Sunday, July 08, 2007

Just 'cause - Chapter 23 - High Speed Dirt

For the briefest of moments, Rowena wondered whether Algernon had gone totally nuts - after all, he took a running start and jumped out of the plane, far too low for any parachute to save him. It was only after weathering that shock that Rowena spotted the heavy duty cable he was attached to. Actually, on a second look, he wasn't directly hanging off the winch cable - rather, he seemed to be wearing a climbing harness attached to a grappling gun, rigged to a motorized crab running along the main cable. In that moment of perfect clarity, she also noted three more of these contraptions attached to the winch cable.

She wondered whether common sense had, at any point, touched this plan.

With the car holding steady at 150, Done registered a pleasant absence of half-tracks behind them, then spotted Algernon's stunt and switched his implant to hands-free mode.

"What the fuck..."
"Be with you in a second," Algernon replied, still dropping as fast as the heavy-duty cargo winch would allow; finally, there was a *thunk* from the car's roof as the fringewalker made his touchdown. Uneager to test Vector's precision flying skills with the biggest aircraft on this continent, he pressed his trench knife against the metal below, then engaged the electromagnet, securing his footing. The cable gave further, lowering down to the point where Algernon could grab the gear riding on it.

"Done, reach out through the back window!" he shouted, instinctively trying to drown out the rushing wind and engine noise around him. The mercenary obliged, finally got his hand on the harness and quickly slipped into it. After a final gulp, he climbed out through the window and got caught in the airstream at once - it almost plucked him from the vehicle right there, but he held on for his dear life. He shared a glance with Algernon, wondering why the old man wasn't being torn from the roof with quite the same force, but the fringewalker just shouted.

"Let go!"

Done recalled his Skyhook training from simpler times and did so; the crab and grappling gun both sprung to life, snatching him upwards. There was the tendency, he noted, to pull in your limbs, trying to protect yourself, but that just makes things worse. After a few trial moves with his arms, Done had his ascent stabilized - and it felt rather pleasantly like a HA/LO jump in reverse at that point. One might almost say that it felt good, a nice rush of adrenaline with decent payoff.

With Done taken care of, Algernon scrambled to the right side of the car, yanked another harness downward and bowed down as far as he could.

"Open the door!" he howled, missing the much easier communication via implant. Mark didn't understand what was being shouted, only that there was shouting.

Then Rowena shouted. It seemed to be the thing to do in that situation. Mark joined in, shouting a "What?" back at her. She merely pointed to the rear mirror.

The half-track. Not just going 150, but closing in. What's more, with fire lipping out of its back. Oh, and with Freyr riding on top, holding on with his cybernetic arm while his mangled left arm fluttered in the wind like a meaty wind cone.

Just when Mark was about to ask himself how this could get worse, the half-track raised its cannon and opened fire, making the Antonov swerve precariously. Algernon literally saw the slack travel down the cable and disengaged the magnet just in time before he was flung off the car; swinging off to the side, he released a volley of blades from his coat, aiming at the street lamps before him in a desperate attempt to evade a full-speed collision. Empowered by the master of the fringe, the blades curved into the wind, effortlessly felling the posts ahead. With a final twist of his body, Algernon altered the cable's trajectory enough to miss the last lamp before hitting the car again, this time planting his magnet-enhanced trench knife on Mark's side of the car.

Behind them, half a dozen lamp posts crashed into the sea below the bridge - as if Rio needed more property damage.

"Kill the tank!" Algernon yelled.


Done had just slipped out of the harness when he heard the shots from the 20mm pass by the aircraft's fuselage; he hit the deck as the Antonov swayed. A few seconds later, he heard Algernon's voice shouting over the cargo bay's loudspeakers and got up. There were two Division Nihil fringewalkers in the bay: a swarthy man who just had to be from New Zealand (Done's prior experiences told him that calling him an Aussie would be ill-advised) and a Filipino woman, seemingly crafted from the Earth itself to bring forth God's terrible vengeance. The man seemed one with his suit, but he couldn't imagine the Filipina even coming near one.

"We're knackered!" the man bellowed, holding on to the handrails for his dear life - probably a better idea than what the girl was doing, which was hauling a weapons crate across the floor toward the rear. Done caught sight of the letters on it.


"Always take care of things myself," she nearly sang, in that melodic voice that sounded like sailors and sweaty nights.
"You need any help?" Done asked, righting himself. At that, she dropped the crate, opened it, then handed him a launcher.
"Two guns, better than one," she said.


As such things went, "armored truck" - not "tank" - was as reasonable a description of the Hand vehicle as could be offered; as part of its acceleration, it had shed its tracks at the beginning of the bridge, then engaged solid-fuel rockets to pick up further speed. It wasn't made safer by the fact that all of its functions were controlled by Freyr through his arm. If any of the Archer agents had suspected, they might have been less worried - balancing his body on the vehicle, keeping said vehicle moving straight and aiming the 20mm cannon all took their toll on the young soldier's concentration. Still, he had some to spare - seeing two rockets launch from the Antonov engaged the lower functions of his brain, telling him to jump the wreck-to-be. With the power of the physical adept formula laced into his genes, he lunged forward, off the vehicle's front armor. He locked his feet together as he had been trained, hoping to stop some of the shrapnel with the heavy soles of his combat boots. The explosion carried him forward; with a desperate stab, he attached his arm to the trunk of the Mercedes.


"Bugger!" Algernon hollered; with the passenger's door cracked open a bit, he'd slipped the next harness through to Mark. The enforcer was now strapped in, but with his prior wounds and the lack of Done's training, the whole plan struck him as decidedly suboptimal.

