It is not a word that I knew of when I started to travel with him. Or even during my travels. No, I found this word years after. Its meaning struck me as a blow and I realized immediately that this is what he was: A Paladin. The word is from Before and I have searched for any reference to it since I came upon it. I have found various definitions and so I will record here what it has come to mean to me, specifically in reference to him. A Paladin is dedicated completely to a singular cause. Often one much grander than themselves. They take direction from a higher power and they act unerringly towards that purpose. They do not question, they do not falter. Their willingness to accomplish their directive is indomitable, unrelenting and often unstoppable. What took years for me to justify is that a Paladin is often described as a champion of what is right and what is good; a warrior who defends those who cannot defend themselves from what is dark in the world. Their ideals are that of what is good in the world. This was not entirely true regarding him. In fact, ‘good’ was not the first word that many would use to describe him. It probably would not be the second or third. If it would be used at all, it was much further down the list. So for years this word danced in my mind on the edge of how I would define him. Then one day a student asked me about the world as it was when I traveled with him. Immediately I answered that it was not a good place and then it connected into place like the stones of a good wall. He was not good. Not by the definition of Before and not by the definition I have come know of what is good after I traveled with him. He was however the Paladin that was necessary in the dark world of After in which we traveled together.”
-- From 'The Paladin and the Prophet' Vol.1, Ch.1
No one knew what had happened to the world Before.
Only that what had been Before was now gone and all that was left was After.
Of course, none of that was Mason's concern at this moment. His concern was that of making Contact. That was why he had the barrel of his gun lodged in the throat of the Caravan Master. He explained again to the Master that he and C'er had done as they said and were now leaving. The Master disputed this but he was now realizing where he had gone wrong. His mistakes had started with his assumption that he could force these two strongs he hired on in Ironwood to continue on beyond the Salts. That would have been an extension of their agreement, and one that the Caravan Master planned to enforce with no extra barter. You see, the Salts were exactly nowhere. You did not want to be there unless you were there to meet the Salters who owned the mines and who would want that? Meeting with the Salters often resulted in you becoming part of their indentured work force of miners. That was not the case with these two, and that would leave him two short for the rest of his route back out of the Range and through to Metro. So the Caravan Master had decided to hold the two strongs cargo to force them to stay. That is where things started going bad for him, and how he had ended up with the barrel of an immense gun lodged in his face.
"Not my problem." Mason was saying as he continued to press the gun deeper into the man's over extended mouth. At this point the Master could no longer make intelligible sounds although he still seemed to be intent on trying.
"So we are going to leave now, with our cargo and barter as we agreed."
This met with continued unintelligible sounds from the Master.
"Here, let me help you." Mason said.
"We," Mason gestured to C'er and himself with his free hand ", are leaving and you are going to give us what we agreed on in Ironwood." Mason moved the large gun up and down, forcing the man’s head to move in a nodding gesture of agreement.
"And you," Mason drove his finger into the man's chest ", aren't going to do anything stupid that would get you killed, right?" Mason’s gun, and the face it was embedded in, moved side to side in a negative gesture.
"There, I think we understand each other now." Mason said and retracted the extensive barrel of the gun from the now whimpering man’s mouth. The Master immediately staggered back to the wagon behind him spitting out gobs of spit with a choking cough. The other strongs that the Master had hired looked on with elevated, but not yet violent, interest. As hired caravan guards they did not want to see the master splattered all over the local terrain. It would make obtaining their own barter that much more difficult. Now they all waited to see if the Master might demand they try and take Mason and C’er for this insult. If the Master made the right additions to their barter, anything could be had. So they stood with hands close to weapons and waited.
Mason showed no concern for the tension among the group of men. He shouldered the bag of cargo and barter items that had been at his feet during the negotiations with the Caravan Master. Pausing for a moment, he looked at the remaining members of the Caravan Master's company, meeting the eyes of each of the other strongs. They looked at Mason and took in his tall, dark form and the determined look in his dark, foreboding eyes. He had his long coat on which they knew to be armored and housing half a dozen weapons or more. The comfortable ease with which he held that huge gun was enough that not one of them wanted to take the challenge for this Master. Each looked away, or found something else to be doing as Mason's eyes turned to them. Only then did he turn and start towards the steep path leading down towards the outlying buildings of the Salts. As he walked, he shook the large hip cannon of a gun that he had used to make his point. The end of the barrel had been covered in saliva which splattered against the gravel path as he walked with a look of disgust on his face.
At the top of the path he looked out over the Salts. The terrain was hard and unremorseful. The loose scrub and rocky ravines were silhouetted in the dying light by the mountains in the distance. The path before him snaked its way down a loose slope. It wound its way to a small plateau where a wider track descended further down into a broad, sparse valley. There were several places where the path dissolved into the loose scrub. This land was hard, as was its Masters. A place of one of the few remaining resources that was left After. Rather than use that resource to build something sustainable that would grow, the Salt Masters used it to control and oppress. Watching the shadows deepen across the path before him, Mason wondered if this was to be his task this time. Would the Contact that he was being pulled towards be a way to change the course of this place into something more constructive? He mentally shrugged as he knew he would find out once he made Contact.
