Morgan had been trying to cook up a workable plan for about a half-hour when CJ finally roused. He had a good head for tactics, but the situation was dire; their enemies had a hostage, and he had no doubt that the clockwork spiders would descend on the three of them the moment they made a move.
So, when CJ–the only person with direct insight into the Niners’ way of doing things–implied that she’d be able to figure a way out of the fix they were in, he decided to welcome her perspective with open arms.
“Well, if you’re so ‘sharp’,” he began, “what do you reckon we should do?”
“I’ll need to know what I’m workin’ with first,” she answered, peering back to glance at Marka. “I know well enough what you can do, Morgan, but what about this one?”
“‘This one’ has a name,” Marka replied crisply. “I wield two weapons: Voidthrower and Lifebringer. The first removes matter, the other brings it back. My fingers are splinted, though–I cannot easily wield them both at once.”
She paused to scratch at her forehead, considering. “How far can you shoot?”
“Voidthrower’s effects reach no further than ten feet ahead of me,” he explained. “When it connects, it erases all within a six-foot area. Lifebringer has a greater range, but I emptied it back in the enclave. It is useless to us right now.”
“Still, between the two of you I’d have figured you could’ve made somethin’ happen,” she mused, catching Morgan’s eye. “Those powers are nothin’ to sneeze at.”
“The problem is range. And the fact that we have to do things quick and clean.” He waved toward the back window, where the Niners’ vehicle was being buoyed along a fair distance behind. “It’s too dark to see ‘em from here. I could try firin’ blind, but if I miss, or if I can’t plug ‘em both quickly enough, I’ll end up putting Roulet–”
“Right,” he continued, “‘Petunia’s’ life in danger.”
“Time was you could’ve dropped ‘em both at once by bouncin’ your bullets off the chrome domes of these here spiders,” she said, eyes lingering on the orderly rows of arachnids marching behind them. “I saw you do similar, back in the day.”
Based on the memories he’d rediscovered since leaving Truvelo, he had to admit that she was probably right. Somewhere deep inside, the fearless, competent killer he used to be still existed. But here in the present, he still wasn’t entirely sure what he was capable of, and now wasn’t the time to play at figuring it out.
“Yeah, well, assumin’ I’ve gotten a little rusty, what would you suggest as our Plan B?” he asked. “Might give us a better idea of our prospects if you let us know what you can do.”
“Are you serious, Morgan? This is Catastrophe Joan you are talking to!” Marka piped up from behind. “She travels the range with her trusty sidearm, Homewrecker, chasing after criminals and bringing the law–and, usually, the walls of their own headquarters–down on their heads!”
“Yeah, yeah, thank you,” she grated, waving her hand as if the car had been suffused with a sudden, overpowering stench. “Ugh. Fans. Anyway, he’s not wrong. Homewrecker’s ability is one of the few things they get right in all those pulp stories about me. Usually, it fires regular ol’ pistol bullets… But the moment they strike part of a structure, whether it’s a cave, a train car, or a skyscraper, they prime themselves to explode.”
Morgan snapped his fingers. “Ahh! So that’s how you brought down Copperlock’s tower so easily!”
She nodded curtly, clearly losing interest in the conversation. “There. We’re all caught up on what we can do,” she declared.
“Now, with all that in mind, I believe I’ve got a plan.”
Roulette was in the middle of lying spread-eagle on the roof of Sid and Tamale’s car for her fifth straight hour when her mother’s vehicle exploded.
Her eyes flew wide, and she choked out a scream. What the hell?! What had just happened? Had there been some kind of fuel leak nobody was aware of? Had one of those stupid metal spiders latched onto something it shouldn't've?
The girl’s heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. She felt cold. Numb. In the space of a single breath, the feelings of apathy and self-loathing she’d been battling since regaining consciousness came full circle. I’m alone, she realized, staring into the roaring flames as they consumed the vehicle’s ramshackle frame. Everything I’ve worked for… Morgan. Marka…
I’ve lost them all…!
It was a tough pill to swallow. The voices of her kidnappers echoed in her ears, sounding faraway and strangely surreal:
“What the hell was that?!”
