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Through Fire

Through Fire

 

By Jacob Magnus

 

Copyright 2016 Jacob Magnus

 

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold, or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Chapter 1

 

Fire rose in the distance, burning smoky yellow against the dark night sky. Flint scowled when he saw it through the broad crystal sweep of the front window, and gunned his rig’s engines, pushing it to make town faster. He felt the gunmetal grey form of the old ground effect freighter tremble and whine as he drove it close to the limits of speed, and knew that anyone standing outside, watching the rig rush along the way, would see little more than a monstrous grey blur, but the storm winds screaming along with the hulk would knock them flat.

He drew near the granite crags of the shield wall, the natural barrier that embraced the city on the bay, dark and shadowy in his rig’s headlights. He saw the bright yellow sign over the gap in the wall, the sign he didn’t need to read, for in all his near-thirty years in the rig, babe and man, he’d never imagined a rig would cross the gap and drive into the city. The sign triggered a conditioned reflex, to stop, pull over, deliver his cargo and hitch into town, a response that almost overrode his will. To counter it, he reached out and picked up the jewel on his dashboard, a red ruby pendant hanging from a white gold chain. He held the necklace in his left hand, his right on the wheel, scowled at the gem, and the fury that had possessed him since he’d found it in the wild lands welled up from within, and he slammed a fist down on the dash. He shoved the necklace into his pocket, stamped on the accelerator, and sent the rig hurtling through the gap, into the city.

Once inside, the great way dwindled and divided into several narrow strips, like splayed fingers, some to small farms, others to the makers, and to the many homes that dotted the rough semicircle of the bay. None of these roads was laid with a hulking rig in mind, and if the rig struck a car, the old beast’s titanium skin would tear through it without a scratch, and they’d have to light another funeral pyre tonight. Flint shook his head. He knew he had no choice but to ignore the roads, and take the rig across the grassy fields, straight to the fire. He had a moment’s mental picture of a pack of kids playing tag in the dark while their parents attended the ceremony, and his foot eased off on the accelerator. His fury still drove him forward, but he flipped on all the hulk’s external lights, knowing that if the inhabitants of the city had failed to hear the hurricane roar of the rig’s entrance, they could not fail to notice the light.

Then, faster than he’d expected, the fire burned before him, and he saw the crowd gathered around it. He triggered the brakes and brought the rig to a rumbling halt a short distance from the ceremony. He killed the engines and the lights, and as he got out of the vehicle, a gust of air brought the acrid scent of woodsmoke. The grassy turf felt soft underfoot, compared to the hard flooring of the rig, and the night air felt cool, and salty with the moist breath of the sea. On other nights he would have taken pleasure in the way the world caressed his senses, but on this night, his eyes were full with the fire, and his heart smouldered with an answering rage.

Flint marched across the grass and shouldered his way through the silent crowd, fear and uncertainty writ on their faces, here a twisted brow, there a trembling hand. He was tall and rangy, clad in leather, and his amber eyes glinted with danger. As a rigger, he was marked by the outside world, by the wild lands, and tonight he was doubly marked, for none had ever brought their rig into the city. They would never forget that, he thought, but soon he would give them something more to remember. The funeral pyre loomed before him, a ziggurat of stacked wood, blackened now and burning with smoky yellow flames that rose straight up in the still night air. At the top of the ziggurat lay two forms, both feminine, one full-grown, the other much smaller. At any other funeral, he knew, they would have been real bodies up there, charring beyond recognition, but on this night two wooden mannikins lay on the pyre, and of all those at the funeral how many knew where the real bodies lay?

One figure now stood between him and the fire, outlined against the flames, a heavyset bruiser with a broken nose and a big, ancient Bowie knife at his belt. As Flint strode towards the man, Burl Clavar, he remembered what he had seen in the wild lands, in the slavers’ camp, and his hands curled into fists.

“You’re not welcome here, rigger,” said Burl. “This is for townsfolk only.”

Flint kept walking, said nothing, and drew close enough to taste the man’s beery breath. Then he brought his fist up in a solid blow under his chin. Burl’s head shot up, and he crashed backwards into the fire, then fell to hand and knee, brushing smoking embers from his back. He started to rise, but Flint drove a hard left into his jaw, and Burl dropped and rolled onto his back, swearing and rubbing his face.

“That’s enough,” someone shouted, and the crowd pressed closer, ringing the two men. Voices murmured, and Flint knew he didn’t have long before the spell wore off and they piled on him but he didn’t look at them. Instead he drew the necklace from his pocket and held it up, for everyone to see the glittering ruby. The crowd fell silent, and Burl gazed up at the gem, his eyes wide, jaw loose. Flint locked eyes with the man, and all the things he’d wanted to say, the fine speech he’d planned, it all washed away, drowned in a torrent of rage. He flung the necklace down at Burl, and when it struck his chest, the man flinched, but then he snatched it up and tossed it into the fire, leapt to his feet, and yanked the long blade from his belt.

What happened next passed in a blur. The crowd of onlookers stumbled and shrieked in their panic to get away from the knife, but Flint held his ground. He lowered his body into a crouch and drew his left foot back, legs tense, boots gripping the earth, arms raised, palms in. Burl grinned at Flint with bloody yellow teeth. “You made a mistake, rigger.” He spat blood at Flint and rushed in, slashing at his face. Flint ducked under the cut, and flung his right arm up in a backhanded strike under Burl’s elbow, trying to turn the man and trap his arm, but Burl spun with the blow, and cut down at Flint’s neck. Flint dropped to one knee and rolled aside, catching a small cut across his collarbone, and Burl followed him, kicking and stomping. Flint rolled again, got his legs under him, and rose to meet Burl’s next attack, which came as a slash at Flint’s belly. Flint slipped around the cut, closed in, jammed the knife arm against Burl’s body, and smashed his forehead into Burl’s face. Burl tried to shove him away, but Flint had hold of the knife arm now, gripping his wrist with his right, and his upper arm with his left, and he held them with all of his rigger’s strength. Burl swung a left into his temple, and he saw stars, but held on, twisting the arm down and back, and Burl cursed as the grip forced him down to his knees. Then Flint drew the arm back, braced against his side, freeing his left hand. He used this to turn Burl’s head away, and then press it back, and he heard the neck bones creak, and Burl’s curses changed to sobs. He knew, then, that he had control. He could hand Burl over, try to explain, maybe they’d listen. But that wasn’t good enough.

“Let me go, rigger.”

“I can’t do that, Burl.”

“I’ll share the takings with you. Fifty-fifty.”

“It’s not enough.”

Burl’s voice changed to a whine. “Gold, it’s gold. Seventy-thirty. Eighty. Please, rigger, please. Let me go.”

He thought of the necklace, heating, heating in the fire, and the wooden figures smoking above, the woman, the little girl. Fury took hold of him. “There’s not enough gold in the world.” Hot rage washed through his body, steaming through his muscles, searing his brain. For a moment there was nothing but the heat of his wrath, and in that pristine agony, his arms convulsed, and he felt Burl’s neck snap, and the blade fall from his lifeless hand. And then, before the crowd of onlookers, Flint heaved Burl up onto his shoulder, turned to the pyre, and hurled the man’s limp corpse into the flames.

 

+

 

He sat in the old cell, moss tracing green streaks across the cracked red brick. The air had a musty smell, and he’d seen the sheriff’s men carry out crates of old papers when they’d brought him here. Dust lay thick around the perimeter of the hard wooden bunk, and red rust crept across the bars. He sat in the cell, perhaps the first prisoner the sheriff had seen in ten or twenty years. He sat, and though his body was locked in jail, his mind returned again and again to the fire, to the funeral, the sight of Burl’s slack face casting that dead stare at him as the flames licked his red, bruised skin, raising bubbles, which turned black and spilled molten white fat, to catch fire and run down Burl’s face in streaks like flaming tears.

He would never forget that sight, nor the smell as Burl’s flesh cooked and charred. He would carry those memories, he knew, to his own funeral pyre. But the feelings that had brought him rushing down from the wild lands, the fury, the agony of wrath, they had not left him. He had thought, in his few moments of calm, as he drove along the great way, back to the city on the bay, that this one act would extinguish his feelings, would sate his blood thirst. He had imagined pain, sorrow, perhaps horror and even repentance. He had believed, or had lied to himself that he believed, that Burl’s death would drain out the rage that boiled within. But now, as he sat alone in his cell, he began to fear that his rage was a living thing, that it would demand more blood, more fire, and more death. The question that troubled him was whether he had struck down Burl for justice, or whether that was nothing but a rationalisation of his own lust for murder.

He wrapped his fingers around one cold iron bar, felt the gritty rust under his skin, and wondered if he was not in the ideal place to answer this question. He passed a day and a night in such reflection, barely noticing the stew they brought him, or the change of light into dark and back, until the visitor came.

Someone rapped a fingernail on the bars, making them sing, and Flint’s eyes slid open. He lay on his back on that hard wooden bed, head resting on one arm, and he hadn’t realised he was sleeping. From where he lay, he seemed to see a giant looming over him, a round red face set low between bulging shoulders, themselves outdone by an expansive midriff, all draped with a fine but rather loose brown suit, and the whole mass balanced on two slender stalks for legs. The voice, when it came, sounded jovial. “They’re set to hang you, Flint.”

He let it glance off him. Perhaps it would dig under his skin later, find a weak place within, but just then it didn’t seem real. Still, one thing caught his interest. “You said ‘they’.”

“Believe I did.”

They watched each other for a few moments, and then the visitor winced and rubbed his hip. “Mind scootin’ over there? Joints aren’t so good any more.”

Flint shrugged, and raised himself to a sitting position. “If you want something finer, you’ll have to take it up with the management.”

“It’ll do,” said the visitor, and the wooden bed creaked as he lowered his mass and sat beside Flint.

“You’re Buck Ambrel’s brother, Vistor.” said Flint.

“I was that,” said Vistor, nodding.

“You… Buck’s dead?”

Vistor faced Flint, a strange light in his bloodshot eyes. “That’s President Ambrel to you, m’boy. They’re building a new pyre now.”

“But that means…”

“Word’s already gone out to the riggers. They’ll gather over the next few days, and then Bay City’ll have itself a little race. All the riggers, that is, except one.”

Flint rubbed his temples. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”

“Means a lot.”

“Not to me.”

“Some would call that a selfish attitude.”

Flint rolled his eyes. “Well as you said, Vistor, they’re going to hang me today, or tomorrow, or God knows when, but they’re sure as shit not going to let me get into that race, not after what I’ve done. I’ve never run the race before, and it looks like I never will.”

Vistor chuckled.

“You’re brave or stupid to come into a condemned man’s cell for laughs.”

“Maybe I know something about you, Flint. More than you think. But forget Burl Clavar for a second. What you said, that’s all true, but you know Bay City. Everything has a price. That includes you.”

“You want to buy me, you better talk to the sheriff.”

“I already did.”

A shiver ran through Flint’s body, and he bolted to his feet, grabbed the bars and shook them. Then he rounded on Vistor, and glared down at the fat man. “You talk like a dream thing. Get level with me.”

“I want you to run the race. Agree, and I’ll pay the city to forget your crime.”

“I’ve never run the race. I’ve never even tried. You want to put the next President in your pocket, don’t talk to the Rhino, talk to the Dragon, or the Eagle.”

“How do you know I haven’t?”

Flint stared at him, and then he laughed. “Covering your bets, is that it?”

“The Rhino isn’t the fastest rig, that’s true, but she is the toughest. Once you get on the way, you shred the rules, burn the bits, and blow the smoke out the window. No, I don’t think you’ll win the race, Flint, but I want the Rhino in it, and than means I need you.”

He felt heat grow in his gut. “Must hurt,” he said. “Knowing you never had a chance. You’ve never been a rigger. Your brother was, and now he’s gone and someone else will take his place.”

A change came over Vistor, his florid face turned pale, eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. He rose, with effort, and Flint, even with his size, felt small before Vistor. “So you want to dig your claws in and drag it from me, do you? Swell. You’re a selfish son of a syphilitic octopus. You want to ride the great high way, free as the wind, fair as the sun. You don’t care about the city, except when you can ride in and hand down justice. You think you’re safe because you’re the last of your line, and when you die, there’ll be none of your blood left to open the doors and start the engines on the Rhino. Your genes’ll turn to dust, and the Rhino’ll sit and rust like all the other hulks that litter up the sides of the way. Well this town ain’t gonna kiss your ass and grant you a reprieve. They will hang you, and none will mourn you. You will hang, you will rot, and you will burn, and your dust will blow out and scatter with the filthy air of the wild lands, because that’s where you truly belong.”

Flint turned away from Vistor, and took the bars in his hands again. The metal felt cold and rough, and he caught a faint iron tang at the back of his throat. He shook them once, and then he turned and looked Vistor eye to eye. “You think you know everything about me.”

“I know what you are. I know why you murdered Burl. Shit, everyone in the city knows that, even if they don’t want to admit it. No one was going to pay the bride price for that man’s daughter, so he sold her to the slavers.”

Flint thought back to the white gold necklace with the ruby pendant, blazing on the pyre. Perhaps the gold had melted and run with Burl’s sizzling flesh. The smell came alive again. Perhaps the molten metal had run into his bones, into his ashes, perhaps it had run into his soul and tormented him still. “If everyone knows that, then why am I in this cell?”

“You think people want to acknowledge Burl’s crime? It’s a half-step from how they treat all their daughters. You should see the jewel my little niece wears. Any family with a son and the cost of a diamond can take her away and train her up to be a proper little wife. Burl was no different, he just looked outside the community for a better deal.”

Flint’s eyes darkened. “And threw his wife into the bargain.”

“Better to say you murdered his folks and stole the girl’s gem. That way everyone can go back to sleep.”

He rubbed his jaw. “If I won the race…”

“You needn’t entertain delusions. You won’t.”

“But if I did, yeah, I know, I’d be in your pocket, but maybe together we could change some things.”

Vistor chewed his lower lip with stained yellow teeth. “I might have a little nobility left in me, Flint. Maybe just a shred. But understand this,” he said, and bent down and lowered his head, peering at Flint like a bull about to charge. “You take my hand and my coin, you’re my man. That’s binding. Turn on me, and you’ll find I’m no Burl Clavar.” Flint ground his teeth, and then in a convulsive movement he grabbed Vistor’s hand and squeezed it. Vistor held on, and returned the handshake with surprising strength. “You won’t win, Flint, but you’ll run the race, and if you make it back, you’ll be a free man.” He let go, and rapped on the bars. As the sheriff’s deputy unlocked the cell, Vistor turned back to Flint once again. “You might even stay free, if you can control yourself.”

Flint stared at the bars until long after Vistor had left, his feelings alternating between excited longing for freedom, and dread at the bargain he had struck, for in every picture his memory painted of the man, somehow Vistor’s bloodshot eyes always transformed into a pair of glimmering red rubies, dancing with flames. That image remained with him through the night, and kept him from sleeping, and when the new day came, he sleepwalked through the process of release as the sheriff’s men took him out, and led him to the gathering grounds, for the conclave of riggers.

 

Chapter 2

 

The sun rose across the shield wall, casting a deep shadow across the city, and the ashen heap that remained of the President’s funeral pyre glowed here and there with embers yet smouldering. Before it sat a dozen men and women on aluminium folding chairs, drinking coffee from flasks and shivering in the cool morning air. Flint took a spot on the edge nearest the shield wall, welcoming the cover of shadow though it chilled him. He snagged a mug of steaming coffee from a camp table, and relished the hot, bitter liquid.

As time went by, more people drew near the pyre, and the sun continued to rise, raising a mist from the dewy grass and clover, until it cleared the rim of the shield wall, and warm golden light illuminated a huge crowd. The riggers had already come; these were the people, every able citizen of Bay City, for none would, by their own will, miss the beginning of the presidential race. The light brought warmth, and a festive cheer to the crowd, but as it cleared the mist, it brought Flint a new trouble.

“What’s he doing here?”

A hush fell on the crowd as Flint looked up from his second mug of coffee and saw a beefy man with a square head and watery black eyes scowling his way, curses streaming from his mouth. The man reached inside his patched denim jacket, and pulled out a length of heavy iron chain.

“Hold there, Blenner,” said a second man in a calm, commanding voice. His muscles bulged, filling out his white shirt and jeans, and he laid one brawny arm on Blenner’s shoulders.

“Ain’t right, Jerethy,” said Blenner, hands white where he gripped the chain. “He murdered Burl. You all saw it. He was to swing for my brother.”

“His debt’s been paid,” Blen,” said Jerethy, gazing into his face with troubled eyes of iridescent blue.

Blenner’s swollen purple eyes flared. “Not to me.”

Flint sat and watched the two over the rim of his coffee. He supposed that perhaps it looked like cowardice or bravado, but he’d barely touched the stew his jailers had left him in the cell, and now he found he hadn’t the strength to stand up and match words, let alone weapons, with Blenner Clavar.

Jerethy put a soothing tone into his voice, and he put a calming hand on Blenner’s shoulder. “You’re still hurting over Burl, and you’ve got right and reason. It’s gotta hurt a sight more with Flint sitting right there, and you can’t do a thing about it. There will be a time for justice, but it’s not this time.”

“Aw, shove your pretty talk, Jerethy. I’ve got my justice right here,” said Blenner, and he hefted the chain, and tried to shove Jerethy’s arm aside, but Jerethy didn’t budge.

“You won’t take the smooth way, then you’ll take the rough way.” Jerethy leaned in close to Blenner’s face, blue eyes to purple. “We’re doing tradition, now, Blenner, and tradition says this is a time of peace and grace before we take to the way. Once we’re on the way, tradition says there are no rules. We can butt and bash all we like. Well I’ll tell you this… You raise fist or foot or chain or blade against any man, woman or fluffy pet puppy inside the shield wall, I will ram you with the Dragon, and your pathetic rig will burst.”

Blenner’s face turned white, and he stumbled away from Jerethy, hands shaking. He cast a wild look around the loose circle of riggers, and at the silent crowd beyond. Then he shoved the chain into his jacket, and shambled away.

One of the riggers called after him. “Hey Blen, where’re you going? Race hasn’t started yet.”

Blenner replied without turning. “I know the rules. Send me my charges, and blow your horns when we’re to go.”

Once Blenner had vanished in the direction of the shield wall, Flint found the strength to get to his feet, and he headed over to Jerethy. “Thanks,” he said. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Jerethy lowered his head, and his mouth became a tight line. “Didn’t do it for you,” he said through his teeth. “Far as I’m concerned, you should take the Rhino west, and just keep going.”

“There’s nothing west but sea.”

Jerethy looked at him with those strange glittering blue eyes. “I know.”

A strange sense of loss and isolation flowed into him then, carried him back to his camp chair, and held him, brooding. He reached for his coffee, but the flask was empty, and there was no more on the table. He’d always been a loner, raised on the way by parents who were half-wild themselves, if the stories were true. He’d passed time with the other riggers, and known their camaraderie. There was a kinship among them; they were all drivers, living more on the road than here in the city, and while that brought them together in one way, it kept them apart more than not. Nevertheless, he’d come to feel that this pack of rough-edged runners were family, and now, it seemed, his delusion was ending.

His thoughts broke apart when he heard excited chatter from the packed crowd, and a wave of applause. He looked up to see Vistor Ambrel stride into the circle, flanked by a couple of heavyset men straining to fit into their antique black suits. Vistor wore a pair of pale yellow slacks and a flowing black silk shirt that did almost nothing to conceal his girth, and somehow made his round head redder. “Dear people,” he said, in a voice that carried across the field. “Friends, old friends and new, thank you. In life you were Buck’s one concern; in death, his one consolation.”

The gathering fell silent, and Vistor held a pause before he spoke again.

“We have said goodbye to Buck, and though we will not forget him, we must move on. As his brother, the closest of his blood, I call on you now to witness a very special moment: the start of a new presidential race!”

Applause greeted Vistor’s words, accompanied by cheers.

He let the sounds die before he spoke, and this time he injected drama into his words. “Our great city, perhaps the last city, relies on our noble riggers. For generations they have run the way, daring the wild lands, the savages, the monsters, and worst of all, the King of Fire and his sons of storm.”

The mere mention of the King sent a chill through the audience, and Flint shared their feeling, both the chill in the gut, but also the adrenaline, the excited pleasure that came from imagining a distant danger while sitting safe in the comforting presence of the shield.

“The clothes we wear, the tools we use, the beasts we slaughter, and, most precious of all, the water we drink, these we owe to the riggers. Without their unending labour, we would wither up and die. And in profoundest gratitude for their service, we take the best among them, and bow our heads, for only one who would chance life for the state deserves the presidential crown.” At this he held aloft the simple circlet of yellow gold so it caught the light of the rising sun, and the crowd sighed.

Flint allowed the rest of the speech to wash over him, knowing what was to come, and trying not to think of it. Besides that, something about Vistor’s words troubled him. Not the talk itself, for the words were scripted, and had remained almost identical for generations, no, but more about Vistor’s… His performance, yes, he thought, that was it. Vistor spoke like an actor, like a character from Shakespeare, as if he enjoyed the show even more than the audience. That, Flint decided, seemed odd, given that he had just lost a brother, and of course he was also losing any privileges that had come with being kin to the President. Then again, he supposed, the man was no Blenner Clavar.

Movement brought him out of his reverie, and he saw a dozen girls line up in front of Vistor, all between ten and twelve years old, some dressed in nice dresses, or blouses and pressed black trousers, others in faded denim skirts and patched t-shirts. All wore a short golden necklace with a single gem for a pendant. He saw them glimmer and sparkle in the rising sun, emerald here, topaz there, pearl, sapphire, diamond and, yes, a ruby.

The breath caught in his throat, and tears welled up in his eyes. He lowered his head and wiped his eyes with his hand, and when he’d got himself back together, he heard Vistor say the next bit, the thing he didn’t want to hear, the chain that bound him to the city. “…to show they can protect and provide for the state. These passengers, one adult, and one unsold child, must return whole and unharmed, for the rigger to qualify. And now-”

He rose and turned away, rubbing his temples with both hands. He couldn’t sit through this. If they wanted to put him back in jail they could, but he wouldn’t listen to another word. He stalked away from the circle, and the people of the audience stumbled over one another to make him a path.

 

+

 

A hand snared him as he walked away across the cool green grass and clover. He turned, brows narrow, right hand curling into a fist, then stopped as he found himself face to face with a fellow rigger, a shorter man with wavy brown hair and a flashing smile. “Wurnech.”

“C’mon, Flint, call me Vern. Not my fault my old man was a book nut.”

He shook his head. “Look, Vern, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not Mr Popular of Bay City.”

Wurnech smirked. “It might have to come to my attention.”

“So give yourself a birthday present, and don’t get seen talking to me.”

“That’s the most involved way of telling a guy to piss off I ever heard. See, I like that about you, Flint. You put a lot of care into the details. Like when you told Burl Clavar to go to Hell, you crafted an eloquent message. You didn’t just say how you felt, you showed it, too.”

He rubbed his jaw. “Okay Vern, now I don’t know if I should feel proud or ashamed.”

“Life’s like that, Flint. Life’s ambiguous. Listen, I just want you to know the riggers don’t all share the conviction that you’re, well, a convict. Not all of us are gonna spill tears for Burl. You play it safe in this race, come back with all your own limbs, and we’ll all be like live and let live, and you know, that whole bit.”

“You trying to make me cry, Vern?”

Wurnech laughed. “If I want you to cry, I’ll invite you to race me.”

“Rhino against the Comet, is that it?”

“You won’t even see me go. One moment the Comet’ll be sitting there way back behind you on the flat, and then next your poor old lumbering Rhino’ll be shaking in the shock wave as I burn past you, supersonic like.”

The absurdity of it struck deep, and though he tried to resist, he couldn’t hold back the smile that crawled across his face and sat there, or the chuckles that burst from him like firecrackers. “You’ve been breathing too much smoke, Vern. There’s no rig that can go supersonic.”

“All I will say to that, my very dear friend, is watch me. But listen, don’t worry about it. I’m not even gonna take my charges.”

Flint scratched his head. “But the Comet is…”

“Yup. The Comet is super fast. Not even the Dragon can get past me. But Flint, c’mon, do I look presidential to you? I don’t want that title. I don’t need that pressure. All I’m gonna do is enjoy the run.” He stuck out his hand, and Flint took it. Then Wurnech gripped him with surprising strength, and leaned close. “Play it safe, Flint. I want to see you come back.”

 

Chapter 3

 

Flint made his way across the meadow, green with clover, to where the Rhino sat where he’d left it two nights ago, when he’d ridden into town to pay his respects at the Clavar family funeral. The old rig hadn’t moved a step, and he’d have been shocked if it had, for once the iron grey door slammed shut, no one without Flint’s distinctive genetic code could enter the hulk, let alone start her up. And if they could have opened her up, where would they have taken her? He had no idea, but Jerethy’s words kept coming back into his mind: take the Rhino west. Take the Rhino west. Take the Rhino west. It was Jerethy’s way of telling him to go to Hell, because they both knew west meant saltwater, and saltwater meant death, not because of wind and wave, or rust and rot, but because fire slept below that water.

West meant death, yes, but east…

But east.

East meant the plains, the desert, the endless red desert, the towering mountains, and beyond them, the verdant forests. East meant the broken places, the ruins of the old world, and the wild ones who scratched out a living in scattered villages and roaming bands. They lived like children playing in the burnt shell of their parents’ manor, and they fought like children, too, but these children ran free, no chains, no gems, no buy and sell. He’d taken a stand against it here, but he saw now he could kill a dozen Burl Clavars, and Bay City would run on down the same path it always had, until the last of the rigs broke down and died, or the sea dried up and the King of Fire rode across the land and burned it all to ashes.

Urgency gripped him, a hand on his guts, and he felt sweat moisten his brow and under his arms. He moved faster, determined now. If everyone was marking time until they went down in fire, then he could burn in his own way. They didn’t want him, and he didn’t need them. He would point the Rhino away from the bay, and just keep going. He had to do it fast, though. If he hesitated, he would give them time to send him his charge, and they’d make sure he took her, and once the child was in the Rhino, he would be stuck with a problem. He couldn’t just refuse to take her, and neither could he dump her out at some spot in the wild lands. No, the only way to get free was to go, to just go, and never look back.

Soon he made out the dark grey shape of the Rhino, and he pressed himself to walk faster, but some whisper told him not to run. He felt eyes on his back, and feared that running would somehow signal the townsfolk that he meant to leave. He knew the feeling was absurd, sheer paranoia, but he couldn’t shake it off. He settled instead for a brisk pace, and soon grew so warm he had to strip off his leather jacket, and moist patches grew on the blue cotton shirt underneath. He carried the jacket in one hand, and moments later he almost dropped it as he saw a weird shape on the top of his rig, as if the Rhino had sprouted a dorsal fin. He frowned as he wondered if the townsfolk, Vistor or the sheriff or somebody, had clamped some sort of device on the rig, and then he gripped the jacket and squeezed, for he realised the shape on the rig’s back was no machine, but a person; no full-grown man or woman, but a child.

He sighed through gritted teeth. “Hey kid, get down from there. My rig’s no toy.”

The child jumped in evident surprise, flashed a look his way, rose to a standing position, and started to run towards the tail of the rig. A foot slipped, the child stumbled, and dropped down on the far side of the rig. Flint cursed, let his jacket fall to the grass, and ran around to the rear of the hulking vehicle, past the horse-sized hole of the turbine exhaust, the nickel alloy dark with carbonised dust, past the rear fins, and around to the other side, his heart tight in his chest. As he rounded the rear of the hulk, he heard a shriek, and put on a burst of speed, then skidded to a halt as he saw the child sprawled out on the stubby right delta wing. He saw it was a girl, lying face down on the wing, obsidian hair spread gleaming across her head and down her back, in stark contrast to her white silk dress. She lay there unmoving, one arm draped over the edge of the wing, and he froze, the breath caught in his throat. He put one hand to his forehead and massaged his scalp, and then he stepped closer and reached out to touch the girl’s shoulder. He felt the cool smooth fabric under his fingers, and the girl didn’t move, and he came closer, eyes wide, wishing not to believe what he saw, and then in one convulsive movement she rolled over, grabbed his wrist, stuck out her tongue, and howled like a banshee.

“Oh God, fuck,” he yelled as he jumped back, yanked his hand free and raised his fists. Then he dropped them and glared at the girl, who popped up and sat on the edge of the wing, brushed her hair out of her face, and giggled. She had deep crimson eyes that twinkled with mirth, a button nose, and the hand that brushed at her hair had chipped nails.

He collected himself. “Now that you’ve given me a heart attack, how about you get down off my rig and go play somewhere safer, like the beach, or the edge of the shield wall.”

“My momma always says those aren’t good places to play,” she said in a high, lilting voice. “She says they aren’t safe.”

“They’re a lot safer than my rig, I can promise you that, kid.”

“I’m not a kid, I’m twelve. Anyway, you can’t put promises in the bank, my uncle says that.”

He gave her a blank look. “A bank?” Then he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

She peered at him under furled brows. “One of the old places. I guess it’s true what my uncle says,” she put on a gruff voice, “you damned riggers don’t even know how to read.”

“Of all the- Get off my rig!”

