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Authors: James Jaros

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BOOK: Carry the Flame
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She looked up, terrified that she'd see the beastly creation barreling through the blackened air, crushing everything in its path; but she couldn't even make out the child beside her, and knew that she would have to try to save the girls from the immediate threat of the storm.

She joined their huddle under the truck and demanded a roll call, relieved when everyone—including Ananda and moon-faced Imagi—offered their names, barks muffled by the clothes they breathed through and the siren of wind lashing the trailer's struts and ladders.

Then Jessie remembered Bliss and called for her, too. The girl didn't answer.

“Bliss?” she wailed.

Another gust blasted the tanker truck, and the girls in the tight circle gripped one another and drew closer, each one instinctively trying to burrow her way to the center, where she would be less likely to find herself ripped loose by the wind.

To Jessie's horror, the truck screeched, like metal shearing. She reached up and felt a wild shudder, sickening with fear that it had been smashed by the armored tank, whose tracks lay so near, and that gas would spill down and an inferno would engulf them. But her hand couldn't remain on the metal long: the child she'd been holding blindly to her left screamed above the howling and started to slide away. Jessie pulled her back with enormous effort.

The metallic screeching ceased a beat before another gust slammed them, and the group shifted en masse toward the rear of the trailer. The wind was agonizing, like a wall of tornados drilling them with dirt, dust, and pebbles hard as buckshot. But it brought no gas, no fumes, and they pressed ever closer together, their every breath suffused by the now sulfurous smell of the dead.

Jessie's hold on the girl who'd almost been swept away made her hand ache and the child cry, but she never relented as shrieking wind slammed the group backward again and again, eternal seconds of biting terror. She feared the pummeling would drive them out from under the trailer's narrow cover and tumble them like weeds through the charred forest.

Instead, her back struck one of the big rear tires. Arms throbbing, she held three or four girls—she couldn't tell exactly—and felt others forced against the hard axle. She pitied them, heard their agony, but as much as she could tell, the hellacious wind had not yet torn apart the group.

But where's Bliss?

Jessie moaned when she remembered Jaya jumping out of the van, sensing right away that back at the obsidian wall the two of them had planned a rendezvous in what they hoped would be rain.

To dance in it?

She rolled her head in despair.
They
know
better.
Every child in the camp had been warned about heat storms. And this one had uncovered the tank's tracks, and brought the stench of burning bodies.

She could smell the dead, taste the bitter waste, and then her ears filled with the harsh clanging of metal tread and the deep rumble of an engine powerful enough to move the armored tank's massive weight and howl louder than the screaming wind. The earth itself began to shake beneath her, and she knew the machine that had laid those tracks was only feet away, rolling closer with every second.

Chapter Two

E
very living element—and every slab of steel that surrounded Jessie—vibrated violently. The air itself rang with bedlam. Another screech rose from the gasoline tanker, right above her head; and she thought surely this time the armored tank would rip the trailer in two and that she and the girls would be smashed or burned to death in the next instant.

She jammed her back against the big tire, as if a sudden stiffening of muscle and bone could thwart 100,000 pounds of cannon and guns, flamethrowers and grisly murder.

But the metallic screech stopped, fast as a wince in the overriding darkness. The earth and tanker truck still shook, but not as severely, and in seconds that played against an infinity of fear, the harrowing engine noise of the armored tank was swallowed by the wind and soot still lashing the trailer's struts and ladders.

She stayed bunched-up with the girls between the rear wheels, ears ever alert for the tank.

In a daze of dread and fatigue she noticed three lulls in the storm, gazing at a night sky brilliant with a band of chalk-white stars burning with grace notes of unseen mercy. But three times the wind wiped the heavens from her eyes, leaving her with a renewed fear of the tank: Where was it? What were they doing?
Waiting for daylight so they can murder us without blowing up the gas?

At dawn the storm lifted and the sky blazed blue as the oceans at the dawn of the century, when the most tranquil turquoise waters masked the bleached rot of coral reefs.

She uncurled herself from the girls' sleepy limbs and found a strip of freshly chewed-up earth alongside the gasoline tanker. Above the tracks she saw two deep horizontal scrapes, one near the front and one that passed right above where she'd huddled. The latter extended to the end of the tanker and explained the abrupt silencing of the screech. She figured the cannon had gouged the side, swung away from it, then gouged it again as the crew tried to outrun the storm. Rolling through blackness, it would have been easy enough for them to think they'd struck a rock wall—if they even noticed the impact in the blinding, deafening chaos.

The scrapes also indicated the direction taken by the armored tank. Her eyes quickly trailed the tread pattern down the same slope the caravan had traveled yesterday. The tracks ran near or over the ones she had spotted as the storm descended. The memory turned her toward a thin gray curtain of smoke still hanging over where Augustus said his camp stood.

But where was the tank now? Over a ridge? Hiding behind a hill? It would have been forced to stop, too. She couldn't imagine that it had kept blundering blindly through a land pitted with deep gaps and steep drop-offs.