"You know, for someone who doesn't like getting that thing wet, you seem rather fond of sticking it in people's mouths." C'er said as he shouldered a smaller bag and started down the path behind Mason. The sound of the master’s choking cough faded as they cleared the ridge line and started down. Mason paused in his hybrid walk-slide down the hill, and looked back at his companion. C’er was several years younger than Mason and opposite in many ways. Where Mason’s features where rugged and dark, C’er had sandy blond hair and bright blue eyes. He looked younger than he actually was and his boyish features were at odds with the monkish robes that he wore. They were the traditional garb of the order of Scribes that had raised C’er. The young man moved with an elegant gracefulness even when just sliding down the loose gravel path. Observing the casual ease with which C'er's steps avoided any loose gravel or other debris in the path, Mason wondered how much of that ease was C’er’s Sight and how much was simple, natural ability.
"I find it cuts right to the heart of the matter." said Mason. He then with a look back at C'er and with a chuckle he continued, "...and now he knows that he could have an impressive career in the pleasure trades."
C'er stopped his graceful descent down the gravel path at this and cocked his head a bit. "I don't understand."
Mason had already resumed his descent, but continued his chuckle. He often forgot how much C'er did not know considering what he was often able to see. Many times something Mason said or did met with that exact head tilted look of curiosity. It was something he was sure C'er had perfected under the long hours of tutelage with the Scribes.
"Someday you will. At least I hope for your sake you do." Mason did not feel it was his role to educate C'er in the lesser reputable subjects that often came up. Something about doing that seemed just broken and the After had enough broken things.
C’er resumed down the path with an exasperated huff.
They were halfway down and Mason could see where their trail intersected with the wider path. At this juncture he could now see a larger but rundown sort of building. A chain fence stood out several feet from a low porch leading to an entryway. The building would be unremarkable except for several features that stood out in the world of After. Mason was actually taken aback and stopped his progress down the path. As he stood there looking at the building C'er came down the slope next to him.
"That's where you have to go?" C'er said.
"Yes. I was wondering what could be out here, but look..." This was something Mason had no qualms about explaining. "There is no one at the gate of that fence, but do you see that box next to it?" He continued without waiting for a response. "It’s a call box that's probably wired to another inside the building. People who want in just hit that button and then someone inside can let them in. The fence is probably wired too, and you really don't want to touch it. That gate can be locked and unlocked from the inside." C'er nodded at this. Mason continued, "There are several wagons strung along the road there. So there are a lot of folks coming and going through that gate. Someone in there knows what they are doing with tek to make this work, and keep it working."
"You think?" asked C'er. "I figured they just got lucky with that huge blinking sign that says 'Torchys'.” He gestured to the large illuminated sign on top of the building. I was blinking red and green and cast those hues across the fence and gate that Mason seemed fixated on. “I mean that's probably been running since Before and they must have built that shack under it somehow." This was said in a tone far too earnest to be serious.
With no warning Mason jabbed out his left hand in a fast punch. C'er's reaction started before his fist began moving. He shifted back, pivoting his arm and torso out of the line of Mason’s strike. C'er's arm uncoiled in a lightning fast open handed jab into the soft inside of Mason’s arm. Missing the intended blow threw Mason a step out of balance. The sudden pain exploding on the inside of his arm took his breath away for a second. He caught his footing and shook his arm out, letting out a fast expletive.
"That's the fifty seventh time you've tried that." C'er stated. "If you'd just let me know how many more times it'll be before you stop doing that, we can just do them all now and get it out of the way." He finished with smirk.
"Where is the fun in that?" Mason said while rubbing the inside of his arm.
"And yes," he said grudgingly, "The sign is also a clear piece of tek that is impressive."
There was loud buzz followed by a resounding click as the gate to Torchy’s unlocked and swung open. A background buzz that Mason and C'er only now realized that they had been hearing went silent. With this they shared a look and simultaneously said "Tek."
Mason started through the gate then stopped, straightened and looked back at C'er. "Look, do NOT do that thing in here. These Indentured are not exactly a happy group and this is a place they come to forget. So please just don't." He said.
"What thing?" C'er responded innocently.
"You know. Don't complicate this." Mason put his hand on C'er's shoulder. "This one feels different and I don't like it." He finished.
"I will try." C'er confirmed.
Mason fixed him with a black look. He then turned and walked to the low porch, up the steps and through a door that was loosely bolted to a worn and damaged frame.
Torchy’s was about what one would expect from the Salts. The area was run by slavers known as Salters. At least everyone else thought of them as slavers. If you found yourself in the Salts and in any form of trouble then it usually ended in one of two outcomes. First, and this was the preferred outcome, you were dead. Second, you ended up as Indentured to the Salters. The Indentured were the sorry souls who worked the mines or performed other less desirable things to pay off any and all debts to the Salters. These debts could cover anything from food, medicine, and housing to not being raped and beaten to death. In some cases it was a debt just not to become the food paid out to other Indentured. So the huddled mass of humanity in Torchy's was consumed with the singular practice of trying to forget all this. The real trick was to do that and not end up too much deeper into indenture. This was difficult because each distraction came with a price of further indenture. In a way, it was an elegant and self-sustaining system. It also ensured that the patrons, if you could even call them that, were the ones who had decided they just did not care anymore.
