunk sized arm to its sausage like fingers, what was on the end of that digit could not have been a starker contrast.

Sat at the end of the coach on the rear seats sharing the same bemused look as the rest of the passengers was the beautiful Becky Delaney. A goddess in Jack’s eyes, the very sight of her gave him butterflies. Dark skinned with jet black hair down to her curvy waist, Becky was the undeniably the most beautiful girl in the school and therefore unsurprisingly the most popular. She was never short of friends and admirers, Jack being one of them.

Even worried, her face looked beautiful as she and her friends looked on with concern. Her brown eyes were wide open with her dark red lips parted slightly, revealing the whitest teeth he had seen, all framed by the flowing fringe of her impossibly black hair. A face that to him looked worried for him. Well he hoped. After what felt like an eternity Jack remembered he was in trouble and had a question to answer.

‘I said….what’s…..her…..name?’ Clubber asked again this time with real venom.

‘Err… B-B-Becky, Becky Delaney…’ Stammered Jack.

‘Becky Delaney that’s right! MY BIRD. NOT YOURS!’ Bellowed Hammer, returning to full volume, bursting Jacks eardrums. ‘My two boys behind me tell me that you have been helping her with her homework and spending far too much time with her the last few weeks!’ The Glover twins giggled to themselves excited at the potential beating they would witness, their spotty faces smirking at each other as if with pride.

‘Now this stops now Prance!’ More spit came from his mouth with every P that came from his thick, tobacco stained mouth, covering Jack. ‘If I ever see you with her again, or hear from my boys that you are helping her. I will smash that smug little face off of your head! You got it? … PRANCE!’ Jack grimaced, his face glistened with Clubber’s spit, as he smelt on his breath what could only be cigarette smoke. Jack strained to get the words out of his mouth as Clubber’s grip tightened around his neck.

‘Yesss….’ Jack hissed, trying to breath, his face turning purple.

‘Yes what?’ Clubber added menacingly with a sickening smile.

‘Yes…..Clubber.’ Strained Jack.

‘That’s Right! Prance! Well done!’ Clubber threw Jack back against the window, causing it to rattle further, leaving Jack in a heap on his seat as he gasped for air. Satisfied, he leant over for the final say, ‘You’re nothing Jack, always was, always will be. Don’t forget that ey?’ Clubber shuffled himself back from the seats to the aisle, forgetting he was nearly crushing Dickie in the process. He turned to face him next. ‘What you looking at you Jock scumbag?’ He lurched himself into the Scotsman’s face, causing him to jump back in fright.

‘N-nothing Clubber!’ Uttered Dickie.

‘Yeah that’s right nothing!’ Clubber said lightly slapping his cheek, ‘C’mon boys.’ He returned to the rear of the coach as the Glover twins followed, cackling behind him. The awkward silence in the coach lingered for a few seconds more, after which the normal murmur of activity and gossip carried on. Both Jack and Dickie breathed out in relief to each other, glad that the nightmare was over for now. The colour soon returned to Jack’s face.

They both sat there in silence, save for the hum of the coach engine as it ran through its gears. With a whine it pulled off the motor way, shooting into the B-roads that would soon lead to his Uncle’s warehouse. Not long to go now. Dickie meanwhile managed to break the long silence, turning sharply to face his friend confrontationally.

‘Jack you wee madman!’ His eyes wide with disbelief, ‘Why on earth were you even dreaming of getting involved with a girl like Becky Delaney?’ Dickie urged as he nodded his head back in her direction, ‘Firstly she’s waaay out of your league lad, admit it.’ Jack rolled his eyes. He’d heard this far too many times before. ‘And secondly mate, she’s nothing but a damn user! Days go by when you don’t hear a peep from that girl, then the next thing you know, there she is needing help in biology, and not in a wink-wink way you can guarantee that! Oh and thirdly if it counted for anything in your thick English head Jackie boy, she’s clubber’s girl right? And if you’re not careful it’ll be more than your collars that get a good ripping!’

Jack waited for any signs of a further lecturing, pausing for a few seconds, ‘Are you done yet?’ He replied with a shrug as a wry smile crept slowly across his lips. ‘Listen, just because you’re a car crash with the ladies doesn’t mean I have to be. Besides, how can I resist that smile of hers?’

‘Aye and the rest!’ Quipped Dickie.

‘It’s not like that Dickie.’ Jack argued. ‘It really isn’t! It’s nothing to do with me wanting to steal her away for myself. It’s just she can do better than that brute you know? He’s a bloody pig to her! Well, to everyone really, and it just bugs me to see a bully succeed.’

‘Oh and let me guess you’re gonnae come to her rescue, take her to the end of school prom, and live happily ever after ey?’ He called out as if making an announcement to those around him. ‘Look everybody! Jack Vance the white knight!’ Nobody so much as glanced at the strange boy. ‘Listen to me pal if you believe that, then you’re nothing but a mug. But hey you’re my mate none the less so I’ll just have to live with it ey? Just don’t come running to me when it all blows up in your silly face. We have less than a month left at school and I want to make it to the prom with my body intact thanks!’

Jack grunted dejectedly in response, maybe Dickie was right, maybe overly theatrical but right nonetheless. Besides, who was he to change things? This certainly wasn’t one of his adventure novels where the hero got the girl. Damn reality was depressing.

Jack went back to staring out of the cloudy window, the pretty condensation patterns now a mass of smear marks where his back had been thrust against it leaving the back of his blazer soggy. The rest of the bus journey continued in silence, his coach load of problems winding through the narrow country lanes tightly, the odd tree branch cracking onto the roof and windows as it went. Jack realized by now his other problems were returning as he noticed the signpost pointing left on the upcoming roundabout that simply read ‘Vance Industries Ltd’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3: Vance Industries.

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Within five minutes the coach trundled towards its destination, carefully heading down the country road into the factory car park. The gravel and stone crunched beneath the vehicles tyres as it pulled to a stop not far from the buildings entrance. There was no putting off the inevitable for Jack as he stared wide eyed out of the window at his uncle’s establishment.

Upon first glance the building looked out of place, in its country setting, without a single other building in sight, it looked as if it had been dropped there. It was a dull grey square structure, easily ten times the height of the school bus, but doubled in length. The factory dominated and contrasted the beautiful sweeping countryside that framed it. It looked as if it were built in his Uncle’s image; grey, huge and threatening.

The only form of decoration present was a large sign above the main entrance which simply read, ‘VANCE INDUSTRIES LTD’ in large chrome letters. It was hardly going to win any prizes for its looks. A small area towards the back of the factory however did catch Jack’s attention.

Running from the rear of the factory ran a small winding concrete path, roughly a mile long, that lead to a small, perfectly square forested area which was of similar size to the factory. The trees climbed to what Jack guessed were 50ft tall at least. He thought it strange, it didn’t appear to be a proper forest, and it was far too small. The wooded area, much like the factory, seemed to be out of place. It also appeared that only the perimeter area of it consisted of trees. They only really acted as a perimeter fence to the hidden area, enclosing something that piqued Jack’s interest.

Behind the dense tree line, there appeared to be something made from a bright shining silver. It was big whatever it was, barely hidden by the trees. As light reflected from the object, it seeped out through the dense branches. Jack couldn’t for the life of him make out what it was. The whole factory, just like his Uncle, was an enigma.

The coach, finally resting at its destination, idled its engine into neutral as its low hum caused the windows to rattle slightly. A whooshing sound followed as the doors opened, acting like a signal for the students on board to rush out.

Chaos ensued as dozens of bodies noisily jostled around the inside of the coach, every student pushed and barged between themselves, all with the ultimate aim of getting off the vehicle. A steady stream of laughing and gossiping people flowed past Jack and Dickie, who both remained seated, waiting until a space became free in the never ending line. Once the gaggle started to thin out, Dickie, followed closely by Jack, took the opportunity and squeezed into the aisle heading for the exit.

As he exited the bus, half jumping from the step of the door, he was greeted by the deafening noise of footsteps as the occupants of the coach shuffled and grinded their feet on the factories gravel car park. Having flooded out of the bus, his class mates took the form of a massive disorganized swarm, chatting loudly and nonsensically amongst themselves as the boys pushed and shoved playfully. The girls grouped in their usual cliques, putting the world to rights.

Jack knew his place however. He stuck with Dickie, the pair scanned around looking for any signs of Clubber Harris and his boys. Jack’s efforts occasionally were interrupted by an occasional lovelorn glance towards Becky.

The chaos in the car park was short lived and soon broken up by the school’s head teacher, Mr Davis. A short and smartly dressed man, his height was lesser even than many of the other students. The teaching staff too appeared to have formed their own cliques as well, leaving Mr Davis to round up the students.

‘Can I have some quiet please?’ Mr Davis yelled hopelessly through the gaggle of pupils. The students appeared to hear the voice, but had no idea where it was coming from, failing to see Mr Davis due to his height. Unsure, most of them carried on with their trivial chattering. ‘I SAID SHUT UP!’ Screamed Mr Davis, completely out of character, fed up of his student’s insolence. It was only then the crowd of teenagers reacted to the shouting man, their chatter simmering to the odd giggle or cheeky comment.

The crowd of students split in half, leaving Mr Davis and his staff stood in the middle. Jack, kept to the back of the crowd, he found the whole spectacle quite amusing. It looked to him as if Mr Davis had taken up the role of Moses, parting the Red Sea of students in front of him.

‘Thank you.’ Mr Davis said calmly, exhaling loudly before returning to his calmer self. ‘Good morning year eleven of Hard Acre School, I trust you all had a pleasant trip?’ He began, setting up the scene as if he were the ringmaster in a circus. ‘Now it’s my great pleasure to be with you all today and I hope you’re all as excited as me in coming along on this school trip to Vance Industries!’ He raised his arm, pointing to the huge sign on the side of building as if reminding the students where they were. A voice suddenly burst from the crowd, interrupting the speech.

‘Hah! Fat Chance!’ The voice that cut through the crowd caused a murmur of chuckles and laughter from the students, as heads turned frantically trying to discover who had caused the disruption.

Jack knew only too well who it was. Looking to his right, he saw Clubber surrounded by crew, they were laughing and slapping each-others backs in celebration as if the joke of the century had been told, Clubber seemed to luxuriate in the scene he’d created.

As Jack scowled at him he caught Clubber’s gaze in the process. The smirk on the fat face dropped instantly from that of smug merriment to a look of pure malice. He glared back at Jack, a sick twisted grin crept on his face. Slowly raising his hand to his neck, Clubber made a slicing gesture across his throat, all the while continuing to stare at him menacingly.

‘All right, all right!’ Continued Mr Davis, trying his hardest to maintain order. After a few moments the crowd once again simmered down. ‘We are all very lucky here to have been invited to Vance Industries, the leading producer of aircraft part in the country!’

This was news to Jack. As far as he knew, yes his Uncle made bits and bobs for the aircraft companies. But on this scale? The building was huge! He’d never heard anything more from his uncle on the place or what it did. In fact, this was the first time he’d ever visited the company. So why he’d invited his whole school to visit was yet another mystery.

‘Once inside you will be shown around the companies advanced factory floor, seeing its warehouses and production units and eventually meeting the factories owner Mr Gabriel Vance! Who as I’m sure you all know is the uncle of one of our very own Mr Jack Vance!’ Mr Davis announced enthusiastically and pointed in Jack’s direction, his hand once again causing the sea of people to part, revealing Jack, who stood there alone.

‘Oh arse…’ Muttered Jack to himself as he braced himself for their oncoming wrath. On cue, the crowd erupted into a murmuring mass of tutting tongues and rolling eyes. Jack had never wanted the earth to swallow him up more than he did now.

‘Now, now!’ The head teacher continued, regaining the attention of the muttering crowd. ‘This is a perfect opportunity for you all as you complete your final year of secondary education in three weeks’ time. I hate to break it to you boys and girls but once you’re done here you’ll be joining the real world! So it’s time for a heads up and what better way than a perfect example of a fully functional workforce in action?’ He looked genuinely excited, which was far more than that could be said for most of his class mates he was lecturing to.

Most stared at their feet whilst others were seemingly hypnotised by their phones as they gossiped on MyPage, the trending topic being who was going to prom with who. Come to think of it Jack hadn’t had the chance to make a decision either, he glanced again wishfully at Becky, lost in a daydream.

‘So if you’d all like to follow me inside in an orderly manner, we will begin our tour of this unique and exciting establishment!’ Turning on his heels, Mr Davis nearly skipped into the waiting building as he grinned away. The masses of staff and students filed in behind him, trudging along in a less enthusiastic manner as Jack followed.

The long line of staff and pupils of Hard Acre School filed in through the front door of Vance Industries, with Jack and Dickie at the rear. The first port of call for the line was the reception, which shared the same cold, sterile appearance of the exterior, the walls painted plain white, the only decoration being the receptionist’s desk and a sofa on the opposite end of the room.

The reception was not big enough to contain all the visitors, Mr Davis’s small frame pushed through students in order to reach the receptionist’s desk, which he was barely tall enough to peer over as it was. As he booked the group in, the students chatted amongst themselves. The cackling noise echoed throughout the small room and soon became deafening. As Mr Davis struggled to be heard over the din, he and the receptionist gave up on words as she ushered the head teacher towards the adjoining room.

‘We’re in! Follow me everybody!’ Mr Davis cheerily led the charge as the huge gaggle of people transformed once again into a long line, squeezing through the door.

What was on the other side shocked everybody, as each person who filtered through the door reacted with surprise, with various ‘oohs’ and ‘wow’s’ being proclaimed. Jack, again followed the rear, wondering what all the fuss was about. Surely it couldn’t be that amazing? As he reached the door he realized just how wrong he was.

It was the vastness that struck him at first. The place was huge, with the dimensions inside looking as gigantic as those of the outside! The door led straight from the reception onto the factory floor, which appeared to be endless! Immediately in front of Jack lay an endless network of winding and connecting conveyer belts that ran from where he stood and ran in many directions to various parts of the factory from top to bottom, seemingly going on forever. They all delivered unidentifiable pieces of machinery, most probably aircraft parts, to different areas of the factory where they would be assembled.

The thing that took Jack back was how few people there were in the building. In endless rows, the factory floor was mainly occupied by robotic arms which busily did the work of assembling and creating the various, wings, engines and other plane parts that were delivered by the belts. It was a maze of machinery and technology. The only few people Jack could see who were there were dressed head to toe in white overalls and wore yellow hard hats. They wandered aimlessly around the factory, simply inputting orders into their hand held tablets, letting the various robots and machines do the hard work.

Jack’s eyes followed the countless belts and robots until they reached the other side of the factory. It seemed to Jack that it all would go on forever were it not for a wooden wall of crates that stood in the distance. Covering the last few hundred meters of the factory, the wall spanned wide and high, a network of stacked crates, a city almost, with various stacks soaring into the air like sky scrapers. Between these towers, more conveyer belts ran in between, where the occasional robotic crane lifted and swapped crates around the city like a giant game of Tetris. Jack had to admit, it was an impressive sight.

As everybody came to take in this behemoth of a factory, Mr Davis once again took control.

‘Ok everyone! I hope you can hear me over all this noise?’ He asked, his voice barely audible over the clanking, stamping and whirring of the robotic work force. ‘I take it, like myself, you are all amazed at this wonder of industry. Well now it’s time to meet the genius who made all of this possible.’ Jack rolled his eyes, getting ready for further embarrassment. It was as Mr Davis was hosting some terrible chat show. ‘The head of Vance Industries, Mr Gabriel Vance everybody!’

A steady but slow round of applause rang out from the students. Jack just stood at the back of the crowd, his arms folded nonchalantly. Emerging from behind one of the many towering computers emerged his uncle, dressed head to toe in similar coveralls carrying a clipboard. He looked similar to those working in the factory, right down to the yellow helmet and safety goggles. Jack thought his uncle looked ridiculous. Here was his strict militaristic uncle, with bulging muscles and sharp haircut all covered by his safety gear. He resembled one of the lab technicians that worked at his school. But something else was different with his appearance. He looked frail and dare Jack think it, sad.

Gabriel’s usual gritty, determined, stern face looked softer. His eyes, which usually were able to pierce right through a man, now looked soft and opaque, as if he wasn’t all there. His stance too was different, the ever alert, upright posture of a soldier was gone, his back slouched. This wasn’t his uncle.

‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen.’ Even his Uncle’s gravelly raspy voice managed to pertain a sense of sadness.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Jack muttered to himself.

‘Welcome to Vance industries, set up in 1986, we have been the leading exporter of aviation parts and components for the world’s civilian and military aviation agencies and companies. As you can see, here is where the majority of our production takes place. Almost any aviation part in existence we can make here at our factory. Everything is created, assembled, packaged and delivered all from this very factory.’ His arm lazily pointed from the assemble line to the conveyers leading to the city of crates. ‘As you may have noticed the majority of our work here is undertaken by robotics requiring minimal human oversight.’

Gabriel continued his speech as if he were memorizing a promotional pamphlet as he continued to talk in this new droning and monotonous voice, as if he were on auto pilot.

‘You never told me he had such a sparkling personality!’ Dickie teased Jack as his Uncle continued. He ignored the quip.

‘Something’s not right Dickie.’ Jack observed. ‘I was expecting him to have barked at us half a dozen times by now, even scared Clubber straight! But he doesn’t seem bothered that none of us are listening. It’s like all the life has been sucked out of him.’

Gabriel Droned on, coming to the end of his speech. It was sad to watch. The factory was ablaze with activity, machines worked busily, producing sparks which flew from left to right and streamed across the air. It was amazing to watch, but the factories creator just didn’t reflect his creation, as if he didn’t know where he was.

‘So if any of you have any questions of queries, please feel free to ask my assistant Clarice.’ He gestured to a young professional looking woman in glasses and slunk away quickly, leaving everybody puzzled. The woman herself seemed bemused as to her employer’s new attitude, but ever the professional she picked up the pieces.

‘Ok ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to follow me we will begin our tour in the assembly line. This way please.’ As she led the way, everybody followed, pointing and making comments on the surrounding machinery on the way. Jack, still puzzled, went to follow on the rear of the crowd again when he was stopped in his tracks as a firm hand took his shoulder,

‘Are you free for a chat Jack?’ The sad voice that now belonged to his uncle asked. ‘You can catch up with your friends later.’ Jack watched as his friends disappeared into the steam and smoke that was produced by the machines. The strong hand led him to a couple of plastic chairs that sat by a work desk. Gabriel checked for any signs of other people, then gestured for Jack to take a seat before joining him on the second chair which he pulled so he was facing his nephew, the chair scraped across the floor as he sat.

‘So how have you been doing my boy?’ My Boy?! In all the years Jack had lived with his uncle, never had he been called that before, yet alone asked how he was. This new uncle left Jack uneasy.

‘Err… I’m not too bad thanks.’ Jack replied cautiously.

‘Good, good… So that’s all your exams finished, school nearly over and done with. Looking forward to leaving?’ The atmosphere was awkward for them both to say the least. Jack racked his brains for a response.

‘Well sort of I guess. Can’t say I’ll miss it too much, I just need to get past the prom in a few weeks.’

Gabriel smirked a little, the closest thing to a smile Jack had ever seen. Though his face changed as if he’d just realized something, the sadness returning.

‘Look Jack.’ His uncle continued, ‘I apologise for dragging you and your entire school here. I know I’ve probably embarrassed you terribly.’ Empathy too. This was terrifying!

‘But…why? What could you have gained from this? I’ve never been here my whole life and now you drag my whole bloody school along?’

‘Hey! There was a reason why I never invited you here boy!’ The old harshness returned to his voice, but his face soon seemed to remember something, changing again to its sad state. ‘It was for the best. As for your ‘school trip’, well I’ve just had to uphold a bargain for someone.’ His face turned from sadness to a meaningful seriousness, ‘Although I really hope this trip benefits you.’

Jack stared back at his uncle in disbelief. He wondered if he’d gone mad! It looked now as if he was trying to stop himself from crying!

‘Listen Jack, I just wanted to grab you before you left to tell you a few things.’ His uncle stared at his feet, obviously finding what he was about to say tough. ‘I know the last three years we have never seen eye to eye, as a matter of fact I think this is the most I’ve spoken to you.’ He stared up at the ceiling, his eyes watered and his voice began to croak, ‘But I promised your mother that I’d mould you into the best person you could be, and you know what? I think I’ve done an alright job.’ He cracked a wry smile at his nephew, tear rolling down his cheeks.

‘What is this all about? Are you dying or something?’ Jack asked cynically. What his uncle did next was completely out of the ordinary. He laughed!

‘Hah! No… no, no I’m not dying Jack.’ He wiped the tear from his cheek using his sleeve. ‘It’s just you’re leaving school now boy and I just wanted to give you some advice before you carry on with whatever you decide to do.’ This was getting far too serious Jack thought.

‘You’re a good kid Jack, I’ve always thought so, despite all I’ve said and made you do. I just want you to remember a few things before you go on your journey.’ Gabriel, lifted his head from his feet and looked at Jack square in the eye.

‘Firstly boy, always embrace adventure, wherever and whatever it brings you.’ He paused to let his message sink in,

‘Secondly, always be kind, be faithful and be a gentleman always. Do the right thing.’ Tears began to emerge from his eyes as he reached inside his Jacket pocket and removed his wallet, his hands shaking.

‘But thirdly, remember this one piece of advice…’ As he spoke, his shaking hands delved inside his wallet, from where he produced a silver necklace. It was a St Christopher medallion. The size of a small coin, it portrayed St Christopher carrying Jesus across the water.

‘…the devil rules with silent fools.’ Jack struggled to take it in. What did he mean with this advice? ‘This used to belong to you mother, I think it’s fitting you should have it.’ He handed the necklace to Jack who gave it a closer look. ‘She gave this to me shortly before her death, and I think its only right I give it to you now. I think it’s a fitting symbol of the advice I’ve given you don’t you think?’

‘Where am I travelling to?’ Enquired Jack confused.

‘Look. Whatever happens Jack, just always remember where you came from.’ He placed the necklace in Jack’s palm firmly, closing his hand around it.

‘Well…thanks…’ Jack took the necklace and fastened it around his neck. He had no idea what to say. This sudden change in his uncle was unexpected, but he still didn’t know why he was acting like this and travels? He could only guess ‘Uncle Gabriel I’m very grateful for this but what’s going on? Why all this, why now?’

Gabriel closed his eyes, again trying his best not to cry and completely break his macho persona. He took in a breath, about to say something. He then hesitated, shaking his head.

‘Jack my boy. It’s just time for you to grow and become the man you’re going to be for the rest of your life. So I thought it was time to treat you as such.’ He paused, taking in a deep breath, running his hands through his own hair. ‘Now… I think you’d best run along and join your class mates. Don’t want to miss the tour do you? Off you go.’

As they both stood, the giant hands held Jack’s shoulders and turned him around before pushing him in the direction he needed to go. Hesitantly Jack walked off into the steamy factory, clutching the necklace around his neck, wondering what the hell had just happened.

‘Remember Jack!’ His uncle’s voice boomed through the steam behind him. ‘The devil rules with silent fools.’ Jack carried on walking through the busy factory smiling to himself nervously.

‘What the hell.’ He whispered to himself. Had the old man finally lost it? It was as if he knew something was going to happen, as if he knew he’d never see him again. Jack passed through the aisles of machinery and robotics in deep thought, not paying any attention to the manic work that was going on around him. He followed what he thought was the route his class mates had taken earlier, he took the first corner when suddenly a voice from behind made him jump out of skin.

‘Hey there Jack, imagine meeting you here.’ Recognizing the voice instantly, he span 180 degrees in half fright, half excitement.

There she stood. Becky Delaney. She had emerged from the ever present steam, almost melting into his view. She leant playfully on one leg, her hand resting on her hip. Sparks produced from the machinery behind her shot into the air, acting like fireworks announcing her presence. ‘Sorry Vance. Didn’t meant to scare you now.’ Her cherry red lips smirked at him.

‘B-Becky what the hell?’ Exclaimed Jack, his face lighting up at her presence. ‘Why aren’t you with the others?’

‘Oh I got tired of them. Besides, I just wanted to apologise for Chris’s… bad behaviour earlier.’ She said coolly, her airy voice almost singing to him playfully.

‘Ah… Clubber Harris. Yeah, you got a keeper there.’ Noted Jack wryly.

‘Oh he doesn’t mean it, he’s a puppy dog really, he just gets jealous is all.’ She smiled sweetly as if nothing had happened. ‘Anyway, I’m here with you now aren’t I Jack?’ She advanced slowly towards him, flicking her jet black hair behind her shoulder, causing the steam surrounding her to waft.

‘Uhuh.’ Jack responded inquisitively. ‘And why else are you here?’ He’d had just about enough weirdness for one day.

‘Oh well it’s just as I said earlier sweety.’ Becky reiterated, her dark eyes wide as if trying to think of a reason. ‘I just wanted to apologise for earlier. Also to thank you for all the help you’ve given me during the last year. I really appreciate it.’

She smiled and walked closer to Jack, circling him closely, her hands clasped behind her back, she circled close enough for her perfume to intoxicate him. Jack’s eyes rolled back, savouring the smell. ‘Nice factory your uncle owns here.’ She observed gaily, looking the machinery up and down.

She approached Jack even closer, nearly whispering in his ear. ‘This place must be worth a fortune.’ She completed her circle, face to face with Jack as her fingers traced down from his shoulder to his chest.

‘I really wouldn’t know.’ Jack responded, trying his best to control himself. His eyes nervously followed her fingers which begun to dance upon his chest. He stared back at her, unable to believe what was happening.

‘Listen Vance.’ Becky began, edging closer to him, ‘I’ve got a free house this weekend, and I err, need some more study help. Would you be interested in joining me?’ She stared into his eyes, biting her lip slightly. Jack still refused to believe this situation was real.

‘Becky, there are no more exams. There’s nothing left to study!’ Jack stammered goofily, only realizing how naïve he sounded once the words had left his mouth.

Becky rolled her eyes and tutted, ‘C’mon Jack you’re a smart guy, think it over.’ Her grin driving her point home. Jack had dreamt of this situation more times than he cared to remember, but this time he had his uncle’s noble advice still swimming in his head, conflicting with his teenage lust.

‘But you’re still seeing Clubber, I mean Chris.’ Jack stuttered, feeling like a real boy scout, but ultimately knowing he was right.

‘Oh Jack seriously? Chris despite his bravado, is just a boy with something to prove. Now you on the other hand. You’re like, a kind, honest gentleman. Just my type.’

Despite the compliments her eyes were still making shooting glances towards the machinery, seemingly taking stock of its worth. Gabriel’s sobering words still swam around in his head.

‘Exactly Becky, and that’s exactly why I can’t do this.’ He couldn’t quite believe the words that were coming out of his mouth, in his head he kicked himself.

‘Pfft! Seriously? Your loss!’ She snorted. The hand that was once exploring his chest withdrew suddenly, the once seductive smile turned into a bitter pout. She once again rolled her eyes and turned away, strutting into the steam whilst waving. ‘See ya later Jack. Enjoy your morals this weekend hey?’ Jack was frozen to the spot, unable to say anything as he let her walk away into the cloud of steam, gone for good.

‘Beck-!’ Uttered Jack, stopping himself before sounding even more pathetic. He slapped himself on the forehead. ‘Stupid, stupid, STUPID!’ he cursed to himself. He sighed, slumping against a metal girder, trying his best to take in what had happened in the last hour. He stared up to the heavens, searching for answers, ‘You got anything else waiting for me today?’ He said to nobody in particular. He slumped lower, taking another deep sigh.

‘Oi! Prance!’ Came a voice seconds later. Jack’s skin crawled. From the same smoke that had engulfed Becky earlier, emerged Clubber Harris with one of the Glover twins. ‘Now I thought I asked you leave that girl alone?’ He asked menacingly.

Jack edged back away from the pair, ‘Easy now Clubber, you saw what happened, I said no to her!’ Jack kept pacing backwards until, out of nowhere, sprang the other Glover twin from the steam, leaving Jack trapped.

‘I don’t wanna hear it Prance, and quite frankly I couldn’t give a toss.’ Clubber said as he stared at his finger nails. ‘I think personally it’s time you learnt your lesson.’ Clubber took a step backwards, leaving Jack trapped by the twins. ‘But I did tell that silly girl I wouldn’t lay a hand on you Jack. Shame really.’ Clubber’s face was soon full of glee as he lifted his gaze to meet Jack’s. ‘But my boys here would really like to do a number on you.’ He smiled grimly as the twins edged close to Jack snickering as they advanced. Clubber signalled to Jack.

‘Boys… grab him.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4: The Twin Dilemma.

 

Tony and Drew, the Glover twins, slowly encircled Jack, not that he could tell either of them apart. Their sly, freckled faces, although not as weathered and scarred as Clubber’s, shared the same venomous malice of their superior. With each twin advancing either side of him, Jack had little time to think as he was slowly trapped in the ‘corridor’ of machinery.

With metres separating Jack and his beating, he caught a sign in the corner of his eye. It simply read, ‘emergency venting’. Below it, two large vents stood that belonged to a large, unidentifiable machine. Next to the sign, fixed to the wall, was a safety switch His only option. It was time to gamble.

‘Sorry boys.’ Jack muttered half to himself as he yanked the switch, closing his eyes in hope.

Before the twins could reach Jack, a huge jet of steam erupted from the vents, filling the already cloudy corridor, making it nearly impossible to see. The twins raced and lashed out in order to catch their prey, only striking each other in the process. As the steam dissipated, all three noticed that Jack was no longer there, as scanning their surroundings desperately.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony caught Jack in the act of escaping as he leapt onto one of the moving conveyor belts above them.

‘Clubber!’ Screamed Tony. ‘Look!’ He pointed towardsat the fleeing figure whichthat was steadying himself on the fast moving belt.

‘Get after him now!’ Hissed Clubber, seething with rage. Both twins glanced at each other, not believing what their boss had ordered them to doentirely sure their boss was serious. ‘I SAID NOW!’ He screamed, causing both twins to leap into action. The chase was on.

Jack glanced to his rear as, the belt raceding him to who knows where. As he caught his breath, he grinned slightly to himself, amazed his gamble had paid off. As he looked down to the factory floor blow him, he saw the twins as they gavegiving chase along the corridors. Despite his escape,However he knew he couldn’t stay on the belt forever. He needed to find out where itthe racing conveyor belt was taking him.

Looking aheadforward, Jack got his answer as he sawcould see that the the belt was coming to a sudden dead end, literally. Metres away, itthe belt rapidly lead to some form of crushing machine that stomped rhythmically. The spiked crushing panels within the machine demolished anything that the belt ran through it, and heJack was next! Jack’s expressionHis face now switched from thea cocky smile of victory to thatone of sheer terror as he stared death in the face.!

With seconds to spare, heJack leapt to his right, clear of the belt, and just escaping the jaws of the machine by seconds. As hHis body fell, it and slammed onto another belt that passed below, which sent him flying in yet another direction across the factory. His arm and ribs bruised, Jack winced in pain. He had to get off of these belts before they lead him to further peril. With another twist of his aching body, he threw himself from the new belt. He only fell a few feet this time as he crashed onto the steel floor.

As Jack lay on his back, his whole body tried to accustom itself to the steady, still, cold floor, no longer was he victim to the rushing belts. As Jack opened his eyes, he took in his surroundings.

Everything was still dark and steamy, with , random flashing red lights strobinged across the walls. As he raised himself painfully to his feet, he checked his body for breaks, finding only bruises as he did. Once again ready on his feet, Jack found himself surrounded.

Dotted around him, like a herd of strange metallic animals, stood 4 of the robotic arms that Jack had seen earlier when he had entered the warehouse. Standing erect at 8 feet in striped yellow and black livery, they loomed down on him menacingly, the flashing red lights on their heads flashed through the steamy air angrily. At the end of each arm was a menacing pincer, they yellow paint stained with black greaseThe ‘heads’ on these robots were nothing more than pincer-like grabbers. Jack guessed the armsy were for moving the crates that were dotted around the place.

He carefully paced around the armsmachines, unsure if they were live or not. In the centre of them, their placement formed a square. In the centre of the four robotic arms, lay a small terminal at waist height, complete with touch-screen. Unable to resist, his fingers gingerly touched the glowing display, curious as to what would happen. Doing so, he found the arms reacted to his input obeying his every command. After a few seconds experimentation he found he could control one arm at a time. It was similar he thought, to the grabber machines he saw at the pier when he was younger.

Lost in the novelty of his new toys instead of the danger that was followed him, Jack continued to goof around, putting each arm through its paces, managing to lift the crates that laid around the area. This was cool!

Playtime was cut short however by running footsteps, which clunked across the steel floor towards him, increasing in volume.

‘He’s here! He’s here!’ Shrieked one of the twins, as they emerged from a corner. Upon seeing Jack they slowed their pace, approaching menacingly.

‘Give it up Vance!’ Ordered Tony. At least Jack thought it was Tony. ‘Give it up and we’ll make your beating quick. We won’t make a huge mess out of you we promise!’ He grinned through rotten teeth.

‘Two of you against me?’ Asked Jack. ‘How cowardly of you Tony.’ Tony furrowed his brow, confused.

‘But I’m Drew!’ Rectified the twin pointing to himself, peeved.

‘Ah…Awkward…’ Jack exclaimed, realising his mistake. ‘Doesn’t matter. Think I still have the odds in my favour.’

‘Ha-ha! Yeah right! You’re ours Vance! How are you gonna stop us?’ The twin goaded.

Jack, still hovering by the touch-screen terminal, whisked his fingers along its shining surface, causing one of the robotic arms to suddenly swipe. It swung wildly, crashing into the approaching twins, knocking them both onto the floor in a heap.

‘Hah! I’m armed boys!’ Yelled Jack. Almost ashamed at the pun.

With both twins struggling to get up, Jack continued to input demands into the machine. Using the grabbers, he went for Drew first, using the pincers of the robot to grab him by the neck. The machine lifted him straight off the floor, leaving his feet dangling in the air. With another swipe of his finger, the arm pinned Drew against a wall.

‘Uggh! Let me go dammit!’ Cried Drew as he struggled to free himself, pinned to the wall unable to move, he held himself up by his arms.

‘Time for the other one.’ Muttered Jack. Tony meanwhile had managed to get to his feet, glancing up at his brother in shock. He quickly turned to Jack, ready to charge.

Jack’s hands were working overtime, as so it seemed, was the machine.

SYSTEM OVERHEAT…SYSTEM OVERHEAT.’ An artificial female voice notified robotically as the touchscreen flashed red, a myriad of characters raced across the screen, reflecting upon Jack’s panicked face.

‘Ah!’ Jack uttered, as he stared at the remaining twin.

Tony seized his opportunity, a smile spreading on his face, he ran straight for Jack, leaving his brother struggling, suspended against the wall.

The chase was on again, they both tore through the corridors of machinery, leaping over tables, computer units and boxes, not having a clue where the chase would lead them.

It all looked the same to Jack, every corner he sprinted through presented Jack with a new maze of technology. He had to keep racing however, only ever looking back to check if Tony was gaining on him. Glancing back, he caught sight of his pursuer as he clambered over a desk before charging after him, he was not giving up.

The pursuit however came to a close, as with the next corner Jack was greeted by a sheer wall of wooden crates that surrounded him. As he looked up he saw that the boxes towered into the air, the city scape of crates that he had noticed earlier!

Before Jack could think, Tony flew around the corner behind him, skidding to a halt as he found Jack. Trapped again, there was no other option for Jack, he had to climb the tower!

Turning away from his pursuer once again, Jack heaved himself up on to the first crate he could find, immediately moving on to the next box that was above that. It was like he was climbing a giant set of steep stairs, his upper body working its hardest to scale this wooden mountain that seemingly rose up forever.

Having climbed most of the way to the top, Jack fell to his knees as he tried to catch his breath, before cautiously looking down to check his progress. Shocked, he realised that he had scaled at least nearly fifty feet. Looking down gingerly, he could see the entire factory floor in its entirety, alive with activity. Surrounding him were the neighbouring ‘skyscrapers’. Towers or crates that soared to the ceiling. Above the towers, robotic cranes busily shifted and hauled crates to and fro across the factory.

As he gazed up, Jack suddenly felt butterflies in his stomach. This really wasn’t a time to be scared of heights, but as he looked down, a further dread set in. Below him, Tony rapidly scaled the crates beneath him, his face flush with rage, he gained on him rapidly.

Jack rose to his feet with a wobble, his sudden movement had caused the whole tower to sway slightly. Things were getting really dangerous, any sudden movement and the entire tower could come crashing down! Tony was but three crates below him, he could hear his manic panting as he climbed closer. Jack had to think fast.

Looking around him, he tried to judge the distance of the neighbouring crate tower beside him. Jack guessed it to be two meters, he could jump that! But as he looked into the abyss, it might as well have been twenty! Still, there was no other choice.

‘Aha! Got ya!’ Came Tony’s voice below as he reached for Jack’s ankles. That decided it, taking as big a step back as he could, Jack put all doubt behind him as he leapt as far as he could to the other tower. He flew across the nothingness for what felt an eternity, until he smashed into the neighbouring tower, causing it to sway violently. Grabbing onto his new perch desperately, Jack dug his nails into the wood as the swaying subsided. That was too close. Behind him however, a creaking, groaning noise caught Jack’s attention. It was the tower he had just leapt from! His run and jump from its peak had been the final straw for the previous tower, as it began to lean to the point of no return, with Tony on top!

As Jack watched, it all seemed to happen in slow motion. As the tower started to fall, Tony could only stare at him helplessly. Wide eyed, his arm was outstretched, still in the process of having failed to grab Jack’s ankle. Like a giant game of Jenga, the tower came crashing down in front of Jack’s eyes.

The noise was deafening as boxes in their hundreds fell and crashed to earth. Jack saw Tony’s body fall with the avalanche, his arms outstretched as if still trying to grab onto thin air. He fell screaming amongst the shower of crates into a growing cloud of wooden dust at the factory floor that the collapse had kicked up.

Hugging onto crate he had leapt upon, Jack tried to take the scene in. Things had gone way too far! For all he knew Tony could be dead now! It was quite a fall. He tried to look down at the wreckage of crates on the floor in the vain hope of seeing him, but the pile of dust that had been kicked up was expanding and rising to his level, he couldn’t see any sign of him. Besides, Jack had other things to worry about, his tower was starting to rock too!

During its collapse, the falling tower had struck Jack’s, causing it too to rock. It was certain to fall, as crates fell from above, nearly hitting Jack as they plummeted past, his perch was slowly collapsing. There was nothing Jack could do, whatever fate had met Tony was sure to follow him too. Pointlessly, Jack held on tight to the tower and clenched his eyes. It was going to be a long ride down.

As Jack resigned himself to his fate, a strange mechanical noise approached him. The noise whirred and hissed, cutting through the rumbling of the disintegrating tower. The whirring stopped with a firm ‘clunk’ that Jack could feel right beside him.

Jack dared to open his eyes, and to his surprise could see one of the wire cranes that were suspended from the ceiling, suspended from its lengthy cables, the contraption swayed lazily next to him. What were the chances!

Without hesitation, despite the danger, Jack leapt from the crumbling tower towards the relative safety of the crane. He barely made it, grabbing on to the steel wires that suspended it from the ceiling. He swung violently like a pendulum from the strong steel wires.

What he saw from the crane was like watching and action replay of the previous collapse. The tower he had leapt from seconds ago also begun to buckle and collapse, falling into a cloud of its own wooden wreckage with a mighty crash. In relief, Jack clung on to the steel wires, amazed at how close he had gotten to falling.

With a heave, Jack climbed the wire briefly, standing upon the grabber arms that were suspended from the cables he held onto. From the relative safety of the swinging crane, he watched as the entire city scape of crates one by one collapsed.

The towers slowly collapsed in turn, crashing like dominoes. There was the most spectacular racket as the crates were levelled, leaving the entire section of the factory awash with dust, making it impossible to see anything below.

Jack looked up towards the ceiling, trying to figure a way out above, when something or should that be someone caught his gaze.

On a suspended steel walkway high above him, stood the silhouette of a man looking down at him. It was impossible to make out any features the man had, only that his hands seemed to be holding one of the tablets that Jack had seen the factory workers using to control the machinery earlier. The tablet glowed in the man’s hands, lighting up a small portion of his face and body, giving away more details as to who it was.

His clothes were nothing like what the other workers were wearing. A tall black gentleman, he was carrying an umbrella whilst wearing an impeccably tailored, blue three-piece suit. To complete the look, he wore a bowler hat that was perched neatly on top of his head. The man looked like a city banker! Through the dim light, another thing caught Jack’s attention.

Stood proudly beside the man’s leather brogues, was what appeared to be a small dog! A Terrier of sorts, perhaps a Scottie. Alert, it too looked down at him as his owner did with its head cocked, curious as to the commotion below. Whoever this man and his dog were though, it seemed that he was the one responsible for lowering the crane to Jack in his moment of need. But who was he?

Jack wanted to wave to him, but didn’t dare release his grip from the steel wire he was clasped too. The gentleman seeming to understand, and with one hand smartly raised his bowler hat into the air in acknowledgement and smiled, the glow from the tablet revealing his shiny bald head.

Replacing the bowler hat back on his head, he tossed the tablet over the side of the gantry railing and strolled away, twirling his umbrella playfully with one hand whilst the other checked his pocket watch. He disappeared into the shadows with an air of mystery.

Jack, staring in disbelief, was once again left alone. Hanging fifty feet in the air, tired, puzzled and confused, he knew he had to get down. Swallowing his fear, he pulled the courage to look down at his feet as he swayed above the chaos below. He noticed the grabber he was stood on had some form of built in control pad on it, perhaps a way of lowering himself down without need for the tablet that the gentleman had just discarded.

Gently, Jack began to lower his body along down the wires to get a closer look. What Jack failed to notice however was just how thickly covered in oil the grabber that supported his feet was. As he tried to shuffle his feet, they slipped from underneath him, causing him to tumble. Jacks hands grappled manically in an effort to grab hold of something, and with a crash he managed to get hold of the crane arm itself, his arms ending up where his feet had once been. Jack’s legs and feet dangled helplessly with nothing beneath them. Only his upper body held him up.

As he swung perilously from the crane, Jack struggled to hold himself up. His breathing was rapid, trying to overcome the shock of having nearly fallen to his death once again. Gaining composure, his eyes scanned over the top of the grabber until he once again saw the manual control panel, just within reach. Carefully hoisting his body up, he peered over the panel using all his strength. The panel was made from countless numbers and characters. What caught his attention however were four directional symbols, ↑, ←, ↓, → that he guessed must indicate the cranes movement.

As he strained his aching bod, he just about reached the downward button. As his trembling index finger pressed the button, the entire contraption shuddered as it sprung to life, nearly causing him to lose his grip on the oily surface. Holding on for dear life, Jack was relieved to notice the crane lowering him towards the floor.

The journey downwards took forever, requiring him to keep his finger constantly on the operating button. His whole body screamed as it maintained its position. Looking on the bright side however, this was nowhere near as quick as Tony’s trip to earth, thought Jack with a smirk. His little joke however reminded him of the seriousness of his situation. It had been quite a fall. Had he involuntarily killed a man?

After a long few minutes Jack reached the floor, relieved as he felt his feet once again reach solid ground. The ground however was littered with debris, he realised he was going to have to face the chaos he had helped create.

His feet thankfully firmly on the floor, Jack struggled to release his grip from the crane, his instincts still urged him to hold on for dear life. As he reluctantly peeled himself off the contraption, Jack looked around to gauge where he was. He was in hell.

Surrounding Jack was a mass of broken crates, the aftermath of the wooden avalanche covered the floor and most of the machinery that had once stood there proudly before his chase was now in tatters. The place was unrecognisable thought Jack as a chorus of alarms wailed.

‘Well…’ Jack muttered to himself grimly, ‘No way is my pocket money going to cover this.’

As the feeling returned to his arms, Jack dusted himself off, glancing at what was left of his uniform. That too was in tatters, his blazer practically hung from his body by threads, his shirt and trousers weren’t much better, his bloodied flesh visible through the torn clothing. To say his tie was off centre was an understatement.

Half succeeding in sorting his already messy hair out, Jack waded through the tangled mess of wood and machinery, trudging through until he heard voices ahead.

‘It was Jack! It was all Jack!’ Croaked a voice from behind a section of rubble.

Jack took cover behind a half broken crate, peering over to see who it was. Despite the tragedy, it was a hilarious sight. He could see Drew, still pinned to the wall by the robotic arm as he kicked and struggled uselessly. Surrounding him were dozens of his class mates accompanied by Mr Davis who was in a state of shock.

‘He’s run amok sir! He did all this!’ Drew choked, being barely audible as he tried to hold himself up from the robotic arms’ grasp. From what Jack could see Mr Davis’s face was a combination or fury and panic.

‘Where is he?!’ The head teacher screamed, whilst trying to maintain some form of calm in his shaking body. ‘You! Richard!’ He yelled for Dickie who came running up to him.

‘Yes Sir.’ He enquired, sounding almost too innocent.

‘You know that sod well! You’re his bloody ‘chum’! Go look for him! NOW!’ He bellowed.

‘Right away sir.’ Dickie replied with a wink, smiling as he ran off searching through the rubble.

‘As for the rest of you!’ Continued Mr Davis. Help me get this poor boy down from this contraption!’ He then turned to the other teaching staff who were equally as confused. ‘What are you lot looking at?! Go get some help!’ He ordered as they all ran in different directions.

Jack was in real trouble he thought to himself. Hiding behind the broken crate, he sat with his head in his hands and tried to think. That lying scumbag Drew had really gotten him in trouble. Well he wasn’t really lying, technically it was Jack’s fault for this disaster. But they started it!

Jack thought to himself for a second, no way was that excuse going to hold up in court.

‘Well, well, well Jackie boy, I leave you for two minutes…’ Jack leapt in fright as the Scottish accent laughed from behind his hiding place.

‘Dickie!’ Exclaimed Jack with a whisper. Relieved to at least see a friendly face. ‘I can explain!’

‘Hah! Oh I’m sure ye can pal.’ Smirked Dickie. ‘But it’s not me ya have to explain to.’ He nodded over towards the gaggle of people that was growing around Drew. ‘I’m afraid I won’t be much help to you for this one pal.’ He said, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘What ARE ye gonna do?’

Jack thought to himself, terrified at the trouble that was waiting.

‘I’m going to have to run for it Dickie.’

‘Oh c’mon ya wee idiot! Where ya gonnae go?’ Dickie said reasonably.

‘I don’t know, just away, I need to keep my head down for a while.’ Jack said half to himself. Wondering where on Earth he would go.

HEEEELLP!!’ Yelled a muffled voice from the other side of the rubble. ‘HELP ME!’ It was Tony! He’d survived! Much to Jack’s relief of course. He really couldn’t do with facing a murder charge as well. Other voices could be heard as people clambered to Tony’s rescue.

‘Oh Jackie please tell me ya got the two of em’? Ha, ha! Ah well done me’ laddie!’ Dickie congratulated, a delighted smile beamed across his wicked face as he revelled in the chaos. He turned back to his friend, ‘Now listen. I’ve been told to come fetch you laddie.’ Dickie continued solemnly, ‘But I may be able to do you one last favour.’ He turned around, scanning the immediate area, only to turn back to Jack, ‘Run for it lad.’ Giving his friend a final wink, he turned around and ran to the crowd that was still with Mr Davis and Drew.

