Written by: JennyK
In categories: Fiction, MOC-Book
Chapter 9 - The after the before never changes
There was no town. Instead, smoke and ashes hovered gently over a field of destruction. Muted flickers of quickly dying flames popped in and out of sight between the drifting cloud of smoke. Down the road, half way between a line of flattened houses at the outskirts of town and the forest, Clack paced the width of the road, sputtering curses through clenched teeth. Gabriel wasn't listening. He stared at the destroyed town in dull fascination.
Gabriel's hearing reluctantly returned and something tickled his awareness. It was a sound so odd he wasn't sure he heard it right. He turned to Jesse. She was crying.
She was furiously wiping her eyes and making a sooty mess of her face. Gabriel stared at her. She had one hand over her mouth and with the other she gripped his wrist and pulled him closer.
“Jesse, what?” Gabriel was confused. So okay, one more explosion might be a bit much, even for Jesse who never cried. But still…. He spoke without thinking, “It’s not like there was anything in that place worth saving.” That didn’t sound right. “ I mean, maybe they are better off.”
Jesse stared. “They were human.” She let the anger take over. “Humans, Gabriel, humans!”
Gabriel threw his hands up. “Not all of them,” he said and thought of the broken down machines littering the street on their way to the town hall, “and they…” Suddenly he stopped. Clack was glaring at him. Jesse took a step back.
“What?” He rubbed his face, hiding his friends from view. What was he saying? Faces flickered through his mind. “They weren’t. Not anymore.” Frustrated, he pulled his hands from his face and thrust an arm toward the smoke and ashes. “Are you saying that those. Those people….”
“People. Yes, Gabriel, people. You just said it, people.” Jesse pushed Clack aside and stopped in front of Gabriel. “Humans Do you remember humans? Do you remember your mother? Was she a machine too? Is that why you don’t talk about her? She wasn’t worth saving?” She didn’t scream, she didn’t touch him, but she may as well have pushed him off a cliff. That cliff in dead river. The cliff where Bird had saved him . Or had he saved Bird? He couldn’t remember. He had left his home in ruins. He had left his mother’s vaporized body drifting as toxic vapour after another explosion.
“What about my mother, Jesse? She died, Jesse!” Gabriel’s voice cracked and he strained to breathe. “She did it to herself. What the hell do you know about anything?”
Jesse’s face was so close he could feel her breath on his. She breathed fast. “Nothing! Gabriel, I know nothing and that’s the point. But I know a coward when I see one. A selfish, childish, useless human.”
Gabriel growled, “I’m not the one helping the fucking guardians to catch humans, was I?”
Jesse flinched but she refused to back down. “I’m not the one hiding in some hole waiting for a stupid machine bird to come to the rescue.” She drew a quick breath and grabbed the front of Gabriel’s shirt. She pulled him even closer. “I’m not the one who can’t see reality. I had a mother too, Gabriel. Remember her? The last one she saw was you, Gabriel, you!”
Gabriel gripped Jesse’s hand to remove it from his chest but she held on tight. “But you were all too eager to get out of that place. I got you out of there, Miss Carnival princess. Do you remember that?”
She gaped at him and had to fight for her next breath before talking again, “You? You stupid boy. Did you think I chose to come along on this stupid quest? I had to come along to save you and your pet bird from your helpless selves. What other reason could I have had? After you came along and drove my mother to burn. I should have left you to burn with her.”
It was Gabriel’s turn to gape, unable to rid himself of everything she brought to the front of his mind. “Your Mother? She wasn’t even…”
Jesse let go of Gabriel’s shirt with a cry of anguish and hit him. “Don’t say it, Gabriel. Don’t even dare.” She drew back to slap him again, but Gabriel stepped back, touching his burning face in shock. He opened his mouth. What he was about to say no one knows. And Jesse would never know what she would have done next.
“Enough!” Clack took Jesse by the shoulders and pulled her back. “That’s enough,” he said again, “Gabriel,” he snapped and Gabriel shut his mouth. “Jesse, you too.” He turned Jesse the other way and she stayed. Gabriel turned back to the town, struggling with the words Jesse had thrown at him. He breathed hard and he heard Jesse’s muted crying. Clack gave them a second. He sighed. “We have more important things to think about.”
Clack gave it a few beats, looking at Gabriel and Jesse in turn. Then he repeated, “We have more important things to think about.”
Reluctantly, Gabriel turned from his contemplation of the smoke drifting along the cracks in the road at his feet and shrugged. Jesse wiped her eyes and took a second to glare at Gabriel before looking at Clack. The soldier stared hard at the smouldering ruins, looking for something. “Bird didn’t come back with you, did he?”
Gabriel stared at him. Then at the ruined town and a cold dread started at his guts, compressed his breathing, and the last hour flooded through his mind. Hadn’t he? He took a quick step forward and scanned the road, the side of the road, behind him, as if the bird would be right there. Once more rising out of fire and sure death, ready to irritate everyone around him.
