Tala heard the deep bass note of the horn through the stone, as if the whole cliff the vehicle workshops were built into had come alive with it. Then she heard the explosions, a ripple of thunder that expanded until the tools in her kit were dancing to it and she doubted that there would still be a city left outside when she looked.
Her shoulders tensed and she pulled her wings in tighter. Her breathing accelerated. Panic rose up, overwhelming, unwanted, and crippling.
Tala grabbed her right forearm and twisted. Sharp stings shot across the skin as cuts hidden by her sleeve reopened. The pain focused her, pulled her into the moment. The damage also felt cleansing, somehow.
She had a truck to finish. Last one.
How many had she done already?
It didn’t matter.
She placed the wrench and tightened a bolt. Placed it again and tightened another.
Boots ran into her workspace and someone appeared on hands and knees. Someone with the pitch black skin of an excited Kentinshir and covered in militia kren armor.
“Wings! Is it ready?!”
Tala turned and found Petra’s too-young face looking at her sideways at floor level. The infamous newspaper delivery girl was the last to get a truck, likely because she had twenty-three citations for speeding and five for reckless driving. In the past year.
But, in her defense, she had no collisions, ever, which was likely why she and her team had finally gotten a truck when Command ran out of everyone else who knew how to handle a freight vehicle and would volunteer to chase Garagrans with one.
“What’s happening?” Tala asked, tightening another bolt by feel.
“The Empire just dropped a huge rocket attack on the city. Top says there are Garagrans coming in and they’re pretty sure it’s all of them. They need the truck now.”
Tala looked over her work, estimating what could be skipped or finished in a hurry.
“Get your team. I can have it ready to roll by the time you get back. I’ll finish the wiring for the ballista on the run.”
Petra dashed out.
Tala hurried on the rest of the bolts and checked the connections between the drive shaft and the powerplant as quickly as she could. The truck would run. She rolled out from under it and threw her electrical toolkit in the bed with the ballista, then went around to the front, popped the hood, and got the steam plant ready to burn.
Diesel tank, full.
Battery, charged and connected.
Steam system, full of water and all tight.
Burner, clean and ready.
She slapped the hood down, snagged the key off the wall, and headed for the cab to start it.
Petra ran back in, snatched the key, and clambered up the footboard and into the driver seat ahead of her.
“Get in back! The boys are behind me!”
Tala heard the soft clunk and thrum as the girl activated the water pump and pressurized the steam system. She turned to the back and saw Maht and Bart climbing onto the ballista deck. The former was a wide Shaldan with red fur and big black horns and the latter a burly Bortin with curly black hair and the pale skin and slanted eyes of folk from the southern ice mountains. Both looked like the kind of people who might stand on the back of a news truck every morning hucking heavy bundles of paper at breakfast stands and bookstores. They had the arms for it, at least.
Tala stumbled as she approached the back of the truck and Bart grabbed her by the back of her coveralls between her wings and hoisted her up over the sidewalls to set her next to her bag.
“You okay, Miss?”
“I’ll be fine. Just tired.”
The truck jerked, but didn’t move. The rear window of the cab snapped open and Petra yelled through.
“CHOCKS! Move ‘em!”
The two big men swung over the sides and jerked the chocks out from under the tires. The truck began moving with a low whoosh before they were back in and they had to clamber up the sides as it rolled through the wide vehicle door leading out of the mechanic bays.
That they didn’t complain told Tala they were used to this. She felt a twist of concern over the ride she had just signed on for.
No time for that. She grabbed her bag, popped the maintenance hatch at the base of the ballista mount, and crawled inside. The smell of graphite grease, bearing oil and rubber coated copper filled her nose as her eyes adjusted to the dark confines. There. Those were the connections she needed to work on.
The truck continued to bump along with a soft whooshing as she checked over the wiring for the speed control system and hooked the drax-bone power cell to the the flywheel motor. Tala decided it wasn’t as hard to work in a moving vehicle as she had feared. It only required a little more coordination. Just another kella and…
The brakes screeched and Tala hit her head on the motor housing. She heard yelling outside the truck and the sound of the men jumping out, then heavy objects landing in the bed accompanied by more yelling that sounded like warnings. Then the men jumping back in and the sound of boxes sliding along the truck bed and something being dropped on top of the ballista. Munitions.
The truck started moving again, while Tala rubbed her head.