HEY!!!’ He yelled, ‘Hey! He’s over there through the smoke!’ He shouted whilst pointing in the complete opposite direction to where Jack was. As he peeked over the crate once again, Jack could see Dickie leading Mr Davis and the group of students entirely the wrong way along the factory floor.

‘Cheers Dickie.’ Jack whispered to himself with a smile. As half of the people in the factory either helped the twins or went on a wild goose chase with Dickie, Jack decided to slink off. He wandered until he reached a wall. This wall was different, having a tunnel that lead through it. It looked promising, an escape. Kicking through the remaining bits of wreckage, he reached the entrance of the tunnel, his feet glad for a clear surface.

The tunnel went on for miles and was large enough for a vehicle to pass through, although he could see none. As he entered through, he wondered how on earth he was going to explain all this chaos to his teacher, the police, or most importantly, his uncle! He’d be murdered! He stared down at his chest, showing through his torn clothes was the St Christopher his uncle had handed to him earlier, still miraculously around his neck. Did he do the right thing? Would mother be proud? All of a sudden his moral thoughts were interrupted by a burning light that made him wince.

All the way at the end of the tunnel was a shimmering bright light, the colour being the same kind of silver he had seen through the trees outside earlier, which piqued his interest. This tunnel could lead to the forested canopy he had seen earlier. Momentarily forgetting his troubles, he marched on in sheer curiosity.

He only managed a couple more steps down the tunnel however, when all of a sudden he heard a quick, sharp whistling noise, at the same time feeling a sharp pin prick in the back of his neck.

‘Ouch!’ Exclaimed Jack. How the hell could he have been stung by a wasp in the middle of a factory? As he reached his neck, he realised this was no wasp. He could feel a small feathered object with a small needle at its end sticking out of his neck. It was a dart!

He pulled the object out from the back of his neck and observed it, as he did so his eyes felt heavy. Suddenly his whole body felt heavy. Jack slowly slumped to his hands and knees on the concrete floor, his vision dimming. He slowly turned his body to look in the direction the dart had come from.

There stood behind him, smiling, was the same well-dressed black gentleman in the bowler hat he had seen earlier, the small black dog by his feet. Only this time he had his umbrella aimed at Jack as if it were a rifle. The dart appeared to have been shot from the umbrellas’ tip. Stood with him were three people, although he couldn’t make out anything other than their outlines.

‘Wha..?’ Jack tried to mutter a question but he soon started to black out. As his vision dimmed he could only make out the group of strangers, complete with a mystery object.

 

In the centre of the group, its lid open, lay an empty crate…

 

 

 

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 5: Strange Figures.

 

Neon lights slowly passed by Jack’s vision. Long and straight, they passed by one after the other like a continuous procession of glowing fireflies. He felt himself rock and way as he rested on his back. Jack had not yet entirely succumbed to the drugs from the dart’s tip that now flowed through his veins. In a blurry state of mind, he recalled being bundled into the crate face up. The fireflies he managed to deduce, were the neon lights on the ceiling of the tunnel he had been poured into. He was being carried away in the crate to the forested courtyard that waited outside.

He tried to speak, but failed as the serum took control of his body, reducing his ability to shout or cry for help. All he could do was move his head slightly. Doing so, noticed a figure on each side of his crate, carrying him.

‘Jeez who’d a’ though this kid would be so heavy?’ Complained an American sounding voice.

‘Now, now old man, have some pity. He’s been quite through the wars.’ Another voice had chirped, spoken in a perfectly clipped upper class English accent. ‘Besides, you’re the biggest chap out of the lot of us. I can’t see why you’re complaining!’

‘Ah don’t go soft on the kid Miles! Besides! I saw you save his hide back there with all that crane business! That was cheatin’ man!’ The American answered his English friend, his gravelly tones came from Jacks feet, his huge looming silhouette seemingly carrying this half of the crate alone.

‘Now, now if I didn’t help the boy he would have snuffed it for sure. You really wouldn’t want to explain his demise to the Director now would you old man?’ Theorised the Englishman.

‘Hey! Stop callin’ me old man ya Limey weirdo! I have a name ya know!’ The American shouted back annoyed. The box lurched momentarily as the Englishman’s dog yapped at the American, he could hear the pitter-patter of its tiny paws as they danced on the concrete below.

‘God damn it can you call that damn pooch off! I nearly dropped the crate!’

‘Leave Foxtrot alone! He just knows a wrong’un when he sees one!’

‘Yeah well he’s gonna feel boot leather soon!’

‘Just try it old man, you just try it!’

‘Stop it boys! The two of you!’ A third cut the argument dead, a woman’s. Thick with a sultry Ukrainian accent, it came from Jack’s left, as she held on to the opposite side of his crate to where the Englishman was. ‘He’s alive that’s all that matters. But the mess he caused! How shall we explain all this damage to the Director?! The factory was only meant to be a minor part of the test.’

‘Well I thought the lad was splendid under pressure. You have to admit dear comrade he did quite well.’ The Englishman grinned over to his Ukrainian comrade.

‘True.’ She replied, ‘But he was reckless in his action.’ The gruff American once again butted in.

‘What I can’t believe is that he turned down that smokin’ hot dame! Ha-ha! What a boy scout! Anyway, it ain’t up to us to decide is it? It’s up to the Director.’

‘Of course.’ Answered the Ukrainian, ‘Only, he gets to decide if the boy is worthy.’

The lights soon stopped flashing past Jack as his box and those carrying it exited the tunnel into the fresh, blinding light of the courtyard. Desperate to get a look of the area, Jack strained his head and neck as much as he could. The serum however denied him the strength to peer over the side of the crate. All he could saw were the four silhouettes, only now they were framed in what was the most brilliant silver light, which glowed brighter the closer he got. Succumbing to the sedative, Jack slumped his head back with thud, exhausted. Jack’s struggling had not gone unnoticed.

‘I don’t mean to alarm you fellows but I do believe our esteemed guest hasn’t caught all 40 of his winks.’

‘Ah Crap!’ The American cursed. ‘We almost blew the surprise for the little guy!’

‘Ugh if you want job done…’ Said the Ukrainian woman in broken English. Frustrated, she leant over the edge of the box towards Jack. She held a strange silver pistol in her hand. Fitted to it, a vial that was filled with a bright green liquid. Leaning closer, she pressed the tip of the gun against Jack’s neck. He couldn’t focus on her looks, only catching a comma of thick black hair that hung across her face, hiding the majority of her striking features. Most of the except the eye patch that was placed firmly over her left eye. A delicate smell of rose perfume filled his head as she leant in. ‘Time to get some rest child.’ She cooed. ‘For you, the test hasn’t even begun yet.’

A sharp prick from the end of the pistol scratched his neck, causing him to be enveloped into a new wave of sleepiness. As his vision dimmed, another figure leaned in towards his face. It was the English Gentleman again. Below his bowler hat was a set of gleaming white teeth, surrounded by a striking white goatee that looked impeccably trimmed. The Cheshire cat grin beamed down upon him.

‘Goodnight old boy! Sleep tight!’ He cheered merrily as he winked. It was the last thing Jack saw before the serum finally took hold. He sighed as his heavy eyes closed in defeat.

 

The last thing Jack was to hear before slumber took him was the sound of a jet engine roaring to life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6: The Firestone.

Perez and Tito were both exhausted. Having spent the day digging, drilling, blasting through hundreds of tons of Arizona rock, they were drained, eager to see the end of their working day. For the last thirteen months, the two men, complete with their team of workers, had been busy digging hundreds of feet into the side of the mountain, tunnelling away.

Having been flown in from Mexico, they and their team had been promised vast riches plus safe immigration into the country for them and their families by a mysterious benefactor, who in return, simply wished their team’s help in irrigating a water route, supplying cheap, clean water to a border town on the American/Mexican border.

They had not expected the job to be as tough as it had ended up. This was to be no simple aqueduct. It ran for miles throughout the hard rock of mountain, a network of tunnels that was supposed to have brought gallons of water to the surface from within the belly of the mountain. Months had passed without finding a drop of water. It was literally bone breaking work, costing the lives of some of their best men. But still they were dug on, despite discovering nothing. Why they had to continue digging their boss would not say. He paid good money however, and so they continued working despite the conditions.

The pair, working alone, were busy working with their newly acquired power tools, testing the foundations of the rock before drilling in further. If they weren’t hot enough already, their protective suits, helmets, masks and boots only made things worse.

‘Perez this is totally crazy!’ Exclaimed Tito, throwing down the expensive drill with a thump, pulling off his face mask. Perez followed suit and took five minutes, the cave fell silent.

‘Tito what is it now? We’re already so far behind and we can’t afford to rest?’ Perez’s deep voice was filled with concern as it echoed throughout the catacombs that had already been dug over the weeks.

‘What I’m saying is, what the hell is the point of continuing to dig these new tunnels in this section of the mountain? You and I both know this is a fool’s errand. There is simply no water to be found here! It’s as dry as the desert outside. So why does he make us continue digging holes in this mountain for nothing?’ Tito felt better for venting his frustration, it had been built up, stored within him for months.

‘Tito please!’ Snapped Perez, impatience could be heard in his voice as it echoed. ‘I get that you’re mad my friend. Really I do. Nobody else here wants this job done as much as I do. But hombre, we are being paid good money for this. Remember why we took this job?’ Asked Perez, trying to jog his colleague’s memory.

‘Si, Si. For safe passage and citizenship for us and our men, along with our families.’ He stated, as if quoting an advert. He rolled his eyes as he continued, ‘A wonderful dream my friend, but I have yet to see it for myself!’ Angrily he pointed towards the wall, reminding Perez of what lay outside of the mountain. ‘Despite our efforts we still live in that pathetic shanty town in the middle of the desert, trapped along with our families in the middle of nowhere! This is no life for them Perez! The dream has turned sour.’

‘Dios mio!’ Perez sighed loudly, picking up his FE-259 power drill, a curious instrument unlike anything he had seen before. Lifting it to the wall, he started to drill. Only instead of drilling, a scorching blue laser tore through the tip of it, slicing into the rock with a cracking whine. He had worked in the mining business for thirty years and never come across a tool like it. As the rock shattered before him, he continued to lecture his friend above the noise, ‘Stop being so melodramatic! Just think of the money. Besides the man must know what he’s doing, just look at these tools he provides us with! The turbo drills, the stone slicers, the Valkyrie Launchers! I’ve never seen anything like this before. With tools like this he must have some powerful connections. I think it would be unwise to upset…’

What Perez saw caught him off guard, stopping him mid-sentence. His eyes wide in amazement, he once again dropped his tools and removed his visor. ‘Aye, aye, aye.’ He peered closer as he tried to get a better at what he had just uncovered. ‘Tito do you see this?’ Perez could not believe what he was seeing. He had nearly drilled right through it, instead the mysterious object had just dislodged from within the wall, falling to the floor amongst the rubble.

‘What is it?’ Asked Tito, leaning in to see what his friend had found.

‘There! Look, on the floor.’ They both peered in closer, trying to make out what it was.

It looked oddly out of place. There wedged in between the broken rocks was a small red stone, perfectly square and decorated, ornamental even. They looked closer, the decoration on the face was beautiful. Etched into the stone, was a basic circular image of the sun, surrounded by small triangles that indicated the sun’s rays. Beneath the sun, knelt two ancient looking priests who were dressed in robes, seemingly worshiping the orb. Framing it all, was some unknown scripture.

‘Would you look at this?’ Perez was awe-struck.

‘What the hell is it?’ His friend whispered.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not ancient Indian or Aztec. No this is something new! Whatever it is, it must have been here for thousands of years.’ He barked an excited laugh, ‘I told you we’d find our fortune!’ He looked back to his friend. ‘Tito, pass me the mini-saw, I need to get this out from the rubble!’ Doing as he was told, Tito produced the mini saw from his tool belt. A small, handheld device no bigger that a screwdriver, its tip housed a mini circular saw, specifically made for cutting through rock. Another piece of new kit they’d never seen before.

Perez cut delicately but quickly, desperate for a closer look, giggling like a school boy. ‘Imagine Tito! Think of what else is hidden in this rock. Burial chambers, idols, treasure! This could one piece of a vast fortune! No wonder that man sent us down here! The museums would give us their teeth for this!’

‘Never mind teeth Hombre!’ Added Tito, coming round to the idea, ‘I just want that hard cash! Imagine it! Screw the American, we could buy our way into this country. Live like kings! Us and our families! The American dream!’ He was lost in his fantasy, staring intently at the stone.

Perez finished drilling, clearing the last of the surrounding rock, exposing the crimson tablet. ‘Careful Perez!’ Squealed Tito, you could have cut the thing in two!

‘It’s ok, it’s ok.’ Perez assured Tito, as well as himself.

It lay there alone on the dust, staring up at them both. Although it looked impressive, there was an unnatural sense of darkness that seemed to emanate from it, despite its beauty. Perez dropped to his knee and with one careful hand, tried to lift the delicate looking stone from the rubble. Only he couldn’t. Unexpectedly, the stone was incredibly heavy for its size, not as delicate as it had looked. Perez used his other hand, and using all his strength, managed to lift it. With great effort, he rose to his feet.

‘Jeez!’ Groaned Perez as he struggled to stand. ‘This thing weighs more than me! How can something so small be so heavy?’

Tito barged closer to look, ‘Wow look at it. What do you reckon it does?’

As if to answer Tito’s question, the stone began to glow slightly as the temperature of the stone increased sharply.

‘Wow! This thing is getting hot bro!’ Cried Perez, nearly yelping.

‘Well let go man!’ Advised Tito.

‘I…I can’t! It’s stuck to my gloves!’ Perez started to panic, trying his best to drop or throw it, he couldn’t get the stone away. It began to glow brighter into a bright red crimson as a low humming swelled from within. The stones’ temperature increased more so, getting hotter and hotter until it scalded.

‘Ahhh it burns!’ Screamed Perez, as he struggled desperately, unable to remove his gloves which were fastened to his suit.

‘Let me help!’ An equally panicked Tito shouted, as he tried to pull it from his friends’ hands. A lick of red light seemed to grab Tito’s hands as he too found himself stuck. Just like his friend, he too was fixed to the scorching stone, they were both trapped.

‘It’s got me too!’ Yelled Tito, terrified.

As the temperature of the rock increased, so did the brightness that shone from it. Soon it had illuminated the entire cave, as the silhouettes of the two frantic men were projected onto the wall. The humming now grew into an angry roar that screamed louder and louder as the stone shook. The symbols upon the stone shone brighter and brighter as wisps of light started to flow from the inscriptions, wisps contained the lettering as they danced and licked onto the straining arms of the men.

Perez and Tito did not even feel what happened next, as the wisps danced and grew, engulfing their entire bodies, creating a circle of light and letters that surrounded them both. The ball of inscribed light expanded, growing bigger and bigger, until with a boom, it exploded. The two workers were instantly turned into dust whilst the entire tunnel collapsed down on top them with thunderous rage. The blast was over as quickly as it had started as the light and noise disappeared, the tunnel no more.

No longer glowing, buried beneath the resulting rubble, the stone remained intact as if nothing had happened, waiting. Waiting to be discovered once again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7: The Crate Escape.

 

‘Let me out of here you scumbags!’

It had all come back to him! The warehouse, the chase, the gang of three weirdos and the crate. How the hell could he have forgotten? More to the point where were those three? They had loaded him onto this aircraft, so some of them must still be on board, thought Jack, presuming this was indeed an aircraft.

Where on earth could a jet aircraft have taken off from anyway? He had been taken to the wooded courtyard, there was no runway there, at least nothing long or big enough that a jet plane would have had room to take off from. The logic threw Jack in doubt as to whether his airplane idea was right after all.

And what of the group that had put him here? Where was the suited gentleman, the big American and the woman? What an odd combination? Were they still on board? Had they dumped him here? There was a never ending chain of questions to answer.

Deep in thought, Jack had nearly forgotten that he was still in the claustrophobic crate. All this thinking had acted as a distraction which had let him calm, conserving his oxygen. Time to reassess. So he had found out where he had been, but he still knew nothing as to where he was.

Shifting his body as little as he could, Jack moved himself in the darkness once again, pressing his ear against the wooden wall hoping to hear something, anything, maybe something human. As before however, Jack heard nothing but the sound of engines and chains thang jangled rhythmically. Stuck in the same position for so long, Jack realised he could no longer feel his arms and legs, his body felt as if it were giving up on him. Even the simple act of placing his head against the wall felt like a titanic struggle. Jack’s next movement however was completely involuntary.

The first thing Jack noticed was the change in the engine noise around him, it went from its normal high pitched whine to a low rumbling growl that shuddered through his entire body. At exactly the same time, an unknown force threw Jack from one side of his crate, slamming him into the other, his face smacked against the opposite side of the crate that he had been listening against. It felt as if somebody had jammed the brakes on a car. After a little rocking, Jack was left where he started, wedged in the centre of the crate. The chains outside responded to the violent movement and could be heard clanging against each other loudly, ringing in response. The engines thundered deeply, no longer whining as they once did. It felt as if he had come to a stop.

Shortly after, another new noise from outside the box came to his attention. It was the sound of footsteps on a metal floor.

Beginning faintly and growing louder as they approached, the footsteps sounded light and tinny, as if from small feet. Heels maybe? The footsteps slowly clicked and trapped along the floor towards him, coming closer until they stopped at his crate.

‘H-hello?’ Jack called out nervously, listening carefully for a reply. He received none however. After a few seconds of silence, the footsteps continued to Jack’s right, becoming quieter as they went. ‘HEY!’ Jack yelled. What the hell is going on?’ Surely he could be heard?

Far to his right, the footsteps once again stopped. Seconds later Jack could hear the grinding of what sounded like a lever being pulled, quickly followed by a mechanical whirring. A piercing light slowly crept in and filtered through the slits of Jack’s crate. It was as if a giant door was opening, letting in the sweet, blessed light.

As the mechanical door slammed open and the whirring stopped, Jack could hear nothing but the violent noise of wind whistling in from the outside, the sound of paper and other debris could be heard fluttering as it shot through. The precious little fresh air that squeezed through the slats of his crate now felt like heaven, his lungs grasped at every ounce they could.

‘Thanks for the air!’ Jack called out calmly, before exploding with rage, ‘Now is there any way I can get out of this BLOODY BOX?!’ Over the thunderous noise of the wind, Jack could just about make out the noise of the footsteps. This time they were laboured and heavy, reacting to the heavy flow of wind. Slowly, they returned to him. The new air breeze also brought with it the familiar scent of rose perfume he had caught earlier.

‘Patience child. Your release will come soon enough.’ Purred the same Ukrainian accent. ‘But first, you have one further journey to make. If I were you, I would hold on tight no?’ Without seeing he could tell the woman was smiling, enjoying his predicament. The footsteps clicked away one last time, vanishing into silence, leaving Jack alone with the wind.

‘Hey! What are you on about? Come back!’ Jack pleaded.

As if to answer him, the crate suddenly juddered, responding to another mechanical whirring noise. The crate was moving! Not only was it moving, it seemed to be moving closer to the direction of the oncoming wind, out of the aircraft! A conveyor belt? The whooshing air became louder and the light grew brighter as he travelled, the bright rays filtering through the slats of the box. Faintly over the commotion, Jack could hear the woman.

‘God speed child!’ She cried as her voice shrank into nothing. Jack’s crate was immersed by the sounds of the outside, a terrifying combination or roaring jets and whooshing wind.

The next thing Jack felt was his stomach as it lurched straight up into his mouth as the box tumbled from the door of the aircraft. As it plummeted, his body flew to the roof of his prison, which now began its long hurtling journey to earth. The once terrifying noise of the jet engines slowly receded above him, leaving only the solitary whistling noise of the wind as he shot through the air in his box, Jack was thrown about like a rag doll inside.

How long until he hit the ground? Thirty seconds? A minute? Dizzy, all he could do was close his eyes and prepare himself for a hopefully instant death.

His panic was interrupted however by a sudden thump, the unmistakeable sound of a parachute opening. He was saved! Jack barely had time for relief as he was slammed against the roof of the crate only to bounce to the floor again as the crates decent slowed.

Calm and silence returned, the terrifying hurricane that was once there now sounded like a calm and soothing breeze as the momentum of the crate, suspended by the parachute, slowly rocked it back and forth. If it weren’t for the absurdity of his situation, Jack would have found the experience quite relaxing. He continued to fall for what felt like hours, at the mercy of gravity, grateful for at least some quiet.

The heavenly minutes of silence were cut short however as the crate crashed to Earth with a bang. The box violently shifted and rocked upon the Earth, until mercifully it lay to a final rest. Jack’s body felt as if was in pieces, he groaned to himself, ‘No more please.’

With a single click the roof of Jack’s crate, the lid shifted slightly. It was as if something or someone had unlocked it. Light poured in through ajar door of his crate, hot to the touch. It was the sky, a perfect blue sky shining into his dark prison! After what had seemed like an eternity Jack could see the outdoors.

Drawing as much strength as he could, Jack used his tired arms to push the lid further on its hinge causing it to swing open slightly, exposing more of the beautiful sky for a second only for gravity to push the lid back down. He’s have to push harder to get it to stay open. With an animalistic scream, Jack pushed the lid so hard he may as well have punched it. The lid flew open on its hinges, all the way open, leaving the lid fully exposed this time.

It was nearly too much, as the whole force of the sun blared through from where used to be the roof. Like a vampire, Jack winced and covered his eyes as the sun’s rays burnt at his dehydrated face, a sheer contrast from the darkness that his body had got used to. This sun was nuclear, at first he thought his time in the box had left him sensitive, but on second thoughts he never remembered the sun being this hot, nor the sky so blue! He had to get out of this box and see where he was.

This was easier said than done. His body, having been compacted for hours, was in no way in a fit state to move. With all the strength he could muster, Jack held on with both arms to one of the walls of the box as he tried to pull his feeble body out. It was like climbing a ten foot wall, requiring all his effort as he slowly scaled the side. He managed to anchor himself in place by resting his elbows on the ledge. He fought the same battle with his legs, as he struggled to get them to follow his arms in lifting him up, he felt like a baby giraffe in one of the nature documentaries he remembered seeing as a kid. Jack counted to three. On three, he forced himself up to his feet, he screamed as his legs pushed the rest of the way. He had made it, Jack was back on his feet.

His body felt mangled, his back crooked. The veins in his arms and legs exploded with the fresh supply of blood they were receiving, pins and needles seared across each limb. He ran his hands over his face and through his hair, luxuriating in the whole process. Raising up, he arched his body and stretched cat-like. He raised his arms in the air and stood on his toes, his body at last fully extended. He was no longer a prisoner in his wooden cell. As he did this, he allowed his eyes to open, ready to let them adjust to their new environment. The environment in question could not have been any newer.

Mountains! All Jack could see on the horizon were towering grey and yellow mountains that spanned seemingly forever. In disbelief, Jack took a step back. Forgetting he was stood in the crate, he tripped and fell backwards over one of the sides. As he fell on his backside, he became entangled in what appeared to be the parachute, the same parachute that had saved his life earlier, it was attached to the box, fluttering and folding in the breeze.

As he sat up, angry and frustrated, he noticed that he was covered in yellow dust, or no…was it…sand? Yeah! It was sand! Lots of it! He brushed his hands against his tattered blazer and strained his eyes to get a better look at his surroundings. It was safe to say he wasn’t in England anymore.

For as far as he could see there was endless desert, nothing but rolling sand dunes that led on forever. Whatever vegetation there was looked withered and dry and formed tumbleweed that rolled across the plains. This monotonous desert and bush was only broken up by the occasional cactus that stood proudly in the middle of the nothingness. This same featureless terrain continued until it led to the same mountains he had seen on the horizon. Jack felt as if he were on the set of one of those awful old westerns his Uncle used to insist on watching.

As he once again clambered to his feet, Jack was taken back by the heat. There wasn’t a single could in the perfect blue sky, only an oppressive burning sun that glared down on him fiercely without mercy.

The occasional buzzard hung in the air, circling slowly above him, checking out the new visitor. Jack slowly turned his body a whole 360 degrees, taking in this new world. His feet crunched on the sand and dried out plant matter beneath his feet. He was completely alone. Jack was scared.

Jack glanced back at the crate that was now accumulating the sand that blew against it, Jack could not believe how his body had fit in there in the first place, yet alone survived a long trip and a skydive in it! He examined it and found a small canvas pouch attached to the exterior of one of the walls. Curiously, Jack opened it. The Velcro lip that fastened the bad shut tore open. Inside Jack found a small black bottle, containing no more than a litre of water inside that was by now warm. ‘Oh how thoughtful!’ He moaned sarcastically to himself. However he was dying of thirst. His throat was sore and rasping. He was tempted to drink the whole thing at once, he’d had no water in hours.

He slowly unscrewed the plastic lid, being careful not to spill any of the precious water that was inside. Taking a long swig, he felt the liquid luxuriously run down his throat. It felt heavenly as he felt his whole body shiver in response. It was heaven! Resisting all temptation to drink it all down, Jack replaced the lid on the bottle as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. The water stung like hell on his dry, cracked lips.

The heat was overwhelming! Jack clumsily tore off what remained of his blazer, leaving him in just his tattered shirt, trousers and shoes. Examining himself, he glanced at his watch. Shimmering in the light, the face read 1pm. Impossible! He stared at the timepiece refusing to believe what it read. Somehow there was sand under the glass, maybe it was broken?

He ran his hands through his dusty hair and slapped himself. The tour of the factory had only started at 11am! How had he reached the middle of a desert in only 2 hours? Now geography wasn’t his strongest subject but he knew there wasn’t a single desert within 2 hours flight of England.

As he returned to observing his surroundings, Jack’s eyes caught a light far away in the sky, only this time it wasn’t the sun. It was the same silver light he saw earlier in the factory grounds, now a small speck high in the sky. The sunlight bounced off of it, the reflection caused Jack to wince. It just hovered lazily, like a lost star shining in the light of day.

Jack, his fists clenched by his side, screamed into the air. ‘Who are you?! Why have you left me here! WHY?!’ The silver sphere in the sky continued to hover silently in the distance, not responding. ‘Enough.’ He muttered to himself, he didn’t have time for this, he needed to find some scrap of civilisation, and god knows it wasn’t in this desert.

So decisively, in the opposite direction of the floating orb, Jack strode through the desert. To the untrained eye, it would have looked like he had a plan, a direction, but in reality, he allowed fate to make the choice.

***

Through the heavy scope of her rifle, the boy cut a lonely figure in the centre of the vast desert in which he had been dropped. As he traipsed on, he left an expanse of footprints that followed him from the empty box.

She had seen the whole thing. From the cargo door or the aircraft, she had watched the clumsy boy fall out of the box, curse in her direction, and ultimately walk away from her into nothing. The whole scene was amusing to her, and as she lowered her scope, she rose from her knees to her feet. She leant against the frame of the open cargo door as a wry smile spread across her ruby lips.

She observed for a few moments more as she looked on from miles away. The boy now looked like the proverbial needle in a haystack as his figure crept slowly across the vista into nothingness. She almost pitied him in a way, having had all this misadventure thrust upon him without having any say whatsoever in the matter.

It had been like that for her though on her induction, her fellow crew also. The testing phase was the most disorientating thing she could ever have imagined going through as a young girl. Lost in her memories she stared out towards the desert, a sense of melancholy washed over her as her sultry smile dropped.

‘Zhanna Babe! We’re waiting! Report to the bridge immediately!’ The brash New York accent of her colleague barked over the intercom system, snapping the Ukrainian out of her day dream. Rousing back into action, she spoke into the communications system on her wrist, ‘I’ll be straight up Hudson.’ She responded lazily. As she pulled a lever on the wall, the cargo door of the aircraft slowly raised back up, eventually closing with a slam, the noise of the wind outside was now replaced with the familiar lonely humming of the engines.

Zhanna made her way across the floor of the aircraft past the myriad of cargo, her heeled leather boots clacking against the metal floor as she made her way to the ladder at the far end of the cargo hold that lead up to the second level of the aircraft. As she carefully scaled the ladder, her environment suddenly changed. The cold harsh atmosphere of the cargo bay, with its metal and chains and gantries was left behind, the next thing her eyes saw was the red carpeted floor and furnished surroundings or the operations room.

Within the room were both of her colleagues, who were both stood on opposite ends of a large oak table. As she lifted herself from the ladder and got to her feet, she allowed herself to adjust to the room. The contrast always felt strange.

Approximately the same size as the cargo hold, the operations room dripped with luxury. Looking like an old library study, the grand room was framed by book shelves filled with various literature. Standing empty in each corner was a deep leather chair that was set for each member. Empty all except for Mile’s, where his dog slept peacefully, the black Scottish terrier oblivious to the whole plan. Hanging above the whole scene was a chandelier, made from the very best crystal. Directly below it taking up most of the room, was the grand oak table. Her two colleagues stood around it patiently.

Seemingly made of the most luxurious oak, topped with a glass cover, its features belied its age. ‘Status readout.’ Barked Hudson, the large American of the group. As if in response, the glass table top lit up, from it emerging a large holographic map that hovered above the table. The semi-transparent map showed the area below them, showing the terrain and hills below them in great detail. A grid covered the map, with various characters and numbers flowing across giving all sorts of details. Most importantly however was a small red X in the centre, which was ever so slowly, creeping across the map, moving along the gridded squares across the map.

‘So that’s our boy there no?’ Zhanna enquired, as her gloved hand pointed towards the red X, the picture distorted slightly as her finger passed through the hologram.

‘Yup! That’s the guy.’ Confirmed Hudson, his gruff, deep voice sounded slightly muffled as he chomped on a large, unlit cigar, letting it roll along his mouth as he stroked his chiselled chin. ‘He’s got a few miles to cover, can’t say I envy him in this heat. Although Miles here seems to have spoilt the S.O.B with some water.’ The Englishman rolled his eyes and sighed, leaning on his umbrella.

‘Would you rather the old boy dead hmm? Come on, let’s give him at least a small chance shall we?’

‘I agree.’ Said Zhanna nodding, still looking at the hologram. ‘The heat out there is incredible and he has been cooped in that box for a while. The child needs a little help, but that’s it. No more. He needs to do this on his own.’

‘Ya damn right he does! We’re getting far too soft on this kid. Remember what the Director said, no interference unless absolutely necessary.’ Reminded Hudson.

‘True.’ Agreed Zhanna again, ‘Which reminds me, we need to report to base, the Director will want to be informed how our potential recruit is getting on. Besides, the Silver Shadow has been in plain view far too long today, we don’t want to cause another U.F.O scare now do we? Hudson, get her moving, I want the ship out of the area for now, we can continue to monitor and listen to Mr Vance via the tracker I injected earlier. Now come on, both of you. Let’s get to work.’

With that said, Zhanna and Hudson left the console room and filed through the adjacent door into the cockpit. Left alone staring at the holo-map, Miles sighed.

‘Good luck old boy. You’re definitely going to need it.’ Miles watched as the red X that was Jack Vance continued to move ever so slowly across the featureless map.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8: The Boy in the Desert.

 

The heat. The constant, searing, incredible heat! Jack Vance had never before in his short life felt anything like it. Bearing down through the clear blue sky, the rays of the harsh white sun seared down onto him. His head and shoulders slowly cooked. Even with his white, tattered school shirt covering his shoulders, he could still feel the flesh underneath turn raw as it slowly burnt him.

The light too was fantastic. As it flashed down from above, it shimmered off the sand fiercely as it reflected off the ground. It blinded Jack as he plodded along, forcing him to keep looking at the ground, thus presenting his naked neck to the sun to incinerate. This new, hot, dusty ground was tough to traverse too. His laced, black leather school shoes were hardly all terrain! With each step he took, they sunk into the sand, burying his feet. This made each step he took twice as hard, forcing him to lift each foot out of the sand with a slight heave, nearly losing his shoes as he went.

He had no idea how far he had walked or for how long he had travelled across this endless sea of sand. Sweat poured continuously from his forehead and ran down his face, seeping into his eyes as it did, stinging like hell. As he used his arm to wipe his eyes, he realised his sleeves too were soaked in sweat, only making things worse.

Jack had had enough, and stopped for seemingly the first time in hours. His lips dry and his head dizzy, it seemed he had been travelling this vast and featureless hell forever. At his feet, lay the corpse of a recently deceased scorpion. Despite its jagged, pitch black armoured shell, it too had succumbed to the heat, a shimmering mass of ants were braving the sun’s rays to slowly pick and devour the dead beast.

Not knowing how much more walking he had left in him, Jack decided on a gamble. He decided to drink the last of the water that was contained in the bottle he had found earlier. Thank god he had discovered it in that pouch. Unscrewing the lid, he drained the last of the liquid down his dry throat. The sudden torrent of moisture that ran down his aching throat nearly caused him to spit it back out in shock. Despite being soothing, the water too had been cooked under the sun. But water was water and he continued to sink the rest of the bottle.

That was it, no more water, the bottle was empty. He tossed the useless vessel behind him, leaving it to be consumed by the ever shifting sands that danced with what little wind there was. Jack looked up, the sun still blazed high in the sky, seemingly watching the foolish boy. Circling ominously in the air above him, a pair of vultures too looked down on the boy, waiting patiently for their next meal. Their presence was enough to keep Jack moving.

‘No chance…Not today boys.’ Jack croaked. He had to keep on moving, to stop would be certain death. With gritted teeth and a furrowed brow, Jack marched on persistently. His feet red hot and swollen, they felt as if they were going to burst from his shoes, but still he carried on, one torturous, laboured step at a time.

There was one small problem with marching on regardless. He had no idea where he was going! For all he knew he might have been walking continuously in circles! He made a decision. Jack turned his focus on one particular mountain peak that loomed in the distance.

Oddly positioned, the single peak looked closer than the others. He decided to focus on that. He would make sure to count every hundred steps, after which he would look up again and focus on the mountain ahead, no matter how bright the sun. Walking on, he purged all negative thoughts from his cooked brain and concentrated purely on counting his footsteps as he went. He stared at nothing but his feet whilst he counted, resisting the temptation to look up.

He continued doing this for what felt like hours. Every hundred steps he glanced up, focusing quickly each time on the mountain. Hundred followed hundred followed hundred. Each time he looked however, something struck him. With each glance he took, he saw less of the mountain, as if it were sinking into the sands. By now, all he could see was the peak, poking out from the sand. Surely the mountain couldn’t be shrinking? Was this a mirage? The terrain was beginning to get steeper too. It suddenly became obvious, Jack stopped counting steps and looked up. What he saw next nearly crushed him.

In front of him, towering at least thirty foot tall, stood yet another sand dune. But this one was something else. He had gone up and down countless sand dunes before on his desert march, but they paled in comparison to this beast. Stretching across the horizon to his left following on to his right as far as he could see, the dune blocked his entire vision of the desert, seemingly going on for miles. It was like a giant wall of sand that stood between him and the mountain, almost concealing it from view. Jack was crushed. It was going to take all of his effort to scale this thing, with no guarantee as to what would be waiting on the other side. Jack would have cried if he could, but seeing that his body was completely dehydrated, he didn’t have that luxury.

Faced with a challenging climb, Jack began to scale the dune. His shoes once again sunk into the sand with every step. After a few steps, the sheer upright angle of the dune had caused him to drop onto all fours. It was steeper than it looked. He was going to have to crawl. So on all fours Jack inched further and further up the dune. With every inch he covered, he kicked dust and sand into his face as the grains flicked into his mouth with each aching breath. With every few meters he scaled, the dune got steeper, his climb almost started to become vertical. It was a world away from any hill or valley he had climbed back in his Northumberland home.

After what felt like a good hour of climbing, Jack finally began to notice the mountain reappear, inch by inch it emerged, reappearing in all its glory. He had reached the top of the hideous dune! At last! Exhausted, he collapsed into a heap, kicking up more dust as his body crashed into the sand.

He had made it. His lungs burned, his muscles ached and his sunburnt skin felt like it had been worked over with sandpaper. He felt like hell.

As he allowed himself a few moments rest, Jack did what felt like the impossible. For the first time in years, he cried. As the extraordinary events of the last few hours caught up with him, Jack bawled, letting out huge cries that rung out across the desert. His body shook as he let out all the stress and pain he had experienced.

Soon regaining his composure, Jack tried his best not to feel sorry for himself. His uncle would not have been impressed with the display. He needed to carry on. Wiping the tears and sand from his burnt face, he took a look at what lay ahead in front of him. What he saw on the over side of the dune nearly caused him to burst into tears all over again, this time in pure relief.

Looking down from the dune, Jack saw a different world. Sure, there was still plenty of sand, scrub and mountains, but this time with a difference. One beautiful, beguiling difference. At the bottom of the dune he had climbed, spanning for miles in each direction, lay an apparently never ending road! It was a beautiful, walkable, tarmac road that wouldn’t swallow his feet! Never mind how long and endless it was! It was a road none the less! It had to lead somewhere. The harsh desert was giving him a break at last! As a matter of fact, it had suddenly felt cooler too. The intolerable sun that had been torturing him for the past few hours had at last began to set, which had caused the whole desert to drop in temperature.

Beyond the road, Jack could see lights. They were small speckled dots in the distance, but they were certainly lights. Sparkling in the distance, they seemed to be gathered at the foot of the huge mountain Jack had been aiming for, as if showing him the way. The mountain really didn’t seem as far as he once thought.

Seconds later Jack heard a low rumbling growl that sounded as if it were coming from the far left of the road that lay in front of him. A wave of light soon followed as it caught the corner of Jack’s eye. Small at first, the hazy beam began to increase with size as it approached. The light soon split into two as it travelled along the road.

A car! It had to be a car! At that speed, it would be coming past him in all but a few minutes. He had to get to the road quickly if he were ever to catch it in time. Using all of the available strength he had left, Jack fought through the pain as he lifted himself to his feet.

He was up, standing tall atop of the dune. As he looked down to the road, he saw the car approaching closer, he judged it couldn’t have been more than a mile away from him by now. He was never going to make it in time. For all he knew, another vehicle wouldn’t pass for hours. There was only sure way to get down the dune to the road in time.

‘Ah ballsollocks.’ Jack muttered to himself, knowing what was in store. He mentally apologised to his body for the upcoming battering it was about to take. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, Jack bravely launched himself into a forward roll down the dune. The rest was a blur. As gravity took over, Jack rolled, span, and bounced down the steep dune as his body was flung around like a rag doll. It wasn’t a straight forward fall either, in his path were patches of dry grass and thorny plants, which tore him to bits as he rolled through, bouncing and slamming against the sand.

As Jack tumbled further and further, his rolling body gained momentum, picking up speed as he tore down the dune. His body screamed in agony as his head and limbs smashed against the floor with each rotation of his falling body. After an age, Jack’s battered and bruised body finally reached the bottom of the dune, coming to an eventual stop as it levelled out.

Jack felt as if he were still falling as his head span with dizziness. He struggled as he tried to get to his feet, stumbling about as if he were drunk. The ground however was solid and concrete as promised. His feet no longer sank. He had reached the road.

With his eyes clenched shut, he mentally checked his body for pain. Sure it hurt and he was covered in cuts and bruises, but it wasn’t the kind of pain that made him feel he had broken anything. Slowly his world began to stop spinning. It did however begin to get brighter, much brighter and rapidly so. The Car!

Jack opened his eyes to a terrifying sight. Mere meters in front of him, he saw the two headlights of the car, bearing down on him at speed! Raising his arms in the air, Jack screamed for his life.

STOOOOP!’ he yelled. The driver saw him at the last minute, slamming on the brakes as the tyres squealed and screamed across the tarmac as the car struggled to stop. As if it were on ice, the car sharply turned to the left, skidding sideways along the road. Jack could hardly move in terror, there was no way he could get out of the way in time. All he could do was watch as the car managed to grind to a halt, skidding side on in front of him, centimetres away. As the car’s radiator hissed, the smell of burning rubber wafted through the air.

Jack stood there, having not moved an inch. Panting, his arms were still outstretched in defiance. The smell of diesel and burning rubber filled the air. Having come suddenly to a halt, the car’s engine stalled and shut down, leaving no noise in the empty desert road apart from the hissing that emanated from the car’s bonnet. After a moment of shock, Jack gained the courage to step closer to take a look at who had nearly killed him. Cautiously, he took a look at the vehicle.

It was huge! It was a giant white pickup of sorts, just like the ones on T.V. The burning rubber tyres of the truck were over half the size of Jack. They would have made short work of him had he been hit. On the front, was a giant chrome bull-bar, looking as if it would have easily smashed through an elephant yet alone a sixteen year old boy. In fact, the entire car had chrome running all over it, from the front grille right to the exhaust. It was an impressive looking beast, scary if anything. The driver he thought, was surely going to match its dimensions.

It looked as if Jack was going to find out as slowly, the giant door of the car opened as he caught his first glimpse of the driver. Despite the fact that he had nearly been wiped off the face of the earth, Jack nearly burst out laughing as he saw the occupant.

‘Are you crazy boy? I could have damn well killed you!’ Yelled a scratchy, country voice. It came from a little old lady, who was dwarfed by the vehicle she was driving. With short, curly grey hair, giant spectacles and dressed in a flowery long blouse, she was not what Jack expected. It barely looked as if she could see over the wheel! How she ever saw him in the first place he could never know.

Peering over, she strained to look through her thick glasses as she looked up and down towards Jack. She analysed him, intrigued, ‘Say, you don’t look anything like the normal ‘types’ we have a-wondering round here at night, no sir! Tell me boy, who are ya?’

Jack still couldn’t get past the ridiculous image of the frail old lady driving this behemoth. Unaware he was doing so, he continued to stare on, a gormless expression on his dusty face.

‘Well boy? Cat got ya tongue? You can speak English can’t ya?’

‘Jack….. Jack Vance Miss.’ He uttered, his voice hoarse from the sand.

‘Jack ey?’ Responded the old lady mischievously. A smile crept onto her withered face. ‘Well what in the Lord’s name are ya doing all the way out here? This is no place for a boy to be at this time of night.’

‘It’s, a long story miss. I don’t know how I got here myself!’

‘Say…’ She realised, ‘You ain’t from around here are you?’ Enquired the lady further. ‘I’ve never heard an accent quite like that round here. Ya sound like royalty boy! And as for those clothes, or rather what’s left of em’, well you stick out like a sore thumb!’ She continued to look him up and down, pushing her glasses further down her nose as she took a good view of the stranger. ‘But from what I can see Mr Vance, you are in one helluvah’ state.’ Jack cocked his head, surely the understatement of the year.

‘Well you can certainly say that again Miss. I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty lost. Now please, where am I? As a matter of fact what country is this?’

The woman screwed her face up in disbelief, before bursting into laughter, nearly losing her teeth.

‘What country? Boy you ARE lost!’ She cackled to herself as she slapped her thigh, doubled in laughter. ‘Listen boy, I can’t leave you here in these conditions. Too many ‘undesirables’ about ya’ know? Why don’t you climb aboard darlin’? I know a place, or a person should I say, that might be able to help ya out. C’mon! Climb on in you poor thang!’

As she tapped on the passenger seat of her truck with a frail hand. Jack cautiously approached. Climb was the word indeed. Hoping it would be the last thing he’s have to scale, Jack grabbed the chrome handlebar beside the door, before heaving himself up into the truck.

As he landed onto the seat, Jack was taken aback at the sheer luxurious comfort of the leather seats. Embracing this heavenly feeling, he closed the heavy door behind him. As he sank into the seat, the car started its engine. He was immediately treated to the cool air conditioned air that flowed from the air vents. The crisp cool air licked at his burnt face. Jack smiled to himself. His luck seemed to be changing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9: Driving With Miss Daisy

 

As he laid back in the deep leather seat of the truck, Jack said goodbye to the setting sun that had nearly cooked him alive. As it sunk behind the mountainous horizon, the whole sky blazed into a deep blood red as the dying embers of the day succumbed to the approaching night. For the first time all day, Jack felt peace and relaxation as he watched the dusk slowly give way to the darkness of the night, a sky of a myriad shifting colours and shades danced off the mountain peaks and across the dusty plains. He was amazed, lost in thought, amazed at the beauty of the desert that hours before had so nearly killed him. As he thanked his lucky stars, he began to fittingly see the constellations appear above him.

‘Beauty ain’t it?’ The elderly woman apparently reading his thoughts. ‘I’m guessin this is your first time here?’

Jack nodded, still lost in the magic of the night’s sky. Never before had he seen such a gathering of stars.

‘So you seriously don’t know where you are huh?’

‘No Miss.’ Confessed Jack, snapping out of his wonder. ‘I really don’t. The last I remember I was in England. The next, well I’m wandering the desert. I honestly couldn’t tell you where I am or how I got here.’ Jack realised he was most definitely sounding crazy as the old woman’s wizened features screwed up in confusion.

‘You sure are a strange cookie boy. But hell, you do sure look troubled.’ She continued to look him up and down through the lenses of her tiny glasses as she examined the tattered English boy in her car. After a few seconds her beady eyes returned to the road. ‘Well son you’re in Arizona!’ Jack stared at the old lady blankly, gawking at her as if she had two heads. They both stared in silence for a few moment. ‘As in the Copper State? The Grand Canyon State?’ Still Jack stared at her vacantly. ‘Ah c’mon boy! As in the United States of America?! The greatest country on Earth?!’

Jack’s eyes were bulged in disbelief. Shaking his head, he strained to look out of the window into the darkness, looking for anything out there to verify her statement. It all started to make sense. The desert, the mountains, the long stretching highway. Not to mention the driver’s seat on the left and most of all the old lady’s accent. It seemed all real enough. Jack paused a second, ‘Are you sure?’ Couldn’t help to ask.

‘Well of course I am stranger!’ Cackled the old lady. ‘I’ve lived here in this state for over sixty-five years! I think I know where I am! As for where you’re from, ah have no idea. Now what was your name again hun?’

‘Jack, Miss. Jack Vance. I live, well lived in England, at least I’m supposed to.’

‘Hah!’ Cackled the woman again. ‘Well I’m sure you’ve got a story to tell. And hell you’ve got plenty of time to tell it. We have another two hours to drive. No real civilisation until then. Anyway Jack, no need to call me miss, I’m not THAT old! The name’s Daisy, Daisy Chance.’

She held out her hand whilst still concentrating on the road, looking ahead, she expected Jack to complete the hand shake. He hesitantly held his hand out, placing it into Daisy’s. Upon touching it, her hand gripped his, firmly shaking it. Shocked, Jack couldn’t decide. Either he was still weak from his travels or this old lady was surprisingly strong for her size.

Prizing his hand from her vice like grip, Jack held on to it, surprised to get it back. ‘Thank you for picking me up. I was certain I was done for back there.’

‘Don’t sweat it hun!’ Daisy smiled wryly from the corner of her mouth, ‘You nearly were standing in front of my car like that. That’s one hell of a way to hail a cab!’

Jack grinned back. He liked this woman. She appeared to be an honest American country type with a heart. ‘Yeah, sorry about that. I didn’t fancy my chances out there.’ His smile faded at the thought of his earlier predicament.

‘You’re right there son.’ Agreed Daisy, ‘Those dunes ain’t the most hospitable of places. They’re hot as hell during the day and freezing as hades at night. I’m surprised you made it as far as you did!’