“I don’t know! They must’ve been banged up worse in the crash than we thought!”
“FUCK! That was our meal ticket, Sid! What are we going to do?!”
The man heaved a sigh of frustration. “Dead or alive, he said. If we can find something in the wreckage–something identifiable–we can still claim that bounty,” he reasoned. “I’ll stop the spiders. You go down and take a look. And be careful, okay? It may be some kind of trick.”
A moment later, she saw the platoon of mechanical spiders stumble to a halt. Then the passenger’s side door opened and Tamale strode into view, her pretty features marred by a crisscross of scabs, bruises, and open wounds dressed with makeshift bandages. She didn’t pay Roulette any mind, walking briskly toward the smoldering wreck with little regard for the spiders she toppled along the way.
Just as Tamale was about to reach the car, Roulette became aware of an unusual sound; a kind of muffled, repetitive rumble issuing from somewhere underfoot. It sounded like thunder, and it struck her as being somehow familiar. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
Neither could Sid, it seemed. “What the hell is that?” she heard him mutter. Just then, Tamale turned away from the wreckage and came sprinting back, waving her arms frantically and shouting something.
“WHAT?!” Sid called back, leaning his head out the driver’s side window.
She was too far distant. Even Roulette, with her above average hearing, couldn’t make out what she was screaming. What she could hear though, quite clearly, was the sound of that rumbling sound getting louder and louder.
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Sid bellowed, his voice edged with panic. The mysterious noise was almost right underneath them now, drowning out all else–all but Tamale’s final attempt at a warning, which proved just shrill enough to carry all the way to their ears:
“THERE’S. A. HOLE…!”
Marka’s blunderbuss carved a chunk out of the dirt directly by the driver’s seat, causing the Niner’s car to slump to the left. As luck would have it, this jostled Roulette into the perfect position to see what came next: her mother, cradled protectively against Marka’s chest, firing up from the bottom of the hole.
She aimed true. Sid’s brain-matter exploded out the back of his head, dappling the side of the car–and her–with a thousand little flecks of blood.
“NO!!” Tamale cried, now within spitting distance of the sordid display. She pulled her weapon, obviously intending to reduce them all to a coughing, weeping mess, but Morgan surprised her by leaping from the hole with his gun already drawn, its barrel aimed squarely at her head.
“Think about it,” he said gruffly. She glared back at him fiercely, nostrils flaring, but slowly, reluctantly lowered her gun.
“You’d better kill me,” she hissed, eyes flicking to Roulette’s for a brief moment before returning to Morgan, “because if you don’t, I’ll spend the rest of my life hunting you. All of you.”
“I think I speak for us all when I say we can live with that,” he replied, flicking his gun to the right. “Now go. Straight north. I figure you’ll loop back west first chance you get, but I’d better not see you do it, or you may just get your wish.”
She narrowed her eyes and spit on the ground, holstering her gun with trembling hands. “Watch your back, heroes,” she said, turning to make her way north as instructed. “Your fucked up little family’s just as fragile as mine.
“You’ll know it for yourself soon enough.”
With that, she departed, leaving the husks of countless derelict spiders in her wake. Morgan exhaled slowly and went immediately for Roulette’s bindings, stepping around the car to wrench them loose one by one. “You alright?” he prompted as he undid the last of them.
“...No. But I’m grateful.” she replied, lifting her head to offer them all a small smile. “Thanks for the assist, everyone.”
As expected, her injured mother acted as if she hadn’t spoken, opting to order Marka around instead. “Lean me in for a look at the driver’s seat,” CJ commanded as they rose from the hole, “I wanna see if this baby’s still runnin’.”
“Say please,” he countered, staunchly refusing to move.
“Ugh… Fine. Please.”
He nodded, then, bringing her close to the vehicle, at which point she wrenched open the car door and tugged Sid’s corpse until it tumbled out onto the ground. Then she reached out to turn the key in the ignition.
As luck would have it, the unmistakable purr of an automobile’s engine greeted their ears.
“Hooey! We’re back in business!” she crowed, sticking out her buzzard-like neck to scan the car’s interior. “Oh, and Petunia?
“Come get your junk. It’s clutterin’ up my seat.”