She jumped to her feet. “Catch me first, you damned rigger.” Then she sprang to her feet and danced up the wing and onto the Rhino’s broad grey back. Flint tensed his hands in a strangling motion, then grabbed the cool metal and hauled himself up onto the wing. Where the girl seemed to leap and float up the skin of the hulk, he had to grab at the small mirrored ridges raised forward of the many rows of solar panels on the top surface of the hulk, the ridge front slopes contoured to protect the panels from the grit and other particles that scoured the rig’s skin from front to back, every time Flint took her up to cruising speed. He winced as the girl pranced across the panels. Although they were built to last, felt every step from her battered pink sneakers like a hammer on his back.

“Get down from there,” he said, but she danced away from him, over the locked round cover of the rooftop port, and away to the front. He had no choice but to chase her along the length of the rig, and follow when she slid down the back-swept diamond bubble of the front window. Then she halted, poised on the tight arrowhead strip of metal that ended in a vertical titanium spike, the ‘horn’ that gave the Rhino her name, and that housed her radio antenna. The girl took the spike in one hand, and shot him a smirk. He shook his head. “No, no way.” He eased himself down the window, and set his feet on the strip, all too aware that one slip would send him tumbling down to the grassy earth below. At this height the fall wouldn’t hurt too much; at worst he’d break an ankle, but even at best he’d lose time, and just then time had never felt so precious.

“Girl you are playing all kinds of stupid. Stop this before you get hurt.”

She blew him a kiss, and then she hooked one elbow and one leg around the spike, and twirled through the air, and gold flashed at her neck. His heart tried to burst out through his ribs, but she spun full round, and ended, balanced again on the metal, with a dancer’s grace. She let go of the spike, folded one arm across her midriff, extended the other to the side, and bowed. His brows raised, and he nodded in appreciation, but then her foot slipped, her jaw fell open and her eyes widened in horror, for she was really falling this time, and she would hit head first, and his hands shot out, and he snatched her wrist in his left hand, her shoulder in his right, and he straightened her on the spar. “Got you,” he said, but in that moment, he noticed the shining metal at her chest, a necklace thrown loose from the collar of her dress, and watched it hang there against the white silk ruffles, a golden chain, and a single glittering diamond.

 

+

 

They sat on glossy varnished mahogany chairs squeezed into the narrow space of the Rhino’s kitchenette. The chamber itself was all white plastic panels and brilliant little lights, which made the antique furniture glimmer and stand out even more. Flint drank rich, strong coffee from a chipped green mug. He’d lost track of the coffee he’d had since getting out of jail, and he couldn’t seem to remember his last real meal, or shower, or night of sleep in a real bed. The girl had asked for coffee too, but he’d given her milky tea in a white porcelain cup with a picture of a floppy eared beagle. She frowned at him, now, over the rim, but she drank it, and he saw the tension ease out of her shoulders. He hung his leather jacket over the back of the chair, and leaned forward, the steaming green mug in his right hand. “No point running around it. Those eyes, that bauble at your throat… You’re Buck Ambrel’s girl.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not just someone’s girl. I have a name, you know.”

He nodded. “You’ve got the attitude, too. You’re Buck Ambrel’s daughter for sure, and I figure you’re my charge. Don’t understand why they want you on my rig, but that’s the only reason you’d be here.”

“Maybe I killed your charge, and took her place.”

He shook his head. “I don’t have the gas for games.”

“But my chaperone isn’t here yet, so you have to wait.”

He bit down on his retort, and tried to think of a way to get rid of her. He thought of just shoving her out of the door and taking off, but it might get back to the other riggers. If he just vanished all quiet and alone, they would probably leave him be, but if he put some marks on the old President’s daughter on the way out, they might just decide to hound him, and he didn’t need the trouble.

He sat there and ransacked his brains, and a smile grew on the girl’s lips. “I was right about you. You mean to cut out, you mean to run.”

He balled his right hand into a fist, and massaged it with his left. “And what if I do?”

“Take me with you. Get me out of this stinking city.”

“I really don’t want to play this game.”

She drained her tea, set the cup down on the work surface, leaned forward, and gripped the arms of her chair with white knuckles. “I’m not playing, rigger. I want you to put as much air between me and this city as you can.”

In spite of his misgivings, he found himself drawn into her game. “Let’s say you’re serious. Why pick me? Let’s say you want to get out fast, stay ahead of all the search dogs, scarred trackers, and gene-seeking rockets we’ve obviously got stockpiled in secret underground bunkers, and if that’s true, why not talk to Jerethy, Nathor or Wurnech? Straight up speed freaks, those folks.”

She shook her head. “No, no. It has to be you.”

“Then tell me why.”

“Because of what you did. Because of the man you killed.”

He stiffened, and then he slumped back in his chair and wished he could be anywhere except there, in that conversation.

The girl leaned forward, her voice got lower, and her eyes fixed him like searchlights smeared with blood. “You don’t give a, a dead pig for this city. You killed a citizen in front of everyone, at his wife and daughter’s funeral. You thought they were going to hang you but they didn’t, and now that you’ve got your chance, I’d bet all the gold in the world that you’re going to run.”

He sat back and ran his hand up and down his chair’s polished armrest, considering the idea. It needled his pride to find that a little girl had seen right through him. Perhaps she was smart enough to handle a ride on the Rhino. Then again, how long could she stand it, and what would happen when she got sick of it and wanted to go home? He couldn’t bring up some girl on his rig, and he sure couldn’t dump her in the middle of the wild lands and say ‘so long.’

“You wouldn’t be betting gold, girl. You’d be betting your life on the goodwill of an acknowledged murderer. You seem sort of bright, but it stinks, putting your life into the hands of a murderer.”

“But-”

“What if I take you halfway across the world, and leave you in the desert? What if I need food, or the rig runs low on fuel, so I find a camp of slavers, and sell you?”

She shook her head. “You wouldn’t do it. Not you, not Flint of the Rhino. I know you wouldn’t do it.”

“You’ve never even met me. How can you know that?”

“Because of what my uncle says about you.”

“Vistor? I barely know the man.” And besides, he thought, I’m planning to run out on him. His curiosity started to itch. “What can he possibly have to say about me?”

A sly grin edged across her face. “Give me your hand that you’ll take me, and I’ll tell you.”

Laughter bubbled out of him. “You never give up, do you.”

“Not under the sky or above the ground. You have to take me, you see? Just submit to the inevitable and your life will be perfect.”

He chewed his lip. “This is crazy, this is genuine, A-grade lunacy.” He didn’t want to take her seriously, and he still couldn’t see how she would live a day in the wild lands outside the Rhino’s protective hide, but he also couldn’t think of a way to get rid of her, and his time was ticking down. “Look, say I take you to Smelt, or Brimtown, maybe even to Glory Point, and set you up with some good folks I know. Bay City might be the last big place left, but there are still some smaller towns where people can live without being total savages.”

“No, no, that won’t work, that won’t work at all. You’ve got to take me away, far away, from the city, from the great way. You’ve got to take me to the other side of the world.” She stared up at him, her red eyes glimmering with tears.

“But why, at least tell me why.” He studied her, and put his own plight out of mind. “You’re in big, bad, serious type trouble.”

She nodded.

“Someone’s going to hurt you if you stay? They hurt you already?”

“Please, there’s no time. Let’s just go. I promise I’ll tell you everything once we’re past the shield wall.”

His face twisted in a scowl, half of anger, half of exasperation. He opened his mouth to answer, when a new figure entered the kitchenette, a lean man in a neat black suit with a pink tie. His head was smooth and shiny, and he peered through round blue-rimmed spectacles, with lenses that matched his pink tie, over a jutting beak of a nose. “Do hope no interruption,” he said, setting down a large blue rucksack and a smaller black leather case that jingled. “Door was open, see, and supposed to be here, word of the girl’s uncle, Diana’s run off, probably playing around the stray beast, do hurry, and so forth.”

Flint felt his jaw loosen as he listened to the man’s odd speech, and then he looked at the girl to check his story, and saw she had shrunk down in her chair, and her face had turned pale and collapsed. She held her eyes fixed on a point on the floor, and her slack lips trembled. She almost seemed to be a different person from the vivacious adventurer he’d met just a short time before. Now, as far as he could tell, she was shaking with terror.

“Chop chop, race under way, can’t hear the horns from here, blocked by the wall, see?”

He gave the man a blank look. “What?”

“The race, man, the race. Glory Point awaits.”

“Oh. Yeah, right, yeah. The race. Who are you exactly?”

The man raised his eyebrows. “Did she not say? Manners, manners, what are we without them? Beasts, savages, scroungers… Diana’s tutor, man, tutor. Here for the race. Chaperone, yes, chaperone.”

Flint stared at him, and then he realised that his moment had passed. He had lost his chance to make a clean exit, and if he still wanted to abandon the race and run from the city, his difficulties had just doubled. He might have entertained the notion of taking the girl with him on a mad run across the wild lands, but he felt for damn sure this weird dude would not be up for that kind of ride, and he could probably make trouble if Flint tried to toss him out the hatch. His vision of freedom faded and collapsed in tatters, and he saw it had never been more than a fantasy. He rubbed his head, and then a rush of anger rose up from within, and made him rise and push past the man.

The tutor squawked and straightened his glasses. “Say, that’s not the way, sir, not the way.”

Flint turned back and leaned over the man, forehead low, amber eyes hard and dangerous. “I’m a rigger, son. As long as you’re on my hulk, the way is whatever I feel like right now.”

“Lead by example is it, sir? Shining, shining beacon in the dark, that sort of thing, eh?” He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Caerlion.”

Flint shook his head and walked away. He felt petty, but the man represented such a massive loss of opportunity that he couldn’t bare to touch him, in case some vile taint passed by the contact, to spread to every corner of his life.

“Find a place to sit down and hold on, Caerlion.”

“Necessary, sir?”

He spoke as he walked away, along the short, narrow corridor to the cockpit. “Oh yeah, it’s necessary, you dapper son of a bitch. I’m going to fire up the turbine. I’m going to burn some gas in your precious little race.”

 

Chapter 4

 

The Rhino rumbled south along the broad black strip of the way where it ran parallel to the sea, the calm blue waters shimmering on the right all the way to the horizon. Behind, shrinking with increasing distance, squatted the granite crags of the shield wall, while on their left stretched a grassy plain. The rig’s turbine ran at half power, keeping it at a stable six metres off the smooth surface of the way, but even at lower power the wind howled across the rig’s outer skin. All this Flint knew, but it occupied scant few scraps of his attention as he sat in the soft leather pilot’s seat on the left side of the cockpit, right hand on the wheel, left poised on the bank of keys set into his armrest. In here, and the rest of the crew compartments, walls packed with layers of aerogel shielded the roar of the wind and the growl of the turbine, muting them to a low hum that Flint found comforting.

He reached past the wheel and flicked the fuel gauge, but it continued to give the same reading in glowing orange: 20%. He looked up at the way, and saw how it stretched far off into the distance, curving around with the line of the bay, until it ended at a tall, white tower that glimmered in the morning sun.

“That’s Glory Point, isn’t it?”

He turned and saw Diana leaning over the back of the other chair. “Didn’t hear you come in.”

She shrugged and plopped down into the empty chair. “Didn’t answer my question.”

She’d managed to open and shut the cabin door without making a sound. He looked back at the distant tower. From their position on the way, it seemed that the tower thrust straight up from the water. “Yeah, that’s the Point.”

“That doesn’t look so far. What would happen if we went straight there?”

He thought for a few moments, but not so much about her question. He’d been furious when he’d left her in the kitchenette, but once he’d got the rig out onto the way, he’d felt a lot calmer. He might not be free of Bay City yet, but he was in his rig, he was driving, and the way looked clear. That very sense of peace, however, made it easier to realise just how alarmed and upset the girl had looked when Caerlion had shown up. He eyed her now, watched her melt into the copilot’s chair like a sleepy cat, and she seemed almost a different person, but he could still make out traces of tension at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

“You going to answer me, you damned rigger?”

He took his hand off the wheel, and rubbed his forehead. “You shouldn’t say that all the time.”

“My father did. He said it every day.”

“Yeah, well he was a rigger. It’s different. Anyway, I bet he didn’t say it to every rigger he met.”

She took her lip between her teeth. “I guess he mostly said it to the mirror, when he cut himself shaving.” She pursed her lips. “But you still haven’t answered me, and that’s rude too.”

He gave her a tight smile. She gave as good as she got, he thought. “So, right, this stretch of the way goes direct to the Point. If we didn’t care about the race, we could get there pretty soon. It’d take longer than you think, though; that tower’s huge. It’s much farther off than it looks.”

“What if we went faster? You do have a big huge turbine on this rusty old hulk, don’t you?”

He tried to remember if Buck Ambrel had talked that way. Whether he had or not, he had a lot to answer for. “Yeah, about that…” He pointed at the fuel gauge. She gave him a blank look, and he sighed. “See, I didn’t stop for fuel on my way into town the other night. So even if I wanted to win the race badly enough to cheat, and I was stupid enough to forget that the inland way stations have radios, I couldn’t actually rush us up to the tower.”

“Because you’d run out of gas.”

“Mhm.”

She turned and gazed out of the window. “Seems a bit shortsighted.”

“…I guess.”

“Kind of suicidal. I mean, if you had wanted to run away after the murder…”

He winced at the word, but said nothing.

“Seems like you might be a bit too good at getting yourself into trouble. Maybe I picked the wrong rig.”

He eyed her sidelong. “It’s not like I haven’t been telling you that.”

They sat in silence for a good stretch, the black way rushing below them, so fast it seemed to dance with half-seen colours, while the sea, the sky and the tower seemed not to move at all. Flint’s mind returned to the fuel question. They would soon come to the split, where he would leave the coastal way, and turn inland. Smelt lay a short distance along, and while they had stores of water, they didn’t always have a lot to spare, since their industrial machines needed so much to run. On a regular trip, he would chance it, but today, with all the riggers running along the same track, the odds were high that at least one other rigger would stop there to load up too.

She broke in on his thoughts. “What about that?” She pointed off to the right, out to sea.

He peered that way. “You see something out there?” His guts chilled at the thought.

“I mean, what about going across the water?”

He stared at her. “I don’t get it.”

She raised her red eyes to heaven, as if imploring the god of twelve-year-old girls to save her from this mindless grown-up “Couldn’t you fly over the water? It’s a straight run across the bay. You’d save hours instead of going around the coast.”

“Of all the… Your father taught you how to insult people, but he didn’t teach you the first thing about handling a rig.”

“Hey!”

“We don’t go over the water. We never go over standing water. Not any large body of surface water. It’s too dangerous.”

“But why?”

“You really don’t know. I can’t believe you don’t know. Your father-”

“My father was President. He didn’t teach me things. I listened to him in the morning when he shaved in the mirror, and sometimes I heard him talk to the other men at night, but he was President all day, all the time, all my life. I learned everything from men like… Like…” Her lips quivered, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

“Caerlion.”

She reached out and put a finger on his lips. “He’s writing a lesson. Don’t disturb him.”

“I-”

“If he hears you, he’ll come and take me away. Please don’t say his name.”

He wanted to tell her that if their argument hadn’t distracted the tutor already, nothing would, but he looked at Diana, once again a trembling little girl, and he leaned forward, and beckoned her in closer. “Right,” he said in a soft voice. “I’m no tutor, but I can spot a gap in your education. There’s a reason we don’t go over the water. Do you want to hear it?”

She chewed her lip, then wiped tears from her eyes and nodded.

“You know about the old world. How people used to have massive cities, and thousands and thousands of rigs, and-”

“And planes, and ships, and space planes, and a moon base, and-”

“Right, right. But you know what happened.”

“There was a fight. A very big fight.”

She sounded so serious that he almost laughed. “And the old world broke apart, and now we’re the only ones left who keep to the old ways.” And, he added in the silence of his mind, we don’t understand half of those ways.

She rose in her seat. “But what has this got to do with the sea?”

His eyes jumped to the water, but it still extended away to the right, bright, clear and serene. He checked the road, and saw the fuel gauge had dropped a notch, and he frowned. Then he turned back to face her. “The old ones went away, but they left things behind.”

“Things?”

“Monsters.”

She stamped her foot. “I’m not a baby. I know there aren’t any monsters. It’s all made up.”

“Monsters, weapons… With the old ones, they’re the same thing. They sleep in the water. They wait, down in the cold watery depths, for some foolish rigger to skim down too close to the edge, and then they rise from the sea, glowing green and red, and they surface in a cloud of steam so hot it’ll strip the flesh from your bones.” The girl swallowed, her eyes wide. “And then the steam catches fire, and all you can see is a cloud of brilliant white fire, like a small sun, and it rushes down on you as fast as lightning.”

She spoke in a small voice. “But the hulks, the armour…”

He nodded. “Layers and layers of it, but nothing under the sky can long resist fire from the sun. Besides, rigs are coated in titanium. It’s super strong, but it melts if you get a piece too near the turbine exhaust. And then there’s the fuel… Rigs drink…?”

“Water, I know.”

“Right, and the tanks convert it into hydrogen, to burn. But you see, the thing about hydrogen, bottled up in a tank, is that if it gets hot enough, it explodes.”

She shook herself, and her brow tightened. “You’re talking like you’ve seen this happen, but if you’re telling the truth, then you’d have to already be dead, and it doesn’t make any sense, because I’m alive and you don’t look like a ghost, and anyway I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Smart, girl. But you’re missing one fact. The fire moves faster than a rig, but it doesn’t stray far from water. I was in a bad way some time ago, back when I was a just starting alone, and I thought I could draw water from an inlet on the coast. I had just killed the turbine when I saw the fire in the rear screen.”

She gazed at him. “What happened?”

“I ran. I ran as fast as the Rhino could go, and I got away. The fire burned a streak on one of the rear fins, though.”

She pursed her lips. “I still don’t know if I believe you.”

“I can show you, when we take on water at Smelt.”

She nodded. “Do that, rigger.”

And he did, and she touched the blistered metal, and they had water to draw, but it wasn’t enough.

 

+

 

Soon after pulling out of Smelt, Flint saw a dark object rise up in the rear screen, one of several panels set below the windows. At that distance, he couldn’t make it out, and it didn’t bother him much, except that it seemed to be running along the way. Sometimes birds or animals followed the line of the great way, but animals never went near a stretch just after a rig had hurtled along. He didn’t spend much time outside live rigs, and he wouldn’t want to; he could imagine the deafening roar, and the choking heat of the turbine exhaust. Bugs splashed themselves against the front window all the time, but if they strayed too near the exhaust, they got cooked. The same would happen, he believed, to any larger animal, although that would probably leave them black and crispy on one side, and a tender pink on the other. The turbine itself was like a meat grinder from hell. A damn stupid bird had once got itself sucked into the intake, and he’d been afraid it would choke up the engine, but the rig hadn’t even coughed, and when he’d looked at the rear screen, he’d seen a short plume of black smoke spray out of the Rhino’s backside.

The cockpit door opened, and Diana ran in, sat down in the copilot’s seat, and put a sugar-dusted finger to her lips. “Shh,” she said. “I’m hiding.”

“Doesn’t seem very effective,” he said. “If you really want to hide, you ought to go down to the cargo hold.”

“That’s exactly where Caerlion thinks I went, but instead I hid in the toilet, and when I heard him come past out of the kitchen, and go down the stairs, I came back here.”

“So you left your tutor hunting around in the hold?”

She brushed her hands against her dress, and beamed at him. “Now, about our plan.”

He gave her a vacant look. “Our plan?”

“Yup. I think it’s best if we use hemlock.”

His brows drew down into a tight V. “Hemlock.”

“I would have preferred arsenic or cyanide, but no one knows how to make those any more, whereas hemlock, well, it’s a plant, and we’re out in nature, you know? Easy to procure, is what I’m saying, you da- Uh, darling rigger.”

“I hear every word you’re saying, and it makes less sense every second.”

Her face pinched, and she leaned forwards, frustration in her eyes. “For him,” she said in a breathy whisper, and jabbed a thumb at the cockpit door.

His eyes half-closed, and he sighed through his teeth. “Oh, I see.”

She fell back into her seat. “Right. Hemlock. Easy to get, well sort of easy, and quite painless. They gave it to Socrates, you know, I read about it.”

He nodded. “Yeah, of course, Socrates.”

She glance at him. “He was the first philosopher.”

“I have read a book,” he said. “But your plan has a couple of big huge problems. First, Socrates lived in Ancient Greece, and second, I’m not going to help you murder your tutor.”

She waved her hand. “Yes yes, but even if this isn’t Greece, I’m sure we can obtain a quantity of the requisite herb in North America.”

“Okay, great, that would solve one of our problems, if we could get to America.”

“You mean we’re not there already?”

“Of course not. Of all the… What does that fool teach you? This is Australia.”

She shot him a panicky look, and then she smoothed down the folds of her white silk dress, and wrinkled her nose. “I can’t believe you’ve gone fifty years without learning the most basic things about the world.”

His jaw tightened. “I’m not fifty.”

“Forty, then.”

“I’m twenty-nine!”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, old man.”

“I’m not an old man, and this is not America. Look, they got kangaroos in Australia, right?”

She frowned.

“Like, big dumb-looking rabbits with pockets in front is what I mean.”

“I know what they are.”

“And they live in Australia.”

She nibbled the edge of her lip. “Well…”

“Right, Australia, right. And I’ve seen kangaroos, big ones, not so far from here. You sight right there, and I’ll show you.”

She seemed on the edge of saying something, and then the cockpit door opened, Caerlion poked his head in, and Diana dropped down into her chair and rolled into a ball. Flint half-turned, and looked at Caerlion over his shoulder. The tutor peered at him down his beak of a nose, his bald pate gleaming in the light that streamed in through the crystal windows. “The young miss. Missing. Absent. Not present.”

“Yeah. Look, Caerlion, you’re an educated man, and I’ve got a serious question about geography for you.” From the corner of his eye, Flint saw Diana shake her head, but he ignored her. “I’ve been stuck with a question: is this continent Australia or… America?”

Caerlion stood up straight and faced his way. “Actually, always been rather under the impression, of the continents, this would be the Antarctic.”

Flint stared at Caerlion, trying to make out laughter in the eyes hidden behind those blue-framed, pink-tinted spectacles. “This would be the what now?”

Caerlion opened his mouth and started to answer, but his words were lost in the noise as something crashed into the Rhino on the left, and shook the whole rig. The impact threw Flint half out of his seat, and left Diana sprawled over the arm of hers. Caerlion caught the sides of the copilot’s chair, and somehow managed to remain standing.

Flint hauled himself back into his chair, and Diana screamed at him, “what was that?”

“I don’t know, let me look,” he said, and did. The window showed the expanse of the way, now angled left of forward; the Rhino had been knocked off course. The right and rear screens showed nothing, but the left revealed another rig, with a fat nose and a pair of upthrust spikes, set up and back behind the front window, which bubbled out left and right, and gave the front of the rig the look of the face of a grey, overweight devil. “Old Horn,” he said. As soon as he caught sight of it, the second rig put on a burst of speed, until it was lined up parallel with the Rhino, and then it jerked right, and slammed into them a second time. Flint saw it coming, and he grabbed his armrests and managed to hold on, although the force shook him in his chair, and strained his arms and back. Diana was still draped over her armrest, and she clung on, while Caerlion stood his ground, seeming almost to surf with the force of the blow.

“Who is that maniac?” said Diana, and she heaved herself back into her chair, and yanked and locked down her seat belt.

Flint had forgotten the rig had belts, but he saw the wisdom in her choice, and did the same. “It’s Blen. Blenner bloody Clavar, that’s who it is.”

“This is not good news,” said Diana.

“No, it is most definitely not good news.”

“Speed, sir,” said Caerlion. “Might I suggest some?”

Flint wrinkled his nose. “Might as well try,” he said, and gunned the engine. The Rhino hacked and roared, and he felt himself pulled back in his seat as they accelerated.

“Look,” said Diana. “We’re leaving him behind,” and she pointed at the rear screen, which showed the horned rig fade back a ways.

Flint shook his head, and Caerlion cleared his throat. “Don’t share the young lady’s buoyant optimism, sir?”

“Let’s see,” said Flint.

“Let’s not wait around,” said Diana. “Let’s keep burning gas and leave that damned rigger in the dust.”

Flint said nothing. He corrected their course, putting the hulk back in line with the inland way, held their speed steady, and kept an eye on the rear screen. Minutes later he saw what he’d been waiting for. Old Horn drew a notch closer, and then another. Soon everyone in the cockpit had noticed. Diana put her knuckles in her mouth and moaned. “He’s cutting the distance. What’s he trying to do to us?”

“He doesn’t want anything from you, I’ll bet,” said Flint. “I’m fairly sure he’s after me.”

“Can’t you tell him we’re in here too?”

He laughed. “Yeah, he probably doesn’t want to leave any witnesses. The rules say anything goes in the race, but we frown on actual bloodshed.”

“Then it’s true,” she said in a small voice. “He means to kill us.” Flint shrugged, and they watched the horned rig creep closer. “But look,” she said, “there must be something you can do. Can’t you outrun him?”

“What do you think I’m trying to do, make jam? This is the Rhino, not the Eagle. It’s not known for speed or subtle maneuvers.”

“Not speed then, okay, not speed, but something… What about weapons? Don’t all these old world vehicles have, like, lasers and rockets and things?”

Flint rolled his eyes. “You read too much, girl.”

She grimaced. “What in hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Caerlion leaned over the chair and peered down at the girl. “Believe the gentleman endeavoring to explain freighters, hulks, vessels of trade carry no ranged armaments.”

She turned blazing eyes from Flint to the other and back. “But what if you get attacked by bandits or something?”

Flint restrained the urge to throw them both out of the cockpit. Instead, he made himself speak with the calm of a mountain lake. “Yes, I do occasionally get ambushed by bandits set up on a stretch of the way. They crouch down behind makeshift wooden barricades, and hurl rocks and spears. Sometimes they have bows.”

She stared at him. “And what do you do?”

“Do? I’m sitting behind a screen made of diamond, in a hulk skinned with titanium. If I see them first, I blow the horn, and if they’re stupid enough to wait, well… I make jam.”

Her eyes grew wide, and her skin took on a greenish tinge. “That’s… That’s horrible.”

He raised his hands, palms up. “You did ask. Believe me, lasers and rockets are not going to be any more destructive than a rig going at full speed.”

“Conversation fascinating, must take notes, but aggressor rapidly inbound,” said Caerlion. Flint frowned up at the man, and wondered how he could tutor anyone when he could barely make himself understood, but then he spotted a shadow in the rear screen, and spun the wheel right. The other rig hit them close to the rear, but thanks to his reflexive move, the Rhino escaped the full force of the impact, and he turned in a tight circle, trying to come around and get on the other rig’s rear.

“Yes,” said Diana. “Get him, you da- You dear rigger.” He tried, but Blenner must have seen what he was doing, because Old Horn clung to the Rhino’s exhaust, and followed it around, and the two massive rigs snarled and burned a circle across the way.

“No, not like that,” said Diana. “This isn’t working.”

He gritted his teeth. “Hang on, I’ve got one more trick. Caerlion, find something heavy, and strap yourself to it.”

“Believe this the best place, sir.”

“If you don’t tie your body to something solid, it is likely to come hurtling past my chair and go splat on the window.”

“…understood.” Caerlion disappeared into the depths of the hulk.

“You shouldn’t have said that,” said Diana.

“It was effective.”

“But if you hadn’t said anything, we could have forgotten about finding some hemlock.”

“Listen, you crazy girl, we’re not getting hemlock, we’re not getting cyanide, and we are not murdering your tutor.”

She pouted, and then she brightened up. “Maybe those big chairs will squash him.”

Flint shook his head, and concentrated. He pulled the Rhino out of the turn, and started it blazing back down the way in the direction of Smelt. Moments later he saw Old Horn line up on their tail. He knew the other rig would soon close the distance, so he didn’t hesitate. He cut the engine, and flipped all the fins, causing the Rhino to swing around in a tight half-circle. Then he fired up the engine to maximum power, and lined up the Rhino’s horn between Blenner’s devil spikes.

Diana gasped, and then she turned to him, red eyes wider than they’d ever been. “You’re going to ram him.”

He nodded.

She looked ahead, and her hand snaked over and grabbed his wrist. Then she closed her eyes. “Let’s make jam.”

 

+

 

The two hulks rushed at each other, and the stretch of black way between them shrank with every beat of Flint’s heart, every pulse that ran through his hand, clenched and bloodless on the wheel. The dusty plains whipped past them, a red blur that reminded Flint of the stains of dry, dead blood, and the smells he’d encountered once at an old, abandoned abattoir. He felt heat rise in his gut, and an electrical tingle creep up his fingers and arms, and up his neck to his scalp, where it pricked up his hair. The heavyset devil’s face of the other rig grew bigger by the moment, and the corners of Flint’s eyes narrowed. He’d tried everything else, it hadn’t been enough, and now he could fight or roll over, and he would swim to hell before he rolled over to one of the Clavar brothers. The Rhino was the toughest rig he’d ever seen, and he’d ridden her to smash through boards, barricades, and even full-grown trees, but he’d never gone head-to-head with another rig, and he doubted anyone ever had.

Madness swept through him, and he laughed.

Diana had to shout over the thrumming engine and the screaming wind. “Is it over?”