‘So if I may ask, what are you doing driving through here all alone?’ Asked Jack, struggling to make small talk.

‘Oh I’m just travelling home. Been over to see my sister in Phoenix ya see? Long trip for me back to the borders on these quiet roads. But to be perfectly honest Jack, you ain’t the first foreigner I’ve seen on these here roads.’ Daisy’s smile too dropped as she made this announcement.

‘Oh?’ Enquired Jack, intrigued.

‘Oh nothing like you hun.’ The old woman reassured him. ‘Trust me you’re the first European I’ve happened to meet on these here lonely roads. No. The roads lately seem to be littered with vagrants, you know…them…’ She spat, her face pouting in disgust.

‘Who are ‘them’ Miss…I mean Daisy.’ Asked Jack, puzzled.

‘You know! Them! Those damn immigrants comin’ over the border. Mexicans etc.! Comin’ over here takin our jobs and gettin’ up ta no good!’ Her eyes still planted on the road, the woman’s hands were gripped tightly onto the wheel in rage. ‘And you hear me Jack. If it were one of them in front of my automobile, ah wouldn’t have had the right mind to stop!’ She slapped the wheel as she spoke, almost wishing one was in her sights as she spoke. Jack had a sudden change of heart, he didn’t much like Daisy the ranting racist.

‘Ah…’ Was all he could utter. Despite his difference in opinion, he could hardly argue with her, besides, she was his ride back to civilisation.

‘Sorry bout’ that Jack.’ Daisy said, returning to her more bubbly self. ‘It’s just such a shame you know? They come here, taking the work, forcing us pure Americans out of town. There’s not a great deal of us true Americans left back in the village anymore. I’m the last of the Chances left in the town of New Springs. It’s disgraceful!’ She explained dejectedly.

‘The last Chance…’ Muttered Jack under his breath, using the last of his energy to smile to himself, enjoying the irony. What a fitting title for his only escape from the desert.

‘Say…’ Daisy slowly started, turning to face Jack suspiciously. ‘You ain’t here looking for work yourself are you?’ She asked. ‘Sure you don’t look like one of ‘them’, but we have enough foreigners here takin work ya’ hear?’

Jack felt threatened, not wanting to lose his ride, he professed his innocence, ‘No, no, no! Seriously Daisy I’m just lost here and need help!’ He exclaimed, his hands raised in the air to profess his innocence. She maintained eye contact for a moment, sizing the boy up, before returning her gaze to the road.

‘Ok, I believe you boy.’ She decided. Jack, relieved, settled back into his chair. This woman was crazy. But he’d seen it before back home. Immigration angered people there too. People were always scared of what they didn’t understand, resorting to intolerance. He’d heard and seen it all too often. But this woman showed pure rage, an alarming amount of it.

‘But you should see it Jack.’ She continued. ‘There’s a huge amount of them living in New Springs. They swarm here from the border which is only miles away, bringing with them their poverty, drugs and gangs.’ Her face then began to smile and glow once again. ‘But we have a man with a plan, a visionary. Oh Jack he’s wonderful!’ She hardly seemed to be talking to him anymore, rather comforting herself.

‘Oh?’ Was all that Jack could say once again, playing dumb.

‘Oh yes.’ She continued. ‘His name is Brad Striker. A wonder of a man!’ She almost sighed his name, full of admiration. ‘He runs a mining company on the outskirts of town. A real big shot in the industry. His company mines all over the world, but for once he’s looking out for the regular American Joe. You see Jack, he’s bringing a new steady supply of water to our quaint town. But by using the work force of immigrants that have flooded into my town. He’s using those wretches for labour! Whipping them into shape, using them to create something good for us for a change!’ Her eyes glistened at the prospect.

Jack’s eyes began to get heavy. He’d grown bored of her hate filled speeches, and didn’t give a toss as to who this Striker bloke was. As she ranted on, exhaustion caught up with Jack. The sky had now turned completely dark, as if coaxing him into rest. The woman’s words soon melted into a constant white noise, almost a hideous lullaby. Jack’s exhaustion and the woman’s droning sent him into a dreamless slumber as the world around him faded to black.

‘Jack… Jack?’ She looked over, the boy was fast asleep. She smirked, shaking her head, finishing a lecture that she knew nobody was listening too.

‘Which is why I’m going to take you to meet him boy. I’m going to take you to the man who knows exactly what to do with you out of towners.’

  • * *

Hours later, the giant pickup, with Jack asleep within, escaped the arid wilderness of the desert, and slowly trundled into civilisation. That’s if you could call it such. To the casual observer, New Springs looked like any other small town in rural Arizona. It had once been a tightly knit community with a population of only a few thousand. It had been a cute town she thought, a small area of civilisation in the middle of the wilderness. No more however.

The town sat at the foot of Mount Marron, which overshadowed the community ominously. Reaching hundreds of feet tall, the red, rocky mountain stood impressively standing guard over the town. Well that’s what she thought anyway. As she drove along the street, she passed many of the single floor bungalows that were dotted along the road, their front porches laden with rocking chairs, faced onto long gardens that stretched to the roadside.

Daisy took the next road right, into the town centre, there she was faced with row upon row of small stores. She passed the hairdressers that her father used to take her to during her youth. She could almost smell the musty scent of the place. To her opposite side was the old cinema. There Daisy and her friends gathered on a Friday night, having snuck from their bedroom windows to drink and smoke. As she paced along the main street she smiled wistfully as she was bombarded with memories, good and bad, that New Springs had afforded her.

Yes, she thought, it was just like any other respectable quiet all American desert town, apart from one thing. The entire town was nearly deserted.

The once proud bungalows with their porches that she passed now stood empty, with broken windows and peeling paint. Nobody sat in the rocking chairs on the porches anymore, and the long front gardens that once bloomed had now succumbed to the desert, their grass and plants shrivelled and yellow. Only a few remained occupied. Despite the lack of neighbours, Daisy took pride in keeping hers looking good.

The high street had not fared better either, the hairdresser that she often frequented was boarded up, with graffiti daubed where the windows once were. The movie theatre, that once looked majestic, a refuge for her and her friends, was now a soulless convenience store. There was nothing here anymore, save for low-rent motels, budget accommodation, and thrift stores. What had happened to her once quaint town?

A wave of sadness enveloped the woman. Only a handful of people had stayed in the town of New Springs. The town had once thrived on the copper industry, workers and their families came into New Springs from miles away, settling down, making the town a thriving community. The copper itself came from the huge reserves that were once inside Mount Marron. The mountain provided millions of dollars for the community and acted as a good symbol of the town, bringing tourists as well as workers. New Springs-Upon-Marron. It was known well across the tri state area.

But as the years passed. The mines shut down. A string of major accidents down in the pits had closed them off. Various explosions had killed many workers. The deaths plus the reducing copper stocks brought the mine to an eventual close. The community, with no work left in the area, soon dispersed, leaving the town. The once busy streets and shops were soon deserted and boarded up, leaving only the diehard residents who had grown up in the area staying.

Daisy sighed as she left the main stretch, passing through the remainders of the town. She soon scowled to herself, clutching the wheel. Then the immigrants came, she remembered. Squatting in the old houses, setting up stalls in the streets, turning it into a slum. She fumed to herself, thinking of the newcomers who slowly invaded her idyllic American paradise, spoiling it.

She looked down once again at the scruffy boy she had just picked up, another foreigner, she pondered. Still, she thought, he was white, at least that was something. Besides, it was people from his country who had come in originally to create this beautiful country. She smiled at the irony.

She then wondered what he’d think of him. Brad Striker, what a hero. Her face lit up again just thinking of him. He’d come into the town of New Springs not more than a year ago. A dashing country boy, he had arrived with a promise. He was going to go back into the mountains, discover new treasure from within and make the town prosperous once again.

She remembered the day he had arrived in the rickety town hall with his fancy clothes and powerful speeches. Oh how she nearly cried at the arrival of the saviour. He also promised to use the new immigrant population as a work force, using them to help revive the town to what it once was. He was going to put them to work, make them rebuild what they had helped destroy.

Sure the boy wasn’t Mexican, but she was going to take him in to Brad anyway. Besides he was the only real ember of authority left in the town. He had taken up residence in his own mansion he had built at the foot of the mountain that looked down upon the rest of the town. Righteously placed above the new emerging town.

As she drove on, lost in thought. Daisy left the town along a single country road that ran uphill towards the mountain. She couldn’t help but feel intimidated. As dark as the night was, the huge white house and its stables still shone through in the distance, looking almost intimidating at the foot of the impressive mountain.

As she continued to drive along the dirt road, she suddenly found herself at the perimeter gates of the complex. A huge set of gates stood proudly in front of her, with the initials B.S engraved in them. There was no doubt as to where she was. As she looked out the left window she saw a small intercom unit next to her at the side of the road. As she lowered her window, she was filled with uncertainty and fear. After much deliberation, she decided to press the button under the speaker. The unit buzzed. A moments silence followed, followed by a gruff voice.

‘Yeah…’ Enquired the voice.

‘It’s…it Miss Chance. From downtown.’ Announced Daisy sheepishly. ‘Ah’ve ah… I’m here to see Mr Striker.’ She said trying to carry some authority in her voice.

‘Mr Striker is sleepin’.’ Answered the voice bluntly.

‘But it’s important!’ Argued Daisy. ‘I’ve found a new one for you, a new worker! And I think Mr Striker is gonna find this once awfully interestin’!’

As the woman tried to get rid of her passenger, Jack slept, oblivious to who he was about to meet.

  • * *

 

‘You complete fool! You do realise how harmful smoking is no?’ Exclaimed Zhanna, whilst sat at the controls of the Silver Shadow which was tearing its way back to home base. Next to her in the co-pilot’s seat, Hudson had decided to strike up the huge cigar that had been in his mouth for the last few hours. As he blew another cloud of thick smoke, he laughed.

‘Hey! You know the rules doll! After each successful mission, I get to enjoy one of these babies! You know? Fat lady an’ all that?’ Zhanna waved the smoke away with her gloved hand, her face cringed in disgust as she piloted the craft.

‘But in here? You know I hate that stuff! Besides, all we have done deliver boy to insertion point. The job is by no means complete yet.’ Hudson thought to himself for a second, then shrugged the question off.

‘Ah who the hell cares…Close enough for me!’ He leant back in his seat, rested his arms behind his head and closed his eyes as he enjoyed his cigar.

‘Careful Yankee before I pull your ejector lever, will make a good smoke extractor ey?’ She smiled wryly at the idea of launching her colleague into the stratosphere.

‘Hah! You’re wicked doll!’ Teased Hudson, his eyes still closed as he took another puff.

There was silence in the smoke filled cabin until the door behind them opened with a whoosh. Miles rushed in, his bowler hat hardly on his head at an angle, looking alarmed.

‘He’s there! He’s only bloody there already!’

‘What?!’ Cried Hudson, jumping out of his relaxed state, his cigar nearly falling from his mouth.

‘Impossible…’ Stated Zhanna, coolly not bothering to look back from the controls.

‘Oh he’s there you can believe me on that chaps. According to the holo-map, he’s at the Striker Mansion already!’ Miles was giddy with excitement.

‘I can’t believe it! That kids there already? Wow… We really need to call the Director.’

‘No!’ Zhanna shot him down. ‘We are 10 minutes out from base. We can tell him once we land.’

‘I guess that makes sense.’ Mile agreed, ‘He’ll be overjoyed! Jolly Exciting isn’t it?’ The suited, dapper gent was now acting like an overexcited five year old.

‘Da. He will be certain to be impressed. The question remains however, what sort of reception our new recruit will receive at Striker residence…’

The cabin once again felt silent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

h1={color:#000;}.

Chapter 10: Bed, Breakfast and the Blonde.

 

‘Wakey, Waaaakey!’ The girl’s sing-song voice teased Jack out from his deep slumber. For the second time in as many days, he had awoke to the unknown. With a harsh click of a light switch, the room lit up. His eyes struggled to react to the sudden bright light as he sat up, startled by the girl’s voice. His brain scrambled to establish where he was. The memories of the past twenty-four hours flooded back. The box! He was ready to experience it all over again, the sheer claustrophobia, the cramped terror. His body panicked, ready to fight once again for its very survival.

But there was no darkness, no cramped muscles and no struggle to breathe. His arms and legs flowed free. With every movement, he could feel the unmistakeable soft texture of silk running along his burnt skin. Reaching out in all directions, he grabbed handfuls of this wonderful material as his muscles welcomed their new ability to stretch with no obstruction as the blood soared through his veins.

His head too was comfortably supported. Were these pillows? He was in a bed! This was as far away from hell as he could get! As his body revelled in its new luxurious setting, his mind caught up to the events of the past day, leading him instantly to his next thought. How had he gotten into this huge bed? As his eyes reacted to the artificial light, he began to question if he had survived the ordeal at all.

‘Well hey there sleepy head! Nice of you to join us! Get enough rest?’ The voice had a real southern American country kick to it. The tone however was unmistakeable; sarcasm.

His eyes tried to focus on the girl who was giving the attitude. As they did, they slowly revealed to Jack what looked to be an angel. What was once a blurred figure, slowly turned into one of the most beautiful girls he’d ever seen. As she stood staring down at him, the new light shimmered around her, he couldn’t see anything else.

Looking roughly the same age as him, she had the biggest pair of blue eyes which bore down at him quizzically, her eyebrows were arched in a cautious curiosity. Her thin lips curled into a curious smile, not a friendly smile by any means, but almost a wry, sardonic smile, seemingly mocking him. Framing the cruel face, was the most glorious set of blonde hair. Fixed in an untidy plaited ponytail, it cascaded down her left shoulder lazily.

Her dress sense also matched her effortless style. Wearing a tatty denim Jacket with a chequered shirt, she looked unkempt with faded jeans. Tied lazily around her neck was a checked neckerchief. The look was completed with a pair of brown riding boots that somehow looked far too big for her.

This was not a girl out to impress. Without a single scrap of makeup, she stood there cross armed and confident, leaning on one hip. Despite her raggedy appearance, she looked amazing. Home-bred and a fighter, this was a girl who wouldn’t take crap from anyone. Jack had to play it cool if he stood a chance of impressing this unruly tomboy.

‘…Is this really America?’ Asked Jack sleepily in a slurred voice, sounding every bit the fragile child he looked. He instantly cringed at the naivety of his question. The big blue eyes stared at him in disbelief, her mouth agape. The wry smile slowly started to creep back on her face as she huffed. She laughed to herself as she rolled her eyes. Jack immediately felt two feet tall.

‘Yeah, sure is hon.’ She answered sarcastically, acting every bit the sullen teenager. ‘You sure as hell caused quite a stir last night Mr.’ She began, almost scolding him. ‘And you ain’t nothing like the types of foreigner Pa’ usually takes in. You’re causing quite the commotion at the moment with him and his boys. But just so you know Mr, I’ve got my eye on you.’ She warned, her face turned serious, the smile now a scowl.

Before Jack could come back with any form of response, the girl turned on the spot before walking away from him into the blur of light. His eyes still struggled to respond to the brightness. He tried to call after her as he reached out to her vanishing profile. Having failed, he sat himself up.

‘Why do they always walk away?’ Jack asked to himself out loud, shaking the last of the sleep from his foggy head. As he sat up against the head board of the bed, he took in the amenities of his room.

The first thing that Jack saw were the snarling teeth of a raging puma, which caused him to jump back in surprise as he banged his head on the headboard. ‘Ow…’ As he felt for a lump, he took another look at the vicious creature. It was a puma alright, its sharp teeth and muscular head were unmistakeable, a strong and lethal predator.

Only it would have been had it been attached to the rest of its body. The head, framed on the wall, was mounted there motionless, screaming at nothing in particular. It was a bust! ‘You stupid git!’ Jack chuckled to himself, feeling sheepish for being so jumpy. He was certainly glad that girl wasn’t there to see such a display.

As he followed the wall on from the puma, he noticed the heads of various other animals, all mounted on plaques beside the puma. Deer, moose, mountain goats, even a bear, they all stared on morbidly, looking real enough, but with dull and lifeless eyes. It all left Jack feeling a little melancholy to see such glorious creatures like this.

Despite the grim collection, the room had a cosy feel to it. It was silent, save for the ticking of a large grandfather clock to his right, its ticks and tocks echoed through the room intrusively. Ahead of him, the long hardwood floor sprawled a great distance to the fireplace. Alight, the fire brightly glowed a warm orange which reflected slightly off of the floors varnished surface.

Upon the top of the cackling fireplace lay various trinkets and photographs which were too far away to see properly. Nevertheless, the room, lit purely by firelight gave off a real cosy, friendly atmosphere. Even his bed was huge, a giant four-poster affair with white curtains dangling from each corner, he felt dwarfed within!

As his gaze returned back to himself, Jack, for the first time realised he wasn’t in his clothes anymore! His tattered school uniform was replaced with the silkiest of striped pyjama. He didn’t even bother with pyjama’s at home! To make the whole thing complete, to his left, he saw a plate of cookies with a tall glass of milk laid out beside him. After the nightmarish few days before, this indeed felt like a dream.

Doubting his sanity, Jack grabbed at his chest. Only one way to be sure. Relieved, he felt the St. Christopher still hanging from his neck. So he wasn’t going mad. But none of this made sense. As he looked under his pyjamas, he noticed his wounds had also been treated and covered. Somebody had taken some real care of him. But who? As he pondered the question, the heavy oak door to his left knocked and squeaked as it opened ajar slightly, the light from outside silhouetted whoever was at the door. The Gravelled voice spoke through the shadows.

‘Well, well…if it isn’t our lost limey.’ The man opened the door all the way as he entered the room, the dashing figure came in with such panache that Jack expected a fanfare to introduce him. ‘The Name’s Striker, Brad Striker.’ He beamed a huge smile to Jack, showing a perfect set of impossibly white teeth. An impressive looking man, he looked like the archetypical action hero, wearing a dirt covered beige top, complete with a desert neck scarf. He looked as if he had spent his whole life adventuring in the desert.

‘Vance, Jack Vance.’ Answered Jack, trying to emulate the man’s smooth, confident tone.

As he approached Jack’s bedside, Brad offered out his hand for him to shake. Accepting, Jack held out his, Brad shook it firmly. Jack felt the firm, sandpapery grip of the man.

‘Well nice to meet ya’ Kid!’ He said, releasing Jack’s hand. He cocked his head back to the door, ‘I see you’ve already met my little girl, Savannah.’ Leaning against the door frame, she had returned, her arms crossed, an impassive scowl written across her face. Her father nodded back towards her whilst keeping his eyes on Jack, ‘Now you’re being a good host to our new guest here ain’t ya sweetness?’ The beaming smile was filled with irony, something that had no doubt been passed down to her daughter.

‘Oh sure Pa, sweet as pie!’ Replied Savannah sarcastically, as she whipped her ponytail back behind her shoulder, clearly unimpressed with the whole charade. ‘Nice making you’re acquaintance Mr Vance.’ She said non-committedly. ‘If ya need me Daddy I’ll be in the stables, believe it or not there’s slightly less crap to deal with in there…’ Leaving the words to hang in the air, she turned on the spot, leaving the room as her boots clacked down the corridor outside. Brad shook his head, laughing to himself.

‘Now don’t you mind her kid. She’s quite the wild card, don’t take heck from nobody ya’ hear?’ His face looked almost apologetic.

‘I think I called that earlier on Mr Striker. Don’t worry, I survived…’ Brad let out a hearty laugh, snapping his head back as he did.

‘Hah! I’m sure ya did, I’m sure ya did.’ As his laugh trailed off, the man’s face seemed to turn to deep thought, he stroked his unshaven, chiselled jaw as he tried to figure the boy out. ‘But what I don’t get kid, is how the hell you managed to survive in that desert for so long, you must have covered miles! Besides, you were hardly wearing the best gear for it.’ Remembering his uniform, Jack looked down at his pyjamas.

‘Ah yes. Thank you so much for the, err, clothes. It’s hard to explain sir. I didn’t travel that far, you see, I was kind of just, well, dropped there…’ He decided to keep his cards close to his chest, he’d seen enough strangers over these last few days and not one of them did he believe he could trust, including this man despite his friendly demeanour.

‘Dropped? How on God’s earth do you get dropped in the middle of this dustbowl? Out of an airplane? Hah!’

Jack laughed back sheepishly, ‘Heh, if only I knew sir, my mind’s quite blank.’ He lied.

‘I’m not surprised kid, that amount of sun must have fried your noggin’. You’re just damn lucky Ms Chance managed to find you, or you’d be dead for sure. Good woman that lady, if a little nutty.’ He ran his hand through his peppered black and grey hair, looking at the ceiling, thinking of what to say. After a few seconds, he returned to reality. ‘Anyway kid, she was right to leave you here, you couldn’t be in better hands. Besides, I’m keen to figure you out, ain’t nobody here with an accent and err, ‘dress sense’ like yours around here.’

Brad began to pace around Jack’s bed in a grand fashion, stroking his chin as he moved, ‘This is what’s going to happen. Firstly, I’m gonna fix you up, get you in some good clothes, feed you some damn good food. You’ll feel right at home before you know it. Then I’m gonna give you a tour of my fine establishment, you’re gonna love it! I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions to ask me. I know I’ve got tons for you!’

As he spoke, a thin, wiry, man shuffled into the room, pushing a trolley full of silverware which clattered as he entered. The man was dressed in white chef’s attire, and looked subserviently down at the floor as he moved.

‘Ah it seems breakfast has arrived for you Mr Vance!’ The man and his rattling trolley slowly worked its way to Jack’s bedside, where it stopped. On top of the trolley was a wooden breakfast tray, atop of it, two metal dinner plate covers. The chef proceeded to lift the tray, placing it over Jack’s lap. Having done so, the chef returned to his tray and almost stood to attention in front of Brad. ‘Thanks Matias.’ Brad said casually. ‘You may go.’ With the order given, the chef left the room as he had entered, slowly but loudly pushing the trolley as he went.

‘What’s this?’ Jack asked. ‘Breakfast in bed?’

‘Oh jeez yeah! It’s 8am if you didn’t know. Hah!’ Brad approached his bedside and leant over the tray as he continued to explain. ‘This isn’t any old breakfast my English friend. This is a good old American breakfast. No ‘bangers’ here!’ As he made the announcement, he lifted one of the metal plate covers with a clang, revealing his meal. ‘Here to your left we have a six story pile of my Chef’s finest pancakes, I hope you have a sweet tooth.’

Laid in front of him was a monolithic tower of the thickest, spongiest pancakes he had ever seen. Cascading down the tower of delight, ran a steady stream of thick, runny maple syrup which pooled and oozed at the bottom of his plate. Perched on top of this pile, was a white thick dollop of butter cream that was slowly melting under the heat. It suddenly struck Jack that he hadn’t ate in days and had no idea until now how hungry he was. As his mouth watered brad lifted the other plate cover.

‘And to your right, a rack of warm, buttered toast, complete with an assortment of jellies, or should I say ‘jams’?’ He laughed ‘I must get used to your limey speak!’ As he took a step back, Brad marvelled at the feast despite being the one serving it. ‘Oh and finally, a pitcher of the freshest orange juice, from the orange county next door in California!’ The big, cheesy smile returned as he spread his arms, framing this banquet of a breakfast, ‘I’ll leave you to your breakfast Mr Vance. Should you need anything there’s a buzzer on your side table, someone will be there to help straight away. I’ll be back at…say noon? Until then the room is yours, no one will disturb you. Bon Appetite!’

With that, Brad Striker turned and swiftly exited the room, closing the door with a clunk as he did. Silence returned to the room, with only the ticking of the grandfather clock to be heard. Well this was something! As he poured his first glass of orange, his attention once again returned to the snarling puma on the wall.

‘You look as hungry as I feel.’ Quipped Jack with a smile as he raised his glass to it. As he stared down at his breakfast, he wondered where to start. ‘I could get used to this.’ Jack mused. ‘Here’s hoping I don’t end up like you and your friends here.’ He gave another cursory glance at the other animal heads. Realising he was talking to no one in particular, he smiled to himself, and began to enjoy what would be the greatest breakfast of his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11: The Grand Tour

 

As he wallowed in near boiling water, a well-fed Jack Vance finally came to his decision. After much deliberation he came to the conclusion that there was nowhere on Earth quite like a good hot bath. The getting in part had been tough of course, each cut and abrasion upon his raw body had caused him to scream with pain as it met the scalding water. But now, fully submerged, it was worth it. Besides, he had an hour till noon, what better way to spend the time?

It had been a confusing process, with countless bottles of perfumed bath products lined up neatly on a glass shelf above the tub. Without having a clue as to what he was doing, Jack chose a bottle at random. Creed Millesome, the bottle was white grand, and expensive looking. Why not? Pouring half the bottle in, he hadn’t realised how little he needed as the bath exploded with a torrent of bergamot scented bubbles that flowed over onto the tiled floor. Oops.

With one final shift, Jack took a deep breath as he let the water envelop him completely as he sank below the surface. He felt the hot, soothing water surround him as it took him away from the world outside. His breath held, he contemplated life. That’s why he loved the bath, there were no distractions, only the whooshing of the warm water in his ears which amplified the steady thumping of his heartbeat. He was at peace. Finally, he could focus and remember the past two days calmly.

Despite being in a Zen-like state, the strange and dangerous world that lived outside the bath tub was still out there waiting. The dashing man and his beautiful daughter, the old lady, the desert, the mountains, not to mention the silver aircraft and its crew of strange people who he’d nearly completely forgotten about. Even his manic fight in his father’s factory now seemed a lifetime ago. And what of the fallout there? What world was waiting for him back home? What did his school, his friend Dickie and his uncle think had happened to him? Would there be panic? Search parties? Criminal proceedings for the mayhem he had caused? Even in his deep sobering bath, the last two days had felt like utter madness, with the potential for more.

Without realising it, Jack had been under the water for nearly two minutes as his empty lungs reminded him to leave his underwater sanctum. Breaking the water with a huge splash, he gasped for air as he resurfaced once again back into reality. Wiping the bubbles from his eyes, he pulled his wet, blonde hair back. Jack decided to re-focus, despite the insane world he now resided in. The clock on the wall was telling him there was a half hour before Brad would be back to collect him. Besides, his bandages were beginning to soak. Time to get out. With a heave, Jack pulled his aching body from the tub, despite every inch of his being begging him not to leave the peaceful water.

As he grabbed a towel from the rail, Jack’s wet body puddled water onto the floor. As he dried himself, Jack couldn’t fail to be impressed with the facilities. With his wet feet pitting and patting along the tiled floor, he made his way to the sink, its mirror surrounded by lights.

Laid out on the surface, were a plethora of toiletries. Toothbrushes, razors, mouthwash and flannels, right down to the seemingly endless collection of lotion bottles. Clueless as to their content, Jack went straight for the toothbrush and begun to clean his stale mouth, he could swear he still had half the desert in there. No amount of pancakes and orange juice could clear that.

As he brushed, he stared at himself in the mirror. 'Wha- a – mesh…' he mumbled to himself, his mouth full of toothpaste. Despite a hot bath and a good sleep, he still looked rough. His face was ruby red with sunburn with the odd cut speckled across his face. The rest of the body hadn’t fared any better. A patchwork of dressings, the damp bandages seemed to be the only things keeping him together.

As his dark, baggy eyes stared back at him from the mirror, he began to wonder what had happened to the rest of his clothes, or what was left of them. Only his St. Christopher hung stubbornly from his neck, the sight of which made him wince with homesickness a little.

Jack’s melancholy was suddenly interrupted however by the unmistakeable creak of a door opening from in his room next door. ‘Hewwo?’ He mumbled as loud as he could through his toothbrush. He spat the brush and paste out quickly as he edged towards the bathroom door, his ear close to the opening, hoping to hear who it was.

Nobody replied, only the soft thudding of footsteps from within his room answered him. He stayed where he was, deliberating whether to leave the en-suite bathroom of not. W, what if it was Savannah? She couldn’t see him like this! Wiping the toothpaste from his mouth, he worried to himself.

All of a sudden the footsteps crept further away, as the door creaked open and shut again. Jack sighed in relief, he remembered he couldn’t afford to get too comfortable here. Despite the amenities, the place was still full of unknown dangers.

Satisfied his room was once again empty, Jack opened the bathroom door, once again to be greeted by the menagerie of animal heads hanging upon the walls. Even though dead, they stared down at him menacingly, leaving him unnerved wrapped only in his towel.

Trying to ignore them, he went to the foot of his bed to collect his pyjamas, he had nothing else to wear, or so he thought.

Laid at the foot of his bed, replacing his pyjamas, were a set of completely new clothes that were folded carefully ready for him.

‘What the hell?’ Jack whispered to himself, confused. Curious, he began to pick apart the pile, examining what the anonymous person had just left for him.

The first thing he pulled out was a blue, collared, cotton shirt, similar in fashion as to what Brad had been wearing earlier, only this was buttoned from top to bottom with long sleeves. What was most bizarre was that it was in Jack’s size!

Next, were the trousers, a pair of dark tan chino’s that were seemingly new. They too were just his size, complete with a brown leather belt with a gold broach. To complete the wardrobe, were a pair of boots and a Jacket. Jack went for the boots. HAs he held them up closely his face for a closer inspection. A strong, sturdy pair of brown leather Belstaffs, these were far better suited to the desert than the brogues he was stuck with. He smiled in admiration. They were half a size too big, but he couldn’t be picky.

The last item from the pile needed unravelling, whatever it was, it was tightly folded and made from leather. Once unravelled, Jack found himself holding a Jacket that was made from the softest of brown leather. With a copper zip running down the middle and lined with fur pockets on either side, it looked similar to a bomber Jacket. It was lined with a white cotton material around the neck and cuff, looking finely made indeed. Jack whistled to himself, impressed.

‘Wicked…’ Jack commented to himself, holding the Jacket up in awe.

It took Jack a little time to get dressed into his new set of clothes, the dressings on his wounds made fitting into sleeves and trousers cumbersome, whilst the cuts and scrapes themselves stung as they chafed against the material. But after a while he managed to dress himself completely. Anxious to see how he looked, Jack walked over to a full size mirror, fixed to the wall in between two of the animal busts.

‘Looking good.’ He noted to himself. The trousers, the shoes, the shirt, they all fit wonderfully. Surely this wasn’t coincidence? As he put the Jacket on, he realised it didn’t feel as heavy as it looked, hanging off of him perfectly.

Smiling at the reflection, he reminded himself of some sort of outlaw from the western movies. All he needed now was a cowboy hat. In a goofy mood, he drew two imaginary six shooters from their holsters, making shooting noises as he fired into the mirror.

Tipping his invisible hat with one of the pistols, he spoke to his reflection, laughing,

‘Howdy there partner.’ An awful attempt at an American accent.

‘Howdy!’ Savannah’s voice repeated from the half open door behind him. Jack leapt out of his skin, turning so quickly he found himself still holding onto his imaginary pistols. Sheepishly he shook them off, an awkward smile painted on his face. She was stood as she was earlier, leant on the door frame, her arms folded. Her wry smile was back, enjoying the awkward situation the boy had found himself in.

‘Uh, hey there S-Savannah. I…I was…’ Jack struggled to come up with a reasonable excuse for his childish display.

‘Oh I know exactly what you were doing kid. Still, not a bad get up you’re wearing there. Seems we did well sizing you up.’ She observed, looking him up and down.

‘Err, yeah. Where did you happen to get all these clothes? They fit me near on perfectly!’ Savannah shrugged,

‘Huh, it’s a big mansion. We have everything you could think of.’

‘Mansion?’ Jacks face was wracked with confusion, realising how little he knew of his latest home.

‘Hah! You sure are in the dark ain’t ya? Well we’ll soon have that sorted. Its noon, time for your tour.’ Without pointing, her head nodded towards the grandfather clock behind him, which showed exactly midday. Jack barely noticed the ticking anymore. ‘Now, if you’re finished here, it’s time to come with me… partner…’ She added, nearly breaking into a giggle.

‘You really aren’t going to let me forget that are you?’ Jack asked. Savannah let out a haughty laugh, animating her pretty face.

‘Hell no Mr Vance! If that’s your real name. I prefer Calamity Jack anyway! Now come on, time to leave Mr!’ Nodding towards the hallway outside with a smile, she let Jack out of the room, shutting the door behind them as she giggled to herself.

Now in the hallway, she coughed, straightening up, returning to her colder demeanour. Jack was fascinated, had he just seen some warmth and humour in the girl?

Walking down the long corridor, with his new Belstaffs treading the long red carpet, Jack noticed row upon row of doors either side of him. He guessed each one held its own room, just like a hotel. The corridor held the same gothic features his room had. The walls were covered with wooden beams, hanging from them were paintings of unknown characters, their eyes appeared to follow him as he passed. Despite being dusty and spooky, it was all rather grand.

‘So where are we going?’ Asked Jack, trying to keep up with Savannah.

‘Taking you to Pa. He’s out front of the house. The old man can’t wait to see ya. Think he’s taken a shine to you.’ The words were laced with a hint of venom as she continued to walk ahead, not once glancing at Jack.

‘You really don’t like me for some reason do you?’ Jack asked, finding the courage to confront the girl. They reached the end of the corridor, where stood a large wooden oak door. Using most of her strength, she pulled on the copper ring handle. Once open, she took a breath and looked Jack in the eyes dead on.

‘I dislike most people kiddo.’ She paused for a second, looking for the right words. ‘Let’s just say I ain’t got you figured yet.’ Smiling she gestured towards the open doorway, her arm outreached. ‘After you Mr Vance.’

‘My friends call me Jack.’ Jack said hopefully, waiting for a response before walking through.

‘Well I’m sure they do.’ She answered with a grin, a playful expression on her face, almost as if to say she’d think about it. ‘Now are you coming through or not?’ Jack tutted as he moved on.

‘Fine.’ He muttered, rolling his eyes as he passed her. As he passed through the doorway, Jack’s disgruntled face immediately lit up to one of awe.

The hall was huge. Obviously the main room of the house, the only thing Jack could compare it too in size was the sports hall back at his school. As he paced the floor, he heard his footsteps echo through the entire room. The entire floor was made of pure, white marble, so shiny that it reflected the light of a giant chandelier that hung directly above them. To his left was a hugegiant set of double doors, Jack guessed it was the front door. Directly next to him stood a huge black grand piano that also shone from the reflection of the great chandelier. Now in the middle of the hall, he felt dwarfed by the scale of it all.

‘Wow…’ Was the only word Jack could muster. To his right was a giant marbled staircase that scaled its way to the second floor. At the base of each bannister, was placed a giant candle which burnt away dimly, its light shimmering off the marble surroundings. The carpet whichrunning ran up the stairway matched the blood red colour that was in the corridor.

As the stairs reached their half-way point, they stopped at a giant painting of an unknown figure that was as tall as Jack. From there, they split into two smaller staircases which ran in opposite directions, each leading to the second floor. From there they merged into a walkway which ran along all four walls, framing the chandelier in the middle of the ceiling.

Along the walkways stood row upon row of doors, each Jack guessed, leading into other corridors and rooms similar to downstairs. The house must have been humongous. Jack turned on the spot, taking the whole hallway in. The walls were littered with the same old paintings he had seen earlier, complete with giant plants and statues placed randomly along the floor and walls.

‘Grand ain’t it?’ Savannah whispered in Jack’s ear mischievously as she crept up behind him, making him jump twice within minutes. Although Jack couldn’t take his eyes off the grand room, refusing to look at her.

‘That’s putting it mildly! This place must be huge!’

‘Huge? Boy, thisit’s a mansion is, practically a maze!’ She answered with some pride.

‘But I was in the desert last time I remembered.’ Confused, he turned to face Savannah. ‘Where the hell are we?’ Savannah’s smug smile grew, so much so Jack swore he could hear purring.

‘Well why don’t we step outside and find out huh?’ She teased. With that, she turned on the spot, her brown boots trapped marble as she walked towards the giant front door. Her steps echoed through the cavernous grand hall as she went.

Confused, Jack followed on, meeting her at the door. Once again, she twisted yet another ringed, copper door handle, pulling with all her might. For such a proud girl, Jack thought, she looked rather childish trying to open it. As she pulled the door open, she let in a tidal wave of natural sunlight, which poured in to the gloomy hall, lighting it up. As Jack’s eyes struggled to adjust to the light, Savannah once again stood by the open door, gestureding him through,

‘After you.’ She offered.

He cautiously walked towards the light, feeling the familiar heat of the desert once again as it engulfed him.

Expecting once again to see endless dry, arid desert, Jack was instead greeted by one of the most beautiful gardens he had seen. The size of a large tennis court, it was divided into four quadrants by a gravelled path where a water fountain stood proud in the centre. It looked like it had been dropped straight out of an English country manor.

Leaving Savannah behind, Jack left the grand entrance of the house, and walked down the steps directly into the garden. As his boots grinded the gravel, his senses were overloaded. There were countless colours of beautiful flowers growing around him, a myriad of colours, their scent filleding his nostrils with the most heavenly of smells.

Reaching the centre of the garden, he approached the fountain. It resembled a nubile looking woman who held two pails of water, from each flowed crystal clear water, which babbled and trickled as it cascaded into a pool of water below, where Koi carp swam lazily.

As he marvelled, a spritely bird that Jack couldn’t recognise buzzed past his ear, singing as it went. Jack wondered to himself. H, had he died? Was this heaven? He had leftd come from the lifeless desert and was now into the Garden of Eden! ? Suddenly the appropriate angel interrupted his thoughts.

‘Quit gawking would you kid? Pa’s waitin’ for ya!’ Ordered Savannah.

‘But… this is beautiful.’ Jack observed.

‘Ah, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ She countered. Looking past the fountain she pointed past the other end of the garden. Being caught short sighted, Jack hadn’t realised there would be more. ‘Keep walkin’, he’s waiting over there.’ As Jacks eyes followed her direction, he saw a man facing away from him, leaning on what appeared to be a balcony.

Doing as he was told, Jack passed the fountain and went through the remainder of the garden. Once through, he entered a wide gravelled veranda, shaped into a semi-circle, it was surrounded by a wooden railing that spanned its entire length. Leaning against it, facing away from him, was Brad Striker.

‘C’mon over Mr Vance. Come see the view.’ He called cheerily, as he turned back to him. Jack approached the figure, noticing something strange about the railing. There was nothing past it. Sure he could see the horizon, the endless desert that went on forever, but not a lot more. The wind, blew against his face coolly as he edged closer. As he reached the railing, Jack stopped in shock.

Past the railing it was a sheer drop, a cliff face that fell hundreds of feet into nothingness. The sight almost made Jack’s legs want to buckle.

‘Hey kid! How you finding your new wardrobe? Looking sharp!’ Brad said as he observed Jack’s new clothes, turning his back on the sweeping vista that spanned behind him. ‘Steep drop hey?’ Brad’s cool voice cut through the wind into Jack’s right ear.

‘Uh huh…’ was all Jack could say, his hands firmly clasped togripped on the railing. Brad continued.

‘You know what beats me with most people Mr Vance?’ He askedAsked Brad, ignoring Jack’s vertigo.

‘They’re SO short sighted. So consumed with what’s immediately in front of them, so busy with the menial things in life.’ He let the words hang in the air for effect as Jack was held on for dear life. ‘I know you’re not one of those people Jack. I feel it in my bones. So hey! Give it a go. Look past the trivial, I’m sure you’ll be impressed at what you find.’ Snapping back out of his trance, Jack obeyed as he slowly lifted his head. Looking down over the railing, the sight took his breath away.

Sprawling out for miles, hundreds of feet below him, lay an entire town. From atop of the cliff face, he could see every street, every building below him. Surrounding it was the harsh desert he had encountered earlier. The town was isolated in the sandy expanse, with only one road leading out of it towards the horizon. From upon the cliff top, the village looked like a toy town. Stood high up,anding there he felt like a god.

‘Incredible…’ Whispered Jack to himself as Brad chuckled.

‘That there is the town of New Springs. I just happen to be its mayor Kid!’ Brad boasted as he cast his hand across the expanse. ‘It used to be a thriving town once upon a time, but since the copper mine collapse it’s now pretty dead. Most of the occupants have up and left. Nowadays it’s a staging point for hundreds of immigrants trying to find their way from Mexico to the United States in search of the American dream. But I’m taking it back. I’m gonna shape it up and restore it to its prior glory. Just like the garden behind us, it just needs a little water is all. You nNotice what I’ve done to the town?’

Jack looked hard. The roads were divided into grids, dividing neighbourhood upon neighbourhood into squares, the centre square however was plain and barren. Jack struggled to answer the question.

‘I have no idea sir.’ He admitted.

‘Look closer, not at the roads, not at the buildings. Just look closer.’ As he scanned the area he began to notice what looked like tracks. But they weren’t. Threaded through the town, they were a spider’s web of ditches that ran through the town.

‘The ditches?’ Asked Jack.

‘Right again son! You’re getting good at this! Those ditches are made of concrete. My company dug them up over the year, soon they’ll be overflowing with water that will head straight to the town, making it bloom once again like the garden back there. But you’re missing the big question son. Fancy trying?’

Jack furrowed his brow, racking his head for an answer. Suddenly he realised.

‘Where is the water going to come from?’ Jack half answered, half asked.

‘Exactly!’ Cheered Brad, clapping his hands, once. He was enjoying the charade. ‘Ok, now you’ve seen the house haven’t you Mr Vance?’

‘Sure, it’s an impressive place. But that doesn’t answer my question sir.’ Jack answered.

‘Oh but it does son.’ Brad insisted, ‘But you haven’t really seen it properly have you?’ Jack looked up at his new host curiously. Smiling, Brad was turning his finger in a circular motion. ‘Take a look around…’ As Jack turned on the spot, he once again set his eyes upon a brand new wonder.

Behind the garden he had passed, the mansion loomed impressively. Completely white in colour, it was two stories high. Within its centre were 4 grand pillars that framed the front entrance, a windowed balcony stood above them. To the left, attached to the mansion, was a large garage from where a long gravel track ran supposedly down the mountain towards the town.

But that wasn’t the most impressive part. Immediately behind the mansion, shooting hundreds of feet into the air, was the looming peak of the mountain, risingshooting hundreds of feet further into the air. The mansion was part of the mountain!n seemed to be growing out from within the mountain peak itself, almost as if it were part of the mountain itself!

Jack begun to realise. He had already looked down a sheer cliff face minutes earlier, and now he was staring up at the rest of the peak. That meant the mansion was embedded exactly half way up a mountain, overlooking the town below. It was a piece of engineering genius!

‘Impossible!’ Jack said to the man. Brad laughed.

‘Hah! Oh show some ambition Mr Vance! I had this mansion built into the very face of this old copper mountain. It’s merely an access point. From within I’m going to source and mine the water that the mountain has to offer and filter it down into those ditches below. The town of New Springs will literally be acting out its name sake. Once again feeding off of the mountain.!’ Jack was amazed beyond words.

With a rustle, Savannah appeared from behind one of the many of the garden’s rose bushes as she sauntered towards the two.

‘And who do you suppose did all the work Pa?’ She asked. ‘YSurely you can’t take all the credit!’

‘Ah baby c’mon, don’t burst my bubble!’ Replied Brad defensively.

‘No C’mon, tell him dad! It might jus’ take that stunned look from off his face at least!’ She wandered past them both, as she too leant against the precarious railing, joining her father and his guest. Brad sighed, defeated.

‘Fine! Yes I admit I may have used the local immigrant population to help me in my work. Heck they’ll do it for cheap and they’ll work harder than any American ever would. They’ll reap the rewards outta’ this honey trust me!’ He knew he was beat as he struggled to maintain eye contact with his daughter. His pride bruised, he stared out over the town.

‘Yeah? At the cost of how many lives?’ Her daughter probed judgementally.

‘Sugar, there has to be sacrifice to achieve greatness. Utopia don’t come easy!’ Jack felt uncomfortable, caught in the middle of the argument. Brad turned his head back to him, trying to regain some of his authority. ‘I’m doing it for the greater good son.’ He explained, trying to maintain a smile.

Savannah Huffed as she rested her elbows upon the railing, shaking her head. Her father tried to change the subject. ‘Besides, wouldn’t you like to take a peek inside the mountains Jack? Have a look at all the efforts that me…and our workers… are undertaking?’

‘Sure.’ Jack answered. Anything to avoid an argument.

‘Great! Well let’s head back into the mansion, you’ll soon see everything from there. Our friend Tanque will show us the way.

‘Tanque? Who’s Tanque?’ Asked Jack.

As if to answer his question, a huge shadow loomed behind Jack, swallowing him in shade. As Brad and Savannah looked up over his head, Jack followed their gaze as he, glancedlooking backbehind him.

This time there was no garden, there was no mansion. But a mountain still remained, this mountain being one of the biggest men Jack had ever seen in his life.

Towering above him was a giant. His bald head and face was riddled with scars, mapping a lifetime of conflict. Looking slightly Mexican in origin, his huge figure bulged from within his blue boiler suit which for all intents and purposes might as well have been a tent. On his feet, two steel toe cap boots the size of canoes. As the cold, scarred face looked down upon him, Brad introduced the giant to Jack.

‘Tanque, meet Jack Vance. Jack, meet Tanque.’ The giant said nothing as he stared back at him blankly. Jack smiled nervously and waved his hand meekly at the man.

 

‘Hi…’

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 12: F.A.T.E.

Alone, Zhanna sat poised as she expertly played at the grand piano. A haunting lullaby, Chopin’s raindrop prelude echoed throughout her quarters. In the centre of her apartment, she played underneath a giant skylight that dominated the ceiling that poured in the whitest moonlight, framing her and her piano in a perfect white circle on the marble floor. The rest of her room was left in darkness. Her eyes closed in concentration, she lost herself in the melody as her fingers danced across the keys.

The music reminded her of a simpler time. The sound enveloped her as she was taken back to her old life, a time before the constant fight against the evils of the world, to a time before she was recruited into F.A.T.E where she battled constantly against the evils of the world. The piano was the one true source of innocence she had left in her world. As she continued to play the haunting melody, Zhanna’s body slowly drifted back and forth. She was in heaven.

ALL GROUNDCREW REPORT TO SILVER SHADOW. ALL GROUNDCREW REPORT TO SILVER SHADOW.’ Blaring out from the speaker in her ceiling, the address system called out, snapping her out of her blissful state of mind. The order interrupted her peace, the intricate music reduced to clunking notes as she lost her concentration.

‘Derr`mo!’ She cursed out loud, slamming her fists into the keys. Dragged from her bliss, she placed her elbows upon the keys with a clang of notes, resting her head in her hands with a sigh as she did.

She sat back in defeat and stared at the picture frame that was placed upon the top of the piano. Within the frame too was a reminder of happier times. It was a picture of a young Zhanna. Smiling happily without her eyepatch or a hint of cynicism, she languished hung joyfully in the arms of a tall blonde, handsome man. Holding each other tightly, they looked the epitome of happiness ad young love.

She stared longingly at the photo. It was a constant reminder of the last days of her happiness, until that fateful day fourteen years ago when she was drafted into the organisation, leaving everything behind. That life and the man who made it were now literally thousands of miles away. The snow of UkraineRussia was now swapped with the tropical isolation that was F.A.T.E headquarters.

