Lone grizzled cowpoke drapes the saloon rail. Hat cocked low over hooded eyes. Blows a melancholy tune on a mouth harp. Slow, easy blues. Notes rise in moaning ululations. Coil through the air, deliberate, vibrato, cheerless.
Boot flies out the saloon doors. Smacks him upside the head. Knocks mouth harp clean out his hands to land, spit flecked, in the dust.
‘Gawdammit Paydrone, mah ears done commit hairee karee. Quit yer gawdamn wailin on that sum bitch.’
Paydrone rubs the back of his head. ‘Fuckin piece o’ shit, Tarboy,’ he yells. ‘Who died up the Daily Yaw and made you a gawdamn critic?’
‘If’n they bin listnin to you, you ole bastid, I done reckon the whole durned pack o’ them joury-lists done bit the big one.’
Paydrone picks up the boot. Wails it back in. Gap-tooth, baccy stained grin at the shout of pain. Grabs up half empty jar of warm ale. Gulps it back. Stifles a grimace behind the wipe of forearm.
‘Fuckin deegustin,’ he sneers, chucks the empty jar to the floor. It lands in a slew of bloody water washed out the saloon. Skids in amongst gobbets of flesh, shards of bone. Paydrone sniffs. ‘Fuckin get their asses movin n’ clean mah gawdamn bar afore I lose me customers, s’whut they kin do, lazy gets.’
Leans back. Boots up. Takes up his hat to wipe over drenched forehead with a filthy rag. Still air gathers. Thick as a crowd. Sweat stains run every inch of Paydrone’s grubby duds. Then out of nowhere, in suffocating, windless air, a tug of breeze rifles the grey strands about his ears.
Paydrone blinks. Sits up. ‘Whut the…?’
Breeze picks up. Becomes hot wind. Paydrone claps his hat on, clutches tight to it. Stares out, mouth drooping like some dumb shit village idiot. Dust whirls into mini Tasmanian Devil dervishes of dirt. Dried grass forms to tumbleweeds, trips across the cracked expanse of road, alien swift and silent.
Six beautiful bodies materialize out of air. First mere glimmers of light, faint colour. Then flickering apparitions. Then air bends, shifts. And they step through as if air is liquid. Paydrone scrambles up, stampedes back into the saloon, yells up a storm.
‘Tarboy, Davy Gee, crack out them double barrers, we got’s us a gawdamn aleen invashun!’ He throws himself over the bar, grabs his trusty shotgun. Hugs the barrel, moans. ‘Ah smell trouble. Second tahm in two days. Ah’m sellin this shit-hole, movin’ me to Tuscadello.’
Meg smears a hole in thick dust. Stares out the window. Curious eyes look six bodies up and down, spark gleams sharp as teeth. ‘Paydrone, hon, if them’s aleens they can probe mah ass till they c’n drive a land-ship clean through it.’
Tombstone silence. Ten down home pairs of eyes hit Meg quick as bullets. Meg pays no mind. Leans up to the window. Chews her lip. Salivates at the sight of all that delicious flesh.
Long note slices silence clean as a blade.
Eyes swivel. Margo leans on saloon doors. Juicy globes propped on slender arms tattooed with dry spatters of blood. Unleashes her most predatory grin. Despite blood, gore, grime, every man in the place stands to attention. Grin warms, slows, drips off her face like silky syrup.
‘Well hooowdy y’all,’ she purrs.
Cracked shot glasses scattergun the bar. Paydrone leans behind. Hat pushed back. Top lip raised, thinned, above gnarly ole teeth. Whistles. Sound long and reedy as a far-off scream.
‘Well damn me if’n that ain’t the wurdest tale I done heard.’ He shakes his head. ‘Hooo, yessir. If ah hadn’ seen y’all step plum clean outta air I’d be fillin yer so full o’ lead they could roll yer up an’ make a Charch roof wi’ yer.’
Margo slugs back another rough whiskey. Coughs. Hiccups. Coughs again. Bangs her hand on the bar, face lit up like she’s bonfire night. Everything’s burning bright. ‘Oh god, I love this shit,’ she gasps, blows a kiss at Paydrone, ‘you’re a poppet.’
Eyes gleam like sun flash off a gunstock. Hand flies to forelock. Tugs. ‘Pleasure, mam. So, y’all gunna wanna travel. Ye cain’t step out in them thangs, folk’s’ll run a mile on yer. Yer need duds ah’m thinking…’
Margo rises, wobbles magnificently. Orator stance. Declares. ‘Nope, c’n make ‘em.’
Moe wraps a muscular arm about her waist, throws in. ‘Margo and Minnie can make their own, the rest can’t.’ Margo quirks a brow. Poppy red lips pout to lickable sulk. Moe reaches up, squeezes her tit, winks. She turns away, can’t stop the grin though. Moe chuckles. Says. ‘Boys’ll need duds; we’d appreciate the help. Leek too. Minnie can… rustle up… weapons if she get’s a good look at them, can’t you Min?’
