Ray & The Warthog

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.

 

 

 

 

Waiting With Motia.

“What’s with the yellow glasses?” I was curious. Motia didn’t wear specs as a general rule, but she was sporting these sporty little numbers with sleek, black frames and yellow-tinted lenses.

“Glare, stupid.” She spat. Her head didn’t turn my way in the slightest. She kept staring out the glassless window, and I knew her eyes were sweeping the horizon and everything between it and us. Looking for nothing in particular except maybe movement. A shadow flitting between cacti or from gorse to sage. It was still that pre-dawn dusk, and I couldn’t imagine what sort of glare she was talkin’ about, since the world was shades of purple, slowly in places becoming more periwinkle and rose.

“Where’s that goddam Indian?” she muttered, taking a bite from her protein bar. All we’d had to live on since Outworld, it seemed. Oat-and-nut bars with some sort of grain, like maybe quinoa, baked into crumbly rectangles. Them and stale water. How the hell does water go stale? Maybe that’s not the way to describe it, but that’s the word that pops into my head when I think about those aluminum cylinders with the thick rims and screw-off caps that never seemed to want to screw back on correctly.

And then her gun was in her hand. It always happened so fast. One minute she’d be talking and laughing, snorting out her nose with mirth, and then BAM! Her face went blank, like someone had hit a reset button and you noticed her pistol was up and ready, the action pulled back so everyone knew it was ‘go time.’ And if you didn’t know that, you were sure to have it explained to you with a sudden explosion of gunshots and smoke and the sound of tables crashing onto their sides for cover and sometimes the sounds of yells or screams that were always someone else’s. Motia didn’t yell. She just went to work. Thanks the gods, too, because she’d already saved my bacon more times than I could count.

This time she stood there, looking at nothing. Listening. And then I heard it, too. The baritone rumble and crackle of a V-twin engine and motorcycle tires on a dirt and gravel road. This was good news or bad, because whoever was riding our way didn’t give a good godsdamn who knew they were coming.

The engine stopped. We waited. The sun was on its way up now, and the big front window to the old, long-abandoned deli now opened upon a stunning landscape of gold, brown, and red with a high, clear, hard blue canopy. I listened for footsteps in the dirt and heard nothing. But Motia did. She gave me the time-tested “Shh” motion with a finger to her pursed lips and slid noiselessly to the side entrance. Her tactical position was such that the door’d hide her if it swung open. I stood there like an idiot before her angry eye told me to make myself scarce. But I was too late to move. There was nowhere to go. Then I heard it…a voice that sounded as warm as good whisky and yet thin as smoke whispered “Moe-TEE-yaaa…”

I surprised myself just then. My pistol had found its way to the sweaty palm of my right hand and was in the process of coming up, up slowly, it seemed, too slow, agonizingly slow…in reality it couldn’t have been more than half a second, but I knew it wasn’t fast enough. Not in this reality or any other. Didn’t matter anyway, as Motia’s arm knocked my hand skyward, my aim towards the grimy, grease-covered ceiling tiles and away from the tall, thin, brown-skinned man that stood just on the other side of the open storefront window.

“For FUCK’S SAKE, Pappu. You’re the only human in ten worlds that can do that!” Motia had already holstered her sidearm and was wiping perspiration from her brow. Pappu laughed his crazy old man laugh. I say ‘old man’ but let’s be honest, nobody knows how many centuries Pappu (or Papuulu or Papunu or P-Smoke or any number of names people have given him) has stalked the universes, most recently astride his vintage Indian motorbike which was, I suspect, chosen to be deliberately ironic. From what I’d observed, Pappu was always maintaining at least a dozen inside jokes (which often ended up being part of some elaborate long con he was running) but it was hard to tell. The fact that his best pal and confidante was an old Navajo called Sicheii (I say ‘called’ rather than ‘named’ because no one except maybe Pap knew his real name) added to his love of deliberate puns. Seriously, two “Indians” running around on Indians. I guess that shit’s hilarious if you’re an ancient mystic or something.

“But I let you hear me! Look, I’m even wearing sandals!” He lifted a bony leg that could’ve passed for a mangrove branch to display what looked like a brand new multi-colored rubber flip-flop, one that could’ve easily been purchased (or stolen) from any Dollar General.

“Jesus, Pappu. Trim your toenails. That shit’s nasty,” Motia chided as she helped him step over the sill into our makeshift redoubt.

“Jesus doesn’t care of man’s old toenails. You should see his! Like black scales! No, he care uh-uh no. But enough foot language. You come with me now.”

And just as soon as he had both feet on the dirty grey-green floor, he stepped nimbly back out the window and into the desert. Motia sighed.

“Whelp, I guess that’s why we drug our asses out here, huh?” And she smiled. I hadn’t seen that in a while. It was really, really nice. White and bright and confident, like she knew everything was going to be okay.

“You’re the boss,” I replied, checking that my pistol was secured in its holster. Then I followed the others, over the sill that still bore a few crumbled pebbles of old greenish-blue safety glass, into the dust and growing daylight of the Big Empty.