That’s not to say she was a prisoner. The piano was a chosen part of the deal. Every recruit was granted only three items to take with them to F.A.T.E. For her it was an easy decision. The piano was the first to come with her, followed by the photo she treasured so dearly. Her third choice was too placed on top of the piano next to the picture. Pressed next to it in its own airtight container, was a single red rose, the last memory of her previous life.

Her new life hadn’t been all bad, despite the sacrifices. Within the organisation, she had helped bring down countless evil, saving others from injustice with the help of her team. Despite the heroics and adventure, she stared at the photo and the accompanying rose with deep melancholy. ‘Forgive me my love.’ She pleaded to the man in the photo, as her voice croaked. Her sadness was suddenly interrupted by a banging on her door.

‘Yo Zhanna! We’re needed!’ It was Hudson, his voice calling through the door. ‘Haul your ass!’

Zhanna composed herself, trying to disguise her aggravation.

‘Brute.’ She muttered to herself before calling back. ‘The call was for ground crew no? Not for us!’

‘The director needs us my dear. We need to see him in the briefing room, post haste!’ Giles’s voice answered as they both waited outside her quarters.

‘Ugh! Fine just a second!’ As she rose from her piano, Zhanna slipped on her Jacket, ready to leave, not before giving the photograph one last lingering look. Taking a deep breath to compose herself, she returned to her cool, hard demeanour as she checked herself in the mirror. The reflection showed a woman without vulnerability. Satisfied, she strode towards the door. As she pressed the button besides her door, it slid open vertically with a whoosh, revealing the three who were waiting, the third being Foxtrot, Miles’ dog who leapt to Zhanna’s legs happily in greeting. As tough as she was, she couldn’t resist the animal as she quickly patted its wiry head.

‘C’mon doll! We’re late enough as it is!’ She stepped out from her quarters as the door lowered shut behind her, leaving the team stood together in the corridor. The corridor could not have looked any more different to her room. Outside the cosy, stylish apartment looked more the interior of a ship, the walls laden with metal piping, speakers and vents. A large stencilled number six was painted on the wall annotating the floor level. It all had a distinct militaristic feel. Together, they walked down the corridor as their feet clacked along the metal floor.

‘Why does he call at his ridiculous hour? Also why did he not call me personally?’ She asked frustrated at the interruption to her evening.

‘Beat’s me toots!’ Answered Hudson. ‘Probably too lost on that damn piano of yours.’

‘Don’t call me toots you Neanderthal!’ Zhanna spat.

‘Both of you give it a rest please, we’re in a hurry! Besides, it must be important if he wants us at this ungodly hour.’ Explained Giles, ending the argument. As they reached the end of the corridor, they arrived at a larger door, a glass panel fixed to its centre. Placing his face against the panel, it read Giles’ iris. His identity confirmed, the large door split into two down the middle with a thud and opened slowly, a buzzer rang out as it did. As they walked through the newly opened door, they entered into what was the main hanger of F.A.T.E HQ.

A giant cavernous place, it didn’t appear to be a typical hanger. To an outsider it would seem he or she was inside a cave. At its base, an artificial channel of water ran from the centre to a flowing waterfall that lead outside. There floating in the middle of the water channel, sat the Silver Shadow, tethered to the artificial dock in the hanger.

As it bounced lazily on the water, dozens of busy mechanics and ground crew scurried around it as they administered repairs and alterations. Even inside the dark confines of the cave like hanger, its silver skin still shimmered and shone.

A miracle of engineering, she was a unique craft. A jet powered sea plane fitted with scramjet capability, she had the power to travel half way across the globe in a matter of hours as well as having the luxury of being able to land nearly anywhere thanks to her amphibious qualities. Despite her tube like fuselage, her airframe was made purely from curves and angles, from its needle sharp nose, to the curved, swept delta-wing, it looked menacing, even when shut down and offline.

Attached above the arrow like nose cone, resembling a yawning mouth, was a large single air intake that tapered into the rest of the fuselage and delta-wing smoothly. At her tail was a simple rectangular afterburner nozzle, atop it, a single tail Jackie, underneath, the cargo door.

A large craft, she confused the senses, its sheer size was incredible, but its elegant curves and angles seemed to belong to that of a fighter jet. What’s more puzzling was that she had no windows, no canopies. It was far beyond the technology of any aircraft flying in any military

If one looked hard enough through the maze of scaffolding and walkways inside the hanger, he or she would be able to see that the walls were pure rock. Spanning nearly the entire circumference of the interior, it was jagged and pure, as if the building had been built within the cave.

The only way in and out of the cave was through its gaping entrance, where a continuous gushing waterfall hid its contents. The thundering noise of the cascading water echoed throughout the cavernous hanger nearly drowning out the noise of the activity within.

Positioned in the middle of the hanger stood a tall lift shaft, a metal cage that ran to the ceiling. Large enough only for a few people, it was where Zhanna and her two companions were headed. As they walked through the mass of working personnel, Zhanna glanced at the Silver Shadow as they passed towards the lift.

‘What’s with all the work?’ As she watched, the ground crew busied themselves fastening various weapons to the underside of the wings which loomed above either side of the dock. They worked furiously as they armed her with missiles and bombs that had been brought over, shouting orders at each other as they hurried.

‘God knows.’ Responded Hudson. They stopped at the elevator shaft, all turning to look at the work in progress. ‘Seems we’re going weapons heavy on our next job. Doesn’t fill me with confidence.’ He warned. As he pushed the access panel button, the entire elevator shaft shuddered as the carriage slowly descended from the top of the hanger.

‘I can’t see Jack needing this sort of firepower, even after seeing the havoc the young chap caused the other day.’ Giles observed, stroking his snow white beard.

With a boom, the elevator carriage reached the bottom of the shaft, its door opened with a rattle as it waited for the three to enter. As they piled in, Giles used the tip of his umbrella to press the button that would allow the elevator to ascend to the top again. They all travelled in silence. Despite having worked within the organisation for a long time, they still couldn’t help but marvel at the sprawling mass that was busily working below them.

After all their years there it was still unbelievable to think that their headquarters, the entire installation, was dug deep within a cliff face situated along a remote stretch of the Eastern Australian coast.

 

The briefing room was silent, empty. Shrouded in darkness, the only light that was present was from the tinted one-way glass wall. Taking up half the wall space, the moonlight poured through as it reflected off of the white, marble floor. Had somebody been there, the moonlight would have revealed only a few details.

In the centre of the room, lay a giant oak table with a glass surface, similar to the one in the Silver Shadow but twice as big. Laid in a semi-circle to one side of it, were four chairs. Also made of oak, they were grand chairs with their tall back rests reaching seven feet tall.

Dotted around the room also where four pot plants, in each corner of the room. Within each pot grew a fully grown palm tree. Each towered above the table and chairs, still barely reaching half the height of the room. All the items stood silently, casting shadows from the silver moonlight that shone on through the glass wall.

As if by magic with a boom, the room burst to life into a hum, breaking the silence. With various clicks and thuds, the large ceiling lights flashed on one by one, covering the once dark room with harsh, artificial light that revealed the rest of the room. With every light that came on, a different part of the briefing room was exposed.

Hanging from the rock wall, were various classical paintings by different artists depicting various scenes, from famous battles throughout history to portraits of famous figures. One particular painting however dominated the wall. Facing the table and the chairs that surrounded it, the painting hung above a fireplace that had now roared into life.

The painting wasn’t like any of the others. It was simple, only showing the silhouetted image of a man’s upper body against a white background. The picture was framed in a highly decorated golden, leaf frame, the silhouette seemingly staring down at the table.

With a further bang, the room shuddered slightly, as one of the palm trees appeared to move. With a whirr, the single tree began to rise slowly, the plant and its pot appearing to be lifted into the air by something. Below the pot, slowly emerged the elevator carriage from below, having now reached the top of the shaft. As it fully emerged it looked bizarre, the carriage stood in the corner of the room with a fully grown palm tree perched on top of it. With a clunk the elevator doors glided open with a hiss, revealing the three agents who had arrived from the hanger underneath.

As they left the confines of the elevator, their footsteps echoed upon the marble floor. Silently and without fuss, they filed towards the chairs in single file by the giant table. Their demeanour had changed. Not a word or retort was spoken. Reverently, they took their places upon the seats, filling them from left to right. Respectfully sitting as if they were in church. To their right, the fourth chair sat empty eerily.

‘Good evening agents.’ The voice cut through the silence of the room, making Zhanna jump. Travelling right through the three, the deep voice was calm and without accent. It wasn’t to say the voice was boring or dull, it was just eerily neutral, making it impossible to trace where it originated from. As the voice spoke, the white background of the hanging portrait lit up. With every syllable it flashed, in synch with the voice, framing the black silhouette of the man in white light.

‘I apologise for the late hour with which I have summoned you. Also with how long it has taken for me to debrief you on the capture of our new test subject. I congratulate you on your efforts.’

‘Thank you director.’ Answered Giles subserviently, who sat on the furthest left of the chairs, Foxtrot at his feet. ‘Although the process was not…entirely simple.’

‘So I have observed.’ Stated the director. ‘The CCTV system of Vance Industries showed quite the…fracas.’

‘He was reckless Director!’ Protested Zhanna. Sat in between the others, she was alone in the fact that she dared to look up from her desk towards the painting, almost challenging the unknown voice. ‘The destruction the boy caused, no matter his ignorance, could have so very easily exposed our organisation. Can we afford to take the risk on someone so foolhardy?’

Realising her insolence, she once again returned her gaze to the table, hiding behind a thick black fringe of hair. The room fell silent.

‘Agent Kirilenko.’ The voice calmly responded, ‘I understand your concern regarding the incident. But rest assured, we will continue with the test. Do I need remind you the boy was part of the deal? Gabriel Vance is very much still in our debt for the help we gave him all those years ago. I am sure he will deflect any attention the incident has brought. Besides, he is our main provider of…certain technologies. We both have a lot to lose should this venture fail.’

‘Director, I understand that those we save are in our debt, but the man’s nephew? That’s a bit heavy a price wouldn’t ya say?’ Hudson suddenly remembering his place, added curtly, ‘Director…’

‘It is indeed a heavy price Agent Hudson, with that I agree with you. Usually our price is the silence of those we help regarding our organisation. But the boy, like his Uncle’s industrial know-how, is a valuable resource to us. As I’m sure you can see, our organisation still misses the absence of agent Baines.’ The three agents grimly glanced right towards the empty chair at their table. ‘We need fresh blood.’

‘It will take more than mere flesh and blood to replace Jason Baines, Director.’ Giles spoke up as the others nodded in agreement.

‘I understand your grievances Agent Sudbury.’ Noted the voice, ‘His death was a loss to us all, both professionally and personally. But this organisation needs to move on. We need a replacement. Which is something this project can bring. Besides, our experiment is doing well…’

As his words hung in the air, the table in front of the agents lit up. Rising from the glass a hologram appeared, similar to that on the Silver Shadow. Much larger in size, the hologram merged from a ball of green blurry lines into a scale 3D diagram of Mount Marron. Hanging in the air in front of them, it rotated slowly, numbers and figured relating to its dimensions scrolled alongside.

‘Our boy is currently situated on the private residence belonging to Brad Striker, a large mansion constructed into the very rock of Mount Marron.’ As he explained, the glowing 3D image zoomed into the mountain face, showing the mansion and its grounds in great detail.

‘As you know our man Striker has been on our radar for some time now.’ A mug shot of Brad Striker appeared in the corner of the projection, his details scrolled alongside his face.

‘Aged 48 and from Phoenix, the man is the owner of Terraco, a multi-billion dollar mining and excavation company, usually dealing with mining.’

‘Yeah I’m aware of him.’ Interrupted Hudson, ‘Bit of a maverick so I hear.’

‘Indeed.’ The Director continued, ‘His latest project involves slicing into Mt. Marron, with the vain hope of finding water with which to rejuvenate the local town of New Springs, which is situated at the foot of the mountain.’ As he spoke the hologram zoomed out from the mountain, showing it and the town together.

‘A noble cause you may think, however we have had reports that his company are using the labour of the local immigrant population who have come in from Mexico, using them for little or no pay. They live here in the centre of New Springs, where they have created a make shift shanty town.’ The agents watched as the centre of the town map glowed yellow, flashing on and off, denoting the area.

‘Usually we would ignore a problem of this scale, it is common, the poor and desperate are being taken advantage of world wide. We cannot help all in need. However, this case has gotten interesting. We believe that Striker’s men may have discovered one of the Element Stones.’

The three murmured to each other, surprised by the news.

‘You cannot be serious! An Element Stone? I thought we’d given up looking for those?’ Asked Zhanna.

‘We had agent Kirilenko.’ Stated the Director. ‘But the facts are pointing to a frightening revelation. A blast within the mountain recently caught one of our satellite’s attention. At first it appeared to be nothing.’ The screen replayed the satellite footage as he spoke.

‘But upon closer inspection, we noticed the workers that were piling in and out of the mountain face had…interesting tools.’ Zooming in to a group of workers exiting the mansion, a pile of rifle shaped tools could be seen on a trolley. A yellow glow surrounded one of the rifles as the image on the screen became clearer, showing a profile of the weapon, its stats reading out next to it.

It looked like a standard assault rifle, but with a long, open indentation along the muzzle. Within it, was a large disc, the shape and size of a discus.

‘That, ladies and gentleman, is a Valkyrie Launcher. A weapon unlike any other. Banned by the Geneva Convention, it is a man portable rail gun, its projectile being a solid titanium disc. When fired, the disc is launched electromagnetically at great speed, imbedding into any target it hits before exploding.’

Stock footage of the weapon being used was shown on the screen, showing the disc being fired at a tank on a range, tearing it to pieces.

‘The weapon, despite its power, was never produced on masse to any force, as it was banned by international law. Despite this, it seems the weapons are being used for mining purposes by Striker’s organisation.’

‘I don’t like this Director.’ Said Giles. ‘The boy is on a trial mission. We only sent him in there to see how he dealt with a generic unscrupulous organisation, not embark on a full on war with armed personnel!’

‘Agent Sudbury, please.’ The voice cut him short. ‘You may be correct. This ‘test’ has grown to a higher level than we thought. Due to the presence of weapons these weapons, I have put the Silver Shadow on armed alert, with the three of you ready to leave at a moment’s notice.’ Despite the neutrality of the voice, there did seem to be a hint of worry.

‘It may be coincidence. Hopefully we won’t be needed, but the signs aren’t good. According to our intelligence there is only one person capable of acquiring those types of weapons. If I’m correct and he is there, then one of the Element Stones must be within the mountain. Remember he will stop at nothing in his hunt for them. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe our boy Jack Vance may have just stumbled across the Scarlet General’s work.’

 

 

Chapter 13: The Depths of Mt. Marron.

 

The heavy front doors of the mansion flung open, spilling light into the gloomy main hall of the mansion once more. Where Savannah had struggled before, Tanque had effortlessly thrown both heavy oak doors open as if they were nothing. His giant body filled the doorframe, his weathered face expressionless. His duty completed, he stood to one side, allowing Brad, his daughter and the visitor Jack to pass through. The Striker’s seemed not in the least bit perturbed by the giant that had let them into their house, barely acknowledging him, but as Jack passed he glanced up in sheer awe, unable to get over the sheer mass of the man.

‘So how do like my lil’ abode Mr Vance?’ Asked Brad, as he strode confidently into the hall, his arms in the air as if embracing the whole room.

‘It certainly is impressive Mr Striker.’ Jack answered honestly, still taken aback.

‘I should sure as hell think so!’ He stepped backwards into the centre of the hallway as he grinned at Jack.

‘How much did it all cost you?’ Jack asked, intrigued. Brad let out a sharp laugh that echoed throughout the hall.

‘Good question boy! Money matters!’ Brad rubbed his hands together as he answered, a smug grin spread across his face. ‘I think we stopped counting at around the hundred-million mark. Ya see I was kinda given a blank cheque for the place, so as you can see I went a little bit crazy over the décor.’ He chuckled once again to himself. ‘I’ve had art brought in from all over the world, a couple of genuine pieces too! I’ll let you guess as to which is real and which ain’t!’

‘And who’s paying the cheques daddy?’ Asked Savannah, his daughter’s voice crept from behind Jack. Putting him down to size again.

‘Hey darlin’ how bout you keep your lil mouth shut hey? Men talkin’ here!’ Brad snapped sternly. For the first time since he had saw him Jack saw the man lose his ever present smile. His face looked slightly enraged, with a hint of panic to boot. As an awkward silence filled the cavernous hall, Jack glanced to Savannah. She raised her eyebrows in a knowing gesture complete with a self-satisfied smile on her face, as if to prove something. After a brief moment, the smile returned back to Brad’s face, he barked his laugh once again.

‘Hah! Crazy dame that gal! Anyway, this is only the half of it! This hall ain’t Jack, Jack…’ He laughed again, realising his accidental joke. ‘Follow me kid. If this hall impresses ya, then what’s next will blow your damn mind!’ As he walked backwards towards the staircase, he beckoned Jack to join him with his hands outstretched. Giving another confused glance to Savannah, Jack followed him up the staircase.

As they made their way up the carpeted stairs, they arrived at the apex where the staircases spilt into two. There they came to a stop. With stairs spanning either side of them, they stood in the middle, where on the wall in front of them was a giant picture about the size of Tanque, who still ominously loomed behind them. Now closer, Jack could make out the details.

It was a mosaic. Standing out from the other paintings in the wall, it was made from tiny pieces of glass and stone which twinkled and shone in the ambient light cast from the open doors behind them.

The pieces together, made a picture that showed a grand white haired bearded man. Riding a chariot dragged by two horses, he carried a large trident and was dressed in grand white robes. Surrounding him were various pictures of fish and other godly faces. Despite its grandness, it looked out of place in the gothic mansion, a few thousand years too early.

‘So? Can you tell me who it is?’ Asked Brad brashly as he stood behind Jack on the landing.

‘Judging by the trident…I’m guessing Poseidon? I’m really not that clued up on mythology Mr Striker.’

‘Bingo! You’re a smart tack ain’t ya boy?! It’s an ancient Greek mosaic, I managed to buy it from the Turkish national museum for a handsome price. But yeah you’re right kiddo, top marks. He’s an ancient Greek god, whilst he Romans’ called him Neptune. Now for bonus points, care to tell me what he’s god of?’

Jack racked his brains, the name Neptune sounded familiar, as did the trident.

‘The seas?’ Asked Jack, out on a limb.

‘Correct again! God of all water really. Seas, lakes, storms and drought. But more appropriately for me, rivers.’ This mosaic is the perfect representation of my quest Mr Vance, which is to find a supply of water for this entire town. Once found, I’ll be the Poseidon of New Springs!’ As Jack turned to look at Brad, he noticed he was lost in his fantasy.

‘So you spent all that money on a ‘fitting mosaic’?’ Jack questioned, a confused look on his face.

‘Oh no Jack, it ain’t no mere Mosaic. You see, it’s a portal into my very dream itself. Let me show you.’

Sounding overly excited as he explained, Brad nudged Jack out of the way as he passed, standing directly in front of the mosaic. Raising his hand, he traced his finger along the chariot thate Poseidon was riding. Upon the front of the chariot, was a plain circular crest. It all looked like part of the mosaic, only the crest upon the chariot protrudedwas protruding slightly. As Brad’s finger found the crest, it stabbed at it sharply, pushing it into the mosaic.

With a click, the whole mosaic trembled, before sinking slowly into the landing of the staircase, filling the hall with a grinding noise as it receded into the floor. In its place, stood a dark passage way. Stunned, Jack walked up to Brad, peering into the dark crevice. Where once the mosaic stood, Jack found himself looking at a completely new expanse. It was as if he was peering into a new world.

‘Welcome to Mt. Marron Mr Vance. Well…at least the way in.’ He walked past Jack once again, entering through where the mosaic had once stood. Jack followed, stunned by what he saw. It couldn’t be?

‘It’s a train station?!’ Jack blurted in surprise.

On first glances, it was exactly what it looked like. It was as if he had been transported into an entirely different place. The doorway lead immediately onto a platform, either side of it, two rails that ran into the distance, running out of sight into a huge tunnel. Unlike normal train tracks, the rails were singular metal tracks.

Atop of each of the single rails, stood a red open top rail carriage, each with six rollercoaster style seats divided into two rows. As he approached the one on the right, he gave it a closer inspection, running his hands over it in awe. As he did, the cart wobbled slightly in response. Confused, he dropped to his knees to get a closer look at the wheels.

There were none! The cart seemed to be hovering slightly, floating a couple of inches above the rail. It was magic! Jack slowly got back to his feet, turning, open mouthed towards Brad, who was slowly walking up to him, a pompous grin radiated back at him.

‘Maglev Mr Vance.’ Stated brad, as if it were nothing at all.

‘Mag-what?’ Questioned Jack, his face lost in wonder.

‘Magnetic elevation. Nothing new. I’m told it’s all to do with magnets. You see, a magnetic force elevates and propels these carts at high speeds. Why these they can reach speeds of 100mph! It’s quite a ride I can tell you! As I said it’s nothing new, there’s commercial models across the world, some reaching 200mph. I just had these small versions installed by the same people who are busy building the Atmos-G space elevator in Sri Lanka. It’s a long five miles into the belly of the mountain kid, ah can’t be doing with waiting on a slow poke sleigh!’ He cackled.

‘So you can get into the mountain through the mansion? That’s amazing!’ Jack stated.

‘Sure is. This here railway in the mansion is one of the only ways in and out of the mountain. No one outside needs to ever know what’s going on here!’ Brad Boasted.

‘But why the secrecy? Who does all this technology come from?’ Jack asked.

‘Yeah pa? Who indeed?’ Savannah teased, causing her father to turn around.

‘God damn it Savannah! What have I told you?!’ Brad yelled, his voice bouncing off the stone walls of the cavernous rail station. He turned back to Jack, looking sheepish.

‘S’cuse me Kid. She really knows how to grind my gears.’ Savannah sighed in exasperation at her father. ‘This is an ambitious endeavour Mr Vance, I have certain investors who share my passion you see. Now, how would you feel about taking a ride?’ Offered Brad.

‘I’d be honoured Mr Striker.’ Answered Jack.

‘Please, call me Brad.’ He insisted, as his toothy grin flashed back at him.

As they climbed onto the Maglev carriage, the craft trembled slightly as it responded to their weight before correcting itself. As they were seated, over the shoulder restraints secured them in place one by one. Jack and Brad sat in front, behind them Savannah and Tanque, his restraint struggling to fully him.

‘It feels rather unstable.’ Observed Jack.

‘Ah don’t sweat it kid. It’s just the craft adjusting to our weight. As long as we don’t race these babies to their full speed, it’s perfectly safe.’ His words failed to reassure Jack. ‘Now. Are you ready to go?’ Without having time to answer, Brad threw the throttle forward.

Jack’s head slammed into the back of the seat as they launched, it felt as if his skull was trying to leave his body. Seconds later, the station was far behind them. Jack’s eyes struggled to look at the dials on the panel below him. They were already at 60mph! The lights on the walls of the cavernous tunnel shot by them one after the other until they turned into one blurred steady stream, as Jack struggled to breathe through the sheer speed with which they were travelling, his cheeks pulled tight against his skull. As they sped along, Jack could hear Brad laughing next to him.

‘Yeehaw!’ He yelled, enjoying the bare knuckle ride.

As the cart soared along the tunnel, it approached its first corner. As the track slowly turned right, the cart leant right along with it, causing Jack to hold on tightly to his restraints.

‘Wow! I took that a bit fast! Nearly came off the damn rails!’ Shouted Brad against the noise. ‘That’ll teach me for showing off!’ He laughed. Jacks nails were digging into his restraints, this guy was a madman!

Just when Jack thought he could take no more, he caught a glimpse of hope at the end of the next straight. As the cart began to lose speed, he could see that they were approaching another station, the mirror image of the one that they had departed. The cart rapidly lost speed as it approached. Seconds later it trundled into the station, coming to a stop with a great jolt, rocking its occupants.

‘End of the line folks!’ Declared Brad, his voice bursting with merriment. As the harnesses automatically released up above them, he turned to Jack. ‘How’d ya find that kiddo?’ He asked, as they all left the cart, Jack remained sat in his seat, his face slightly green.

‘Delightful…’ Was all Jack could utter, as he tried his best to stop himself from vomiting all over his new clothes.

‘Ah c’mon! No time for rest!’ Brad called back to Jack as they walked away. When the station stopped swirling around him, Jack pulled himself from the cart and followed the rest of the crowd.

Recovering quickly from his nausea, Jack could see the three ahead of him, slowly walking down the train platform. Jack, back in the land of the living, jogged back up to them until he was once again walking alongside Brad.

As the rails and their platform ended, the four found themselves walking down a large, concrete tunnel which left the station, wide enough for the four of them to walk side by side, in its centre was a solid yellow line, dividing the path. The tunnel was carved in to the rock, which spanned into the distance for what looked like a mile.

‘Ah, finally decided to catch up ey?’ Teased Mr Striker, his voice echoing through the rocky tunnel. Jack ignored the quip.

‘Don’t tell me we’re inside the mountain?’ Asked Jack. Savannah snorted.

‘Sharp one ain’t we!’ She laughed, her laugh too reverberated throughout the shaft.

‘Savannah please. Be polite to our guest.’ Reminded Brad, this time without any of the anger that was present before. ‘You could say that Jack yeah. Not quite in the middle yet, but as we walk, we travel. Deeper and deeper into Mt. Marron.’ Jack was impressed.

As they strode deeper into the tunnel, Jack noticed that as they walked they passed the entrances to further tunnels that were the same size as the tunnel itself. They lead to who knew where within the mountain.

‘Best not to get lost here Jack.’ Advised Brad. ‘Some of our men have been lost in here for days. Plays tricks with the mind.’ He explained, tapping his finger against his head. ‘My advice? Stick to this main tunnel, leads you straight to the main attraction.

Immediately, Brad was interrupted by a whirring noise that crept up behind him, the tunnel was suddenly bathed in light.

‘Oops, watch out guys hug the wall!’ Brad yelled. Before Jack had chance to see what was going on, he was grabbed by one of Tanque’s huge hands, as he was lifted from the centre of the tunnel towards the wall as if he weighed nothing. As the others followed suit, a small vehicle passed, coming to a halt as it arrived.

The small six-wheeled vehicle had appeared as if out of nowhere. Standing on rugged tyres, it was an open top van of sorts, its whirring electric motor squealed as it braked. The driver, one of Brad’s staff, was wearing a blue boiler suit with a white hard hat. He looked flustered at the sight of his employer.

‘A ride Senor?’ Enquired the driver.

‘Yeah, seeing that you nearly ran us down there, I should think so!’ Answered Brad, noticeably irritated. ‘Take us to the centre. C’mon guys. Jump on in!’ He called to the others as he climbed onto the back of the vehicle. Once inside, they all faced each other, huddled in tightly into the back of the van. With a jump, the car carried on down the tunnel. Feeling an awkward silence emerging, Jack decided to introduce some conversation.

‘This really is wicked.’ He commented in admiration at the facility. ‘I mean, it’s unbelievable!’ The silence still lingered. After a few beats, Brad responded.

‘Wicked? How’d ya mean?’ He asked, puzzled at the word.

‘Oh no not literally, I just mean its wicked… err, cool!’ Jack reassured flustered.

‘Hah! Ah got ya! Still getting used to your lil’ phrasings.’

Brad’s face changed from its smile suddenly, as it twisted into a look of curiosity.

‘But unbelievable, yeah… it sure is…’

Jack was puzzled, was there some double meaning to that last sentence?

Jack noticed the cart was beginning to slow, his body slowly moving to his right as his weight shifted towards the cab of the van. As they slowed, the tunnel widened, its walls and ceiling gradually stretched farther away from him until they were out of sight. Before Jack could look to see where he was, the vehicle stopped with a jolt, causing all of its occupants to nearly lose their balance.

‘Jesus man! Easy on the brakes!’ Barked Brad.

‘Sorry Senor…’ Half whispered the driver, not daring to look his employer in the eye.

His face once again switched from that of spitting rage to a calm amiable smile.

‘Out you jump Jack buddy.’ He nodded behind him as if trying to show him something. ‘Once more sight for you to gaze your eyes on.’ His wide smile still on his face, he leapt from the back of the vehicle, his feet landing with a crunch. ‘C’mon!’ He yelled after him. Jack tried to make eye contact with the two remaining passengers, neither responded. It was as if they had both seen this display a million times.

Giving up on them both, Jack leapt from the side of the vehicle, following Brad. The jump was higher than expected as he nearly lost his balance, his hands grasped the dirt as he tried to support himself.

‘Wow there son! You be careful huh!’ Laughed Brad, his voice echoed. ‘Come, take a look!’

Rising to his feet, Jack could see Brad standing on the edge of yet another precipice, this time there was no handrail there to lean on. As he walked towards him, Jack could not for the life of him figure out where he was. It was all very dark, the only light emanated from the ledge from where the man stood. Every footstep he made echoed into the darkness, making him feel he was walking within a giant cave. As he reached Brad on the ledge, Jack realised that a cave would be one hell of an understatement. ‘Welcome to my engineering triumph Mr Vance.’ Said Brad smugly.

Jack couldn’t believe it. It was another plummeting drop yes, but also it was a long way up too. As he looked down from where he stood, Jack could see the entirety of a giant cavern. To his left, a staircase hugged the walls of the cavern that was carved into the rock. It spiralled along the exterior of the cavern until it reached the bottom of the hole. Along the staircase, there were numerous entrances to tunnels, which led elsewhere.

Running up and down the spiralling staircase were countless workers, all dressed similar to the driver he had seen earlier. The artificial light that shone from various hanging lamps reflected off their helmets as they scurried about. The whole scene reminded Jack of a bee hive, or an ant’s nest as the workers scurried along the steps, hurrying in and out of the various lit entrances to countless tunnels.

The hive of activity ran all the way to the bottom of the pit, where even more workers and machinery operated tirelessly. Jack tried to judge where he was. Brad had told him that he had been travelling into the centre of the mountain. No he thought, this couldn’t be.

‘Impossible…’ Was all Jack could think to say as he marvelled at the spectacle below.

‘Quite so Jack.’ Agreed brad, ‘But impossible is easy, my company achieves it every day.’

‘But it can’t be?’ Argued Jack, still lost for any intelligent words.

‘Oh but it is. You, Mr Vance, are looking at the inside of Mt Marron itself.’

Jack took a few moments to let it all sink in. It started to make sense. From the wide bottom of the pit, all the way to the narrow top where he stood, it slowly began to marry up to the shape of the mountain, albeit from the inside.

‘Don’t even begin to ask how.’ Said Brad, answering Jack’s question before it could even leave his lips. ‘Another miracle of engineering. All of this has been the result of my painstaking effort to find water in this retched mountain. What started as a simple mining operation ended up as you see now.’ His hand swept along the scene, explaining as he pointed. ‘You see each entrance you see along the perimeter staircase is in fact the beginning of a tunnel, leading on further into the mountain.’ Brad turned to look at Jack, his face bright with enthusiasm. ‘You see this mountain is a labyrinth of tunnels, all connected and all the result of a search for water which has yet alluded me.

‘But… how many tunnels are there?’ Asked Jack, his face lost in amazement as he stared at the scene.

‘Oh near enough sixty, all totalling at near enough three hundred miles combined.’ Brad shook his head, staring at the top of the pit, or to be more precise the mountain peak. ‘If you were to get lost in those tunnels I doubt we’d see you again. Heck, we’ve already lost half a dozen workers in that maze.’ He chuckled grimly to himself, almost revelling at the loss.

‘That’s terrible.’

‘Oh not at all Jack.’ Replied Brad. You see I pay em’ handsomely, and look at the equipment they get!’ He called at a passing worker, ‘Hey you! Your rock blaster, now!’ He yelled as he snatched the rifle-looking object off of him. He presented it to Jack. ‘This Mr Vance, it a SE-653 Valkyrie launcher.’ Brad announced as he waved the weapon in front of him. It looked very similar to an assault rifle, complete with an optical scope fitted to the top.

‘A rifle?’ Observed Jack.

‘No, no, no!’ Answered Brad suddenly, as if offended at the remark. ‘Sure it was ‘intended’ for military use, but rest assured this baby is used purely for mining. Well… that’s the official story.’ He continued to explain the weapon, starting from top to bottom. ‘As you can see it look like any other ‘rifle’ you may have seen, except when you look at the barrel.’

As he pointed at the barrel, he noticed it was spilt in down the middle from muzzle to trigger, making a passage to the base, where placed in front of the trigger, was a metal disc, it edges looking razor sharp.

‘You see placed here is a single, high explosive discus, equivalent to say, oh I don’t know a hand grenade. Once fired, the disc is fired electromagnetically through the passage, where then it digs into its intended target. Three seconds later…BOOM!’ Brad appeared to be carried away with his brief, lost in his fantasy of destruction. His eyed once again focused on Jack. ‘Just one of these discs can blow over a tonne of rock, making this tunnelling nonsense child’s play.’ He then proceeded to hand the weapon over to Jack. ‘Go on, have a feel!’

As Jack too the rifle off from Brad, he was surprised at how light it was. He cradled it in his arms, unsure at how to handle it. ‘Ah C’mon Jack! You never fired a gun before?’

‘Once or twice, my Uncle’s shotgun but that pretty much it.’

‘Oh well this is pretty similar, instead you have the scope here to look through. Have a try.’

Jack glanced at Brad suspiciously, as he placed the stock of the Valkyrie into his arm pit. As he leant in, he placed his right eye into the scope, his cheek hugging the cold metal of the weapon. Using the scope, Jack looked out below the expanse in front of him.

The scope was electronic, various characters fluttered around the eyepiece, informing him of wind direction, light levels, and the range of what he was pointing at. This was high tech stuff indeed. Through his scope, Jack observed the workers going about their business. They were busy digging, lifting, talking, some even dared to smile. Despite the hard work, they kept their morale.

‘Impressive.’ Remarked Jack, his eye still at the scope.

‘Isn’t it?’ Agreed Brad. ‘Those Valkyries were one hell of a find. Unlike those workers.’ He snarled. Jack continued to observe them through the scope.

‘What’s wrong with them?’ Jack asked innocently. He was unprepared for Brad’s response.

WHAT’S WRONG?!’ Shouted Brad, his voice echoed deafeningly through the mountain, causing even those at the bottom to glance up. ‘Look at them! Useless wasters! I give them the best technology, pay and welfare and still they work slowly. Still they find no water!’

Jack raised his face from the rifle, looking over at Brad in disbelief. His face looked once again lost in rage. ‘Always the way with that damn Mexican filth. No work ethic. They’re just happy to stay here and leech off of my good will and bleed me dry!’

Before Jack could even say a word, Brad snapped, and strode furiously in his direction. Sweeping towards him. H grabbed Jack from behind, holding his arms firmly, his words spat into his ear. ‘You know what? To hell with it! Take a shot Jack! Go on!! Put one of those God damn, leeches out of my misery!’

Where the hell had this come from?! In the space of a second Brad had returned to his rage induced persona, only this time it seemed more furious than ever, murderous even! Jack was genuinely scared, trembling under the gravity of the situation. He tried to protest, but only a vague croak came from his throat.

‘Well? What are you waiting for boy!?’ Yelled brad into his ear, shaking with every word.

‘How am I supposed to trust you Jack?! I’ve taken you in, a complete stranger. I’ve clothed you, fed you and shown you my entire operation! I think it’s time for a little proof of loyalty wouldn’t you say?’ His menacing words filled Jack, still frozen in disbelief. ‘Come on Jack, prove your loyalty! Or damn it I swear to god I will get Tanque to throw you off of this ledge! Nobody saw you come in here Jack, nobody has to see you come out!’

Jack could hear the deep, heavy footsteps of Tanque, as he listened to him jump from the cart and slowly walk behind him.

‘Let’s count down from three shall we Mr Vance? You seem an educated boy, you can do that can’t you? Now, look down that scope and waste one of those mongrels.’

Shaking, Jack pressed his eye once again to the scope of the rifle. Through it, he could see the hive of activity on the stairwell and at the base of the mountain.

‘Three…’

Jack scanned across the mass of faces, some were smiling, some were contorted deep in concentration as they worked, whilst others laughed, blissfully unaware that he held the power of life and death over them.

‘Two…’

Each count lingered in his ear, the next seemingly taking an age to arrive, surely this was a bluff, Jack wondered, amazed at the pace of events. Jack picked a target at random, a single worker who was innocently working, using his pick shovel to break down some finer rock. This was to be the man who would have to die so that Jack could live.

‘One…’

As Jack’s finger began to squeeze at the trigger, he froze. A wave of self-loathing cut through the panic he was feeling. There was no way he could do it. No way could he kill an innocent person, regardless of the consequences. His uncle’s words, still fresh in his head, came to the fore of his mind.

‘The devil rules with silent fools…’ He whispered softly to himself as his uncle’s words made sense. He would not silently obey and become a mindless killer.

‘Times up! Tanque!’

Within a split second, Jack’s world turned upside down, as something grabbed his right foot, lifting him into the air. It was Tanque. Once again he had lifted Jack as if he were nothing.

Jack dangled as he was suspended over the ledge, leaving him staring down face first at the bottom of the mountain hollow hundreds of feet below.

The blood rushed to his head as Jack tried to look back up at Brad and Tanque, searching into their eyes. With pleading eyes, he struggled to tell whether they meant it, but all he could see was Brad’s insane, wicked smile beaming back at him, seemingly enjoying Jack’s ordeal. This was it he thought, death. Closing his eyes Jack readied himself, waiting for his stomach to turn at the sudden sensation of gravity as it dragged him downwards.

Silently and to no one in particular, Jack prayed that his end would be swift and painless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14: The Other Side of the Dime.

 

‘Are you crazy Pa?! Stop it!’

Jack slowly opened his eyes. Still hanging upside down, he could see Savannah as she ran up from behind the two men, flailing her arms hysterically in protest. ‘What the hell! Have you gone mad?!’ Her voice silenced the noise of activity that once filled the empty mountain. Time froze as Jack was left hanging from Tanque’s arm, its grip thankfully still unyielding.

Snapping out of its furious trance, Brad’s face returned to normal and all traces of evil suddenly turned into the same care free frivolity he had before. Slowly, he turned to face his daughter, his hands raised in the air in mock surrender.

‘Honey!’ He began, his hands still raised. ‘I’m just goofing’ around is all! Ain’t that right Tanque?’ Turning away from his daughter to Tanque, his smiling face dropped back into a scowl as he shook his head, signalling the giant to stop.

Without a trace of effort, Tanque tossed Jack back to the floor, sending him crashing into a cloud of dust as he landed. Jack stared at the ceiling, his chest pounded furiously, body and mind still believed that death was imminent.

‘Dad I saw the whole thing! Are you crazy?! Why was Tanque doing that?’ Brad rolled his eyes at Tanque, once again forcing the return of the smiling face as he turned to his daughter again.

‘It was jus’ a little test sweetheart! Ya see, the boy’s a stranger, we don’t know who he really is! Hell he could have been an industrial spy! I just wanted to test the boy’s honour is all, and hey! Looks like he passed!’ He said with a chuckle. ‘I gave the boy a live Valkyrie for Christ’s sake, gave him the chance to cause real chaos.’

His excuse on paper seemed feeble, but the man’s sheer charisma almost fooled Jack himself. He’d nearly been thrown off a ledge by the man! Brad continued to calm his daughter, as he lowered his hands, slowly picking the Valkyrie back up from the floor.

‘But he did the right thing ya see? Couldn’t even pull the trigger. Not that it mattered, it isn’t even armed!’ As he pulled the trigger the weapon clicked, accompanied by an electronic noise that signalled the weapon was inactive. ‘So I guess we’re all good yeah?’ He turned back to Jack, extending a hand to him, ‘Seems you check out kid! Sorry for putting you through that but I just had to know.’ As he pulled Jack up from the dust he smiled, but Jack could not un-see the insane expression that had been there minutes ago.

‘S-sure…’ Was all Jack could mutter, still in deep shock from the ‘display’.

‘There we go! All friends again!’ He said confidently, dusting the dirt from Jack’s leather Jacket.

The act didn’t seem to fool Savannah, her face still thunderous with rage at her father’s actions. She marched up to Jack, pulling him away from her father. She held him by the woollen lapels of his Jacket, facing him away from the others.

‘You alright kid?’ She asked, her face for once looking sincere, without a hint of irony.

‘Y-yeah, trust me I-I’m fine.’ Assured Jack, trying his best to put on a brave face. Maintaining eye contact, she gave a knowing nod, as if to reassure him before releasing his Jacket. She patted his sides and took a step back to give him space.

‘Ya see? All fine! He sure is a good kid ain’t he?’ Brad emerged, smiling intently.

The awkward silence remained for a few seconds until, satisfied, the masses below continued their work. The drama had ended. Brad cleared his throat.

'Now, here concludes the tour of our operation, quite something ain’t it?' Nobody replied. 'Now it’s… four- thirty' He declared, glancing at his watch. 'If we leave now, we’ll be back just in time for Chef’s meat platter. Trust me it’s better than it sounds!' With a laugh, he gestured towards the tunnel that led back to the rail station, 'Shall we?' Whistling as he left, he walked away to the tunnel as Tanque followed.

Jack stood there open mouthed, his legs heavy as if he were made of stone. Not knowing what to think or who to trust, his mind raced. Savannah, walking past him, tapped him twice on the shoulder. Turning to his right, he saw her give him a genuine smile as if to reassure him. She nodded towards the exit, encouraging him to follow them back to the mansion.

‘Hey I’ve got ya kid. Jus’ stick with me.’ She called back as she walked away.

Jack ran his hands through his hair, exhaling in sheer exasperation before following the girl who may have just saved his life.

***

 

As the evening passed with relative normality, the events of the past hour failed to leave Jack’s mind. The trip back to the mansion aboard the MAGLEV and the subsequent dinner had gone by without a word of the incident passing, as if all were normal.

That’s not to say that the dinner itself wasn’t sublime. Taking place within the grand dinner hall of the mansion, the meat platter had been a wonderful feast, consisting of glazed chicken wings that melted in his mouth, complete with mountains of fries and the thickest juiciest ribs he had ever tasted. He may have nearly met his death in his new surroundings, but if he did, there was no way he was going to do so hungry.

Despite the feast, they had ate mainly in silence, nobody daring to mention the day’s occurrences. Pleasantries were made and goodnights were said, where upon Jack was returned his room under the watchful eye of Tanque. As he was ushered into his room, the door was abruptly closed behind him with a click. Out of curiosity Jack tried the door handle. It didn’t budge at all. He was locked in. With a sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck with a single hand, turning to face the familiar sight of his room, the animal busts hung wide eyed, as if there to greet him.

‘Miss me boys?’ He asked rhetorically as he threw of his leather Jacket, which was still covered with a fine sprinkling of dust from his travels into the mountain. As the Jacket landed on the back of the chair by his desk, Jack then proceeded to kick off his heavy Belstaff boots, not caring where they landed. Emotionally exhausted from his strange day, he ambled towards his freshly made bed. He smirked to himself as he shook his head, ‘At least it’s a first class prison.’

With a leap, he dove onto the bed, bouncing twice on the soft mattress. Finally settled, he faced the ceiling as he pondered his current situation. He was trapped, there was no doubt about that. The locked door was evidence enough.

Taking stock of his predicament, Jack wondered what he was going to do. Here he was, trapped alone in a strange country, in a bizarre house, on an absurd mountain. How did it all come to this? What was he supposed to do? He thought about calling home. The idea of the speaking to his uncle sent a flurry of butterflies racing throughout his stomach. Home was not an option right now, he would have to carry on laying low until things had settled. Not that his new abode was the safest place to be either. It wasn’t like he could just call home, he found it curious that he hadn’t seen a single phone during his whole stay here at the mansion. Even if he did want to call home, he was unsure whether he would be allowed to. Jack continued to stare at the white ceiling, lost further in thoughts of how to escape his predicament.

The peace and quiet was suddenly interrupted by a knocking softly on his door. The bangs were so faint it were as if whoever it was didn’t want to be noticed at all. Jack rose up as the knocking stopped, listening intently into the resuming silence. A few moments passed as Jack hesitantly relaxed back onto the bed.

Just as he did, the knocking returned, four rhythmic knocks that barely made a sound on the door. It was as if a mouse was trying to get in. Having had enough, Jack leapt to his feet, heading for the locked door. As he crept towards door, he placed his head against its wooden structure, holding his breath as he tried his best to hear if there was any activity that was coming from outside. The whisper returned.

‘Psst! Jack! Are you there?’

Jack smiled to himself, the muted voice belonged to Savannah, his only apparent ally in this crazy house. Her voice continued to probe through the door into his ear, its tone turning more teasing and melodic, perhaps out of frustration and boredom at her lack of response.

‘Don’t tell me you’re busy fixin’ ya hair?’

Jack shook his head, the cheek of the girl! With a quick strike of his fist, he lightly struck the door with a bang. As Savannah yelped in surprise, he chortled to himself.

‘Serves you right missy!’ He called through, taking delight in having once got one up on the girl.

‘Shhh! Keep it down God damn it!’ Savannah whispered harshly, her playful tones turning into concern. ‘I’m not supposed to be here you son of a gun! Jus’ let me in ok?’

‘I can’t! I’m bloody locked in!’ Jack replied, lowering his voice to match hers.

‘Seriously? You kidding me?’ Jack could see the door handle wobble as she tried to open it, as if she didn’t believe him.

‘Don’t you think I’ve tried that?’ Goaded Jack. ‘Your Dad’s pet gorilla locked me in here an hour ago. What’s going on?’

‘Tanque did this? Well there’s no way he’d have done this without being ordered to, hold on two secs.’ As she stopped speaking, Jack could hear a jingling noise followed by a methodical scratching that came from the keyhole of the door. Various clicks and clunks followed, interrupted by the occasional swear word. With one definite clunk, her voice returned.

‘Got it!’ Cried Savannah. Her voice suddenly went back to that of a whisper, having forgotten herself. ‘Step back from the door, I’m coming in.’ Jack did as he was told, taking a step backwards towards the bed. Judging by Savannah’s last sentence, he expected her to kick the door in, action hero style. Instead, the door creaked as it opened inwards slightly. After a pause, Savannah’s head popped through the crack as her unruly blonde ponytail flowed across her face, which beamed the most terrific smile. Her eyes were wild with the pride and excitement of having successfully picked the lock.

‘How on earth did you do that?’ Asked Jack, genuinely impressed. As if to answer, the smiling blonde’s hand came through the door crack, producing in it, an unfolded hairclip.

‘What they fail in keeping my hair tidy, they sure make up for in breaking and entering!’

Savannah cautiously opened the door further as she crept in, checking back down the corridor to ensure she wasn’t followed.

‘What the hell are you doing here Savannah?’ Jack asked.

‘Oh I’m just here for a sleepover Jack! Movies, cocoa and pillow fights?’ She tilted her head, exasperated with the English boy.

‘R-really?’ Jack asked ignorantly, with a hint of hope.

NOO!’ Screamed Savannah as quietly as she could in disbelief, her eyes rolling in disbelief. ‘I’m here to break you out you moron. Now grab your Jacket and come with me, I’ve got something to show you!’ She ordered as she laid out her hand.