As soon as she started working again, the truck stopped once more.
Someone rapped on the ballista housing and Tala backed out.
“Petra wants to pray,” Maht said.
“Oh.” Tala sat up and rested her back against the ballista housing. From the looks of their surroundings they were still in the exit tunnel, pulled to the side to allow other trucks past.
Petra stuck her head through the back window and closed her eyes.
“Mighty Yahsaw, our beloved savior, please watch over us today. Please keep me from hitting anything or anyone–well, except Imperial soldiers. I guess if you help me hit some of them today, that would be good–and help Maht hit the mark, because he can’t aim. Please don’t let the Garagrans kill us until we get at least twenty of them–make that forty of them–and kick them out of our city. In your name, agreed.”
“Agreed,” the men said together.
“Agreed,” Tala added softly.
Her head felt clearer after the prayer. She listened to her surroundings and heard the sound of explosions and the crack of firing ballistas coming from outside the tunnel. A whiff of smoke blew in, harsh with the edge of the gunpowder burned in the Imperials’ rockets. The fact that she was about to go into an actual battle, with flames and explosions and Garagrans, sank in. She remembered once more her father walking out the door so long ago, clothed in armor and heading to meet the Garagran burning down Telensgrove.
Perhaps she would see him soon.
If she did, she wanted him to be proud of how she fought.
“Help me, Aihay. Help me fight.”
“Awright!” Petra said. “Pick up those box launchers and get ready, boys! Wings, they want us out there now, so we’re going, but we grabbed a bunch of those shoulder launchers when we loaded up, so you got some time. Just so you know.”
“But don’t take long,” Maht said.
Tala nodded and dove back into the ballista housing as the truck started moving again. Sound continued from outside, and the ride became rougher as the truck went up and down hills and around corners, bouncing Tala around. The whoosh of the steam plant filtered through the frame of the truck into the housing, and the pounding of rockets and crack and boom of ballistas became oppressive. Just as she reached for the last connection the truck braked hard, tires screeching, and she heard the hissing twin shriek of two of the box launchers, followed by a double boom right above that boxed her ears through the walls around her.
Even with her ears ringing she still felt the taps and shudders of the rockets and ballistas all around. In the stillness some of the smoke from outside found it’s way into the housing and Tala sneezed. It was strangely muffled.
Normal sound returned after a moment and the cheers of the two men faded in.
“-got him right in the belly! Did you see him go down?”
“Yeah! Whooo! Take that you scaly…”
“He’s getting back up, you idiots! Shoot him again!” That was Petra.
Tala heard something clatter to the street, and then the shriek of two more box launchers.
She covered her ears this time, but the booms came from further away.
“He’s still alive! Get us outta here, Petra!”
The truck jolted forward again, throwing Tala against the power-takeoff shaft for the flywheel. She ignored the pain and forced herself to place the final electrical connection and screw the wire down. Her right arm was shaking again so she tightened with her left instead, whispering one of the singsong prayers of her childhood as she struggled to keep the screwdriver straight.
That should be it. She checked over all the wires again with light tugs. Everything attached. She clipped a small battery to the wiring and checked for current with her tester. The tester bounced lightly in her hand as the truck went over bumps in the street, but the dial was steady enough to show acceptable power at all points in the system.
“He’s following us, Petra! Floor it!”
The truck shot forward even faster. Tala caught herself against the sides of the housing before she fell into the tangle of wiring in front of her. She waited a moment, hoping the ride would smooth out, but they seemed to be in a hilly part of town. Maybe one of the winding streets along the river.
She braced her feet and pushed herself backward out of the housing, flopping to the deck of the truck, and stared at the sky. Buildings rose up all around them, framing a deep blue sky scattered with blinding white clouds in brilliant, straight edged paths that flashed across her vision. Great black shadows flapped back and forth across the paths on batwings larger than their bodies, bolts of white fire lancing from their mouths and shattering stone wherever they hit. Trails of smoke attested to their previous work. And to the work of the rockets that came down out of the sky leaving white trails that ended in more smoke and explosions.
Tala sat up and saw what the men had been screaming about galloping behind them, closing on them, bigger than any of her nightmares had ever painted it, giant mouth shut firm and eyes narrowed in determination. In that instant she felt like all the fog of the past weeks left her mind.
Kai it was fast.
“Petra! Push it faster!” Maht yelled, fumbling another launcher onto his shoulder at the same time.