“No.”

She kept her eyes shut when she spoke. “Then why are you cackling?”

“Just thinking you should get Caerlion to write all this down. We’re about to make history.”

“You are a crazy person, and I regret ever climbing on your floaty death express.”

Any comeback he might have had got thrown out of the window the next second, as the two rigs screamed down on each other. Flint grimaced but held course, and then at the last moment Old Horn swerved to his left, and scraped along the side of the Rhino, shook the rig with a painful juddering, and raised a metallic shriek. Diana’s hand, still clasped on his arm, clamped down, and her fingers dug into his skin, but she held silence until the shaking ended and the howls of protesting metal faded. Then she drew a deep breath, and looked at him, a question in her vivid red eyes.

Flint shook his head.

She looked away, and let go of his arm. “What now?” she said, and massaged her fingers.

“Best outcome? Blenner decides we’re too crazy to tangle with, and leaves us alone.”

“I’m not going to ask about the worst.”

He eyed the rear screen. “I think we’re about to find out.”

Her eyes darted to his face, and then to the rear screen, and she moaned when she saw Blenner’s rig swing around and resume the chase. She looked across at him with pleading eyes. “There must be something else you can try.”

He scowled at the broad expanse of the way as it reached out left and right and far ahead of the rig. Blenner had rushed up and buffeted them before, and it had shaken the Rhino and her occupants, but it hadn’t pulped them. Now he’d seen that the Rhino could smash him back, he would have to try something different. With his edge on them in speed, Blenner could always keep ahead, could choose when to knock them and when to dodge away, and that would let him give them all a battering ride, but it wouldn’t be enough to beat them. No, thought Flint, Blenner had to have seen this already, he had to have come up with a different plan. He checked the rear screen, and once again saw Old Horn had crept up closer. He looked up, scanned the way ahead, and then the surrounding landscape. He knew he’d spotted it as soon as his eyes fell on the sight, and he snarled. “There.”

“No, don’t tell me,” said Diana. Flint pointed, and the girl looked away to the right, and saw the red sandstone edge of a canyon that ran parallel to the way. “I see it, rigger.”

 

+

 

Flint did his best to dodge Old Horn’s buffets, and when he had a chance, he tried to strike back, but Blenner had the edge in acceleration, and proved able to keep Old Horn at just the perfect distance to swoop in and bash the Rhino before Flint could evade, yet still have enough air between them that when Flint spun the wheel and hit back, Old Horn floated away like an ungainly but agile bumblebee.

Little by little, Blenner drove the Rhino towards the edge of the way, and then off it, to skim across the patchy brown scrub land, and ever nearer to the red cliffs and the canyon. Diana noticed how close they were getting, and she yelped. “Tell me we’re not going over the edge.”

“Okay,” said Flint, eyes on the left screen. “We’re not going over the edge.”

Her voice turned shrill. “You’re lying to me.”

“I’m mostly trying to concentrate on driving.”

“Great job so far, rigger.”

“Do you want to try?”

Old Horn smacked them again, and Diana put her hands in her hair, grabbed thick black bunches between her fingers, and grimaced. “Look, even if we go over the edge, we can fly to the other side, right?”

He shook his head. “This is a rhino, not an albatross.”

“But it’s got wings.”

“You think sticking wings on a rhino means it can fly? This is a skimmer, a ground effect vehicle. No ground, no skimming.”

She groaned. “Do something, Flint.”

He narrowed his eyes and punched the wheel. Then he did the last thing he could think of, though he knew it wouldn’t work. He jabbed the power button on the radio, and opened up the common channel. “Blenner, you dirty son of a-”

Diana unclipped her seat belt., leapt across the cockpit, and slapped her palm over his face, smothering his words. She shook her head. “What are you trying to do, make him angry?”

He tried to ask how he could possibly make Blenner more angry, but she held on until he stopped struggling.

“Blenner,” she said, “Mr Blenner Clavar?” She paused, but no reply came, and she started again. “I don’t know if you’re listening, Mr Clavar, but my name is Diana Ambrel, and I’m here on the Rhino, and you hurt me when you hit us, and I really don’t want you to drive us off the cliff.”

But for a distant static hiss, the channel remained silent, and Flint saw beads of moisture well up at the corner of Diana’s eyes.

“Mr Clavar, you’re in this race too, and that means you’ve got another little girl in there. She’s just like me. Do you want to throw a little girl off a cliff?”

Silence followed her words, and then a man’s voice came on the line, angry and slurred, as if the speaker had stoked his rage with whiskey. “I ain’t in this race no more. I dropped my charges off at Smelt.”

Now that they had got Blenner on the line, and he had stopped slamming into them, Flint felt they might have a chance. He tried to pull the girl’s hand away, but she held on with surprising strength, caught his eye, and shook her head. He didn’t like it, but perhaps she had a plan. He stopped struggling, and let her speak.

“Mr Clavar, you’re a good person. You didn’t want to hurt any innocent folk. But I’m stuck here on the Rhino-”

At the mention of Flint’s rig, Blenner spat a string of curses.

Diana squeezed her eyes shut, but when the tirade wore down, she began again. “Mr Clavar, you want justice for your brother. But if you smash me up in, in this rig, that won’t be right, will it? Will it?”

Blenner cursed some more, and then he sighed. “What do you want, girl?”

“Let me get off.”

Flint started to rise in his seat, but she used both hands to shoved him back.

“Give Fl- Give the driver here a couple minutes to drop off me and, oh, damn it all, me and my tutor, and then you can do whatever you want.”

Flint stared at her, betrayal etched in his features. Diana held one hand on his shoulder, and put the other to her lips. The pause that followed seemed to stretch for hours, and when the answer came, Flint didn’t want to believe it.

“You got five minutes, and then I’m gonna turn that rig into a smoking wreck.”

Diana hit the power switch, and radio died. Flint swept her hand away, undid his belt, rose in his seat, and glared down at her. “You little… You offered me to him on a gilded tray.”

“Stop the rig.”

“How can you expect me to do anything you say after that?”

“Stop the rig or we’ll go right over the edge, and it’ll be your own stupid fault.”

He checked the windows, saw the red rocks approaching like a row of giant, bloodstained teeth, and grabbed the wheel, turning the Rhino in a tight circle that swept up a circle of dust that clouded the windows and all of the screens. Then he threw on the brakes, and the rig settled down.

“I guess you’d better grab your things,” he said.

She stamped her foot. “Don’t be so silly, Flint. I’m not going to run and leave you. I have a plan.”

“As I recall, you had a plan when you came onboard, and it’s worked out swell so far.”

She raised a hand. “Now isn’t the time to get hysterical.”

“I’m not hysterical!”

“Listen, he wants you, and I figure he’d much rather pulp you with his fists than with his rig.”

“Happens he’s in his rig.”

“Shh, just shush. If you get out and stand on the edge of the cliff, I figure there’s two things he might do.”

“Like smash me with his rig.”

She nodded. “That’s one, yes. But if he did it that way he might go over the edge. No, I think it’s much more likely that he’ll set his rig down, then come out and fight you.”

He shook his head. “That’s a terrible plan.”

She stared up at him, her hands in fists. “Do you have a better one?”

Flint started to speak, but the cockpit door opened and Caerlion walked in, his pink bow tie somewhat askew, but otherwise unruffled by the Rhino’s shaky ride to the cliff. He cleared his throat, and gave Flint a pointed look. “Seem to have ceased motion,” he said.

“No,” said Flint, “it’s just that the world has caught up with us,” and he chuckled.

“Oh dear,” said Diana, looking up at him. “I think he’s losing it.”

“I think I lost it when I agreed to enter this stupid race. If I hadn’t been in jail when Vistor asked me, I-”

She waved her hands in front of his face. “No time, no time. Caer- Mr Caerlion, please go back to the front door, I mean the big door. I mean, get out, outside.”

“To expect ride from that vehicle?” He pointed out of the window. Diana and Flint both shook their heads. “The other one then?”

Flint’s eyes glazed over. “Other one?”

They followed his finger, and looked out through the window, first at the heavy form of Old Horn as it settled down to face them, fat snout shining with a bright silvery streak down the left side, a gouge from when Flint had tried to ram it. He knew the Rhino had to bear a similar scar, and wondered if the left wing had also taken a hit. He’d have to check it later, if he had a later. He didn’t let his eyes linger on Blenner’s rig, for Caerlion pointed past it, and he saw a streak of dust back near the edge of the way, and rising.

Diana gasped. “Is that a…?”

He nodded. “That’s a rig.”

“Comet, would seem to be,” said Caerlion.

Flint glanced at him. “How can you tell?”

“Twin exhaust plumes. Distinctive.”

Flint shook his head. The other rig was far off and flew too fast to make out any clear features. He leaned forward on the wheel, peered at it, and at last he made out a narrow sliver of air running up the middle of the rising column of dust. “Guess those glasses really work. If we were betting, I’d owe you a drink, Caerlion. I’ll buy you one anyway. If we live through this.”

The radio began to blink with a green light. Diana saw it first, and tapped Flint’s shoulder. “Look.” She half-turned towards him, but her eyes strayed back to the other rigs.

“Direct call,” said Flint. “One-to-one.” He hit the power button, and opened the private channel. “Yeah, you got me. Now what?”

A pause followed, and then he heard a familiar voice. “Flint.”

“Wurnech.”

The other man laughed. “Unless my memory has turned to syrupy goo, I seem to recall telling you to call me Vern.”

Flint grinned. “Just checking you’re not Blen Clavar trying to be clever.”

“The Clavars are not that subtle.”

“How are you here?”

“Heard you on the chat. Listen, shut up for a second, I can see how it is. The bastard’s got you pinned against the canyon, blah blah blah. I’ll come in and sweep around with the Comet. You use me for cover, and then I’ll shadow you as we head inland.”

Flint shook his head. “Blen wants blood by the pint, Vern. Mine, every last drop. The Comet’s fast but she’s kind of tiny.”

“Petite, I’ve always thought.”

“Fine, sure, she’s svelte. Point is, if Blen charges us, he’s likely to drive both rigs over the cliff.”

“Do you have a better plan?”

Flint smacked a fist down on the dash, and Diana flinched. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”

Vern chuckled. “Genuine and abiding curiosity. Now listen, here’s what-”

A light on the radio started to flash orange, and Diana patted Flint’s arm. He glanced at her, then at the radio, and then out of the window, and saw Old Horn shudder and rise from the ground. He stabbed a button on the radio, and started to speak. “Blen, wait-”

Blenner had already begun shouting. “…enough time already. I don’t care if you’re carrying a half-dozen kids, I gave you your chance, and now I’m gonna-”

Flint hit the power button. “So much for that, he said, and dropped into the pilot’s seat, fired up the engines, eased the Rhino into motion, and turned her right, to run parallel to the canyon. Something scraped the underside of the rig, and sent a vibration that Flint felt through his chair and the soles of his feet. He winced, and resisted the urge to shut down the turbine, and get out to check the damage. He didn’t dare to slow down, not then, even though every rigger’s instinct screamed at him for trying to take the Rhino over broken, rocky ground.

“Diana,” he said. “My hands are full. Take the chair and talk to Vern. Maybe you two can hammer this out.”

She sat down, then worked the radio and spoke into it, but no matter how she tried, she couldn’t get Vern back on the line. “I’m sorry, Flint.”

“Guess it’s a busy day all round.”

The Rhino built up speed, and stubby sandstone rocks rose and fell on the right, seeming to Flint like a mass of clouds stained red at sunset. He felt no surprise at the image; those cliffs meant death, and they all knew it. Another spur of rock jabbed up into the Rhino’s underside, and raised a shrill screech that set his teeth on edge. It gave him an idea, too, and he started to look for any taller spikes up ahead. He spotted a few coming up, and then he checked the screens, and saw Old Horn closing in on the left, and the Comet rushing in almost at right angles to the edge, sending up twin plumes of red dust as she went. He grimaced. “Tell Vern about the canyon.”

Diana kept her focus on the radio. “He knows.”

“Remind him.”

“He knows, he said so, you’ve just got to make enough space for him to shield us.”

Flint half-turned towards her, but another rock spur yanked his attention back to driving. “That’s never gonna work, girl. Have you even seen the Comet?”

“Stop telling me it’s a bad idea. I know it’s a bad idea, we’ve only got bad ideas. You have to try, Flint, please, you have to try.”

He took the wheel in both hands, pictured Blenner Clavar’s thick neck, and squeezed. “I’ve got a better idea,” he said, eyed the upcoming rocks, and slammed on full acceleration. The Rhino’s turbine roared as it spun up to full power, wind screamed across the diamond bubble, and the whole cabin vibrated.

“No, wait, stick with Vern’s plan,” yelled Diana.

Flint watched Old Horn creep closer in the rear screen. “Hold on tight,” he said, and rolled the wheel all the way to the right. The Rhino turned in a tight circle, and Flint prayed to the great rigger in the sky that he’d judged it right. The Rhino skimmed up the gentle slope of the sandstone lip, and the cockpit filled with blue sky and a blaze of sunlight as the rig faced heaven. It seemed to hang in the air, the breath caught in Flint’s throat, and Diana cursed his family all the way back to the garden, and then it swung around again and crashed down to the broad, reddish brown expanse of scrub-land that stretched back to the way. But Flint didn’t run this time. He held the wheel locked right, kept the rig turning, and found his target: Old Horn’s solid metal rear, her exhaust blasting out superheated steam that made the air ripple and coated the Rhino’s windows with a fine mist.

“The Comet’s getting closer,” said Diana.

Flint didn’t look away. He had to peer through the steam, and he had to get this right, because he knew it would never work a second time. He had managed to get luck and physics on his side, but Blen wouldn’t let himself be fooled again. The Rhino rushed at the other rig from a slight angle from left to right, and Blen must have seen it coming, because he started to pull away from the edge, but it was too late, and the Rhino crashed into Old Horn from the left, turning the other vehicle half around, giving the Rhino just enough room between rig and canyon to shoot past and take the lead again, but this time was different. Flint spun the wheel left, threw on the air brakes, and turned to watch the effect of his attack.

Old Horn spun in a lazy half-circle, her back-end fishtailed, and then the rig slammed sidelong into a tall upthrust rock spike. The rock exploded into red fragments, and Flint grimaced, afraid it would only slow the other rig down, but as he watched, the core of the spike ripped through a wing and bit deep into Old Horn’s side, and the rig, caught between rock and momentum, flipped up the air, to tumble down on her left side, crushing her remaining wing.

Diana started laughing and crying at the same time. “You did it, Flint, you did it.”

Flint said nothing, for in that moment he saw a second massive shape racing their way, sparkling like a diamond in the sun, twin exhaust plumes trailing from behind. “No, no, no,” he said, and shook his head. He reached for the radio but it happened too fast. As the Comet shot in, smoke began to billow out of Old Horn. The Comet jerked away, but then the hydrogen tanks in the burning rig must have ruptured, for it exploded with a blast that shoved the Rhino back several metres, and tossed her occupants around the cabin. When Flint picked himself up and looked out of the window, he saw the Comet flying their way, and it roared in so close he felt the Rhino’s frame shake with the wind of its passage, but what he saw chilled him to the spine. One of the titanium spikes that had given Blen’s rig its name had torn loose from the wreck, hurled by the explosion, and lanced through the Comet’s window. In the instant as it passed, Flint saw that spike had been driven right through the pilot’s chair, and right through the pilot. Vern stared at him with cold, fixed eyes, in a moment of icy, immeasurable pain. Then the Comet flew past, straight as the great way, and he watched it in the rear screen, until the canyon curved around to the left, and the rig hurtled into the air. For brief seconds it soared, and then it fell from sight.

 

Chapter 5

 

Flint stood on the red rocks at the edge of the canyon and stared down into the deep gulf, frowning as he sought to make out even the slightest hint of motion in the smoky black wreck below. Something felt broken inside him, smashed apart and smouldering like the burning pieces of the Comet. Tendrils of smoke wafted up the canyon and brought him an acrid smell, a combination of scorched hair, burnt plastic and choking ozone. He ignored the stink and kept watching. Diana came and tried to pull him away but he barely noticed her, and she vanished back to the rig. He held his watch as the sun fell behind him, and cast his shadow, long and dark, over the canyon. By then shadows had already wrapped the Comet’s remains in a thick dark shroud, but still, small fires glowed like distant stars. When his shadow fell across the canyon, those fires diminished, and at last they faded away, leaving nothing more than a smoky tang that lingered in his nose and throat. When at last he looked up, Flint couldn’t tell where his shadow ended and the night began, or if it extended all the way from his body to the far side of the canyon. In some obscure sense he felt it had to, that his shadow had to reach that far, for in shadows his friend lay, and perhaps his hope lay there too, for he felt his hope had left him, lost in the fall, but if his shadow could cross the canyon, perhaps his hope could too, and find something better than this chilling emptiness in the night, for the night itself was the world’s shadow, and only at night did the dark sky sparkle with ten thousand adamantine suns.

With that wish, he slipped off his old leather jacket, and looked down into the abyss. “Warmth, Vern.” He threw the jacket into the depths, and it vanished. Then he turned his back and walked, stiff and weak, to the Rhino, where he sat in the pilot’s seat, the cockpit unlit, switched on all the external lights, fired up the turbine, and took the Rhino slowly, slowly, back across the rocky scrub-land to the way. Once he got the smooth black surface under the rig, he aimed the machine northeast, following the line of the way and the route of the race, and locked it on the cruise setting. Then he started to rise to take a long hot shower, when fatigue overwhelmed him, and he fell back in the chair, and slid down into the warm dark silence of sleep.

 

+

 

Hands reached down in the dark waters where he floated, lifted him high in the air, into a place of light and screeching. He tried to tear free and dive back down, but the hands shook him harder, and the noise resolved into a high-pitched voice calling his name over and over. He woke with a gasp, eyes wide and bleary, and found Diana leaning over him, clutching the lapels of his blue shirt, and shouting into his face. “Flint, thank God you’re awake, look!”

He blinked several times, pushed her aside, grabbed the wheel, and scanned the way ahead, certain there had to be a rock rushing up to smash them. He even imagined, in his half-awake state, that Blenner had somehow come back from the dead, and was now hurtling down on them in a flaming rig from hell.

Nothing.

His brows furrowed as he scoured the way for an obstacle, another rig, anything that would explain Diana’s frantic efforts to wake him. At last he shook his head. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing to see.”

She pressed her lips together in a tight line, and rolled her eyes. “Not out there. Here,” she said, and jabbed a finger against the gauges behind the wheel.

Flint wiped sleep from his eyes, leaned forward, and peered at the fuel gauge. “Oh shit.”

“Right?”

“Three percent? Are you fucking kidding me?”

She gasped. “That’s a bad word Flint.”

“Yeah, sorry, but three percent? Are you f-”

“Flint! Stop cursing and do something.”

He looked from the fuel gauge to her worried red eyes, and out at the rolling black length of the way, and when that gave him no comfort, he looked further afield, at the grassy plain that extended on the left, and the thick dark forest that rose up the hill slopes on the right. He shook his head. “Oh, this is not good.”

“We need water, right? There must be a place we can go.”

He rubbed his jaw. “Not anywhere good.”

She put a hand on his shoulder. “How bad can it be?”

“You remember the burned streak I showed you? On the tail?”

Her mouth fell open, and, wordless, she dropped into the copilot’s seat.

He nodded. “Right.”

“If we run into one of those, those fire monsters, the Rhino could… We could…” She put her fists together, and then spread her arms out, fingers splayed. “Boom.”

“You saw what happened to Blenner’s rig.”

She put her hands in her lap. “What choice do we have?”

He eyed the fuel gauge, certain it would tick down any second. “We could set the rig down right here, call for help.”

“Wait, you mean.”

“It might be okay, but…”

“You’re not Mr Popular right now.”

“Not right now. And even if someone did listen, there’s an even chance they’d think it’s a trick to get an edge in the race. We’d get picked up eventually, but it’d be a long wait, with very little to drink.”

She made a fist, and punched her palm. “You’re the rigger, Flint. You’re supposed to know what to do.”

“Diana, I know what to do. I just don’t like it.”

She looked up at him, her red eyes shining with tears, and Flint saw how young and scared she was. “This hasn’t been like I expected.”

Flint felt his throat tighten. “This hasn’t been like I expected either, Diana.” He looked out of the window, trying to blink away the moisture that welled up in his eyes. “Sometimes the way is kind, and sometimes she stabs you in the foot with a rusty nail.”

“Two percent, Flint. What are you going to do?”

He ground his teeth together. “I’m going to get us some fucking water.” He turned the rig right, and Diana screamed as he drove it straight at a grove of tall old oak trees. He held course, and gave an exultant shout as the Rhino smashed through the trees, spraying bark and wood pulp in all directions. Then he sent the rig forward and up the gentle slope, crashing through trees as she went.

“Flint,” Diana cried, “what are you doing?”

“There’s a valley on the other side of this hill,” he yelled over the sounds of destruction. “We don’t have time to go around, so we’re taking a shortcut.”

“What about the fire monster? You said they live in standing water, not rivers.”

He sucked air through his teeth. “Yeah, there’s a lake somewhere around here too.”

“Somewhere?”

“Wish me luck.”

She buried her head in her hands, and he plowed on through the forest.

 

+

 

Soon the Rhino crested the rise and began to move downhill, but still the trees rose thick ahead and around, blocking the way, and casting deep gloom that seemed to creep inside the cockpit and made Flint switch on the rig’s headlights. This did little to improve visibility, and it had the perverse effect of casting shadows among the trees ahead, that rippled and danced as the rig rushed down upon them. And then the rig smashed through the last line of trees, and burst out into a clear grassy slope.

Flint pursed his lips. “Oh.”

Diana peered at him through interlaced fingers. “What is it, Flint? It’s bad, isn’t it?”

He shook his head. “Look for yourself.” He cut power, and eased the rig down the slope.

Diana raised her head and looked out of the window, and Flint knew she had seen it too. The grassy slope led down to a broad, weed-choked bank beside a wide flowing river. To the right it flowed down at a gentle angle until it swept left with the valley, and disappeared behind the hills on the far side. On the left she saw a high rock cliff, and watched water pour down from that height, to fall in a white spray that danced with rainbows, and massed in foam where it fed the river. Her jaw fell slack, and she gasped. “I’ve never seen that.” She turned to Flint, her eyes shining. “I’ve read about them in books, but I’ve never seen one.”

He set the Rhino down by the water, facing upriver, so they could take in the waterfall. Then he killed the engines, sat back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his head, and sighed. “Something good,” he said. “Makes a nice change.”

She couldn’t take her eyes off the sparkling water. “It’s so beautiful.”

He grinned. “Remember this, Diana. Something to tell your grandchildren.”

“I wish I could show all the children.”

Flint put a hand over his mouth, rubbed his jaw, and felt his hand rasp on thick stubble. Then he stood up and started for the door.

Diana half-turned to him, but her eyes remained locked on the scene outside. “Must we leave this so soon?”

He leaned against the door. “You can do what you want. I’m going to take a shower, and then I’m going to have me some breakfast.”

Then she looked up at him. “Breakfast?”

“I haven’t eaten anything since we had those pastries at Smelt, and someone stole mine before I could finish it.”

She gazed up at him with a smile playing around her lips. “Flint, let’s not fight over the past.”

He rolled his eyes and turned away. “You owe me a pastry.”

 

+

 

Flint stood over the electric stove and slapped strips of bacon down on the stainless steel pan. The meat began to sizzle, and a delicious aroma filled the air. His stomach tightened, a wave of dizziness washed over him, and he put a hand on the counter to steady himself. Then he straightened up, cracked a couple of eggs, and tossed them in the pan. He sliced up some tomatoes and threw them in, too, and then he whipped up some hash browns and pancakes. Finally he made a huge pot of strong, black coffee, closed his eyes, and let the rich, mouthwatering mix of scents flow into and through him. Then he called the others, and they sat around the little fold-out table. Diana perched on a green canvas folding chair he’d pulled out of a box in the hold, while Flint and Caerlion occupied the two heavy mahogany chairs. But for a few perfunctory words of polite greeting, they ate in silence, absorbed in the meal. Flint demolished his bacon and hash browns, and he fought Diana over the pancakes, while Caerlion concentrated on the eggs and fried tomatoes.

Sated at last, Flint sat back in his chair, clasped his warm coffee cup close to his face, and savoured the fragrance. Then he let the hot bitter liquid flow across his tongue and down his throat, felt heat spread throughout his body, felt his vision sharpen, and his mind quicken. He watched the other two over the rim of his cup, Caerlion, now in a pressed burgundy suit with a sea-blue shirt and a green bow tie, sipping his coffee and writing notes on a small pad of yellow paper. Flint looked at Diana, who had sulked when he’d given her milk instead of coffee, but clapped her hands when he’d let her pour honey on her pancakes. She had exchanged her white dress for a pair of worn, patched blue jeans and a cream blouse, and she’d tied her hair back into a ponytail. She still wore her old pink sneakers, though. Flint loved his leathers, but after he’d tossed the jacket into the canyon, he didn’t feel good about wearing the trousers, and besides, he’d been wearing the same blue shirt since before the race. He’d swapped them for a pair of khaki combat trousers and a black cotton shirt, and he’d pulled out his backup pair of black leather boots; although they were about as worn as the other pair, they were much less sweaty.

They all sat together, eating, drinking, calm and comfortable, and Flint felt tranquility grow in him, a warm, rising feeling, as if gravity had loosened its grip, and let him float, buoyant, towards the smiling sun. He remembered his plan, when he’d walked out of the gathering. He remembered his dream of racing free across the inland way, no cares but the needs of his rig and his belly, running with the sun, sleeping with the moon. He seemed to have caught a fragment of that dream, the feeling of it, alive in a splinter of time. But his mind, awake now, moved fast, too fast, and he saw the sharp, jagged edge approaching. How long could he enjoy this, an hour? A day? Then he would have to do something about Diana. He found he could no longer think of her as ‘the girl’, for in the short time they’d run together, they’d been through more madness than he usually saw in a year. She’d make a good rigger, perhaps, but that day lay far in the future, and he had to do something about her today, tomorrow, and every day until he found her a place to stay. As for her tutor… He had no idea what to think of Caerlion. The man seemed so awkward in speech, and yet he seemed to float through stress and danger, as if they didn’t quite penetrate to his depths.

Or, mused Flint, as if he had none.

He caught Diana watching him, light glinting in her eyes. “You were far away there, Flint,” she said. “But then you came back, and you got that look again.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “I never left my seat. What look are you talking about?”

Her face pinched with a show of concentration. “It’s like when we were running from…”

He didn’t need her to tell him. “That rig.”

“That rig, yeah, and you sort of hunched up and your eyes got sort of tight, like you were a hunted rabbit.”

“I’m no rabbit.”

“Rhino, then. Lions hunt rhinos, don’t they?”

He noticed Caerlion watching them from lowered eyes. “Not if they’re smart, they don’t.”

She chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you proved that. You’re dangerous when you run, Flint. You should race, really race. I bet you’d show the other riggers what for.”

He drained his coffee, set the mug down, and stood up. “That’s as may be, little girl, but we’re not going to show anyone anything until we take on some water.”

Her eyes flashed at the slight, but she rose too. “So what are you waiting for, rigger?”

 

+

 

Diana shrieked, and Flint looked up from the pump that snaked into the sparkling river, grabbed his blackthorn stick, followed Diana’s pointing finger, and scanned the treeline. He frowned. “Don’t see anything.”

She kept her eyes on the trees. “Someone’s watching us, Flint.”

“Not saying you’re wrong, there are folks who live in these woods, but they’re shy.”

She flicked her eyes at the length of blackthorn in his hands. “Then why do you have the stick?”

He hefted the weapon. “Mostly shy.”

They stood watching the trees for a minute or so, and then Flint set his stick down against a broad flat rock near the river, and watched the instruments on the pump. After a few minutes more, Diana came over, sat on the rock, and watched him. The pump extended from a hatch in the Rhino’s grey hide near the right rear fin, a thick black tube wrapped in fine silver wire, passed through a bulky control unit, and stretched out again to end in a round metallic intake that now lay submerged, a faint ripple in the flowing water the only sign it gave as it drank from the river.

Diana’s brow wrinkled as she eyed the river. “If there are people living here, how do we know that water’s clean?”

Flint kept his eyes on the gauges. They had drained the Rhino’s tanks, and he could see it was going to be a long wait before they could hit the way. “It’ll be fine,” he murmured.

“But don’t they, you know, do things… In the water?”

A grin rolled across his lips. He tried to suppress it, but the harder he tried, the wider he beamed.

She pouted. “Don’t laugh at me.”

He got his face under control and looked her in the eyes. “Diana, the people who live here are smart enough not to foul their own water. Besides, the Rhino filters and cleans everything I put in her tanks. You can’t risk running some weird old-world chemical through the turbine, and you can’t risk drinking bad water when you’re alone on the way, far from the city, far from anyone who can help.”

She folded her arms. “Hmm.”

“Actually, water on a rig is as clean and pure as anything you’ll get back home. Where do you think Bay City’s water comes from?”

“Yeah, I know, we get it from the sea at Glory Point. That’s not what I want to know. We’re out here now, away from the race, away from my uncle, away from…” She glanced back at the rig.

