Through FireJacob Magnus / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction
By Jacob Magnus
Copyright 2016 Jacob Magnus
Fire rose in the distance, burning smoky yellow against the dark night sky. Flint scowled when he saw it through the broad crystal sweep of the front window, and gunned his rig’s engines, pushing it to make town faster. He felt the gunmetal grey form of the old ground effect freighter tremble and whine as he drove it close to the limits of speed, and knew that anyone standing outside, watching the rig rush along the way, would see little more than a monstrous grey blur, but the storm winds screaming along with the hulk would knock them flat.
He drew near the granite crags of the shield wall, the natural barrier that embraced the city on the bay, dark and shadowy in his rig’s headlights. He saw the bright yellow sign over the gap in the wall, the sign he didn’t need to read, for in all his near-thirty years in the rig, babe and man, he’d never imagined a rig would cross the gap and drive into the city. The sign triggered a conditioned reflex, to stop, pull over, deliver his cargo and hitch into town, a response that almost overrode his will. To counter it, he reached out and picked up the jewel on his dashboard, a red ruby pendant hanging from a white gold chain. He held the necklace in his left hand, his right on the wheel, scowled at the gem, and the fury that had possessed him since he’d found it in the wild lands welled up from within, and he slammed a fist down on the dash. He shoved the necklace into his pocket, stamped on the accelerator, and sent the rig hurtling through the gap, into the city.
Once inside, the great way dwindled and divided into several narrow strips, like splayed fingers, some to small farms, others to the makers, and to the many homes that dotted the rough semicircle of the bay. None of these roads was laid with a hulking rig in mind, and if the rig struck a car, the old beast’s titanium skin would tear through it without a scratch, and they’d have to light another funeral pyre tonight. Flint shook his head. He knew he had no choice but to ignore the roads, and take the rig across the grassy fields, straight to the fire. He had a moment’s mental picture of a pack of kids playing tag in the dark while their parents attended the ceremony, and his foot eased off on the accelerator. His fury still drove him forward, but he flipped on all the hulk’s external lights, knowing that if the inhabitants of the city had failed to hear the hurricane roar of the rig’s entrance, they could not fail to notice the light.
Then, faster than he’d expected, the fire burned before him, and he saw the crowd gathered around it. He triggered the brakes and brought the rig to a rumbling halt a short distance from the ceremony. He killed the engines and the lights, and as he got out of the vehicle, a gust of air brought the acrid scent of woodsmoke. The grassy turf felt soft underfoot, compared to the hard flooring of the rig, and the night air felt cool, and salty with the moist breath of the sea. On other nights he would have taken pleasure in the way the world caressed his senses, but on this night, his eyes were full with the fire, and his heart smouldered with an answering rage.
Flint marched across the grass and shouldered his way through the silent crowd, fear and uncertainty writ on their faces, here a twisted brow, there a trembling hand. He was tall and rangy, clad in leather, and his amber eyes glinted with danger. As a rigger, he was marked by the outside world, by the wild lands, and tonight he was doubly marked, for none had ever brought their rig into the city. They would never forget that, he thought, but soon he would give them something more to remember. The funeral pyre loomed before him, a ziggurat of stacked wood, blackened now and burning with smoky yellow flames that rose straight up in the still night air. At the top of the ziggurat lay two forms, both feminine, one full-grown, the other much smaller. At any other funeral, he knew, they would have been real bodies up there, charring beyond recognition, but on this night two wooden mannikins lay on the pyre, and of all those at the funeral how many knew where the real bodies lay?
One figure now stood between him and the fire, outlined against the flames, a heavyset bruiser with a broken nose and a big, ancient Bowie knife at his belt. As Flint strode towards the man, Burl Clavar, he remembered what he had seen in the wild lands, in the slavers’ camp, and his hands curled into fists.
“You’re not welcome here, rigger,” said Burl. “This is for townsfolk only.”
Flint kept walking, said nothing, and drew close enough to taste the man’s beery breath. Then he brought his fist up in a solid blow under his chin. Burl’s head shot up, and he crashed backwards into the fire, then fell to hand and knee, brushing smoking embers from his back. He started to rise, but Flint drove a hard left into his jaw, and Burl dropped and rolled onto his back, swearing and rubbing his face.
“That’s enough,” someone shouted, and the crowd pressed closer, ringing the two men. Voices murmured, and Flint knew he didn’t have long before the spell wore off and they piled on him but he didn’t look at them. Instead he drew the necklace from his pocket and held it up, for everyone to see the glittering ruby. The crowd fell silent, and Burl gazed up at the gem, his eyes wide, jaw loose. Flint locked eyes with the man, and all the things he’d wanted to say, the fine speech he’d planned, it all washed away, drowned in a torrent of rage. He flung the necklace down at Burl, and when it struck his chest, the man flinched, but then he snatched it up and tossed it into the fire, leapt to his feet, and yanked the long blade from his belt.
