This is why I never take things for granted.
This time last week, I’d thought my life was pretty rough. My main point of misery centered on the contents of my tobacco pouch. The supply had dwindled, and what remained was dry, crumbling, and tasteless. My papers weren’t much better, being pages ripped from an old Bible I’d found in Silver City. Guess that’s karma. When you’re reduced to smoking Bible pages, maybe it’s time to rethink your life choices.
But oh, how things change. I’m getting some much-needed perspective. Cowered in a dry creek bed watching that damned A-10 circle back around, my cigarette-rolling prospects are the furthest thing from my mind.
If only Motia were here.
“I’ll send help. I promise,” she’d yelled over her shoulder. “Besides, it’s Earth. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Oh, it’s Earth, all right. One of ‘em. But it’s not just the where, as I’ve discovered in our travels. No, it’s the when. And seeing as how there’s an A-10 Warthog trying to raze the mining town about half a mile away (and, by virtue of proximity, me) I’m guessing I’m not the only person here that’s outside their original timeline.
It’s the damnedest thing, though. Seeing that flying anachronism, I think of the old Native American legend of the Thunderbird. Suddenly, shit makes sense. The Winnebago thought of the thunderbird as an omen of military victory. If you had a vision of one of the loud, lightning-hurling raptors, you were destined to become a great warrior. As I listen to the “BRRRR-R-R-R-R” of that thirty-mil and the throaty roar of the turbines as the thing flies low enough to send up a rooster-tail of dust and debris, I can imagine that the only way your run-of-the-mill War Chief in the 1800’s aboriginal population could even conceive of something like this would be through some sort of induced state.
And yet, here it is. No way this is a coincidence.
Footsteps, coming fast, crunching the dirt and rocks. I spin, the Navy revolver in my hand…and immediately aim it to the ground.
“Fuckin’ what is up, man!?”
Ray. It’s goddam Ray, here. Now. This is who Motia sent to help. And as he throws himself to the ground next to me, he reaches over my prone body to smother me in a huge hug.
“Good to see you, man! Sounds like there’s a lot going on. This looks interesting, no doubt. Dude, check this shit out…”
He pulls back, away from me, into a sitting position. I notice his garb for the first time. Ray’s pale blonde hair, the color if the inside of a banana peel, is back in a ponytail. His face and arms tanned so deeply that it’s hard to make out the detail in his tattoo sleeves. He wears what I can only call a pirate shirt…not the puffy, frilly, Captain Hook kind, but the roughspun beige linen sort with an open neck and billowy sleeves (which he’s rolled and pushed up over his elbows.)
“I shit you not, I’m first mate on a fuckin’ sloop of war! Check it!”
He turns his right arm over to show me a large swath of puckered, pink skin which runs from just over his wrist to about an inch below the crook of his arm.
“Cannonball burn. Know this: cannonballs are fuckin’ hot, son. This one nearly took my fuckin’ arm, and wiped this one dude out right at the knee, no joke. Dude stood there for like a microsecond, and then ‘fump!’ Over he goes. Unreal, dude. Oh, and—“
“RAY!” I shouted, louder than I intended.
“Right. Gotcha. Thunderbolt. Please explain.”
Thunderbolt. Or more accurately, Thunderbolt II. Damn, I’d forgotten. That was the official designation of the A-10. At least, in our timeline. In our universe. Ray seemed to read my thoughts, as he sometimes did.
“This is some real Dark Tower shit, my friend. Fuckin’ score.”
“That’s one way to put it. But the fact remains, that flying hunk of death is sort of in our way.”
Ray stares, and his hand absently tugs and strokes the tuft of corn silk on his chin.
Here’s the thing about Ray: he is fucking brilliant. Some people forget that. They lose sight of the fact that the guy could build an entire computer server and IT network from scratch, or that he’d spent two years in a Shaolin monastery or that his so-called “Superposition Drive Theory” was being seriously discussed (in an alternate timeline, anyway) as a viable means of interstellar, faster-than-light travel…an expression that he abhorred, because “You’re not traveling anywhere. You’re already there, you just aren’t aware of it!”
The other thing about Ray is that he’s totally nuts.
Well, that’s not completely accurate, either. He’s just…an unstable molecule. He’s chaos incarnate. When you scrap with him, the scary part isn’t his muscles or his training or anything, but the completely unpredictable, wild nature of his aggression. He and I scrapped once doing a thing on some damn world chasing down some quarry of Motia’s or whatever. It was a frustrating trip, and the trail had gone cold. We spent the night, all of us, drinking a whole crap-ton of this godawful booze punch we’d come across, and things got ugly. Everyone was cussing and punching, just pissed at everything out of general frustration and exhaustion. It bloomed into a full-on brawl, every creature for itself. Ray had thrown a good left cross at my head, one that I narrowly avoided. I countered by kicking him in the sternum. He grabbed my ankle and then did the unexpected. He could’ve twisted my leg, could’ve thrown me, could have done a lot of things, but what he did was to slam his forehead into the meat of my thigh. Hard. Yes, the fucker head-butted my leg. And that sounds crazy, and maybe even ineffective, but shit…imagine someone throwing a bowling ball, hard, and having it impact about three inches above your knee. My entire limb went numb. In all honesty, I couldn’t even stand on it when I came-to the next morning. The black, bone-deep bruise lasted weeks. It was horrible. Of course, when Ray saw it, he just laughed. Laughed and laughed. He cried tears of mirth and squeaked out “Oh, dude! Oh, shit! That’s why my neck hurts so bad! I tried to snap your leg with my skull, dude!”
Then a few days later, he’d saved my ass when we were ambushed by some Skinnies. That’s just Ray.
So he looks across the stretch of sand and rock and dust, through the waves of heat distortion rippling and blurring the horizon. And he concludes “That is definitely a jet airplane.”
Yes, it sure as fuck is.
“So, here’s the thing about jet airplanes. They need fuel. Lots of it, I’d imagine. So, this fucker is either hooked up with an alternate power source, which seems unlikely, the way it sounds and smells. Can you smell it? That oily, diesel-and alcohol smell? It’s on the wind. I think it’s him. It’s Mr. Buzzy. Or he’s got a refinery or some stash of fuel nearby. Not sure the range on these guys, but it’s gotta be finite.”
I stare at Ray for a second, then back to the grey-green terror swooping low again, strafing whatever it’s trying to kill in the town.
“Ammo, too…” I murmur. “Can’t have inexhaustible rounds, right? And it’s surely shooting projectiles. Those aren’t beam weapons.”
“Correct. So, ol’ boy there has a stash somewhere, hoss. I say we got find it and maybe end up getting us a flying machine. Dude, can you imagine? Ima take it back to my crew, back in the Caribbean.” Ray begins to cackle. “They will literally shit themselves, no doubt. CAW! CAW! DEATH CROW! CLEAR THE FUCKIN’ DECK!”
One thing at a time. It’s going to be dusk soon. And this strange quarry is going to fly off in one direction or another, I’m guessing. And we’ll track it somehow. And we’ll take it out somehow. And then I’ll double back to the mining camp and continue my quest. Maybe finally link up with Motia again. Jesus. Motia, the Indians, and now Ray. If we can just keep this crew together, we might just have a shot. We might just get things sorted.
And then, just maybe…maybe I can go home.