“Caerlion.”

“Shh!”

He put his hands up in mock surrender.

She took a deep breath, and gave him a serious look. “There’s water here, and trees, maybe there’s fruit, or wild animals, you know, something to eat.”

“Not long since breakfast. You getting hungry already?”

She shook her head, turned her back on him, and started to pace, gesturing at the trees. “You could cut down some of them, build a house right here, on the river bank, with a little garden over there, and maybe some little houses for chickens or pigs or cows over this way.”

He raised an eyebrow. “This is a shallow bank, and it’s covered with dry, dead reeds.”

She turned back to face him. “So?”

“River’s flooded recently, and drowned this whole area. Then it shrank back down, and the sun came out, and left a nice dry bank for us to settle the rig on. You build a house here, you’d better make sure it floats.”

Her face turned red, and her eyes shone with tears. She whirled around, and walked towards the trees. “I thought you were different,” she said, “I thought you understood, but you’re just another bossy grown-up.”

He winced, and his hands grasped at the air. “Diana…”

She yelped, spun round, and ran back towards him.

“Diana?”

She collided with him, wrapped her left arm around his waist, and thrust the other back the way she’d came. “There, there, I told you I saw someone.”

Flint looked up and saw a figure emerge from the shadowed forest edge, a small girl with thick blue braids, a rough leather skirt and jacket, and eyes of jade. She carried a short trident in one hand, and had a sack of woven reeds across her back.

The girl gazed at them down the bank, mouth closed, eyes narrow. Flint hushed Diana, and they watched as she walked to the river, waded into the cool clear, waters, raised her trident, and plunged it down, to lift it again, a wriggling fish impaled on the weapon’s teeth. She grinned at them, put the creature into her sack, repeated the hunt two more times, and then slipped away up the bank and back into the forest.

Diana let go of Flint, brushed her blouse, and sat on the rock next to his stick. “I didn’t expect that.”

He shook his head. “Me neither.”

“Where was it?”

“What?”

She reached into her blouse, and pulled out the fine gold necklace she wore, and the diamond that hung upon it. “This, Flint. Where was her jewel?”

His jaw tightened. “Put that away.”

“Why? Is it dangerous? Will they stab me with their little fishing spears to get it?”

He spoke through clenched teeth. “They don’t need those things out here.”

“But-”

He stood tall and glared down at her. “They may not live in cities, but the forest folk are civilised. They don’t sell their children. They don’t hang a tag around their daughter’s necks and say my girl is worth one ruby.”

“Or one diamond?”

“Or one diamond.”

She swallowed, and tucked the necklace away.

He leaned over her, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen, you want to be free? You want to be wild, like they are? Toss that chain in the river.”

She pulled back. “Flint, I-”

“Thought of river, good to see.” The man spoke from behind Flint, and closer than he liked.

“Caerlion,” he let go of Diana, turned, and faced the man. “Thought you were planning a history lesson.”

“Ethics, perhaps, next on agenda. Professional ethics.”

Flint’s eyes narrowed. “How about equality? How about class struggle?”

Diana made a small noise. “Um, Flint…”

Caerlion showed him the trace of a smile. “Fascinating topic, fascinating. Begin with Sparta. Who plays the helot, who the warrior lord?”

“You’re the tutor, Caerlion. You tell me.”

“Flint, look over there.”

“Hold on Diana,” he said, holding Caerlion’s gaze. “I want to hear this.”

“Flint, look. Look, look over there!”

He frowned and turned away from the tutor, and then he gasped. Over where the little fisher girl had disappeared, a large group of wildlanders emerged from the trees, their eyes hard, and their trident blades gleaming.

 

+

 

Flint’s eyes widened when he saw the forest people, and he made calming gestures to his companions. Diana leapt from her rock, and started to run for the rig. Flint shouted and tried to grab her, but she got past him, and then Caerlion glided after her, flicked one arm at her shoulder, and spun her around. He gripped her by the wrist and ponytail, and held her in place.

“Let me go,” she said, and strained against his holds, then winced when he pulled her head back.

“Rigger seems to think running not in order.”

Flint closed in, stick in his hands. “That’s enough, Caerlion.”

“Misunderstanding?”

Flint rolled his eyes. “I wanted to keep thing calm, not have you torture the girl. Now who knows what they’ll think?”

Caerlion sniffed. “Calm, hear that girl? Calm.” He let her go, stepped back, and adjusted his green bow tie.

Diana stalked away from him, her face reddened, her jaw clamped shut, and tears streamed down her face. Flint put himself between her and her tutor, and put a consoling hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. He glanced from her to Caerlion and back, brow wrinkled, trying to understand what had happened. Caerlion had always given off this strange, otherworldly vibe, as if he’d been frozen a thousand years in the past, and part of his brain hadn’t thawed. He’d always treated Diana as if he were the polite ambassador of a powerful nation, dictating terms to a tiny island state, but he’d never used force on her.

Not when I was there to see it, he thought. Maybe this explained why she had started discussing cyanide and hemlock as soon as she’d boarded the Rhino. He’d thought it was a joke, but now…

But now the forest people walked up and raised their tridents overhead. He saw Diana swallow, and Caerlion turned pale, but Flint raised his blackthorn stick in imitation of the newcomers, and met their jade gaze with amber. They held that pose like a tableau from one of the old tales, until the forest people beamed at him, lowered their tridents, and wrapped themselves around Flint, chattering, all of them trying to pat him on the back at the same time.

“Firestone,” said the tallest among them, a woman with intricate blue braids and a long black snake tattoo that ran from her brow, down her face and neck, under her brown leather jacket, and down and around her arms, to end in a tail on her left palm, and a snake head with gaping jaws on her right. “Back so soon. I bet Greyface a basket of fish you’d return before the rains.”

“Looks like he’ll finally have to fix his trident, Blacksnake. Or has he finished already?”

She shook her head. “We still have the metal you brought us.” She showed him the long steel teeth of her trident, and the etched snake that danced up them. “But he prefers to sit under the trees, and tell the children stories of the old world.”

The forest people huddled around Diana and Caerlion, and while the tutor looked uneasy, the girl pushed her way to Flint’s side and looked up at the rigger. “What is going on here, Flint?”

“Yes,” said Blacksnake, in a tone that Flint recognised as mock serious. “How dare you smash a path through our ancient trees, and, worse yet, bring outsiders into our sacred forest?”

Diana folded her arms across her chest, and slid behind Flint.

He caught the older woman’s eye. “Knock it off, Blacksnake.” He sighed. “Sorry about the trees, though. Okay Diana, say hello to Blacksnake, chief of the forest people. And Blacksnake, meet Diana Ambrel, daughter of the late Buck Ambrel, President of Bay City, and a damn fine rigger in his day.”

Blacksnake’s eyes hardened as she looked down at Diana, and raised her trident overhead. Diana stiffened, and then she drew herself up, and raised her first in the air. Blacksnake showed her a bright smile, threw her arms around the girl, and hugged her. “You are as welcome as water in the desert, Diana Ambrel. Your father was known to us, and I am sorry, so very sorry, to hear of his passing.”

Diana tried to say something in return, but her words were choked by sobs, tears welled up in her eyes and flooded down her face, and she held onto Blacksnake, and wept.

 

+

 

Flint mused on the transformation he’d seen come over Diana, half-listening to the chatter of the forest people as they led him and his charges up a trail through the woods to a flat, bowl-shaped area partway up the hill, which concealed a collection of long wooden cabins, each one strengthened here and there by lengths of salvaged metal pipes, and the whole sealed with multiple layers of translucent blue plastic sheeting. Soft grass grew underfoot, and the air carried a complex aroma of moss, pine resin, and baking bread. The smells made his mouth water, and the fresh loaves brought out by the villagers to welcome their guests woke up his stomach. He thanked them for the gift, joined the others at a long table in the sun, near the middle of the village, and chewed the warm, moist bread as he considered his young charge. When he’d met her she had danced across the Rhino with a wild, devil-may-care attitude. When they’d fought with Blen Clavar, she had stayed calmer than most folks would, and probably saved his life, and she had definitely saved the Rhino from dying of thirst just a few hours back. She might have sniped at him from time to time, but she had borne the pressure of their journey without cracking, and then, with a few words and an embrace from Blacksnake, she had broken down and cried like a child, and now, her tears drained, she chased and danced and played with the village children like one of their own. He realised how much of a strain she must have been under, in an adult world that had taken her father’s life, and tried to take hers, too.

With luck, the worst of that was over, he thought, and they could trail along the rest of the race, touch ground at Glory Point, and he could deliver her back to the waiting arms of her family, and then he would be free to go his way. But some thorn dug into him, a pain he couldn’t identify. The more he considered how she had talked, and how Caerlion had acted, he felt a growing unease with the idea of simply taking her home. But however he felt, she was a child, and her family was waiting for her back in the bay, and who was he to deprive them of a daughter, a niece, based on a vague sense of discomfort?

A girl squealed. “Uncle Firestone!”

He looked up from his half-eaten bread, and saw a small figure with braided blonde hair and copper eyes jumping and waving at him with a blunt toy trident. As he watched, she dropped the toy and came running his way. He made it to his feet before she slammed into him and threw her arms around his waist. He gave her an embarrassed smile, and patted her head. “It’s good to see you, Caldy.”

“I missed you so much, Uncle Firestone.” She looked up at him. “Did you bring any pancakes?”

“I… Sort of?” He scratched his head.

“Caldy?” Diana left the group of children she’d been playing with, and walked over to them. “Caldonia Clavar?” The girl turned to her, and said nothing when she took her hands in her own. “Oh, what happened to your arms?” She turned them over, and examined the pink, tender skin, where some rough fibre had bitten deep into the girl’s wrists perhaps a week before. The girl stiffened, and started to cry.

Diana put her hands over her mouth. “I’m sorry! Did I say something wrong?”

“Caldonia,” called a woman with a rich contralto voice.

Caldy ran across to her, and grabbed her hands. “She said… She saw my…”

“I know, Caldy,” said the woman, crouching down to wipe her face with a green silk handkerchief. “She didn’t mean anything by it. She’s a friend, Suzy Ambrel’s girl. Come on,” she led Caldy by the hand, back to the long table, where Diana and Flint stood watching. The woman wore her golden hair long and loose, her blue dress rippled as she walked, and her copper eyes shone with warmth as she locked eyes with Flint. “It’s a pleasure, Flint,” she said, and took his hand and squeezed it. In that moment, the long sleeve of her dress slipped down her arm, and Flint saw Diana flinch when she noticed the same marks on the woman’s wrists. Then the newcomer turned to Diana. “I’m Tessa. It’s delightful to see someone from the bay all the way out here in the wild lands,” she said. “But whatever are you doing in the company of this crazy rigger?”

Diana stared up at her, mouth hanging wide, then she shook herself and started to say something, but the words wouldn’t come, and she chewed her lip, and shook her head. Flint patted her on the shoulder. “It’s alright, Diana. It’s a lot to tell.” He caught Tessa’s eye, invited her and the others to sit with him, and began to speak. “Diana here is my charge. We’re running the presidential race, Tessa.” Once he started to tell it, the words poured out in a torrent, and when the villagers noticed, they crowded in to hear the story, someone handed him a rough home-brewed beer, and he found himself carried away by the events of the tale, until an hour had passed, and the shadows had begun to grow between the cabins. “And by now, unless the river has frozen over or turned to sand, the Rhino will have drunk her fill and be ready to go.”

“But you can’t go now,” said Tessa. “It’s late, and it’s a long walk down to the river. You must eat with us, stay for the night. You’re in no rush, as I understand it.”

Flint looked at Diana, and saw a big smile creep across her face. He turned back to Tessa. “Couldn’t turn down that kind of hospitality, Tessa.”

She beamed. “Then it’s settled.”

A voice sounded in the following silence. “Settled, definitively, it is not.”

Flint looked up to see Caerlion standing at the end of the table, arms crossed, and the falling sun at his back turned his burgundy suit black, and made his bald head shine red, so he seemed like a shadow with a crimson halo. The sight disturbed Flint, both in that it he saw no reason for the tutor to object to a single night’s rest, unless he was allergic to nature, or something, but also on a deeper level that he couldn’t quite express. “Caerlion, sit down, have a beer, and try to enjoy yourself. Take it as a learning experience.”

“Waste of time. Not acceptable.”

Flint rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine, you go on down to the Rhino and start up the engines. Oh, wait, I forgot… You can’t, can you? You can’t even open the door. That’s right, Caerlion, I’m the rigger, not you, and I say we enjoy this chance, because the way is long, and friends are far and few.”

Caerlion sighed. “Like you, really do. Not personal. Schedule, see? Can’t be late.”

“What are you talki-”

Caerlion unfolded his arms and revealed a stubby black L-shaped object, which he pointed at Flint.

Flint wrinkled his brow. “What does that do?”

Diana pounded the table with her fist. “Flint, I know what that is.”

His eyes strayed to her and back to Caerlion. “I’m as confused as a bee in a bottle. Someone want to tell me what’s going on?”

Caerlion shot Diana a cold smile. “Proceed.”

She wrinkled her nose. “It’s a gun, Flint.”

“A gun? I said you read too many books. There aren’t any more guns. Nobody knows how to make them any more.”

“People, no,” said Caerlion, “but maker machines, yes.”

Flint shook his head, bemused. “You can’t expect me to take this seriously. I know all of the maker families, and none of them make guns. There’s only one guy who even makes knives, and when his machine finally breaks we’ll have to cut our food with chipped glass.”

“Other machines,” said Caerlion. “Other places. Rigger found them, brought back. Just a few. Need more. Sent me. Pay, load, carry home.”

“In your rig, Flint,” said Diana. “He wants to take them back in your rig.”

Flint kept shaking his head. “No, no… This is a lot of nonsense. There aren’t any guns any more. That’s just a toy. You’re playing make-believe, Caerlion. Obviously, being tutor to the President’s daughter isn’t exciting enough for you.”

Caerlion laughed. “Blindness and insight, curious mix. Not everyone needs excitement, rigger.” He pointed the thing at Diana’s head. “Gamble?”

Flint’s mouth went dry. “Your game’s gone far enough.”

Caerlion swung the thing at an empty chair, a blast sounded like thunder, and the chair exploded in a cloud of splinters. Flint’s ears rang with the noise, and the villagers leapt up and ran in all directions. He started to rise, but then Caerlion turned the weapon his way, and he froze. The tutor mouthed something, but Flint couldn’t hear a word. Caerlion frowned, and then he motioned for Flint and Diana to get up and walk back to the trees, and the path down to the rig.

Flint stood, dazed, as if the world had turned inside out. For a moment he forgot where he was and how he’d got there. Then he saw Diana rise from her seat, and he knew he had to do something, had to stop Caerlion, or slow him down enough to give her a chance to get away, because if he let him take them back down to the rig, they would be locked in a box with a madman. It seemed that one of the villagers felt the same way, for in that moment a trident flew across the clearing, aimed at Caerlion’s chest. The tutor must have caught the flash of motion from the corner of his eye, for he ducked and turned, and deflected the weapon with his arm, although one steel blade, etched with a snake, ripped the arm of his suit jacket, and blood welled up from the cut. The sight galvanised Flint, and he snatched up a chair and hurled it at Caerlion, who snarled with pain from the first attack, and failed to react as quickly this time. The wooden chair struck him in the face and chest, and he fell backwards. Flint sprinted forward, saw Caerlion roll back with his fall, and come up on his feet, gun raised. Flint dove under the weapon, heard a second blast, felt the wind as it tore the air over his head, and then he drove his shoulder into Caerlion’s gut. The two men tumbled and rolled, Flint landed on top, got one hand under the tutor’s gun arm, forced it up so the weapon pointed, useless, at the sky, and hammered punches at Caerlion’s face, but the tutor thrashed his head like a snake, dodging the worst of the blows, then thrust the stiff fingers of his left hand into Flint’s throat. Flint gagged, choked, reeled away, and in that moment Caerlion slipped free, sprang to his feet, raised the gun high, and swung it down against Flint’s head.

Stars burst behind Flint’s eyes, and faded as he felt himself fall into a gaping abyss.

 

Chapter 6

 

A fist of cold water struck him in the face, and he gasped, cursed, rose to his feet, and then stood and peered about in the darkness, for the night lay heavy on the world, and the stars had disappeared. He wiped water off his face, blinked, and narrowed his eyes, trying to catch any hint of light in the surrounding gloom.

“Awake at last,” said a familiar voice. “Your sleep was heavier than your body.”

“Caerlion.” Memories flooded back, images, a flashing trident, carved snakes drinking blood, a gun, a blast, fingers like stone in his throat. He raised his fists and whipped around, looking for a target.

“Don’t bother, rigger, I can see you, but you can’t see me, not in this place. You’ve lived all your life in that comfortable, well-lit box with wings. I was born out here, in the darkness, in the silence.”

It hurt when he spoke, and his words came out like rough stones grinding together. “Caerlion, if I wanted your life story, I’d…” He frowned. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you talking like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like a normal person.”

Caerlion chuckled. “It’s dark, and we’re all alone.”

A chill settled on Flint. “Diana.”

“Hmm. Safe, Flint, for now. Her future state depends very much on you.”

Flint cursed at him. “This is beyond a joke, Caerlion. What have you done to her? What about Blacksnake’s friends? Did you… You haven’t…”

“Perhaps I killed them all for sport.”

Flint squeezed his eyes shut, and put his face in his hands. His head began to hurt, an ache that started at his swollen right temple, and ran deep inside his skull. “No. No, you can’t have.”

Caerlion laughed again. “We have this chance, let’s not waste it on those savages.”

“They’re not-”

Caerlion’s voice rose. “They’re whatever I say they are, rigger. Until the sun rises and makes us equals, weapons notwithstanding, your world is mine.”

Flint turned this way and that, though every motion cost him a spike of pain in his head, but the shadows told him nothing, and at last he knew that Caerlion had snared him. He couldn’t find the man, and he couldn’t find much of anything else. He was at the treacherous faux-tutor’s mercy, and yet it seemed the man didn’t want to spike him and drain out his blood. Perhaps if he talked with Caerlion he might figure out his position by sound, get close enough to put his hands on the beast. Words, he decided, yes, words might get him a better chance than flailing at the dark.

He lowered his fists, and stood, upright and still, let the darkness settle on him, thick with the odours of damp bark and rotting leaves. “You woke me. You want to talk, Caerlion.”

“Ah, some intelligent behaviour at last. Rare and wonderful pleasure- Damn! I’m doing it again, now, when we’re alone, and you can’t even see me.”

Flint wrinkled his brow. “I don’t…” He shook his head, unsure how to articulate his current state of perplexed fury.

“No, you don’t,” said Caerlion. “That’s the point, and I have kept it sharp, so very sharp. Do you know what it’s like, pretending to be something you’re not?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that I do.”

“’Wouldn’t say that I do’,” said Caerlion in a mocking tone. “You do it all the time. All of you. You lie to each other and you lie to yourselves. And then I come among you, and find I have to lie for my own protection. Lie every day, act, play the fool, and all of it so stupid I could cut my tongue just to taste something real.”

Flint felt cold when he heard the flood of words, and the current of anger that swept them along. “You’re not just a tutor, are you?”

“Oh, you can do better than that, rigger.”

“You’re not even from the bay.”

“The brightest star shines in the darkest night. Bravo, rigger. You’ve got a little snip of brain between those swinging fists.”

Flint ground his teeth together. “Is this why you brought me here? So you could spray insults at me?”

“At you? No. You’re a sideshow. No, I want to, hah, ‘spray insults’ at your dear and beloved city. I want to see what they are, what they really are, in the long, dark night.” Caerlion took a short, sharp breath. “I’ll give you a choice, Flint. We’re not far from your rig. You can leave, just climb in the thing, and run along free.”

His heart jumped, but he suppressed his excitement. “The price, Caerlion. There’s always a price.”

“Yes… You can go, but the dear little thing stays with me.”

He dug his nails into his palm. “You sick… What do you want from her?”

“Not your concern, rigger.”

“If I left, took the Rhino, you’d be stuck here, and Blacksnake and her friends would hunt you down.”

“Are you sure you know everything about me?”

He considered the ways that Caerlion had surprised him. “…no. But it wouldn’t make your life easier.”

“Not your concern. One more chance, rigger. Take the Rhino, go, never look back, never dream of coming back. Put the sea in your rear screen, set your turbine to full thrust, and run to the place where the land and sky meet.”

He considered it. Caerlion was offering him his wish, his dream, the freedom he’d longed for. He’d meant to run, back at the city, until the girl had shown up early and crawled all over his rig, and since then, in one twisted corner of his mind he’d been figuring and scheming how to get rid of her and her tutor, how to dump them, safely, of course, but dump them all the same, and leave the race, and the city, far behind. His shoulders tightened and his palms began to sweat as he imagined it, the open way before him, no cares, no burdens, no more golden chains. But then he remembered how the slavers had attacked him, had raided Brock Tiller’s outpost while he was taking on bacon, eggs, and flour. He saw again how he’d smashed the raider’s face with his blackthorn, and seen the golden necklace, the red ruby flash at the man’s throat. Madness had fallen upon him and he’d driven them off, forced the bejeweled one onto his rig, and beaten him until he’d shown him the way to their camp. Flint remembered how the raiders had scattered when he’d swept down on them in the Rhino, how none had resisted when he’d found the prisoners, the woman and the child, bound at the wrists and chained in wire cages. He knew he would never forget that image, would die before he let it fade. He had been far from the city then, and still it had found him.

Tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his face, mingling with the sweat that had blossomed across his skin. He wiped them away, and took a deep breath. “If you want to kill me, Caerlion, this is the best chance you will ever have. If not, you had best let that girl go, because I’m not leaving this forest without her.”

Caerlion sighed. “I worried about you, Flint. I really thought you’d run, I really did.”

“I don’t need your worries. Are you going to let her go?”

“Well… The second choice, you see, is that you drive me, and yes, the lovely Diana too, to a very particular spot.”

“This where you’re going to load up the Rhino with more guns?” He shivered at the thought.

“Now now, that’s not-”

“My concern, yeah, I get it. But you have to at least tell me where you want to go.”

“East.”

“East is big.”

“We can get into specifics later.”

Flint massaged the back of his neck. “So I take you east, you give me directions, and when we get to the right place, you do your deal, and I take Diana and fly off into the sunset, that about it?”

Caerlion snorted. “Too syrupy for my tastes.”

Flint’s hands itched to throttle the fake tutor. “Do we have a deal?”

“Before I answer, remember one thing, Flint. I am not Burl Clavar. I have the gun, and I’m faster and more… More primitive than you. Turn against me, show the slightest sign of it, and I will blast a hole in your skull and suck out your brains. And then, whatever happens to dear little Di will be on your hands.”

Flint closed his eyes, but nothing changed. The surrounding darkness flowed into him. Inescapable, it pervaded him. He could run, but the darkness had found a place inside him, a weakness within, and it would ride with him, an endless, secret night.

“What do you say, rigger?”

“Fine. Give me your hand so I can shake it.”

Caerlion laughed. “Wonderful. No. Give me your word.”

And Flint, ashamed and bitter, did.

 

+

 

He seemed to float through the darkness on a wave of shame, thick and slimy as rancid milk and the congealing humours of a rack of cracked eggs. He could barely look at Diana when Caerlion led him to her, and he seemed to sleepwalk back to the Rhino, and went through the motions of retracting the pump, warming up the engines, and driving her back down the path of shattered trees to the way.

When at last they were skimming along the way, the surface as dark as the sky above, Caerlion beamed. “Shower, now,” he said, standing behind Flint’s chair. “And sleep.”

Diana sat in the copilot’s seat, her eyes closed, breath slow and even.

“What’s wrong with you now, Caerlion? All your secrets are out. I know you can talk like a real human,” said Flint, eyes on the way ahead.

“One secret, two,” said Caerlion, “more to come, perhaps. Now listen, sir. No internal locks here, no bulkheads, no surprise traps. Shower, my plan, then rest, then all, back together for delicious hot breakfast. But mark, rigger, mark… The gun is here, and fast hands, and cruel vengeance for false dealing.”

Flint rubbed his eyes. “I gave you my word. Play it straight with me and we’ll get along fine.”

“Should hearts change, remember… Bullets will pierce these internal walls.” He leaned in close, and whispered in Flint’s ear. “If you attack me, I’ll kill you. If you lock me up, I will shoot until I hit the fuel tank. Then your beloved Rhino will go up like the late Mr Clavar’s ill-fated rig.”

Flint said nothing as Caerlion turned and walked out of the cockpit. He had entertained a vague idea of catching the tutor unawares and tying him up or something, but the man’s warning chilled him. His head throbbed, his throat felt rough and swollen, and whatever sleep he’d got after Caerlion had knocked him out had left him cold and filled with aches. He welcomed the comforting feel of the pilot’s seat, the familiar thrum of the turbine, and the flash of the way as it flew past, gleaming in the rig’s external lights.

He felt as weak and beaten as he’d ever been, with no way to stop and nowhere to go but on. He glanced at Diana, sleeping in the seat beside him, long black ponytail draped across her shoulder, diamond pendant lying out on her cream blouse, and he shook his head. He could have left her, could have walked away. He had stayed with Caerlion because of her. Thinking back on it, he couldn’t see any other choice, but still it made him sick.

He turned his eyes back to the way ahead. “I gave my word. But let’s see, you sonofabitch. Let’s see you keep yours.”

He set the rig to cruise along the way, and allowed the warm seat and the humming rig to lull him into sleep.

 

+

 

He woke to the smell of charred meat and scorched coffee grounds. He looked up at the vague figure by his side, rubbed his eyes, and tried to focus. “Diana. You were… Cooking?”

She showed him all her teeth, and they shone in the morning sun that streamed in through the windows. It might have been a smile. “I tried to make everything the way you like it. I watched you cooking yesterday, and I think I remembered everything.”

“That’s… That’s great.”

“Only I couldn’t find the flour for the pancakes, so I used sugar.”

His mouth fell open. “Ah.”

“And when I couldn’t clean off the first pan, I had to use the second only it was too small, so I put the bacon in with the pancakes.”

“…right.”

“And when I made your coffee, I forgot to put the little basket-thing in first, so there’s all coffee chunks in your mug.”

“Uh huh.”

She took a deep breath, and tried smiling again. “But I tasted everything, and I’m not dead, so…”

He took the tray, and waved her into her seat. “Let’s have breakfast.”

She smiled again, and this time it looked real.

Flint took an exploratory sip of his coffee, and tried not spit it out. He had a mouthful of gritty coffee grounds, swimming in thick, soupy liquid so bitter he fought down the urge to dunk his bacon pancake in the drink to sweeten it. Once he managed to get over the taste, the texture, and the consistency of the coffee, he felt a pleasant glow light up his head and down through his body. “You don’t make weak coffee, Diana. That you do not.”

She leaned over and took a small plate and some cutlery from the tray, heaped it with bacon pancakes, sat back in her chair, and nibbled at her food. “Thank you, Flint.”

He shrugged, and had a chunk of pancake. “This isn’t bad, either.” Although much sweeter than he’d have made it, the sugar seemed to harmonise with the salty flavour of the bacon, and while it was rather tough, the effort of chewing gave him a vague sense of accomplishment.

“Thanks, Flint. You know, you should put labels on your cupboards and jars and things. That’s what my mom does, and it helps. When you’re in a hurry, one white powder looks a lot like any other white power, and boom! You’ve got a souffle.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Did you…?

She giggled and shook her head. “No, I didn’t quite manage that.”

The ate in silence for a bit, and then he shot her a glance. “I should have listened to you.”

He jaws worked as she chewed a slice of pancake. “Huh?”

“Hemlock. Cyanide.’

She lowered her eyes, and then she nodded. “I guess.”

He drank some more coffee. “You could have told me more. Given me a hint at least.”

She said nothing. Some time passed in silence, and then Flint saw her tremble, and a tear streak down her face. He pulled out a handkerchief, and handed it to her. She didn’t look at him, but she took it, and wiped her eyes.

“Guess it wasn’t that easy for you,” he said. “I forget how young you are, how intimidating it must be, having a man like that sent to… I don’t know, is he here for you at all? Is he supposed to teach you? To protect you? Or was it all a cover, right from the beginning?”

She shook her head. “Flint, I can’t…”

“I know,” he said, making a calming gesture with his hands. “You don’t have to say anything. Maybe you couldn’t have said anything. Maybe you didn’t know about the gun.”

“Flint, please…”

“Did you, though?”

She swallowed, and turned swollen red eyes on him. “I wanted to trust you. I wanted to believe I could. But after what happened with Blenner, and then when I saw Caldy and her mom living with those wild people… I’m not the only one with secrets, Flint. You’ve never trusted me, not really. I don’t think you trust anyone, except this old rig.” She patted the dash, and smiled. “And I get it. Out here you’re free, you can go anywhere you want, and not worry what happens in the city. But for me…” She fingered the chain around her neck. “The city follows me wherever I go, Flint.”

His eyes grew moist, and he wiped them with his sleeve. “You could be free, Diana. I could take you somewhere…”

She picked up a fork and waved it him. “You would be free. I would always need someone, a guardian, a protector. I saw the marks on Caldy’s wrists. She and her mom both, someone took them and tied them up. I don’t know what happened, but I can guess, and I don’t want that to happen to me.”