Minnie smiles, serene, from somewhere in Slimm’s lap. ‘Roger wilko Charlie does the fox trot. Be my pleasure.’
‘No need fer sewin’ gals.’ Meg’s face down in a huge trunk, far end of the bar. Emerges holding a ton of silks, satins, bodices, net skirts, stockings, garters, jackets, a bag of boots. Beams. ‘Ah used ta run a house up’n heah when it wuz shakin up these parts… be mah pleashuh to dress ya’ll up purdy.’ Hungry eyes travel ripe curves, oblivious to streaks of crusting blood, lumps of dried fat, skin, flesh. She bats lashes, lick lips. ‘Be more’n a pleashuh.’
Minnie lunges from Slimm’s lap, pogo sudden. Catapults to the table, hands full of silken ruffles, stiff laced bodices. Face is sheer bliss. Seventh heaven. Call out the guard and bring on the revolution. Minnie’s about to blow.
‘Want!’ She squeals.
Black flesh ripples under thick fur. Red eyes glitter, glow, spark fury. Eight huge lycids gallop across the dust. Hindquarters bunch, fore quarters reach. Blurs of speed. Power. Huge paws drum persistent rhythm; claws slice chunks of desert floor.
Roars burst from deep in throats as they run. Blood curdling rips of sound. Savage calls to the sky. Echoes reach them by return. Far off howls, more roars. And red eyes glow cold. Claws tear dirt. Muscles snap elastic, drive them on and on across endless hard-packed mud and sand.
Ahead. Tall as a monument. A rippled ridgeback of rugged stone rises up, sore as a thumb. Awkward, angled, sharp out the dirt. Blurry as mirage through ribbons of shimmering heat. Paydrone raises a fist. Hollers out. Eight pairs of hands, sheathed in leather, curl tight. Pull back. Tug hard on reins.
Lycids fight, foam. Want to run on, on, forever, never stop, but reins snap tight. Sound sharp as whip crack in the heat, the howl of open desert wind. Huge wolfish heads pull hard to the side, chops bared about vicious collections of saw-sharp teeth. Paws flatten, skid to shuddering halt. Stop just before the lip.
Below it, desert falls away in sharp relief. A deep, jagged valley. Scar in the land. Way, way down there, it flattens to a thick ribbon of land. Level and long, the fault spreads in both directions to hazy horizon, a long spew of flat dusty tundra.
Somewhere middling on that thick spit of tundra squats an oval sprawl of city. Tall grey stone buildings crowd the middle, a mouth of miss-matched teeth; slowly diminish to ragged slums at the edge. A mess of shacks in corrugated steel, reclaimed wood and mud. Seen at this distance as dirty reflections of sunlight off warped metal.
In from the West, moving out to South East, the Land Ship slip gleams silvery under harsh sunlight. Smooth as glass. The dock at the Western tip of the city is huge. Imposes. An extravagant eyesore. Christopher Wren monumental and ornate. Vast construction of steel, smooth white stone. A parade of elegant arched roofs, spires, long, leaded windows in deep, baroque architraves. Vulgar, self-important architecture.
Paydrone tips back his hat. Points his crop down into the valley below. Shouts above the roar of wind.
‘That thur’s West Alberqurque. Them bandits y’all mentioned… Choke and his gang. They’s follering after some shit, haven’t a durned clue whut. Last I hear it they done blew a raid on a Land Ship named Prahce o’ Freedom. Figure they didn’ find whut they wuz lookin fer so they’s shacked up in mah bah and done trash tha place. Lost me a durned fine barkeep to boot. Be mighty satisfyin’ ta see em’ brung low.’
Moe’s piratical eyes gleam. ‘Be our pleasure. So the next ship in these parts only comes through here?’
Paydrone nods. Hollers. ‘Thas it. Name o’ Peggy Dunne. More of a land freighter th’n a ship but she takes a mess o’ passengers aboard awl raht. They won’t hit ‘er here. Somewhur’s ‘tween here ‘n Invidium’s mah best bet. Lotta high mountain trail ‘bove the slip thatta way.’
Moe nods. ‘Appreciate the heads up. How long till the Peggy Dunne docks below?’
‘Reckon twenny-two hours give ur take. Day’s clear but she won’t be that fer long.’
Wicked grin lights Moe’s face. On the Lycid to his left, Rolf damn near drops dead on the spot. Melts to a puddle on his saddle. Moe directs the grin at Margo, pulls a sulk from Rolf. Fuckable lips pouted to perfection. Moe catches it out the corner of his eye, stretches grin ear to ear. Says to Paydrone. ‘Perfect. It’s five hours across the valley on these fucking beasts, right.’
Moe’s eyes rake the rest of the six. ‘Seventeen hours left then. Everyone clear?’ Five heads nod swift response. ‘Then let’s get this shit on the road.’
