As abruptly as it had arrived, the quake snarled its exit, lashing its tail then gone into the night. Max was quick to take advantage.
He sent Andrew and Kabela a signal that they didn’t need, then followed the path of the split, staying low. Andrew’s ex-ex-house provided little cover, but a distance beyond it part of a braver building still clung to the gap’s edge. The crumpled wall bizarrely reminded Max of two knotted eyebrows. All four of them skirted around to where the split emerged, then stopped.
But instead of speaking, Max did something stupid.
He looked down.
Instantly his stomach was gone, plunging to its doom and never to digest again. Max would have mourned its demise, but unfortunately his eyes had fixed themselves to the place where pale moonlight sheared off rock wall and into complete and utter blackness.
Yes, nighttime seemed to bring the death drop into its own. Seeing nothing was substantially worse than seeing the bottom, no matter how distant that bottom was. Seeing nothing provided lots of space for a mind prone to panic attacks to improvise.
Which is what Max’s mind did. Below him, black hung like an anti-mist, throbbed like the old acquaintance a little too happy to see him, obscuring everything, formed of nothing.
He felt his grip on the knotted eyebrows strain as he inched further out, terror cool on his face and torso. All that separated him from going the way of his stomach was a thread of an arm, currently stretched to breaking point. And Max yearned.
And it was of course Billy who brought him back.
‘First you’re scared of the dark, now you want to hug it. You got some issues, mister.’
It appeared that he wasn’t the only one. Once he had inched the black nothingness away and safely out of sight, Max noticed Billy’s knuckles, white and clamped to Max’s trousers. And then there was Billy’s face, competing with his knuckles in colour. And across the gap, two ghosts drained of blood, their expressions a never more appropriate use for the word ‘aghast’.
‘Right,’ said Andrew, raising his voice so it would carry. ‘Right. Uh. Good.’ He swallowed. ‘Now we’ve got that over with, I was wondering. Yes. What’s your plan, Max?’
After returning some moisture to his throat, Max ran his gaze along the split’s edge. It zig-zagged through buildings before sawing off into the night. He pointed.
‘That will not go on forever. There’ll be a building you can cross, or a place where the rocks reform...’ but now he was thinking of the moment before the quake, the realisation of an end, and - he wished they were closer, so they could speak normally.
‘Max,’ said Kabela, her voice not its natural volume, ‘Andrew and I, well, we were thinking. With all that’s happened...’
Yes, yes; Max nodded briskly, wanting to move things along, he had places to go too. ‘You’re thinking of splitting, aren’t you,’ he said, careful to amplify his voice. ‘Heading back to the other side, finding another way across.’
Andrew: ‘I don’t know what we’ll do, to be honest. I was thinking, we might head back towards Brac. See if there’s anything left of it. You know.’
Yes, Max did.
The words wafted silently from him and her to him.
‘I understand,’ he said, keeping his voice raised.
Kabela: ‘It’s nothing against you, Max. Travelling together, it’s been, Jesus, it’s been an experience. But Andrew and I...’ Her sentence was completed by the way that under the light of the stars their fingertips touched.
‘I understand,’ he said. Damned distance forced his voice shrill.
Andrew: ‘The world’s eye was always your thing more than ours, anyway. And I hope you get there, I really do. I hope it’s what you want. Me and Kabela, well...’ Well what? Why they were dragging this out? He understood. Why did Kabela look like that? Why were they dragging this out? He understood.
‘I understand,’ he said. Then he said, ‘Don’t go.’
But no one seemed to hear. Billy tripped and fell against his leg. Kabela squinted at him with an upside-down frown. Andrew upped the tempo of his voice.
‘We might meet again later. Who knows. We might meet at the world’s eye. It’s just that, well, before then, well, I guess we’ve got stuff we want to do...’
... alone. Courtesy of his mind and the rocks inside. Alone.
