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Authors: James Jaros

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BOOK: Carry the Flame
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“To mock,” he thundered. “That is why. To mock God the Father and God the Son as One. There can be no other reason.” Searching
their
eyes now. Hunt dared not blink.

“The demon,” His Piety intoned carefully, “must be enslaved and brought here.
This
is what the Lord commands of me.” His voice widened, as if to embrace more than the chapel or base, or the earthly surrounds of sin and disgrace. “All True Believers must bear witness to the demon. The Lord has given us a test of faith that we must not fail, for this beast will destroy all God-given glories if Satan holds sway.”

His Piety walked to the altar, drew a sword from a gold case, and raised it till the sunlight gleamed on the silvery surface. “We will look the two-headed monster in the eye, cleave it—with the mighty shield of God to protect us—and burn it to death. No lord of hell will crawl from a flame consecrated in the name of God before the assembled power of True Belief.”

“His Piety, I fear we are too late,” ventured a short Elder. “The tank might be attacking the fallen right now.”

“The tank?” Hunt asked, surprised and deflated. “It found them?”

His Piety turned to him. “You confirmed what we knew about the truck. The tank's dog arrived before you. The collar was clear. But they knew nothing of the demon.” Words that restored Hunt's sense of mission.

His Piety turned a curiously empty gaze on the short Elder. “We are in the Lord's hands. Do
you
forget that? Do
you
fear the Lord's righteousness? Do
you
not trust the Lord to do what is best?”

“His Piety,” the Elder said, “I always trust the Lord to do what is best, and for you to divine His every intention.”

“Then know that the tank's flames failed to kill the demon once, and here is our witness,” he pointed to Hunt, “for he pulled the beast from blistering ash.” His Piety's face came back to life, so flushed that Hunt saw it reddening through his beard. “Let the tank try to kill the demon again. Let them kill all the heathens and their children, too. Let them even burn the truck—if that is God's will. But I do not believe that is so. That is
not
what the Lord is telling me. The Lord,” he looked at the Elders one by one, “is telling me that even if our tank kills all the fallen to get the fuel, which is their sacred duty, the demon will rise again because that is what a demon does until it meets the full force of the Lord Thy God on earth.”

His Piety thrust the sword back into the band of sunlight and vowed to the Father and Son to burn the demon into hell forevermore.

“Amen,” the Elders said.

“Amen,” Hunt uttered, and then collapsed.

T
he armored tank raced at the caravan from less than a mile away, within easy striking distance with its long cannon. Jessie rushed Leisha and Kaisha to the gasoline tanker and gave them an open-air perch under the trailer, moving two more able-bodied girls to ladders up above. The twins cried out as their burns pressed against the metal grating.

Jessie forced herself to turn from them, searching wildly for Bliss and Jaya, recalling that the morning had started with the same task. She spotted the pair bolting to their respective posts: Bliss to the top of the tanker behind the cab, and Jaya to the van to ride shotgun.

Ananda?

In the van, she saw, when Jaya threw open the heavily plated door.

She wheeled around looking for Burned Fingers, and spotted the Pixie-bobs pouring down the bottom of the hill, a mass of fur as dark and wide as a mudslide. In seconds they swarmed the tank. Some were crushed but most leaped aboard, covering the camouflage paint with their writhing coats. Jessie saw in a glance there would be no protection from the cats for anyone riding on the outside of the tank or van. And there was no time to regroup.

A brief hope that the Pixie-bobs would cut off the tank crew's sightline—and stop the murderous vehicle—vanished when it churned on without changing course.

She raced toward Burned Fingers, who was studying the tank's approach, yelling, “They'll be on us next.”

He raised his hand. “We'll never outrun them,” he said evenly.

“We'll never outgun them, either,” she shouted.

“Nope, we won't. It's a straight shot for them either way.”

Still his words came calmly. And in the midst of her most convulsive fears—of ruthless firepower and voracious cats, whose howls now pierced the air—she remembered how relaxed and cheerful he'd been during the most terrifying moments at the Army of God.

He knows war,
she told herself now as she had then.
“I don't care,”
she bellowed, as if he had spoken the words in her head. “I just want to go.”

“Our timing is starting to look good,” he said.