“Do you want to stick with him, then?” He jerked his thumb back, at the closed door, and the recesses of the rig.

“I want to do this to him,” she said, and jabbed her fork into her pancake, lifted it up, and bit off a chunk. “But I can’t,” she said, her mouth full of food. “You’re working for him now, Flint.”

He grimaced. “Temporarily.”

“It’s still true.”

He slammed his fist down on the wheel. “I’ve got my reasons, and I say it’s temporary.”

“Flint.”

He turned to her. “Listen to me, everything I’ve done, I’ve done for someone else-”

“Flint, look,” she said, pointing out of the window.

“Diana, I want you to listen, because-”

“Flint, just, arrgh.” She grunted, put a hand on his bruised temple, and turned his head to face the window.

“Diana, what…” His mouth fell open as he sat, entranced, at the sight of a dozen big red kangaroos bouncing along a little stream by the side of the way. The sight, so absurd, shocked the pain and tension out of his system, and he started to giggle. “I told you.”

She stared at the animals with wide eyes and a delighted smile. “My God, Flint,” she said. “Are we really in Australia?”

He grinned and shrugged. “I don’t know what land this is, but obviously it’s Australia. I know what I see, and those are kangaroos, those are real kangaroos.”

She laughed. “Maybe they escaped from a zoo, Flint.”

He shot her a blank look. “A what?”

She rolled her eyes his way, and then raised one eyebrow. “Rigger, you need to read more.”

 

Chapter 7

 

“No,” said Caerlion, leaning over the back of the pilot’s chair, coffee in one hand, notepad in the other. “Skip Ironstead, stop at Salter’s Reach.”

“Salter’s Reach is abandoned,” said Flint over his shoulder. “No one goes there now.”

Diana hunkered down in her chair, fiddling with a little bit of wood she’d picked up at the forest village. She’d been that way most of the day, and Flint was starting to wonder if she was okay.

“Not many, perhaps,” said Caerlion.

Flint shook his head. “No, seriously, it’s a burned-out ruin. There’s nothing there.”

Caerlion sipped coffee, and sighed. “Refuse to go?”

“Well no, you’re the boss and everything, but-”

“So… No problem?”

Flint’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Like I said, it burned down, it’s a smoky, ashen ruin. The air is foul and there’s no food, no clean water, nothing but a lot of char. Are you really sure you want to go there?”

Caerlion slipped the notepad into the pocket of his blue suit jacket. The pink tie had returned. “Find ash that disturbing, sir? Or something else nettling the skin?”

“Salter’s Reach was never popular… It’s just a bend in the river away from Cold Lake.”

Caerlion laughed. “Splendid. Swimming in order.”

Flint stood and turned to continue the argument, but Caerlion had already slipped through the cabin door. His head began to throb, and he slumped back into his seat. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll go the Reach. Never mind about the ash, never mind the stink. Never mind the monster in the lake.”

“Commendable attitude,” said Caerlion.

Flint slammed the cabin door shut.

“Internal doors aren’t armoured, remember,” said Diana, still focused on her wooden toy.

He leaned over her chair. “Telling me about my own rig now? What’s your point?”

She glanced up at him, a flash of red, then turned back to her toy. “Don’t break the rig, Flint. We still need it.”

“We need a lot of things.” He slumped into his seat and checked the gauges. They’d already burned through five percent of the water they’d taken on at the river, which was fine, but they had eaten all the bacon and most of the eggs and vegetables, and they were running low on coffee. He’d been hoping to resupply at Ironstead, look in on Pask and Tarrah, and maybe hear some news about the race, anything to forget about Caerlion and the guns. Now, it seemed, he wouldn’t get even that much distraction, and they’d all have to survive without meat for a few days. He looked at the empty mug sitting on the dash. He could probably live without meat for a bit, but the coffee… He always hit the caffeine hard on a long run, and it seemed that this was one thing that he and Caerlion shared.

“You shouldn’t drink so much of that,” said Diana.

He started to reply, then turned to her, a quizzical look in his eyes. “You couldn’t know…”

“Flint, you’ve had four mugs of coffee today, one for breakfast, and one for every time you’ve seen Caerlion. You can’t keep your hands off the coffee pot, and I don’t care how old you are in adult years, there’s no way that’s healthy.”

He frowned at her. “How about you? You’ve spent all day hiding in here. I mean, it’s probably good that he’s stopped pretending to teach you things, but should you really curl up and play with a toy all the time?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m a child, Flint. It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“Well that makes sense, but I still don’t like it.”

They glared at each other for a few seconds, and then they both started laughing.

Flint rubbed his face and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Diana. My life used to be much, much simpler.”

She shot him a wicked look. “Long, long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the land?”

“Last week.”

“Kangaroos, then.”

He nodded. “Kangaroos.”

After a bit, she reached up and put a small object on the dashboard. Flint leaned forward and picked it up. He held a tiny figurine carved from a piece of dark red wood, a beast with four stout legs, a barrel body with a little tail at one end and, at the other, a thick, jutting head with two tiny stubby ears and two shadowy eyes. At the end of the beast’s broad nose thrust a miniscule horn.

He looked at her, mouth open, eyes shining. “You did this?”

She opened her hands, and showed him a piece of wood and a tiny knife blade with an odd handle. He looked closer, and saw the snake design on the metal, and the splintered end where the handle had been broken. He started to speak, but she put a hand on his mouth, and shook her head.

Nodding, he sat back down, and set the miniature rhino back on the dash, facing forward, at the window and the way.

 

+

 

A dark mass rose ahead soon after Flint turned off the main way, and followed a lesser branch that ran roughly parallel to the Gideon river and led to the stretch known as Salter’s Reach. When he saw the approaching darkness, a taste like burnt wood arose in his mouth, and smoke seemed to tickle his tongue. He thought about turning, but an image of the pact in the shadows came before his mind, and he shook his head. He could break his word at any point, but he had an uneasy sense that Caerlion was waiting for just that. He wouldn’t give the lunatic the satisfaction. No, he’d keep his word, and then he’d see. Yes, they’d all see. He drove on, and the darkness grew.

By then the sun had begun to sink in the west, and the great way had begun the gentle curve that would take it north, to a string of settlements in the desert, before it swept back around and carried the riggers to Glory Point and the end of the race. The drive to Salter’s Reach took the Rhino southeast, put the sun at the hulk’s left rear wing, and cast a bestial, horned shadow. Flint grinned when he saw it, and watched it run with the rig until the smoke clouds thickened and swallowed it. Then his smile faded and he switched on the external lights, and they flashed off countless tiny scraps of dust, but did little to pierce the mass of darkness that lay heavy about the way.

Diana stirred in her seat, yawned, and opened her eyes. “I- Oh! Did I sleep that late?”

He shook his head, trying to concentrate on following the way. He found it harder to distinguish the smooth dark surface of the way from the blackened earth on either side.

She flicked a curious glance at him, and then leaned forward. “It’s so dark. I thought it was night, but that’s not…”

“You can sleep more, Diana.”

He brow wrinkled. “You said Salter’s Reach burned down.”

“That I did.”

“That can’t have happened yesterday, but it looks like it’s still burning. I mean,” she said, waving her hands, “where is all this smoke coming from?” She faced him. “You knew about this, didn’t you?”

He continued to peer into the smoke. “One of many reasons I didn’t want to come here.”

“Was there a forest or something?”

“The folks who live- Used to lived here, they would talk about mines, some sort of black rock.”

“Black rock?”

“Said it was used for fires in the old world.”

She snapped her fingers. “Coal!”

He raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”

She rolled her eyes. “You have got to read more, Flint.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Someone told me that once.”

She chuckled. “Okay, so it’s still burning here, in the mines, underground, and pumping out smoke into the air.” She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know why Caerlion wants to meet someone here. Doesn’t seem like a sane person would want to come here at all.”

Flint threw her a look, her mouth fell open, and she covered it with one hand.

“Ah, I got it,” she said.

He nodded.

“I hope we don’t have to go out there. How would we even breathe?”

He had started to answer, when a massive skeletal building thrust out of the shadows. Diana shrieked. Flint swerved left, got past it, and found a second one rushing up in front. Hands tight on the wheel, he steered the rig into the narrow gap between the two ruins, and felt the hulk shake as the right wing scraped down the length of the right-hand structure. Diana bared her teeth and put her hands over her ears. Flint held course until he’d got the Rhino out from between the two buildings, and then curved left in a gentle arc, and settled the vehicle down.

“Wait, Flint, wait,” said Diana.

He frowned, waiting for the gentle shake that would tell him he’d touched ground.

“You can’t park here. The Rhino weighs, like, a billion kilograms.”

“So?”

“If the mines are all burning, the ground has got to be weak. We could crash right through and be stuck in a furnace.”

“Yes, right,” he said, with more vehemence than he’d intended. “One more of the many reasons I did not want to come here. Caerlion thinks he’s got it all worked out, but this was always a bad idea.”

She stared at him, red eyes wide. “If you agree with me… Why have you stopped the rig?”

He killed the engine, and turned to face her. “Look,” he said, pointing a finger straight down. “We’re back on the way. I lost sight of it for a spell, out there in the smoke, and that’s why-”

“Why you almost smashed that burned-out building.”

“Um, yeah. But I found it again. Now listen, the way is the strongest surface here. Everything you said is true, and I don’t even want to step outside the rig, but the whole length of the way is made of the toughest, most durable materials the old world was able to produce. You can beat it, you can burn it, you can even set off bombs on it. The way holds. The way always holds. If you do somehow damage it, the surface heals over time.”

She blinked. “It’s alive?”

He shrugged. “That or good as.”

She leaned in closer. “Okay Flint, that’s great. But you said there’s a lake nearby, and with all this burnt stuff around here, I’ve got to ask you, the old world made the way and they made the fire monsters, so what happens when you put the weapons of the old world against the way? What happens then, Flint?”

He sagged back in his seat. “Let’s hope we don’t find out.”

Just then the cabin door swung open and Caerlion walked in. He spread his hands out, and put one on the back of each chair, and then he leaned forward and peered out of the window at the burnt settlement and the choking black clouds that drifted through it.

Flint cleared his throat. “So… Do you want us to drop you off anywhere particular, or shall we just say goodbye now?”

The corners of Caerlion’s mouth twitched up, and he half-closed his eyes. “Promise half-kept, no promise at all.”

“Yes, well, I would usually agree with that, Caerlion, but you asked me to take you here, and I have.”

“Intermediate destination, sir. Voyage together incomplete.”

Before their time in the forest, Flint had somehow adapted to Caerlion’s unusual manner of speaking, but since he’d learned it was an act, every exchange with the man ticked up his blood pressure. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the strain out of his voice. “Wonderful. So where is next on this voyage of yours?”

Caerlion lifted his hand from Diana’s seat, and pointed out into the clouds.

Flint rubbed his jaw, considered it, and then shook his head. “No, no, no way. That out there is an extremely bad place. I can’t breathe that air, and I don’t think you can either.”

Caerlion smiled. “Think it’s all made up on the fly? Masks, respirators, lifesaving equipment, packed in bag under bed. Planned, this, long time planned.”

“Alright, fine, so you’ve thought of everything. Three masks, is it?”

“Two. Girl stays.”

“How about-”

“Girl stays. Harmless.”

He sighed. “I guess these guns will take up space. Should I clear out some room in the hold?”

“Hold’s almost empty, sir.”

“At least tell me how many guns we’re loading onto the rig. Those things need metal bullets, too, don’t they. Metal’s heavy. Are we taking on crates of ammunition? That might slow the rig down, make us burn more fuel.”

Caerlion turned his back on them and walked to the door.

“Come on, help me out. I’m helping you import weapons, at least tell me something.”

“Be ready.”

 

+

 

Flint fiddled with the respirator. The rubber straps gripped the back of his head, and the seal pressed against his swollen temple, making his bruise throb with pain. The clear plastic faceplate fogged with the moisture of his breath, and the air around, thick with smoke, further worsened visibility. That might have been acceptable, but the air he breathed through the respirator had an acrid tang, and he wondered if the device was just a broken antique. He hadn’t changed his clothes, and his combat trousers were going from khaki to dirty black before his eyes. His shirt and boots still looked okay, though he feared he’d have to toss them later.

Caerlion led the way, a small leather case in his left hand, the pistol in his right. His own blue suit bloomed with black patches as Flinted watched, but Caerlion showed no reaction. He had, however, left the pink tie back in the Rhino. The fake tutor ambled through the ruined town, forcing Flint to linger as they walked past the burned-out shell of the general store, where a few charred wooden beams still clung to scorched concrete pillars. Then they walked along a row of townhouses missing their roofs and most of each adjoining wall. It looked as if a giant burning finger had pushed down through the first roof, and then swept along the line of houses, consuming the contents in a linear inferno. When Flint saw that swathe of destruction, he recalled his one brief glimpse of an old world weapon, the gout of steam that had spewed from the water, the glowing light, green then red, and the moment of horror when the air itself had caught fire.

He shuddered, closed in on Caerlion, and tapped him on the shoulder. The respirator muffled his voice, made it strange in his own ears. “How much further?”

“Look behind you, rigger.”

He tilted his head, unsure if he’d heard right. Then he swung around, and jerked back, almost barging into Caerlion. Where before the ruined townhouses had appeared gutted and hollow, he now saw a pack of dirty, shadowy figures emerge from behind shattered walls, and slip down protruding girders. They moved in an eerie silence, and the seething, smoke-dark air made it impossible to tell how many they were. Even their size, age and sex blurred and faded in that dense smoke.

They fanned out and formed a wide, rough circle around the newcomers. Flint looked them over for weapons or signs of violence. He saw no more guns, but he did see a range of makeshift weapons; they hefted a length of reinforcing bar here, a primitive axe there. He felt his back itch. With their numbers and their weapons, if it turned out that Caerlion had made a mistake, it could take more than a single handgun to cut free of this crowd.

Two figures stepped closer, a massive brute with a mohawk and a weightlifter’s steel bar, a plate loaded at one end, resting over one shoulder. His partner was a spindly woman with a topknot, small, empty hands, and eyes of cobalt. Both of them were so saturated with ashes that Flint found it impossible to tell the colour or cut of their clothes, or even where their clothing ended and their skin began. What shocked him more was their lack of respirators, masks, or other protection from the foul air. The woman spoke first. “Show us.”

Caerlion took a step in front of Flint, and raised the leather bag. “Right here,” he said.

The woman laughed. “Lion of Woe,” she said. “Do you think the people have become children since you left?”

Caerlion lowered the bag, cocked his head, and shook one finger, as if reprimanding an unruly pupil. “Bear of Ash,” he said. “You-”

“Apples,” she shot back, her cobalt eyes slitted.

“Of course,” said Caerlion, and continued without pause. “You know what I carry. And you know, better than any among the people, how delicate a command module is. The moment I open this bag, the atmosphere in this benighted place will contaminate them, and the chips will be useless.”

The woman called Bear folded her arms across her chest. “Not all the people rejoiced when the Lion went to trade.”

Caerlion stiffened, and then he took a step towards the woman. The burly man at her side raised the weightlifter’s bar, swung it overhead, and let the end with the plate fall, to crash down to the earth. Flint felt the ground shake, and saw Caerlion bend his knees and sink his weight down, as if preparing to spring. Out of the protective metal skin of the Rhino, surrounded by a soot-covered rabble, Flint felt exposed and vulnerable. He wanted to get out of there as fast as he could, and he didn’t like the tension rising between Bear and Caerlion.

He stepped in front of Caerlion. “Look, we haven’t met, but I’m Flint, a rigger, and whatever’s going on between you two I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do know…” Caerlion stepped towards him, but Flint put a hand on his chest. “What I do know is that whatever this crazy man has in that bag, he very nearly killed me to bring it to you. If I could take off this stinking mask I’d show you the bruises, but I can tell you it still hurts whenever I talk.”

Caerlion tried to brush his arm aside, but Flint held it rigid, so the tutor tried words. “So why don’t you let me talk, Flint?”

Flint ignored him. He felt heat rising in his chest, and now he’d begun to speak, he couldn’t finish halfway, he had to say it all and let the way carry him where it would. “We’ve got this deal; I bring him to you, and he disappears back into the wild lands, or wherever. Now I really want to be done with this, because in the short time I’ve known this guy, I’ve grown to hate him, and I’m not talking about any old hate, I’m talking about a pure, perfect hate, the kind that usually takes a lifetime to build. And Bear, Bear of Apples, is it?”

The woman pursed her lips and nodded.

“Right,” he nodded, and leaned closer. “Well, Bear of Apples, I think you and I have something in common.”

The woman gazed at him, a speculative glint in those cobalt eyes. Caerlion shoved forward and shot Flint a furious look. The mask muffled his words, but not his irritation. “Will you just shut up, you ignorant rigger?”

Flint shook his head. “Nope. Our deal said nothing about kind words and kisses.”

“May I remind you I still have the gun?”

Flint nodded. “Sure. And the one time you used it, you managed to destroy a single, homemade chair.”

Caerlion snarled and pressed close to Flint, but Bear smirked and put a hand between them. “That’s enough. Lion, I’ll take your gift. Just knowing you’ve got to live with this rigger is good enough for me.”

Caerlion handed her the bag. “Then our business is finished.”

“This bit is,” she said, and passed it to the large silent man who stood by watching. Then she turned back. “But-”

He drew back and raised the pistol to Flint’s head. “Rigger, you have your wish; our deal is done.”

 

+

 

Flint stared at the muzzle of the pistol, that tiny, deadly hole a darker black against the soot-drenched air. He saw the mocking humour in Caerlion’s eyes, through the man’s misty respirator faceplate. He saw the crowd of ashy people spread out and watching, expressionless. He thought of the Rhino, of all the mistakes he’d made on this journey. Should have run, a small voice told him. Should have got in and run when you had the chance. Should have left this madman behind, tricked him and dumped him at Smelt, pushed him off the cliff to smash with Vern. Should have tossed him like a sack of scrap, fired up the turbines, and smoked him with the exhaust.

Too late now, he knew; too late for those thoughts. And what about Diana? Locked in the rig, she would be safe, but she couldn’t start the engines, she couldn’t take the rig out of this burned-out ruin. She couldn’t even open the door. After Caerlion shot him, she would be stranded in the Rhino, trapped, and with warmth, water and air aplenty, she would have no choice but to slowly starve to death.

“You’re a filthy monster,” he said, his guts cold, his skin clammy.

Caerlion shook his head. “No, Flint. I’m a beautiful hero. You think you riggers are the last nobles in the land? Feel like a knight riding a titanium steed? Well I’m a ranger, you fool. I don’t need a huge machine to make me feel like a man.”

“No,” said Flint. “All you need is a weapon.”

Caerlion growled. “I’m going to break a personal rule, Flint. I’m going to enjoy this.” He pressed the muzzle of the gun against Flint’s faceplate. “Goodbye, rigger.”

Bear rested a hand on Caerlion’s arm. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to postpone that particular pleasure,” she said, and flashed white teeth in a wicked grin.

Caerlion held the weapon in place, but turned his head to face her. “My part is done. The rigger is a loose end. We can’t let him run; his machine is too dangerous.”

Flint’s mind had seized up, but now it started to loosen, and he realised something. “Where are the guns, Caerlion?”

“I’ve got all the guns you need, right here,” said Caerlion.

“There are more of you out there,” said Flint.

Behind the faceplate, Caerlion’s eyes narrowed. “Not your concern, rigger.”

Bear leaned in close to Caerlion. “I hate to pickle your potato, dear Lion, but actually… Actually, it might be.”

Caerlion started to look uneasy. “What are you talking about?”

“Listening post six picked up a lot of radio chatter. It seems some of the riggers got a little excited, and too many of them tried to cross Pig Bridge at the same time.”

Flint grimaced. “That sounds bad. Many injured?”

“Don’t you worry about them,” said Caerlion. “Worry about this,” and he prodded Flint’s head with the gun.

“Your new friend asks a good question,” said Bear. “We haven’t been able to contact Wolf or her driver, and the delivery team hasn’t seen them. So…”

“You need me,” said Flint, and he grinned behind the respirator. “You need a rig to get up there and check on your partner, and if they went off the Pig Bridge, you need a rig to collect your fifty crates of guns, and carry them back to the bay.”

Caerlion held the gun against his head and scowled into his eyes. Then he moved the muzzle down, and pressed it against his left bicep. “I don’t need all of you, rigger.”

A sick feeling grew in Flint’s belly, and he fought a powerful urge to run. He knew, that if he broke, if he ran, he would die. “Go ahead, you twisted son of a snake. We’re a full tank away from medical care. Think you can keep me alive through shock and blood loss, all the way to Pig Bridge and back to the bay? Go ahead. Try.”

Caerlion closed his eyes and lowered the gun. He turned away from Flint and Bear, and started back towards the rig. Flint watched him walk away, put a hand over his faceplate, and sighed. The soot-covered woman called Bear touched his arm. “You’re brave, for a naked rigger.”

He knew what she meant. “Tell me one thing, Bear of Apples. I know there are more of you out there.”

She tensed. “I won’t endanger the people.”

He shook his head. “I wouldn’t ask you to. No, I want to know something else. You have things I haven’t seen, weapons out of the old world. Tell me… Is there another city out here?”

The ash that covered her face made her expression unreadable, but when she pulled back, crossed her arms and put one hand to her chin, he could see her considering it, and that pause made him more certain he’d hit close to the mark. At last she gave her answer. “There are more of us, rigger.”

“Flint. Flint of the Rhino.”

“So. Flint of the Rhino, if we had not made this deal, the bay would truly be the last city. But listen,” she said, and drew close to him, “the Lion of Woe went to you to make this deal, and he loves nothing but destruction, and that is well, for we have nothing else to sell. The people agreed to the trade because our machines would die without these command modules, but the one who sold them to us… If you love freedom, that one is your true enemy.”

Bear turned, walked away, and never looked back. Flint watched her and her team march away and vanish into the billowing smoke clouds. Then he turned and saw Caerlion standing by the Rhino, watching him.

 

+

 

Once in the rig, Flint took his boots off and walked barefoot to the bathroom, a small chamber with cream panels and a mirror that reflected his filth-laden appearance without mercy. It took two showers for Flint to feel clean, and he ended up tossing his clothes in the trash. No matter how much he loved that shirt, and especially his boots, he knew he would never wash out that acrid stench. He changed while Caerlion washed, choosing blue jeans, a white polo shirt and a pair of white loafers, headed to the kitchen, and started to make a pot of coffee, but then he remembered how low they were getting, and how Diana would hit him with a look of reproach. He felt that if he drank more coffee, it would disappoint her, and for some reason that made him uncomfortable. He grimaced, and poured himself a tall glass of water. Then he checked that Caerlion was still showering, and headed for the pilot’s cabin, where he found Diana playing with a couple of red wooden animals.

“You made a dog and a cat,” he said, and sat down with a smile.

“It’s a wolf and a lion.” She frowned at him.

“Yes. Yes, of course.” That made him uneasy. Had she heard them talking somehow?

She giggled. “No, you were right, this is Mr Fluffles, and this is Mrs Chomper.”

He gave her a blank look.

“You see, Mr Fluffles has all this long, fluffy fur, and-”

He leaned forward and touched her shoulder. “Diana, do you trust me?”

She froze, stared up at him with wide red eyes, and then she nodded.

“Good, because I want to do something incredibly dangerous, and we have to do it now. Will you help me?”

She chewed her lip, and then she nodded.

He felt sweat moisten his palms. “He’s in the shower. You need to go down the corridor to the end, and through the hatch to the hold. You got that?”

“Down the corridor, through the hatch.”

“Right. There’s a manual lock on the other side of the hatch. You need to-”

“A lock?”

He nodded. “A lock, like a metal wheel. You need to shut the hatch, shut it tight. You’ll have to push hard. Then turn the wheel right, like this,” and he showed her with his hands. “Until it won’t go any further.”

She swallowed. “Flint, I don’t understand.”

“It’s going to be okay. Just shut that hatch and lock it, and don’t come out until I tell you.”

She looked at him. “How will I know it’s you?”

He looked around the cabin, and his eyes alighted on the red wooden rhino sitting on the dash. “I’ll knock, once for the horn, and then four times for the feet. Got it?”

“Once for the horn, four for the feet. But Flint, what are you going to do?”

He shook his head. “No time, Diana. Just go.”

She snatched up her toys and ran to the door. Then she paused and looked back. “Good luck, rigger.”

He grinned. “Go.”

 

+

 

His heart beat faster as he kicked the rig up to high speed, and sent it hurtling straight up the way, to pass through the town, running straight with the river Gideon. Every second put the great way further behind, but the ash clouds still lay thick about him, as heavy, he thought, as the weight that had fallen on him when Caerlion had put the gun to his head. “We had a deal,” he whispered. Yes, Caerlion had offered him the trade, back in the dark forest, and Flint, seeing no choice, had agreed, had given his word. He’d done his part, faithful even in this hellscape, and what had Caerlion done? What had that stinking faker done?

“Put a gun to my head,” he said, and slammed his fist against the dash. He shook his head. “Never again, you murderous bastard, never again.”

He spun up the turbine to full thrust, and the Rhino trembled with the effort. He knew he didn’t have long. Caerlion might think the motion meant they were heading to Pig Bridge, but if he realised Flint’s real destination, he would do something nasty, Flint knew, so he pushed the Rhino to the limits of speed, for even on this, his shortest run, every second mattered.

Sure enough, the cabin door swung open, Caerlion strode in, and for a moment Flint thought he hadn’t washed at all, because the man wore black from his shoes to the collar of his shirt. However, his face and smooth head were clean and florid from the hot shower, and he brought a scent of fresh laundry and soap. For once the colourful bow ties were missing, but he still wore those blue-framed, pink-tinted spectacles. “En route already? Good man.”

Flint studied the gauges. “Should be there sooner than you think.”

Caerlion leaned over the back of the pilot’s seat. “Rig okay? Seems rather shaky.”

“The least of our problems,” said Flint, and winced when he realised he’d begun to imitate Caerlion’s weird speech patterns.

Caerlion started to say something, but fell silent when the thick dark clouds parted, and revealed a large lake a short way ahead, waters glimmering under a blue summer sky. The sunlight revealed countless ash particles coating the front window, so Flint hit the wash button, and the rig hosed down the windows with jets of water. The water blasted away the dirt and soot, and left the Rhino’s bubble eyes as clear as the sky and the water in the lake.

Caerlion cleared his throat. “Is this wise?”

Flint watched the way ahead shrink. After a short distance, it curved left, ending the stretch of river called Salter’s Reach, and followed the edge of Cold Lake. Flint ignored the curve, and continued over a gentle grassy bank, to the edge of the water.

He heard the chair squeal as Caerlion dug his fingers into the leather. “Turn back.”

Flint cut speed, triggered the air brakes, and eased the rig down the bank to the edge of the water. He didn’t turn.

The gun appeared, barrel resting on his shoulder. “I won’t tell you again.”

Flint killed the engine, looked out across the calm surface of the lake, and saw not a single cloud reflected in the water. He drew in a deep breath, and sighed. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all day.”

Caerlion came around the chair, grabbed his shirt, and hauled him to his feet. “I don’t know what game you think you’re playing, rigger, but it ends now. You’re going to start the engine, turn us around, and run as fast as you can to the Pig. You got me?”

“Yes,” said Flint. He grinned. “I got you.” He leaned closer to Caerlion. “I got you now.” He pushed free of the man’s grip, and then faced at the water. “Look, it’s starting.”

Both men turned and saw a green light shimmer from deep in the lake.

Caerlion bared his teeth. “Flint, that thing will destroy us all.”

Flint nodded. “That’s the idea.”

Caerlion stared at him, face pale, jaw hanging loose. “You’re crazy.”

The light grew brighter.

Caerlion jabbed the gun into his chest. “Flint, I will give you two seconds to sit behind that wheel and take us out of here.”

Flint shook his head. “I gave you my word.” He spoke through his teeth. “You held me in darkness and forced me to choose, my freedom or her life. I chose, Caerlion, I chose. I kept my end of the deal, and what did you do? What did you do, Caerlion?”

The other man swallowed. “It’s turning red.”

“You put a gun against my head.”

“I didn’t hurt the girl. I didn’t even touch her.”

“You would have murdered me and left her to starve. You would have turned my rig into a tomb.”

Caerlion’s jaw trembled. “It’ll kill her too.”

“What do you care? I’ve had enough of you, you filthy monster. Give me the gun.”

Caerlion looked from Flint to the glowing red light in the lake. He shook his head. “No,” he said. “You won’t let her die. You won’t let yourself die.” He put the gun against Flint’s forehead. “Drive.”

Flint showed him all his teeth. “If you kill me, you destroy your one chance of survival.”

The light burst from the lake in a spray of water that turned into a cloud of boiling red steam.

“She’ll die, Flint.”

“Better this than slow starvation. I will not serve you, Caerlion. Give me the gun.”

The boiling cloud erupted in a haze of shimmering fire, almost clear at the centre, then blue, and then yellow at the fringes, so hot the air rippled like flowing water, half revealing a golden skeletal figure at the centre. The burning mass hovered in the air, and then began a lazy sweep up towards the bank and the rig.