The door opened on a main room that to even look upon was somehow degrading to the viewer. Everything was dirt and muck and the kind of smell that you knew was burned into your mnemonic nostrils. Many of the patrons in the main room were indistinguishable from what passed as the furniture. They huddled in small groups around tables and shared a vast range of things to drink or smoke. The only true way to distinguish them from one another was by their various afflictions. This one had an eye patch, that one had no teeth, and the one over there was bald and had something illegible written on the side of his head. In one corner some men played a game that consisted of throwing various heavy and sharp objects at something that was scurrying around a pen. Mason could not be sure if it was a dog or a child, but whatever it was it was horribly malnourished. In another small alcove someone was chained to a table. A large man stood by, holding a club with several shards of metal protruding from it. He accepted the small coins of indenture from those waiting for a turn to rape or beating whoever it was. It was the type of place that made you think about the poor choices you had made that had led you to this place.
Mason moved to an open table, righted a chair and sat. C'er followed and sat down without even attempting to process what he saw. Mason was glad of this, and tried to center himself on what he knew he needed to do. He just wanted to make Contact and get the hells out of this hole.
One positive of a place like Torchy’s is that the people there did not give a shit about you, themselves or pretty much anything at all. So their entry was hardly noticed by anyone, even considering their clear difference from the regulars. Having absorbed the visual cacophony of horror, Mason noticed a low thumping sound with a rough musical quality to it coming from a few places. He realized there was no one in the room doing anything that could be making this sound. It had to be more tek. Some form of recorded music was being projected into the room. Considering the hole that this place was the level of tek was becoming more and more concerning.
With this he noticed a bar running along the back wall. The familiar tug pulled in that direction and he knew where he needed to go.
"Stay here, don't talk to anyone, don't look at anyone and for my father's sake do not do that thing." He said and stood up to head to the bar. He noticed a distracted look on C'er's face but decided it was the same disgust he himself was feeling. Later he would think back and know that he should have recognized it immediately. It was the kind of thing that might have you wondering later how much of your decisions are really your own.
Rod was having a good day. Well, about as good of a day as any Indentured could have. First off, there was a tunnel collapse. Sure that wasn't good news for the twenty three sorry bastards who were actually in the tunnel when it collapsed, but that was their problem, not his. What the collapse meant for him was a long work break. Then came the easy work of clearing the pile and looking for access back into the tunnel that fell in. It was always much easier moving the loose stones then hammering and picking your way into solid stone. After the collapse there was also a reshuffling of the work teams. This always meant that you got a few more indentured on your team. While not new to the mines they were new to your group. That meant that they were outnumbered and would have to do the worst of whatever the team was assigned to. One of the new guys was newly indentured and not the kind that would survive long in the mines. The crew chief, basically the largest and meanest of the group, decided to welcome this new meat to the team with a different sort of tunneling. When he finished with the man he let Rod and some of the other crew take their turns. Rod was third, and by then the man just lay there whimpering. It was much easier for Rod considering how the preceding rapists had greased things up. Of course this sort of release was great because it required no further indenture. The way the little bitch took it made Rod think they may have a much better time in the mines for the next few weeks. Some of the crew was already betting on how long before their new hole gave up and did himself in. Now rod was in a good way. He was sitting in Torchy's and numbing himself to the world with whatever drinks the bar was pushing. So when the bright eyed guy in the robes came out of nowhere, patted Rod on the shoulder and said, "Today is a good day..." He could only agree.
"...It is a good day to die. Don't be afraid, death only carries you forward from this place and today is a good day." C'er finished as he looked into the somewhat hazy gaze of the indentured miner. At this, the man's gaze cleared from a haze to a shocked sort of anger. He jerked around in his chair, spilling his drink, and barked "What?" With that he realized he had spilled his drink and that seemed to really piss him off. As the man looked from the spilled liquor back up to C'er it all locked in place. It saddened C’er that the man did not understand. At the same time his Sight showed him that he would only have a second to reflect on that.
Rod exploded from his chair ripping his knife from his belt and slamming it home into this fool’s belly. Well, that is what he had intended to do. The thrust never connected and now his hand was up over his head and turning back into him. Rod started to panic as he realized that his knife hand was being twisted back into him. His whole body now seemed only to be a weight attached to his arm, and this man was swinging it like a dog with a bone.
C'er spun to the outside of Rod's arm as the stab came in. He found himself waiting for the hand to get to the right place. When it did, he grabbed onto the wrist with both hands and redirected it in an arc that went up and over Rod's head. The focal point of the man’s energy was now over his head and moving backwards even though the bulk of his weight was still moving forwards. This misplacement of kinetic energy led to a moment where Rod's body was moving in two directions simultaneously. With C'er holding his arm, it was Rod's legs that lost the conflict and came off the ground. C'er channeled that energy into the man’s fall. He directed him into the table, smashing it beyond salvage.