Good?
“How can you—”

“Tell Maul to start driving. Brindle, too. I want both of them in motion.”

“Of course.” She turned to run,
finally.
He grabbed her arm.

“But tell Maul I don't want this truck moving any faster than you can walk. Then I need you back here, and when I say so, you've got to signal him—and
that's
when he's got to find a way to make this big fat fucker move.”

Burned Fingers pounded the back of the tanker; but she was already racing to the cab, ears ringing with the howling, engine roar, and—rising above both—the deafening screams of terrified children.

Chapter Six

J
essie veered immediately from the girls on the gasoline tanker clamoring for help. Harsh as it felt, she had no comfort or hope to offer them, and definitely no weapons to make them feel safe—nothing to thwart the thunderous tank and squalling cats charging at them. She carried only her M-16 and Burned Fingers's mystifying instructions, and couldn't have explained them to herself, much less to the petrified girls reaching for her.

She leaped onto a rusty pipe that served as the cab's running board and smashed her fist on Maul's door so hard the pain startled her.

The big bald man peered out, eyes no more than slits, the whole of his face compressed by tension.

“Go-go-go!” she screamed. Then, before he could close the door, she shouted, “Walking speed. No faster.” She'd almost forgot.

Maul nodded, sunlight catching his large dome, and before she could jump down the tanker truck lurched forward.

She weaved in front of it, wounded thigh begging for relief, and dodged the broken radiator grill bearing down on her like a shattered face. She looked up to see Maul mouthing
What the fuck?
and waved him on with a “Don't worry” he clearly couldn't comprehend.

Brindle opened the van's driver door seconds before she ran up breathless and bent over. “Go, get out of here.”

“Wh-What?” he asked.

“Go!”

Already she was pivoting toward the rolling trailer and fixing her eyes on the armored tank, with its cannon, flamethrower, and machine gun pressing closer, now less than a half mile away.

It better be good.
Whatever Burned Fingers had in mind.

Lungs still heaving, she ran to the rear of the gasoline tanker, but he had disappeared.

She swore loudly before spying him hanging by one hand from the underside of the trailer. He clung to the frame like a monkey, feet braced against the rear axle, free hand furiously turning a steel wheel with three stout spokes.

Fuel seeped from an L-shaped valve right below it. The trickle quickly grew into a stream, forcing him to twist sideways as gallons spilled out, splattering the ground and misting his bare back till the pungent gas beaded like sweat; but he didn't pause until he had it open fully, creating a powerful gusher. Then he pushed himself farther to the side and dropped to the dusty ground, rolling away from the flood.

He jumped to his feet, chased by the spreading flow, which formed a broad dark V as the tanker lumbered up the slope. Jessie, grasping both his plan and its horrendous peril, tried wiping the gas off his back with the hem of her shirt as they backpedaled. Failing, she pulled off her ragged cotton tee, casting aside modesty to dry his skin.

The armored tank, a dark, howling mass of Pixie-bobs clinging to every available surface—hanging from the cannon like a drooping sleeve—raced within a thousand feet. But Burned Fingers never glanced away from the fuel rippling down the slope, his body bobbing as he continued to back up. To Jessie, his up and down movement looked like a man counting down to a cataclysm, a possibility that chilled her to her core. She was frantically pulling on her damp shirt when he turned to her.

“Tell Maul to haul ass.” Then he slipped back under the trailer with the ease of a gymnast.

Maul already had his door open. “Haul ass, haul ass!” she yelled, unconsciously echoing Burned Fingers in her escalating panic.

The cab heaved from the sudden acceleration, but not so fast that she couldn't spot the van now a half mile ahead of them.

She sprinted back to see Burned Fingers cut off the fuel, then drop to the dust once more; but this time he scrambled to the spill, pulling out a flint and steel before pausing to look up. The armored tank was tearing across the fuel drenched ground, so close that Jessie could see the wild eyes of the Pixie-bobs.

Burned Fingers kneeled and struck the flint till a fireball bloomed. It raced at the tank, engulfing it in flames twenty, thirty feet high, and spread all the way down the slope, growing hundreds of feet thick in seconds too quick to count.