‘Full of mixed signals aren’t you?’ Quipped Jack as he grabbed his bomber Jacket from the chair by the dresser table.

‘Now!’ Hissed Savannah as she grabbed his hand, yanking him from the confines of his prison.

 

As he tried to keep up with her through the corridor, Jack could barely get his bearings as she dragged him through various passageways and doors, each looking the same as the last. They passed a constant string of dimly lit, dusty pictures and ornaments that bathed in the low light of the gas lamps that were suspended along the walls. It gave Jack the impression he was being led through an old haunted house. Cobwebs hung ominouslyhauntingly throughout.

‘I take it your dad has cleaners working here?’ Enquired Jack on reflection as he tried to keep up with Savannah.

‘Shh!’ Savannah came to a stop, turning to glare at the impertinent English boy. ‘How many times do I have to tell you to be quiet?’ She looked genuinely angry yet frightened.

‘Ok, ok.’ Jack responded calmly, ‘But where are you taking me? Why all the secrecy?’

‘You’ll see soon enough.’ She promised, once again checking they weren’t being followed. ‘I just want to get out of this mad house for a few hours, besides, you’ve seen for yourself how odd this place is. I think it’s time you checked out the other side of the dime.’

‘The other side of the what?’ Jack asked bemused as they passed through the next of countless doors.

‘C’mon! We haven’t got time to be talking like this, we might be seen. Aha! Here we are!’ As she stopped, Jack found himself arriving at one of many doors, only this one had a wooden plaque above it, which etched upon it, simply read ‘Study’.

Before Jack could even ask where they were, Savannah had already expertly unlocked the door yet again using the same hairpin trick she had used before. Like magic, the door swung open.

‘Inside! Now!’ She ordered, dragging Jack through the door.

With the door closed behind them, Savannah flicked on the lights. The dull glow softly illuminated the room, revealing a beautiful Victorian study. Despite its small size, each and every wall was covered with row upon row of shelves laden with old books, each shelf rising from floor to ceiling. In the corner, lay a grand writing desk, complete with writing quill which was nearly buried amongstin the heaps of disorganised paper work that littered its surface. On top of the desk also, stood a solid gold globe, t. The dull light of the room shone off its surface. Jack could see the nations of the earth upon it, etched intricately upon on its golden surface.

‘Well this is certainly some library.’ Said Jack admiringly as he took the room in.

‘It’s my father’s study.’ Noted Savannah bluntly. ‘And we sure as hell ain’t here to read Jack.’

‘Well what are we doing here?’ HeJack enquired as Savannah paced towards the writing desk, paying particular attention to the globe upon its surface. As she stood next to the globe, she stared at it intently, her hands caressing its golden surface.

‘What are you doing?’ Jack asked as he approached the strange girl.

‘Quiet! I’m trying to figure something out.’

‘I really don’t think we have time for a geography lessonthink you’ll find it’s what’s commonly known as a globe…’ Jack teased.

Savannah froze, stopping to glare at the irritating Englishman she had sprung from his room.

‘Do you have time forAnd you’ll be suffering what’s commonly known as a nose bleed Mr Vance? Cause’ that’s what you’re gonna get if you don’t keep your trap shut! Got it?’ Her eyes seemed be shooting daggers straight through Jack.

‘Fine, fine…’ Jacks hands were raised in the air in surrender at the terrifying blonde as her hands continued to explore the globe. Delicately, she managed to cause the top half of the Earth to rotate clockwise.

‘Now… If I just turn the northern hemisphere a few degrees to the… Aha! Got it!’

With a click, the globe split in two, its top half springing open on a hinge, which exposed a small red button that was atop the globes lower half. ‘Tada!’ Savannah turned to Jack, her face full of self-satisfaction.

Still grinning at Jack, Savannah coolly flicked the red switch, causing the whole room to judder slightly. The lights flickered off for a second as the main bookcase to rumble, its books and trinkets shook as it sprung to life. Slowly, the bookcase began to lower itself into the floor, a sliver of new light poured into the room from the space behind it. With a thud, the bookcase completely disappeared into the floor, exposing a whole new room that adjoined the study. However this was no mere room. This was the mansions garage. Jack passed the smug girl to get a closer look as he whistled to himself in sheer admiration.

‘You have to be kidding me?’

‘Pretty cool ey?’ Affirmed savannah, having approached him from behind, she rested her hands on his shoulders, taking the time to admire the spectacle herself. It wasn’t often she got to see it all through a stranger’s eyes.

The garage was huge, upon its, shining marbled floor lay rows upon rows of different vehicles, lined up in pristine condition as if it were a museum. Jack took a second to take it all in. Despite the clean and efficient layout of the place, the dirty smell of motor oil still permeated, invading his nostrils.

In front of him lay every manner of vehicle he could think of, from Lamborghinis to Lotus’s, Military Humvee’s to Maserati’s. Jack understood that it must be the garage he had seen attached to the side of the mansion earlier, but nothing prepared him for this.

‘Another of Pa’s hobbies.’ Answered Savannah before Jack could ask. ‘He has people scour the world in search of new toys. Heck this modest collection has cost him millions!’ With a slap of the shoulders, she continued past him, aimlessly skulking amongst the lines of countless cars. ‘Besides, it’s my ride we’re after. You and me are going for a lil trip ya see?’

‘Trip? Trip where?’

‘Oh now that would be tellin’!’ Savannah teased.

‘Ok… so which of these beauties is yours?’

‘Just a second.’ Said Savannah, searching her pockets. After a moments rummaging, she produced a set of keys in dramatic fashion. Smiling, she held them in the air as if to make a big presentation. With the flick of her wrist, she pressed a button on the keys, causing one of the vehicles horns to beep, a light also emerged from somewhere in the garage. The headlights he guessed.

‘There she is!’ Declared Savannah. Jack’s eyes followed the sound and light, wondering which of these automotive wonders she owned. The Aston Martin? The Bugatti? However as both Savannah and Jack’s eyes reached the origin of the lights, his excitement dropped somewhat.

At the far side of the garage, next to the door, stood a rusty, battered white Jeep Wrangler. Its roof removed with its paint peeling from the chassis, it was a world away from any other of the cars in the room.

‘This…is…yours?’ Jack asked delicately, trying his best not to offend.

‘Yeah… got a problem?’ Savannah responded, offence having blatantly been caused.

‘No…no It’s definitely got…character…’

‘You’re damn right she has!’ Without opening the door, she hurdled herself gracefully into the driver seat. ‘Besides. No matter what Daddies’ riches are, I pay my own way round here, and ol’ Spitfire here is all I can afford!’

‘Spitfire?’ Jack asked his face creased in derision.

‘Listen here knucklehead! Are you gonna get in or just ask questions all day?!’

As Jack dutifully approached, she started the car, its diesel engine coughed and spluttered as it just about kicked into life. He tried to open the passenger door, Jack noticed it was locked. He knocked lightly on the door to get her attention, worried his hand would pass through the rusty bodywork.

‘Door’s welded Kiddo, throw your leg over!’

Jack couldn’t believe this, was there ever an easy way to get into these vehicles? Using all his force, he clumsily launched himself over the door, coming to rest with a bump in the passenger seat.

‘Where’s the seatbelt?’ He asked innocently.

Savannah could only snigger, as she pressed another button on the sunshade of her window, causing the garage door to slowly open.

‘You ready?’ Savannah asked as her grinning face beamed down at him. She seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of leaving the mansion. With a sudden jolt, the Jeep leapt from its parking space. Its tyres squealed as the Jeep flew through the garage entrance and into the driveway.

With the wind in his hair, Jack noticed they were passing the front of the mansion, towards the single winding road that led down the mountain. Before they reached the road however, Savannah brought the car to a sudden halt, stopping near the cliff face where he and Brad had overlooked the town of New Springs earlier.

The engine idled as the car rested. ‘Take a look down there, New Springs I mean. Notice anything?’

It was hard to see the town below in the dark, the occasional speck of light made out certain buildings but there were no street lights at all to help him make out the town as a whole. There was one aspect that stood out however. Something new.

The town centre. The single square of land in the centre of New Springs that the Mexican workers called home, was awash with light. Not just any light however, but a teeming rainbow, greens, reds, blues and pinks flickered and washed within the square. It looked like something akin to a funfair.

‘What is it?’ Asked Jack as he continued to peer over the ledge.

‘That my English friend, is what I wanted to show you.’ She paused for dramatic effect, she continued as if she was introducing a circus act. ‘For down there, for one night out of the year, is what the local workers call, Día de los Muertos. Or if you ain’t familiar with the lingo, the Day of The Dead!’ Jack looked back confused.

‘That’s a Mexican thing right?’ Jack asked in vague ignorance.

‘Well who do you think the majority of the workers here are Jack? Canadian?’ It may be a few weeks out, but tonight is the only night that Pa allows the locals to have off to celebrate it.’ Her face seemed lost in wonder as the colours danced off of her face. ‘Oh Jack it’s a wonderful celebration.’

‘But why are we going?’

‘Like I said Jack.’ Her face turned serious as she spoke to him. ‘I want you to see the other side of the dime. Now come on, we haven’t got all night, we’ve got a lot to see!’

With effort, she forced the old car back into gear and headed for the main road down the mountain to New Springs. Jack’s head sprang back into the head rest of his seat as they flew down the dirt track into darkness.

The noise and light from the Jeep disappeared into the black of night, leaving the mansion alone once more. As the garage door automatically shut with a click, the building stood there in silence, save for the noise of cicadas that rang out into the pitch black night.

In the darkness, it would have been nearly impossible to notice the mansion at all. Embedded in the face of the rock, with not a single light showing through the windows, it seemed to have melted into the mountain itself.

That is apart from one single, solitary window. Located at the very top of the mansion, it barely glowed in the night. Normally, the single window would have shone with a greater glare, but not tonight. For, blocking the light, stood the silhouetted figure of Tanque as he loomed against the glass. Watching the Jeep slip into the night, a cruel grin began to form on his battle scarred face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15: Dia de los Muertos.

The ride along the single dirt track that careered down Mt. Marron had left Jack shaken. Savannah had driven the old Jeep as if it were a rally car as she edged every corner with expert use of the gears. She knew the road like it was the back of her hand as she hurtled down the pitch black mountainside. Her expertise however had not been comfort to Jack, as with each hairpin turn he held on for dear life, his nails leaving marks in the plastic armrest of the door.

But for now, at the foot of the mountain, he felt safe. As they approached civilisation, the dirt track soon gave way to solid tarmac. As they reached the town, the street lamps of New Springs glowed ahead, each with a swarm of flying insects that gathered below. As the Jeep drove swiftly on, Savannah checked on her passenger.

‘You all right Kid?’ She asked without looking.

‘Yup.’ Jack answered plainly. ‘Fly here often then?’ Savannah laughed.

‘Oh don’t be such a baby! I can handle this route with my eyes closed!’

As the car took a right turn, they found themselves on the main stretch of New Springs, the empty houses and gardens passed them by.

‘How is this place so dead?’ Jack asked. ‘I spoke with Mrs Striker the other day, she blamed the Mexicans.’ Savannah snorted.

‘Oh she would, that pig headed ol’ wretch! Don’t you listen to her. The town just died, it happens! If anything Dad’s work staff are bringing something new to this ghost town.’

‘Despite the way he treats them?’ Jack dared to ask.

Savannah paused for a moment as she turned into the next street.

‘Yeah, Dad’s an ass.’ She agreed. ‘He came from New Springs originally you see? Only he left to go to college, by the time he’d graduated the place had died. Like the rest of the folks here, he blames the Mexicans.’

Jack’s face screwed up in confusion.

‘I don’t get it though. Why is he using Mexican labour for his grand return to his hometown? A little ironic hypocritical it?’

‘Hey it’s a business to him at the end of the day. Despite his desire to resurrect

 

t the town, he has to use cheap labour, and heck, nobody works for less than those guys. They seem happy enough jus’ getting by on the American dream.’

‘Stinks of iIrony to me.’ Noted Jack. ‘So are you going to tell me where we’re headed then?’

As the old Jeeps breaks kicked into action, Savannah pulled the car over to a stop besides another row of abandoned houses.

‘Can’t you hear it?’ She asked. She switched the Jeeps loud engine off to help him hear. As Jack listened, he noticed he could hear something. A low beat drifted through the air as the accompanying bass shook the ground. The vague sound of horns and percussion could be heard in the distance.

‘Music!’ Jack answered surprised.

‘Yeah music.’ Savannah said encouragingly. ‘Know what it is?’

Jack paused to wonder, doing his best to decipher the notes that drifted along the street.

‘Salsa?’ He asked meekly.

‘Ah close kiddo. Samba! Sounds like they’re having one hell of a party!’

‘But why? How do you know so much about it all?’

‘Cause down here is my escape from the mad house up there. They know me pretty well here. And as for why there’s a party? I’ll show you, it’s just around the block.’ Savannah fired up the Jeep again, as they continued on their journey.

As they cruised through the empty streets, they approached the town centre.

‘Here we are. Welcome to Día de los Muertos!’ Savannah announced.

The central square of New Springs had been transformed. The maze of tents that dominated the centre had for tonight been swept to the side lines to make room for the main show. In the centre stood a set of four sporting stands, they all faced towards each other, creating a makeshift stadium.

From within the centre of the stadia, fireworks were being launched into the night, transforming the black featureless sky with a myriad of colours which burst and exploded into various patterns. The light lit up the streets, casting shadows as they erupted. On the ground, rows upon rows of Catherine wheels spun vigorously as they burned bright in unison. The whole thing was amazing. As they approached the party, Savannah explained.

‘Día de los Muertos. Day of the dead to me and you.’

As the car approached ever closer, the hive of activity became more and more clear. Scattered around the stands, were countless people, all of whom appeared to be in fancy dress. Although to Jack it looked more like Halloween, with most of the wandering people dressed like skeletons. Their faces were covered by masks depicting skulls of differing colours and styles. Despite the grim costume, the party goers were revelled in the celebrations as they danced with joy, lost in the noise and rhythm of the music that permeated into the night.

‘As you correctly stated Jack, It’s a Mexican thing. You see, it’s a festival…’

‘…Remembering and praying for friends and family that have died.’ Interrupted Jack with some knowledge, still taking in the mass of dancing men, women and children that now surrounded the car.

‘Well aren’t you a smart ass.’ Savannah laughed.

‘Mrs Burns, religious education…’ Stated Jack, his school lessons now seemed a million miles away.

‘Well, yeah, you’re right.’ Confirmed Savannah. ‘It usually takes place October 31^st,^ carrying on till November 2nd. Only we’re having it now in July, and only for tonight. It’s the only time Dad will permit them to have it if you get my drift?’

‘Pretty brutal.’ Agreed Jack.

As the car pulled up to the perimeter of the bleachers that made the stadium, Savannah brought the car to a stop, parking nowhere in particular. As she turned the engine off, the noise of the party engulfed them, whilst surrounding the car, skeleton people in full costume passed by in all directions, their spooky skull faces glancing at the strangers in the car. It was an eerie sight, despite the good intentions of the revellers.

Whilst Jack tried to gauge his surrounding, the crowd in front of him parted. In a hectic state, a large man without fancy dress burst through towards Jack and Savannah. Dressed in raggedy clothes that hung off his rotund frame, he looked every bit the pirate. Who needed fancy dress? His moustached face was beamed with joy as his arms spread wide in invitation.

‘Senorita Striker!!!’ He cried, his booming voice broke through the noise of the party. Pushing As he made his way through the crowd, he arrived at the battered Jeep and. He slapped the bonnet with his huge hand as he laughed. A strong man, Jack felt the whole vehicle shudder in response as he struck the rusty bonnet.

‘Saul Vega!’ Cried Savannah full of humour as she leapt from the seat of the Jeep without any effort at all. Excitedly, sheShe jumped straight into the giant Mexican’s arms, embracing him tightly.

‘Mi niña, Mi niña!’ The man returned the deep hugheld her just as tightly. After a few seconds the embrace was over. Dwarfing Savannah, Saul held the girl at arm’s length. His leathery tanned face creased as he smiled, pleased to see herSavannah. She seemed equally as pleased to see him.

‘You came! Oh Savannah I’m so pleased!’ He gave her an affirming tap with one of his arms.

‘Oh you know me Saul, never could resist a good party.’

‘Si, Si, and here you are, you haven’t missed one yet!’

‘Yes, they seem to get bigger every year.’ Her face turned to that of suspicion as she tried to peek past the giant, looking at the stands. ‘But do tell me Senor Vega, where on earth did you get those bleachers?’ Saul’s tough face grinned sheepishly as he laughed nervously at the girl.

‘The stands? Oh…we acquire those from the high school basketball hall…’ As he released Savannah, one of his arms rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he struggled to explain his actions.

SAUL!!!’ Savannah cried with shock. Despite her disapproval, her face still smiled in amusement. ‘Do you realise what will happen if Pa’ foundinds out you’ve stolen these from the school?!’

Saul held his arms high in the air defensively.‘No, no!’ Protested Saul, his hands in the air. ‘No, no! We only borrowed them, there’s nobody there you see?’

‘I know, I know. But you could get in serious trouble Mr!’

‘Si, but only the best for the fiesta!’

As he shied away from the subject, the big man’s gaze caught the sight of the blonde boy who sat anxiously in the Jeep. Savannah caught the man’s curious glare, looking back towards Jack.

‘Oh yeahs! Mr Vega, let me introduce to you a new… friend of mine. Mr Jack Vance.’ Over the noise and crowds of the party, Savannah waved over to Jack as she signalled for him to come over and join them.

Clumsily, Jack slunkgot out of the jeep and made his way through the crowd towards the couple, unsure of what to say.

‘Hi, my name’s Ja-..’ Before he could finish his opening sentence, Saul grabbed the boy, engulfing him in a giant bear hug as he, squeezeding the air out of his lungs.

‘Aye, aye, aye! Savannah found herself un novio!’ He cried joyfully, crushing Jack ever tighter.

‘No, no Saul! Not a boyfriend, just… a friend!’ Savannah protested.

Having heard this, Saul released Jack, and took a step back to look at him. His big puppy dog eyes turning back to Savannah.

‘Seriously? No? Shame, he looks like a good one!’ Laughing, he slapped Jack heartily on the arm with his paddle like hand, nearly knocking him over.

‘No Saul, just a friend.’ Reassured Savannah with a nervous laughlaughing. Raul once again looked down at Jack, his smile was perhaps the warmest and friendliest heJack had ever seen.

‘Ah… well it’s a pleasure to meet you Senor Vance. Any friend of Savannah is a friend of mine.’

‘So are we invited to this year’s party?’ Asked Savannah impatiently with a smirk as she nodded towards the stands.

‘Oh Si, Si! Where are my manners? Well I’m afraid that you have missed the opening fireworks display. However the next show is about to start. ‘The grand Piaffe!’’ Jacks nodded and smiled with a feigned enthusiasm, not having a clue as to what the big Mexican was talking about.

‘The dancing horse…’ Whispered Savannah mercifully into his ear.

‘Ahhh…’

‘Come, come!’ Saul beckoned excitedly towards the stand. ‘I have seat reserved just for you and I’m sure I can make room for your date!’

‘Not my date Saul!’ Snarled Savannah with attitude as they followed the man towards the stadium.

Alone, it would have been a nightmare to make it through the crowds, but with Saul, the crowds parted as if he were Moses before the Dead Sea.

As they made their way to the stands, it was sensory overload for Jack. The sights, sounds and smells of the Fiesta were a whole new experience. The grand costumes, pounding music and lavish smells of various Latin foods overloaded hisJacks senses as they made it into the arena, scaling the steep steps as they clambered over the sitting spectators on the bleachers. As Raul promised, there were two seats free, however, no room for Jack.

‘Vete, vete!’ Yelled Saul an unfortunate spectator. Immediately, the small man bolted from his chair, leaving a new seat free. It seemed nobody dared argue with Saul. Smiling broadly, he gestured for Jack to sit.

‘Thanks…’ Jack accepted nervously.

As they all took their seats, Jack took a view of the arena in front of him. The other stands too were packed full of spectators, who all were looking down to the empty patch of dust that was to be the stage for the acts of the night. On the stage, random people were scurried about as they cleared the debris left from the firework dispalys. Whilst they waited, Saul leant towards Savannah.

‘Senorita Striker, I am glad you are here tonight, there is somebody I wish for you to see.’ His voice once merry, now took a concerned tone.

‘Oh? Who might that be?’ Savannah enquired, not really paying attention as she continued to watch the crew ready the stage for the horse.

‘A young girl, she has just recently lost her f-..’

‘Ooh! Later Saul! The horse is comin’ on!’ Lost in glee, she ignored Saul’s question. ‘Oh I do love this part!’ Saul’s face dropped, seemingly crestfallen.

‘Later, sure.’ His heavy eyes looked towards the arena, his face lost in worried thought. Savannah was oblivious however, anxious for the start of the show. She nudged Jack, her face still glued to the stage.

‘Oh Jack you’re gonna love this. I do declare, you have never seen a horse dance!’

‘Dance? Really?’ Jack asked dubiously.

‘Oh yeah, it’s magnificent! You like horses Jack?’ She asked excitedly. Her demeanour shocked Jack. The cynical rebellious girl was now acting like a ten year old school girl as she spoke and fired questions at a rapid rate. She looked truly at home here.

‘Yeah sort of.’ Answered Jack non-committedly. ‘My uncle owns a couple. The moors back home are great for a canter I mean…’ Jack stopped himself, suddenly remembering how far away from home he was. Ashamed as he was to think it, he was homesick.

‘You ride? Oh wow you lucky son of a gun! Pa’ rarely lets me, says it’s too dangerous.’ She spoke hurriedly, as if genuinely excited at the idea.

‘Nah its fine as long as you respect the animal. I’ll show you one day. We could go for a ride together?’

‘Aw man that’d be sweet!’ The new, childlike savannah was lost in the idea as she stared into the night air.

Suddenly, the crowd hushed. A steady drum beat begun to echo through the stands. From the corner of the sand covered stage, Jack saw emerge the most striking horse he had ever seen. ‘Shh!!It’s beginning!’ Squealed Savannah.

As a hush spread across the crowdDespite the noisy and chaotic crowd, the horse, a stunning white Palomino horse, dressed in a myriad of red ribbons and decorative bells, calmly strode its way through the masses that surrounded the stage. Perched atop of the beast, sat a smartly dressed young man, dressed in the appropriate regalia that consisted, consisting of a striking black and white tussled leather trousers and Jacket with matching trousers. On his head he wore the biggest Stetson hat he had ever seen. Jack found the whole look fairly comical, pitying the beautifulpoor horse having to endure the whole gaudy façade.

As the animal approached the centre of the stage, the lights that illuminated the venue cut to darkness, except for a single spotlight that shone onto the horse and its rider, bathing them in a lone light. With the hushed crowd’s attention purely on the horse, the show begun.

As the Latin beat continued, the horse begun to trot on the spot, its hooves hitting the floor in perfect rhythm, seemingly dancing to the music. ItsThe horses posture was exact, the Palomino’sits head remained bowed, its and haunches raised. I, it was a sight of total discipline. Despite his comical appearance, tThe rider maintained absolute mastery over the beast, no matter how ridiculous he looked. Even withDespite Jack’s reservations, he had to admit it was an impressive sight. As he continued to watch the spectacle, Savannah nudged his arm.

‘So? What do you think?’ She asked excitedly, her voice barely audible over the music. Jack leant back towards her, not wanting to shout.

‘Impressive, very impressive. Though I must admit I’ve heard of this before, it’s hardly famous for being ‘fair’ to the horse. People say the training can be cruel.’ Jack tried to voice his concerns without offending her.

‘Ah phooey! People always wanna ruin everything! Ah’ve never seen any wrong doin’.’ She seemed unimpressed with the criticism, her arms folded, disappointed that he failed to appreciate the whole thing.

Not a word more was said until the lights once again blared bright and the show came to an end. The rider and horse were met with thunderous applause as they left from the same corner from where they had once emerged. Jack played along, clapping despite the nagging thoughts regarding animal welfare.

‘Still… quite a show!’ Jack knew the praiseit was too late as soon as the words had left his mouth.

‘Ah blow it kid. Ya hated it I can tell.’ She looked genuinely hurtgenuinely looked disappointed,. Jack wished he’d just kept his mouth shut. Saul leant in once again, thankfully breaking the awkward moment.

‘Senorita Striker, the young girl I mentioned earlier, would it be possible for you to come visit?’

‘Sure Saul, lead the way, we’re done here anyway.’ Jack wasn’t an expert with women, but he knew the doghouse when he was in it.

Without saying a word, Saul led the way as he barged his way through the crowds of people on the stands as the two guests to followed in his wake. Once they reached the bottom, Saul had the unenviable job of having to continue to lead the two through even more people who also were attempting to leave the arena.

‘This way Senorita, her caravan is here on the left behind the food stalls, it should only take a minute.’ Jack was still impressed to see how subordinate the huge Mexican was to the tiny blonde girl who looked a tenth his size.

‘No problem Saul, we’ve got all night.’ As they continued to make their way through the merry crowds, Savannah looked back. ‘Jack I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to throw my toys out of the pram there. It’s just, well this place means a lot to me. It’s, the one place I feel valued and at home. I guess any criticism of it just riles my up ya’ hear?’ For what it counted she did look genuinely sorry.

‘Hey don’t mention it.’ Jack tried to say reassuringly whilst trying to be heard over the noise of the festival. ‘I’d be the same if somebody bad-mouthed my home.’ Saying this, he reminded himself of the sweeping hills of Northumberland, the familiar pangs of homesickness once again sank in.

Turning a corner past a rabble of tents, the Jack and Savannah were led to small group of caravans. Rusted and falling to bits, they stood alone in a circle, away from the festivities which could still be heard, with the smell of the native cuisine wafting across the and smelt in the humid evening air. In between the caravans a small fire burnt. Sat around it, a group of tired looking people sat staring at the flames. Huddled around the fire, they appeared to be a small family. Upon the fire, a small boiling metal cauldron rumbled and popped, dinner was being cooked. The heady smell of pork and spices wafted towards Jack’s nostrils as the three approached the family, catching their attention.

‘Hola!’ Cried Saul, in turn causing the heads of each family member turn to look at the approaching strangers. ‘Cómo estás! Dónde está Angela Vasquez?’ He continued to ask cheerily in Spanish. The group glanced amongst themselves, exchanging looks before the grandmother of the group replied.

‘Ella está en la caravana.’ She replied, her withered mouth covered in bean sauce as she nodded towards the caravan behind her. ‘Voy a buscarla.’

‘Gracias.’ Saul thanked the old lady.

ANGELA!!!!’ Screamed the old lady, specks of food flying from her mouth. ‘ANGELA!!!’ She cried into the night, using her walking stick to strike the caravan behind her. For an old lady, she had one hell of a set of lungs. As the family continued to eat, Jack couldn’t help notice something odd about the family. There didn’t seem to be any male members. Not a single man sat around the cooking pot. Only women were at the meal, Instead, only women ranging from young girls to old women sat as they ate in silence.

As Jack pondered the strange image, a rattling and bustling noise came from the caravan behind the old lady, causing the structure itself to wobble slightly. Cascading from one side of the caravan to the other, the crashingrattling continued until the door at its end flew open, revealing a young girl of barely ten.

Wondering why she had been summoned, her young face scanned the world outside the door as her. Her gaze drifted to from her silent family, looking at them all in turn. Failing to get a response from them, her face turned towards the strange white boyr Jack, her head cocked in curiosity. The girl’s dirt covered face hid a thing of beauty, her tattered denim dress too downplaying how cute she really was. Her attention however was short spanned as it turned quickly towards Savannah, where her youthful face lit up with recognition, creatingausing the most adorable smile.

‘Savi!’ In a cloud of dust, she pelted from the caravan door towards the American giggling as she ran. In lightning speed, she ran into the arms of Savannah, who were now open, ready to embrace the young girl.

‘Angela!’ Cried Savannah, flinging the little girl high above her head before catching her. Both were dizzy with laughter, and an unmistakeable bond could be seen between the two. Placing the girl down, Savannah went on to introduce the little girl to the stranger who stood awkwardly beside her. ‘Angela, I want you to meet a new friend of mine. Meet Jack Vance.’

The girl now seemed shy as she hid closely behind Savannah’s leg. Her tiny face peered from behind Savannah in curiosity however, trying to gauge who the newcomer was. Jack dropped into a squat, reaching her level and trying his best not to appear threatening.

‘Hello there.’ Jack said in the friendliest voice he could muster, whilst grinning like an idiot. Angela slowly begun to creep out from her shell, emerging further from behind Savannah, making her way towards Jack.

‘You sound funny.’ She observed, he face screwed up in deep concentration as she stared at him. Savannah let out a loud laugh, tilting her head back in the process.

‘Hah! You sure got that right!’ She agreed, her head in her hands recovering from the girl’s comment. ‘He’s not from around here hon, he’s from far away.’

‘Oh? How far?’

‘Miles and miles away.’ Jack answered, smiling warmly at the girl. After a few moments more of staring, Angela soon lost her curiosity and became bored of the new boy. She turned back to Savannah and clung onto her leg as if she were her mother.

‘Now missy. I hear you wanted to talk to me?’ Before the girl could answer, Saul cut in.

‘Senorita, I really don’t think the child should be talking about this. Perhaps her family…’

‘Saul really!’ Savannah interrupted the man once more. ‘She may be young but I know Angela well. We’re good friends! Who do you think taught her such good English? Her family don’t speak the lingo’. I know she is fully capable of talking to me about whatever she wishes.’ Once again she turned to the girl, her face smiling encouragingly. ‘Carry on my dear.’

‘Papa and Uncle Perez.’ Was all she could say, her words a mere croak. She was about to cry. ‘They have gone missing Savi!’ Her wide eyes stared intently at Savannah, tears began to slowly pour onto her rosy cheeks.

‘Missing? What do you mean missing?’ Asked Savannah as she too lowered herself to the girl’s level. She took her hands in reassurance.

‘They went to work in mountain two days ago, mining for water. But they never return. We try to find out where they are, but we get no answer. All we have is his diary.’

Jack observed a wave of dread pour over Savannah’s face. Despite the horror that it showed, she remained calm and friendly towards the child, drying the tears from her eyes.

‘It’s ok. It’s ok sugar. Say? Why don’t you pop inside and grab your Pa’s diary for me hey? Maybe we can see where he went?’ Nodding confidently with an innocent smile, Angela turned on the spot and ran back into her caravan, her mope of scruffy black hair bouncing as she went. Once again a cacophony of crashes and bangs emanated from within the caravan as she searched. Jack too a step closer to Savannah, sensing something was not quite right.

‘Hey, what’s the matter?’ He asked, placing an arm on her shoulder. Savannah took a step back, shaking him off. Her face had lost the friendly smile of the cheery performance she had given the child. Her head shook as if denying something to herself.

‘No,no,no… it can’t be.’ She combed her hands through her hair, pacing the dirt in circles. Jack grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her to him, trying to snap her out of her panic.

‘What?!’ He asked once again more assertively. ‘What is going on here Savannah?’ He darting eyes calmed, fixing once more onto his.

‘I’d overheard stories lately.’ She answered. ‘Stories from the workers around the house. They say that something is wrong, that there is no water at all in these mountains. It seems Pa is sending his workers into more and more dangerous tunnels in search of the stuff. I heard shouting and yellin’ the other day from within the mountain, people saying that there’d been an explosion in one of the tunnels. But Pa’ told me it was nothing. I knew people would get hurt one day!’ The manic eyes returned as tears begun to well down her cheeks. ‘And I bet you Jack that it’s her poor family that have died in that damn mountain!’ She turned to Saul, ‘Is this true Saul?’

‘Si Senorita. We do not know how or where or why, but it seems her father and uncle have become entombed in the mountain. We had hoped you may know something from your father.’

‘No! He doesn’t tell me anything! He’s been acting really suspiciously lately. I’m getting worried!’

The caravan door once again slammed open. As little Angela shot out towards them, Savannah miraculously regained her composure.

‘Hey kiddo! I see you found the diary?’ In the girls hand she presented a large dust red leather book that had seen better days, holding it up for Savannah to take.

‘Si! Did I do good?!’ She asked proudly.

‘You did good Jellybean. Real good!’ She leant down to give the girl a kiss on the forehead, followed by a reaffirming pat on the head. ‘Now why don’t you head of and play with your siblings hey? Leave me to talk with the stranger boy.’ With a giggle, Angela toddled off towards her family by the fire, still pleased at her success from her scavenger hunt.

‘Thank you Saul that’s all for now. If it’s ok with you, I’ll take this and see what I can find?’

‘Si, si. I shall leave you for now. Call me if you need anything.’ Accepting the girl’s wishes, he too returned to the family, explaining the situation at hand.

‘As for you my limey friend, let’s take a walk.’ She grinned with a sideways nod of her head, indicating for him to follow her. This girl was an emotional rollercoaster, thought Jack.

They strolled the camp together for some time. Despite the distractions of the carnival, Savannah flicked through the diary intently, trying to decipher the text and get some answers.

‘Any luck?’ Jack asked, more trying to make conversation than anything.

‘Meh, you try.’ She answered moodily, handing the tattered book to him.

Glancing through the pages, it all seemed alien to Jack. For a start, he didn’t speak Spanish. So like a fool, the decided to look intelligent whilst scanning the pages for any English words he might understand. After a few pages, he found something.

‘What’s a Fire Stone?’ He asked innocently. Savannah stopped dead in her tracks. Jack continued for a couple more until he realised she had stopped.

‘What did you say?’ She asked, stunned.

‘W-what’s a firestone? It’s written down here under last week. I’ll admit I can’t speak Spanish, it’s the only word I could pick out.’ Savannah marched over to him.

‘Give me that!’ She ordered, snatching the book from his hands. She immediately begun scanning through the page.

‘What’s up?’ Jack asked.

‘Shhh!’ As she continued reading, her face once again turned to one of disbelief.

‘Jesus Christ! It can’t be!’

‘Can’t be what?’

‘The entry, it says that last week they were ordered to begin digging a new tunnel in search of a firestone. Top secret! But that’s impossible!’ Savannah’s eyes never once left the book.

‘But why? What’s a bloody firestone?’ Jack began to get impatient with the girl. At last her face emerged from the pages.

‘Well, it’s a legend that’s all. I’ve heard about it from the locals before. It’s said that it’s one of many stones that control the elements. Ya know, fire, air, water or something? I don’t know the whole story, but the legend says that whichever stone you hold allows you to control that element!’

‘Oh you are kidding me?’ Jack asked amused.

‘Hey I’m not saying that it’s real. But legend holds real weight among these people, and there’s rumoured to be a hell of a lot of archaeological items to be found around this mountain, god knows we had enough protesters complaining we were going to ruin it all. Maybe they know something is in the mountain?’

‘You mean their own archaeological dig behind your dad’s back?’

‘Maybe. Maybe they got themselves in some real trouble whilst doing it. I think I’d better tell Pa.’

‘You think that’s wise Savannah? You know his views on these people, he might not be so understanding as you.’ Her face looked helpless as she tried to think of the correct thing to do.

‘Rather that than have any more people killed!’ She half asked, staring at Jack desperately for an answer.

The urgency of the conversation was soon interrupted by yet more music, another steady Latin beat cut into the night. As the noise crept out from the arena, Savannah closed her eyes, a sensuous smile appeared as if in response to the music.

‘The final dance.’ She stated, seemingly to herself. Her eyes opened as she grabbed Jack’s arm. ‘Come on! I’m not missing this!’ Confused, Jack was dragged by Savannah towards the arena as he struggled to keep up with the mood of the night. She explained as they pushed through the crowd, ‘The carnival always ends with a dance, it brings the whole thing to a close. They have a local band and everything!’

‘What about the firestone? Angela’s family?’ Jack asked as he tried to keep up.

‘All in good time. It would be insulting to miss this dance on such a beautiful night.’

As Jack was pulled along, he realised that Savannah was completely mad. A free spirit perhaps? Maybe that was more fitting. Either way there wasn’t a chance in hell that this passionate girl was boring.

The arena and its dirt floor was completely ram packed with people. Despite the jam, it was an organised mass. In perfect rows, couple stood toe to toe, ready to dance to the band that had set up place at the foot of one of the stands. As they reached the bottom of one of the rows Savannah stopped dragging Jack and stood in place. Unlike the rest of the people there, she was stood alone. She extended her arms with a cheeky smile, Jack knew what was coming.

‘Do you dance Mr. Vance?’ She asked, amusing herself with the rhyming of the words.

‘Well, I err..’ Before he could finish his awkward sentence, she pulled him in towards her, bringing the couple face to face.

‘Well I’ll teach you.’

As if by magic, every couple in the arena begun to move in unison. The dance had begun.

A slow dance, the male lead in time to the beat, his feet sliding back to accommodate that of the lady’s that followed suit whilst all the time the arms of each couple held each other in a tight embrace.

‘You ready?’ Savannah whispered encouragingly. ‘Your right hand goes here.’ She instructed, whilst placing his right hand behind her back. ‘…and I hold onto your left one like this.’ In their embrace, she stared at him intently whilst she continued to instruct. ‘Now try and do what the other guys are doing, starting with your left foot.’

‘Which one?’ Asked Jack jokingly, causing her face to burst into a magical laugh, exposing a genuine smile he found hypnotising.

With some effort, Jack clumsily tried to imitate the other dancers, continuously checking over his shoulder to check whether he was in time with them.

‘Hey you’re doing ok kiddo!’ She said surprised, making Jack go red. He was never one for praise. Despite this, with his new found confidence, he found himself keeping up with the other couples and actually enjoying the dance. As they danced in rhythm, the band’s singer repeated the same lyrics again and again,

‘Ellos trataron de enterrar, que no sabían que estábamos semillas.’

 

‘You speak Spanish.’ Jack observed, ‘What on earth is he singing about?’

Savannah’s eyes raised upwards as she attempted the difficult task of translating the words whilst dancing in time to the beat of the music. After a moment’s thought, she looked back at Jack.

‘As far as I can gather, he’s saying, ‘They tried to bury us, they did not know we were seeds.’’

‘That so? I think that mirrors the struggle of these people pretty well.’

‘Don’t it?’ Agreed Savannah. ‘I thought you’d be impressed.’ She said proudly.

Rather than say anything else, Jack just smiled and drank in the beautiful moment whilst the fireflies hung and swayed in the air amongst the many lights of the carnival as if they too were dancing. Jack Vance was in heaven. To top it all off there was the beautiful girl he was dancing with. Was he beginning to get feelings for her? He hadn’t known her long, but from what he had seen he was blown away. Her outer beauty took second place. Behind the attitude, her true self shone through,Her beauty underneath with its intelligence, grace and humanity laid bare for him to seeshone through more than anything else. She was captivating and terrifying all at once.

Lost in his daydream, as they danced, Savannah and Jack had barely realised that the music had stoppedd, as the whilst the rest of the dancers were applaudeding the band as they took a bow. Blushing, they both laughed nervously as they gazed into each other’s eyes as they held each other tightly, neither knowing what to do next.

With sudden bang, the perfect moment was torn apart. The organised mass of dancers fled from the noise, exposing the area from which the noise had cameleaving the area it had come from open for all to see. Stood on the stage where the band had once played, Stood Tanque, his huge frame occupyioccupiedng most of the stage. In his hand, held high in the air was a shotgun that still smoked from the shot it had given off.

As the crowd murmured quietly in concerned chatter, the giant grabbed the microphone that had once belonged to the lead singer. Pulling it aggressively from its stand, he brought the devicemicrophone close to his lips, his heavy pig-like breathing broadcast over the speakers for all to hear. The voice that came from the speakers made Jack’s flesh crawl. That is if you could call it a voice. A strangled, gravelled croak, it made the microphone squeal as it slowly made its announcement to the crowd.

‘Come….with…..me……’

The inhuman voice echoed throughout the arena, making Jack shiver. The rasping noise was sickening yet deafening. Having asked once, Tanque then lowered the shotgun, using it to gesture through the crowds, pointing directly towards Jack and Savannah.

 

‘Come….with….me….’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16: Fiesta Fracas.

‘What is the meaning of this?!’ Saul shouted as he ran onto the stage towards Tanque, the whole crowd stared on.

‘Is he bloody mad?!’ Asked Jack between gritted teeth. Saul was a big man, but compared to Tanque, he never stood a chance. Jack, Savannah, the whole crowd, they all waited in silent anticipation as to whether Saul could reason with the man. Jack couldn’t decide which was worse, Tanque’s voice or the piercing silence.

‘My friend, I know who you work for, and I know what you want. But you and I, we are the same people. You grew up in our community Tanque, it raised you. These people know you. Please, don’t forget who you are, no matter what you now do for Mr. Sprinter.’ With his piece said, Saul bravely lay his hand on Tanque’s arm, trying his best to reach the man.

After a moment’s pause, Tanque did the unexpected. He slowly but silently lay down the shotgun that he held in his left hand, dropping it to the floor with a rattle. Could it have worked? Had Saul just pacified the ruthless giant armed with nothing but his words? Jack was amazed.

Amazement however turned to horror. With his arms now free, Tanque suddenly grabbed Saul, pulling him into his grasp. Tanque’s arms were firmly wrapped around the man as his body was lifted off from the floor leaving him suspended within a giant bear hug.

Saul didn’t scream nor did he beg, how could he? Every ounce of air from his lungs was being forced slowly from his body as Tanque squeezed him tighter and tighter. The crowd gasped as Savannah buried her head into Jacks shoulder, unable to watch the spectacle.

Not that it mattered. As he was crushed, the sounds of Saul’s breaking rib cage could be heard over the microphone and out through the speakers for all to hear. The soundtrack of the man’s gasping along with the cracking of bones could be heard across the entire arena. As Jack watched in horror, he could see the colour drain from Saul’s face, blood began to pour from every orifice in his head.

In a matter of seconds, Saul’s dead body was too thrown across the stage, the crushed body was thrown like a rag doll. Calmly, Tanque once again picked up the shotgun, turning back towards the crowd. His face was covered with Saul’s blood as it held a twisted grin, pointing once again towards the couple.

This time the crowd didn’t stick around to watch anymore. In a racket of screams and wails, they fell into complete chaos. People ran and fled for every exit, nearly knocking down Jack and Savannah in the process as they held on tight to each other. Amidst the noise and chaos, Jack tried to remain calm, speaking calmly but firmly into Savannah’s ear.

‘We have to leave NOW!’ Savannah was still in shock from hearing her friend die in front of her.

‘He killed him! He killed Saul! Just like that!’ She cried hysterically.

‘I know! But right now we have to save ourselves!’ Jack scanned the arena for any form of an exit. ‘Right, follow me. We’ll see if we can hide in the caravan site yeah?’

As Jack once again searched above the heads of the scrambling revellers, he caught the shining bald head of Tanque as it slowly made its way through the masses directly towards them.

‘Savannah! Right now!’ He dragged Savannah by her arm as he tried to fight his way through the crowds.

He knew Tanque was approaching fast. Like a shark in the water he was gaining on them. Jack didn’t dare look back, instead he held on to Savannah’s hand as tightly as possible, pulling her through the sea of people towards safety.

As if by miracle, they made their way out of the stadium, the crowds having calmed slightly. As soon as Jack thought he had made it though, a further crack from Tanque’s shotgun could be heard firing into the air, scaring the people yet again into another stampede.

It hit them like a train. This time however Jack was nowhere near strong enough to hold onto Savannah’s hand as she was swept into the tide of people.

‘Savannah!’ He yelled, already knowing there was nothing he could do. He had lost sight of the bald head too. The shark was beneath the surface somewhere, ready to strike once again. Jack had to move. So he did. Without looking back, Jack pelted into the caravan area in an effort to lose the giant. If only he could find Angela’s caravan. Maybe he could hide out in there?

As he went Jack ran past a myriad of different types of caravan within the shanty town. The windows on each caravan however were blacked out, with curtains drawn. It was no surprise. After all, who wanted a visit from Tanque at this time of night having seen what he was capable of?

Alone, there was nobody to rescue him from the lurking giant that stalked the carnival. Jack leant against a corrugated iron fence besides one of the caravans, kicking it in frustration. How the hell was he going to get out of this one?

As if to answer him, a haughty snort could be heard from the other side. Whoever it was did not take kindly to the noise. Jack recognised the huff, he was certain. With a leap, he vaulted over the fence, landing in the backyard of one of the caravan units. What waited for him on the other side filled him with relief.

There, stood in the backyard without a shred of its earlier regalia, stood the white Palomino horse from the show. Looking just as pretty without any of the gaudy tassels, it stood with its head hung, chained to a spike on the floor as it looked sorry for itself. Despite its unfortunate position, Jack couldn’t help but smile. Time for them both to make an escape.

Where was he? She had held on as tightly as she could to Jack’s hand, but the crowd was too strong, pulling her away to the other end of the ‘village’. The crowds too started to thin out. Having fled they were probably now all hiding within their caravans.

As the last of the people hid, Tanque simply stood there, grinning. It was just the two of them left standing there amidst the empty carnival stands and littered costumes.

Slowly, Tanque began to advance. For a few seconds savannah could not move, frozen in terror. What would he do to her? Would he simply take her home to her father? Or had her dad’s insanity gone so far that he wanted her dead? Her mind raced for a split second, before the instinct to run took over. She ran away in the opposite direction away from the Mexican shanty town towards the outskirts of the town, looking for anywhere to hide amongst the empty buildings.

She reached the first streets of the ghost town, coming to a stop at the old abandoned grocery store. As she took a second to look back, she could still see Tanque slowly following from behind. Despite being a good hundred meters ahead of him, he strode on, marching confidently in her direction.

Savannah needed to hide quickly. She found a small hole in the broken glass of the shop front. It was just big enough for her to carefully squeeze through without being cut. Once inside, she was faced with rows upon rows of shelves and cupboards, the aisles littered with abandoned shopping carts. Without thinking she sprinted into the first aisle she saw, pushing the carts aside as she did.

Satisfied she was far enough inside the darkened store, she climbed into the shelving, hiding herself amongst the rows of old canned and boxed food that once had been on sale to the people of New Springs. As she climbed cans spilt onto the floor noisily, making a racket as they fell.

‘Shhhh! Please!’ She whispered manically to herself, trying to hide herself further amongst the food. As she lay on the cold and dusty shelving, her mind raced. Where was Tanque? He surely would have caught up with her by now?

The department store remained silent save for the sound of cicadas. Moonlight poured in through the front windows, casting shadows as it rested. The store resembled the set of a horror movie. Savannah tried to stay hidden within her shelf. Where was he? He should have caught up by now. As if to answer she could hear that awful rasping voice from outside.

‘Senoriiiiiitaaaa.’ It called out hoarsely into the night, she could have sworn at first it was the wind trying to get through the doors. ‘Senoriiiiitaaaa!’ It continued.

As he pressed his body against the glass front of the shop, the moonlight from outside cast a huge shadow of him through the window, which spilled across the floor. The shadow’s arms were up at its face as he peered in through the glass, trying to see into the dark store and catch a glimpse of the girl. ‘I no hurt you…’ The wheezing continued. ‘Take you back to daddy……Senoriiiitaaaa!’

As he spoke, the arm of Tanque’s shadow raised into the air and waved slowly. It was followed by a grotesque giggle. Had it not been so horrific, it would have sounded like a child’s laugh.