Sweat rolled down Caerlion’s face, and his eyes welled with tears. He looked from Flint to the approaching fire demon, and back again. He drew the gun back, looked into the muzzle, and squeezed his eyes shut. Then he shivered all over, opened his eyes, and slammed the gun down on the dash.

Flint snatched the weapon and tossed it into a compartment on the left of the wheel. He locked it, pocketed the key, and then dropped into his seat, punched switches, started the engine, and scowled at the approaching death machine. The turbine coughed and rumbled, and the rig began to roll forward.

Caerlion dropped into the copilot’s seat and stared out of the window, his face sickly, whole body shaking. “Why don’t you turn?”

Flint held course, heading straight at the approaching fire.

“Turn, Flint, turn.”

He shook his head. “Too slow. We’ve got too much mass. The thing would hit us broadside halfway through the turn.” Just, he thought, the way the rock spike had taken out Old Horn.

The fires burned more and more yellow as the death machine advanced, concealing the gleaming skeleton. It began to gain speed, rushing at the Rhino. Flint gritted his teeth, raised the rig to full acceleration, and sent it streaking at the fire. As the two ancient machines raced straight at each other, he felt a fist grip his heart, and felt sure they would smash together, titans of the old world.

The fire grew until it filled the window, until it seemed it had consumed the lake and sky, and he could almost feel the heat on his skin, but he held course until he saw the Rhino’s horn, the radio spike, start to glow. Then, at the last moment, he swung the wheel left, and raced past the fire at full speed. Flames licked the window, raising blisters, and he knew the fire would scorch the right wing. He prayed it would hold. If the fires destroyed the wing, they would whirl and tumble into the water, and the fire would catch and consume them.

The right, then the rear screen erupted in flames, and then cleared, showing the flaming cloud of death some way back. As he watched, it started to sweep around to pursue the rig. He held the wheel, skimmed across the lake at full speed, and took it around left in a loose arc, until it left the water, climbed up the bank, and rejoined the way. He watched the rear screen, and saw the fiery blaze fall behind. He kept burning gas at the maximum rate, kept the engines howling, kept the turbine spinning at full speed, and kept the Rhino running until the way turned from the lake, curved around, and took them back to the great way. Even then, when the cloud of fire was a distant speck of light in the rear screen, he pushed the rig, running at the limit.

Caerlion stood, skin clammy, black shirt damp with sweat. He stared down at Flint with hollow eyes, shook his head, and stumbled out of the cockpit.

 

Chapter 8

 

His mind ran with images as he drove through the fading day, Blacksnake’s tattoos come alive and writhing, then turning to soot, to burst into a cloud that wove itself into a tall tower, a burning light within. He came back to himself with a gasp, and realised that the intense strain of the past day, and the growing ease he felt at breaking free from two ancient death machines, had bushwacked him, and he’d lapsed into slumber. He thanked the Rhino for watching over him, and promised her a complete service once he got back to the city. Then he went to find Diana.

Once he’d got her back, Diana went to her spot, but instead of sitting, she bent over and peered at the blistered patch on the right edge of the window. She turned back and frowned. “I did everything you said, Flint, but you didn’t tell me much, and you still haven’t.”

He locked the cockpit door.

“Flint?”

He slipped past her, unlocked the glove compartment, and showed her the gun. Her eyes went wide, she reached out, and pushed the weapon away. “Put it back, put it back.”

He held it between them for the moment. “I’ve pulled our little lion’s teeth. Now you are right; I didn’t tell you much, but neither have you.” He slid the gun back into the glove compartment and locked it. “I think it’s time that changed.”

He sat, and she chewed her lip as she stood looking down at him, her arms folded across her body. She tapped the bubbled window. “I don’t know what you did, Flint, but I can guess. There’s only one thing I’ve heard of that can do that to the Rhino.”

“Pretty much.”

She raised her hands. “But that’s so dangerous. You could have… We all could have…” She glared at him with moist red eyes.

“But it worked,” he said, and grinned.

She scowled at him, and then she giggled. “Yeah, I guess it did.” She dropped into her seat.

He felt tension ease out of his muscles. “Now I need to know something.”

She turned away, and nodded.

“I’ve got all sorts of questions, but as I see about it, most of them come down to the same thing. I think you knew Caerlion wasn’t from the bay, and I think you knew he had the gun.”

She shrugged.

“I doubt you knew much about his people, but you probably knew about the trade, too.”

“You haven’t asked me any questions yet.”

He licked his lips. “Yeah, but I’m getting there. I met some of Caerlion’s… Well, I wouldn’t call them friends. I don’t think he has friends. But I met someone, and she told me he wasn’t my real enemy.”

Diana turned further in her seat, put her feet up on the chair, and hugged her knees.

Flint rubbed his jaw, and felt bristles scrape his palm. “So what I want to know is this-”

“Vistor.”

He froze. “What?”

She turned to face him, tears rolling down her face. “It’s my uncle Vistor, that’s who you’re asking about. He’s the one who bought the guns. He’s the one!” She trembled, and buried her head in her arms.

Flint felt torn between sudden, almost painful curiosity, and the desire to put an arm around the child, and tell her everything would be alright. He knew, though, that if he said that, she would see the lie. It wasn’t going to be alright. It hadn’t been alright all week, and if he understood matters, it hadn’t been alright for a long time. He didn’t know how Vistor and Caerlion had met, but the murdering bastard had called himself a ranger, and Bear had told him he’d gone to the bay to trade, so he imagined Caerlion had begun the process. Perhaps he’d sounded out Buck, first, but Buck had turned him down, or Vistor had made a better offer. And then they’d announced the race… The timing was too perfect. He tried not to acknowledge his next thought, but it rose before him, inexorable as gravity.

He looked at the sobbing girl, and though every instinct told him to hold his tongue, he had to know, he had to. “Diana,” he said. “Did Vistor murder your father?”

She screamed, leapt at him, and rained blows down on his arms and chest. He tensed, but held his hands back and let her hit him, until her strength ebbed and she collapsed against him. He held her, a small child, furious and terrified by a world of adults that had betrayed and imprisoned her. He saw now why she wanted to run, why she been so desperate she had turned to a criminal to carry her out of the city. Pursued by one murderer, who better to protect her than another one? Who else would understand her need to flee?

Perhaps it would have worked, he thought. Perhaps, if they’d hit the way fast enough, they could have escaped together, and found some sort of peace on the endless way. But no, he shook his head, they couldn’t have run forever. No one could. Besides, Caerlion had found them first.

He gritted his teeth. “Listen to me, Diana. What happened to your family is as bad as it gets. Brothers fight, but murder… Even the Clavar brothers had more honour than your uncle.”

She shook with sobs, her head buried against his chest.

“But whatever he did, you’ve got to remember one thing. It’s not finished yet. Those guns are still out there. If we can find them, or find the other rig that’s going to pick them up, we can stop them from getting to the bay. Do you understand me? We can stop Vistor.”

She grabbed his left arm and dug her nails into his bicep. He grimaced but kept silent. Then she let go, and looked up at him, her face almost as red as her swollen eyes. “You damned rigger.”

“That’s me.”

She laughed, just once. But it was enough.

 

+

 

Everything felt as if it were moving faster now, and he didn’t dare slow down or events would escape him, so Flint drove deep into the night, long after the others had disappeared into their cabins. He arrived at the Pig sometime before dawn, red lights flashing on and off atop the tall spires of the ancient suspension bridge. The way ran uphill for some distance, until it reached the near side of the canyon, water far below, and the bridge stretched across the gap. Flint shivered to think about the water at the base of the canyon, and had to tell his fatigued mind it was running water, just running water.

On a normal run he would have zipped over the bridge, but Bear’s report had been terse to the point of nonexistent, and if there had been some sort of accident on or near the bridge, he figured he’d better not try to rush through it in the dark. He’d put the Rhino through enough. Decision made, he set the rig down beside the way, leaned the seat back, and closed his eyes.

Sleep refused him. Every time he got his mind soothed and calm, and his body into a state of floaty peace, an image would pop up, perhaps the gun in the glove compartment, or Bear’s cobalt eyes in her soot-covered face, or, again and again, the skeletal creature, gold and shining, as it raced down on the Rhino to melt the windows and turn the air inside to fire.

He pulled himself upright, rubbed his eyes and stubbly jaw, and rose. He flicked on the external lights, left the cockpit, and made his way to the door. Once outside, he took several deep, slow breaths, savouring the aroma of grass, trees, and flowing water. He often forgot about the taste of the air, on a long run, but he always realised he’d missed it whenever he left the rig. Fatigue still lay heavy on him, but he felt a bit more conscious, so he walked up the rig’s left flank, and peered up at the blistered cockpit window. He reached up and stroked the clear crystal, felt the small bubbles with his fingers, and frowned. Each bubble was smaller than a fingernail, and they had arisen at the surface layer of the thick window, but still, he felt guilty at having let the monster mark the Rhino.

He patted the rig’s nose, and bent down to check out the turbine intake. He saw no sign of damage, and the nose and horn both looked fine, so he continued around the right side, to the stubby delta wing, where he froze at the sight of a chunky object like a glowing bird perched on the edge of the wing. He looked closer, and saw the thing was no bird, but a monstrous claw, a talon hooked into the titanium wing. He stared at it, entranced, almost afraid to touch it. The talon, a sharpened length of jointed golden metal, hooked back and came to a shear edge at the line of wing, and an image flashed in his mind, of a monstrous metal hand, that grasped at the wing as it flew past, only for the wing to scythe its talon off.

His jaw dropped and his eyes peeled wide as he gazed as the solitary talon. He raised a hand, paused, and felt fear rise, icy hands that wrapped around his gut, his heart, his throat, crushing and chilling them. He felt as if the monster still lived in that claw, and when he touched it, it would see him, and erupt from the earth of the sky, and envelop him in an agony of fire.

He swallowed, tensed his arm, and reached out for the thing. When he felt cold metal on his skin, he flinched and squeezed his eyes shut, but nothing happened, no thunderbolts from heaven, no fountains of magma from below, so he wrapped his fingers around the talon, and pried it loose from the wing. He raised it to the light, and hefted it. The talon weighed less than a twig, but the golden metal had gouged into the rig’s wing, and the sharp edge of the claw still felt smooth and sharp. Curious, now, he looked closer, and saw the beauty of it, the craftsmanship. A human had made this, he knew, a skilled artisan, back when the world still had such a profession. They had made it to catch targets and hold them long enough for the death machine’s fires to burn them to cinders. But they had also made it beautiful. Perhaps they had not seen the evil in their work, and perhaps they had tried to create beauty in spite of that evil.

He grew all the more curious, for the talon, as superb as it was, had sheared off at the joint. He’d always believed the fire monsters were invulnerable. Now, as he looked closer, he knew, really knew, that they were machines, just as his rig was a machine. They were machines, and while their metal bones were strong, their joints were… Well, they were damn strong too, he had to admit, but they could be broken.

He closed his hand around the talon and raised the fist to his jaw. Things were changing faster, ever faster. The wild lands contained more than outposts, villages and beasts. The leaders of the bay were turning on themselves. The strength of the world concealed weakness, and perhaps it would soon collapse, fall apart from within. If so much he had believed was untrue, then perhaps nothing was true, or perhaps he had to find his own truth, a truth as strong as the Rhino.

His thoughts clouded and dark, he made his way back to the cockpit, stretched out on his seat, and slept a few fitful hours. When he awoke he found the talon still clenched in his hand, sharp and glittering in the dawn.

 

+

 

“Nothing.” He punched the wheel, and scowled across the empty bridge. An inner voice told him he should keep calm, contain his frustration and move on, but he’d pushed so hard to get this far, all to catch up with the other riggers. The only reason he’d waited out the night was to avoid running into a smashed-up hulk on the narrow bridge. The rising sun revealed no such hulk. “Unless it’s covered in ghost rigs.” He shook his head. The other rigs might as well be ghosts, at this point.

He rubbed the golden talon in his left hand, sighed, and kicked the Rhino into motion. The way had begun to curve back in a broad slow sweep to the sea, and he ran past several small outposts as he went. Had he been concerned with the race itself, he would have been obliged to stop each time, greet the people who lived out there, deep in the wild lands, and trade with them for a token of his visit. As it was, he took comfort in knowing that his fellow riggers had probably done just that. It must have slowed them down, and maybe it had given him the edge he needed. The Rhino might not be fast enough to outrun the Eagle or the Comet, but she ran at a steady pace, and once up to speed, she could run until her tanks were dry.

Some hours later, he felt his hopes were crumbling. He’d already passed the last handful of settlements between the Pig and Glory Point. He was nearing the final stage of the race, and if Caerlion’s mystery partner was still in the race, he’d probably already picked up the guns and burned maximum gas carrying them home. The immense white tower rose before him, a thick round pillar standing on an even larger base. When he first saw it, it looked close by, but as he drove on, it continued to grow, yet recede, like a mountain on the horizon.

The cabin door opened, and Diana came in with a tray holding a steaming mug and a heap of random biscuits she must have found deep in the corners of the kitchen cupboards. She wore blue jeans and a black satin top that matched her hair. “Haven’t seen you back there all morning,” she said, and set the tray down on the dash. “You haven’t shaved, you haven’t even showered.”

“We’ve got to catch up with the other riggers. If we don’t make it…”

“I know,” she said, and perched on the edge of the copilot’s seat. “But you still have to eat. What’ll you do if we run into this character, and you’re all set to do something heroic, only you’re too weak from hunger to give him the old killer death Rhino punch?”

“Uh…”

“What’re you gonna do, scratch him with your stubble?”

He frowned at her, and rubbed his cheek. “Yeah, okay, I’ll-”

“Are you gonna waft your armpits at him until he blacks out?”

“Hey!”

She giggled. “Okay, I probably spent too much time thinking about this, but it’s lonely back there, and Professor Crazy has stopped even trying to act like a tutor, so I thought I’d come up here and taunt you back to humanity.”

Once again Flint questioned the girl’s effect on his sanity. But then, he reflected, it wasn’t really just her, it was the whole mad race, and surrounding that lay Vistor’s personal madness, and again, the madness of the time. He saw rings within rings within rings, and himself at the centre, gleaming red like Caldy Clavar’s ruby.

Diana picked up the mug of hot black coffee and thrust it at him. “Take this, Flint. You’ve been different since the burnt place, all pale and grim. I think you’re suffering from caffeine withdrawal.”

He slipped the talon into his pocket, accepted the mug, his favourite green one with the chipped rim, breathed in the delicious aroma, and felt the heat warm his hands. “You might be on to something there,” he said, and drank. The hot fluid almost scalded his mouth and throat, and he felt his heart kick into high gear. “Wow,” he said. “You made it strong.”

“I knew you hadn’t slept a lot, so I used up the last of the coffee.”

He pursed his lips. “How much coffee have you given me here?”

She grinned. “Drink it and find out.”

He shook his head, but he drank it all. Then he started in on the biscuits.

She pointed out of the window. “That’s Glory Point, isn’t it?”

“That’s the Point.”

“Every rigger has to stop there, right? I mean if they’re running the race, right?”

“That’s what I’m hoping.”

She toyed with the little wooden rhino sitting on the dash. “Of course, the other one, the bad rigger, they might just skip this bit and go straight back. They wouldn’t care if they got disqualified. Kind of like us, right?”

He made a face. “That’s what I’m not hoping.”

She sucked air through her teeth. “Good luck, Flint.”

 

+

 

They rounded a corner of the vast white plinth that formed the base of the tower, and Flint’s heart leapt as he saw the row of rigs parked at the hydrants, their water pipes humming as they filled their tanks. “They’re still here,” he said.

Diana stopped brushing her hair and shot him a quizzical look. “How can you tell which rig to look for?”

He shook his head. “Not what I meant. You see those two big ones over there?”

She peered at the machines. “Yeah, they sort of look like the Rhino.”

He grinned. “Size-wise, maybe. That’s the Dragon, and that one on the right is the Eagle.”

“How can you tell?”

He pointed. “The Dragon has a sort of fish scale pattern, and twin antennae that sweep back behind the cockpit.”

She shrugged. “The other one has the same pattern.”

“They look similar until you get up close, but actually the Eagle has a feather pattern, and the nose hooks down like a beak.”

“Uh huh. But Flint, I still don’t get why you’re so pleased about this. Did Caerlion let on about his partner, or are these riggers going to help us?”

“Well the last time I saw Jerethy he more or less told me he wasn’t my friend. As for Nathor, he’s… A bit like me, actually.”

She showed him a lopsided smile. “Maybe he’d be good.”

He shrugged. “I mean, he doesn’t talk a lot, doesn’t spend much time in the city. He just loves riding the Eagle.”

“So why are you happy? Just glad to stop for a bit?”

“No, no, I’m pleased because they’re the fastest rigs of all. If they’re still here, then so’s Caerlion’s buddy.”

“She nodded. “Okay, that’s actually really good news. But Flint, what’s your plan here? I mean, we could just run in and start hitting people until they tell us everything.” She mimed grabbing someone by the ear and punching him under the jaw.

He chewed his lip. “I think it might take a bit of finesse.”

“Hey, I know, we could hang Caerlion off the top of the tower, until he tells us who he’s working with.” She cocked her head. “Of course, he might not be able to talk much after the pummeling, so maybe he could sort of bleed on the right rig.”

Flint began to wonder what effect he’d had on the girl. With any other charge, he would worry about having to explain everything to a couple of stern parents, but given that he was planning to wreck Vistor’s entire scheme, whatever it was, he decided to add it to the long list of problems he was content to ignore. “More finesse than that.”

She folded her arms and pouted. “Hmm. So if you don’t like my ideas, rigger, then you’d better have a really incredibly amazing one of your own.”

He nodded. “That would be good. Unfortunately, planning ahead has never been one of my strengths.”

“No, you’re more of a smash it now and explain later kind of rigger.”

“Not my preferred description, but let’s go with that. What I say, is this: we tie up Caerlion, and take-”

She grabbed his arm. “Can I gag him, too?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

“Fine, let’s do it now.”

“Hey, don’t you want to hear the rest of my plan?”

She leapt out of her seat. “Nope. Let’s be honest, Flint, your plan will just fall apart after five minutes, so why worry?”

She dashed out of the cockpit, muttering about rope.

Flint frowned. Then he noticed the wooden toy rhino, facing his way and leering. “Oh shut up, you.”

 

+

 

Flint covered Caerlion with the gun and Diana rolled up his blue shirt and tied his wrists with yellow cord from the hold. Then he led them out, and they saw the tower up close. The sun had begun to sink in the west, and it painted the tower gold. At this range the tower rose above them so tall it seemed to stretch into the sky, and Flint could see that the outer skin was not plain white, but a thick layer of crystal filled with microscopic channels that flowed with water. The crystal surface flashed rainbows, and the constant flow of the water made it foam, and gave the tower its appearance.

Flint took them past the line of thirsty rigs, to a separate building that stood apart in space and time; where the tower stood as a reminder of the old world, the second building, a wooden longhouse with a smoking chimney at the far end and plastic sheets for window panes, looked both newer and far more ancient. The air carried loud voices, shouting and laughter, and the bittersweet aroma of beer, wine, and stronger drinks.

Diana paused and faced him, a disapproving look in her red eyes. “I hope you haven’t put us through all this just so you can get smashed.”

“No, Diana,” he said. “I didn’t run so hard just for a drink.”

“Good. Because my old man used to get smashed sometimes, and then he’d talk very loud and stumble around, and sometimes he fell down and slept on the floor.”

“I promise I won’t-”

“And he snored so loud it gave the dog a heart attack.”

Flint rubbed his jaw. After all the coffee, he felt he’d enjoy the calming effect of a few beers, but he didn’t want to have those eyes burning into him for the rest of the journey, however short it might be. “Just water. Promise.” He put out his hand.

She hung back a moment, then shook. “Just water.”

Caerlion sniggered. “This is how you fight for your city, rigger?”

“Get along,” said Flint, shoved the man through the double doors, and followed.

He found himself in a long dim hall, oaken pillars spaced at intervals, and a large, packed table running along the middle. At the far end he saw a wooden counter manned by a burly guy in an apron, with long yellow hair and a thick beard. All along the table he saw his fellow riggers, drinking and talking. On the far side of the table he saw two riggers in a fierce dispute. On the left stood Jerethy, his iridescent blue eyes shining with rage, his muscular form threatening to tear apart his green shirt as he raised a fist at Nathor, whose gaunt figure towered over everyone, though his bone-white skin and loose black shirt and trousers made him look like a spectre of death.

“How do we get their attention?” said Diana. “Do you plan to shoot someone?”

“No, no,” he said, eyes locked on the argument. “Wait here.”

“But Flint-”

He ignored her, too distracted. Jerethy could be as mean as an alpha goat, but he never lost his cool. If Flint could have picked anyone as a clear favourite in the race, he would have chosen Jerethy. Popular, bright, clear-headed, and driving one of the fastest rigs in the bay, he made the best choice. But here the man was bellowing at Nathor like an enraged bison.

“…lowest, foulest, filthiest pieces of chicanery I have ever seen in my time on the way, and I have run into mutant cannibal slavers who smear corpse rot on their spears before they hurl them.”

Nathor’s huge green eyes flashed as he replied in a raspy whisper. “Did I break any rules?”

“That’s not the point,” said Jerethy. “There’s such a thing as honour, even in the race.”

“Did I break any rules?”

Jerethy looked left and right, as if pleading with his fellow riggers to witness Nathor’s evident madness. “We’re running with tanks of pure hydrogen. Any kind of explosion could rupture a tank, and boom! There goes one rig, maybe two or three if they’re packed together, and where did you pull your little stunt with the bombs? On the stinking Pig of all places!”

Flint pushed his way through the crowd gathered around the two champion riggers. He started to speak, but as soon as Jerethy saw him, his face turned a shade darker, and he spat. “Like attracts like, I see. On my right I have an attempted murderer, and on my left comes the real thing.”

Flint felt his body stiffen, but Diana put a hand on his arm, and her touch helped him stay calm. “Jerethy I just want to talk to you, I didn’t come for a fight.”

“Oh no? I have my doubts, because some of us were listening on the chat a couple of days ago, and we heard some very suspicious ‘talk’.”

He frowned. “I don’t…”

“Seems Blen caught up with you after all. See I thought you two had a fight, but maybe you really just talked, talked so good he took Old Horn off the way and vanished across the plains.”

Flint grimaced. “Oh, shit. Look, Jerethy, that’s not important right now.”

Jerethy walked close enough for Flint to smell the mulled wine on his breath. “Not important? You kill two brother riggers, and that’s not important?”

“Brother… Burl wasn’t a rigger.”

“I don’t mean Burl. I’m talking about Wurnech.”

Flint felt the floor fall out from under him, and the world began to spin. He pressed forward, gripped Jerethy’s right bicep, and spoke in the man’s face. “I didn’t kill Vern, Jerethy. He came to help when Burl tried to run us off a cliff.”

Jerethy’s voice got low. “Take your hand off me, you murdering son of a bitch.”

“When will you climb down from that pinnacle of perfection and listen to someone who knows what’s happening, murderer or not?”

Jerethy hooked a hard left at his liver. Flint felt the punch coming, turned with it, and bled off enough of the force that he only felt like falling to his knees. He held his grip on Jerethy’s right arm, spoiled the man’s next punch, and stepped back, palms out. “I didn’t come here to fight you.”

“Then this’ll be over quick. There’s a poison in our city, and I aim to purge it right here.”

Flint gnashed his teeth. “You’re wrong, Jerethy.” He dodged another blow. “You think I’m poison? Rigger, you’re so lost you don’t know your turbine from your toenails.”

The other riggers backed away, none intervened, and Flint saw they even shushed Diana when she asked for help. Nathor melted away into the crowd, which had made a nice big space for Jerethy and Flint to settle their account. Flint didn’t know if they all shared Jerethy’s hatred of him, or if they just wanted to see a good fight. Either way it didn’t matter – he had to end this before it got worse.

“Jerethy, I’m going to give you one last chance to get your head straight and listen to sanity, and then I’m going to beat your brains back into shape.”

“I know Vistor backed you in this race, Flint. It’s a fix, so he can cling on to power now his brother’s gone. I won’t let that happen. I’ll kill you here before I let a murderer and a cheat seize my city.”

Flint’s jaw fell. “What?”

Jerethy didn’t wait to explain. He sprang forwards and threw a right hook that snapped Flint’s head back and sent him reeling to the floor, the room dark, blood roaring in his ears. He hit the hard wooden floor, heard something clink nearby, lay on his side, and fought for breath.

A huge shadow loomed over him. “When I’m President, we’ll have justice.”

He saw a massive fist rise over his face, and he struggled to raise his guard, or rise, or roll, but his body, a heavy leaden lump, refused to move.

Someone shrieked, a second shadow fell across him, and he heard a girl’s voice, loud and frightened. “Don’t you touch him.”

Jerethy’s reply sounded distant. “Get out of my way, little girl. Go play with the other little charges down the table.”

Flint saw the silhouette as she drew herself up and put her hands on her hips, and when she spoke, her voice grew in volume with every word. “How dare you, you stupid, ignorant, moronic rigger. I’m the President’s daughter.”

“…you were the President’s daughter,” said Jerethy. Now you’re just a charge, and probably talking to the next President right here.”

“Not yet you’re not, rigger, not yet. I am Diana Ambrel, daughter of Buck and Suzanne Ambrel, and while my father may be a heap of, of ashes, until this race ends he’s still President, and I’m still breathing, and that makes me President. Are you gonna raise your fists against your President?”

In the silence that followed, Jerethy sounded smaller. “I, uh, no…”

“And do you call it presidential to, to settle your arguments with your fists?”

“Hey now, that man’s a damned murderer, and maybe you don’t like it, little…”

“Yes?”

“…President. But he is a murderer, done the thing in front of the whole city, more or less, and I’d call hanging him a work of justice. I mean, come on, he killed Burl Clavar, everyone knows he killed his brother, and everyone knows he killed his wife and girl, too.”

Diana sucked air through her teeth. “He didn’t kill Caldy or her mom, they’re fine, I met them, they’re living in the forest.”

Flint felt his strength return, pulse by pulse. He started to rise, but Diana kicked him, and he decided to stay where he was. He wanted to settle matters with Jerethy in a more direct manner, but she seemed to have got a better grip on the situation. Maybe her father had engaged a few competent tutors, back before Caerlion showed up. In fact she reminded him of old Buck, chewing out some dumb green rigger.

Jerethy whistled. “That the truth, little girl?”

“You forget my name, rigger?”

He coughed. “Sorry, but is that true, Miss Diana?”

“You calling me a liar, rigger Jerethy?”

“But, but, he still killed Burl, right?” Flint saw Jerethy look around the room for support. “If little Caldy’s still alive, how did he get her necklace? Everyone saw him hurl it in Burl’s face.”

“Flint here rescued Caldy and her mom from slavers. You know how they got out here, in the wild lands? Burl got his brother to help him, and they took the girls to slavers, and they sold them.”

The quality of the silence changed. Before it had been that of people watching an entertaining play, but now it strained with the nervous tension of a courtroom. Flint saw Jerethy rub the back of his head. “Listen, Miss Diana, that’s a big accusation, I mean it’s a big thing to lay on a dead man-”

“I know what it means, and I’ll take you to them as soon as we finish.”

Jerethy wilted, found a chair at the long table, and sat down facing Diana. “Yeah, the race.”

“No,” said Diana. “This,” and she crouched down and patted Flint’s pockets. By then he had enough strength to sit up, but she put a hand on his chest and shook her head. “These guys kind of hate you,” she said. “Let me do the talking.” She found what she wanted, stood, and turned to face Jerethy and the company of riggers. “You all have been running just as fast as you can, trying to catch up with my old man. Well let me tell you a story. My father has a brother, a weaker sort, not good at running, not strong enough to haul a crate of beef or heave a bucket of beer, not strong enough to turn the tables on a bushwhacking bandit. He’s got the genes to be a rigger, just like you, but he doesn’t have the bones for it. And today or tomorrow, when you race into town, you’re gonna stomp on his ambition.”

Jerethy cleared his throat. “Look, Miss Diana, you might not get along with your uncle, but these are the rules, and you’re going to have to accept that the next President is not going to be an Ambrel.”

“But it is,” she said, and laughed. She raised the object she’d taken from Flint, and pointed it at Jerethy. Flint rose to his feet and put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. “It’s going to be the same Ambrel who sent you off on your race. If he gets his way, it’s going to be the same Ambrel for life.”

“What is that thing?” said Jerethy.

“Diana,” said Flint, “this is a mistake.”

“No! I’m sick of other people telling me what’s right and what’s wrong. I dreamed I’d be free on the open way, but it’s just another load of rules, and if you break them, someone puts a rope around your wrists and sells you like a piece of chicken.”

Jerethy hissed. “Wait. I know what that is. Where did you get it? Flint, did you find that out there? Did you make it into one of the old cities?”

“Look at me, rigger,” said Diana, her face white as bone. “Look at Vistor’s promise. You will have a new President, and you will obey him or you will get the gun.” She moved her arm, and Flint tried to stop her, but she snaked out of his grasp, aimed at a blue earthenware beer jug in the middle of the table, and fired. The blast deafened Flint, and the jug exploded in a fountain of foamy yellow beer that sprayed everyone around, and studded the table with jagged blue shards.