She felt a surge of relief—and didn't see the flames rising up Burned Fingers's pants until he was rolling on the ground to snuff them. Pained, he jumped to his feet. Both of them backed away from the fire as smoke instantly enveloped them, a thick black shroud spawned by the chance mechanics of wind and warfare.

Jessie glimpsed him wheeling away, covering his eyes, but lost him when the acrid plume forced her own eyes shut. She staggered through the darkness, lungs burning fiercely, finding her way out, only to spot another dense black cloud churning toward her. She bolted from its path and watched it chase the truck.

The howls of the Pixie-bobs grew, and as the tank roared closer she saw a ghastly sight through the flames—screeching cats leaping from the turret and the tank's broad platform, dropping from the cannon like big drips of sizzling candle wax, all of them ablaze and feeding the fire.

Their screams never sounded more human—infants trapped in a boiling inferno—and their dark darting forms could not have looked more tortured. Blinded by the broiling heat, they scurried crazily in the flames, running into the tank and one another. Or they stopped suddenly, like they were frozen by fire, then arched their backs hideously, driving themselves to the tips of their melting toes, as if in water, not flames, stepping once, twice, even three times—a death dance, it seemed—before collapsing and twisting on the gas-soaked ground, spasms bathed in orange and red and blue.

The tank rolled on, a furious, impervious monster shedding a flaming coat, crushing an untold number of the beasts it had borne.

But even witnessing this annihilation didn't prepare her for the shock of seeing the long cannon poke from the receding fire and smoke. She'd thought the tank would burn up or explode, but it kept rolling until she could see all of the turret with its terrifying weapons, and then the entire length of desert camouflage paint that covered every square inch of steel, scorched and sooty but still visible,
still
rolling.

Why had she thought they could stop it? What pathetic hope had led her to believe that an armored tank engineered to roar through the burning oil fields of the Mideast to take Riyadh, Tehran, Baghdad, and Abu Dhabi could possibly have been foiled by a few thousand gallons of fuel splashed on the ground?

You stupid, stupid woman.
She hated herself for having fallen victim to such simple-minded optimism. And she hated Burned Fingers for carrying on like he could work grisly miracles against a massive killing machine with nothing more in his goddamn quiver than gas—
gas!—
and his unchartable gumption.

Backing up, she turned to see the truck a hundred yards off, belching oily smoke from the twin stacks that rose like curved horns over the cab, more demonic looking than ever.

The ground shuddered, and she saw the armored tank slowing now that it had left behind the flames and its target was in full view. The truck and everyone on board could be blown into a bubbling cloud any moment. Yet she ran toward them, not wanting to die alone—or to be taken by the crew inside that monstrous weapon.

The armored tank finally halted. Its engine no longer bellowed, and the cries and shouts of the children might have softened. She heard only her harsh breaths and hard footfalls as she gained on the long trailer; the truck was old with a heavy load, the slope unrelenting.

Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted the cannon rising until it appeared to point at the truck. A ribbon of the blackest smoke swept over the turret and then her. Eyes tearing, she spied the trailer's rear ladder and climbed all the way to the top before she could breathe without the harsh tang of gas fumes.

When she looked for Bliss, she saw her daughter on the front of the tanker staring past her, shaking her head, forlorn as death itself.

Then she saw why: the turret was inching left to aim the cannon directly at them. A grim adjustment. In the same glimpse, which left her weakened and sure they'd all be killed, she spotted the flamethrower that Leisha said had been unleashed on Kaisha and her, and knew there were much worse deaths than the quick one promised by the tank.

BOOM.
The shot left her ears ringing, and she heard a rocket rip over her head. A streak of heat fine as a hair comb settled on her scalp and made her wince, and a rumble of air came alive on her skin.

Pale gray pillows drifted from the cannon muzzle. A mile or two away an explosion rocked the air, more ravaged earth ripped apart by heat and flames.

The little towhead Cassie cried, but afterward an ominous silence ensued. The cannon dipped without violating this quiet accord, an unseen eye sharpening its aim. But it didn't fire, and Jessie thought they might have been given a warning shot: one over the bow, one over your head, one over just about anything was as much warning as you were likely to get in this life.

She shouted to Bliss, “Stop Maul. Stop him!” She knew she sounded hysterical and was succumbing to one more ruthless hope, but what was the point of pushing on? Suicide? Any plans for defeating the tank had shriveled.

