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"d.a.m.n it," Fiona grumbled.

"Bond-O push trucks for fun," a meek, quiet voice spoke from behind them. "Bond-O push truck for you."

Fiona's initial reaction was to tell him absolutely not, to tell him to hide, but she knew that, without Mitch, Zeke's new rule wouldn't be kind to Bond-O and he had every right to partic.i.p.ate in the fight for his own existence. She nodded. Stephanie mounted the gun, hooking herself into the familiar gyroscopes, and the remaining two Ravens took up defensive positions on either side of the simpleminded fry cook at the front of the truck.

The truck lurched, moving slow with the meaty shoulder of Bond-O pressed against the front b.u.mper and grill. Finally, it nosed out toward the opening in the wall and began to pick up steam toward the street. Fiona stood on the running board, open truck door behind her, steering with her left hand, gun in her right. They would be an easy target to find, but a hard one to reach.

With the open street before her, Stephanie didn't want for targets. Motorcycles, ATVs, and trucks were pouring into the city, bristling with weapons and hard men. Stephanie started with the closest bundle and worked her way out. The quad gun, meant for obliterating heavily armored vehicles from the undercarriage of one of the medium-sized crawlers, ripped through the marauder column like a chainsaw through tinfoil. Bodies and vehicles alike exploded when the peculiar green sh.e.l.ls struck them-it was the bad old days of the alien invasion all over again with deadly Slark technology obliterating effectively defenseless men.



When she swung the gun to one side, the Ravens shifted their focus to the other to cover her back. They crawled down the streets, sweeping clean the invaders from Juarez in a wash of Slark firepower. The truck's initial speed, which was barely above noticeable, continued to slow until Bond-O was finally too tired to continue, leaving them stranded, still several blocks from the Raven stronghold around the courthouse.

"Bring back help," Stephanie shouted, never leaving the trigger of the guns alone as she found target after target. "We'll hold here until help arrives. We can't let them get this gun."

Fiona made it only a few steps away from the stranded Kodiak before the marauders made their first successful counterattack. Rocket propelled grenades struck first, missing the heart of the gun platform but killing the two Raven guards and the titan fry cook as well. Fiona found herself flat on the ground, covered in dirt and shattered asphalt from the street. Her ears were ringing and her mouth tasted like blood. She could hear the rhythmic drumming of the quad gun, but little else. She turned her head as though underwater, slowly to see the ruined bodies of the two Raven guards and the massive, shrapnel-riddled corpse of Bond-O at the burning front of the truck. She tried to stand, but couldn't keep her feet. A motorcycle shot past her from behind, nearly clipping her in the process. She found her gun among the rubble of the street and retrieved it.

She glanced up to Stephanie just in time to see a hurled harpoon strike her dead center. The motorcycle with the wire tether still attached shot past the truck, ripping the diminutive dancer from the gun platform, bouncing her off the wall of the building on the far side of the truck. Before the bike could drag her further, Fiona raised her gun hand and blew the driver out of the saddle with a well-placed shot. The harpooner on the back of the bike kicked over the handlebars when the bike turned sideways, bouncing hard across his neck, bending his head back at an unnatural angle before he came to rest in a tangled mess a dozen feet farther down the road from the bike. Fiona jogged as best she could around the truck to find Stephanie's lifeless eyes staring up at nothing in particular. The steel spike jutting from her chest had likely killed her on impact; a small miracle Fiona could hope for.

The Ravens were making their push out from the stronghold, bolstered by Fiona could only guess what. Explosions rocked the city, fires spread, and soon the motorcycles were in full retreat. Bodies, both men and women, littered the street as Fiona stumbled toward the sounds of rifle fire and explosions. So engrossed were the attackers in attempting to defend themselves against the Raven push that Fiona nearly stumbled into the back of one of their hastily constructed defensive positions behind a scuttled SUV.