Once again without thought, Gabriel took several steps toward Terrytown before Clack caught up with him and pulled him to a stop. “No, Kid. If he was there, he’s gone. We have to get going.”
Gabriel turned to the soldier but he didn’t know what to say. Clack was right.
“He’s not there, Kid. We shouldn’t be here either.” Clack pulled him back further.
Jesse picked up on what Clack left unsaid and scrutinized the soldier, recent argument temporarily put on hold. With her eyes still on Clack, she agreed, talking to Gabriel, “Time to go. The others are waiting.”
But Gabriel’s mind wasn’t ready to let go yet. With a new thought, he turned to Clack, ignoring Jessie. He couldn’t look at her. With the thought of a different target. This new direction of his rage helped chase away the possibility of grief. He avoided looking at Jesse. He found Clacks eyes and glared. “Where is he? That fool that ran by. Where did he go?” There was no sign of the crazy clerk along the road. “He was at the office. And then he ran. Why?” There was trees and brush but nowhere a place for a man to hide. “He did this. I need to know why.”
Clack’s thoughts fell into line with Gabriel's Logic and he narrowed his eyes at their surroundings. He hadn't put the running man in the middle of the recent events in the way the young man had. He dismissed a twinge of shame over missing the obvious. “He won't get far,” he said, scanning the road and the wasted area it sliced through. “If we don't find him, they will.” His emphasis on the word 'they' didn't miss the target. Gabriel flinched and glanced at Jesse. But she already looked at Clack and waited for more. “What do you see?”
Clack frowned. “Something.” He hesitated and turned his eyes to the sky. “Something. I must have seen something. I’m not sure. It’s too quiet here. I don’t like it.”
Jesse stood quietly for a moment, listening, while watching tendrils of smoke creep across the cracked and dusty roadway until they fractured and dissipated in the still air. She turned her attention to the sky. There was so much of it, so many directions they could come from. “I don’t see anything.”
Clack growled. “Chances are we won’t. We have to go.”
Gabriel turned from Terrytown. He didn’t acknowledge Clacks steady impatience. The soldier was willing to give the kid a moment to get his shit together. But only a moment. And that moment of grace was quickly expiring. “Kid.” Clack barked.
Gabriel ignored him and pushed past and started down the road, looking for the bird killing official. He ad to be there somewhere.
Clack urged jessie to come along as he hurried to catch up with Gabriel. “Bad reason, right direction, one out of two. That’ll have to do don’t it,” he muttered while Gabriel’s stubborn mumbling drifted back to them. “I know he did this. Fucker!” Gabriel increased his speed, shaking off his demons while hunting another.
Clack and Jesse followed in silence. The open fields on either side of the road transformed into forest, one tired tree at a time. Another minute and they would reach denser woods where they would turn toward their camp via long forgotten trails and rails. Gabriel didn’t notice the woods for the trees where a man could hide. His body ached from a set of fresh burns from the Terrytown demolition. He felt none of that. The pain that arose from within, he held at bay. Or he thought he did. Easier than that was the anger. He could aim that at something, or someone. The little man from the office was nowhere to be seen. Finally, Gabriel had to admit that Clack was right. The man would be long gone. He clenched his teeth and stopped dead in-between one step and the next. His mother’s words came as a welcome comfort and a hated reminder of things best forgotten. ‘There are people. Find them,’ she had said before she died.
I did, Mother, see what that got me? What else do you want from me?
Gabriel, go. Find them!
“Shit, Kid. What are you on about?” Clack’s impatience jolted Gabriel out of the forever repeating mantra of failure and confusion. He looked For one last time back at the town, hoping for movement, a skipping hopping black shadow of dirty black feathers appearing out of smoke and ashes. There was nothing. The town was still. Whatever damnation that man set off had levelled the entirety of the tiny one street town. As fires died fast in this world of no wind and even lesser will for destructive forces such as decay of biological material and flammable substances, the extent of the destruction was quickly obvious. None of the big buildings were left standing and the few structures still recognizable as former constructions were all in the very outskirts of the town, nothing was left undamaged. Except for the single water collector that had been at the very centre of town. A population of a few hundred could survive well with only one collector. Gabriel glared at the thing. A memory of a naked woman scraping inedible plants from the canister flashed in his mind alongside impressions of make-shift grub-farms and empty gazes from soulless humans. The mayors beautiful people. All gone now. He dropped his head and rubbed his face hard, needing to clear his mind. Bird had been left in that inferno and there was no point in hoping for a miracle. Even Birds had only so many lives. Humans. He didn’t want to think of them that way. They were gone now. He looked around for Clack and found him glaring at him.
“Are we done?”
Gabriel nodded. Yeah, he was done. Done bothering.
Clack scanned the sky again, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Good. We don’t have time for that,” he said to Gabriel and Jesse while focusing on the relentless glaring blue above. He froze. “About bloody time too. We have company.”