Looking forward in his sight, C’er kicked at the chair that Rod had been sitting in. If he judged the temporal displacement correctly the chair would slide across and catch the second man from the table in the shins as he was lunging forward...and it did. The chair was crushed into a tangle of legs and ‘Shins’ went down hard. As Shins fell forward C'er leveled a fast kick into his face. It snapped his head back just before he crumpled to the floor. C'er stepped up onto the unconscious man’s back and into a kick that swept around and snapped into the back of the head of ‘Toothless’. He had jumped out of his chair when Rod slammed down into the table. The he then pulled his own knife and had been trying to figure out how to stab someone with it. The heel of C'er's boot slammed into his head behind and below his ear. The world exploded inside Toothless’s head and he fell forward. He dropped on top of Rod who was trying to get up from the remnants of the table. This all occurred in the first eight seconds but C’er was on the fifteenth second. He grabbed one of the cups from a table and threw it straight up for no clear reason.
Mason walked up to the large bar that ran along the back of the room. The bar itself had been assembled from leftover pieces of wood and sheet metal. There were several Indentured there huddled over their drinks. They ignored him and just about everything else. This was all the better in his opinion and he looked for the ‘Tender. Mason knew he somehow had to get past the bar and into a backroom, or somehow get his contact out from out back. The tug was becoming more insistent. That usually meant he was getting closer to a Contact.
He saw the ‘Tender as the man was pouring a dark liquid from one of the large metal barrels behind the bar into a clay cup. Mason was certain that the ‘Tender wasn't who he needed but he was not sure how he was so convinced of that. In a way he felt like he was looking for someone little or diminutive; a child maybe. That was unsettling. What condition would a child would be in here? Even then, he couldn't make use of a child in whatever his next task was to be.
Shaking that thought off, he gestured to get the ‘Tender's attention. This met with a dismissive grunt from the large man, which Mason took as acknowledgement. He took a seat and continued to examine the tugging and the other feelings he was getting from that pull. He knew he was close now so he was getting more of a sense of the Contact. He could not justify the sensation of immaturity and childishness with where this Contact was.
The 'Tender turned now and approached Mason. Mason looked at the man and started to order a drink but was surprised by the look of frustrated disgust on the ‘Tender's face. It took a second for Mason to realize that the man was looking past him and into the common room. The ‘Tender grabbed a short, thick club that was hanging on the wall behind the bar and banged on the wall three times. It was probably to call out whoever served as a strong in this hole. At that point Mason realized that the man had been looking directly towards the area where he had left C'er. He groaned at this and did not even need to look to understand what had happened. C’er had done exactly what Mason had asked him not too. So as the ‘Tender climbed over the bar next to Mason, he grabbed the man’s foot and lifted it as he tried to step. This completely unbalanced the man and sent him into a headlong tumble off the bar. That ended in a bone crunching sound as he landed on his face.
Mason suppressed a sigh as he stood back from the bar and pulled his gun from the holster. Before he could turn around the tug of Contact turned into a full out, violent pull that drown out all else. Contact was coming now. Mason felt that familiar yet unsettling tidal current sucking him in. He knew that his contact was going to come through the large door behind the bar. Mason knew he had to get to the other side of the large wooden bar. Had he not been at the center of so many unsettling sensations at that moment he might have wondered why the door was so large.
As Mason started to look for a way over the bar an indentured slammed into it head first. The man crumpled onto his hands and knees creating a rather convenient step stool. Mason looked back along the fellow’s trajectory and saw C'er ducking under a punch before it was in flight. C'er sprang back up into the man's extended arm and moved into a fluid hip throw. "You're Welcome!" He called in Mason's direction as the leg of the indentured, which was now in midair, kicked a cup out of midair. The cup then slammed into the face of a man trying to circle behind C'er. Mason waved a dismissive acknowledgement with his gun. He stepped up on the crumpled man’s back and vaulted onto the bar. Now up on the bar, Mason felt like he was standing in front of an oncoming rad storm. Contact was coming through the over large door and he was not at all certain what that meant.
C'er was about five seconds ahead of the Now by his estimate. Judging the temporal displacement accurately was always a challenge during this sort of thing. What he was starting to see was concerning him. The flow of the fight was turning against him and he was not going to be able keep it friendly, so to speak, much longer.
Once the fight started it was not localized to the one table. It seemed like the common room was a pile of tinder that someone had set to fire from several different places. One Indentured made a grab for the bag of coins held by the large strong with the spiked club. That resulted in the strong smashing the grabber’s face in with his club. Then the bag fell loose to the floor a melee broke wild among the other indentured standing in line. Another table on the opposite side of the room was upended when one indentured smashed the other over the head with a clay mug. It shattered and sprayed a dark liquid and clay chips in several directions. Violence had gone viral in the room.
As C’er looked ahead in his Sight he slipped another knife thrust. Moving inside the attack he drove his palm into stabby One Eye’s chin. He then swept out One Eye’s leg and followed with a hip bump that directed the falling man into another man who was getting too close. As those two tangled and fell back away from him C'er suddenly saw something he had missed when looking from ahead. Rod, the one he had spoken to and tried to encourage about today, had regained his senses. He drove in low and plowed his shoulder hard into C'er's ribs. The tackle not only surprised C'er but it lifted him off the ground and carried him back several feet.