She looked around again. Not a soul. Only a preternaturally bright and silent dawn after a terrifying night. The wind that forced them to find immediate shelter had flattened even the hill's brittle, charred forest. Boulders had ceded to gusts and rolled into gullies or were piled against larger rocks, forming huddles likely to last eons. Yet all around her she saw a desert forming rapidly, a thousand years of parching compressed to hours by grinding heat and wind.

In a coruscating flash, the blue sky blanched, as if incinerated. She rubbed her eyes to see if her vision had failed, but the atmosphere—
poof—
had simply returned to its most pallid appearance. Then she worried that the tank cannon had come alive; but no, it wasn't that, either.

Bewildered by what she'd witnessed, and uneasy over what it might mean, she checked on the sleeping children before rushing to peer inside the cab. Maul and Erik were still resting in their tight, protected hub.

No sign of Bliss.

She searched all around the truck, then hurried to the van, about a hundred feet away. Augustus was crawling out from under the engine, dark skin paled by dust.

“We've got to get moving,” he said, glancing behind him, to the sides, everywhere at once. “Something's still burning.” He raised his eyes to the pale smoke about five miles away. “My wife, my girls. Dear God, let me find them.
Alive.

Jessie put her hand on his broad shoulder. “Didn't you hear the tank last night? It came right through—”

“Tank? No, I never heard that. The storm was so loud I could hardly hear myself think. Was it coming from there?” He pointed to the gray smoke.

“I'm not sure,” she hedged. “We won't know till—”

“Oh, God.” He dropped to his knees and hung his head; in prayer, she guessed.

“We'll go there,” she said. “I promise. But I've got to find Bliss.”

He looked up. “Your girl's missing? In this?” His eyes widened, but looked emptier for the effort, like he'd seen a holocaust—or imagined one coming.

A nod was all Jessie managed before she turned and threw open the van's driver door, shaking Brindle. “Where's Jaya?”

The scrawny, bearded stammerer opened his eyes on the empty seat beside him. Then he swung around, as if puzzled by the blind girls and babies crowded among the crates of dried fruit, produce, and smoked meats.

“He's not back there,” Jessie said.

“Goddamn h-h-him. H-H-H-He jumped out b-b-b-before I—I could st-st-stop h-him.”

“Bliss is gone, too.”

She gazed at the hills, noticing that dust had collected in scores of uniform lumps against a sharp slope; but her eyes dropped at once to the tank tracks. Burned Fingers ran up, pointing to them.

“That was close. Very close,” he said.

“You see the side of the tanker?” she asked him.

He looked over and swore in surprise.

“It couldn't have been more than three feet from me and the kids.”

“I thought I heard one but I wasn't sure till I saw the tracks.”

“They could have taken Bliss and Jaya,” she said. “They're gone.”

He nodded. “But I doubt the tank took them. That crew couldn't see any better than us. The electronics in those things are shot to hell. They don't have any night vision, but they do have firepower that could blow us all to hell.” He spoke from experience: his hand had been burned decades ago after commandeering an M4 Sherman. “No, those kids are out there. That's my thinking.”

“You been out looking?”

“Yup, and they could have been sucked up to the sky for the tracks I could find, except for those things.” He snorted at the tread marks. “You can bet that tank's looking all over for us, blasting their flamethrowers every chance they get. You smell those bodies?” He glanced at the smoke above Augustus's camp. The black missionary kept his eyes averted.

“You sure that's what it is?” Jessie asked. The scent, like the smoke, had thinned; and she couldn't stop herself from hoping.

“Are you kidding? You never forget it.” Burned Fingers held up his scarred hand.

She forced herself to rally: “We're going to search for Bliss, Jaya. They would have tried to escape the storm somehow.” She looked at Augustus. “You know this area, right?”

“Sure, but if my people are still there,” he raised his eyes to the pall, “they'll know who's around.”

“That's a big ‘if,' ” Burned Fingers said.

“We're not leaving here without my daughter,” Jessie asserted.

“It might be revenge,” Augustus said, as if he'd never heard her; his eyes were emptier than ever. “They saw me with you.” He meant at the battle to rescue the girls. “They couldn't miss me, and they're looking everywhere for us. My camp would have been a target. If they took that thing—” He stopped talking when his eyes landed on the tank tracks. Sorrow never sounded deeper.

“Sorry, Augustus,” Burned Fingers said, “but my guess is that they did their burning and were heading back when they passed this way. It's the most obvious route, right? But if I were doing this . . .”

Meaning,
when
you were doing this, Jessie thought, roiled by the abrupt reminder of the man he had been.

“. . . I would have left the sickest fuck I had behind, in case whatever I was looking for showed up. There are only so many places you can drive with a truck full of gas, and they know that. And I'd tell that sick fuck to get word to me right away. So the longer we stand around here, the worse it could get.” Burned Fingers leveled his eyes on Jessie. “I'd also be picking off stragglers. You can use them in all kinds of ways. Our best option is to move on, the sooner the better.”

