HARD

CHAPTER 16

All was ablaze! The flames and billowing smoke killed everything in sight, spreading its reach to every crevice it can find. Chaos and confusion sent every occupant of the building scurrying around for an escape outside while the tornados whisked them away into the clouds launching their dead crisp carcasses in all directions.

The generals had no choice but to abandon ship. Steed figured that the Eastern gates were his best chance for a re-entry though it was far off the other side of the hill, and with the fires and explosions raging against each other, there was little he could do to get back in and help his employer. He watched Lucas’s tower from far ahead, while he circled the perimeter as close as his mare would let him. It was a loyal companion though. Steed’s ‘steed’ had its master’s respect for having a mind of its own but it also practised absolute obedience when necessary. Steed applauded its resilience and loyalty, like a brother in arms, always ready for battle and to do what is right. It galloped ever cutting it close only to back off when it missteps and its hoofs start lifting off the ground, but at all times maintained course fighting the current that was pulling at it. It persevered, eyes open as the ashen and smokes blew right in, burning its corneas, and blurred its vision. It still looked ahead and kept galloping, steadfast while its master surveyed, slowly losing hope.

Then he finally saw it; the windows breaking, the smoke and fires puncturing its way out from the top of Lucas’s window crying out to the sky. The walls gradually tainted with black soot. Steed slowed down to think. ‘I believe this is the end, brother,’ he muttered while nodding his head one last time for luck. Without another look back, they turned to the opposite direction and sped off. Deep in his mind, he knew that the age of Lucas and his reign was coming to a close. Perhaps it was time to start looking for his past again. Today was the last time he would ever go by the name, ‘Steed’.

Kade paced around the dungeon corridors under a thick rag drape he had stolen from one the prisoners. He didn’t just open the vault doors, he opened every door including the cells giving the slaves and prisoners a fair chance to survive. Some made it, and some did not. There were levels and levels littered with charred bodies of wardens, guards, prisoners and henchmen. The stench of decay was starting to accompany them. No matter where he looked, Rayna wasn’t there. ‘Perhaps she had left,’ he realised feeling sorry that he couldn’t say goodbye.

**

Kim and Kira forced to end their conversation with Deric due to all rumblings outside. The walls the vibrating and slowly starting to crack. If they were to stay here any longer the ceiling would collapse on them and that it would be it. Kira studied the map that AI had left her and they decided to head for the Regalia Space Port next. If there was any hope of finding a possible shuttle they could repair, it was Kira’s best chance to escape the planet and make it to a system where she could find help. Still, it was no near distance. By road alone on gasoline, it would take them several weeks, soon after which they would need to travel by boat or ship against a long stretch of a water channel. Still, there was no promise that the place was even operational, but Kira didn’t see any other option. She had to rescue her daughter. It was a mother’s promise.

‘I think you should leave NOW,’ Deric warned. ‘I am going to have to shut down to preserve data.’

‘The roof will collapse any moment,’ Kim fretted as there were new cracks on the ceiling, steadily creeping and expanding as more sand and pebbles streamed to the ground.

‘Any way out of here besides the way we came in?

‘There’s, of course, the main building, Sector 47.’

‘The fort?’

‘Is that what they call it now?’ Deric decided to add it into his log.

If you move some of the boxes over there, you would find a door, that will take you into a long stretch of about 2.37 kilometres, and you’ll reach an elevator shaft. Everything has been decommissioned so you might have to climb the shaft instead. There you’ll find a hatch that leads you in. Here is the map of the interior, as per the original blueprint.

‘It was another refinery,’ Kira studied the images carefully. ‘They were mining for oil,’

‘They still are,’ Kim added.

There was a sudden loud flash and the power went out.

‘Deric?’

There was no reply.

‘What if we head down there and the ceiling collapses on us?’ Kira asked.

Kim noticed the cracks increasing, sporadically popping up in several other weak spots.

‘No time to think. Quick!’ she pushed Kira to the side just before a huge lump of concrete came smashing down just shy of grazing her shoulder.

‘Open that door!’ Kim yelled as Kira rushed to it.

‘It’s locked. It needs Deric,’

‘Move!’ Kim pointed her shotgun at the door while her friend ducked to the side.

‘POW!’ it burst the panels and the released it from the lock.

Kira pushed through. She took out her lighter and flicked it.

‘Come on,’ she yelled.

Kim came rushing after her as the ceiling progressively collapsed down under the weight of dirt and rocks pushing through. The tunnel was still sturdy but the collapse was imminent.

‘GO! GO! GO!’

They ran into the tunnel nonetheless, with just a lighter consuming the already thin layer of air that flowed. Kira’s eyes looked forward and Kim followed her trail while keeping a cautious eye on the ceiling.

‘Shit, shit, shit,’ she cried out, ‘The cracks are following us, how much further?’

‘Relax!’ she replied while panting in exhaustion,’ I’m used to 5Ks, this is… nothing’ Kira was starting to slow down as the air was thinning.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Kim ran into her, sending them both tumbling.

Rocks and sand were starting to encroach from behind them, warning them with thunderous roars from behind. The tunnel was finally collapsing from where they came.

‘No time,’ Kim yelled.

‘I can’t’,’ Kira cried out.

