Along Veraâ€™s neck, on either side, are three round bits of grillwork, and when she comes in hard and fast, they scream, a whine that grates along all your nerves, even when youâ€™ve heard it before.
They screamed now, and even muffled by the tents, they still forced Rotoâ€™s ears to flatten back, his whiskers tensed in an involuntary sneer and made me clamp my forearms over the sides of my head, muffling it. Shots barked out, then a rat-a-tat of semi-automatic followed by another like an echo. Veraâ€™s own guns boomed.
There were screams.
I unfolded myself and started to rise. Roto yanked me back down just as a round of flying metal buried itself in the canvas bundle. If Iâ€™d stood, it would have decapitated me. We both stared at it. My ribs pulsed with ache and I realized Iâ€™d been holding my breath, I didnâ€™t know how long.
Thereâ€™s only so many ways for a group to attack you on particular terrain, and everyone had done exactly as they were supposed. The Bird Woman had a wing clipped, high and gouging the bone and all her children were fussing about her while Sieg bandaged it, the littlest with their heads buried in her skirts.
Bodies were slumped on the ground, five or six of them, but none of them were ours, so they didnâ€™t matter. No one seemed worried about the post where the flashes of light had come from, so Vera must have taken care of those before coming down to us, as she was supposed to.
June was there with Vera, checking her over, fanning the long metal pinions out and examining them for wear and tear. The guns athwart her prow swiveled in two directions as though still alert, worried that something might happen. Pal was riffling that packs and pockets, but with little luck, judging by his expression, other than the pile of weapons slowly accumulating underneath the sign that read, â€œTrucks this wayâ€.
Wren and two roustabouts whoâ€™d come on three towns ago were off to one side. On the road they didnâ€™t smoke anything but jitter weed, and drank thermoses of strong black coffee, the good stuff, horded for when we were on the road.
Vera stirred as I went past, headed to bum a smoke from Wren. June turned, chuffing out a chuckle under her breath as she saw me.
â€œMiss Meg,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s just Miss Meg.â€ She patted Veraâ€™s flank where she leaned up against it, and the war machine went quiet, though I could still feel its eyes on me.
â€œGood job, Vera,â€ I said, feeling daring. Most people didnâ€™t talk to Vera. It was as though they forgot she could talk back. â€œThank you for saving all our asses.â€
Juneâ€™s eyes widened, a tell so small I wouldnâ€™t have noticed it if I hadnâ€™t been watching her.
Vera chirped. â€œYouâ€™re welcome,â€ she said, after waiting a few seconds to make sure the chirp was not returned.
Neesh had most of the livestock out for a graze and mostly a poop. He knew the more of it they did on the cracked asphalt of the plaza, the less heâ€™d have to clean out of the trailers. I checked the mini-elephants over out of habit, from the summer I spent tending them, but they were all unharmed, and engaged in eating all the nasturtiums out of the circular flowerbed in front of the runs that had once been a rest stop building. Out of habit I looked to see if it was loot able, but places like that have all been scavenged away, decades ago.
I got to Wren, Roto in my wake, and at my outstretched hand and upturned eyebrows, she shook a smoke loose for me and tossed it over.
â€œHow longâ€™s the break?â€ I asked.
Wren shrugged. â€œNever too short, out here in this heat. Once we get further down, weâ€™ll be out of the heat.â€
â€œWe push on then?â€ I pursued. Wren shrugged again. She was affecting herself a bit in front of the new hires. She was circus born and bred, they were newbies, but she was still unused to the sway she held as their temporary boss.
Her nonchalance made me a little hot under the collar. She acted so cool. But sheâ€™d surely been hunkered down under cover like all the rest of us.
She narrowed her eyes at me as though reading my mind. â€œProblem, Meg?â€
I shrugged and would have left it at that, but she just wasnâ€™t content to let it go. Angry heat spiked through me as she stepped forward, towering over me.
I stuck my hands out to repel her.
She reeled back as my skin burst into flame.
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