The laughter soon stopped however, as with a roar, Tanque smashed the glass front of the store into a million pieces with a single swipe or his arm, the smashing glass made a racket as it tinkled across the floor.

‘Coming to get you….’ The voice was almost playful as she heard the boots stomp across the broken glass into the store. His shadow appeared to grow larger the closer he got. She closed her eyes, held her breath and covered her mouth as she tried not to be heard, trying her best to stop the sobs of fear from giving her position away. Her body shook as terror set. He approached closer and closer as his piggish breath grew louder and louder until…silence. Not a sound. No steps….no breathing…

Not wanting to but bravely doing so anyway, she opened her eyes to catch a peek, expecting to see the giant in front of her. But nothing, there was nothing. She let out a breath, trying to get a new breath in her lungs as silently as she could. Had he gone?

‘Fooound yooou!’ The voice croaked loudly into her ear. The piggish breath was back, blowing onto the back of her neck! He was in the aisle behind her! She let out a blood curdling scream as she scrambled with all her might to leap from the shelf. Fighting past the rows of spilling cans, she could feel his arm scrambling as he tried to grab on to her, alas she was too fast.

Sprinting as fast as she could, she tore down the aisle towards the broken shop front. Tanque followed, chasing her down in the opposite aisle. In the process he became caught in a mess of shopping carts and became tangled in the mess. That bought her a few seconds.

Running through the broken front, she was back on the street. She looked left and right as she tried to get her bearing, not knowing where to go. She turned to look back into the shop, Tanque was beginning to nearly break free from his shopping cart prison. He was bound to keep following, where would she go, how could she escape? No matter how far she ran he would surely follow.

She took a step back as she ran her hands through her hair in panic. All of a sudden a voice called from behind her.

‘Hey! Care for a ride?’

Tanque’s struggling stopped for a second as he saw what was in front of him, he froze in shock. Savannah followed his gaze, she turned around to look. Her mouth dropped also.

In front of her, stood the white dancing horse from the carnival in all its glory. Perched confidently on its back was Jack Vance, grinning inanely seemingly aware at the absurdity of the situation.

The grin suddenly dropped however as with a wheezing roar, Tanque broke free from the shopping carts. Jack quickly held out his hand. ‘Time to go, come on jump up!’ Without saying a word she leapt onto the beast, holding on tightly to Jack’s back as he turned the horse round, breaking into a canter in the opposite direction. Not even Tanque could outpace them now.

After a few blocks, they had lost the giant. Jack brought the horse to a steady trot, a chance for all three of them to compose their selves once more. Nothing but the sound of hooves on concrete could be heard as they made their way through the abandoned town. Still out of breath from the ordeal, Savannah held on tightly to Jack whilst her head rested, relieved to have escaped the store.

‘You sure know how to make an entrance kiddo.’ She sighed, shuddering at the prospect of what might have happened to her. ‘But thanks anyway.’

‘Don’t thank me yet, we still need to get you home. I take it you know the way?’ Savannah tried to collect her thought as she tried to figure a route back.

‘Yeah, jus carry on down here past the stores until you get to Dogwood Avenue. You’ll soon come to the main road back to the mountain.’ Jack nodded as he turned the Palominohorse in to the next street.

Dogwood Avenue was deserted. Rows upon rows of empty, crumbling bungalows stood desolate, their picket fenced lawns littered with rusted swings and lawnmowers.

‘Does anybody actually live here?’ Asked Jack as they made their way through the ghost town. ‘I mean couldn’t the work force live here?’

‘Are you kidding? Pa wouldn’t have it. Besides, once water comes back here, he’s gonna want to try and re sell these houses.’

‘Sounds bloody unfair to me.’ Jack countered.

‘Hey I ain’t no fan either ok? Just because we’re blood don’t mean we share the same ideals.’ An awkward silence hung in the air, only the odd snort from the horse’s nostrils could be heard as it carried them along the road.

As Jack tried to follow Savannah’s directions through the empty street, he noticed something wasn’t right. The low humming of cicadas and the dark blanket of night that covered accompanied their journey begun to fade. Instead, ahead of him, the low rumbling of an idling diesel engine could be heard. Bringing the horse Palomino to a halt, Jack noticed there was something waiting on the road ahead.

‘Quick question Savannah.’ Started Jack, not taking his eyes off of the obstruction ahead.

‘Uhuh?’ Mumbled Savannah, nearly falling asleep against his back.

‘You don’t happen to have your car keys on you do you?’ Savannah lifted her head from his back, confused by the seemingly pointless question.

‘Course not, always leave em in ol’ spitfire.’ She stated as if it were obvious.

‘Ah…’

Suddenly, slicing through the night, a pair of headlights beamed from the object in the road, nearly blinding the horse and the two riders on its back. Jack winced as he held his hands in front of his face. The horse Palomino began to rear, spooked at what was ahead.

‘Seems like ‘ol’ spitfire’ didn’t want to be left behind.’

In a matter of seconds Jack’s eyes had adjusted, the sight ahead of him was not a pleasant one. It was Savannah’s Jeep alright, but behind the wheel, seemingly filling the interior, sat the unmistakeable profile of Tanque as he revved the engine menacingly. Without warning, the Jeep soared towards them both, its headlights covering them both in light.

‘Hold on!’ Jack ordered. With hardly any time to react, he twisted the horse Palomino so it was facing the other way, once again bursting into a full gallop, running away from the oncoming Jeep.

No matter how fast the horse raced however, it was no match for the Jeep, its four litre engine roared as it gained ever closer to its target. Jack was not going to win this race.

‘He’s gaining on us!’ Screamed Savannah in his ear. Glancing back, he saw the Jeep’s chrome bumper, merely yards from the horse’s rear. Behind the wheel of the Jeep, Tanque grinned and giggled excitedly like a child, gleefully anticipating the carnage that would ensue. He licked his lips as he prepared himself for the noise of crushing flesh under his wheels.

To his surprise however, the horse took a sudden lurch to the left as it darted onto the rows of front gardens that belonged to the houses on the street, leaping each dividing picket fence as it went. To Tanque’s disbelief, the horse Palomino was seemingly now show jumping it’s away along the entire terrace of gardens that ran along the street.

‘Are you crazy?!’ Screamed Savannah as she tried desperately to hang on. Having no time to answer, Jack busied himself trying to get the horse to clear each fence whilst avoiding all manner of junk that laid on each successive lawn. If Tanque wanted them, he’d have to follow them through the gardens.

Without any pause for thought, Tanque did exactly that as he too sent the Jeep careering onto the front gardens. Whereas the horse had effortlessly jumped the fences, the Jeep merely crashed through, its bull bar smashing every fence and obstacle that got it in its way. He was still following, but at least the obstacles slowed him somewhat.

 

Sitting on one of those front gardens was Daisy Chance. On her porch she smoked her pipe whilst swinging in her rocking chair. She was enjoying the cool, quiet evening, relieved that the raucous noise from the festival a few blocks away was over. At last she had her peace and quiet from the savages as she nursed a whisky and branch water.

Her peace and quiet however was short lived however. From a few gardens down came a rumbling noise like a heard of buffalo. Or was it a car engine? Either way the racket became louder and louder. Curious, the old lady stood up, her head cocked to the night as she tried to make out where the rumblings were coming from.

Soaring over her garden fence seemingly in slow motion, a large Palominowhite horse carrying two people flew into her garden, its hooves dug into her cultivated lawn as it landed. The whole spectacle lasted a few seconds, barely enough time for her to register the boy who was riding it. It was the English boy she had rescued the other day! Atop of the horse, he continued across her garden and with a single bound, it leapt over the fence into next door’s yard.

Standing silently in disbelief, her pipe fell from her open mouth as her glass of whisky smashed on the floor. She barely had a moment to take in what had happened when all of a sudden with a crash, a white Jeep smashed through the same fence in the same direction. Tearing its way across her lawn, it knocked over her prize bird table before smashing through her neighbour’s fence as it followed the horse. Her lawn was left cut to bits by hoof and tyre marks.

As soon as it had begun it was all over. Daisy was left alone with her ruined garden, muttering to herself as she questioned her sanity.

Jack Vance meanwhile was running out of gardens as the horse Palomino vaulted fence after fence. The sheer amount of jumps had nearly rendered the once fit horse nearly dead with fatigue. With a sudden pull of the reigns, Jack pulled the horse animal to the right, steering it off from the gardens back on to the main road. Free from the obstacles of the yards, the horse was now free to gallop as fast as it could up the street.

As fast as the tired horse Palomino ran however, there was nowhere to hide. Away from the houses and gardens of the ghost town, Jack was now heading straight into the open desert.

With a crash, Tanque continued to chase in the Jeep, its front grill littered with the assorted debris from the gardens. With his heavy foot on the accelerator, the Jeep once again continued to storm ahead, following Jack’s path from the gardens to the street, catching up with the horse easily. There was nowhere left to run.

The town of new springs behind them, Jack could only head further into the empty desert. That is if he could only make it that far. He could hear the loudening roar of the Jeep as it gained up on him. The headlights engulfed him with their bright luminance as it inched closer and closer.

‘Hold tight.’ Was all that Jack could shout as Savannah clung to him, her eyes clenched shut as she prepared herself to be dragged below the grinding wheels of her own Jeep to her death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17: Jeeps & Generals.

With the Jeep mere inches from the back of the horse, Jack saw it. There in front of him, appearing from the darkness, emerged a long trench that dipped into the ground.

Of course! The network of empty water delivery ditches! The horse at its current speed would reach it within seconds. Unfortunately however, so would the Jeep. It was just a case of who would get there first.

One final jump for the horsePalomino. That is all it would take. One final laboured leap from the tired beast would deliver them to safety from the oncoming death that Tanque threatened to deliver. The ditch was only three meters wide. They just might make it!

Closing his eyes and holding the reigns as tightly as he could, Jack left everything up to the horse, laying his and Savannah’s life with whatever energy was left in the spent creature. It was the ultimate display of trust. In what seemed like an eternity, Jack felt weightless as the horse leapt across the void.

After an age, the familiar clap of horse hooves on the dusty earth returned, as the horse Palomino completed its jump, just clearing the ditch by inches. He couldn’t believe it!

Before Jack could come to terms with what the horse had achieved, the veil of neon light that had signalled his doom suddenly dipped into nothingness, followed by a sickening crash. Pulling back on the reigns, Jack drew the horse to a standstill, turning its wearied frame 180° to look back at the scene. The Jeep it seemed, had not been so lucky.

It wasn’t pretty. Smouldering in a crumpled heap, it had dropped straight into the ditch leaving a smouldering wreckage. Tanque hadn’t even seen it coming.

As they both caught their breath, Jack and Savannah exchanged glances of relief. Without saying a word, they both dismounted the shattered horsebeast, whose head was hung in sheer exhaustion. With deep trepidation, the two slowly crept back towards the ditch as they peered down to take a look at the crumpled vehicle. The smoke began to clear, the true nature of the crash revealed.

The front bumper along with the bonnet were completely crushed. A twisted wreck, it was impossible to identify which parts were which. Slumped over the wheel lifelessly, was the limp body of Tanque. Small plumes of smoke continued to waft from the crushed engine, threatening to burst into flames as the hydraulics hissed furiously.

‘Shoot…’ Savannah broke the silence. ‘My poor baby!’

Jack turned his head towards Savannah quizzically, his eyebrows raised. With a sheepish expression on her face, she clarified, gesturing towards the Jeep. ‘Ol’ Spitfire…’ Jack grinned grimly. They continued to stare at the wreck in silence, before Savannah once again broke the silence. ‘I wonder if he’s still alive?’ She asked.

Jack gave the question some thought, before breathing in nervously.

‘I suppose I’d better check.’ He said almost asking if it were a good idea.

‘Are you crazy? The god damn loon almost killed us. Hell! He even wrote off my car!’ She argued once again gesturing to the remains of her precious Jeep. But it was too late as Jack began to carefully scale down the ditch towards the wreckage.

‘Always do the right thing.’ He murmured to himself as he lowered himself further onto the Jeep.

Tanque was within arms distance. His body had not moved, a large gash ran its way across his bald head. So he wasn’t invulnerable after all? This did not however stop Jack from being careful, as with great care, he slowly reached out towards the man’s sinewy neck. Softly, he lay his fingers along the large carotid artery on his neck, which was barely visible amongst all the muscle. Jack held his breath as he tried to find the signs of life.

‘So? How is he?’ Shouted Savannah from the top of the ditch, causing Jack to jump out of his skin in fright.

‘Bloody hell Savannah!’ Jack yelled in shock. ‘You scared the life out of me! Give me a minute ok?!’ Jack sighed to himself, letting the air flow between his teeth as he steadied his nerves. Once again, he lay his finger on the artery on Tanque’s neck gently, as if he were a sleeping lion.

After a few moments searching, Jack could feel it. It was ever so slow, but it was there. The slow but steady rhythm of a heartbeat was unmistakeable.

‘Well…he’s alive!’ Jack called up. ‘We’ll call for help once we’re of here. Give me a hand getting out of here ey?’ With a heave, Savannah helped pull Jack back up out from the ditch, away from the unconscious giant.

As Jack paced the dusty earth, he patted himself down as plumes of sand erupted from the tan leather Jacket.

‘So now what do we do?’ Savannah asked. Jack gestured towards the horse.

‘We head home.’

‘Are you kidding? Then what?’ She enquired as Jack strode towards the horse animal as he climbed onto its back. He looked down at her with serious eyes.

‘Let’s go ask your ‘Ppa’ why he sent his Rottweiler after us.’ He answered, as he rode the horse towards her, his arm extended to pull her back up. ‘Besides, we’ve got a firestone to find!’

Savannah grinned, as with a leap, she climbed back onto the horse animal as they rode into the vast expanse of desert. Ahead, was the looming picture of Mt Marron, where answers waited.

***

Smoking his cigar, Hudson had seen the whole thing. From with the smokey confines of the operations room aboard the empty Silver Shadow, he had seen it all. From the dance at the carnival to the chase with the jeep, the live footage on the holo-map showed the horse Palomino as it travelled back towards the mountain, the boy and the American girl on its back. He smiled as he pulled the smouldering cigar from his mouth.

‘Good job kid…Damn fine job.’ With a hearty laugh he extinguished the cigar carelessly on the holo-table. ‘Although you ain’t doin’ this alone no more.’ As he switched off the 3D projection, he turned towards the door, leaving the darkened cabin. ‘Time to gather the team.’

***

 

Written off within the ditch on the outskirts of New Springs, Savannah’s old Jeep continued to smoulder, its radiator hissed angrily in its death throes. It had been an hour since the crash, the scene was now calm as the dust settled. Not a sliver of movement was there to be seen. Even the hulking figure of Tanque remained still. To the average observer, the giant would have appeared to be dead. The average observer however, would have missed the fingers of the huge hand upon the steering wheel. Slowly, ever so slowly, they begun to move, flexing. With a deep growl, the body rose back to life.

 

***

As the sun threatened to rise upon the Arizona skyline, the tired horse Palomino sluggishly carried Jack and Savannah up the mountain. It had taken a good few hours, but doggedly it had carried them back to the mansion, coming to a stop at the giant brass gates at the front of the property. Stopping its tracks, the animal looked back over its shoulder towards the humans riding it, seemingly desperate to know if this truly was the end of the journey.

‘Cheers mate.’ Thanked Jack as he patted the weary animal’s neck. Lazily, he vaulted off the horses back, landing heavily on the dusty floor. ‘I can honestly say you’ve saved our lives.’

Ever the gentleman, he helped Savannah as she too dismounted. ‘Told you I’d take you for that ride!’ Jack joked her as she too leapt from the horses backPalomino.

‘Oh yeah!’ Savannah replied sarcastically as she dusted herself off. ‘You sure know how to show a girl a great time!’ The old Savannah was back again as she punched in the code on the gates keypad. With a click and a hum, they slowly budged open, allowing them back onto the grounds.

‘Hey heading out was your idea missy!’ Jack reminded her as they made their way through the front gate, grabbing the horses reigns as he went. ‘Besides. We picked you up a new pet on the way didn’t we?’

‘What?!’ Savannah stopped in her tracks. As she turned around she gave Jack an exasperated look. ‘We just can’t bring that there horse onto the grounds!’

‘Hey! We owe him our lives!’ Jack teased, patting the horse’s Palomino’s side. Joking aside, they both knew he was right. Savannah looked up to the heavens, taking in a seething breath as she tried to get her head around the whole situation.

‘So not only have we broken curfew, we’ve also witnessed a murder, destroyed my car, nearly killed Tanque and now we bring a stray horse in! My dad is going to kill us!’ She kicked the floor in frustration. Behind the rage Jack could see she was scared.

‘For all we know your father very nearly did get us killed!’ Jack barked impatiently. He immediately regretted his words as tears begun to gather in the girl’s eyes. She was hurt by his accusation.

‘How dare you!’ She whispered, here face aghast in disbelief. Her words, along with her face, conveyed pure anger. ‘How DARE you accuse my Pa of doing something so evil!’ She spat, turning her back on him. Jack had opened a can of worms. He couldn’t afford not to have Savannah on his side. Rubbing his tired face with both hands, Jack admitted defeat.

‘I’m sorry.’ The words hung in the still mountain silence, disappearing into the cool night’s air. From behind, Jack could see Savannah hang her head, sighing as she did so.

‘Ah it’s cool.’ As she slowly turned around to look at him, Jack could see tears slowly running down her dirtied cheeks. ‘To be honest there’s probably some truth there. Pa ain’t been right lately. He’s become a man mad with obsession. You’ve seen it yourself! He ain’t the same!’ She tried valiantly to maintain her father’s honour as she sobbed.

Jack felt uneasy, he could not believe the girl in front of him was the same brash country girl he had got to know the past few days. For once he saw her as a vulnerable person. Dutifully, he walked towards her, removing his bomber Jacket as he approached. Gently he placed the garment over her trembling shoulders, protecting her from the chilly desert breeze. He gave the girl a long overdue hug, something she had probably needed for quite some time.

‘Hey.’ He spoke softly into her shoulder. ‘Let’s get you back inside yeah?’ He softly patted her shoulders, holding her at arm’s length. ‘I bet that mansion has a bloody good kitchen. Let’s see if we can get some cocoa and cookies. Yoshi here could do with feeding too.’

Jack grinned at his own nerdiness, to his surprise she followed suit, chuckling as she wiped her eyes.

‘Yoshi?’ She laughed. ‘You’re calling the horse Yoshi now?’

Jack rubbed the back of his head sheepishly as he raised his hands in the air unable to give an answer.

‘Hey I’m a Nintendo kid! You got any better ideas?’

Savannah shook her head in disbelief as she flicked her ponytail back over her shoulder.

‘Oh Jack you’re a kidder.’ She nodded back towards the house. ‘C’mon, let’s face the music. You can take…’Yoshi’ with you.’ As she walked towards her home, Jack smiled to himself, once again taking the reins of the horseanimal.

‘C’mon mate.’ He whispered. ‘You can thank me later.’

It took them five minutes to reach the front of the mansion. On the way they had passed through the night garden, through the myriad of sprinklers that left them glistening with droplets of water. Jack decided to leave Yoshi there in the garden too, the horse Palomino seemed content with munching the prize red Brazilian Orchids that grew there. Much to Savannah’s dismay of course.

‘That beast is going ruin our garden. I can’t believe you left him there!’ Savannah continued to argue in jest as they reached the front door. As she moaned, she returned Jack’s Jacket. He put it on, revelling in the scent of her perfume that lingered on its collar.

‘It’s the least he deserves. He’ll have a whale of a time.’

‘Yeah well you can explain it to Pa. Along with everything else.’ She reached into her pockets for her key card smiling, where upon a noise stopped them both in their tracks.

It was a voice, a muffled voice at that. It seemed to be coming from behind the window to the left of the door and seemed very excitable, despite neither of them being able to make out exactly what was being said.

‘It’s coming from the dining room.’ Savannah observed. After a quick rummage she found the key card. As she swiped it through the card reader, the door clicked, its lock yielding. With a silent but sure nod. Savannah signalled for Jack to follow her in as they both passed through the double doors, trying their best to close them silently behind them.

Despite having already visited, it still took Jack a few moments to readjust to the gaudy surroundings of the mansion’s grand hall. A world away from the desert outside, it was if the hall had been waiting for him patiently as the constant ticking of the grandfather clock echoed loudly. Only this time it wasn’t the only noise to be heard. The voice was louder.

It was indeed coming from the dining room, the busy voice crept from behind the first door on the left of the hallway for all to hear.

‘It’s pa!’ Whispered Savannah, ‘And boy he sounds pissed!’

Slowly, they both crept up to the door and their heads against the solid wood to hear what her father was shouting at. There appeared to be another voice coming from within the dining room. Jack and Savannah kept their heads against the door, both staring at each other as they did. As they both slowed their breathing, the voices began to become audible.

‘You’re being completely unreasonable dammit!’ Brad’s voice seemed agitated, the pacing of his feet on the dining room’s marble floor attested to this. Calmly, another voice responded.

‘I disagree Mr Chase.’ The voice was laced slightly with an accent. But as to what Jack couldn’t guess. The voice was an enigma. ‘You have had years to complete this project. Not once have you showed any sign of coming remotely close to finding what we need.’

‘Because it ain’t here! My men have searched and searched all through this mountain, and for what? Nothing!’ A pause followed.

‘Mr Chase I funded your operation here. Equipped you well, established your ‘modest’ home here. I have given you the chance to bring life back to your pitiful town, to bring water back to it. But only on the basis that you found what I’m looking for. You have done neither!’ The voice began to lose its cool as it echoed out through the dining room towards the oak door where Jack and Savannah were eavesdropping.

‘But sir, this mountain is tough! Plus there isn’t a single scrap of evidence that what you’re looking for is here! You’re diverting all resources away from the rejuvenation of New Springs.’

‘Your excuses are becoming tiresome Mr Chase.’ The other voice began menacingly. ‘I shall give you one more month. If nothing more is presented to me, there shall be consequences.

With this said, heavy footsteps could be heard to march towards the door, Brad’s panicked smaller ones followed suit. They were headed for the main hall! Grabbing Savannah by the wrist, Jack fled away from the door taking her with him. He dragged Savannah across the exposed hall floor towards the grand piano where they hid silently.

They were just in time too as with a bang, the dining room flung open, nearly breaking off from its hinges. The visitor burst through the open door, taking his place within the centre of the moonlit hall.

At over six feet tall, he was dressed head to toe in what looked like a Russian army officer’s uniform, a mixture of olive greens and browns, complete with leather belts which were tightly strapped around his waist and chest, barely containing his large, muscular build. His chest was adorned with various medals which shone as they reflected in the moonlight. He cut an impressive figure. He stood rigidly with his green peaked officer’s cap placed neatly on top of his head. However this brought something to Jack’s attention, the General’s face was covered.

Fitted tightly across his face, beneath the peak of his cap, was a black face mask. A balaclava of sorts, it was black, spare for the the chalky image of a skull, the ghostly image hiding the man’s true identity.

It was also what he held in his gloved hand that stood out for Jack. As he had paced through the main hall, he had used a heavy looking walking cane which he held in his left hand. Heavily decorated in silver, it looked far from military issue. Thicker than a usual cane, it was covered in ornate carvings that Jack could not make out from behind the piano. Embedded within it however, were four slots. Each slot seemed to house something, but only one was in use.

The cane seemed to throw the whole military look off, it looked far too gaudy and regal for what appeared to be a strictly dressed military man. Regardless, he stood tall, looming over Brad as he too followed into the hall, an anxious wreck.

‘What do you mean consequences?!’ He asked panicked as his hand fumbled nervously.

The General turned his back upon Brad, facing the piano. Jack lowered his head as much as he could without being seen. He had to see what was going on though as he carefully peered from over the top of it, Savannah following suit.

‘You have a nice place here Mr Chase.’ He stated, ‘A lovely house, a loyal workforce, and a beautiful daughter.’ He paused for a moment. As Jack watched him, he noticed a slight grin appear on the man’s face through the mask. ‘It would be a pity to lose it all.’

‘You bastard!’ Brad yelled. With a sudden bout of bravery, he ran towards the General in a fit of rage. ‘You leave my daughter alone!’

Just as Brad was about to strike him, the General turned on the spot. His reactions pin point, he dropped his hat and grabbed Brad by the neck, leaving the man hanging in the air, his legs thrashing.

‘Pa!’ Savannah tried to cry out in fright. Jack placed his hand over her mouth mid-cry before she gave their position away. He continued to watch the spectacle as it unfolded.

‘Fool!’ The he stated calmly. ‘You dare attack me? Me? Who gave you all this? Maybe I should teach you a lesson.’ As the General slowly squeezed Brad’s neck tighter, a sudden bang surprised them both.

The heavy front doors of the mansion had flew open as the pair turned to face them.

There stood in the open doorway, stood Tanque, back from the dead as he breathed heavily. Jack was amazed. He must have ran all the way up the mountain to have gotten here this quickly.

BOSS!’ Tanque yelled with a croaking roar as he saw his employer in peril. Not thinking twice, he hurtled towards the man who threatened his master. Despite the General’s size it seemed not even he could prevent this man mountain from stopping him. Or so it would seem. Calmly and without an ounce of urgency, the General used his free hand to raise the cane into the air, pointing it towards the stampeding Tanque. What followed left Jack stunned.

At the tip of the raised cane, Jack noticed a glowing blue haze. With not so much as a flick from his wrist, the haze flowed into a wave that shot from the tip towards Tanque. As it hit him, the wave threw him back in the opposite direction. Flying through the air, he crashed into the bannister of the staircase on the other side of the hall, landing into a twisted wreck amongst a heap of debris.

‘Impossible.’ Jack whispered to himself. Tanque must have weighed nearly a tonne. Yet Jack had just seen him thrown across the mansion hall as if he were a rag doll.

‘I should have wondered where your pet Rottweiler was.’ Tutted the General. As he lowered his cane, he threw Brad back to the floor. He didn’t dare get back up. Calmly he lifted his cap from the floor. As he shook the dust from it, he continued to speak in his calm manner.

‘Mr Chase as you can see I am not in the habit of giving empty threats.’ Placing his hat upon his head, he gestured towards his cane theatrically, ‘Do you have any idea as to what lengths I went to in order to retrieve the Wind Stone here?’ He pointed intently towards the object that filled one of four slots in his cane. ‘I destroyed one of the largest companies and families in the world to gain this. Trust me Mr Chase, I will show no restraint in tearing yours apart too.’

As he straightened himself up, he turned towards the open front doors from where Tanque had once emerged. Calmly, he strode across the hall once more, towards the exit. Brad began to scramble slowly to his feet.

‘But…General. I need more time.’

As the General reached the front door he stopped, turning only slightly to address Brad.

‘You have exactly one month Mr Chase. Once month to find me the Fire Stone within this mountain. No more games.’

‘Yes General.’ Croaked Brad softly.

Confident he had gotten his point across, the General headed for the exit as he opened the large oak door with ease. Just as he was about to leave the building, he froze, standing in the open doorway. Something had caught his eye. He turned his head slightly towards the grand hall, having seen a slight movement from behind the grand piano.

Jack was gripped with terror, as from across the hall, he could feel skull’s eyes latch onto his. The game was up!

Instead of raising his voice however, The General merely cocked his head at him. Without giving his position away, he nodded before tipping his cap subtlety. Silently, he left the
mansion, disappearing into the night.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 18: Into the Breach.

 

Crouched behind the grand piano, Jack gently removed his hand from Savannah’s mouth.

They stared at each other in shocked silence. It had all happened so quickly. The General, the cane, Tanque’s dispatch! Not to mention these stones. Savannah and the work force were right on the money! One of them did indeed exist within the mountain. Not only that, they had just seen for themselves that their power was real. Tanque had found out first hand.

The giant once again awoke from his slumber, making a racket as he cleared himself from the debris of the shattered bannister. He rubbed his head as he sluggishly stood up. His head in his hands, Brad approached the giant.

‘You ok Tanque?’ He asked, ‘Thanks for the backup. Better late than never! Now where the hell have you been?’ With a groan, Tanque struggled to explain what had happened.

‘Savannah…Englishman…run away… Fiesta…’ As his slow, broken words came out, Tanque’s face was wide eyed with urgency as he pointed with his huge arms towards the direction of New Springs. A new fury took over Brad.

‘That limey bastard! You mean to say he’s taken away my baby in the middle of the night?!’ Tanque nodded his head frantically as he tried to explain the story as best he could.

‘Took her away…caused trouble…lost them.’

‘Son of a….Ok Tanque, never mind that now. I’ll deal with him later. Right now we’re headed back into the mountain to check on that damned work force. You ok?’ Tanque nodded, ready to follow his boss anywhere. ‘Ok let’s go.’

Leaving the mess behind, the two scrambled towards the staircase that led to the mural of Poseidon. With a click of his crown, the wall fell away as they went through towards the secret MAGLEV station. Jack and Savannah were left alone in the hallway.

‘That lying git!’ Jack spat angrily as they both got up from behind the piano. ‘As if I’m the bad influence!’ He shook his head in disgust as he shook his legs. The crouching had left him tingling with pins and needles.

‘Ah shut it will ya?’ Savannah protested. ‘Did you not see what just happened there? The stones Jack! The god damn stones!’

‘Yeah…’ Jack affirmed, coming back to reality. ‘And the bloke in the fancy dress, The General or whoever he is. He saw us Savannah! Saw both of us clear as day and yet he said nothing! Who the bloody hell was he?’

‘Ain’t got a clue.’ Savannah answered vacantly. ‘But what I do know is that Pa is in way over his head this time. I knew all that equipment couldn’t have come from him. There’s a higher power at work that’s for sure.’

‘And he wants the Stone too.’ Jack stroked his chin as he tried to summon a plan. ‘What do you want to do?’ He asked. It was her father after all.

‘Honestly?’ She responded with a smirk, ‘I need a hot shower and bed. But we have a job to do. Besides, I’ve got Perez’s diary.’ She produced the dusty book from her back pocket as she begun to flick through the pages.

‘What are you expecting to get from that?’

‘I dunno, but we haven’t read it properly. If I can just give this a quick read as we head back into the mountain, maybe it will tell us where to get the stone. Then if we get it we can hand it back to that General guy and all this will be over!’ Despite her optimism Savannah seemed slightly hysterical.

‘Savannah I really don’t things are going to be the same again.’ With sympathy, he rested a hand on her shoulder.

‘I know.’ She whispered dejectedly, ‘But I need to put this place to rights Jack. Too many people are suffering. Just look at the workers, Jack we saw Saul killed! That monster Tanque has gotta pay. Plus I need to get Pa out of this trouble.’

‘Yes. No matter how bad this general fella is, it was good to see Tanque get his comeuppance.’ Jack grinned to himself selfishly as he remembered the giant being toppled with ease.

‘You wanna help?’ Savannah asked impatiently.

‘Of course. The devil rules with silent fools. Time I spoke up and helped out.’ He sighed. Living by this adage was beginning to be hard work!

The hidden door had already lowered itself back down, Poseidon had returned. The two jogged up the stair case, where after a few seconds searching, they found the tile on the crown which opened the door. With a click, the wall shuddered revealing the entrance to the MAGLEV station. With an outstretched arm, Jack gestured for ladies first.

‘Once more into the breach, dear friends!’ Savannah stared blankly at him.

‘What?’ She responded bluntly, not understanding a word he had said.

‘It’s from Hen….never mind.’ Feeling foolish, Jack gave up, making his way to the MAGLEV platform. Only one cart remained in the station. The other had left minutes earlier carrying Brad and Tanque.

The three minute ride was no less exciting as it once had been before as the MAGLEV flew along the rails into the heart of the mountain. It had amazed Jack that Savannah had been able to read through the diary through such a journey. As they arrived at the opposite station, Jack spotted the other carriage, empty and abandoned. It still wobbled on its air cushion where its passengers had disembarked. Without comment, the two both disembarked, Savannah still deep in thought as she flicked through the diary’s pages.

‘Anything?’ Jack queried. As they left the station, the pair found themselves entering the cavernous tunnels that soon spread into a complex maze. Savannah stopped in her tracks. A lightbulb moment.

‘Here!’ She shrieked, her voice echoed throughout the rocky walls of the giant tunnel.

Jack huddled close to Savannah, peering over her shoulder at the diary, despite not being able to speak a word of Spanish. ‘I’ve found what looks like a set of directions. According to this we gotta keep heading left, starting with the first left tunnel entrance we find. We should see it in the next hundred yards. Come on!’

Jack followed dutifully as Savannah led the way along the tunnel, neither of them saying a word until they arrived at the first entrance on the left. It was the first of many honeycomb tunnel entrances that spread along the main tunnel. Jack felt as if he were in a garden maze.

‘Here we are.’ Savannah stated triumphantly without a hint of doubt. The girl was on a mission. ‘Head left into this tunnel and continue taking the next four left turns we come across.

‘Are you sure Savannah?’ Jack asked carefully, ‘I don’t fancy becoming lost in this bloody place.’ Jack’s doubt irked Savannah somewhat.

‘Hey! I’ve spent the last few years running around these tunnels you hear? Besides, the notes speak for themselves. We’re following the exact route our friends made before they went missing.’

‘All the more reason to be careful I suppose.’ Jack surmised.

‘Ah shut it! We’re both in deep here. You coming or what?’ The time for jesting was over.

Once again Savannah led the way down another tunnel. Jack was thankful the workers had placed intermittent lighting along the walls of the path, he didn’t want to be left down this maze in the dark.

They continued to walk slowly as they passed the lights, coming across the next two left turns with ease. The next leg was a long straight which seemed forever to traverse. The silence of the tunnel was beginning to drive Jack mad. He had to start a conversation, no matter how risky it was.

‘So Savannah, where’s your mother in this whole picture?’ He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He knew it would be a sore subject despite not knowing the answer. Savannah carried on walking as she stared at the diary, it took her a few seconds for her to answer.

‘Dead. Been dead a long time.’ The answer was blunt and cold. Jack knew it was a mistake. ‘Listen I appreciate you trying to ‘pass the time’ here, but we’ve got a job to do. Got it?’ She didn’t need to raise her voice, Jack understood fully well.

‘Sure…sure.’ Jack knew he was beat.

The walk despite being quiet, now had an air of awkwardness to it. Well done Jack he thought to himself. Some peril would be a welcome distraction for once.

‘What about you Jack. Parents? Is your Pa as crazy as mine?’ With a sideways glance and a grin, the pretty, playful Savannah returned for a second from underneath the warm lights. Jack scoffed to himself, pleased he hadn’t totally lost her. His answer would bring things crashing down again however.

‘Dead, both dead.’ Now it was his time to be blunt. Savanah seemed taken back, embarrassed even.

‘Oh. I’m sorry.’ The damnable silence was back. Jack had to save the day.

‘No don’t be, I was barely a toddler.’

‘Well…what happened?’ Savannah enquired cautiously.

‘Car crash. Country roads back home are lethal. It’s just a good thing I was over my uncles at the time. Any way you don’t want to hear about all this. We’ve got work to do.’ Jack cleared his throat, as if to end the topic.

‘Sure…sure.’ Savannah let it lieye. Jack however laughed, finding the reversal in roles within the last two minutes rather entertaining. His laugh echoed throughout the tunnel.

‘We make quite the odd couple don’t we?’ He looked towards Savannah, a coy smile on his face.

‘I think it’s kinda promising.’ She smiled back.

It might have been the fear of being in an unusual place, the promise of uncertainty or just the fact they were similar people, but Jack and Savannah had found themselves holding hands, without either of them saying a word.

They followed the directions to a tee, taking every corner and tunnel to the letter, following the guidance left by those who had dug the very tunnels they now traversed. Having now exhausted the written directions, they found themselves at a dead end, there was no more tunnel to follow.

‘This it?’ Savannah asked disappointed. She skipped through the pages of the diary, trying to spot anything she could have missed. ‘We did everything the diary said!’

Not giving up, Jack approached the wall that faced them.

As he crept closer to the wall, he could sense something wasn’t right. A slight whisper of cold air was wafting its way through a gap somewhere. He followed the breeze, trying to follow the cool sensation using his face and hands. The cool trickle of air seemed to be seeping from the side of the wall, slowly blowing through with a slight whistle. Jack took a step back to give the wall a second look.

‘So we head back? Dead end yeah?’ Asked Savannah, mildly irritated.

‘No.’ Jack said bluntly. ‘Feel that breeze coming in from that crack there.’ Savannah repeated what Jack had already attempted, feeling the cool air on her for herself.

‘It’s…’

‘…not a wall at all.’ finished Jack, once again returning to run his hands over the obstacle. ‘It’s a boulder. A bloody great big boulder blocking the route in!’

‘There must have been some kind of collapse.’ A morose thought sunk into her head. ‘Perez…Tito.’ She shook her head, knowing now for sure what had killed them.

As Jack ran his hands over the large boulder, he felt it rock slightly against his touch. A slight movement. With more force this time, he pushed the boulder again, it begun to give way!

‘Hey!’ He cried, still supporting some of the weight of the giant rock. ‘I think I found a way in, give us a hand here yeah?’ He nodded his head towards the boulder, unable to move his arms.

Quickly, Savannah helped Jack with his struggle, giving just the right amount of extra strength that was needed to push the boulder further. They both groaned in sheer effort as the boulder began to tip on its apex, slowly relenting under the pair’s strength. Sweat poured from their faces as they tried to give one final heave.

‘Nearly…there!’ Grunted Jack through gritted teeth. With a grumble, the boulder budged, rolling barely a few feet along the tunnel, until it stopped with a crash. Jack and Savannah fell onto the floor in a pile, coughing at the sheer amount of dust the move had kicked up. Helping each other up, they took stock of what both their efforts had resulted in.

It hadn’t moved much, but the couple of feet that the rock had rolled had allowed the once tiny gap around it grow, allowing the two to pass easily pass the boulder towards whatever was behind it. An ominous flickering light poured in through the gaps, inviting the two to see what was on the other side. Somehow the lights had just about survived the collapse.

‘Shall we?’ Jack panted as he gestured towards the gap. They were both nervous, but neither of them would admit it to the other.

‘Well come on slow poke, we can’t hang around here all day!’ Savannah retorted back, trying her best to hide every trace of anxiety in her head.

Carefully, they both climbed through the gap around the boulder, being careful not to lose their footing on the uneven terrain. Within seconds, the two had made their way around. They were finally there, the diary had led them both to as far as Tito and Perez had managed. The spot where they both had died. Expecting to find another tunnel, they found themselves surprised at what they found.

It was a cavern. Not big by any standards, roughly the size of a tennis court. It didn’t look like things hadn’t ended well here.

Rather than being a tidy excavation, the place was littered with rocks that seemed to have recently fallen from the ceiling, creating piles that lay randomly. Swinging from once where the ceiling stood, the flickering light swayed precariously from its tethered cable, each flicker casted a wave of shadows that appeared and vanished with each flash. The whole place gave off a haunting aura. Up against the wall however, partially hidden by a pile of rocks, there was a far more sinister sight.

At first glance it looked like a pair of scorch marks, the result of explosives perhaps? Upon closer inspection however, the scene was more morbid.

The burn marks perfectly resembled the forms of two people, their bodies twisted in some kind of peril, their arms raised up by their heads. Etched perfectly into the wall, they looked like two shadows, shadow without owners. Jack and Savannah gave each other matching looks of curiosity and dread.

‘Graffiti? Wall paintings?’ Savannah asked in hope. Jack clambered over the carpet of rocks until he reached the pair of black silhouettes. Hesitantly, he ran a finger along one black shadows. He looked at his finger, it too was black. He sniffed at it, the unmistakable stench of charcoal could be smelt. He turned back to face Savannah, only able to grimly shake his head. She raised her hands to her mouth, the two of them now understood who the shadows had once belonged to.

‘But how! They just can’t have disintegrated! What could have done this?’ Jack could only shrug his shoulders. Looking at the shadows, he traced the scorch marks down, hoping to see something that would give him a clue. Seeing that the lower half of the ‘bodies’ were buried in piles of rock, Jack went to work digging, launching the loose rock behind him as he tried to figure out an answer. Just as he was about to pick up another piece of rock, he noticed something strange about it.

Newly emerged by his digging, the stone was different, in every sense of the word. It was a perfect square, all its sides were exact. As he looked closer, he could see it was decorated, the intricate carvings upon it showed an image that looked awfully like a blazing sun. The biggest giveaway however, was its colour. A deep, unnatural red. Jack bent down to take a closer look, yelling over his shoulder to Savannah as to what he had found.

‘Savannah? You’re not going to believe this!’ There was no reply as he peered closer. Deep in curiosity, he reached slowly in order to pick the stone up. ‘Savannah?’ He called again, pausing his reach to wonder why she hadn’t responded.

‘Lost are we Mr. Vance?’ The voice echoed. Jack shuddered, he knew he was in trouble. Standing slowly, he turned on the spot. The sight that awaited him did indeed have trouble written all over it.

There, stood with a Valkyrie pointed straight at him, was Brad Chase, a sick smirk of victory plastered all over his face. However he was the least of his concerns. Stood next to him, was a rather dishevelled looking Tanque. Tightly in his grip, he held Savannah as she squirmed in his grasp. Her cries muffled as his giant’s hand firmly covered her mouth.

‘Ah believe you have something that belongs to me.’ Brad purred in a southern drawl.

Through the tense silence, only Tanque’s raspy breath and gurgling giggle could be head as it echoed through the flickering cavern.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19: Action Stations.

Floating lazily in sync with the lapping waves, the Surf Bream took a rest from its day of swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Eastern Australian coast. Filled with curiosity, it stopped to take a look at the most bizarre sight its tiny memory could recall.

Buried in the sand directly in front of it, were planted two giant black feet. Naked, the toes clawed and dug into the white sand, causing plumes of silt to waft around the ankles. Growing from each foot, were two giant legs, each covered with a thick matting of black wiry hair. Not that the fish knew they were feet of course. To him and the gathering shoal of his dead eyed brood that surrounded him, the legs were a curious intrusion to his usually quiet world.

With a dull splash, a giant boulder of breaded matter smashed through the glass like surface, causing the whole shoal to scatter. Rather than sinking, the ‘boulder’ rose again to the surface as it slowly disintegrated, triggering the fish’s most primal thought…FOOD! Before he could act, the rest of the shoal had the same thought as they shot towards the floating meal. The once lazy fish now darted and zipped towards the loose pieces. It was every fish for itself.

‘Dinner’s up chaps! Don’t fight all at once now.’ As he bathed his feet in the warm surf, Miles Sudbury discarded the last of his buttered toast into the sea, he didn’t have much of an appetite to sustain. Stood in the middle of a desolate, but beautiful coved beach, the dapperly dressed

gentleman paddled in the waves as his dog ran hectically along the beach, chasing any seabirds that dared to land. Together they were miles away from any form of civilisation, to a stranger, it must have looked like a strange sight. A stranger however, would not have known that the cove where the man stood housed one of the most secretive private organisations in the world.

Within the cove was a rocky cave. Covered in tropical foliage, a steady waterfall flowed across its entrance, belying the secrets that were held within. Surrounding the cave and the entire cove was a dense, thick rainforest, which hugged the golden sandy beach which in turn curved into a semi-circular cove, creating a pool of calm water that protected the cave from the harsh Pacific Ocean that waited menacingly outside. It was the perfect hideaway.

His toast now a part of the local eco-system, Miles drained the last of his tea from its china cup before placing it back on its saucer with a clink. Placing the saucer on the soft, white sand, he raised his arms into the air forming a big stretch, clawing his toes ever further into the warm wet sand.

Even at 5am, Miles was a picture of sophistication. Despite being on his morning paddle, he still wore his impeccably tailored suit, the trousers rolled up to his knees as not to get them wet. A few yards behind him in a neat pile, lay his shining brogues. Atop of them rested his bowler hat, his umbrella neatly placed alongside.

He had already been stood there for an hour, playing fetch with Foxtrot before watching the sun rise slowly above the horizon, ready to feed the fish that seemed to live in the cove.

Despite the blissful locale, Miles was wracked with worry. He wasn’t awake at this time for no reason. Stroking his white beard, he pulled a golden pocket watch from his waist coat, checking the time on its etched dial.

‘5 am…’ He said to himself softly. That meant it was 11am in Arizona. Placing the pocket watch neatly back in his waistcoat, he let out an exasperated sigh. ‘Oh Foxtrot, I do hope Jack’s ok.’ Upon hearing his name, the dog obediently ran back towards his owner, shaking the sand from its shaggy coat.

The feeling of worry had become all too familiar to him lately. The organisation had been working overdrive the past few years, resulting in many sleepless nights. He remembered a time when F.A.T.E only took on a handful of jobs a year. Jobs that had been carefully deliberated and chosen on their merit. Chosen when a true, grave injustice occurred, when there truly was nobody else to help.

Now they seemed to go out for anything and anyone. His team seemed to be turning more and more into mercenaries each day as opposed to agents of good. Then there was all this business with the ‘Stones’. The director seemed obsessed with them lately. It all seemed bizarre to Miles and his fellow crewmates. The Element stones were nothing but a rumour, a legend, nobody even knew if they even existed.

Then there was this ‘Scarlet General’. Now there was real, a cruel heartless criminal with a chequered past. A man who really did need stopping. The director was right to be going on the hunt for him, but what threat was he going to be with a bunch of rocks? Surely that was a matter for the authorities? There were masses of people who genuinely needed help on this planet, how was F.A.T.E going to help them by stopping a man from gaining a rock collection?

Letting out another sigh, Miles could at least see some sense with the Arizona job. It made Miles’ blood boil to see the immigrant population exploited by Mr Chase’s organisation. But to send a seventeen year old kid? It was madness! The loss of Agent Hardy still cut him deep. It had been one of these ‘bloody rock jobs’ as he called them that had gotten his closest friend killed. Miles didn’t want to see more death as a result in the search for them, especially this child.

Convincing himself there was nothing he could do, Miles continued to stare out across the bay as he watched the rising sun lazily lift from the waves, the screaming seagulls silhouetted against the sky as they hovered in the distance.

‘Yo! Miles!’ The brash voice shattered the idyllic peace, tearing miles from his haven of bliss. Emerging from the mess of Palm trees and tropical bushes behind him, Hudson clumsily appeared. Out of breath, he was obviously in a hurry having ran all the way from the cave to the beach. ‘Hey Miles man! This ain’t no time for beachcombing!’ He gasped urgently.

‘Agent Hudson!’ Miles turned on the spot, startled at having his peace interrupted. Foxtrot barked in surprise before running towards the big man gaily. ‘What the devil are you doing here?’ He reached for his shoes, inwardly cursing at the prospect of having sandy feet for the rest of the day.

‘Ain’t no time to explain, seems like the boy is in trouble!’

‘What? What kind of trouble?!’ Miles was uncharacteristically panicked at the prospect as he hopped about, slipping his brogues back onto his feet.

‘The kid’s had a bust up in the migrant camp, now he’s gone missing within the mansion. We just can’t read him, his signal’s gone! This thing is turning into a damn rescue job!’

‘Bloody hell!’ Miles cursed, ‘I knew this would happen!’ Dressed again miles ran across the beach towards Hudson as Foxtrot excitedly followed, the three disappeared into the trees towards the cavern.