A handful of Juarez marauders were being directed in the construction of a barricade by none other than Cork. Before they noticed her, before they even had a chance to glance back over their shoulders at the sound of her scuffling boots, Fiona had put the five Juarez men down with near point-blank shots. She swung the gun on Cork and clicked on an empty cylinder.

"This wasn't how I wanted it," Cork said, raising his sub machinegun. "I couldn't take the abuse from..." was all he managed before a sniper's bullet cleaved his forehead from his body.

Fiona snapped her head around in time to see the outline of a diminutive sniper in a beret scampering across the rooftops away from the sweeping fires chasing her through the city. She couldn't say for sure why, but she felt it would be the last she would ever see or hear of Claudia. Something about the French Canadian woman spoke of an urge to be free of her situation and nothing would provide cover for her escape like a city-ending catastrophe.

Fiona ran the arduous process of reloading her gun with shaky hands and redoubled her efforts to find the Raven line. A second wave of engines was roaring toward the city and she suspected the counterassault would likely be rolled back-she had to be on the right side of it before that happened.

She rounded two more corners without incident before she found the street blocked by an overturned bus set ablaze. The sounds of battle were moving away from her again to the southeast. She glanced around to find the closest, tallest building that wasn't already on fire. She kicked in the front door and bolted up the stairs. A ladder and hatch granted her access to the roof of the two-story office complex. One street over, the Ravens assault was collected around the tip of the spear; at that sharpened point was Veronica with an assault rifle mounted grenade launcher. She was the source of the explosions and her entourage the source of the gunfire.

Fiona recognized the El Camino barreling down on the cluster of women, knew the spikes of the blue and white hunter's car, and didn't need more than one try to guess the driver. Veronica clearly recognized it as well. Her grenade missed by just enough to spare the car but not let it keep its wheels. Zeke's ride tumbled through the right side of the Raven formation, crushing and mangling bodies as it came to rest against a wall. Fiona didn't wait to see the rest of the fight; she had to be in it.

Back down the ladder, down the stairs, onto the open street, she raced to reach Veronica in time. The hollow thunder of shotgun fire echoed through the night in two quick bursts and then nothing. Fiona sprinted onto the street she'd seen Veronica knock out Zeke's car. The accompanying Ravens were either dead or injured, littering the streets with the charred victims they'd already gunned down. Among the fallen, Fiona found Veronica's familiar form.

Her former lover was already gone. Fiona cradled Veronica's lifeless form, lovingly stroking the well-known features of her angelic face, kissing the blond hair, now streaked with blood, that she'd so often ran her fingers through. She couldn't have said to that point what she might have wanted from her manipulative ex, but seeing her dead, knowing she would never again hear her sing or speak, Fiona simply wished Veronica had the chance at some peace in her life before she met the violent end she seemed to know was waiting for her all along.

"The head's severed, Red," she heard Zeke shout from down the street. He was staggered, injured, leaning heavily against the wreckage of his car with a ghastly shotgun wound to his right leg. "They'll crumble without her, and we both know it. All you have to do is sit it out, and you can take your rightful place by my side as the rule of this town."

Fiona gently laid Veronica to rest on the pavement. She rose, sliding her gun back into its holster. "Is that what this is about? Setting me at your side?"

"You're like the daughter I never had," Zeke said. "You're like me more than you're like them! Can't you see that?"

"I don't hate them," Fiona spat back. "I just wanted to be free."

"Join me and you can carve freedom from the world however you like," Zeke said. "I'll carve it in blood right along with you. What are you going to do otherwise? You're not fast enough to kill me and you know it."

"You've told us both that for so long-I'm itching to prove you a liar." Fiona stepped into the middle of the street. Zeke hobbled to mirror her stance, holding only his shotgun at his side.

Fiona's heart thundered in her ears, the world of fire and smoke swirled around her as though she weren't even a part of the destruction, the eye of her own fiery storm. She pulled first. Zeke was faster; his gun was up, pumped and ready before she could aim. He pulled the trigger as if he knew the result, knew what was about to happen with grim certainty. The shotgun clicked on empty.