"Mason! A little help here?" he shouted over the din of chaotic melee that common room had become and tried to regain his feet. After being carried half way across the room, he got one foot down, followed shortly by his second. He planted his feet, and regaining his Sight, saw that this man would drive him to the left. C'er rolled with that and let the man's momentum build. At the right moment he twisted his shoulders and wrapped his right arm around the man's left in a tight arm lock. As C'er felt him lose his balance he sank deeper into the arm lock, stopped all the twisting and lifted. The sudden jerk and redirection led to a wet popping sound from Rod’s shoulder. He jerked his head straight up as he tried to relieve the pressure and pain in that same shoulder.
Mason was on the bar, holding his hip cannon, and waiting. He heard the sounds of the struggle erupting behind him but had no mind for that. Then C'er's sharp yell of his name pulled him from the flood of Contact that he was drowning in.
Without looking he swept his gun around behind him and fired several rounds into the common room. Mason's gun was a thing from Before. It was different from most guns in that it discharged a form of energy along with an assortment of explosive metal slugs. It could use almost any form of ammunition with only slight modifications. With each pull of the trigger there was an explosion of sound and light. Blue halos exploded from the barrel, ripping across the room in the wake of bullets that were moving too fast to be seen or heard. The random shots exploded around the room adding to the already violent scene.
As C’er felt Rod’s shoulder pop, a concussion rippled through the man's body. Simultaneously a riot of light and sound exploded into the room. And then a second, and a third, fourth and fifth explosion ripped through Torchy’s. In the aftermath of these explosions C’er felt the body he had in an arm lock go slack. He looked down at Rod, a man C’er knew was to die today by some means, and drew in a sharp breath. Much of what had been the man’s head and face was gone. His neck rose to not much more than a smoking stump. C’er realized that when he locked the man’s shoulder out and raised his head, it had been his death. It sickened C’er, and struck him with a sense of wonder.
“I didn’t see that...” he said under his breath.
The oversized door swung open, and Mason actually took note of how easily such a large door swung on its hinges. His notice of this mundane fact was immediately lost as someone stepped out of the door. Despite the tremendous size of the door the figure actually hunched its way through and then rose to his full height. Easily nine to ten feet tall and almost as wide the man was a mountain. He wore a patchwork of clothes that had been stitched together into a set of overalls that would appear childish if not for the huge scale. A wide variety of trinkets and tools erupted from various pockets of the overalls. Atop the massive form was a cherubic face centered in the immense head. His simple brown eyes stood out beneath an unkept mop of brown locks. They were wide with both fear and curiosity as he scanned the chaos of the common room. The sight of this oversized, little boy struck Mason deep inside with a sense of sympathy. Sympathy and a paternal sense of rage.
The 'Tender got to his feet as he wiped the blood that was pouring down his smashed face. He spit out a huge red gob and then turned towards the oversized man now standing behind the bar. He hurled his club at him in a rage. It spun end over end and then struck the large man in the shoulder. The club bounced off as if it had hit a stone wall and yet it made the large man shrink back in fear.
"Tank! You lazy-piece-of-shit-Mutie!" the 'Tender yelled. "Clear these frackers out of here!" He saw Mason standing atop the bar and pointed at him. "Start with him!"
This brought Tank's gaze to Mason and their eyes met.
The best way Mason could describe Contact would be…dislocation. Torchy's fell away and all that remained was the gaze of those clear brown eyes locked on him. There was a feeling of falling, or being sucked down into that gaze. It was more like relocation from outside to inside. He was immediately lost in a flood of fear and pain. Of hiding. Images slammed into him of being locked up. Chained to something. Pounded on by little men with hurty sticks. An image of broken things. Tek smashed to pieces and anguish...complete soul wrenching anguish at the broken thing that was. Mason gasped and tried to orient himself in the overwhelming immersion of Contact. He understood now that these men had kept Tank for some purpose but treated him no better than the Caravan Master treated his pack animals. There was a lot more to it than that but Mason only saw it from a limited perception. Like that of a child, but skewed. What he struggled to make sense of was that amidst it all were bursts of things he did not understand. Explosions of information. It was like having the books his father would show him from Before flashed open and closed. Or maybe it was more like trying to read those complex books by the light of a lightning storm. The flashes illuminating parts of a detailed picture, but then gone as soon as they came. He was only seeing ghostly afterimages. The play of these flashes faded to the background. A pair of wide brown eyes staring with an openness that was astounding became the center of Mason’s universe. The world around him slowly resolved back into being as the flood of Contact receded.
“Do you know me?” Mason heard his own voice ask.
“Yes Mason.” The response was from a voice unused to the gravity with which it spoke.
“Do you know what you need to do?” again Mason listened to his own voice.
“Yes. We must go. Now.” The voice responded with the earnestness of a child imitating adults.
Mason shivered. That part always creeped him out. How contacts knew him, and how they knew what needed to be done, he never understood. Long ago he had accepted that some of this was well beyond his understanding. Maybe his acceptance was why these tasks were his to perform.