And had Max mentioned the distance? Made his voice all weird. ‘Okay,’ he said, as Billy’s hand slipped into his. ‘Okay.’
The others stood there looking around Max. Max looked at his feet.
Then he was struck by an idea, and fiddled with the belt clasp that attached the sword to his waist. It was tied extra tightly, took longer than usual to release. When it came, he took aim and pitched the sword, landing it at Kabela and Andrew’s feet. Somewhere on the way over, it must have slid partly from the scabbard, as it lay on the ground half unsheathed. It looked old and not particularly special.
‘For you,’ said Max. ‘I don’t want it any more.’
‘Uh, thanks,’ said Andrew, and he picked it up carefully. He bounced it in his hands, appeared to feel its weight, then with equal care laid it back down on the rocks. He shuffled it towards the split with a foot. Then, with Kabela studying him, he said, ‘You know... I think I might leave it. I’m not sure if we were hoping for that kind of journey.’
Now Kabela shifted her gaze to the sword. She continued from where Andrew had left off, nudged it right to the edge of the split until it balanced precariously. But she didn’t kick it over. Instead, she said:
‘I think this is goodbye, Max.’
Max thought so too.
‘It’s been fun,’ said Andrew. Then he laughed uproariously, the sound so abrupt that it crashed around like the quake. Kabela smiled, then she too was struggling to control undignified snorts. At first Billy looked horrified, but then he grinned and then he giggled and then he began to emit shrieks of laughter.
As Andrew’s jokes went, ‘It’s been fun,’ ranked among the very worst, but for some reason it allowed Max to make a discovery.
Aching ribs. A cliché and a myth, respectively true and confirmed. The bastards really ached, getting away with hurting by tossing around the word ‘jolly’. His sides, Christ, his sides!
Also, his stomach had made a miraculous return, because when Max bent over, it lurched up his throat and he threw up guffaws and hoots and similar things. Laugh, laugh, laugh, that’s what he did, and Billy too.
Then, as if following the strokes of an unseen conductor, they diminuendoed to chuckling spurts, snorts of amusement, contented sighs, silence.
When Max looked across the split, the sword had vanished, and Kabela and Andrew were gone. Their adventures are another story.
Mentally Max shook his head, attempting to rid himself of the bitter film that had come to settle within him. This was no place to brood. Jessie was still mad, and in particular, mad at them. So far, they’d been lucky, had been afforded time for a laughter break. But now Max felt it was time to get out.
A feeling that he and Billy acted upon, moving quickly, heading outwards. The buildings were a blend, the split a streak.
‘Can’t we go faster?’ said Billy at one point.
‘Only if you can,’ said Max between beats. And while Billy gave no answer, their increased pace seemed a reply.
Soon, on each side, the building blend became lumpy, and Max identified the warehouses and hangers of Elara’s outskirts. He chanced a look behind and saw no pursuit, only a jolting landscape through a gauze of sweat and the gentle red glow of the city’s centre.
Then what felt like a damp sheet of paper slapped onto his leg and clung to it before flapping away. For one second he continued, for half of another, he slowed and processed. The next one and a half seconds were spent rushing back.
He didn’t bother speaking: it was clear there would be no reply. A check of Billy’s fluttering breathing, a brush of his panicking pulse, then Max scooped him up and hurried into one of the hangers. The boy was so light that a casual night breeze might carry him away.
After selecting a safe-looking corner to serve as Billy’s bed, Max gave the hanger’s interior a single, cursory glance.
That was all he considered it needed: basically it was a shed viewed from a bug’s perspective. Just beneath the semicircular roof, a row of broken-glass windows carved slivers of moonlight for the far wall. There was some kind of scrawling there as well, it looked almost militaristic. For a moment, Max toyed with the thought of Elara being linked to an army, but really couldn’t maintain the interest. Far more interesting was Billy.
And it was Billy who occupied all subsequent thoughts as Max first diagnosed the boy as exhausted, second prescribed a period of rest, and third, fell asleep and dreamt.
The warmth of the morning sun on his face woke him. The light was milky and streaked with yellow, filtered by the windows’ grime.
He checked on Billy, and linked the boy’s present breathing and pulse to sleep, as opposed to last night’s body shutdown. When he glanced outside, he noted the absence of hordes of furious mutants; this only sanctioned his good feeling.
Of the hanger, he took time out to discard his first impressions.
Because, well, leaving the best thing until last, Max first reexamined the scrawling. It was plastered on the wall in pretty creams and greys: two upright swords; between them, a pointed star inside a sun. While he didn’t recognise the design, it practically screamed classic military.
He moved on to the second best thing, or things: two rows of carts, the rusty vehicles unmistakable. Five per row, thus ten in total. Yes, at some point in his past, Max was sure that he’d studied mathematics. He was also sure that these carts had formed part of Jessie’s search party.
But now he was keen to explore the best thing in the hanger, examine its curves and admire its body.
Despite being tucked away in the corner, this thing wasn’t shy; this thing was obviously well aware of its bestness. This thing, Max considered as he drew closer, this thing was related to the carts, but only in the way that a king is related to a pox-ridden peasant. And if this thing had come from Brac, Max was a pox-ridden peasant. This thing - and Max felt the corners of his mouth twitch up - this thing was a gas-guzzling, rock-crunching machine, this thing churned speed and spat out gravel, this thing lived for the kind of punishment that the rocks could provide in abundance and when they were drained this thing’s engine would only growl for more.
This thing also bore the residue of military camouflage, but some art student had graffitied over it, and now, in neon blues and yellows, the words ROCK AND ROLL scorched along the thing’s side and burnt through the air before sizzling to a halt between Max’s synapses. Fixed to the roof was a line of headlamps that looked like they could fry up insects.
‘What is it, mister?’ asked Billy - good that the boy was up, bad that he couldn’t fully appreciate this thing that bled power and sweated carbon.
‘This,’ said Max, with just the right amount of reverence in his voice, ‘this, Billy, is our ride.’
‘I’m afraid that will have to wait,’ came a familiar voice, the weasel whine of someone who preferred other peoples’ business to his. ‘I knew you wouldn’t have left, I knew you’d be hiding up here somewhere.’
Max failed to turn and proffer his congratulations.
‘I knew you were suspicious, from the moment I saw you, all that talk about bringing water to the prisoner, that didn’t cut any ice with me, not with Frederick, not one bit.’
First, he needed to know how many.
Max shifted his his head ever so slightly, watched Billy taste tiny sips of air. Then the boy slowly rotated and splayed his right hand, before equally slowly curling away the thumb. Four. Not bad, not good.
‘Jessie may have turned us back, may have sent us after the other two, but I thought, Frederick, that’s not where he’s gone, and he’s the worst of the lot: I thought, Frederick, he’s gone up there, up there where there are things to steal and property to damage. I could tell a natural thief as soon as look at you, lies and sneaking and stealing, they go together. Yes, I knew you’d come up here. After all, I was right about you before. When you tried your very best to trick me.’
And failed miserably, The Good Neighbour’s silence and Max’s mind added. This specimen explained why Elara’s populace had been waiting for them: perhaps Max had been too quick to praise his earlier bluffing.
No matter. In front of him the scenery advised: ROCK AND ROLL. And Max smiled.
‘... and the flayer, well, that was when I knew I had to stop you, a person like that needs to be brought in to face his...’ Max began to prune The Good Neighbours sentences. ‘... destruction... ravaging... pillaging... Frederick’s duty... wait - what are you doing? Stop, I command you, stop. Don’t even think about getting in there. That’s private property, you - get out of there right now! I’m warning you, if you do not evacuate that vehicle right this instant, why, I’ll, I’ll -’
‘You’ll what?’ and suddenly Max was way too close for The Good Neighbour’s comfort, his feet skimming the distance as if they had little wings attached. The Good Neighbour took a hasty step back and clattered into a cart. He recovered quickly, drew himself up, then examined Max via his nose.
‘My, but you’re a real ugly specimen, Max. All those lines on your face, arms popping with veins like they’re desperate to escape. You know, as soon as I saw you, heard your voice, I thought of a name, a special name. Want to know your special name, Max? I call you The Sneaky -’
Max didn’t care to know his special name. Instead, he grabbed a handful of shoulder and rammed The Good Neighbour against the cart. It clanked, squealed and groaned while Max said, ‘Choose your next words - very carefully. We, me and Billy, we’re about to leave Elara in that vehicle.’ A head jerk in case there was any doubt as to which one. ‘You are more than welcome to get in my way.’
There. That should sort things out. For good measure, Max gave The Good Neighbour a shove, then stalked back towards the Humvee.
‘- I call you The Sneaky Freak,’ said the voice from behind him. ‘That’s what I was going to say before you so rudely interrupted me. And you enquired as to what I’ll do? Why, I’ll do this -’
This was a boom, and something zinged through Max’s ghost ear.
‘I suppose it was too much to ask that you would come peacefully,’ The Good Neighbour yelled, his sugary smug tones cracking, ‘but did you really think I had come unprepared?’
Another boom, a melodic cart clang, although by this time Max was on the ground and slithering. Courtesy of the carts’ undersides, he saw three pairs of feet rushing Billy’s way - perhaps they were privy to information regarding Billy’s skill at martial arts that Max wasn’t.
Regardless - a third boom, shattering the rocks where his leg had just been.
‘It seems ironic,’ said the voice, coming from a different direction, purring with power and closer than before, ‘that the object of your demise should be the very weapon that set this whole mess into motion.’
A quick rifle through his mind produced Andrew’s silver dragon pistol; damn right it seemed ironic, but Max was in no mood to appreciate and discuss. Instead, having reached the rear line of carts, he gripped a side-frame and risked pulling himself up.
‘Stop right there.’
The Good Neighbour’s voice was quieter now, its owner having passed through the heady clouds of power and emerged somewhere on the oxygen-starved summit of Mount Control. From there, he looked down on Max, and levelled the gun through the cart’s empty windscreen.
‘I might ask you to surrender, but I think we’ve gotten to know each other far better than that. A man like you, The Sneaky Freak, you can’t lock him up, you can’t tell him to sit down and behave like a good boy. A man like you, you’re either dead or you’re alive, and when you’re alive, you’re trouble. Isn’t that so, Max?’
Max got the sense that his opinion on the matter was irrelevant; Max had the feeling that what was important here was eye contact. So, willing megawatts into his stare, he proceeded to burn holes through The Good Neighbour’s cranium.
‘No,’ said The Good Neighbour, ‘I’m afraid even your most pleading gaze won’t dissuade me. Besides, I’ve talked far too much already - isn’t that what you’ve been thinking since the first time we met? Frederick the gossip, Frederick the vain? Perhaps I’m not as obvious as you first thought. Perhaps you shouldn’t be so quick to label people. Perhaps Frederick the gossip has - hidden depths.’ He smirked, and his finger tensed. ‘So let’s do this. And this time, no bluffing. You ready?’
Max was ready. No bluffing.
He dropped his hands from the frame. Hand One fell to the pedal that skewed out opposite his waist and, using an arm popping with veins like they were desperate to escape, Max floored it. Hand Two fell past the controls and on the way flicked a switch, a switch that he was familiar with, a switch that he’d used before, a switch with chiselled scrawl above it that could only mean ‘on’.
The Good Neighbour’s time permitted only a look of surprise to pass through his face as Mount Control crumbled beneath him, he plummeted through the clouds of power, and he saw the rocky ground of reality that was so very keen to meet him.
And The Good Neighbour’s time permitted no more than that, because by then the cart in front of him had slammed into his stomach, and the cart behind had brought him to a bone-splintering halt. The gun popped from his hand like a squeezed banana and his tongue popped from his mouth; The Good Neighbour coughed, once, then fell silent.
Max bent down, picked up the gun, then walked stiffly towards the Humvee. All three mutants clinging to Billy scattered, their expressions claiming that they didn’t get paid nearly enough for this.
Max considered that he didn’t either. There was a horrible, horrible taste in his mouth. Although he didn’t promise, since promises seemed to get broken, as he climbed into the vehicle, Max said something to himself. He said that he would never again do to anyone anything like the thing he’d just done to Frederick. What he would do instead was find a less brutal, less primal, way to survive. Maybe survival itself was merely a base on which other, more interesting things were built.
He tossed the gun to the dashboard; Billy clambered on to the passenger seat. The suspension rocked and rolled.
Once he’d scanned the controls, Max concluded that the thing ran on some kind of fuel, and judging by the dust, it hadn’t been used for decades. The keys were in the ignition, and they turned with the slippery ease of something that has been waiting a long time to be turned.
While the vehicle roared and stretched, a panel on the dashboard lifted open and a small green display flickered into life. First, that symbol again, the two swords, the sun and star, which then vanished for a simple face that greeted them with a simple smile. Next, a thumbs-up fizzled into view, and then, in big, cheerful letters: Watch Your Carbon Footprint!
A wink from the face, the two swords, sun and star, then nothing. Max revved the engine: vroom vroom.
‘What was that about, mister? Some kind of message?’
Max described what he’d seen, and Billy lapsed into a confused silence.
A whole ten seconds were spent learning the controls, Max’s memory typically hinting and teasing, then all three of them rocked and rolled out of there.
The rocks were present, of course, as the Humvee crunched slowly through Elara’s outskirts, but the sky seemed fresher and bluer, the sun brighter and yellower. Even the tightrope of doom didn’t seem quite so doomed. Audibly infuriating the Humvee, Max stopped when they reached a certain place, just beyond the tightrope of doom’s end.
He left the engine muttering, grabbed the gun from the dash, then jumped out, careful not to wake the dozing Billy. As he left, his head brushed a little plastic toy, a guy in a white suit and shades that bobbled against the windscreen.
But it wasn’t the toy that Max was interested in. It was these.
They were still there. Survived the quake, softening the rocks, still as rich in colour as their siblings in his dreams. If anything, their promises were more exciting than before.
Max cupped and caressed the grass blades; they leant against him as a friendly cat would when stroked. They shivered in emerald-gold flashes.
He straightened up, hefted the gun. He’d never so much as held one before, and as for firing it, well, Max imagined he’d hit anything but the target.
He studied the loading cylinder, took a few aims, squinted down the barrel and marked invisible assailants. Then he slipped a finger into the trigger, twirled the gun a few times, this way and that, admired the balance. He wondered where the ammunition was, contemplated how if he wanted, he could surely learn to shoot.
If he wanted.
Fine craftsmanship no doubt, pretty dragons and all, but Max felt that the thing was far more suited to the death drop it had just been hurled into. He didn’t stay to watch it fall.
Some might have called the pistol the last brick of Brac, some might have called that meaningless; to be honest, in the end, it was just a bit of metal.
A minute later, Max had lined the Humvee up with the sun and was staring into the horizon. He knew that the world hadn’t changed overnight, but something had, somewhere, because even the rocks didn’t seem so bad. Time was, Max wouldn’t have heard it, but now, incredibly, an unseen bird seemed to be singing.
While he listened, a thought that he hadn’t expected arrived in his consciousness. It suggested that Max was currently experiencing an emotion, it suggested that the emotion’s name was hope.
Max looked at Billy. Looked at the toy nodding its head on the windscreen. Looked down at the rocks, looked up at the sky. Rested his foot on the accelerator, didn’t push - just rested. Nudged their ride into first:
There was only one place left to go.