For a second everyone froze, and then the hall erupted in pandemonium, rigger yelled at rigger, charges screamed and ran, or hid under the table and wailed. Jerethy, pale as milk, put his face in his hands and shuddered, and the nearest riggers edged away from him, and their frightened glances told Flint they wanted to get far away from the focus of Diana’s righteous anger.

Flint put a hand on her shoulder. He tried to speak to her, but the gunshot had made it so he couldn’t hear his own voice over the ringing in his ears, so he patted her back, and she leaned against him and trembled, but just for a moment, and then she straightened up and held the gun in place covering the whole hall of riggers, and none of them moved, and the hall would have been silent but for the thunder that continued to echo in Flint’s skull for an age. When at last the sound faded to a distant hum, she spoke again, softer at first. “You stupid, stupid riggers. You run the great way and you flirt with the wild people and you think it makes you free. You carry water and beer and cheese and ham and everyone welcomes you back and says thank you, they give you nice things, and they listen to your stories about the mad old world outside the shield wall, and all this time you haven’t smelled the rot in the city.” Her voice grew louder and she put teeth into her words. “You think you’re living in freedom, you think you’re all-powerful, because you carry what we need. We need you but you don’t need us. We stay at home and you run free. Well tell me this, what will you do when Vistor shuts the gates of the city, when he puts a gun to the head of your wives and old ones, when your children are raised under the shadow of a gun? How long will your freedom last before he makes you his slaves?”

Jerethy shook himself all over and rose to his feet. “Girl, Diana, we’ve listened to your words, if what you say is true, and you’re backed by the Bay City Executioner over there, then I’ve got to ask why you’re here shooting and talking at us, instead of blazing into the city so Flint can give Vistor a taste of Rhino justice?”

Flint didn’t know if he should laugh or curse, so instead he put a hand on Diana’s shoulder, and spoke to Jerethy. “My charge here came with a tutor, ‘cept he was something else.” He outlined what he’d learned about Caerlion. “So we’ve come here looking for his partner, Vistor’s other rigger.”

Jerethy wrinkled his brow, a troubled look in his iridescent blue eyes. “Find it hard to believe a brother rigger would sell out the city that way.” He put his hands up before Diana could speak. “But I’m guessing you’d like to arrange a search of the rigs.”

Flint nodded. “That I would.”

Jerethy shook his head and sighed. “I don’t like you, Flint. I don’t like you one bit. There’s too much of the wild places in you. But I like this girl, she’s got iron in her blood.” He looked at her. “I might pay your bride price, have my folks train you up to be my wife.”

Diana bristled. “Say that into my gun.”

Jerethy swallowed. “Yeah, she’s got iron.” He turned and faced the watching crowd. “You heard Diana. You see the gun. I’m for tradition, and that means we choose our President in a fair race. If Vistor’s against that, he’ll answer to me, come what may. You agree?”

The riggers nodded and grunted their assent.

“So let’s have us a search. No one leaves the tower until we’ve gone through every rig. And to show I’m level and plain as the way, we can start with the Dragon.”

Diana sagged against Flint. “How was that, rigger?”

He grinned. “That was good. That was real good.”

“Wonderful. Can you take the gun now? When I fired it, I think I broke my wrist.”

 

Chapter 9

 

As they carried out the search, Flint marveled at the changes he’d seen in Diana since he’d first met her, dancing on the Rhino’s back. Before she had been carefree, perhaps insolent, but daring. She had wanted to run from the city, escape the prison she had grown up in, or rather the prison her uncle had begun to build, first for her, and then for them all. She still seemed daring, and yes, she could still hurl insults – even at a whole crowd of riggers, but underneath it all he sensed something new, a fierce determination to return, to run and hide no more, and instead to regain her home, renew it, take it back from the beast who had stolen it.

He wondered, as these thoughts flowed through him, how much of what he saw was real insight, and how much his own feelings layered onto the girl. He, too, had tried to turn his back on the city, and he too had found that it bound him, not with steel chains, but with something finer. When he had found Tessa Clavar and her young daughter Caldy, prisoners of the slavers, he had been appalled, and when he had learned how Burl had sold them, sold them himself, fury had overwhelmed him, and he had raced back to do rigger justice on Burl, but ever since that night when he had thrown Burl’s broken body onto the pyre, and his rage had burned on, he had known that his feeling was not a moment of anger at an act of injustice, but a deep hate of a system that put prices on people, a system that, he now saw, took a straight path to slavery.

He would stop Vistor, with his hands, his rig, or Caerlion’s gun, if need be. But the real challenge would follow on the heels of the first, for Vistor was not their ultimate enemy, and once Diana returned to the city, she would see that. She would have to.

 

+

 

The search continued long into the night, for there were many rigs, and though some were small, they were all freighters, with large holds and lots of nooks to stow cargo. Caerlion went along, sullen and withdrawn, prodded by Nathor, who had produced a long curved knife, hooked at the tip like a sickle or an eagle’s beak, and smirked when the cruel point left a thin mark on Caerlion’s neck. Perhaps he hoped to provoke a reaction from the enigmatic insurgent, but Caerlion never spoke, and his eyes remained unreadable behind his glasses. Jerethy watched this with a sour look, but he said nothing to Nathor, perhaps hoping to avoid further infighting among the riggers at a time when they needed to cooperate.

At last they finished the search. Where spirits had run high, now Flint saw glum looks and heard bitter grumbles. He shared the other riggers’ frustration, but Nathor gave it voice. “This was a wasted evening.”

They crowded into a rough circle on the black strip that ran from the hydrants back to the great way, and Nathor shoved Caerlion into the centre at the rounded end of his knife. “This creature can tell us how much of the girl’s story is true,” he said, “if any.”

Flint stepped towards him. “You think I would push this at you on a whim?”

Nathor rolled his big green eyes. “You kill on a whim, rigger. Having us run around like idiots seems a deal less serious than that.”

Flint curled his hands into fists. “Says the man who filled his hold with homemade bombs. You’re a danger to everyone around you, Nathor, and more still to yourself. How you haven’t blown your rig up I do not know.”

Nathor turned away from Caerlion, and angled the blade towards Flint. “I figure this is a big lie, Flint. I figure Vistor put you up to it. We all know he buttered you up and slipped you out of the noose. I figure he sent you to mess with us so we’d screw up the race, and his chosen rugger could take the prize.”

“And who would that be, huh? Who would Vistor’s puppet be?”

Jerethy stepped between them, palms stretched out. “This has got to stop. We get nothing from fighting each other. No one has the guns, no one is Vistor’s puppet.”

Nathor scowled. “So what do we do? Come on Jerethy, you don’t just want to give up.”

“Of course not. We take this guy back to the city and make him speak in public.”

“Fine,” said Nathor. “I don’t like it, but I’ll keep him under wraps.”

“No,” said Jerethy. “I’ll do it.”

“How do we know you’re not the traitor?”

Jerethy shot him a dirty look. “Nathor, if it comes out that I’ve been working with this guy, I will renounce the presidency.”

“If you were indeed conniving ‘with this guy’, you would say anything.” He took a half-step towards Jerethy. “I think that’s been your plan all along.”

Flint felt the situation slipping out of control. For once he cursed that rigger independence – they could work as hard as machines, but they couldn’t work as a team. “Nathor, this is going nowhere.”

“When I want to hear your voice, I’ll-”

When Nathor faced Flint, he turned his back on Caerlion. The tutor had shrunk, had descended into himself, and his blue shirt had hung loose over his form. Now he moved in a blur. He locked his hands together and swung them into Nathor’s left kidney like a mace, and stomped into the back of the rigger’s left knee. Nathor gasped and fell. In a fluid motion, Caerlion twisted the knife arm up and back, and trapped it against his chest. Nathor cursed and strained against the hold, but Caerlion leaned forward and pulled back, and Nathor screamed. Then Caerlion slid his wrists up under the knife’s hooked tip, jerked back, the metal sliced through his bonds, and the yellow cord fell to the ground. He took the knife out of Nathor’s hands and set it against his throat, glittering beak digging into Nathor’s skin.

Flint shook himself and stepped towards Caerlion. The man had acted so fast he hadn’t had time to think, and the other riggers had frozen just the same. He put out his hands. “Caerlion, think about this. There’s nowhere for you to run.”

Caerlion hauled Nathor to his feet, careful to keep his knife blade tight against the taller man’s neck. He smirked at Flint, and began to steer his captive out of the crowd. Nathor moaned. “I can’t walk, you bastard,” he said. “You bashed up my knee.”

Caerlion sneered. “Walk or die, sir. Walk or die.” He jerked the blade, and blood welled up and ran down Nathor’s throat, a darker stain on his black shirt.

Nathor gasped. “I’ll walk, I’ll walk.”

Jerethy raised his hands. “Let him go. You won’t be harmed, I swear.”

Caerlion ignored him, and forced Nathor out of the crowd, towards the line of waiting rigs.

Flint looked around. “Diana, Diana, where’s the gun?”

She pushed through the crowd, raised the weapon, and aimed at Caerlion. He laughed and kept herding Nathor away in the direction of the Eagle. “You can’t do it, girl. You’re just a child.”

She said nothing, but her hands shook.

Flint touched her shoulder. “Give me the gun, Diana.”

Caerlion got Nathor up beside the Eagle. “You forgot about me, Flint. You spent all this time searching for something that doesn’t exist.”

“Diana, give me the gun,” said Flint, but she tightened her grip on the weapon, and her whole body trembled with the tension.

Jerethy folded his arms. “What’s he talking about, Flint?”

Caerlion edged towards the door in the Eagle’s flank.

“He’s just trying to distract us.”

“Distract you,” said Caerlion, “I’m trying to educate you, you brainless rigger. Why do you think you couldn’t find the guns? Why do you think you couldn’t find my partner?”

“I was with you at Salter’s Reach,” said Flint. “I saw your crew and I spoke to Bear. The guns are real, Caerlion.”

Caerlion grinned, almost at the door. “But they’re not here, Flint. They’re not here. Do you want to know why?”

“Just shut your mouth,” said Flint.

“No,” said Jerethy. “I want to hear this.”

“He’s just going to lie to you,” said Flint. “That’s what he does. He lies and he breaks things. He came here to break our city, and right now he’s trying to break our resolve.”

“No, Flint,” said Caerlion, right at the door. “I’m going to tell you the truth from now on. You haven’t found the guns because you haven’t found my partner. Why haven’t you found my partner, Flint?”

“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we stop you.”

“You’re wrong,” said Caerlion, and forced Nathor’s bony hand against the scanner panel set in the door. “You haven’t found my partner because he’s dead, Flint. He’s dead and you killed him.”

Flint’s mouth fell open. “Blenner? You were working with Blenner Clavar?”

“No,” said Caerlion, and he shoved Nathor through the open door, then followed close and turned him so they stood in the doorway, Caerlion behind the rigger, Nathor’s eyes pleading with the silent, watching crowd.

“Then who?” asked Flint, and he strode towards the rig, curious now in spite of himself. “There’s no one else. You’re lying like you always have.”

Caerlion laughed. “I lie less than any of you. And Flint, poor Flint, haven’t you reasoned it out? I wasn’t working with your personal demon. Come on, who was there, so interested in helping you, when they had no reason to be? Who had a rig fast enough to get ahead of the rest, pick up the cargo, and shoot back to the city before anyone could catch them?”

Flint shook his head. “No, it’s a lie. I don’t believe you.”

Caerlion took off his spectacles, and turned a hard cobalt gaze on Flint. “Wurnech.”

“No!”

“Wurnech was my partner, Flint.” Laughing, he shoved Nathor deeper into the rig, and slammed the door shut.

Flint roared, hurled himself at the door, and beat it with the edges of his fists until the rig growled and lurched and Jerethy and the other riggers grabbed him and hauled him away, and he struggled in their grasp as the Eagle skimmed out into the darkness, to dash his hopes, and crush his memories.

 

+

 

Flint started to shove people aside as he made for the Rhino, then Jerethy grabbed his shoulder, spun him around and yelled in his face. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Flint knocked his hand away. “I’m gonna get in the Rhino and chase that lying snake down. Get out of my face, Jerethy, I’m going.”

Jerethy grabbed him by the arms. “No you’re not.”

“Are you really trying to stop me, Jerethy? He’s getting away.”

“Yes,” said Jerethy. “Yes he is.” He dropped his hands to his sides and stepped back. “He’s in the Eagle, and he’s getting away. Are you actually going to chase after the Eagle in that flying brick of yours?”

Flint began to speak but the words died in his mouth, and he slumped. “No.”

“No, you’re not,” said Jerethy. He turned to face the next rig, with the fish scale pattern and the back-swept antennae. “He’s in the Eagle, and the Comet ain’t coming. It’s time for the Dragon.”

Flint looked left and right and ground his teeth together. “Go get him then. He’s gotta run inland, to pick up the-”

“The guns, yeah,” said Jerethy, walking to his rig. “I got it.”

“I’ll take the rest of the rigs back to the city, so we can-”

“No!” Jerethy whirled around and locked eyes with Flint. “This race is not done.”

Flint straightened up. “This isn’t just about the race any more. Vistor could-”

“I said no. Vistor’s got nothing without the guns, and when we finish the race, he’ll have no choice but to give in. But you, and you, and all of you,” he looked across the crowd of riggers, “stay right here. I’m fighting to keep some order, and if any of you cross me, your rigs will answer to the Dragon.” Jerethy hit Flint with one final burning look. “That goes double for you, Rhino.”

Flint sagged, leaned his weight against the nearest rig, and watched as the Dragon’s engines coughed once and roared into life, the rig rolled around, picked up speed, and ran into the growing dark.

 

Chapter 10

 

Flint paced back and forth along the grassy verge at the edge of the cliff. At night the tower shone from within, and cast a pearly glow on the longhouse, the slumbering rigs, the way that swept south to the city, lights shining across the bay, and east to the inland places, to Jerethy, Nathor, and Caerlion’s rendezvous. The air tasted sweet and salty, he heard the crash of water against the base of the cliff, and saw white foam dance on waves in the bay. On any other night he would have appreciated the view, for the sea seemed to reach off into space, no borders or walls, just pure flowing freedom. The sea, he felt, was the opposite of the jewels the girls wore; you couldn’t chain the sea, and no price would buy it. But these thoughts flew from him tonight, for the tension of the wait absorbed him. Diana had persuaded him to eat some food, a sandwich or something, he couldn’t remember what, and she’d all but forced him to sleep at gunpoint, telling him the other riggers would watch for Jerethy’s return, and he had allowed himself a brief nap, but visions of shadows and fire and hook-tipped blades had torn him from sleep, so now he paced along the cliff under the pale light of the tower, and watched, and waited.

Jerethy had been right, he told himself. Jerethy had been right, though he hated to admit it. The Eagle had such a powerful engine and such a streamlined frame, for her size, that only two other rigs had ever been able to keep up with her in a straight race. He frowned. No, that wasn’t true. The Ambrels had a rig, too, the Star, but it had sat and gathered dust for years. Buck Ambrel had married late, fathered a single child, and had not, it seemed, been willing to break tradition and raise his daughter as a rigger. But the Star couldn’t help them now; the only person in the city capable of driving it was Vistor himself, and the mere idea rocked him with bleak humour.

Jerethy had been right, but what would he do when he caught up with the Comet? He couldn’t just ram it. Yes, he could probably rip the other rig in pieces, but what about Nathor? What about his hoard of bombs? Jerethy had looked ready to thrash Nathor when Flint had arrived at the tower, but a fistfight was one thing, and an explosive murder-suicide was another. Jerethy probably viewed him with dark suspicion, he considered, and perhaps that was another reason he’d taken off by himself. He didn’t want Flint anywhere near the action, didn’t trust him not to set the Comet up somehow, set it up and wreck it, regardless of who got hurt.

He stopped, faced the sea, and scowled across the bay. He hadn’t killed Burl for the fun of it. The act sickened him, made him feel dirty all over, and he felt that if he could wash himself clean with a dive into the sea he would take it. Yet he couldn’t do it, couldn’t turn away and tend to his own soul, not now he’d learned about Vistor’s plan, seen Caerlion’s malice, and faced the dirt that covered the city itself. He couldn’t stop now. He couldn’t turn his back, leave Diana to the care of the other riggers, abandon them all to their fate. Ties bound him to the city, ties as strong as the titanium surface of the Rhino. That was why he paced in the dark, waiting for Jerethy. The other man might succeed or fail, but the fight wouldn’t end until he saw Vistor in flames.

 

+

 

The growl of an approaching turbine pulled him away from the cliff, and he turned and ran to the way, and watched the light grow in the distance, but the nearer the rig drew, the lower his heart sank, for it sounded, not like the powerful roar of a lion, nor the smooth hum of a well-maintained machine, but like the hacking coughs of a broken beast, torn and frantic in the jaws of a steel trap. He watched it limp back to the tower, and the sight told him the story even before Jerethy staggered out of the door. The Dragon’s left wing hung crooked from her flank, which had buckled in, as if kicked by a giant. A spiderweb of cracks glistened across the front window, and the left antenna had snapped off.

Jerethy stepped out of the open door and stumbled. Flint moved to help him, but Jerethy shoved his hand away. “Bastard.”

Flint took a step back, hands wide. The sound of the Dragon’s approach had woken other riggers, for they began to stream out of the longhouse.

Jerethy shook his head and rubbed his eyes. The pale light of the tower cast deep shadows under those eyes, and made him look wasted and weak. “Bastard tricked me,” he said, almost speaking to himself.

“Caerlion’s a monster,” said Flint.

Jerethy twitched, and looked deep into his eyes. “Not him, Nathor.”

Flint narrowed his eyes. “But… Nathor?”

By then a small crowd had gathered around them. Jerethy moved closer to Flint, winced, then grabbed Flint’s shoulder, but he didn’t follow it with a blow. Instead he leaned on Flint, gasped, and spoke low into his ear. “Filthy lying scum. He called me up, said he’d turned the tables, got the man in the head with a lump hammer. Said he’d dumped him in a canyon with a time-bomb strapped to his belly. If I wanted civilised justice, I could pick him up and take him back to the bay, but he was gonna turn back and finish the race.” Jerethy clawed at Flint’s shoulder. “What was I supposed to do? I wanted to see him hang, but I couldn’t leave him to die, not like that. That’s not who I am.”

Flint grimaced. Part of him was furious at Jerethy, but another part questioned whether he would have acted differently, and if he had, he asked himself, what would that have said about him?

Jerethy coughed a few times, and then got his breath back. “So there I went, dumb as rocks, where he said.”

“Nobody there?”

“He was there all right, saw him in my lights, sitting a ways back in the canyon, but I had to pass through a narrow stretch, and as soon I got the Dragon between those rock walls, the whole damn world exploded.”

Flint rubbed his forehead. “Nathor’s bombs.”

Jerethy nodded. “He’d planted them on the right, and the blast flung my rig against the side of the canyon. Cracked the window, punched in the side, good as tore off the wing…” Tears rolled down his face. “Crippled the Dragon.”

Flint shook his head. “Jerethy…”

“But that’s not all.” He made a fist with his free hand. “After that, I see the Eagle skim in from the other end of the canyon, Nathor gets out, and he brings the other guy back into his rig. They sit there for a bit, and then he gets on the chat, asks me if I’m okay. So I tell him what I think of him, and he tells me, if I want to settle things I can just follow him out of the canyon. But first he wants to show me something. So he swings the Eagle round, points the tail at me, and opens the right-side cargo door. Tells me his new friends gave him a load of special fuses for his bombs. Proximity fuses, he calls them… Get too close, and up you go.”

“That’s how he hit you on the Pig, and when you entered the canyon.”

“And he did it again. He just dumped a load of bombs right in front of me.”

Flint frowned. “How did you get out of there?”

Jerethy stared at him, hollow-eyed and shaking. “I don’t even know.”

Flint gazed at Jerethy, lost in the man’s pain, and felt his hopes crumble. He didn’t know what was true any more, whether Nathor was really Caerlion’s partner or whether he’d made some kind of deal to get the knife away from his neck. He wanted to believe Nathor had always been in league with Caerlion, because the thought that Vern had betrayed him hurt too much to contemplate, but the false tutor had sounded so sincere, and he’d made Nathor bleed for everyone to see.

“What the hell do we do now?” asked Delby, a scrawny rigger with a weak jaw and a blue hat.

“We have to catch up to Nathor,” said Tridens, a sleepy-eyed man with a droopy moustache and a long leather coat.

“No way am I chasing him,” said Delby. “He’s riding the Eagle, and he’s got a hold full of bombs. You can see the Dragon right there.”

“Then back to the city, back and grab Vistor.”

“We can’t grab him, he’s an elder citizen, he’s an Ambrel, and he doesn’t have any weapons, not yet. Grab him, come off it, we don’t even have any evidence.”

Tridens eyed Delby. “If you’ve got brains to spare, then what do we do?”

Flint snarled. “We stop the bastard, that’s what we do.”

The crowd fell silent, and Flint realised they had all turned to face him. Delby adjusted his hat. “You got a plan?”

Flint felt their eyes on him, and he didn’t like it. He felt exposed and vulnerable, but he saw the same chaos playing out among them that he felt within, the chaos that threatened to drown his hopes and certainties in a morass of confusion. He had spoken out because to remain silent was to sink, as they were sinking, and he could not allow himself that corrosive luxury.

“Have I got a plan?” he said, and forced himself to stand tall. “No, I’ve got something better. I’ve got the greatest riggers in the world.”

“You got most the only riggers in the world,” said Tridens.

He breathed in through his teeth. “Well… I guess that’ll have to do.”

 

+

 

 

The dawn sun painted the ragged line of rigs red and gold, and lit their windows with the glitter of diamonds. Flint had ordered the riggers to run down the way to a point where the cliffs sank down and became a narrow strip of pebble beach, lapped by the sea, while the inland side of the way sprouted the stubby red rocks of a petrified forest. Here, where the way narrowed, where nature barred both exits, he had told the men to park their rigs in a staggered blockade. Their size and their need for space to maneuver meant the rigs couldn’t form a neat line, but he had been able to set them up in two layers, and the rear layer covered the gaps between those in front. They faced away from the city, towards the tower that shone like molten gold in the rising sun, towards the inland route, towards the Comet.

Flint sat in the driver’s seat of the Rhino, the centre rig in the front rank. He’d insisted on the position, and the other riggers had been happy to give it to him. Diana sat across from him and gazed up at the tower. “It’s so beautiful.”

He took his eyes off the bend in the way where it rose up in a slope, then curved east past a rock and out of sight. “The tower? I guess.”

She wore a white blouse and a red tartan skirt, and her hair framed her face, which looked as luminous as the tower. Her eyes shone with moisture. “No, not the tower, silly.”

“Then…?”

She wiped her eyes. “Everyone’s helping each other. They’ve been racing for days, and they were all ready to have a big fight when we got here, but now… They’re so different from Vistor.”

“Hey, remember, your uncle’s not the only Ambrel. Your father…” He paused, unsure if he’d crossed a line, but decided to press on. “If Buck Ambrel could be here, he would be right on this line with us.” Better him than the girl, he thought. He’d tried to leave her somewhere safe, but it was getting harder to argue with her, and besides, the Rhino probably was the safest place in the bay.

“Thank you, Flint. I- Oh! Look at that.”

He shot her a wry grin “See a kangaroo in the rock forest?”

“No, Flint, look at that.” She grabbed his ear and turned his head, and he saw a bright shape flash past the bend in the way and hurtle towards them.

His hands closed on the wheel. “The Comet.”

It raced towards them, and he believed it would slam into the blockade, but it began to shed speed, and at last it coasted to a halt some distance up the way. He saw the hooked beak of the rig, and the sun glittered on the feather pattern. He felt he could make out two figures in the cockpit, but that might have been his imagination.

They sat that way for a time, and then Flint hit the radio and called up the Comet. “Nathor, I know that’s you driving that hulk. You can’t go any further. Stop here, and we can settle all this.”

A few moments passed and then Nathor’s voice sounded from the speakers. “You won’t stop me, Flint.”

“Dammit, Nathor, it’s not you I need to stop. It’s that murdering bastard from the wild lands.”

“Funny, coming from you. But it’s no use. One and the same, we are, one and the same. Once we get to the city, I’m going to get my just reward.”

He clenched the wheel. “You can’t listen to that maniac. He’ll say anything. Vistor won’t reward you for this, he wants all the power for himself.”

“I won’t need Vistor. With these weapons I can take the power for myself. President Nathor. How does that sound, Flint?”

“You’re a deluded puppet, Nathor. He’s lying to you. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to the city. You’re not going any further.”

“…we’ll see.”

The Comet started to move again, and Flint braced himself for a collision, but Nathor turned the other rig and took it up the slope and faced it sideways, at right angles to the way and the rigs waiting below. For a time nothing happened, and Flint considered firing up the turbine and ramming the Comet, although the thought of all those bombs made his skin crawl.

Diana chewed her lip. “What’s he doing?”

He didn’t answer. Then he caught some movement, leaned forward, and saw a cargo door open in the Comet’s flank. A lanky figure appeared, framed in the door, and he knew it for Nathor.

“Now,” he said, and triggered the engines.

Diana squealed. “What are you doing?”

He began to pull forward. “He’s out of the cockpit. If I can nudge that rig just enough, he’ll be stuck outside with the door open.”

“And we can get in there and catch Caerlion.”

“Right.”

“But Flint, wait, what’s that?”

He continued to move forwards, and noticed that some of the other rigs had also started their engines, though he didn’t know whether they had seen the same opportunity, or whether they were just following him. Diana pointed, and he saw Nathor heft a big steel barrel out of the cargo door and set it down on its side. He kicked it, and the barrel started to roll down the slope.

Flint paused, his eyes locked on the rolling barrel.

“Flint,” said Diana. “Flint, what’s that?”

“I don’t-”

“Flint, it’s coming right at us.”

Nathor stood at the head of the hill and looked down at the line of rigs, his head high and arms crossed. Flint’s eyes widened and his scalp prickled. He started to turn the Rhino, but he bumped into the rig on his right wing. He turned away, and scraped another rig on his left.

Diana moaned.“Flint, get us out of here.”

“There’s nowhere to go.”

“It’s getting closer.”

He did the only thing he could, and gunned the engines to full power. The Rhino put on a burst of speed and flung him back in his seat. Diana tumbled out of her chair, but he couldn’t spare the time to help her. He pushed the Rhino to move as fast as it could, and managed to pull ahead of the crowd. He punched the radio to a general call. “Spread out,” he said. “There’s a bomb running down the way. Spread or die.”

The barrel rolled towards him, faster now. He took his own advice, spun the wheel, and pulled the Rhino onto the strip of pebble beach, though the sight of the sea, so close to his rig, made his guts twist.

Safe for the moment, he halted the rig and helped Diana to her feet. Then they stood, entranced by the sight of the barrel that rushed down into the midst of the fragmented blockade. The first line of rigs had started moving fast enough to take his advice, pulled left and right, and buffeted one another as they went. The second line hadn’t seen the Comet, and by the time that Flint had warned them, the barrel had already come a long way down the slope. A couple of rigs in the middle hadn’t even started to move, and Flint, horrified, wondered if they hadn’t heard his broadcast. He reached for the radio to try again, but by then it was already too late. The barrel had rolled straight down the middle of the way, but after a bit it hit a dent or something, and veered inland. At first Flint thought it would run into the petrified tree stumps and waste its power on the rocks, but it had already come too far.

Diana grabbed his arm. “Flint, those men…”

He saw it too, and it sickened him. The rigs on his left had pulled that way, and hugged the edge of the forest in an attempt to avoid the rolling bomb. Now they sat in a thick cluster right in its path, with no time left to move. He leaned forward, put his hands on the dash, and willed the barrel to turn, or the men to get away. They tried to escape, but the barrel had come too far, and it rolled too fast. It ran in between two tight-packed rigs and vanished from sight. Flint held his breath and gouged his nails into the dash. The two front rigs vanished in a massive explosion that shook the ground and scattered the nearest rigs. The blast hurled one rig into the rocks, where it went up in a second, fiery blast. The remaining rigs skidded or rolled back across the way, to bash and scrape one another.

Flint punched the dash.

Diana put her hand on his shoulder. “Flint.”

“No now, Diana.” He shook his head. “Not now.”

When she spoke again she put iron in her voice. “Look up.”

He lifted his head, though his muscles felt icy and slow. He saw a flicker of movement at the head of the hill. Nathor turned his back on the scene of wreckage below, climbed into the Comet, and shut the door. Moments later the Comet bucked, turned, and began to skim down the slope.

Flint stared at the onrushing rig, and a small voice pleaded with him to do something, but his body and mind felt chilled and numb. He didn’t seem able to move.

“Flint, please,” said Diana.

He watched the Comet speed towards the tattered line, and knew they had failed. He had failed. No matter how strong or quick he was, no matter how hard he had worked to set up the blockade, he couldn’t protect it from Nathor’s weapons, and he couldn’t out-speed Nathor’s rig.

He shuddered. “It’s over.”

“Flint, you have to do something.”

He watched the Comet rush towards the massive gap in the blockade. “Didn’t you hear me, girl? I said it’s over.”