The fringewalker reached into his coat again, producing his Colt; he fired twice at Freyr, who rolled over his arm before hooking his legs into the rear window frame. With his arm free, he stabbed it into the paneling of the car and sent an electric shock through it, shorting out Algernon's magnet. This, combined with Rowena's reflexive swerve, plucked the Englishman off the car again; this time, Algernon quickly engaged the winch on his harness, pulling himself out of harm's way. For Mark, who hadn't thought to give his cable similar slack, the swerve meant that he was pulled free of the car; his crab was built to go upwards as soon as loaded, and so it yanked him up, past Algernon and toward the Antonov. Vague memories of Done's stunt and the HA/LO drop before took over; Mark managed a halfway decent ascent, but was rather unceremoniously flung into the aircraft's cargo bay.

The pained moan he emitted at this point was, therefore, completely justified.

To his credit, the Kiwi was at his side the next second, unhooking the harness and pulling Mark to safety. As dedicated medic, Oliver "Threads" Townsend felt more at home solving that kind of problem. Mark was so far beyond caring at this point that he had trouble remembering what it was like.


Rowena had two problems. Well, three, if you counted her heart idling at 180 beats per minute, but that was a rather healthy and normal response to the levels of stress on exhibition here, and anyway, 100 years ago they expected a proper lady to faint from even a tenth of the shit down that wouldn't, couldn't be a problem.

Ignore that. Start over.

Problem Number 1: Freyr.

Problem Number 2: Five seconds to the bridge's apex.

With no time to spare, Rowena clicked the car's cruise control on (Ah, technology!), cracked the door open and swung out. In this split second - as the additional drag and lack of user input left the car to spin out - she landed on the roof, bailed again and snatched the last harness, twisting in the wind.

It was, admittedly, not the best possible solution, but at least she was still alive.

Then there was a tug on the cable below, and she saw Freyr hanging onto the cargo hook at the very end, looking like the ordeal had drained the absolutely last remains of sanity from him.

Rowena's aliveness was suddenly under review, again.


The two wonder teens struggled to right their respective positions; using all of her strength, Rowena pulled herself up into the harness, but couldn't reach the fasteners. Below her, the Mercedes finally crashed through the guide rails and sunk to its final resting place beneath the waves. After her best effort, she had her arms hooked in, but couldn't spare the power to secure them. Beneath her, Freyr's synthetic arm worked overtime, hauling his body upwards until he had his feet resting on the hook.

In the meantime, Algernon had stabilized his whirling about; spotting Freyr in reach, he altered his trajectory, swinging in for an attack run - he whooshed past Freyr and slashed his back with the trench knife, eliciting a scream of pain that got lost in the airstream.

"We have to pull up!" Vector's voice came through the implant; Algernon's eyes shot to the cityscape ahead, and even he had to gulp as he saw the buildings close in. Then, his eyes jumped to Rowena, and he saw that the jerking around on the cable was just about throwing her out of the harness.

He couldn't hear her, but he knew she was screaming for help.

It was enough to distract him for his next pass past Freyr, and this time, the Child of Eve was ready; with another electric jolt, he fried Algernon's winch controls, leading it to retract the cable at top speed. Algernon and Rowena shared a glance as he shot past her - and dropped his 1911.


You can do this.


It was a perfect moment, its majesty not diminished by the lack of photographic proof: Rowena rode the swing of the cable just right, defying death as she reached for the falling pistol. For a delicious nanosecond, she was neither here nor there, no pistol in hand and no harness to hold her. Free at last.


I can do this.


Her hand reached out for the weapon...


Do it.


...and snatched it by the slide. Faster than a speeding bullet, the information shot through her nervous system, triggering her other arm to grab - and it did, just catching the last slipping strap of the harness. Physics quickly asserted itself - it took all of her strength not to let go when the forces involved threatened to rip her apart right there, but she held on even when the stitches in her shoulder tore open, accepted the pain, worked with the pain. On the next rotation, she managed to get her legs onto the cable and hook them just as she couldn't hold on to the harness anymore. Now hanging upside-down from the main steel cable, Rowena took a second to steady her breath and drink the fear in Freyr's eyes as she spun the pistol into firing position.

There were tears in his eyes, and in hers, too - but if it was the wind or the effort or just raw emotion, she couldn't say. He mouthed one last word.


It rang in her head, as if it should mean something to her.

Then she shot him. She shot him, and shot him, and shot him, and shot him again when he wasn't even there anymore, already plummeting from a rapidly rising aircraft. She actually saw him fall, then smash into the roof of a small skyscraper and a few more floors after that.

In the distance, a concrete & soapstone Jesus wept. Another sinner redeemed.

After hanging like that for what seemed like minutes, common sense suddenly reasserted itself; Rowena pulled herself up, still leaving a trail of blood as her reopened wound shed more of herself over Rio. For the briefest of moments, she felt awe.

Ichor, she thought. The blood of Gods. And I'm still alive.

She felt the cable shudder and move; the winch was reeling her in, and it was more than welcome.


Mark, Done, Oliver, Carla - the Filipina - and Algernon were all there to help her off the cable. She was laid down on a blanket; Oliver went to taking care of her wound right there. She motioned for Algernon to come closer, then handed him the Colt.

"Thanks for the gun," she said with a weak smile.
"Thanks for returning it," he said, casting a sidelong glance at Mark. The Enforcer flinched a bit, and Rowena laughed.
"You see that, old man?" she hollered. "That's how you do it."

Mark made a face, but finally rolled his eyes and grinned.


If there was something a big cockpit was good for, it was enjoying a flight into the sunrise. With the ocean below, the fiery disc at the horizon leaped at them, bathing the cold metal and plastic in a warm glow. As if by magic, the cockpit windows automatically tinted to reduce the glare; Vector reached for his sunglasses and put them on.

They still had a long way to go.


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