Once again the beach was peaceful, seemingly barren of all human life. All that remained, apart from Mile’s footsteps in the sand, was a lone teacup, which was now beginning to be washed away by the approaching surf, dragged out towards the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

 

***

Minutes later, the tranquil peace of the cove was disturbed. With a steady, rocky grumble, the waterfall that once cascaded heavily across the cave began to part, like curtains being pulled from a set of windows. The interior of the cave was now exposed, the intricate base inside laid bare for all to see. However the only eyes to see the miraculous transformation were the local sea birds, who in panic, scattered across the bay, flying from the ungodly scene that was unfolding in front of them. After a pause of a few seconds, an eerie high pitched howling began to emanate from inside of the cave, echoing off the cliff faces of the cavern.

Exiting the cave upon the crest of a self-made wave, the Silver Shadow slowly edged out across the water. Its sleek nose crept from the dark of the cave, the shining metal skin reflected as it reacted to the bright Australian sunshine. As the whole craft emerged, it was hard to focus upon the craft as its whole body shimmered in the light.

Gradually, it made its way to the centre of the cove. Once there, the craft rose slightly, hovering inches above the sparkling sea it had once rested upon. This caused the water within the bay to ripple, mini waves washed and bounced within the walls of the bay, like the surface of a recently knocked glass of water. The constant whine of the engines increased in volume as they built up all the power that was needed for the Shadow’s vertical take-off.

After thirty seconds of increasing volume, the Silver Shadow angled itself mid-air above the water, the craft now pointed towards the sky, the engines screamed at full capacity as they fought to keep the craft airborne in this position. The water below had now been reduced to a bubbling cauldron as the exhausts blew angrily onto the water’s surface.

For a split second, the whining ceased and with a bellowing boom, the Silver Shadow shot into the air, soaring immediately from nothing to the speed of sound within a few seconds. The echoes of the sonic boom bounced within the walls of the bay as the Shadow flew into the sunrise, out of sight.

As the chaos subsided, the waterfall covered the cave once again, the torrent of water flowed thunderously over the cave as always. The waters of the cove returned to their sheen like stillness. Nervously, the myriad of sea birds once by one began to return to the trees and rocks, as their calls filled the bay. The whole dramatic take off had taken all but minutes. There was no evidence at all to point to the miracle of aviation that had just occurred.

 

***

Screaming across the Pacific Ocean at over 4500 MPH, the Silver Shadow cruised comfortable through the air. It was a sheer contrast from the clumsy, water-borne taxi and take off it had just achieved minutes earlier within the bay. Now it was in its element, hurtling towards United States airspace at rapid speed.

‘E.T.A 2 Hours 4 minutes. We are weapons ready.’ Zhanna declared as she piloted the Shadow. In front of her, the view from outside shot by as readings and data flashed upon the heads up display.

‘Sweet, we can’t afford to leave this kid on his own for much longer. He ain’t emerged from that mountain for some time yet.’ Hudson noted.

Stood nervously behind them, Miles, leant forward as he peered through the backs of their seats to get a better look at the heads up display, Foxtrot too peered curiously between his legs, the Scottie’s face with its jet black bushy brows and beard were a picture of seriousness.

‘You were right to be concerned Hudson old man.’ He agreed, ‘From what you’ve told me he’s had bloody rough couple of hours.’ He chuckled to himself despite his nerves, stroking his white beard as he shook his head in disbelief. ‘I must say though I’m rather impressed with the boy, he seems to be smashing all expectations.’ Hudson turned back smiling broadly.

‘Hah! He sure is right?’ His face seemed genuinely excited, ‘I mean the horse, the Jeep! Aw man I wished you’d seen it on the Satellite imagery. It was awesome!’ His child-like enthusiasm was soon cut down by Zhanna, not taking her eyes from the controls.

‘Yes, well his job is far from complete.’ She stated coldly. ‘I want to see what sort of mess that child has left within those mountains.’

Neither of the men knew what to say, the mood becoming somewhat awkward. Hudson pulled yet another cigar from his flight suit, biting the tip and lighting it. As the smoke bellowed through the cockpit, he winked back at Miles, the two of them grinned conspiringly like Cheshire cats. As she continued to stare at the heads up display anxiously, Zhanna broke the silence.

‘Holding course. ETA 1 hour 59 minutes.’ Shew continued as her gloved hand wafted the approaching smoke from Hudson’s cigar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 20: Fire and Flood.

 

‘Well how do you like that?’ Brad asked menacingly with a grin as he kept the Valkyrie levelled at Jack. The smirk immediately changed to a snarl as his temper began to return. ‘This is the thanks I get?!’ He screamed.

Once again Jack saw Brad’s dark side. At least there wasn’t a ledge for him to be launched over this time.

‘It’s not what it looks like.’ Hardly the most original of excuses.

‘Shut it!’ Shouted Brad. He lowered the Valkyrie as he began to pace around in front of him. ‘I took you in when you were lost! I clothed you, fed you!’ It was as if he were scalding himself rather than Jack. He stared at the floor as he yelled like a madman, a hand on his head. All the while Savannah remained in the clutches of Tanque.

‘And I’m very grateful for you hospitality!’ Jack said reassuringly, trying to remain as calm as possible.

‘Oh yeah! Real gratitude. You steal my daughter away, introduce her to the FILTH outside! How could you!?’

‘But…’

‘Not a word! I guess you just couldn’t see the big picture.’ Brad cut Jack short. A strange twisted smile appeared on his face, ‘But I shouldn’t be too upset. No! After all, you found the stone! Hah! Look at you! A mere child found what I have been seeking for years.’ He tried to peer around Jack to get a glimpse of the stone. ‘Tell me, how did you find it?’

‘Ask your daughter, she’s the one who figured it out. All with the help of those people you oppress so brutally!’ Jack didn’t know what annoyed him most, his cruelty to his men, or his lack of belief in his daughter who at this very moment was struggling to breathe through Tanque’s suffocating hand.

‘Liar!’ Brad spat, ‘You really think my princess would associate herself with the scum outside! No, nice try bud but your lies just aren’t gonna cut it here.’ He laughed to himself before continuing. ‘And as for the ‘treatment of my workers’? Hell I’m offering them a chance to live the American dream!’

‘By dying in your mines?’ Jack spat. ‘You do realise two of your men died here finding your ‘precious stone’.’ An anger began to mount within Jack’s chest.

‘Hey, every great enterprise has its risks. It happens all over the world, throughout history! Every pioneering project needs its pawns. The Pharos used slave labour to build the pyramids, the Romans used slavery to maintain their great city. Heck! Even your very own people used Black slaves centuries ago!’

‘That was in the past. Society learns from its mistakes and moves on!’ Brad barked a harsh laugh that echoed through the tunnel.

‘Hah! You really think so? Oh slavery is still here son believe me. Powerful people are still out there using the masses to achieve greatness. Do your research boy! Just look at Africa, North Korea, hell it happens everywhere.’ Brad snapped his fingers, remembering something. ‘You like Soccer Mr Vance?’ He asked. ‘Sure you Brits love soccer! Well there’s a certain tournament coming up that’s being built on it!’ He laughed to himself once again, keeping his secret to himself. ‘For great success Mr. Vance there needs to be a sacrifice. I have a legacy to leave behind. I need to resurrect this town. Unfortunately, this tunnel has had to claim three lives all in the name of progress.’

‘Three…?’ Jack asked, knowing full well what he meant.

‘Oh yeah… three.’ Brads eyes glared at him as he nodded. ‘No one saw you come into this mountain Mr Vance remember, nobody has to see you come out.’ With a sideward nod he looked to Tanque. ‘This kid’s boring me now…Kill him.’

Instinctively, the giant dropped Savannah, and began to stride confidently towards Jack. Savannah was left in a heap on the floor, catching her breath. Somehow she managed to let out a scream that stopped everybody in their tracks.

‘Stoooop!’ She yelled, surprising everybody, all eyes on her. ‘Daddy how can you? This isn’t you!’ Her father turned to face her, calmly explaining himself.

‘Oh honey.’ He knelt down to her level. ‘Please don’t tell me you’ve let this Limey son of a bitch poison your mind now have you?’ He ran his hand over her daughter’s cheek, wiping a tear.

‘We saw you with that guy, the…General. You’re just here for the stone aren’t you? This has got nothing to do with the town!’ Her face was filled with spite, angry with all the lies.

‘Sure it’s about the town darlin’. But you see we need his technology to get the water and hey! He’s the one with the gear. If he wants some cruddy stone in order for us to use them then so be it!’ He leant further into his daughters face, staring her in the eyes. ‘But you’ve been nosey sugar, faaar to nosey.’ He grabbed her hair, twisting her head so that she faced Jack who was cornered by Tanque. ‘And this is what happens to those who get nosey.’

With a final nod, Brad summoned Tanque to carry on looming towards Jack.

‘NO!’ Savannah screamed as she tried to clamber to her feet to help him. Her father however held her in place, holding tight to her ponytail.

‘Uh, uh sweety. You’ll need to see this. Hopefully you’ll learn something.’

There was nowhere else for Jack to go, his back pressed up against the rock wall, he was trapped by Tanque’s mammoth size. The giant took his time as he approached Jack menacingly, his arms held wide as he giggled grotesquely. Brad taunted Jack.

‘Fee, Fi, Fo, fum! Tanque smells the blood of an Englishman!’ He cackled as his henchman raised his arm to Jack.

Jack ducked as with a mammoth swing, Tanque swiped a mean left hook his way, barely missing his head. However Jack wasn’t ready for the right punch that immediately followed the left. His sinewy hand caught Jack in the chest, sending him flying into the wall. He saw stars as he was left dazed, in a heap in the floor, the breath taken from him. He felt as if he had been hit by a tonne of bricks. His vision blurred, he tried to refocus on Tanque as he struggled to stand back up.

‘Stay down little man. Stay down.’ The hoarse voice ordered. ‘Fun time!’ He burst into a fit of yelping giggles as he purposefully strode towards the stricken boy. Jack braced himself. He’d seen it already. He knew what horrific, crushing death awaited him. He closed his eyes and waited for hell.

Only it never came. Seconds passed, Jack was puzzled. There were no more footsteps, no monstrous hands attacked him. Cautiously, he opened his eyes, dreading to see what they’d see.

Tanque was still there, merely a few yards in front of him, only he was no longer advancing. Gone was the sadistic grin, no more was he giggling. He was pinned to the spot, he hadn’t moved an inch. Puzzled, Tanque too stared down at his foot, he appeared to be stuck fast to the floor!

‘Huh?’ The giant uttered, trying with all his might to lift his right foot from the floor. His confusion soon turned to horror as a bright red light begun to glow around his immobile foot. A searing red light that glowed intensely as it danced up and around his leg, glowing brighter and brighter. Tanque had inadvertently stepped onto the Fire Stone!

‘Help! Help!’ His piggish voice squealed excitedly as he tried to pull his leg from the stone. It was no use however, the light danced even higher up his leg towards his waist, slowly engulfing his giant body with its dancing rays. The screams began to become unbearable as he was engulfed, the high pitched panicked snorting echoed throughout the tunnel as if a pig were being slaughtered.

The screaming grew higher and higher in pitch, until the dancing light washed over his entire body, covering him from head to toe. The light was now blinding. Jack covered his eyes. Tanque’s body froze mid frenzy in an agonising pose as the light took hold, growing further and further with intensity, Jack could feel the heat as it intensified. With a final burst, Tanque disappeared into thin air with an explosion of light that shot deep red rays in all directions. A loud boom followed that shook the cavern. As if in a split second, there was nothing left of the man. Nothing apart from a silhouette of his agonising death throe etched on the wall alongside the prior two victims. Silence returned to the tunnel, everybody frozen in shock.

The silence was short lived however, as the wall where the burnt remains were displayed begun to crack, a solid break ran up the wall from bottom to top exposing a huge gape. To everybody’s disbelief, water began to gush through the crack, slowly pouring into the tunnel. The flow was slow at first, however seconds later the flow intensified, causing the crack in the wall to grow and grow, letting more and more water to flood into the tunnel.

‘Water!’ Screamed Brad! ‘Jesus Christ we found water!’ He immediately released his daughter, staring at wonder at the sight he had been aching to see for years! He laughed uncontrollably, leaping into the air in joy, despite his most loyal servant having just died in front of his eyes.

His laughing stopped abruptly however as with a massive crack, the gape split open further, causing torrents of water to come gushing through the wall. The cavern begun to flood immediately. His face now frozen in horror, he crept back towards the exit, tripping over rocks as he backtracked.

As the crack grew, the entire chamber begun to rumble as rocks begun to rain from the ceiling. The chamber was once again about to collapse! Terrified, brad threw his Valkyrie to the floor. The exit hole behind him that they had all entered through was beginning to shrink among a hail of falling rock.

Cowardly, Brad slunk through what was left of the tiny hole, leaving his only daughter and Jack trapped in the chamber, which was now beginning to flood rapidly.

Jack managed to scramble back to his feet, the water now up his knees. He waded purposely towards Savannah, who in a state of shock stared at the pile of rocks where the exit had once stood.

‘Daddy? Daddy!’ She screamed, uselessly banging her hands on the wall of rock that now had them trapped.

The freezing water had now crept up to Jack’s chest as he reached Savannah. It took his breath away, nearly taking the words out from his mouth.

'Sav- Savannah!' He cried as he gripped her shoulders. She turned arounds, her tear stained face stared back at him, her expression that of pure disbelief and fear.

‘He-He left us! He just left us here Jack! What the hell are gonna do?’ Jack had no clue, he was terrified as she was. He knew however that they needed to remain calm. That task was difficult however as the rising water reached their necks, lifting their feet from the surface. They were now kicking water as they struggled to stay afloat.

‘Just hold on to me!’ Jack struggled to yell, the freezing water made speech hard and filled his mouth as he kicked hard to stay afloat.

‘I’m sorry! I’m so sorry I dragged you into this!’ Savannah cried.

The chamber was now nearly full with water, as the two were lifted to the top. Only a foot of airspace remained as their heads approached the ceiling.

‘Don’t be d-daft!’ Jack Spluttered. ‘We’ll get out of this I promise you!’ He knew he was lying, but he false hope was all he had to give to the girl.

With a bumpy their heads reached the ceiling, the water had nowhere to go but up, nearly covering their mouths.

‘Jack…I.’

‘Deep breath!’ He interrupted. With a staggered, frightened gasp, Savannah took in one last breath, as did Jack. Within a second they were completely engulfed by the icy water. The two of them buried within the chamber that had already taken so many lives.

They floated together in the dark chamber, holding on to each other. There was nothing left for them to do but hold on and wait for the air in their lungs to empty. Jack opened his eyes, as did Savannah, the two of them stared at each other. As he gazed, Jack was pleased that she would be the last thing his eyes would see. Something puzzled him however. How was it that they could see each other? It should be pitch black if they were sealed in.

Rapidly running out of breath, Jack followed the ray of light that was shining upon them both. It was coming from the ‘exit’. Although blocked, there were still gaps within the exit that allowed light through. Maybe there was a way out?

He tapped Savannah, pointing hurriedly towards the gaps before swimming down urgently to investigate. Upon closer inspection, he found there was no way he could shift the boulders that blocked their path. Even if he could, his strength was rapidly depleting along with his oxygen. Twinkling in the light however, something caught his attention.

Resting on the floor of the chamber was Brad’s Valkyrie!

Desperately, Jack swam deeper to the floor grabbing the rifle urgently. It only lifted partially however. To his despair, the strap was caught beneath a rock, securing it to the floor. Panicking, Jack tried his best to dislodge it, planting his feet upon the floor as he pulled with all his might. It budged slightly, but only a little. It was no use. Within seconds the last of his air would be gone.

Suddenly, Jack felt a pair of arms grab his shoulders. It was Savannah! She had seen the whole thing. She nodded her head to the Valkyrie, giving the signal to pull. This was their last chance. Together, with one final push of their legs, they pulled at the weapon using the last of their strength.

Miraculously, with a crunch of rock, the strap of the Valkyrie released itself as they both floated up from the momentum of their push.

There was no time to waste. With the weapon in Jacks hands he twisted in the water as he took aim towards the light that broke through the gaps. He tried his best to remember Brad’s earlier training. If it wasn’t for the lack of oxygen in his body he may have noticed the irony of Brad being his saviour.

As he fought to stay conscious, he fumbled for the safety. Finding it he flicked the switch before pulling the trigger hastily. There was a terrifying split second delay until with a whoosh, the discus launched powerfully towards the exit amongst a trail of bubbles, lodging itself into the rock securely.

Dug securely in the rock, the light on the discus blinked its red light. Together, they waited for the 3 second delay. It was perhaps the longest 3 seconds they had ever experienced in their lives.

One blink….. Two blink… three…………..

A plume of bubbles erupted, followed by a dull boom as the explosion tore the rock apart, rocking Jack and Savannah as they floated in the water, nearly at the point of death.

Suddenly however their weak bodies were pulled towards the exit as the newly blown wall allowed the mass of water to gush through, taking them with it. Twisted in a pile, the pair were washed down the tunnel as they came to rest on the wet floor. Both of them gasped for air as they lay breathless on their backs.

‘You…you ok?’ Panted Jack.

‘Never…better.’ Savannah panted, her head in her hands.

Drenched, Jack pulled himself to his feet, his body sore. Ignoring the pain, he helped lift Savannah from the floor.

‘Where is he? Where is that bastard of a father!?’ Savannah was furious, aching for vengeance to the betrayal from her own blood. Jack grabbed her arm, trying to calm her.

‘Later! We need to get out of here quickly, I don’t fancy another bath.’

Before Savannah could argue back, a loud, trembling grumble could be heard from the chamber where they emerged. Jack grabbed her hand, ‘Come on! Run!’

Filled with adrenaline, the pair ran, retracing the steps towards the Maglev station. Stumbling as they ran, the hurried as quickly as they could along the myriad of tunnels they had entered through earlier. The rumbling persisted, causing the hanging lights to swing and sway as if they had a life of their own.

Finally, they made it to the station, the two tracks spanning deep into the tunnel ahead. Once again, there remained only one carriage that sat idling on the tracks. Brad had seemingly wasted no time in escaping the collapsing. Tunnels.

‘The coward!’ Screamed Savannah angrily, her cry disappeared down the tunnel as if it were trying to follow him. Jack ignored the girl’s anger, instead leaping straight onto the carriage, engaging the controls as it sprung to life.

‘Are you coming or what!?’ Jack barked, anxious to leave the station. As if making the decision easier, the rumbling seemed to follow them from behind them, causing the ground to shake.

As Jack looked back down the tunnel, he saw a torrent of cascading water that flowed wildly upon them. The hole in the chamber must have completely given way, causing the whole water system to give chase after them. The wave of water roared angrily down the tunnel, seconds away from reaching them.

‘Go, go, go!’ Savannah urged as she leapt onto the carriage.

Within seconds they were away as the carriage launched itself from the station as it flew down the maglev track. Once it had cleared the station, it took seconds for the carriage to reach a high speed. Using all his effort to fight the G-force, Jack turned his head back to check on the advancing water. The frothing, foaming mass completely engulfed the entire station as it continued to gush down the tunnel, nearly matching their speed.

‘This is going to be close!’ Shouted Jack as he reached for the control panel. Recklessly he pushed the accelerator further forward, increasing the speed of the carriage even further to its limits. On a straight line this would have been fine, but rapidly they hurtled towards the track’s tight corner. If the carriage came off here, they would be history. Despite the risk however, they couldn’t slow down, the water was looming on them, and getting closer every meter they travelled.

As they hit the corner, the entire carriage tipped violently upon the rail. Jack could feel g’s pull him mercilessly to his left as the carriage tore right, leaning to its limits. Jack could only hope for the best as he felt himself leaning closer and closer the rushing floor that shot past him at a terrifying rate.

As he waited for the inevitable crash, Jack felt the carriage slowly tip back over to the right. They had made it! They had cleared the corner at top speed! Only so had the water torrent that smashed through the corner blindly, gaining on them still. On the near horizon, Jack could just about see the end of the line, the mansion awaited. For once he believed they could make it, they had a chance of escaping the depths of Mt. Marron.

Fighting every inch of his instinct not to slow down, Jack applied the brakes as they came to a halt at the station, where Jack and Savannah wasted no time in leaping from their harnesses.

‘Come on!’ Screamed Jack, his voice drowned by the roaring wave.

As they fled from the station, they passed through the mosaic door, arriving at the foot of the grand stair case in the grand hall of the mansion. Luckily, the Mosaic door had been left open from Brad’s earlier escape. Unlike him however, they were too late to avoid the wave of water that had rapidly caught up with them.

They had lost the race.

‘Ohhhh….shi-’.

Before Jack could utter his curse, the water barged into them both, knocking them over with ease as they were washed down the stairs of the mansion, spilling onto the marble floor. The floor of the grand hall had been reduced to a swimming pool, as the grand piano and other works of art floated lazily across the water’s surface.

Once again Jack and Savannah helped themselves to their feet. The water was at their knees as they took stock of the carnage as the water flowed from the great hall straight out through the front door to the gardens outside.

‘I hope you’re insured.’ Quipped Jack. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’

With some effort, the pair managed to wade through the main hall to the front door. Neither were prepared for the sight that waited for them outside.

The entire front court yard was flooded. The gardens and walkways were covered in water that flowed its way from the mansion to the grounds. As they traipsed their way through the flooded courtyard, they both took a look back, gauging the scale of the destruction.

The whole mansion poured water from every window and door, the garage doors too had been burst open from the sheer volume of water. From within, the priceless collection of sports car were dragged from within. In front of them, a Lamborghini drifted past them. It was pulled effortlessly towards the edge of the cliff where Jack had stood with Brad a day earlier, dropping over the edge of the newly formed waterfall.

The sheer scale of destruction was unfathomable. Nevertheless, they needed to find a way off the mountain.

‘Where the hell is Pa?!’ Savannah shouted above the noise of the flowing water. As if to answer her question, Jack spotted something.

Driving away from the scene of chaos, Jack spotted Brad fleeing along the driveway, down the mountain in the only vehicle that could have made it through the watery mess, a luxury Humvee that he had taken from the car collection. It’s large wheels, four wheel drive and high chassis made it the perfect vehicle for Brad to make his escape.

‘There’s your answer.’ Jack pointed as the vehicle hurtled away in a cloud of spray and dust down the mountain track.

‘I can’t believe it! He’s damn well done it again! My very own Pa’ has once again left his little girl to die!’ As she yelled after the car Jack rolled his eyes.

‘Can we please leave the family strife till later please?! How the hell are we going to get off of this rock?!’ His ran his hands through his hair as he tried desperately to think of a way out. To follow on foot would be dangerous, the flowing water, despite slowing down, could still potentially knock them over to their doom. They had no car, no vehicle, nothing to help them escape. What was he going to do?

Savannah noticed the answer first. Smiling broadly, she grabbed Jack by the shoulder as she spun him on the spot to show him what was behind him.

‘I think we found our answer.’ She beamed. The sight was both ridiculous and heart lifting all the same.

Looking as tired and dishevelled as they did, a familiar white horse Palomino stood stubbornly in the water-flooded courtyard. As it recognised the two humans, it blew haughtily through its nostrils.

‘Yoshi!!!’ Jack yelled as he welled with joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 21: A Downhill Struggle.

 

Once again Jack and Savannah were on horseback as Yoshi clumsily made his way through the flowing water that poured out from the mansion. After a few uneasy moments passing across the softening ground, Yoshi carefully delivered the pair away from the river that was now pouring from the front of the building.

It could have been sheer luck that the horse had been there; they had left it to randomly wander across the grounds as they went investigating. Jack however decided to take it as a sense of loyalty from the beast, patiently waiting for its rescuers to return from within the mansion.

The horse Palomino had now repaid the favour tenfold, coming to a stop once it had cleared the water. Along with its two passengers, the three looked back at the scale of the destruction that had been left behind. The whole mansion grounds had been left to ruin, a mass of twisting metal, foliage and cars flowed and gathered along the new ‘river’ before dropping down the sheer face of the mountain that was now a gushing waterfall.

The time for reflection was cut short however, as the noise of tyres skidding on rough ground grabbed Jack and Savannah’s attention. Rushing down the mountain in a perilous fashion was Brad as he tore down the road in the Humvee.

‘We can’t let him get away!’ Savannah pleaded, tugging at Jack’s Jacket as she held on.

Jack looked into her pleading eyes. There was no other option.

Nodding in agreement, he kicked his foot against Yoshi’s flank with a yell, causing the horse to burst straight into a canter. Clear of the water, he was a different beast to the clumsy thing that had led them across the river. Once again they were in high speed chase by horseback, only this time they were in pursuit.

At first glance it would appear that Brad was miles ahead in the Humvee as he raced down the roads. Unfortunately for him however he was diligently using the winding roads, nearly backing up on himself as he took every turn that concertinaed down the mountain. Jack though had decided to take the much more linear route to catch up.

Rather than follow the roads, he sent Yoshi straight down, passing across the winding roads taking a direct line down the mountain-face, the horse Palomino nimbly reacted to every change in terrain it came across. Before long, they found themselves gaining on the vehicle, arriving on the same piece of road.

Both beasthorse and machine were on the same long stretch of mountain road, which wound its way across the side of Mt Marron tightly. There was nowhere else for either the Humvee or the horse to go, the current road they were on was framed either side by the sheer mountain face to the left, and a blind drop to the right. It was a one track race.

Being the best part of a mile ahead, Brad now had the advantage of being able to speed away on the tarmac, leaving the horse Palomino in the dust. Despite his advantage, Jack saw the Humvee slowly come to a stop as its bright brake-lights glared through the settling dust. Now gaining on the parked Humvee, Jack could just about see Brad as he disembarked from the vehicle, carrying something in his arms. As he squinted to through the haze to get a better look, he noticed something terrifying. Standing in the middle of the road and taking aim, Brad was carrying another Valkyrie, now pointed straight at them! He wouldn’t dare!

Proving Jack wrong, the Valkyrie kicked in Brad’s arms with a flash, launching the lethal discus into the air. It dug itself into the ground in front of his path, landing in a plume of dust and rubble. Its red light flashed, seconds away from detonation.

With a split second to spare, Jack forced the horse to the left sharply by its reins as the discus exploded in front of him. A plume of dirt showered down on them as the horse animal whinnied and bucked as Jack struggled to maintain control of the beast. Savannah clung on to Jack with all her might as her nails dug into the leather of his Jacket.

After a moment’s panic, Jack managed to get Yoshi back under control as the horse Palomino continued on galloping forwards. His face muddied and covered in soot, Jack grimaced in sheer rage as he breathed heavily, furious at the man who had just nearly killed them all. This had gone too far.

Not according to Brad however, who continued to send a volley of Valkyrie discs flying towards the horse. Towards his own daughter. One by one, a multitude of explosions erupted. Using all the control and discipline he could muster within the horsebeast, Jack managed to dodge each one, counting in his head the three second delay that would occur between each disc landing and exploding, planning where to position the horse. Each burst rang through his ears, leaving them ringing as his lungs filled with the haze of smoke and debris that caused him to cough and splutter. Forging his way through the clouds of smoke, the horse Palomino miraculously kept true to its course, pelting down the road towards the parked Humvee.

His face a picture of disbelief, Brad threw the Valkyrie to the floor, leaping straight back into the Humvee. With Brad in a state of panic, it took a few moments of fumbling with keys to get the Humvee going again, its wheels span in the dirt as it once again careered down the road away from his determined foe.

No amount of determination however could take away from the fact that the Humvee was just too quick for the horse. The horse Palomino was at top speed, Jack screamed encouragement to the beast as they gave chase. Despite their efforts, the vehicle started to become a speck on the road ahead as it sped off. There was no way of catching up with Brad who was now free to escape, his sins unpunished. Jack cursed loudly, filled with rage at the injustice of it all.

Jack’s scream however was quickly drowned out by a familiar noise. It seemed to be coming from below the ledge to his right. A whining, humming sound, it seemed to get louder, seemingly rising up from below the edge of the cliff face. He wondered if it was his imagination as Yoshi too was spooked by the high pitched noise, shaking his head as he ran. The noise became louder and louder, causing the mountainside to shudder around them. It couldn’t be?

Soaring up from below the cliff edge, a giant silver craft screamed as it rose up beside him, its silver skin nearly blinding him as it reflected the searing morning Arizona sun. The horse reared in shock at the arrival of the silver beast that now floated alongside them, needing all of Jack’s skill to keep him under control. Frozen to the spot, there was nothing the three of them could do but marvel at the glistening behemoth as it hovered above them, wobbling slightly as its thrusters struggled to maintain its stationary position.

‘What the hell is that?!’ Jack could barely hear Savannah as she yelled into his ear.

‘You wondered how I got here. Well that’s how!’

It had all seemed so long ago, the crate, the desert, the silver ship. It was as if it had been following him throughout this entire adventure! Now he could see it up close. There were no windows, no way of telling who the ship belonged to. Despite being suspended in mid-air in front of his face, the craft still encapsulated its own sense of mystery.

The ship rotated in mid-air as it turned to face the Humvee that continued to race into the distance. It tracked the vehicle, its nose following the trajectory of the HUMVEE as it threatened to disappear around the next corner of the mountain trail.

With a whirr, a hatch below one of the crafts stubby wings dislodged, opening up to reveal a hidden arsenal of four missiles that were poised to launch. Without hesitation, a plume of smoke erupted from the tail of one of the missiles as is screamed from the launcher, flying from the ship towards the escaping vehicle.

In stunned silence, Jack and Savannah could only gawp as they watched the smoking trail of the missile fly towards the mountain side.

The missile scorched its way through the air, seconds later slamming into the rocky cliff, meters in front of the Humvee. With a bellowing boom, the cliff face shattered, causing a landslide to pour across the road below in front of Brad’s vehicle.

He didn’t have a chance. As the tide of rocks flowed in front of his Humvee, Brad piled on the brakes, causing him to skid into an uncontrollable slide as the vehicle tried its best to stop in time. It was to no avail however as the Humvee smashed into the pile of rocks that blocked the road, spinning him off the road as came bouncing off the obstruction.

As it span to a stop, the Humvee found itself dangling precariously upon the ledge of the cliff, leaving Brad staring down hundreds of feet to his doom as it rocked on the precipice.

DADDY!!!’ Savannah screamed in horror as she watched her father’s life literally hang in the balance. Despite all that he had done, Jack could not watch the man die like this. With a yell, he threw Yoshi back into a gallop as he galloped towards the teetering vehicle. Still hovering, the craft slowly followed Jack as his horse sprinted to the rescue of Brad as if it were watching him, curiously floating beside him to see what would happen.

It took a mere thirty seconds for Jack to reach the stricken Humvee, he leapt from the horse animal and ran to it immediately, ignoring the aircraft that continued to monitor the situation.

BRAD!’ He yelled as he reached the rocking vehicle. ‘Brad speak to me! Are you ok?!’ Jack tried desperately to peer inside through the shattered windows. As he edged ever close to the front of the vehicle, he could see the man slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious.

‘Daddy!’ Savannah also climbed from the horse and had sprinted towards the scene in horror. ‘What are we going to do?!’ She asked panicked. As if to answer her question, a loud voice boomed from the silver aircraft.

‘Leave him!’ The voice echoed across the collapsing walls of the mountain, above the noise of the screaming engines. ‘Damn it kid! That mountain is unstable as hell; you have gallons upon gallons of water ready to pile down on you! We can get you out of here but you have to leave NOW!’

Jack recognised the voice, the crass American accent he had heard from the crate days ago. His old friends were back. To do what? Pile him back into the box once again? No chance.

‘Go to hell! I’m not letting this man die here!’ He screamed with rage at the ship before reaching for the door handle of the rocking Humvee. With great care, he opened the door, hoping not to disturb it too much. There, across from the passenger seat, was Brad’s slumped body. This was going to be risky, but he’d seen enough death for one day. As he took a deep breath, he slowly crept into the unstable Humvee, clambering into the passenger seat.

‘The kid’s crazy!’ Said Hudson, watching Jack through the ships head up display. ‘The guy nearly killed him seconds ago. Now he’s trying to save the guy?!’ Zhanna stared on mesmerised as she tried to keep the Silver Shadow balanced.

‘Incredible…’ She whispered to herself, a smile rising on her normally cynical face. Miles had seen enough, no more observing.

‘Yes well why don’t we give the lad some much needed help then ey? Zhanna, lower the bottom hatch, I’m going down.’

Busy inside the Humvee, Jack tried vigilantly to unbuckle Brad’s belt. After a few seconds fumbling, he had it loose. But how was he going to pull this man out from the vehicle? Not only was he much heavier than Jack, but any further struggle would jostle the Humvee further, causing it to drop over the cliff face. Jack scanned behind the seats, searching for anything he could use.

There lying in a pile of mess on the back seat, lay a length of heavy duty rope at least five meters long. As he felt the vehicle rock furthermore, he had an idea.

SAVANNAH!’ He screamed. Anxiously, she ran over to the open door of the vehicle. ‘Go Grab Yoshi! Now!!’ As she ran for the horse, Jack set about his plan.

Carefully, he passed the length of rope a twice around Brad’s slumped body, every move he made caused the car to rock further, making his stomach turn. With the rope securely wrapped around Brad’s waist, Jack begun to slowly edge out from the vehicle, holding on to the loose strand of rope, crawling his way out.

As he scurried across the passenger seat, his knee slipped, causing him to fall into the foot well with a thud. The front of the Humvee responded as it rocked forward in response, teetering ever closer to its tipping point, the sound of buckling metal and screams from outside filled his ears. After a few seconds of holding his breath, the vehicle slowly rocked its way back to a standstill.

‘Jesus Jack be careful!!!’ Savannah scalded.

Jack let out a seething breath through his teeth, trying not to think how close he had come to falling to his death.

‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ He responded, trying to refocus. After a few precarious shuffles, Jack emerged from the rocking Humvee, holding the remaining rope in his hand. There as requested, stood Savannah along with the horse.

‘Now what?!’ She asked urgently as the mountain too began to tremble and rock, losing its stability.

‘Tie this around the horse, now!’ He handed her the remaining rope as he helped her wrap the rope around the horse’s animal’s torso, before jumping up on the beast itself. With a pat to the side, he got the horse Palomino to slowly move away from the wreck, pulling the rope taught. Slowly, the horse pulled Brad from the wreck of the Humvee, the motion causing it to rock violently.

‘Come on, come on.’ Jack muttered to himself nervously as he looked back towards the vehicle. As he looked back he could see Brad’s body clumsily being pulled from the passenger door.

‘It’s working!’ Screamed Savannah as her father’s unconscious body slipped slowly from the passenger door.

The increased activity however was too much for the Humvee, as with a final rock, it slipped down the side of the mountain with a groan, its twisting frame submitting to the forces that dragged it down. As it fell, Brad’s body was torn from the open passenger door just in time, falling onto the dusty road. Within seconds, the Humvee had fallen over the edge, breaking into pieces as it trundled its way to the bottom of the mountain with a crash.

As soon as the Humvee was gone, the aircraft hovered above the group, poised above their heads, mere yards away. The jet stream from its engines blew at the group fiercely, spooking Yoshi and nearly knocking Savannah down. As they all looked up at the impressive craft, a hatch from its belly slowly hinged opened, revealing a set of steps. Clung to the handrail of the steps by his umbrella, was the familiar black, white bearded gentleman that had been following Jack all this time.

YOU!!!’ Yelled Jack from atop of the horse. ‘Who the hell are you people?! What do you want with me?!’ He ordered.

‘No time to tell old boy!!!’ The posh voice bellowed down with impressive gravitas. ‘We need to get you out of here…look!’

He pointed towards the end of the stretch of road from where they had travelled. Pouring down the road, spilling over the edges cliff, gushed more water that had gathered at the mansion near the mountain’s top. The ground trembled as they looked back, the torrent only seconds away.

Without explaining further, Miles lowered a hooked winch from the open hatch. With a whirr, the hook lowered from its steel cable towards Jack, dangling barely a meter in front of him.

‘Grab on! You need to be leaving NOW!’ Miles shouted with urgency.

Jack took another look back, judging how long it would be until he, the horse and Savannah would be washed down the mountain. Quickly making a calculation in his head, he made his own decision. He turned to Savannah

‘Jump on!’ He yelled, her face full of confusion.

‘Are you nuts?!’ She screamed back as the water trundled closer and closer.

‘Trust me!’ Jack shouted desperately.

With a cry of futility, Savannah leapt on the horse as she held onto Jack, her own father still tethered to the beast by the rope.

Satisfied, Jack grabbed the dangling hook and secured it to the front of the saddle of the horse. It was his only chance as the water thundered down the road meters away.

Satisfied with his gamble, he nervously gave Miles a ‘thumbs up’.

Miles laughed, taken back by the sheer absurdity of the situation. Not to mention the sheer balls of the lad.

‘Take him up Zhanna!’ He cackled up through the hatch.

Slowly, the Silver Shadow rose, its thrusters taking it higher into the air. Soon, the cable became taught as Jack and Savannah felt a sudden lurch upwards. Before she could ask, Jack glanced back at her with a wry smile.

‘Brace yourself.’

Within seconds the horse, complete with Jack and Savannah, not to mention Brad attached, slowly lifted into the air, just in time for the cascading waters to flush through underneath them.

It was a completely bizarre sight to behold. There, above the flooded mountain, hovered the Silver Shadow. Hanging below it, the horse Palomino that carried Jack and Savannah on its back. Below the horse, hung an unconscious man, who was left spinning upon a length of rope. It all looked like a bizarre Christmas tree decoration. But they were safe. Holding tightly to each other and the cable, Jack and Savannah watched the waters flow down the mountain from atop the confused horse Palomino who looked down perplexed.

They watched as an explosion of water erupted from the mansion, smashing the impressive building to bits. Like a giant water feature, they watched in wonder as the water flowed down every crevice of the mountain creating a cascading litany of waterfalls.

Running down to the bottom of the mountain, it channelled into the man made ditches at the mountain’s base, guiding the newly erupted water towards the town of New Springs where it begun to settle, along with the odd assorted sports car of course. If Brad had been awake, he would have just seen his long awaited plan come to fruition.

As Jack watched on, recovering from the chaos, thoughts returned to his head. Sure he was safe for now, but what of these people who had returned to ‘rescue’ him? What next?

Savannah held on extra tightly to Jack, shaking him from his worried thoughts. Climbing onto his back further, she spoke into his ear.

‘Well seems I was right!’ She yelled, with some humour returning to her voice.

‘About what?’ Jack asked innocently.

‘You are COMPLETELY nuts!’ She chortled.

Relieved to be safe, Jack grinned. Clinging to Jack’s Jacket tightly, Savannah kissed him sweetly on his muddied cheek, a silent thank you from the stubborn girl.

The Silver Shadow continued to lift them gently as they hovered away from the perilous mountain that had nearly claimed their lives. As the noise of the rumbling water disappeared into the distance, all that could be heard once again was the monotonous noise of the high pitched engines, coupled with the occasional splutter of the horse as it spun cluelessly in the air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 22: Consequences.

For the shanty town dwellers of New Springs it was a sight like no other. Appearing out of nowhere, the strange silver craft had sluggishly hovered above the centre of their make shift home, blowing off the occasional tin roof and washing line as it descended. Its engines screamed, as all those who were watching covered their eyes from the resulting cloud of dust. Despite the extraordinary sight of the Silver Shadow, the crowd were more transfixed at what was dangling from below it.

Gently, Brad, Jack and Savannah complete with the horse were lowered onto the dusty earth in the reverse order they had been lifted, leaving a confused heap on the ground. Satisfied they were all safely on the ground, Zhanna carefully landed the Silver shadow next to them, gracefully bringing the aircraft down to earth. The ensuing dust cloud soon began to settle as the engines idled to a stop. In a state of anxious curiosity, the villagers approached the odd looking craft and the heaped rabble it had delivered to their once quiet town.

Clumsily, Jack and Savannah dismounted the horse who despite the chaos, remained calm and composed as it snorted, clearing the dust from its nostrils. Jack dusted the sand from Jacket, the tan leather now damp, grazed and worn from his adventures atop of the mountain. He took a few seconds to adjust to his new surroundings as the encroaching crowd begun to murmur, chattering amongst themselves as to what the hell had just landed in their town.

‘Hey…’ Jack sheepishly said to the curious masses as he made a futile effort to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Turning to Savannah he placed a hand upon her shoulder as she too tried to make sense at what had just happened. ‘Are you ok?’ He asked searching her eyes for a response. Overcome with adrenaline, she shook as her eyes caught his, a manic smile spread upon her face. Nearly crying in hysteria, she launched herself onto Jack, hugging him tightly.

‘Oh Jack!’ She cried as he felt her shaking body against his. ‘We made it! We damn well made it!’ Despite her joy, she sobbed onto his shoulder for a few moments before letting go of him before taking a step back. After a few seconds, she wiped the tears from her cheek and composed herself before turning her attention to her father, who was only now slowly beginning to regain consciousness. He gave a laboured groan before coughing and spluttering, bringing his broken body to its knees.

‘Wha…where am I?’ He mumbled as his shielded his eyes from the rising Arizona sun. He cast a pathetic figure as he struggled to get his bearings. Her face filled with rage, Savannah showed no pity as she stormed over to him, dropping to her knees in front of him as she grabbed her father roughly by the shoulders, shaking him as she screamed.

‘What the hell where you thinkin’ pa!? You nearly got us both killed!’ She screamed as tears once again began to run down her dirtied cheeks. ‘What have you become huh?! What have you become?!’ Her father was shaken like a rag doll as his daughter unleashed her fury on him. Concussed, he was unable to answer, only responding with stifled mumbles and groans.

‘Savanah…’ Was all he could utter pitifully before going limp once again, falling unconscious into a pile onto the sand.

Jack raced over and pulled Savannah from her father as she let out an anguished howl, distraught at her father’s actions.

‘Hey, hey, hey! You’re not going to get anything out of him yet. We’re still not done here yet.’ He reminded her. As if to prove his point, a noise emanated from the ship that was resting on its belly upon the sand. With a click and a hiss of hydraulics, the Silver Shadow once again came to life. For a split second it shuddered before it slowly levitated into the air, lifted and supported by four struts that extended from the crafts undercarriage. It continued to rise for a few seconds, the mechanics of the legs whirring as they extended lifting the craft up off its belly. Fully extended, the struts clicked as they secured the craft place.

The belly now exposed, a large hatch gradually opened from underneath the Silver Shadow, unfurling onto the sand. Lowered at an angle, it acted as a ramp that lead up into the hull, exposing the cargo hold for all to see. Stood imposingly at the top of the ramp, stood three figures that Jack recognised instantly. In unison, they strode confidently as they left the aircraft, their boots clanking heavily on the metal ramp as they disembarked onto the sandy floor.

‘I wondered when I’d be seeing your faces again.’ Jack called to them bravely as he stood in front of Savannah, shielding her from any further potential danger.

‘You know these people?’ Savannah asked coyly. She didn’t seem that taken aback by the whole scene. Was there an air of familiarity in the way she acted?

‘Not personally, these are the guys who brought me here. Savannah, meet my kidnappers…’

After a moments awkward silence, Miles took a step from the group, his arms outstretched in a non-threatening pose as he carefully approached the pair.

‘It’s really not like that at all old boy. Honestly it isn’t!’ His face beamed a nervous smile as he approached, almost apologetic.

‘No? Bundling me into a box and dropping me in this godforsaken desert? Well you could have fooled me!’ Jack surprised himself with his moxy, there was no way he would usually talk to people in this tone, especially those who were potentially dangerous. Then again it had been a long few days. The brash American voice called out behind Miles as Hudson too began to saunter cautiously towards him.

‘Hey! You should be grateful kid! We’ve been looking out for you this whole time! If it weren’t for us you’d be in a police cell, especially after the way you trashed your uncle’s factory! We’ve given you a fresh chance…. A clean slate!’

Jack’s face twisted in confusion as he tried to recall the events from days ago.

‘What?! I was only doing what was right! I…we…Who the hell ARE you people!?!’ Jack yelled. This bunch owed him an explanation, not the other way round! His question hung in the whistling desert wind for a second, before being answered by a sultry Ukrainian accent, the last of the group was going to have their say.

F.A.T.E…’ The voice stated, as if the word alone was explanation enough.

‘What?! What kind of an answer is that?’ He really needed to start hearing some sense soon otherwise he was going to go insane. Patiently, she continued her explanation.

F.A.T.E…’ She repeated before continuing, ‘The Fight against Tyranny and Evil.’

Jack shook his head manically in disbelief, ‘Oh well that answers everything doesn’t it!’ Once again his response was lost on Zhanna as she carried on explaining.

‘We are a privately funded independent organisation that specialises in combating all forms of injustice, greed and wrong doing in this world. When asked we deliver the justice that is so badly needed in this world.’ She said it as if it were the norm, without a hint of pride or gloating in her blunt tone of voice. Jack was lost for words at the whole ludicrous situation.

‘Yeah…well… I never asked for your help! If anything you’ve done nothing but put me into harm’s way!’ His courage knew no bounds as angrily he paced towards the group and their imposing aircraft, desperate for answers. The Ukrainian woman chuckled as she brushed her jet black hair from her face, gazing to the sky.

‘Something funny?’ Jack snapped. Her laugh turned to a sigh as once again she focused on the irate boy that stood before her.

‘Oh Jack. You have been promising, very promising indeed. But you really do need to shake this arrogance that seems to follow you. Who said this is all about you?’

‘What?’ Jack asked confused.

‘You never asked for our help that is true.’ Her deep red lipstick shone as her lips warped into a sly smile that lifted her striking face. ‘But ask yourself, have you seen nothing but injustice in this ‘god-forsaken desert’ as you put it? Did it not occur to you that somebody here might have not asked for help no?’

She continued smiling as she let her words sink in. Who asked for help? He thought to himself. At that exact moment however, the penny dropped as he turned slowly on the spot, filled with dread. As he faced Savannah, her eyes glanced down at the ground, her rosy cheeks flushed even redder in guilt.

‘No…Savannah?’ Surely the girl who had stuck through him throughout this whole escapade wasn’t in on it too?

‘I’m sorry kid, really I am. I had no idea you’d be involved in all of this!’ Her eyes pleaded him for understanding. ‘Yeah it’s true, you’ve seen how all these people suffer, they needed help! God knows I couldn’t do it alone!’ She explained frantically as she gestured towards the huddled masses that now surrounded them. Jack let out a steady hiss of breath through his teeth as he tried to fathom how this had all come to be.

‘But how Savannah? These guys aren’t exactly the police. How did you bring them into this whole mess?’

‘Well, they kind of found me.’

‘What do you mean bloody found you? You’re in the middle of the desert!’ Unsettled by the boy’s impatience, Savannah struggled to recall the events.

‘Once the death toll in the mine started to rise and the hunt moved from water to that damned stone, things changed around here. Especially with the appearance of all those new gadgets and what not. Well one morning, I wake up to find some sorta cube sat at the foot of my bed. Another gadget! Only this one was different. From its top some kinda holographic message spoke to me. It was the silhouette of some guy who called himself the…controller?’

‘Director.’ Zhanna cut in, correcting the girl.