Mason had not felt himself being lifted off the bar like a doll. He only realized this had happened as Tank gently brought him down to the floor behind the bar. Mason bent down and picked up the 'Tender's club and considered it for a moment. Tank took a step back with a look of betrayal in his eyes. The 'Tender came to the bar just opposite of Mason. Spitting another gob blood, and possibly a tooth, he yelled at Tank again. "I said you better clean this Fracker outta here you stupid shit! Do you want the Frackin’ box again!?" Mason looked at the man with the same consideration he gave the club. He looked back at Tank and saw the angst plain in those brown eyes. He smiled, winked at Tank and then swung the club hard. It struck the 'Tender on the side of the head as he was about to say something else. The force of the blow crushed the man's skull. Dead, the man dropped behind the bar and out of the sight of Mason or Tank. Mason dropped the club to the ground with distaste and smiled at Tank.
“He won’t hurt you anymore. Where do we need to go?” Mason asked.
“Tank take you! IT will get us there. Come!” The look of excitement was contagious and Mason could not help but smile. The giant stepped back through the oversized door and was remarkably out of site. Mason looked around the chaos that was Torchy’s main room and the smile fell from his face. Now it was even more appealing to get out of here. The room had devolved into a deeper state of dilapidation. Mason had not thought it was possible but destroying furniture and adding several bleeding and dead bodies seemed to do the trick. He scanned the crowd of combatants and saw a group off to the left that seemed to be surrounding someone. An Indentured flew out of the center and when the group parted Mason saw C’er in the center.
“Hey!” Mason yelled as loud as he could. Some stopped to look at him, but several were still focused on trying to beat or kill each other. Mason brought his gun to bear and fired two random shots. Two Indentured standing on the edge of the group surrounding C'er were ripped open and fell dead. I said…HEY!" Mason repeated and now every Indentured that was still conscious in the bar was looking at him. C’er dropped the Indentured he had in a choke hold at that moment.
“Time to Go?” He yelled back to Mason
“Yes. Let your little playmates make their own fun now!” Mason turned and walked through the large door that Tank had disappeared through.
The room behind the door was a mix between a kitchen, a storeroom, and a dormitory. Something was boiling in a pot over a low fire in one corner. Opposite that were several racks filled with various items. A small cot squatted in-between the shelves. Mason cataloged the items out of habit, looking for anything of use or value. Most of it was useless outside of a kitchen or bar. What captured Mason's attention was the low thrum coming from the far end of the room. Ignoring the sounds of crashes and breaking wood from the other room, Mason walked towards that thrumming. There in the back corner was a large metal door with a latch on it. The thrumming was reverberating through the room from this door. He reached out and pulled on the latch and the door clicked and swung open easily. Again Mason was amazed by the ease with which the heavy door swung on its hinges. It was just like the Tank-sized door leading to the bar. As the door opened a blast of cold air struck Mason. He stepped back as a light came to life inside the room behind the door. The light was tek and not fire or some other kind of natural illumination. That it came on when the door opened was more than a little impressive. And the cold air. How? The room behind the door was not overly large but it was well packed. Mason saw more racks of various supplies, including several barrels. Every kind of thing you may want to keep cold. This was a treasure beyond reckoning. Mason was amazed that the Salters had not taken this from the proprietors of Torchy's. So simple, and yet so amazing.
"Refrigeration." C'er's voice was almost reverent. Mason looked at the younger man. His robes were now torn and tussled and he had several scrapes and the start of a nice bruise on his cheek. "I've seen this before, but never on this scale and never from tek. Usually this is underground, in a cellar, and much more natural." He peered past Mason into the cooled space as he said this.
"You all finished with your new friends?"
"For now, but I think that they will want more fun soon. Where did your new friend go?"
Mason looked around. He could still feel the pull of Contact so he had a general sense of where the oversized man child was. He closed the metal door and walked across the room to another large door. He opened this and saw an alley that ran between the main building and a smaller back house. There was Tank to his left standing in front of a third building at the end of the junk strewn alley.
"Come Mason." He called almost giddy with childlike excitement. "We go! IT will take us." The large man was moving around the outside of this building and sorting through piles of smaller items. Some things he dropped into a bag he held and others he tossed to the side. Mason watched as Tank moved to the side of the building and opened a door that was more of a hatch. He pulled out a large case of something and dumped it on the ground. He took several other items that were strewn about and placed them in the bin. Something caught his attention in the pile of things that used to occupy the bin. With lightning speed he dropped the bin and snatched it up, hugging it to his massive chest and squealed with delight. To say that it was amazing that such a sound could come from one so large is an understatement. "There you are! You bad, bad dog!" Tank said still hugging something to him and rocking back and forth. He then stopped and looked at Mason. "Dog was hiding! He didn't want them to hurt him!" Tank said holding up his treasure. It was small, at least in comparison to Tank. It was a child's toy. A stuffed doll shaped like a floppy eared dog. "He hid and then when the men left he would not come out again!" Tank held the face of the dog up to his own. "Bad dog! You come when Tank calls! That's what dogs do; they come when you call them. Right Mason? It's what dogs are supposed to do!" Tank said pointing the stuffed dog at Mason.
"Tank, we have to go. You said IT would take us. We need to get moving before those men come back.” Mason pointed back to the building they had just left for emphasis. “What is IT?" he asked. "Yes," Tank said tucking the dog into the front of his overalls so that its face peeked out. "Stay." The giant commanded his pet with a gentle pat on its head. Turning back to Mason he gestured for him to come. "Almost ready, this way" he said.