What happened next passed in a blur. The crowd of onlookers stumbled and shrieked in their panic to get away from the knife, but Flint held his ground. He lowered his body into a crouch and drew his left foot back, legs tense, boots gripping the earth, arms raised, palms in. Burl grinned at Flint with bloody yellow teeth. “You made a mistake, rigger.” He spat blood at Flint and rushed in, slashing at his face. Flint ducked under the cut, and flung his right arm up in a backhanded strike under Burl’s elbow, trying to turn the man and trap his arm, but Burl spun with the blow, and cut down at Flint’s neck. Flint dropped to one knee and rolled aside, catching a small cut across his collarbone, and Burl followed him, kicking and stomping. Flint rolled again, got his legs under him, and rose to meet Burl’s next attack, which came as a slash at Flint’s belly. Flint slipped around the cut, closed in, jammed the knife arm against Burl’s body, and smashed his forehead into Burl’s face. Burl tried to shove him away, but Flint had hold of the knife arm now, gripping his wrist with his right, and his upper arm with his left, and he held them with all of his rigger’s strength. Burl swung a left into his temple, and he saw stars, but held on, twisting the arm down and back, and Burl cursed as the grip forced him down to his knees. Then Flint drew the arm back, braced against his side, freeing his left hand. He used this to turn Burl’s head away, and then press it back, and he heard the neck bones creak, and Burl’s curses changed to sobs. He knew, then, that he had control. He could hand Burl over, try to explain, maybe they’d listen. But that wasn’t good enough.
“Let me go, rigger.”
“I can’t do that, Burl.”
“I’ll share the takings with you. Fifty-fifty.”
“It’s not enough.”
Burl’s voice changed to a whine. “Gold, it’s gold. Seventy-thirty. Eighty. Please, rigger, please. Let me go.”
He thought of the necklace, heating, heating in the fire, and the wooden figures smoking above, the woman, the little girl. Fury took hold of him. “There’s not enough gold in the world.” Hot rage washed through his body, steaming through his muscles, searing his brain. For a moment there was nothing but the heat of his wrath, and in that pristine agony, his arms convulsed, and he felt Burl’s neck snap, and the blade fall from his lifeless hand. And then, before the crowd of onlookers, Flint heaved Burl up onto his shoulder, turned to the pyre, and hurled the man’s limp corpse into the flames.
He sat in the old cell, moss tracing green streaks across the cracked red brick. The air had a musty smell, and he’d seen the sheriff’s men carry out crates of old papers when they’d brought him here. Dust lay thick around the perimeter of the hard wooden bunk, and red rust crept across the bars. He sat in the cell, perhaps the first prisoner the sheriff had seen in ten or twenty years. He sat, and though his body was locked in jail, his mind returned again and again to the fire, to the funeral, the sight of Burl’s slack face casting that dead stare at him as the flames licked his red, bruised skin, raising bubbles, which turned black and spilled molten white fat, to catch fire and run down Burl’s face in streaks like flaming tears.
He would never forget that sight, nor the smell as Burl’s flesh cooked and charred. He would carry those memories, he knew, to his own funeral pyre. But the feelings that had brought him rushing down from the wild lands, the fury, the agony of wrath, they had not left him. He had thought, in his few moments of calm, as he drove along the great way, back to the city on the bay, that this one act would extinguish his feelings, would sate his blood thirst. He had imagined pain, sorrow, perhaps horror and even repentance. He had believed, or had lied to himself that he believed, that Burl’s death would drain out the rage that boiled within. But now, as he sat alone in his cell, he began to fear that his rage was a living thing, that it would demand more blood, more fire, and more death. The question that troubled him was whether he had struck down Burl for justice, or whether that was nothing but a rationalisation of his own lust for murder.
He wrapped his fingers around one cold iron bar, felt the gritty rust under his skin, and wondered if he was not in the ideal place to answer this question. He passed a day and a night in such reflection, barely noticing the stew they brought him, or the change of light into dark and back, until the visitor came.
Someone rapped a fingernail on the bars, making them sing, and Flint’s eyes slid open. He lay on his back on that hard wooden bed, head resting on one arm, and he hadn’t realised he was sleeping. From where he lay, he seemed to see a giant looming over him, a round red face set low between bulging shoulders, themselves outdone by an expansive midriff, all draped with a fine but rather loose brown suit, and the whole mass balanced on two slender stalks for legs. The voice, when it came, sounded jovial. “They’re set to hang you, Flint.”
He let it glance off him. Perhaps it would dig under his skin later, find a weak place within, but just then it didn’t seem real. Still, one thing caught his interest. “You said ‘they’.”
“Believe I did.”
They watched each other for a few moments, and then the visitor winced and rubbed his hip. “Mind scootin’ over there? Joints aren’t so good any more.”
Flint shrugged, and raised himself to a sitting position. “If you want something finer, you’ll have to take it up with the management.”
“It’ll do,” said the visitor, and the wooden bed creaked as he lowered his mass and sat beside Flint.
“You’re Buck Ambrel’s brother, Vistor.” said Flint.
“I was that,” said Vistor, nodding.
“You… Buck’s dead?”
Vistor faced Flint, a strange light in his bloodshot eyes. “That’s President Ambrel to you, m’boy. They’re building a new pyre now.”
“But that means...”