“No way. We're searching.”

“Every minute we stay gives them more time.”

“We don't even know if there's a ‘sick fuck' out there. We might have some time.”

“You smelled it. No sick fuck? Are you kidding? I wouldn't go betting any farm in the Arctic on that.” Burned Finger's voice rose, and a baby in the van began to wail. “The Alliance is doing everything they can to get that tanker back. Look at that.” He pointed his sawed-off at the tracks. “They sent a
tank
after us. Me, you, him?” He glanced at Augustus. “They
might
give up on us, but not a truck full of gas. They might not see the likes of that for another year. Two. I knew we never should have stopped once we had that thing.”

“And what? Leave my friends behind? The ones who survived your attack, so maybe they could be slaughtered by other madmen?” Some grief you couldn't put aside, but Burned Fingers never even blinked.

“Everyone will get slaughtered if we don't move. What are we going to do? Spend days looking while they're looking for us? We've got to get out of here.”

“I'm not talking days.”

“Would someone shut that kid up,” Burned Fingers shouted into the van. He looked back at Jessie. “You want an hour to find those two horn dogs? Fine, take an hour. I'll even go with you, but I won't be party to any more than that. We leave everyone else to fight off the hordes. We're risking everybody for those two.”

The baby's cries grew louder.

Jessie said nothing. She'd take the hour and go from there—alone if she had to.

Burned Fingers turned away and yelled, “Oh shit,” before slamming the door on Brindle and pulling Jessie to the ground next to the van. Augustus dropped beside them.

A single gust swept the scalded hillsides and barreled into the caravan, shaking the armor by Jessie's head. She, Burned Fingers, and Augustus grabbed the plating to keep from being swept away. Then she looked over and saw the girls still clinging to one another under the trailer.

Sky quake. She had seen one years ago. A storm's aftershocks, land and sky sharing the same affliction: the two poisoned as one by heat.

The gust passed, and they looked up to see the atmosphere turn purely orange. Not tinged with mauve or purple or red—the orange of soot-stained skies in evening verse.
Orange.
Like the citrus supposedly growing in the far north. Jessie had never seen the sky color so quickly or completely. Pale? Yes, but not this. Then the orange vanished as fast as a wraith, and the sky lightened again, casting a thin screen over a fuzzy urinous sun.

“What was
that
?” Jessie asked.

“You're the scientist,” Burned Fingers said. “You tell me. It's been a crazy morning up there.” He stood and startled her by extending his scarred hand. She took it.

“I'm a biologist, not a climatologist, but it could be methane.” Jessie brushed herself off. “There was always a big worry that if enough of it came up out of the oceans, it would start drifting over land. Doesn't matter, we've got to get going.”

“Doesn't matter as long as it doesn't blow
us
up,” Burned Fingers said. “That or the tanker.”

He threw open the door on Brindle finger-combing his long beard. “How fastidious. I hate to interrupt your grooming, but did pretty boy happen to say where he was going? Or were you too busy primping to ask?”

“Ass-h-h-hole.” Jessie wasn't sure whom Brindle insulted: the marauder with the sawed-off or Jaya, who'd been riding shotgun. “H-H-He j-just j-jumped out and r-ran off.”

Burned Fingers whistled to the dogs. Hansel hopped over on his three legs. The marauder elbowed Jessie. “Tell me, can Stumpy the Wonder Dog actually track?”

She nodded, but looking at Hansel's eager face gave her little hope. “I don't have a scrap of her clothes to get him started. Everything she owns is on her back.”

“Yeah, well Jaya's ass was on that seat.” Burned Fingers pointed past Brindle. “Let's give him a good sniff. It's a dog's life anyway.”

I
n the first sweep of the storm, Soul Hunter watched the boy and girl stumble toward a ravine that had once been part of a bird sanctuary. The wind had forced them far from their vehicles, and pressed their clothes against their privates, offering hints that would fever his imagination—and torment his soul—through the night.

The pair ducked into the rugged, rocky depression, passing within feet of where he hid. Though the air darkened and the gusts screamed, Hunt, as his brothers in the Alliance called him, didn't let his eyes stray; and he saw the wind whip her shirt up around her neck before the boy's hands could stake their own claim on her godless skin.

But the two of them hid their other filthy secrets behind the scrim of darkened air. Hunt glimpsed only their desperate lunge into a U-shaped boulder pile on the far side of the ravine. He would have liked it for himself, but couldn't risk confronting them in blinding conditions. So he'd hunched down, back against the leeward side of a broad rock, and endured the onslaught of grit and bits of burned branches till he sat buried to his waist.

In the darkest hours, he heard moans that might have been the wind; but as the night passed he grew certain that he was listening to their obscene, open-mouthed orgy—gasps and outcries that filled him with the same animalistic urges that had brought his Lord's merciful vengeance upon the stained peoples of the earth.

BOOK: Carry the Flame
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