“This truck doesn’t GO faster!”
Tala heard the roar of the truck’s blower fan and the heavy whoosh of its steamplant and knew Petra was redlining the vehicle already. There was no faster.
Air shrieked and a cloud of red iron oxide swept back over them as Maht shot a thunderbolt at the Garagran. The Garagran dodged and the missile blew a divot out of the basalt road.
The man really couldn’t aim.
Bart picked up another launcher and the Garagran inhaled.
“Petra! Left!” Maht yelled.
Petra swerved as the Garagran shot a bolt of fire where they had been, igniting all the trees on one side of the street.
One hit like that…
Tala lunged forward and slammed the forked power switch on the ballista closed.
The truck fishtailed as the woven steel flywheel spun up under the base of the ballista.
“What’s going on back there!” Petra screamed. Tala glanced back and met the girl’s wide eyes in the rear view mirror.
“Just keep it together!” Tala yelled.
The truck continued to shimmy as the flywheel built speed. Maht fell against the side and grabbed hold. Bart slid down the wall on his side, rested the launcher against the tailgate, aimed, and shot right into the chest of the Garagran.
This time Tala barely heard the blast. She did hear everything else, including the continued impact of the Garagran’s feet on the ground as it stumbled, recovered, and kept after them.
As the red cloud cleared it was almost on them.
“LOSE IT, PETRA!”
The shimmy had smoothed out. Petra wrenched the wheel around and put the truck into a skidding sideways slide. Tala expected the whole truck to roll over at any instant, but the bed stayed perfectly flat as the tail swung around the heavy powerplant in the front.
The wheels bit and the truck arced down a new road ninety degrees to the previous one. The Garagran scrabbled on the street with its claws, spinning around and almost rolling over to reverse course.
In moments it was after them again, only a little further behind.
Fwoom. A firebolt split the air, shattering the stone face off a building.
Petra swerved wildly, the truck bed staying flat and steady despite.
Fwoom. Another blast of fire cooked the road next to the tires.
Tala pulled the locking pin on the ballista mount and grabbed the handles as it floated free. She thumbed the load button.
Thunk. The power takeoff engaged, connecting the string to the flywheel.
Shimmy. The truck almost fishtailed again as the flywheel dumped momentum into the ballista.
Whirr-thump-clunk. The draw mechanism pulled the string back in two tikkits flat and a thunderbolt dropped into place as the trigger locked the string.
Tala sighted on the Garagran’s chest, then adjusted to its right shoulder, just where the armored scales got thinner to allow for free motion. The road bounced the truck and knocked her aim off.
The road bounced them again.
Tala breathed, deep and rhythmic. Watched the Garagran close and focused on keeping the crosshair on that shoulder. Let everything else fall away, even the twitch in her arm.
Knew in that instant, more than ever before, who she was and what was real.
Remembered that she wasn’t good at making armor and weapons because she was a smart engineer. She was good at making them because Bethania had taught her since she was a child and she knew how to use them.
All of them.
Knew that what lay in front of her was what she had set her whole life toward, ever since she had grasped why her father left her on that night and never came back. Ever since she had begged Aihay to teach her to protect people like her father had.
Believed that Aihay had heard her and was there with her in that moment, and that hope still lay ahead.
There was no world. There were no failed hopes and dreams. There was no guilt or emptiness.
There was only the shot in front of her and her Kai holding onto her as she held onto the heavy double-trigger, and the moment the truck bottomed out and started to rise again it was time.
The Garagran tumbled to the street, going into a controlled forward roll end over end.
Tala thumbed the load button again.
Thunk. Shimmy. Whirr-thump-clunk.
The tumble still had control to it.
Thunk. Shimmy. Whirr-thump-clunk.
Thunk. Shimmy. Whirr-thump-clunk.
Thunk. Shimmy. Whirr-thump-clunk.
The Garagran’s roll became wild and ended in a hard sprawl that sounded like dropping a boulder onto a rockface.
Petra hit the brakes and the truck squealed to a stop, tires adding to the smoke in the air.
Tala watched the Garagran. Saw its eyes open and look around.
Aimed at the left one.
It didn’t move after that.
“Nat, Wings!” Petra said. “You killed that scaly monster good!”
Tala looked at Bart and Maht.
She glanced back at Petra.
“Find us another. We have a city to protect.”