"Now you know," Zeke whispered.

"Now we both do."

Fiona fired. The bullet burst through Zeke's neck, severing a handful of major blood vessels on its way through. He spun to the ground, spraying his car with a fresh coat of red.

Fiona felt a sense of completion wash over her when she saw him fall; they'd misread her, they'd all misread her, not just Zeke and Cork, but Veronica too. The only person who hadn't misread her was flying a possible suicide mission at that moment and Fiona was dead set on making sure she had a landing zone to come back to. If she was lucky enough, clever enough, and good enough, she might have time enough to process what had happened; if she couldn't muster enough of those three things, it wouldn't matter anyway-the three of them would just be another three corpses in the streets.

The remaining Ravens rallied around her. They made a push to eradicate the invaders, breaking into strike teams, coming back together when they met large resistance, fighting in the effective fashion that had won them Las Vegas. Reduced to scavenging ammunition and weapons from the fallen, the Ravens finally lost their edge in street-to-street fighting. The Juarez marauders were too much, finally pushing the exhausted and injured women from the heart of the city to put them on the run.

In the wee hours of the night, Fiona led the two dozen or so Ravens that remained to the replica street formerly meant for tourism. The marauders outnumbered them by a thousand or more by that point and little remained of the town to even fight over anymore. Capturing Ravens alive, which was no doubt what the Juarez men had been promised by Zeke, proved to be nearly impossible. The hardened women, fighters of Las Vegas all, had no fear of death and took to the grave anyone attempting to set chains on them. More than a few had already blown themselves and their captors to smithereens with a hidden grenade when capture seemed imminent. In Vegas they'd called the suicidal grenade a trump card-Fiona had hoped to never see another trump card played again, but even still, she knew she would throw her own trump card if the time came and knew this to be true as well about the remaining women who stood with her; it might be too late for them, but it would send a clear message to Juarez in a final act of b.l.o.o.d.y defiance-don't f.u.c.k with the Ravens.

The marauders would find them soon enough. They would fight. They would lose. They would take as many with them as they could. But they likely wouldn't see the entire sunrise. With their defensive line set, Fiona waited for the inevitable attack. From across the ruined city, the marauders charged, escorted by motorcycles and pickups, armed, dirty, screaming, and bent on ruin. Before they could reach the effective firing range of the Ravens, three whirring engines roared overhead. Machinegun fire tore through the approaching marauders as a trio of biplanes dove down the length of their formation.

Fiona's gaze shot skyward just in time to see the Big Daddy, Little Monster, and a hobbled Hard Paw along with their accompanying fighters setting up for a weary attack run on a defenseless enemy. As the bombs, sh.e.l.ls, and Slark weapons rained down on the fleeing Juarez men, Fiona pulled her hat from her head and waved it at the largest of the three dirigibles, hoping Gieo could see her among the survivors.

The airships and the escort fighters skimmed through the smoke of the fires that had consumed Fiona's birthplace and former home. Fiona couldn't remember having left the town during childhood, but a distinct part of her was glad to finally be rid of the place, even at the extreme personal cost exacted for its demise.

Chapter 29: A new old life.

When the ruins of Tombstone were swept clean by Gieo and her air force, Fiona followed the dirigibles to the last landing zone available to them: the old high school football field. The gunfighter and gear-head met and embraced, simply holding each other in shaking arms. There would be time for more, a lifetime if both had their way, but in that glorious moment all either of them needed was to be held.

With what little remained of the town in shambles, and what few survivors long since fled, the handful of Ravens and returning pilots set to the work of sifting through the remains. They buried their dead as best they could, sought out what little food and water stores might remain, and began what would likely be a fruitless search for horses. The casualty rate amongst the townsfolk was surprisingly light; Fiona guessed Cork had warned them away when she was drinking.