“Word’s already gone out to the riggers. They’ll gather over the next few days, and then Bay City’ll have itself a little race. All the riggers, that is, except one.”
Flint rubbed his temples. “It doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Means a lot.”
“Not to me.”
“Some would call that a selfish attitude.”
Flint rolled his eyes. “Well as you said, Vistor, they’re going to hang me today, or tomorrow, or God knows when, but they’re sure as shit not going to let me get into that race, not after what I’ve done. I’ve never run the race before, and it looks like I never will.”
“You’re brave or stupid to come into a condemned man’s cell for laughs.”
“Maybe I know something about you, Flint. More than you think. But forget Burl Clavar for a second. What you said, that’s all true, but you know Bay City. Everything has a price. That includes you.”
“You want to buy me, you better talk to the sheriff.”
“I already did.”
A shiver ran through Flint’s body, and he bolted to his feet, grabbed the bars and shook them. Then he rounded on Vistor, and glared down at the fat man. “You talk like a dream thing. Get level with me.”
“I want you to run the race. Agree, and I’ll pay the city to forget your crime.”
“I’ve never run the race. I’ve never even tried. You want to put the next President in your pocket, don’t talk to the Rhino, talk to the Dragon, or the Eagle.”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
Flint stared at him, and then he laughed. “Covering your bets, is that it?”
“The Rhino isn’t the fastest rig, that’s true, but she is the toughest. Once you get on the way, you shred the rules, burn the bits, and blow the smoke out the window. No, I don’t think you’ll win the race, Flint, but I want the Rhino in it, and than means I need you.”
He felt heat grow in his gut. “Must hurt,” he said. “Knowing you never had a chance. You’ve never been a rigger. Your brother was, and now he’s gone and someone else will take his place.”
A change came over Vistor, his florid face turned pale, eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. He rose, with effort, and Flint, even with his size, felt small before Vistor. “So you want to dig your claws in and drag it from me, do you? Swell. You’re a selfish son of a syphilitic octopus. You want to ride the great high way, free as the wind, fair as the sun. You don’t care about the city, except when you can ride in and hand down justice. You think you’re safe because you’re the last of your line, and when you die, there’ll be none of your blood left to open the doors and start the engines on the Rhino. Your genes’ll turn to dust, and the Rhino’ll sit and rust like all the other hulks that litter up the sides of the way. Well this town ain’t gonna kiss your ass and grant you a reprieve. They will hang you, and none will mourn you. You will hang, you will rot, and you will burn, and your dust will blow out and scatter with the filthy air of the wild lands, because that’s where you truly belong.”
Flint turned away from Vistor, and took the bars in his hands again. The metal felt cold and rough, and he caught a faint iron tang at the back of his throat. He shook them once, and then he turned and looked Vistor eye to eye. “You think you know everything about me.”
“I know what you are. I know why you murdered Burl. Shit, everyone in the city knows that, even if they don’t want to admit it. No one was going to pay the bride price for that man’s daughter, so he sold her to the slavers.”
Flint thought back to the white gold necklace with the ruby pendant, blazing on the pyre. Perhaps the gold had melted and run with Burl’s sizzling flesh. The smell came alive again. Perhaps the molten metal had run into his bones, into his ashes, perhaps it had run into his soul and tormented him still. “If everyone knows that, then why am I in this cell?”
“You think people want to acknowledge Burl’s crime? It’s a half-step from how they treat all their daughters. You should see the jewel my little niece wears. Any family with a son and the cost of a diamond can take her away and train her up to be a proper little wife. Burl was no different, he just looked outside the community for a better deal.”
Flint’s eyes darkened. “And threw his wife into the bargain.”
“Better to say you murdered his folks and stole the girl’s gem. That way everyone can go back to sleep.”
He rubbed his jaw. “If I won the race...”
“You needn’t entertain delusions. You won’t.”
“But if I did, yeah, I know, I’d be in your pocket, but maybe together we could change some things.”
Vistor chewed his lower lip with stained yellow teeth. “I might have a little nobility left in me, Flint. Maybe just a shred. But understand this,” he said, and bent down and lowered his head, peering at Flint like a bull about to charge. “You take my hand and my coin, you’re my man. That’s binding. Turn on me, and you’ll find I’m no Burl Clavar.” Flint ground his teeth, and then in a convulsive movement he grabbed Vistor’s hand and squeezed it. Vistor held on, and returned the handshake with surprising strength. “You won’t win, Flint, but you’ll run the race, and if you make it back, you’ll be a free man.” He let go, and rapped on the bars. As the sheriff’s deputy unlocked the cell, Vistor turned back to Flint once again. “You might even stay free, if you can control yourself.”
Flint stared at the bars until long after Vistor had left, his feelings alternating between excited longing for freedom, and dread at the bargain he had struck, for in every picture his memory painted of the man, somehow Vistor’s bloodshot eyes always transformed into a pair of glimmering red rubies, dancing with flames. That image remained with him through the night, and kept him from sleeping, and when the new day came, he sleepwalked through the process of release as the sheriff’s men took him out, and led him to the gathering grounds, for the conclave of riggers.