Tank walked along the side of the smaller building that he had taken the bin from. He kicked various odds and ends away from the side if the building. It became an odd sort of dance that was almost comical considering his bulk. When he reached the end of the building he started to fish through the pockets of his overalls. "Where did Tank put it dog? Do you remember?" With this his tongue curled over his upper lip in exaggerated concentration, his hands worked through all the pockets and pouches of his overalls. He began to produce an incredible assortment of items. He considered each one quickly then either stuffed it back into a different pocket or discarded it with a toss over his shoulder. One item he giggled at, an incredibly warm sound to Mason, and then put it in his mouth and chewed with delight.
"Mason," C'er prompted looking back at the door and the sounds of voices emanating from it. "I really think we need to get going."
"I know," Mason walked up to Tank and tugged at his frayed shirt sleeve. "Tank. We need to go. You said you..."
With a sudden howl of delight Tank pulled a small black oval piece of tek from his back pocket. It had several feathers, a multi-colored beaded string, and a small piece of green fur attached to it by a small metal ring. Mason only recognized it as tek only because he saw three small buttons on it, two grey, and one a faded yellow. "Found it!" Tank called with glee and did a small circular dance while pumping his fists in the air. Mason watched the dancing of the nine foot tall, several hundred pound man-child create absolute chaos among the items that had been loosely organized in piles around his feet. Finally he held the small device in his palm with the buttons facing up. His other hand, pointer finger extended, began to move in a long circle. As the finger progressed in its arc towards its intended target of the small buttons of the device, Tank began a sort of countdown.
"Six." C'er corrected.
"Four...Eight…" Tank continued.
"Hey! You be quiet!" Tank held his finger just above the small the Device and glared at C'er with childish indignation.
"It's not okay!" Tank huffed at the much smaller man. He then turned his attention back to the small device and an infectious grin crept onto his face again.
"THREESIXONE!" he called out with a sideways look of victory at C'er and pushed one of the buttons.
The world exploded into a fury of light and sound. A loud rumble erupted from the building in front of them and reverberated through Mason's spine. He could feel the ground beneath him quake at the might of the vibrations. For a few seconds he believed Tank's button had started an earth shake beneath their feet. Mason looked at the child giant who was again cavorting about the alley in his fist pumping dance. As he danced he continued to disrupt the items strewn about the alley. Mason watched as Tank kicked a large wooden pallet from the side of the now rumbling building. It fell away and revealed a tire that was almost as large around as one of his legs. It was not a building at all. Mason looked at it closely and realized it was a vehicle of some sort. This must be IT, which would take them. A building sized truck or more like a tank, for Tank.
Tank began to clear away debris and random junk from the vehicle. The rumble that had started off as deafening was starting to settle down from a roar to a more stable purr. Albeit a loud purr. The lights that had blinded them remained on but he was now used to them. Mason could see how they were positioned around the vehicle to shed light around it as well as in front and in back of IT. There were two sets of massive tires to the front and rear. It also looked like there was another door on what Mason had believed was a building. IT appeared to be armor plated and was painted in random colors, most likely by Tank himself. It was definitely tek, and definitely from Before.
“APC” C’er said shading his eyes from the lights.
“I read about these. The Scribes had some old books showing weapons and vehicles from Before. I believe this is an APC, or Armored Person Carrier. Something like that. They used to take soldiers into battle. I can’t believe he has one and one that works. Although it's about the right size for him.” C’er explained watching Tank clear more away from the APC.
“Yes. I think our ginormous friend here is the explanation for all of the tek in this piss hole.” Mason looked back at the door leading back into Torchy’s. “Tank! I think we need to go!” He shouted over the rumble to vehicle.
“Yes! Go!” Tank paused in his debris clearing and held up the small device again. His finger started on its journey again only this time faster. When it approached the device this time both Mason and C’er covered their ears, not sure of what to expect. Tank pressed a 2nd button, there was a beep-chirp from the vehicle, and several yellow lights flashed with the chirps. A new rumbling sound began and a large door at what appeared to be the back of the vehicle made a sharp metallic sound. That was followed by a churning sort of sound. Then a door began to open by lowering down on a bottom hinge. It was like a drawbridge to a castle in the stories Mason’s Father once told him.
“Come, Come.” Tank said and stepped up into the interior of the odd vehicle. C’er was right; the size of the APC fit the giant. He started up behind him, but as Mason was about step onto the bridge-door the door of Torchy’s slammed open. Several Indentured spilled out into the alley with an assortment of clubs and other makeshift weaponry. They were immediately disoriented by the rumbling and lights of the large vehicle. They started to shade their eyes to see where the objects of their anger had gone to.
Mason drew his hip cannon and fired several shots over the Indentured’s heads. The blasts had an immediate effect on them. They dropped down to their knees, turned and run-crawled back through the door. As the last man was about to make it through the door, Mason fired one more shot. It ripped through the door itself, just in front of the man, leaving a head-sized hole. This last Indentured crouched away from the now smoking door, holding his hands up. Slowly he looked up.
“You.” Mason said pointing the barrel of his large gun at the cowering man.
“Shut up. Do you know who I am?”
“That’s right. So you have no idea what I am capable of doing to you, right?”
The cowering man cringed and nodded quickly.