‘Yeah that’s right. Well he told me that the troubles here had been noted, and that if I ever needed help I was to mark the initials F.A.T.E in the sand round the back of the mansion for his satellite to see. Only then would his team help. Well I left it a few days, where after that dang General guy started showing up. Things got worse, much worse. Well by then I took em’ up on their offer.’

‘So he was here!’ Hudson inquired, his thick New York accent interrupting the girl.

‘Well…yeah…’ Savannah answered sheepishly. ‘We saw him, didn’t we Jack?’ Despite being the instigator of this whole escapade, she looked way out of her league as she nervously explained herself. Despite his confusion, Jack backed her up.

‘Yeah, big guy in Russian military dress? It sure seemed he was running the show here.’

‘Hah! I knew it!’ Hudson barked. ‘Any sign of him recently?’

‘No, I haven’t seen a trace of him since the whole place went to hell.’ Jack continued angrily. ‘But this still doesn’t answer my question! Savannah called you for help! Why the hell are you using me to do your dirty work?!’ As if to answer from him, Miles softly strode towards Jack as he removed his bowler hat, his face filled with a welcome expression of empathy.

‘Jack dear boy, this has been your destiny for a long while.’ He assured, his bald head sweating.

‘What?! How is this my ‘destiny’?!’ Jack asked enraged as he gestured towards the chaos that was left behind him as Mt Marron continued to gush water. The sweat seemed to run down Mile’s head in a similar fashion as he struggled to explain.

‘We’ve been watching you Jack for a long time. In a way, we’ve watched you grow up. Your uncle’s done a damn fine job old boy.’ As Miles spoke, his face was filled with sincerity.

Jack was caught off guard. His uncle, of course! The years of harsh training, the sudden change in his demeanour at the factory, the ‘farewell speech’ before the trouble ensued. It all seemed so long ago now but oh so much clearer at the same time. As the gravity of the last few days dawned upon him, Jack felt tears of sentiment begin to well up in his tired eyes.

‘My uncle…is a part of this?’ Jack croaked. Miles sighed, unsure what to say.

‘It’s a long story my dear boy, going back right to when your Uncle took you in following your parent’s…tragedy…’ He let the words hang in the air for a few moments before he continued. ‘You see, your uncle had ‘dealings’ with us many years ago. After taking you in, he saw your potential. He noticed your strong moral strength, in fact so did we. So he agreed for us to take you in when you were ready, ready to join us in the fight against all that is so very wrong in this world.’ Jack was astounded.

‘But why didn’t he tell me? Surely he could have…’ Miles cut him off, placing a firm hand upon his shoulder.

‘Nothing could have prepared you for this my boy, we needed to see how you would respond when confronted with the events that would challenge your very moral fibre.’ A warm smile spread upon his face as he reassured him, ‘Needless to say old boy, you passed with flying colours…I think you’ll fit in well at F.A.T.E.’ Despite all the assurances, Jack was still dubious.

‘And what if I decide not to join you. What if this isn’t for me?’ He asked boldly. Zhanna was next to step closer towards Jack, guiding Miles away from the boy.

‘Oh you have a choice my child. Two of them in fact.’ There were no reassuring smiles this time as the cold woman laid out Jack’s choices before him. ‘We can leave you here. Leave you to help this young girl re-build this town, forge it in a new virtuous direction…’ Jack glanced back at Savannah who was smiling wistfully at him. Zhanna continued, ‘or you can come with us, take the fight out there to the wider world. Trust me child there are many more ‘New Springs’ out there. Many more cases of injustice that need correcting. We will carry on the good fight against evil Jack. The question is, will you?’

What the hell? This was a momentous decision for anyone, never mind a fifteen year old school boy. Stuck between his two futures, Jack ran both his hands through his wet hair as he struggled to accept the gravity of the situation, lost for words. He was overwhelmed.

‘This is your final challenge Mr. Vance. The choice is yours.’ With her piece said, Zhanna took a step back, leaving Jack alone with his choice.

Paralysed with indecision, Jack turned back to Savannah, his face implored for help as he struggled to understand it all. Sensing his distress, Savannah calmly strode towards Jack as she gently placed her hands on his shaking shoulders. The sunburnt face with its marble blue eyes stared into his reassuringly.

‘It’s ok Jack. It’s your choice. I’ll support you with whatever you choose.’ A soft hand raised from his shoulder and stroked his cheek, wiping clear the dirt that caked his face. ‘I’ve got people to help, a town to create. Besides, Pa’s gonna need a lot of help and attention. I’ve still no idea what I’m gonna do with him.’ She glanced over at her father’s unconscious body as he slept heavily on the sand, before once again turning to face Jack. ‘I’m gonna need all the help I can get, so I’d be honoured if you could stay with me.’

Resigned to reality however, her eyes sunk to Jacks boots as she stared at the ground. ‘But from what I’ve seen the world really needs a good kid like you. I know I did.’ Looking once again into his eyes, she smiled at him, forcing back her sadness before kissing him tenderly on his cheek, hiding the disappointment in the truth that the world needed him more than she did. As a tear begun to run down her cheek she asked, ‘What was it you told me back up there on the mountain?’

Jack didn’t need reminding, he knew exactly what he’d said, ‘The devil rules with silent fools.’ He smiled to himself as he remembered his uncle’s words. He now had the chance to spread that advice around the globe.

‘There you go kid…’ Her voice croaked as she hugged him one last time. Jack drunk in one last look of the feisty girl he had grown to admire over the last few days.

‘I couldn’t have done it without you, you know?’ He assured her. She smiled before retiring back once again to the manner of the brash girl he first met.

‘Get outta’ here kiddo!’ She teased, bravely hiding the heartbreak of seeing him go.

Taking a deep breath, Jack turned and put on a brave as he looked towards the Silver Shadow and its crew.

‘I’m ready.’ He stated simply.

‘Atta boy kid!’ Yelled Hudson in elation as Miles smiled proudly. Zhanna’s face remained passive however.

‘Is this your final choice?’ She asked bluntly, her arms folded sceptically.

‘It is.’ Jack responded with certainty. Zhanna nodded as she accepted his decision.

‘Good. Then you will come with us immediately. Do not worry about your friend here, we will promise to help her in any way she needs. She is a strong woman however, I think she will do well by herself with the help of her people here.’ Without warning, the group turned as they begun to walk back towards the ramp that lead into the belly of the Silver Shadow. Zhanna called out as she left. ‘Time to leave.’ She stated simply, implying that he should follow. Bravely, Jack followed the team, purposely taking his first step onto the ramp. The engines of the Silver shadow roared into action, kicking sand back into the air as the aircraft sprung to life, ready for take-off.

WAIT!!!’ Savannah’s voice yelled from behind him, interrupting his moment. Before he could fully turn around to face her, she ran up to him and wrapped her arms him, squeezing him tightly. ‘Good luck Jack, stay in touch hey?’ She half-joked, knowing he would most likely be gone for good.

‘I’ll promise to write.’ Jack Jested, ‘Although I pity the post man who has to make the journey here! How about I MyPage you?’

Savannah smiled before sharing a tender farewell kiss.

‘Goodbye Jack.’

‘Farewell for now Ms Sprinter.’

Accepting their fates, Savannah released Jack as she jumped from the ramp, leaving him standing alone as he clung to one of ramps supporting struts. Time for take-off.

As the silver shadow lifted him into the air, Jack noticed Savannah begin to shrink in size. She looked up at him, smiling and waving at him as he lifted higher into the air, the residents of New Springs surrounded her supportively as she said goodbye. Without Jack noticing, the Silver Shadow had hovered hundreds of feet into the air, leaving the girl and her people looking like ants the higher he went. She’d be ok, there was doubt about that. Jack sighed, trying his best not to regret leaving her.

‘You made the right choice old boy.’ Mile’s reassuring voice said above the gusting wind and whining engines. ‘You’ve done us, your uncle, everybody proud!’

‘Thanks.’ Jack replied unsure.

‘The name’s Miles, Miles Sudbury. Forgive me we really didn’t get time for introductions. Oh and the big excitable chap back there is Hudson.

‘Hey!’ Yelled Hudson as he tinkered with a control panel at the top of the ramp. ‘Anyway kid you better get your ass inside, Zhanna’s ready to fly this thing outta’ here!’ Jack deduced Zhanna was the name of the disagreeable woman who had lectured him earlier. Together they all climbed the sloping ramp into the belly of the Silver Shadow as it raised underneath them. Once again, Jack found himself in the cargo hold of the impressive aircraft.

‘Now this sounds familiar.’ Jack quipped as the jangling chains swayed and clanked as the aircraft rocked.

‘Ahh yes. Yes I suppose it does.’ Miles replied, guilty at the reminder of Jack’s treatment in the box.

‘Soo…where are we going.’ Inquired Jack.

F.A.T.E lil’ dude!’ Yelled Hudson as he secured straps and instruments within the cargo hold. You’ve got a truck load of training ahead of you kid!

‘I’ll explain on the way.’ Miles added kindly. His face changed suddenly as he stroked his beard, an idea had popped into his head. ‘Unless…’

‘Unless what?’ Hudson asked concerned.

‘Well, we are ahead of schedule, and the Director isn’t expecting us back for a few hours yet.’ He turned to Jack, ‘Is there anywhere you’d like to go before we head to base? It’s the least we can do after all what you’ve been through.’

‘Ah no man don’t do this! Zhanna will go nuts!’ Hudson warned.

‘Oh pooh to her, the boy deserves it! So Jack…anywhere you’d like to go? You name it, this thing can get there. What do you say?’ Miles let the question hang in the air as the Silver Shadow begun to lurch, picking up speed.

An idea came to Jacks mind, a grin formed on his face. There was one last person he’d like to see if he wasn’t going home anytime soon. Besides, he owed him an explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 243: Prom to Pacific.

 

‘He’s around here somewhere lads! Keep an eye out!’

On the run in the middle of the night, Dickie had found himself hiding alone in the dark, damp, rain coated Newcastle street. Encroaching on him, Clubber Harris and the two Glover twins hunted him down as the leader of the three slowly drove along in his new car. His pride and joy, Clubber’s VW Golf slowly crept along the street, its headlights bathing the once dark road in artificial light, the wet street twinkled under their brightness. They knew he was here somewhere. Hiding behind the bins in front of the now closed chip shop, Dickie came to the conclusion that there better ways to be spending the night of his prom night.

‘Come on out Jock! There’s no one here to help you!’ Clubber called menacingly from the open window. He was right.

‘Why me?’ He whispered to himself as he hid. The night had started off okay. Just as he did every other school disco, he had simply lingered in the corner of the school hall pathetically and kept himself to himself. He hadn’t meant to upset anyone. He just wanted to get the night over with. Instead, he found himself being accused of giving dirty looks to Clubber and his girl Delaney. It had all escalated so quickly! Mind you he wasn’t surprised.

Ever since his friend Jack had gone missing a week ago, Clubber and his cronies had decided to switch their campaign of terror onto him, the only reason being that he was Jack’s mate. Fairness didn’t come into it. As a result, he now found himself cowering behind the dirty bins dressed in his once pristine white tuxedo. Life was officially rubbish.

As he heard the sound of tyres on wet road squelch towards him, Dickie held his breath, doing his upmost not to move a muscle.

‘I’m gonna show that cheeky git believe me. If I can’t make that boy Vance pay then I’m sure as hell going to make his weedy little friend suffer.’ Clubber Harris fumed as he drove, the twins sat in the back seats, grinning in unison.

‘What are you going to do?’ Drew squealed in excitement, wearing a ridiculous looking neck brace the doctor had ordered him to wear following his run in with the crane.

‘Ring his neck Clubber! Kill the Jock!’ Tony chipped in, not that he could do much either now that his arm was in a sling, after all it had been quite a fall from those crates days earlier.

‘Don’t worry boys. That little twerp is gonna get it. Vance too whenever he decides to show his face again.’ The bubbling exhaust of the car lowered in volume as it trundled along down the road past Dickie, leaving him alone amongst the wet mess of bins and rubbish bags. With a silent sigh, Dickie decided it was safe to take a peek from his filthy refuge.

Careful not to make a sound, he hauled himself up by a few inches, his eyes peeking just above the lids. He could see the car and its daft looking spoiler as it continued to creep down the road. Dickie had to get back to the school hall, there’d be safety in numbers there.

As he slowly got to his feet, pins and needles tingled through his thighs as the blood rushed back to his legs. Dickie didn’t realise how long he had been crouching, as a result he momentarily lost control of his legs. Stumbling to one side, he accidently knocked one of the metal bins he had been hiding behind with a clatter. In excruciating slow motion, he watched as the lid from one of the cans clumsily toppled and crashed to the floor with a deafening clang. To add insult to injury, the circular lid rolled lazily on its apex, rattling as it did. The racket rang out throughout the whole street until after what seemed like forever it finally came to a stop. The game was up.

As if in response, the brake lights of the Volkswagen flashed red, reflecting off of the wet road surface as it came to a stop. Caught in the view of the car’s rear view mirror, Dickie was in plain sight.

‘You better run boy!’ Clubber screamed as he leant out of the driver’s side window.

Dickie watched in horror as the car whirred into reverse as Clubber clumsily three point turned the vehicle until it faced him directly. As useless as it was, Dickie could only run. Turning on the spot, he sprinted as far as he could, his shining brogues patting against the wet tarmac. His heart racing and his chest pounding, Dickie could just about hear the sound of the gaining car and the boisterous laughs of the thugs inside, within seconds he’d be roadkill.

With seconds to spare however luck was on his side. To his left was an alleyway! Running between two shops, it was wide enough for him to escape into without fear of the car following him. Who knows where it lead but it was all he had for now. Twisting his body into a left turn, Dickie shot into the dark alleyway as the Golf slammed its brakes.

‘Get back here!’ Screamed Clubber as his voice bellowed down the alley after him.

Dickie carried on running, careful not to crash into the assorted boxes and bins that littered the passage, his brogues now soaked as they stamped through the many puddles that had gathered on this wet Newcastle evening. Ahead Dickie could see the end of the alleyway, this passageway would lead onto Bridge Street! In that case it would only be a matter of taking Trinity Road for a mile until he reached the safety of Hard Acre School. That’s if Clubber Harris and his boys didn’t get him first.

As his mind raced he suddenly saw a light appear through the exit of the alley way. It was a set of car headlights. Impossible! There was no way Clubber could have raced to the other side of the alleyway this quickly! How was this possible? It was too late to turn around, the sheer momentum of his frantic sprinting had already taken him through the exit and out of the alley way, straight in to the gaze of the piercing headlights. Dickie nearly tripped as he tried to bring his speeding body to a halt. He shielded his eyes as the neon lights of the car nearly blinded him. Peering through his fingers his eyed begun to adjust to the light. He could just about make out the car and the figure that now stepped out from the driver’s seat.

‘Get in, quick! Before they find you!’

Half in, half out of her white BWM 3-series, Becky Delaney gestured to him frantically to get in. Her glittering ruby red prom dress and shining dark hair shimmered and blew in the wind as she kept one high heeled foot poised on the road. She cut a dramatic figure.

'Wha- Becky?' Dickie dithered as he lowered his hand, 'What on earth are you doing here?'

‘Saving your arse Mr!’ Her ruby red lips twisted into a wry smile as she climbed back into her car. ‘You getting in or what? Come on I’ll get you to the prom.’

Every fibre of Dickie’s body told him something was wrong. How often did the hottest girl in school come to your rescue in a brand new sports car? Throwing caution to the wind, he opened the passenger door of the BMW and leapt into the inviting leather interior. With a roar of the engine and the squeal of wet tyres, they were gone.

As the car tore down the empty street, there was a moments silence as Dickie turned to look at his saviour. Was this real? He continued to stare at her in disbelief as the passing streetlamps flashed across her striking face, the enticing allure of her perfume filled his nostrils. Despite the absurdity of the situation, Dickie’s Scottish charm still prevailed.

‘You saved my backside back there. Tell me, are you an angel?’ The corners of Becky’s mouth twisted upwards as she tried not to laugh at the cheesy Scotsman.

‘I dunno. I didn’t think angels wore red?’ She joked as she kept her eyes on the road.

‘Aye you got me there. But do they all drive such sweet cars?’ Savannah grinned at the compliment.

‘Hah. Ah it’s daddy’s car. The old man was kind enough to lend me it for prom night.’ She noted smugly. ‘Ah right. But seriously, thank you. I think your fella really wanted me dead back there. Why he’s after me I have no idea.’ Dickie paused for a moment, his face screwed up as he tried to compose his thoughts, ‘More to the point, why are you helping me of all people?’ Becky continued to look ahead as she navigated her way towards the school.

‘Oh he’s still mad over this whole Jack Vance situation. Nobody’s ever stood up to him like he did, as a result the poor baby’s ego is just shot to pieces.’ For a split second she took her attention off from the road as she glanced towards Dickie. ‘And to be honest I’m sick of it all. Sick of his bullying, his pig headedness and how he thinks he can just terrorise his way through the school to get what he wants. Even I think he’s gone too far. You wanna help me bring the fool down?’

The once cruel eyes now appeared wide and innocent, yearning for help. How could Dickie say no?

‘Well sure. What’s your plan?’ He asked sincerely. She scoffed, nonplussed.

‘Well I wouldn’t call it a plan as such, but I say we head to the school, grab Mr. Davis, and tell him what’s been going on this whole time. Maybe we can do our part and clear Jack’s name.’

‘You mean squeal? Not very noble but hey! I think I can manage that.’ Dickie smiled to himself. This was cool. Here he was with a glamourous girl in a cool sports car on his way to bring down the villain. He felt quite the action hero. Which got him thinking about his friend. Where the hell had he got to this last few weeks? He hadn’t heard a word.

He had barely begun trying to figure out the whereabouts of his friend when the car rolled its way through the school gates. They BMW pulled up in the middle of the empty playground, who needed car parks on prom night? Dimly lit through the floodlights, there wasn’t another soul in site. The school building however was a hive of activity.

The windows of the multi storied building were awash with the racing colours of disco lights that rolled and flickered to the beat of the generic pop music that boomed from the building. The disco was well under way, with the entire school having the time of their lives inside. Becky applied the handbrake as the BMW’s engine bubbled to a silent stop. The girl anxiously begun to unbuckle her seatbelt. Dickie looked puzzled.

‘Why are we parked in the middle of the playground?’ He got no reply from the girl as she leapt from the driver’s seat. Dickie followed suit as they both stood next to the sports car, alone on the concrete. Not that they were alone for long.

Seconds later a familiar set of headlights also passed through the school gates as the Volkswagen cruised onto the playground, the concrete crunching under its slick wheels. Dickie stared on, the black ice of dread and horror filled his gut as Clubber’s car ground to a halt next to Becky’s BMW. Desperately, Dickie turned to Becky, looking at her hopefully for answers. Alas she had none.

The cruel emotionless expression had returned to her face. She smiled cruelly as the Golf’s engine fell silent. The doors flung open as Clubber and the Glover twins climbed out, matching grins on their faces.

‘Told you I’d catch him first darling.’ Becky purred. ‘Flirting over fists my dear.’ She cooed as she strode towards Clubber, kissing him on the cheek. The four of them faced Dickie who was now isolated in the middle of the school playground. Panicked, he considered running to the school building, but he knew he never stood a chance.

‘Good girl Becks.’ Clubber Harris sneered as he placed an arm over the traitorous girl. The twins, despite being in their casts, smirked in unison, aching to get payback.

‘What are you going to do with the boy?’ Cooed Becky, resting her head on Clubbers shoulder. The thug chuckled to himself as a million violent ideas ran through his thick skull.

‘I know how you enjoy watching me go to work on these punks babe. Time to deliver a clubbing.’

‘Yes!’ Squealed Becky as she clapped her hands, nearly leaping with joy. ‘Then we’ll head to the prom yeah?’ Clubber kissed her head before stepping away from the girl. As he rolled up sleeves, he slowly sauntered towards the terrified boy.

‘Anything for my prom queen.’ He sneered.

There was nothing left for Dickie to do. Resigned to his fate, he clenched his eyes shut and desperately tried to wish himself away from his body as he awaited the first blows. A whistling begun to fill his ears. He assumed it was the blood rushing to his head.

Only this was different. The whining grew louder. Louder and louder until he could feel his whole body and the ground beneath him begin to tremble. Through his clenched eyes, he could also feel a searing bright light burn through his closed eyelids. Was this death? Had the first blow sent him straight to the shining lights of heaven? What the hell was going on? He could suddenly feel a gusting wind flow through his red hair. His whole body was blown back by a strange force. Curiosity got the better of him as he opened his eyes.

He saw Clubber, Becky and the Twins all too battling to stay on their feet as they strained to see where the strange noise and light were coming from.

It was a flying object. Some kind of strange flying metallic object that shone bright despite the dark cloudy night. Through the heavy rain, rays of light from the playground spotlights reflected fiercely from the object’s surface, nearly blinding Dickie as he struggled to get a good look.

The Silver shadow was bearing down quickly upon the small group as its four ramjets blared as the craft stabilised itself for landing on the school playground. Like bowling pins the group were thrown to the floor, unable to get back up beneath the sheer force of the whining engines.

Under the sheer force of the downdraft, Clubber’s VW Golf was flipped sideways into the air, crashing violently into Becky’s once pristine BMW. Despite the crash, not a sound could be heard over the screaming engines as both cars were left a wreck, their respective owners unaware as they continued to stare up in wonder at the descending aircraft.

Despite the noise and carnage the landing had created, the Silver Shadow landed gracefully upon the concrete, settling down in the manner a butterfly would on a summer’s day. As the engines powered down, the Silver Shadow once again raised itself on its four legs, exposing the ramp that lowered from the belly of the shining aircraft. At the top of the ramp, stood the silhouettes of four people, who calmly began to purposely walk down towards the ground.

Silence filled the playground. Even the booming music of the school disco had ceased, the lights of the flickering party continued to dance in the silence. The partygoers had begun to pour from the main entrance of the school hall, curious as to the commotion that was going on outside.

Dickie and his four pursuers had recovered from being thrown to the floor, in turn pulling themselves back to their feet. Dickie strained in the darkness to make out who the group were who were exiting the strange aircraft. They strode through the pouring rain towards the Scotsman, gathering yards in a semi-circle around him. He would have been terrified until he realised one of the gang looked awfully familiar. Stood in the middle of the three strangers stood his old friend. Wearing odd clothes and looking a little worse for wear, he didn’t look a bit like the uptight lad he had known the prior week, but sure as hell, it was Jack Vance!

‘No way! Jack? Say it isn’t so?! I thought you were…I haven’t seen you in…Jack?!’ His old friend smiled, humoured at Dickie’s confusion.

‘Hello Dickie.’ Jack greeted him warmly. ‘Can’t I leave you alone for five minutes?’

‘This the guy you wanted to meet?’ Hudson inquired as he gestured towards the boy with one of his huge arms.

‘That’s right. Seems like I got here just in time. You ok?’ Jack asked light heartedly as Dickie stared on in confusion. He stammered as he tried to fathom the scene.

‘Yeah. Yeah I’m fine laddie. Who are… what is that…Jack what the fricking hell?!’ Dickie raised his arms in the air, lost for words.

‘Long story mate. One I’m going to bore you to death with one day.’ Jack glared over towards Clubber and his crew, before returning his gaze to his friend. ‘You sure you ok?’

‘Let’s just say you arrived in the nick of time pal.’ Dickie chuckled nervously. ‘A few minutes more and I would have been toast for sure.’

A crowd of students slowly gathered closer around the silver shadow as they chattered and murmured in disbelief. Jack’s new comrades looked uncomfortable, the Silver Shadow had been getting far too much attention lately. A couple of students produced their camera phones, eager to post this strange site on their MyPage blog.

‘Don’t!!!! Even think about it!’ Bellowed Hudson with authority. In unison the students slowly lowered their phones, he didn’t need to say another word. Cutting through the crowd, a beleaguered Mr Davis arrived on the scene, desperate for answers.

‘Jack?! What’s going on? Who on Earth are these people? Where the hell have you been?!’

‘School trip…Sir…’ Jack stated impatiently. He ignored his old head teacher, instead walking over to Clubber and his crew who glanced at each other desperately in confusion. ‘Hello Clubber, Becky…’ Jack greeted them with humour, all fear of the bully and his people now gone. ‘Sorry about the cars. I’m sure daddy will be covering the bill?’ He nodded towards Becky and the twisted wreckage of the two cars.

‘What is this Vance? Why are you back?’ Clubber tried his best to hide his fear, unlike the Glover twins who were nervously cowering behind their ‘leader’. Jack had faced some major threats over the passing week. Clubber now seemed small fry.

‘Oh I’m just passing Clubber. Just stopping by to leave you a message.’ Confidently, he stepped closer to his bully, stopping within an inch of scowling face. ‘It’s over mate. I’m just here to tell you that your little reign of terror is over. Ok?’ Clubber began to breathe heavily with rage. Nobody spoke to him like that and got away with it.

‘You’re going to pay for this Vance. You and your little Jock friend!’ Overcome with fury, he raised his fist into the air, ready to pulverise the lad.

‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’ Miles interjected coolly, standing closely behind Jack. ‘You really don’t want to see us here again. Not unless you want to end up the same way as your…chav-mobile there.’ Hudson too stepped up to reinforce Jack, his blunt face looking deadly as ever. Clubbers face dropped, his fist lowered limply to his side in defeat.

Hudson pushed his way past Jack and squared up to the vanquished bully, towering above him. With a sudden threatening lurch of his neck, he make the boy jump. ‘Now Scram!’

His face filled with terror, Clubber whimpered as he turned and sprinted away as fast as he could, the Glover twins in hot pursuit. The three pushed and scrambled amongst themselves as they fled through the school gates, their tails between their legs.

‘As for you…’ Zhanna paced calmly towards Becky, who now stood alone next to the wreckage of her father’s car, ‘I think you need to find a better class of boyfriend no?’ Becky’s face was red with fear, her charms weren’t going to get her out of this one.

‘Yes ma’am.’ She replied meekly, frozen to the spot.

‘Well…. I think we’re finished here hmm? Time to leave Jack old boy.’ Miles suggested as he placed a supportive hand on the boy’s shoulder. He and his crew were anxious to get away from the scene they had created. Jack turned to his new mentor, a pleading look filled his eyes as he gestured towards Dickie.

‘Can I have two seconds please?’

‘Out of the question!’ Zhanna interjected sternly, ‘We need to go. If the boss finds out what we’ve done there’ll be trouble. We have brought too much attention to ourselves this past hour as it is!’

‘Oh really calm down Zhanna dear. Give the boy the chance to say his farewells.’ With his umbrella he pointed towards Mr Davis. ‘Besides, I’m sure Jack’s head teacher here won’t say a word to the authorities.’ He smiled at Mr Davis who shook his head slowly, his mouth half open in shock. ‘I’m sure his silence will be paid well.’ Zhanna tutted to herself. With folded arms she stormed towards the Silver Shadow, climbing up the gaping ramp.

‘I’ll be getting this thing ready for take-off. He has two minutes!’ With that she disappeared into the hull of the Silver Shadow. Miles gave Jack a reassuring tap on the shoulder, smiling warmly. ‘Take your time old boy. We’ll be waiting for you. Come on Hudson.’ Miles nodded to the big man as they too stepped onto the waiting ramp of the Silver Shadow, following Zhanna into the belly of the aircraft.

Jack was left alone with his friend, surrounded by the gathered crowds of his murmuring classmates.

‘So what now laddie?’ Dickie asked, his expression still one of disbelief. Jack shrugged, the whole thing was still news to him too.

‘Pastures new mate. I think I’ve found my new calling.’

‘What, terrifying bullies with your new friends? Sounds good to me!’ Jack laughed, realising how much he had missed his old friend.

‘Yeah something like that.’ He rubbed the back of his head with one hand, at loss as what to say to Dickie.

‘Will I ever see you again pal?’ Dickie now looked concerned as he begun to realise he could be losing his friend once again.

‘I’ll make sure of it mate… I promise.’ Firmly, he offered his hand, still dirty from his adventures from another continent. Despite this, Dickie shook it as the two friends hugged each other tightly, ignoring the crowd that surrounded them. Having embraced, the two took a second to say their final goodbye.

‘See ya later Jackie lad.’

‘Farewell Dickie mate.’

Satisfied with how he was leaving his old life, Jack gave a quick, lazy salute followed by a wink to his classmates and teachers, before he turned on the spot and embarked aboard the Silver Shadow. As he disappeared into the aircraft, the ramp closed behind him as the aircraft hummed into life.

With a deafening scream, the ramjets burst with all their might, using all their power to lift the impossible aircraft into the air. As it did so, Dickie and his classmates were all blown back, many covered their ears in response to the hellish noise of the engines.

Smoothly, the Silver Shadow rose higher above the car park, rotating itself away from the main buildings as within seconds, the nose of the aircraft pointed skywards. With a sonic boom, the Silver Shadow’s scramjets flung the shimmering aircraft into the abyss of the moonless night leaving nothing but an orchestra of car alarms ringing in its wake.

Many of the students were climbing to their feet, having been blown to the floor during the take-off. In front of them, stood Dickie as he brushed himself down, staring into the black sky with a smile upon his freckled face.

‘Good luck Jackie boy….Good luck.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 264: The Adventure Begins.

 

Well there it was again. That damn high pitched whining sound that when heard, brought about a sense of fear and confusion. It had been the first thing Jack had heard when he had awoken inside his crate prison all those days ago. This time however the voice accompanied the sweet luxury of comfort as he swivelled in the large padded ejector seat, one of four that occupied the high tech interior of the Silver Shadow’s cockpit. In the rear-right of the four seats, Jack said nothing as he and his new found colleagues shot across the Pacific Ocean towards their mystery headquarters.

How had it all come to this? All Jack had wanted was a comfortable, easy life. Now he was essentially a vigilante! Once again he had just upped and left his life back home.

‘E.T.A for F.A.T.E island T-minus ten minutes.’ Zhanna declared from the front of the cockpit. Spanning the entire interior of the cockpit, the canopy monitor showed nothing but sea and sky as the Silver Shadow skimmed the waves below, giving Jack the illusion that he was a sea bird, soaring across the ocean.

Zhanna’s declaration caused Jack’s stomach to twist further with nerves. What was this place? What should he expect? What would be waiting for him once he arrived? His breathing increased at the prospect of further uncertainty as he ran his clammy hands through his hair, exhaling deeply through his teeth. His feet felt clammy too, though that may have been the random Scottish terrier that gnawed at his feet with a playful growl. Sat next to him, Miles swivelled his seat to face him apologetically.

‘Sorry about Foxtrot old boy. He has a thing for shoes. How are you holding up old boy?’ He asked sincerely, the first words said following their departure from the U.K.

‘Ok…’ Jack croaked, his wavering voice belying his words.

‘You’ve been damned brave to come this far old boy. It’s ok to be nervous. We know how you feel.’

‘You’re damn right there!’ Hudson shouted from the front-right seat, his attention focused on the read outs that shot across the canopy monitor. ‘I was a nervous wreck when I was recruited. Didn’t speak for weeks!’ His laugh echoed through the cockpit.

‘You mean… you’ve all been through this?’ Jack asked.

‘Indeed my dear boy. It’s a rite of passage into our organisation. So yes, we can all sympathise.’ Jack nodded in faux acknowledgement, more confused than ever.

‘What’s going to happen to me now?’

‘Six months of basic training. Standard package for boy like you.’ Zhanna stated coolly. ‘You will be moulded, shaped, trained to meet the strict standards that every F.A.T.E agent must adhere too. Your adventure has just begun child.’ Jack’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

‘Six months…’ He whispered to himself, still unable to take in the whole spectacle.

‘Da, six months. Why… you chicken out already?’ He couldn’t see her face, but Jack could tell she was smiling to herself. That same cold conspiring smile he had seen before.

‘No…’ Jack replied simply, trying but failing to sound brave in front of his new crew. Miles chuckled to himself, placing his bowler hat back squarely onto his bald head.

‘Don’t worry old boy.’ He smiled broadly, showing the gap in between the top row of superbly white, straight teeth. ‘It will be six months of testing training, involving physical fitness, driving, armed and unarmed combat plus survival skills. It’s going to be a testing six months my boy.’

‘You obviously haven’t grown up with my uncle.’ Despite the surreal situation, Jack still attained some of his sense of humour. Miles grinned as he stroked his snow white goatee.

‘Yes so I’ve heard. He’ll be proud as punch after all this.’ After all this? Was there hope of getting home? There was still a lot to be answered. ‘But first things first dear boy. You’ve still to see our new headquarters, not to mention having the honour of meeting the boss. He’s going to be thrilled to finally speak with you.’

‘The…boss?’ Jack asked confused. There were more of these people? A new voice cut through the cockpit, as if out of nowhere.

‘I prefer to be addressed as The Director if you please.’ It was a clear cut, calm voice that both soothed and unnerved Jack. Accompanying it was the large silhouette that signalled his appearance. It was displayed brazenly upon the readout of the canopy monitor, pulsating with every syllable it uttered. ‘Good morning Mr Vance.’

The rest of the crew, including the dog, remained respectfully silent, however Miles raised his eyebrows, gesturing the boy to reply to his new superior.

‘Good morning…Director.’ Jack replied curtly. It was nearly a question.

‘May I be the first to congratulate you on your success over the past few days Mr Vance. It takes a person of great strength and courage to have achieved what you have against such odds. I am impressed.’ Despite the praise, the Director’s voice remained unemotional, cold even.

‘Thank you Director.’ Jack replied politely. The director continued.

‘I am sure your head is full of questions as to you recent adventures, these can be answered later. But for now I can see that the Silver Shadow has arrived at the cove, take a look ahead Mr Vance, your future awaits…’ Cautiously, Jack lifted himself from his seat, peering ahead to get a closer look at the screen that projected the Silver Shadow’s forward view.

Their speed was decreasing, Jack could now see the sea and its rolling waves in greater detail. The colour of the sea grew lighter, changing from a deep black mass to a light, tropical blue, a sign that the waters were shallowing. Emerging from the horizon, something new appeared, sandwiched between the horizon of sea and sky. It was land!

Despite their reduced speed, the Silver Shadow rushed ever closer as things became clearer. The distant speck of coast now took shape, forming into the rocky cove that housed his new home. Sheltered from the harsh Pacific waves, the cove housed its own natural bay, complete with a waterfall framed by rocks that were draped with the glorious tropical faunae that grew there.

As they approached ever closer, Jack barely had time to take in the spectacular beauty of the place when its next surprise was revealed. Like a pair of grand flowing curtains, the waterfall began to part down the middle, opening up to reveal a new world within. What the hell was this place? Miles smiled broadly at him, enjoying the boy’s wonder at his new home. The Director’s voice once again spoke to him.

‘Jack Vance…Welcome to F.A.T.E.’

Filled with trepidation, Jack took in a deep breath, deliberating on his choice. The last week had taught him that he could grab adventure and handle what life threw at him, he could handle more.

Yes his decision had been rash, he could have easily turned this opportunity down, gone back to Northumberland and led a simple life. One of school, work, bed and chips, the same as everybody else. But who wanted to be everybody? He was Jack Vance.

 

***

 

The mansion was a mess. It had been months since the waters of Mt Marron had burst from within its core, nearly splitting the grand building in two. In its crumbled state, torrents of water still flowed out from within the ruined main entrance and shattered windows, running into a newly formed river that made its way down the mountain, bringing life to the town of New Springs.

Meanwhile down below, the town was doing well, its newly founded mayor Savannah Chase had pioneered the place into a brave new direction, helping the immigrant population set up a new and prosperous community. They idolised her, grateful for the opportunity to live their new lives in freedom, free from the tyranny Brad had dished out. The aftermath had all been dealt with quietly, the girl’s father had to face justice as she reluctantly allowed his arrest and imprisonment following his crimes. It was all very hush-hush.

Brad had been true to his word though. Despite the operation going wrong, he had held up to his promise, and not mentioned his shady dealings and the business of the Fire Stone. Mind you he knew what was good for him and his daughter. There was no way he would have spilled the beans.

Standing in front of the crumbled mansion, his high brown leather boots half submerged beneath the running water, the man smiled to himself. Brad Chase and his daughter were the least of his concerns now. He turned around to look down the precipice of Mt Marron as the sun set, casting a yellow haze over New Springs. Yes, he would allow the girl to continue with her pioneering new town. She might come in handy at some point in the future.

The months following the aftermath of the ‘accident’ had been tough for the General, having nearly lost any hope of finding the Fire Stone. He had been furious, tempted at the idea of wrecking retribution upon the girl in revenge for her father’s incompetence. But that would have attracted further attention. No need for fuss. Or was he going soft? Either way, it had taken a great deal of extra money and labour to secretly dig within the ruins of the mansion and the mine.

But he chosen a hardy crew. Trained in underwater mining and recovery, they had covertly helped him track down, excavate and retrieve the stone. They were good people. It was a pity they all had to die down there. But secrecy was paramount.

His prize firmly held in his gloved hand, the general inserted the Fire Stone into one of the remaining slots in his cane, alongside the Wind Stone. With a click, the stone secured into the slot, a red hue glowed around the cane as it accepted the mysterious object, harnessing its power. Two down, two to go. He could now leave this godforsaken mountain and continue on his personal quest to find the remaining two stones. Nothing was going to get in his way. Before he left, he took one last look at the chaos his hunt for the Fire Stone had left.

Happy his business was complete, the General turned to leave. As he waded through the watery aftermath, he chuckled to himself knowingly.

‘Until next time Jack, until next time.’ The General’s skull emblazoned mask twisted, as with a grin he strode away into the desert haze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The adventure continues. . .

Read on for a teaser chapter of the upcoming novel;

 

 

Jack Vance: Cell Bound

 

Coming 2017…

 

 

Chapter 1: Tap, swipe, tap.

 

Tap, swipe, tap. Well, well! Suzette Meyer had finally gotten herself engaged. It took her long enough.

Tap, swipe, tap. Oh my! George’s snaps from Magaluf looked awesome, he’d always threatened to go on that lad’s holiday. Was that boy ever going to grow up?

Tap, swipe, tap. Ugh, an ad for handbags. MyPage had her shopping habits down a tee!, Now itand was now offering her a discounted price on that Louis Vuitton bag she’d always had her eye on.

But that was MyPage for you, and Sally Khan was hooked. Wearing her warmest winter clothes whilst staring at her smart phone, she stood amongst the crowds of people who crammed the platform of Waterloo tube station. Despite the hustle and bustle, she loved the tube, especially the Bakerloo line. The grimy, metallic smell that invaded her nostrils, the intricate tube maps that adorned the wall, right down to the howling of the trains that accompanied by the tinny cries of ‘mind the gap’,, aall sounds and sights that made the place a world in its own right. It was good to be home. For now however, she was lost in the digital world, as she continued to stare, face down at the phone, its neon glow reflecting off her skin.

Tap, swipe, tap. News: The Atmos-G space elevator is undergoing initial trials and construction in Sri Lanka, sources say that complet-….Boring!

Tap, swipe, tap. Message: from Trevor. Yes!

“Hey Sal! Hope your trip to Germany was ok. Did you really get to stay on board the Tryian? What was it like? You meet Manrose? Bet you loved it ;). Anyway babes, good to see ya back., Hhopefully see ya at Mike’s party on Friday. Cya there mate! Luv Trev XX.”

Babes? Mate? XX? She wished Trevor’s signals were clearer. She’d fancied the pants off of him for years, she knew he did too. He just never asked. Oh well. Mike’s parties were always legendary. It meant his parents were away and thus had a free house. Booze, games, and music! That should get Trevor out of his shell!

She grinned to herself, looking forward to letting her hair down. It had been a stressful time for her in Germany.

A gruelling two week course, the Philip Manrose foundation for programming excellence had not been easy. Isolated in the remote coastline of northern Germany, she had studied relentlessly day and night at the art of advanced programming. It had been run by Manrose himself., Wwhat a man he was!.

A charming, good looking man self-made Billionaire, he had made his fortune at the age of twenty-seven, having single handedly created the MyPage phenomenon, his social network now used by half the world’s population and a staple of everyday life. He was legend (plus he had a cracking smile.)

Sally had always enjoyed programming and excelled at IT during school. It was there where she had received an invitation to the academy. She and eleven other students throughout the country had been picked for the secretive two week course. It had been a tough slog, but she had finally returned to London with her advanced MANROSE diploma. She’d be set for life! There was only one issue however. She couldn’t remember a single thing from the past two weeks.

Yes, she knew she had gone to Northern Germany, met Manrose himself (that was fun), and blistered her fingers with the amount of typing she had done, but other than that, she couldn’t remember a thing! Sally looked up from her phone and winced as she racked her brain, scouring her memory for any details. She could vaguely remember the Tyrian, her quarters there, the meals, and the long trip there and back by coach. But apart from that, nothing. To be perfectly honest she couldn’t even recall what she had learnt!

Shaking her head, Sally returned her gaze to the warm glow of her smart phone screen. Oh well, she’d probably just been working too hard. She was finally home now. Just a final tube trip to Elephant and Castle, then a bus to Dulwich. Home! She’d say her hello’s to her Mum and Ssis, have dinner, then sneak out to Mike’s party and get plastered. Friday success!

Tap, swipe, tap. Video: Cat freaks out after eating ice cream. Pressing the play button, Sally watched the thirty second clip and grinned to herself. What a perfect invention MyPage had been for killing time.

Tap, swipe, tap. News: U.F.O sighting above Newcastle school. Dozens of witnesses. Believed to be hoax. Sally tutted to herself as she returned to her news-feed.

Tap, swipe, tap. Oh Marcus is coming to Mark’s party too! Yes! No doubt he’d be wearing one of Mike’s parent’s lamp shades as a hat by ten. What a nutter.

Tap, swipe, tap. Message: Sender unknown. Odd, thought sally. Nevertheless, she clicked on the message icon, a glowing red envelope. The icon grew into a new window, displaying the message that awaited.

#Terminate.

Strange message, might as well delete it. Only she couldn’t. The simple of act of swiping her thumb was now impossible. Gradually, an icy, numb feeling swept over her body. She couldn’t move. Her entire body was paralyzed!

She tried to cry out, attempting to call out to her fellow passengers. But she couldn’t even call out, her breath remained steady and calm, as if she wasn’t even in control. It was as if she were watching what she could see on a television set, unable to interact with her actions at all. She suddenly saw her right hand relax, dropping her smart phone onto the platform, the device shattered and splintered as it hit the hard concrete.

Her legs were the next part of her body to move. Her right foot took a confident step forward, followed slowly but surely by her right. She was walking against her will!

In a determined straight line, her zombie like body confidently strode across the platform, barging any commuter aside who stood in her way. After the third or fourth step, she realised with dread where she was headed. She was walking straight onto the line!

Unable to do a thing about it, Sally’s mind screamed silently, her brain fighting as hard as she could against whatever it was that had taken control over her body. None of this panic would have been evident to anybody watching the spectacle, as her fellow commuters watched in horror as the straight faced girl strode wide eyed until she ran out of platform, dropping of the edge.

Before anybody could react, Sally had fallen five feet onto the lines with a thud. Her body seared with pain, feeling every bruise that now spread across her body and limbs. Still however, she couldn’t move them, blindly accepting the pain that wracked through her body, which was now beginning to stand up as if by its own accord. Her bruised and bloodied body stood firm, facing the gaping tunnel at the end of the platform, as terrified bystanders finally sprang into action.

Time was running out however. A deep grumbling roar begun to growl from within the tunnel as it was washed with a bright light, indicating the arrival of the next train!

Sally would have thrown up if she could, her mind now racing with adrenaline, a deep primal urge of horror and panic set in as she could only wait for the approaching train to hit her face on.

‘No.’ She murmured as a single lone tear ran down her expressionless face. ‘Please.’ As the howling grew louder she realised, she spoke! She was regaining control of her body. As she strained, she could just about gain control of her limbs again as they reacted to her control. The primal urge had kicked in. Escape!

With a jolt she could feel her entire body once again come to her control. Without stopping to wonder, she leapt back towards the platform, her face now once again animated, and expression of fear and wide eyed panic swept across her face as she raced towards the gathering commuters at the platform side who were crouched offering their arms in rescue.

Instinctively, she grabbed onto the arms of a burly member of tube staff who effortlessly pulled her back onto the platform as with a wail of its horn, the 1705 to Elephant and Castle whizzed past where she had been, blowing the station with a buffer of air.

With a screech of its brakes, the train gradually came to a stop, its hydraulics hissed furiously, its sliding doors opening automatically. The disembarking passengers looked on confused as to the sight that greet them.

On the floor, surrounded by a circle of helpers, lay Sally Khan in floods of tears as she was comforted and asked a multitude of questions by tube staff and passengers. What was she thinking of? Surely her life hadn’t got that bad?

Only she couldn’t answer their questions. Not even she knew what had happened, why her body had betrayed her and lead her to her death on the tracks. In sheer relief and confusion, Sally burst into floods of tears and she clung onto the tube worker for dear life, sobbing uncontrollably into his high visibility vest. She wouldn’t be sneaking out to the party tonight. She was going to stay in with her mother and sister, hug each one of them tightly and tell them how much she loved them, for she very nearly would have never seen either of them again.

The crowd gathered closer around Sally, cooing and offering comfort as she was led away from the platform in tears by staff into one of the many passageways the tube contained. Happy the scene was over, the curious crowds slowly dispersed as they continued on their journeys, the white and red carriages taking them across the entire length and breadth of London.

All on their travels apart from one. Standing alone on the Waterloo platform, wearing a thick fur coat and hat, stood a short, ugly old woman. Behind thick glasses, her withered face had seen the whole thing from start to finish. The only difference was, she knew what had happened. She shook her head slowly, and with a wry smile she reached into her thick jacket, retrieving her own phone from its deep pockets. Despite her age and frailty, she expertly operated the phone as she dialled a number, placing the device to her ear.

‘Hello sweetheart.’ She cooed. ‘How is my darling? Oh? That’s lovely. Anyway dear, I’m afraid to say another of the ‘guinea pigs’ has…survived.’ She flinched slightly as she heard the angry response.

‘Now darling don’t speak to your mother like that! I’m afraid the subject just bolted at the last minute. Adrenaline rush if you ask me, just like the other eleven. She got away just at the last second. Closest yet!’ The voice on the other end of the line replied but this time a lot calmer, the old lady nodded as she listened.

‘Of course, of course. I shall arrange the next twelve subjects immediately. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Love you lots my sunshine.’ The voice on the other end mumbled the appropriate response back. She smiled upon hearing it, placing the phone back in her fur lined pocket. Happy her work was complete, she trotted alone down the empty tube platform as her heels clicked, echoing through the cavernous tunnel.

As she left, another train roared into the station, ready to offload another hoard of commuters that would kill the eerie silence. Mrs Manrose was nowhere to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Jack Vance: The Boy in the Box

Hate school trips? Spare a thought for Jack Vance. Kidnapped, packed into a wooden crate and flown half way across the globe, it could be said that Jack wasn't having a great time either. Miles away from home, cramped inside his wooden prison, questions circle through his panicked mind. Who has taken him? Where on Earth is he headed? Who will be there when, or if, he ever escapes? ...And you thought your school trips were rough...

  • Author: Peter E Bruin
  • Published: 2016-12-17 21:50:14
  • Words: 83071
Jack Vance: The Boy in the Box Jack Vance: The Boy in the Box