Fiona found small combat boot footprints near where Gieo had stored her modified Indian motorcycle-the bike was gone. Any number of Ravens could have taken the motorcycle, but Fiona suspected Claudia was the only one who knew precisely where it was. The little sniper had earned the chance at something else, and Fiona hoped she would find it.

Burying Veronica was an ordeal for all the Ravens present, but struck Fiona with an emotional cataclysm that she hadn't even felt when her mother died. The regret of sparing Zeke all those months ago after the Slark attack sat heavy in the center of Fiona's chest; she knew it would likely be a permanent wound and welcomed the reminder of what she'd lost.

Before the sun could set, when the direness of the situation began to settle over the fifty or so remaining Ravens and pilots, talk turned to Las Vegas. Without Veronica, without means to sustain themselves, there was no reason to squat amidst the ruins of Tombstone or toil in the rebuilding of what had already been relegated to a pointless listening post. In addition to Fiona and Gieo, who had absolutely no interest in Las Vegas, there were several others among the survivors who expressed desire for another option.

This phantom alternative, to which n.o.body could brainstorm even a remotely reasonable notion of, came in the form of a vehicle column out of the northeast. The dust cloud on the horizon spoke initially of alarm, but that quickly faded when binoculars provided confirmation that the vehicles were marked as Raven. Veronica's gift from beyond the grave extended in the form of Alondra's soldiers, rushing to Tombstone's aid, perhaps a night too late, but in time to preserve those who survived. The rider, Fiona recognized her as the one she'd given Veronica's missive to, stood at the front of the column like a conquering hero returning home.

The orders for the Marine Captain in charge of the expeditionary force were to assist if possible in any way the White Rook Gieo saw fit. Gieo instructed everyone to scavenge whatever they could from the ruins, refuel the airships with every last drop of Slark fuel they could find, and then the whole of them would return to Albuquerque. The Captain, who had initially seemed a little glum about missing out on the obviously exciting combat of the night before, took the orders as an opportunity to complete his mission without taking losses-an acceptable substitute considering Alondra's dislike of casualties among her men.

Nothing was going to feel like victory to Fiona at that moment, but the escape provided by Veronica postmortem could suffice as catharsis in a weary moment.

Gieo spent the better part of an hour in the shower of Alondra's guestroom that she and Fiona were sharing until their accommodations could be arranged. She switched the water from cold to hot and back again half a dozen times just because she could. She scrubbed, shaved, and exfoliated her skin until the water slid off her like silk over glass. Fiona had already been through the bathroom on a similar errand, but hadn't tarried under the stream of water even half the time Gieo was planning.

Heaven was the only worthy reward for the Asian sky Napoleon and that was precisely what Gieo felt she was given. Wrapped in a towel with her purple hair, grown out nearly to solid black, still wet from the shower, she exited into the bedroom to find Fiona sprawled across their bed. The warm, afternoon sun creeping through the Venetian blinds set lines along the gunfighter's long, shapely legs. Gieo's heart caught in her throat at the sight of her lover dressed in a black Victoria's Secret silky pushup bra and boy-cut panties set from the Angel clothing line Fiona used to model.

"I thought you didn't like underwear," Gieo whispered.

"I don't," Fiona replied, "but you do, and I thought you deserved a reward."

"We both do." Gieo tossed her towel aside, slid onto the bed, and met Fiona halfway for a long, powerful kiss that would have taken her legs from beneath her were she standing.

About the Author.

Cassandra Duffy spent most of her childhood being precocious, which stopped being entertaining or impressive when she grew into an adult, at which point she had to start being precious. She writes a free-lance s.e.x advice column found in various lesbian magazines, and has written a handful of short story collections and novels found on her website at http://cassandra-duffy.com/. She lives and writes in Orange County with her partner and soul mate Nichole and their two cats: Dragon and Josephine.

end.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION