From our Firelight Correspondent
This story originally appeared in the Darkwind Gazette
Firelight is a forbidding place. For many, the very name is synonymous with Hell on earth, the Inferno as envisaged by Dante or Hieronymous Bosch, a Ragnarok where the dead stalk the land and the fires of Judgement Day spew forth from a blasted landscape.
To the brave and foolhardy crew of Cuddle Fiesta and Drive Backwards BFFs, it is a land of opportunity.
Harry Dong leans on the bonnet of a flame-red Flail. He cuts an ominous figure because, like every one of the BFFs, he wears a white, featureless facemask. As he speaks, the leathery sock puppet on his left hand moves in sync with his words
“Nah-one scouts ‘ere.” The puppet’s mouth opens and closes. I catch a glimpse of a tattoo on the leather and realise that the puppet is made of tanned human skin. “Nah-one. They’re just pussies. But we know. We know what’s aht there. And it’s good stuff.”
Willie Nelson agrees. “I ain’t be scouting here long, but the pickings are good. Worth the risk, I reckon.”
Jesus Christ – a blasphemous pseudonym in a ravaged land – doesn’t speak. Willie throws a glance in his direction and shrugs. “Greenhorn. He’ll lighten up soon enough. Hey, Harry, where’s Long anyway?”
Harry shrugs and the puppet speaks. “Around. Somewhere.”
“You two ain’t fighting over that mutie broad again, is ya? She ain’t worth it, I tell ya.”
Harry shrugs again. The puppet’s mouth opens and shuts without a sound.
* * *
Half an hour later, we are sweating our way up the jagged solidified lava that passes for the road between Badlands and Firelight. Our crew looks solid enough: three musclecars with horse- and firepower. The sun hangs low in the sky, illuminating the dancing motes of ash and dust that hang in the air. Gouts of flame jet heavenwards as the tortured earth vents its inner bile. A violent eruption draws my eye, and when I turn my attention back to the road, the mutants are everywhere.
Ahead, a Buzz Cut and an Eliminator block our path. An Antagonist and a Radon Rancher hold our right flank. A Beaster – a monstrous van with reinforced plates welded to around the front – threatens to block our retreat.
“Charging a buzzer on a hill ain’t so smart,” says Willie. “Bootlegger it.”
We throw the vehicles into a sharp turn and accelerate down the rocky hill. Behind us, the Antagonist opens up with a car rifle, round after round finding the tail end of Willie’s Phoenix. Smoke pours out and for a moment, I fear a lucky strike has found the engine. But it’s the blue-grey cloud of a smoke generator covering our retreat.
“Pay attention, love, for Gawd’s sake.” Harry’s voice crackles on the radio. “Watch your 2 o’clock.”
I swing round. The Beaster is careering across the rocks to cut off our retreat. I swing the wheel hard left, but it’s too late. With a sickening crunch, the reinforced plates welded to the Beaster’s frame crash into my side and the Sunrise flies off the road into a jagged lava field. The van driver slides his van sidewards and crunches into the BFF Flail, turning it through 180 degrees.
I wrestle to regain control, swearing as I feel all four of the tyres explode on the unforgiving rock. I hear Willie Nelson cry out in pain as a bullet all but severs his leg, and a spume of black, oily smoke spills from his engine.
“So, we all gonna die?” I ask, proud that I kept my voice matter-of-fact.
Willie guffawed. “”You ain’t dead till you’re dead. Jes’ focus on getting up that hill.”
Over the radio, I can Jesus whimpering. No one comments as Willie shuts off his transmission.
Three musclecars limped up the hill on either side of the Beaster, while an Antagonist kept a steady accurate fire. Then we have a stroke of luck.
“You’ll never believe it. That Beaster jes’ rammed his own ganger.” Tongues of flame flickered across the hood of the Antagonist and the rate of fire dropped. “We might have a chance.”
I stomped my foot down hard and the car responded sluggishly, four rims digging deep into the surface of the road and throwing sparks in a wide arc. I felt a jolt and looked round in panic.
“That’ll help you.” In the rear-view mirror, I could just see Harry’s expressionless mask as he pushes my rear-end up the hill.
“Now, get them off our tail,” he ordered as the Flail swerved to pass me, the throaty roar of the 5 litre engine rumbling around the hilltops. I triggered the flaming oil and prayed to whichever deity was listening that I could make it up the hill.
“You two get clear at the top,” instructed Harry. “I’ll set up an ambush and hug ‘em good.” He threw the Flail into a loop and raced back along an elevated rock formation. I crawled past his hilltop perch, relieved that only the Antagonist and Radon Rancher had stuck to the chase. My relief was short-lived as a carmine beam from a heavy laser sizzled past my right ear.
“It’s kissing time,” screamed Harry. The staccato rhythm of a heavy gatling gat rent the air. The Antagonist swerved left, narrowly avoiding the plunge into a deep ravine. The Rancher broke right, lurching across tyre-destroying lava fields and coming to rest with its hood wrapped around a decaying tree.
“And we’re home free,” whooped Harry, as we fled across the blasted roadway.
* * *
“That was a disaster,” said Willie. He clasped a field bandage to his left leg and tightened his belt around it.
“Nah,” said Harry. “You’re still alive, aincha? Sides, half our scouts go like that.” On his left hand, the sock puppet smirked. “So, yous all ready to go again?”
* * *
Sheila “Ma” Smith has lived and worked for the Vanguards in Firelight for three years. She is a crack shot and expert tracker. She hopes to settle down to the safe life of writing for a living.