“Then you had better listen well if you want to live another five minutes.”
The Indentured looked up at Mason with C’er standing just behind him on the ramp into the vehicle.
“You are going to go back in there and tell the rest of those sorry bastards that we are leaving.”
The indentured looked over Mason’s shoulder to see C’er nodding in agreement.
“Anyone of you tries to stop us, or follow us, and I will shoot them in the foot. Probably take it clean off.”
The indentured looked from Mason to C’er who shrugged as if to say, 'Could be'.
“Then I will shoot them in the knee...”
The indentured shrank at this. Then he looked over Mason’s shoulder to see C’er scrunch his face in distaste and shook his head negatively.
“Then I will shoot them in the balls....then burn this place to the ground.”
Again the cowering man looked to C’er who shook his head side to side again.
“Now go, before I change my mind and decide to leave your smoking body as my message to the rest of them.” With this Mason gestured with the large barrel for the Indentured to go back through the holed door. Dirt kicked up as the man pivoted and ran through the door, pulling what was left of it closed behind him.
“The next time you do that when I am threatening someone, I am going to shoot you.” Mason growled over his shoulder at C’er.
“Do what? I was just standing here trying to look menacing.”
“The frack you were.”
The inside of the APC was a clutter of ancient tek, military minimalism and the playroom of a child. The back half that was probably designed as a staging area for soldiers was now a bedroom, workshop, and playroom for the giant. Small toys and various pieces of tek in different states of assembly littered the area. Towards the front the vehicle was an amazing array of tek that looked to be the control center of the vehicle. If he had not already seen the tek in use throughout Torchy’s, Mason would not have believed his eyes. Even still this was far beyond the sign, the music or the refrigeration. Tank sat in a huge chair in front of a large bay of screens that showed views of the front, sides and rear of the vehicle. It looked like the controls used to be set up for two men to sit next to each other. That had all been changed to accommodate the current owner. Wires and pipes of all sorts ran from the two sides of the original drivers' seats and funneled into a new bank of controls at the center. A small red wheel that looked more like a child’s toy was at the center of the console and many of the wires ran into that. Several small dolls with large, bobbling heads were affixed to the console. Tank was turning dials and flipping various switches on the console as Mason and C’er looked on in astonished appreciation.
“Sit Down and Buckle up! It's the law!” the Giant said in his child-imitating-authority voice.
The two men settled into seats that were behind the large center seat that Tank occupied. There were belts attached to the seats and after a few moments and some puzzling looks at one another the two men were strapped in. Tank pressed a button to his left and one of the screens turned to an image of them sitting in their chairs. “I see you!” Tank giggled. “Good Job!” He congratulated them as they both looked around to see where and how the screen as showing them the images of themselves. As they moved the screen reflected those same exact movements. C’er actually waved to see his own hand on the screen moving in synchronicity.
“Go! Go! Go! Vvvvvrrrrroooommm!” Tank howled in delight and pressed forward on a lever to the right of the red wheel. The thrum that surrounded them increased and they felt the vehicle move. The screens showed the alley sliding past and away from them. It also showed the electrified fence that ran around Torchy’s getting larger. Mason and C’er watched as the fence grew and then the APC smashed into it. A flare whited out the forward screen for a moment. Then the image resolved back into the forward view as Tank turned the red wheel and the APC turned onto the path in front of Torchy's. The rear image showed the fence with a huge section torn open. Sparks were erupting from the ends receding away from them. While they felt the momentum as the vehicle changed directions they had not felt any impact when the APC ran through the fence.
The rear image now showed the whole building with its blinking sign on the roof. Night had fallen now and the lights around Torchy's appeared all the brighter for it. Tank reached over and flipped up a clear plate that covered a large red button. Without ceremony he pressed the button. The image of Torchy’s flared into brightness as the sign over the building exploded in a shower of sparks. “Boom” Tank whispered and watched the rear view screen as the screen went dark. It then seemed to compensate for the lack of light and C’er could see that the building was now in total darkness.
C’er watched as Tank took a small white device from one of his pockets. It had a small grey screen and a white circle beneath that. The giant set this device into a white cradle that was bolted to the console in front of him with a click. He then pressed on a part of the white circle and sound came to life inside the APC. It was music. It was coming from the small device and somehow filling the inside of the vehicle. Tank was dancing in his large seat and steering the vehicle along the path using the red wheel and the views provided by the screens. Then he tapped another button to the side of the red wheel and looked at a screen to the left. The screen showed what looked to be the roof of IT. C’er leaned forward and watched as three small devices launched up off the roof and flew into the air. Tank pressed a button and the same screen changed its view. Now it appeared to be some form of map. A blue arrow head was at the center and three small dots were now circling the arrowhead. As they circled they moved farther and farther away from the arrowhead. With each pass of the blue dots the map resolved into more and more detail. After a few minutes, the dots were no longer seen on the screen. The blue arrow was now moving along the map version of the trail that had passed in front of Torchy’s as it climbed up out of the Salts.
C’er shook his head in amazement. He looked over to Mason to comment on this, only to see that the man was fast asleep. His head leaned back against the chair’s headrest, his large gun still held fast in his hand.
“I don’t know how he does that...”