The truck shook as its aged brakes clawed the wheels, but she kept her eyes on the tank. Then she noticed fire and smoke shifting in dying patches behind it, except for a declivity about fifty yards farther downslope where gas had pooled and flames still roasted the air. And everywhere on the blackened ground she saw the smoking ruin of dead cats, the stink of burned fur and flesh following them up the hill.

The rear hatch of the tank opened and a man in a thick vest and helmet rose, exposing no more than his head and shoulders. “Don't move,” he yelled, “or we'll burn you to death!”

The same threat she and Burned Fingers had issued at the Army of God, before they burned and killed innumerable acolytes and guards. Odd to hope for compassion in the shadow of that memory; odder still the false equivalencies that insisted on themselves in a crisis.

The van never stopped. But why would the tank crew care? The gasoline tanker was the prize. Once the crew took control of it, they could hunt the van at their leisure. It would run out of fuel soon enough.

We're dead, she thought. She didn't even know where Burned Fingers was.

The last she'd seen of him, he was escaping the dense smoke with her.

She studied the charred ground for his remains, but for all the evidence of him that she found, he might have been vaporized by the fire.

N
ot quite, but blisters were rising on Burned Fingers's chest, back, legs, and hands, though none proved as painful as a nasty bite from a Pixie-bob. The cat had mauled his leg as he dashed through the spotty flames to the armored tank. P-bobs were dropping left and right but the one that ripped open his calf was on its feet reeling and jerking—all the fur on its back scorched off—when its stubby head banged his leg. Biting from reflex. The worst part was, he didn't dare shoot the half-baked bastard for fear of alerting the tank crew. He hated the cats, even their name:
Pixie-bobs?
Made them sound like fucking stuffies, a cute toy he might have given his kid before his kid was murdered—
by Army assholes with tanks.
And they didn't just kill him, which would have been kind by comparison.

He had hoped the old Abrams would have been compromised enough for the smoke and flames to asphyxiate or cook the crew—or blow up the whole jury-rigged beast.
Some
kind of malfunction. He had reason to hope: the electronics in these relics were long dead, and they rolled along mostly on the dark genius of Alliance mechanics and the verve of crews that varied in number from one to four, plus a messenger dog.

But when he'd seen the tank survive the wilting flames, he gave up any faith in a malfunction and made his dash, scaling the armor over the top of the treads by pulling himself up on the bars that enclosed the cargo area near the back of the turret. An approach from directly behind risked less exposure, but only the uninitiated attempted to mount a moving M1 from the rear—and they tried it only once: the broad stream of exhaust from the huge engine reached 1,700 degrees.

Now he hunkered down in the cargo area, finding little to crowd him. Little to hide him, either, but immensely pleased that in spite of his best efforts, the tank hadn't been destroyed; taking control of it would be an unexpected coup, though it wouldn't be the first one he'd hijacked: in the final days of the defeated rebellion, he seized that vintage World War II tank, drove it down Bay Street in Baltimore, and turned it on murderous soldiers who were trying to exterminate the last of the resistance.

But the Abrams was the finest combat beast in its time.
Still is,
he reminded himself, pulse thickening when the tank commander opened the hatch and threatened to burn to death everyone on the truck.

Burned Fingers rose up till he could see the back of the guy's head above the upper reach of the hatch door. He hoped the engine idle would cover his advance on the commander, and that the tank's armor—a foot of solid steel in places—would silence his movements to anyone inside. He also had to hope that some kid on the tanker truck wouldn't give him away by staring or pointing to him. A lot to hope for.

He had his sawed-off in hand but didn't want to take out the commander from back here because someone inside would drag the guy's body down below and seal the hatch—and any hope of taking over the Abrams would disappear faster than hooch at a card game.

Eyeing any potential source of noise, he advanced on his elbows in a classic combat crawl, lifting his arms deftly, then settling them down smoothly; the same with his legs, driving forward by applying even pressure on his knees, acutely aware of the friendly eyes on him. Those kids were a savvy lot, but it still made his
skin
crawl to depend on them.

He moved about halfway across the turret. Four more feet to go. But fear—and he valued it for keeping him alive—could turn even the shortest distance into a horror.

BOOK: Carry the Flame
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