The Comet whipped between two rigs and continued on beyond the line, beyond their reach. Diana squeezed her eyes shut and sobbed. Flint sank into his seat and stared straight ahead with blank, unseeing eyes.

Failure. He hadn’t imagined it was possible. He’d believed they would find a way, they’d think of a plan or a clever ploy, they’d outsmart Nathor and Caerlion, or just beat them with plain old Rhino toughness. The other riggers had bought into it, and Jerethy had sent them off with a vengeful blessing. Yes, Jerethy had believed they could succeed, especially since they now knew about Nathor’s treachery and his vile weapons. The plan had been sound. They could have closed in on the Comet, surrounded it, forced it to stop. They could have held it in place until Nathor ran out of food or water, and, starving, had given himself up. They could have beaten him. But he had outsmarted them. No, thought Flint, he hadn’t been smarter, he hadn’t beaten them on brains. He’d beaten them on violence, beaten them on butchery. The men had called Flint, a murderer, but he had taken Burl’s life for justice, and been willing to hang for it. Nathor had tossed a bomb into a crowd without thought for who or how many he hurt. No one had imagined a living human, a man from the bay, could do such a thing.

Nathor had beaten them on sheer, mindless destruction. And worse, Flint saw now, he would carry that same destruction down to the city. The rules and laws and traditions they had lived by for all the ages since the end of the old world, Nathor and Caerlion would rip them apart and burn the shreds. Flint had wanted an end to the aged, custom-bound way of thinking, but not at the price of the city itself.

“It’s gone. It’s all gone.”

 

Chapter 11

 

Diana stood up and faced him, tears shining in her vivid red eyes. “Do something, Flint. They’re getting away.”

He looked up at her, and no words came. How could he express the pain and helplessness he felt? He closed his eyes and looked down.

“Flint, there’s no one left to stop them. If they get to the city, my awful uncle will get his guns, and he’ll make everyone slaves. Isn’t that what you hate? Haven’t you told me a million times you won’t be a slave, won’t see the city a, a cage, a prison?”

He tried to ignore her, but heat built in his chest until he had to speak. He scowled up at her. “This isn’t about my values, Diana. It’s about the Eagle’s goddamn turbine. They’re past us. I tried my best to prevent it, but they’re past us now, and this rig cannot overtake that rig, not here, not on the smoothest way ever made. Don’t you understand? There is nothing that I can do.”

She held his gaze. Her face turned pale and her hands trembled, but she held her gaze. “Really?”

“Yes. Really.”

“You’re a liar.”

He looked skywards and spread his hands in a gesture of exasperation. “In what world am I a liar? Look, look over there. You can see the Eagle. How am I lying to you?”

She reached into a pocket on her skirt. “You’re lying to yourself.”

“No. No I’m not.”

“Then explain this.” She took out a shining golden object and held it before him. He recognised the gleaming metal claw, and remembered finding it still dug into the wing.

“How did you get that?”

“You dropped it when Jerethy knocked you out.”

“He didn’t-” He broke off and sighed. “That doesn’t help us, Diana. I can’t magically summon the fire monsters. I can’t call up the King of Fire on the radio and ask him to take care of Caerlion and co.”

She set the claw on the dash, beside the wooden rhino. “Yes,” she said, and looked out at the sea. “Yes you can.”

He followed her gaze and looked at the great expanse of water. From here to the city, the way followed the wide curve of the shoreline, but a straight run across the water would be much faster. His heart started to beat quicker, but he shook his head. “No. No way.”

“You’ve done it before,” she said. “I know you have. I might not be grown up, but I’ve seen the new burn marks on the right flank. They’re the same as the one you showed me at Smelt. And there’s a deep scratch on the wing, and it matches the claw perfectly. You didn’t tell me before because you thought we were going to die, and you were so mad at Caerlion you’d try anything to beat him, but you went up against a fire monster right after we left the burned place.”

He shuddered. “I had to do that.”

“No, you didn’t. You chose to because Caerlion had turned your home into a prison, and you wanted to be free. Well that’s my home over there,” she said, and pointed at the distant city. “And every second you waste telling me ‘no’ is another second he gets closer, and when he arrives he’ll make everyone I know a slave.” She sobbed, and her eyes streamed. “How dare you ignore them? How dare you abandon them?”

He grimaced, and felt himself heat, boil, felt he had to explode from the pressure within. He wanted to comfort her, and he wanted to hurl her out of the door and fly away, forget everything that had happened in the past week. But he knew he couldn’t do either. Comfort would ring hollow, and having come this far he couldn’t turn his back on her now. He only had one choice, and he’d known it since she’d shown him the golden claw. A strange, wild exhilaration rose in him; it spiraled up from his belly and shot tingles and sparks through his chest, back and arms. He grabbed the wheel in both hands and wrestled with it, almost wishing it would break off and make the next move impossible, but he knew the rig would hold.

The Rhino always held.

Diana must have seen the change come over him, for she wiped her eyes, and sat in her seat.

He didn’t look at her. “I would tell you to get off the rig.”

“Not back in the hold?”

He grinned. “Not this time.” He looked at her. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, Diana, but I do know this rig is going to be anything but safe on this run.”

“Rigger,” she said, “when was it ever safe?”

 

+

 

He fixed his gaze on the distant city. The sea looked smooth enough, no storm clouds looming overhead to spoil the ride. He glanced at the way, and saw a blur of motion as the Eagle sped on. Could they really catch her up? He didn’t know, but he was going to try. He fired up the engine, pulled the rig around and lined up the horn on the city. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and started to accelerate.

The Rhino hummed down over the pebble beach, and dipped a little when it got over the water. He corrected their course and gunned the engines. The rig began to pick up speed and he saw the water ahead deepen and turn blue, and a foamy wake form in the rear screen.

Diana sighed. “Oh Flint, I thought something horrible would happen as soon as we flew over the water.”

He winced. “Don’t say that, Diana.”

“Why not? Don’t tell me you’re afraid I’ll jinx you.”

“Uhm…”

She giggled. “Flint, you’re supposed to be the mature adult here…” She trailed off, her eyes locked on a green glow emanating from the water ahead. “Flint.”

“I see it.”

“Flint!”

“I see it!”

The green light shone almost straight ahead. Flint nudged the wheel right, and they whipped past it just as it turned red.

Diana sighed. “Oh, that was scary.”

A second light appeared ahead, and the first one burst from the water in a cloud of steam. Flint steered left this time and got past the second machine, but when he checked the rear screen, he saw two fiery orbs trailing them.

Diana watched the chasing fires in the rear screen. “I’ve never seen that,” she said. “It’s like fire come to life, flying through the air. How does it work?”

He kept his eyes on the water ahead. “No one knows any more.”

“That’s a shame.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Maybe it’s like the rig,” she said, absorbed by the light show in the rear screen. “Maybe they use hydrogen from the water.”

“Diana, it’s not healthy to think about them too much. I’d trade all the rigs ever for a world without those monsters.”

She didn’t look at him. “No, you wouldn’t.”

He laughed. “No, I guess you’re right. Hang on, here comes another one.”

This time the green light seemed odd, distorted. He nudged the Rhino towards the shoreline, and the shift in perspective revealed not one, but two lights rising close together. “Looks like they’re getting thicker,” he said.

Diana yelped. “Flint, there are more of them behind us now.”

He checked the rear screen, and saw that the pair of trailing fires had spread out, one to the left, one to the right, and had activated two or three more fires. He swallowed. “They’re giving us a bigger shadow.” He frowned. “It’ll be okay, it’s not like we were planning to go back.”

When he faced front again he felt his composure slip. Where before he had seen a pair of lights, he now saw a line of glowing green ascend through the water ahead, a line that swept right, to the shore. Sweat made his palms slick, and he rubbed them on his shirt, then turned the wheel left.

The girl half-rose in her seat and leaned on the dash. “They’re cutting us off from the shore.”

“Uh huh.”

The lights ahead rose faster now, and fires blossomed ahead of them like a line of lanterns, floating on the blue water. They began off to the right, towards the distant shore, and new lights rose and added to the line, until it reached left in a great blazing semicircle, and the fires behind them multiplied and joined with the others to form a vast burning ring. As Flint watched, the ring began to contract. His eyes fell on the golden talon on the dash. It reflected the approaching firelight, and Flint had a vision; he saw dozens of golden monsters gouge holes in the rig, and screech and scream as they burned through the Rhino’s titanium hide. It would be a race to see whether he and Diana would cook in the superheated air or drown in molten metal.

He shivered, and glanced at Diana. She looked pale and shaky. “Flint,” she said. “This might have been a mistake.”

“You think?”

She brightened. “But at least we won’t make a lot more.”

“…I guess.”

The chain of fire closed in on them. The blaze made it hard to keep sight of the city, and he decided the only course was to break through. He scanned the chain, saw a slightly wider gap between two fires ahead and to the left, and he aimed the rig that way. As if the chain understood his intentions, the gap closed. He cursed and looked for another, but the chain continued to contract in on the Rhino, and it began to circle.

“Flint, why are they doing that?”

“Keep us from getting bored, I suppose.”

“I’m not bored. I’m not bored at all. Flint, are you sure we can’t just fly over them?”

“Ground effect, Diana. Ground effect. I’m pretty sure those things can go as high as they like.”

“What about the water? Can’t we, like, swim or something? They don’t burn in the water.”

“Neither does the turbine.”

“You mean we’d…” She raised her hand, pointed the fingers down, and thrust it down.

He nodded.

“It wasn’t like this when you took Caerlion’s gun, was it?”

He shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. I’m sorry, Flint.”

He gritted his teeth. “Don’t be. We’re not cooked yet.”

She shot him a hopeful glance. “Do you have a plan?”

“Nope. I’ve got the Rhino. That’s all I’ve got, all I’ve ever needed.”

He aimed the horn where the thought the city lay, pushed the engines to full power, and sent the rig hurtling at the chain of fire.

As the fires spun and the gaps in the chain shrank, the water began to bubble and steam. Where before the monsters had turned their steam into fire, now they shed so much heat that it boiled the sea’s surface, made it churn and froth, and filled the ring with hot mist that settled on the Rhino’s windows and obscured Flint’s view. By that point the light from the fires had already grown so intense that he couldn’t see the mainland, and had to guess the direction of the city with a combination of instruments and intuition. Now even the fires seemed to fade, diminished by the fog to a glowing haze.

Diana leaned forward and peered through the sweat damp window. “Maybe they’ve lost us in this mist.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think it works that way.”

“What’s going to happen? Really tell me, don’t lie to me.”

He squinted into the fog. “Imagine that someone twisted that necklace of yours tighter and tighter until you couldn’t breathe, and then heated it until the metal melted into your flesh.”

“…Flint?”

“Yeah.”

“When I told you not to lie… I didn’t mean it.”

He angled the rig up. “Welcome to the world of grown-ups.”

The mist began to glow brighter, and Flint wiped sweat from his face. He couldn’t tell if the monsters’ heat had warmed the cockpit or whether it was all his imagination. Either way he felt he was about to cook. If they remained in that ring of death, they would roast like chickens. He had to count on the strength of the rig, and the speed of the engines. “Hold on, Diana. We’re going to crash through.”

He turned the nose down, and shed a couple of metres. It brought him close to the water’s surface, and he saw, through the mist, the dazzling reflection of the whirling golden ring, contracted almost to a point. Then the hurtling rig hit the closing fires with a shock that tossed Flint and Diana about, but the main force of the impact struck just above the window bubble, at the Rhino’s tough brow, raised a squeal of tortured metal that ran from the front of the rig to the back, and shook the whole vehicle. Then they burst out of the mist, and the fires receded in the rear screen, but Flint had no time to celebrate, because the Rig’s downward angle of flight made the sea rise up before them, deep blue waves that danced with foam. He heaved back on the wheel, the Rhino pulled up, but not before they splashed the surface, and gouts of water streaked the windows. Then they rose, but the engine coughed, and Flint feared the sea had flooded the turbine, and he clung to the wheel with white fingers, saw the circle behind break into a following wedge, and all he could do was keep going, keep on going, and finally he sighed and let his body relax, for although the Rhino had dipped her snout in the sea, she hadn’t drowned.

“Flint, you did it,” said Diana. She wiped sweat and tears from her face and leaned over and hugged him. “You went under. Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?”

“Truth? I didn’t know it would work.”

She fell back into her seat. “When you tell this story, you have to change that. Tell people you know your rig better than your own skin, or something.”

“Who am I going to tell?”

She pointed across the water. “Look, we’re halfway across the bay already. But the fire monsters… Why are they doing that?”

He checked the rear screen, and saw the wedge of fire stretch out into a line, but as he watched, it angled right, towards the shore, as if the Rhino had grown a long and gently wagging tail. “Well, I think-”

“Look. Flint, look!”

He followed her pointing finger to a spot ahead and to the left, and saw a new green glow illuminate the rippling waves. At first, still elated by his escape from the burning chain, he felt little more than mild excitement. Then, as the light brightened, it also expanded, and he frowned in puzzlement. He watched this for a few moments more, and when the light turned red, he understood. The light hadn’t expanded, that had been a trick of perception. No, it had come from deeper.

They caught on at the same time, and Diana put it in words. “This one’s bigger.”

His heart sank, and he felt the familiar icy sensation deep in his belly. “You know what that is, Diana. Who that is.”

She half-turned from the window, but her eyes remained fixed on the rising light that bathed the cockpit in a red glow. “I thought it was a story. I thought it was just a story.”

“Some of the old stories are true.”

“The King of Fire.”

The huge form burst from the water, the red light faded, and they saw a great golden skeleton, like a human with no legs but many arms that ended in cruel claws, each finger a sharp, hooked scythe. It rose above them, arms spread wide like gilded wings, and the morning light made it shine like a new sun. It gazed down at the onrushing rig with cold obsidian eyes, and showed them the smile of the dead. Atop its gleaming skull it wore a diamond crown.

Diana shrank in her seat. “Flint,” she said, “do something. Please do something.”

Flint gazed up at the King of Fire. The fire monsters never revealed themselves in this way, and he had never seen one of them so clearly. He felt certain that the few people who had seen this had not lived to speak of it. But someone had, he began to think. Someone had survived. “We can get through this, Diana,” he said.

“Lies are good, Flint. Keep ‘em coming.”

“No, listen,” he said. “Someone survived. Someone made it through. I never knew why we called it the king, but I understand now. They saw the crown. They saw the diamond crown and they got away.”

“Did they leave a handy guide on how they escaped?”

“Well, no.”

“Then stop realising things and get us out of here!”

As if the monster had heard her, it brought its arms together and pointed them at the Rhino. The air around it began to swirl with heat, and steam rose from the sea. The skeletal figure danced all over with pale blue fire, and then it erupted in dazzling yellow flames. It hung there for a moment, and then it flew at them.

 

+

 

Fire burned behind them and fire burned ahead, a light so bright it hurt the eyes and gilded the waves, turning the sea into one vast, foaming golden mirror. Flint held steady, watched the King advance, and saw the sea boil away before it, the steam streak behind. Diana said what he wanted to ignore. “This one’s faster than the others.”

“Much faster.”

“It’s bigger, too. Flint, you have to do something.”

“I do agree.”

She stared at the blazing monster, and her eyes shone with crimson fire. “Can you go under it again?”

“I don’t think that’ll work this time.”

“Over?”

“Definitely not.”

“You’re the damn rigger, Flint. Think of something!”

He set his jaw. “I already have. I thought of it before we hit the surf. I thought of it days ago. It’s the one thing the Rhino is really good at.”

She shook her head. “Why did I ever come on this dumb race?” Then she picked up the little red wooden rhino she’d carved, kissed it, and set back on the dash, facing the King. “Let’s make jam.”

He broke out in a broad grin. “Jam it is.”

He lined the Rhino’s horn dead centre on the King of Fire, let the engines rest a moment, and then spun the turbine up to maximum power. The Rhino bellowed and shot forward. Wavelets whipped up and lashed the windows with spray, and the whole rig juddered as the engine strained to drive it forward, even as the King of Fire rushed towards them, an incandescent brand on a pillar of steam. At the last moment, Diana yanked her seat-belt across her body, and Flint cursed and scrambled to do the same, then he looked up and saw the King bearing down on them, faster than anything he’d ever seen, arms splayed and slashing at the air, and he grabbed the wheel, gripped it with all his strength, and drove the Rhino through the steam, the fire, between the cruel clawed hands, to smash straight into the King’s gleaming golden ribs.

The impact hurled Flint headlong at the window, but his seat-belt clamped down on his chest and belly, saving him, and he saw Diana had gone through the same thing. The King of Fire did not escape; it took the Rhino’s full force right where its heart would have been, and it burst in a flash that hurt the eyes, and beat the rig like a drum. The ribs flew apart and revealed motors, gears and circuits, and all of them, cast out from their protective casing, burned to ash or melted before Flint’s tortured eyes, and dropped into the sea. The monster’s head flew up into the air, and Flint watched it in the rear screen, saw it fall into the sea behind the rig, still showing that malevolent grin. Just after it plunged below the foaming blue waves, he heard a terrible screech, like a knife blade scratching a chalk board, looked left, and saw one huge, glittering clawed hand, scythe-like talons gouging at the window. He saw, too, that the heat had warped the whole window, raised bubbles at the edges, and the collision with the King had flung shrapnel that had scored lines in the diamond glass.

“Flint, that hand…”

“Yeah,” he said, and saw the disembodied hand jab one vicious serrated blade deep into the window. The thing still radiated enough heat the make the air shimmer around it, and the window continued to warp. If he didn’t stop it, the hand would cut and burn its way through the window, and the mere thought made his skin crawl.

He unstrapped his seat belt, climbed up on the dashboard, and slammed a kick into the window.

Diana shrieked. “It’s burning through.”

He grunted and kicked again. The window shook in its frame, and he heard it pop along the warped seams. He drew back for another kick when he felt a jet of hot air blow in his face. He glanced up, and saw the King’s talon poke clear through the window, and, now through, it began to scrape and gouge faster. Flint shook his head. “Not today, you monster, not today.” He tensed his body and threw another kick. This time the window popped out of its frame, and he stumbled and fell to his knees, blasted by the rushing wind of the Rhino’s passage, and felt the sea spray his face and chest. The window fell back, slid down the Rhino’s snout, and he watched the golden claws spread out, as if to grab at him one last time, before they disappeared into the sea.

He struggled back into the cockpit, drenched by sprays of seawater, the wind howling. The wooden rhino figurine had disappeared. He climbed into his seat, locked his belt, and shielded his face from the battering wind. He turned to Diana, saw her mouth some words at him, but the noise drowned her words. She gave up and raised her thumb. He copied the gesture, and they both grinned. Then she pointed right, at the coast. He nodded, and turned the wheel.

The wind buffeted them the whole way back to land, and Flint watched the children of the King of Fire follow them like a monstrous funeral procession.

 

+

 

They spotted the Eagle racing towards them, near the end of the long curved way. Flint considered trying the radio, but the wind still blasted his face, and he felt sure his ears would sing for days. No, he’d tried the radio before, to little effect. Besides, what could they tell him that he could trust? He aimed the Rhino inland, left the water, crossed a sandy strip of beach, and flew up the way to meet the onrushing rig. The Eagle grew before them, and with the window gone, he felt he could hear the roar of its powerful turbine even over the screaming wind. He cut his own engine, shed some speed, and caught a warning glance from Diana. He narrowed his eyes, checked the rear screen, and held speed. Moments later the Eagle rushed up towards them, so close he could see two figures in the cockpit. Whether imagination or true vision, he believed he saw Nathor’s gaunt face, green eyes wide in shock, and Caerlion’s mouth fall open as they saw the impossible – the slow old Rhino, left behind at the other end of the bay, waiting in their path. He bared his teeth in something like a smile, gunned the engines, and sent the Rhino flying at them. Then, at the last moment, he hauled the wheel left, turned inland, and watched the result in the rear screen.

The fire monsters had trailed the Rhino across the sea, and when he’d paused on the way, they had almost caught up. He’d lined the Rhino up with the Eagle, and obscured the sight of the deadly machines from Nathor and Caerlion. When he’d gone left, he’d given the traitors nowhere and no time to escape from the column of blazing wrath that descended on them. The monsters flung themselves on Nathor’s rig. The Eagle bucked and jerked, but the fires massed up and piled on it, turning the speeding rig into a huge fireball. Even with that weight of ancient metal clawing at it, the Eagle continued to run, and Flint felt a pang of sympathy for the embattled rigger. He knew the relentless aggression of the death machines, knew the anguish of having them dig their talons into his rig, to cut and burn its metal hide. Traitor or no, he couldn’t hate Nathor so much as to feel pleasure or pride in the death run of the Eagle, and death run it was, for the rear screen showed the Eagle slow and lose height, until its belly hit the way and raised a trail of sparks, but even then Nathor kept the turbine running, and Flint knew he had to be hoping, praying that if he could just run far enough, he would somehow shed the monsters. Flint shook his head, his hands tight on the wheel. He would have done the same, he knew it. Enemies or not, he and Nathor were brother riggers, but that alone wouldn’t save anyone. The Eagle’s skin must have melted through, or the power systems overheated, for a blast ripped it apart and thundered even over the wind howling in through the broken window, followed, moments later, by a series of explosions that began at the shattered ruin and spread out, Nathor’s bombs, hurled from the Eagle’s corpse, to create a cloud of fury that dwarfed the creatures from the sea, and snuffed out their flames with force beyond fire.

Flint cut the engines, brought the Rhino around, and set her down on the way. The wind died, and he and Diana sat in a silence that seemed to echo with the beats of a distant drum. She turned her crimson eyes on him. “They’re gone, Flint. The rig, the monsters, they’re just… Gone.” She narrowed her eyes. “My uncle…”

“Vistor’s finished, Diana. Time to go home.”

 

Chapter 12

 

Flint stood at the edge of the field, skimmed his eyes over the crowd, and watched the lone figure walk away to the shield wall. At this distance Flint couldn’t make out his features, but he recognised the bulging upper body and spindly legs of Vistor Ambrel. The older man wore the same grey suit he’d had through the trial, but now he carried a green backpack with a bedroll and enough gear to keep him alive, for a time. The families of the lost riggers had wanted to hang him, and the men who’d been hurt or had their rigs damaged by Nathor’s bombs had agreed, until Flint had shown everyone a single, blackened piece of metal, the last shred of the Eagle. That, he had said, was the last remains of Vistor’s plan. Everyone in the bay had heard the explosions, and when, after looking at Diana, he’d suggested exile, the riggers had listened, and the city folk had accepted it, including however many had intended to wield guns for him. Now Vistor trudged towards the shield wall, the wild lands, and whatever life he could make out there. Flint didn’t know if it was merciful or cruel, but it was over, and that was enough.

He turned his back on the scene and hurried to the hangar. Once inside the vast old building, he went straight to the rig. As he’d expected, the workers had cleared out for the sentencing and banishment, so no one got in his way or questioned him when he approached the great old hulk. They’d done a decent job; filled gouges in the skin with aerogel, welded them over with new layers of titanium, replaced a big strip of the right wing, resurfaced the bottom layer, and replaced the tires the rig ran on during take-off and landing. The weld points showed, the new titanium plates stood out against the old smooth skin, and the rig looked like a patchwork monster rather than the toughest, proudest rig in the city. Worse yet, they hadn’t got around to replacing the bubble windows. The originals lay somewhere at the bottom of the bay, and no one in the city had a maker machine designed to produce that kind of material. Some of the makers were talking about new techniques, and others were arguing for scrapping some of the rigs damaged in the race, though the owners were fighting the notion. For the time being, the repair team had cobbled together a lot of plastic house windows. They covered the cockpit, flat, hard-edged and crisscrossed with lines, but Flint could at least see through them. He reached up and smacked the window, and it didn’t fall apart.

“Guess it’ll do,” he said, and noticed that someone had found the rhino figurine and put it back on the dash. He smiled and headed around to the door. When he got there, he saw light spill out from within, a shadowy figure framed in the entrance. He paused, let his eyes adjust, and recognised a familiar silhouette. “Diana.”

She wore a long black dress and her hair framed her face. Her diamond pendant hung over her clothes, bright against the black fabric. “You took your time.”

“Had to wait for the sentencing. Had to see it done.”

“And then you came straight here. Nothing left in the bay for you?”

He shrugged. “You knew I was going to get out as soon as I had a chance. This city isn’t the place for me.”

“Uh huh, that’s brave, especially if you’re gonna fly away in this busted old piece of scrap.”

“This piece of scrap saved your life. More than once.”

She waved a finger. “There’s just one problem, Flint. The race.”

He shook his head. “The race was never finished. Pretty soon someone’s going to notice that, and when the riggers get over the horrible smash-up that Nathor and Caerlion caused, they’ll agree. You’ll get a proper new President, and everyone can get on with life.”

She pointed her finger at him. “But a lot of people say we’ve already got a President.”

He winced. “Look, it’s not that I don’t find it flattering, but I didn’t even do it right. You’re supposed to stop at all these places, trade, fetch water at the tower, buckets of things you’re supposed to do, and I skipped near all of them.”

She took the gun out from a pocket in her dress. “People have seen this now. They’ve seen the Dragon hobble back to the city, like they saw the Rhino.”

“The Dragon, great. You want a President so bad, you should talk to Jerethy. It was supposed to be him all along, he’s got that pride and honour thing working for him, very presidential. If we fixed up the rigs, he’d win in an instant, hands down.”

“I talked to Jerethy.” She put her head on one side. “He wants you.”

He began to feel trapped. “No way. The bast- The sonof- That fellow hates me.”

She shook her head. “No. Well yes, but he hated Nathor more, and my uncle, too, for, you know, treachery. Anyway, he says you won the race. He says you beat the King of Fire. He says he supports you, and any man who argues will answer to him.” She leaned forward. “And he also told me that if you take what’s left of the Rhino and run, he’ll catch up to you once the Dragon’s fixed up, and you two can have a private race. A very short race near a very high cliff.”

He swallowed. “He hates me.”

She grinned. “Oh yeah. You beat him. You beat Nathor. You beat the King. He’d like to pulp you. He also ordered the workers here to go slow on your repairs.”

“That bastard.” He shook his head and sat down beside her. “I don’t even know how to be President.”

“It’s easy. You shout at people, and they do what you say.”

He eyed her. “Is that how your father ran things?”

She shrugged. “What do I know? I’m twelve.”

They sat in silence for a bit, and then Diana hefted the pistol in her lap. “Time to make a choice, Flint.”

“You wouldn’t shoot me, Diana.”

“You never know. When I shot the jug of beer, I was aiming at Jerethy’s left ear.”

The corners of his mouth quirked up. “Someday I’m going to tell him you said that.”

“If you’re President, you can tell him tomorrow.”

“Nah, that’d be something to keep, like a fine old piece of cheese.”

“You want to save it and let it get riper and stinkier until one day you bring it out and Jerethy’s head explodes.”

He clapped his hands. “That’s a terrible image for a twelve year old. I like it.”

She jabbed his ribs with the gun. “You can’t talk about the future if you run away.”

“Because Jerethy will kill me?”

“No. Because there won’t be a future. Tomorrow will be like today. Jerethy might not murder you, but he’s a stuffy old man, and if he takes the job he’ll make sure that nothing ever changes. You see this?” She lifted up her pendant so the diamond flashed in the light. “You’ve been telling me to dump this thing ever since the day we met. I didn’t understand then, but I get it now. Uncle Vistor wanted to put a chain around everyone’s neck, and we stopped him, but I’ve still got this, and so has every other girl. I know you hate it, and you want to change it, but if you run, it’ll always be this way.”

“You could run with me.”

She shook her head. “I thought about that. I could go live in the forest with Caldy and Aunty Blacksnake, but I’d have to leave all my friends, and I’d always know that I was hiding and running, instead of trying to fix the city. Besides, there’s one other thing here. If I’m gonna be free, I want it to be my kind of freedom. Daddy left me something that Uncle Vistor wasn’t able to poison. I don’t think he even dared touch it. I’m the last of the Ambrels, and that means it’s gonna sit here and wait for me.”

His eyes widened. “You’re talking about the Star.”

She turned a fierce gaze on him. “It’s a big world, and I want to see it all, and I want to do it for myself. And one day, maybe, I’ll even run in the race.”

His breath caught in his throat. “You… You want my job, huh? Might have to wait a while.”

“Nah,” she said, and patted the gun. “I’ve got it under control.”

He sat for a long time, thinking it over. At last he stood. “You’re sure about this?”

She nodded.

“Follow me.” He led her out of the hangar, through the town, and down to the seashore. He walked past the warning signs, crunched along the yellow sand, and stopped at the place where the waves lapped the shore. He turned to the girl. “Do you mean what you said?”

She nodded.

“Show me.”

A gust of wind blew her hair back, and her red eyes shone with the light of the sky and the sea. She reached back and undid the necklace, coiled it in her hand, and held it a moment. Then she swung her arm back and hurled the necklace out over the water. The diamond glittered in flight, and the golden chain sparkled as it trailed, and then the necklace fell to the sea, and vanished beneath the calm blue waves.

 


Through Fire

  • ISBN: 9781370421060
  • Author: Jacob Magnus
  • Published: 2016-12-08 08:20:12
  • Words: 50229
Through Fire Through Fire