Paydrone grabs Moe’s arm. ‘Son,’ he says, points to the far off distance, to the blur of yellow gracing the farthest reach where dust meets sky, ‘dust storm a’comin’. It’ll hit y’all in under fifteen minutes. Ya’ll heah sirens, get yer mouths, eyes, nose, awl covered.’ He slaps the solid ridge of muscle on his Lycid’s shoulder. ‘Trust these dumbass fuckers. City’s shelter, they’ll run yer t’it. Gawdamn yeller thru ‘n thru.’
Moe clasps Paydrone’s hand. ‘Appreciate the help old man, and the gear. We owe you.’
Flush of red suffuses grizzled cheeks. ‘T’aint nuthin, y’hear. Y’all take care now, and get Meg thar back to me safe’n sound.’
Paydrone yanks round the reins. Strikes high curve of black rump, one swift slap of crop. Lycid roars, bunches beneath him. Springs forward. Takes off back toward Ridgetown. Ears flat to wolfish head, hackles raised.
Seven Lycids race headlong down the valley. Huge, hulking bulks. Fur and fang. Paws and claws. Muzzles wrapped in hard leather to tame teeth. Perched atop, on constructions of leather and steel, seven small figures. Doll-like on Lycids bred for endurance. Three times the size of wild desert breeds. Mammoth large and powerful.
Faces lit, fierce, the riders whoop. Holler. Lean parallel to massive shoulders to go faster, faster. Never stop. Devour ground. It drives Lycids to furious joy. Paws pounding mud. Teeth bared in leather muzzles. Sweat building to filthy foam.
A mini cyclone of dust surrounds them. Their own storm to match the one incoming. Three minutes and counting. Still can’t see it, though Paydrone said it was on the way. They half disbelieve it. In the valley wind is soft, comes in from the South, an antidote to endless sun, they left all that hard wind behind up in the high desert.
Up there wild gusts blow straight off high valley walls, the razor of edge, into nothing. Wind can’t charge down steep sides, can’t traverse hazardous trails cut into rock. Dust blown over can only drift, fall like soft rain. Continuous at this proximity, it covers them in fine brown silt. Can’t make a storm with that though.
Then sounds of yells, paws on hard-packed dirt and stone, drown under distant sirens. Long, wailing notes, riding over the desert. Moe’s head snaps up. Twists. He hunts for dust. Sees nothing. But sirens wail on. Louder, louder, the notes rising till they scream across from West Alberqurque. Best not to take chances. Moe turns, yells.
‘Cover the fuck up!’
Hands reach to throats; pull folds of scarves out, up, over mouth and nose. Reach to pull unwieldy goggles down over eyes. Sun drenched view turns dark under tinted glass. Over the sirens then, they hear it. Muffled insane howl of noise. Storm. Gaining fast. Too fast. Sounds like war. Screams. Thunder. Heavy artillery crashing down. Kaboom kaboom. Such a racket, a bawl of noise. So loud it deafens.
Shriek of sound gains knife-edge. The first blows of dust graze across. Veils of soft grey, brown. Fine. Delicate. Almost pretty. They tickle. Margo reaches out a hand to trail it through the soft plumes. Feels harsh but silky. Tickle and sting.
‘It’s fucking amazing,’ she calls out.
Sirens rise again. Fever pitch. Hysteria. Then. There. As if it’s jumped to the horizon. A boiling mass of greyish brown dust appears ahead. A wall blotting light, it fills the whole Western sky, edge to edge. Moe rises. Shouts alarm. Soft valley wind still comes from the South. Dust storm, against all reason, travels against it, brings no wind of its own.
It races toward them. Looks alive, obscene, a dark ravenous monster formed of dust. Invisible forces propel it at terrifying speed. Bold and menacing. It devours ground, distance. Within it, masses bloom and fade as if it swallows all it passes into multiple throats. Then it’s upon them.
Dust wall hits. Hard as a car crash. Slams into them. Harder than wind. Tears air from lungs. Bruises skin through layers of leather, soft billows of dust razor sharp at this speed. Dense as a plague of flies it surges about them. Closes in. Suffocates. Consumes.
Air, light, movement. Choked. Gone. Visibility zero. They reach out, lock into minds, pull together. Grab even Meg, drag her to them, screaming, unused to such connection. Better than being lost though. So she lets go, gives in. Allows the sensation, odd, balloon of mind drifting and secure all at once, to overtake her.
Lycids scream, rear, tear at their restraints. Buck, plunge, and strike out. Dust storm rodeo. Shouts rise from eight throats. No panic. Just fury. Can’t stop in this. They need shelter, need to keep on to the city. Hefty crops flash; crack, crack. Strike heavy furred hindquarters over and over, harder and harder. Till Lycids spring up, forward, growling fury. Strike out for the city. Red eyes dark with desperation, blood deep anger.
© Ren Warom 2011