‘It’s not over yet,’ She burst up and grabbed Kira by the hands and shoulders. She fastened her on her back and started running ahead. ‘Keep the light on,’ she yelled as she sped head on like a raging bull with a 130lbs load on her back straight for another kilometre or so.

She kept running and running until Kira noticed something.

‘Wait!’ Kira exclaimed. ‘It’s stopped. Look!’

Kim so focused that all she heard were the echoes of her shoe prints and her breaths and pulse pounding in her ears. ‘WAIT!’ Kira’s voice resounded. Kim finally broke pace and allowed herself to think.

‘Put me down.’

Kim obliged while she held on to her chest.

‘How much further?’ Kim’s throat was dry from thirst.

‘I think there’s the door,’ Kira pointed her lighter ahead.

**

Lucas stood idly in the hallway, not feeling quite so big anymore. As he watched his home defeated, angrily, he closed his eyes, hoping to reach his mother, to ask her council.

‘Boss!’ a grunt yelled as he came rushing for him, covered his body in rags and pulled him to the side.

A huge wooden ornament fell before he stood. Lucas didn’t even remember that being part of his home.

‘Head for the garages, take our trucks and four-by-fours and anything else we can salvage. The rebels killed most of our vehicles. So just use whatever starts.’

They rushed down a long flight of stairs and headed to an open lobby with even more charred bodies littered everywhere. ‘You didn’t spare anyone didn’t you,’ Lucas marvelled at the horror.

‘What a cruel joke?’ he thought to himself. In just one day, he would lose the woman he loved, his house and his empire.

Half his men had jumped off from the open windows just to get away from the heat for suicide seems like the best option. Others rolled on dirt and sand. Some were stupid enough to still hide in the building before something in old refinery eventually sparked and blew them up.

The winds had finally begun to move past them, as if now finally content. The smoke, now satisfied with its wrath ascended as thick black clouds into the sky, indifferent to man, good or bad, rich or poor, Lucas or not.

The thunderous rumbles in the sky suggested a quick rainfall was imminent. The planet had its own ways to calm the angry red mountain flames. It would kill, but it always knew when to stop.

**

Ashen floated about like the beginning of a black snowfall. Rayna found herself limping down some large steps, clad with just one oversized ragged cloth, wet without any oil, soothing her skin. She paced herself purposefully watching closely at the seared mangled faces of all the bodies she came close too. Some of those she could recognize and many she did not.

‘I did this,’ she told herself. She remembered when Karin told her, that nobody here is innocent. They all had the eyes of rapists, murders and conmen. How was she to tell the difference? The hundreds that came at her, even when she had no strength, bleeding from all the cuts and bruises, and yet all they wanted was more. Do they not deserve this? Was it not her responsibility to put an end the madness? She was standing watching one still alive before her, breathing his last few breaths in agony but she had no empathy, not much as to shed a tear for them. Instead, she pressed her bare foot on his chest and pushed, breaking his ribs and puncturing his lung only making him suffer more until he eventually gave up and bled out his mouth. Her eyes alone smiled while her lips maintained a sullen sorrow.

She kept walking until she reached a familiar corridor. It was the place from earlier, though much of it now covered in soot and rubble.

‘No!’ Rayna called out as she limped hurriedly to check ahead.

There, a couple of feet from her she saw it, a just a hard piece of burned wood, in the shape of a leg, still strong in its integrity, lying there, alone in solitude, separated from her owner.

She knelt close to the leg, picked it up under her covers and gave it warm loving embrace. She gently stroked it on her face, wiping away her tears, praying that Karin would feel her back.

‘If it wasn’t me, you would have never..’ she mourned in her thoughts.

Rayna visualised them in the woods again, talking, eating, learning, and passionately kissing in the rain. She remembered the stories Karin told about her travels, and how greatly even the village people spoke of her. Karin had many friends, and many loved her in return, but she chose to love Rayna instead, a poor helpless whore who had no idea what the outside of a forced tantric bedroom looked like all her life. Today, she was here because of Karin, though ironically because of her, Karin instead was no more.

‘Quick!’ a familiar voice crept closer toward her.

‘Rayna, there you are,’ Kade knelt beside her. ‘Is that?’

They exchanged mournful glances. Kade sensed a deep sorrow in the girl’s eyes, something very reminiscent of his own past grief.

‘We have to go now Rayna, the place is coming down. Most of the prisoners and the mutineers escaped. I can’t find Lucas. I think he’s gone too. We have to leave.’

His eye caught a pillar and one of the bodies of the girls in white hanging from it, her mangled body caught on some cable high up. The flashes of horror came back to warn him.

He jumped up and presented her his hand insisting to take her. Instead, Rayna was motionless, on her knees, holding on to the one thing left from her past she wishes she could never part from.

‘Rayna! Come on,’ he urged. ‘You can’t find her body. It’s over.’

‘Rayna.’ He touched her shoulder only for her to push him away in panic.

‘Fine!’ he retracted. ‘Leave using the front. All doors, gates, everything; all open. You have no idea what you have pulled off today. I’m sorry for what they did to you but this is a victory, Rayna. I know it doesn’t look like one, but I’m telling you Karin would have been so proud that you finished what she started.’ He paused to see if she would utter anything. As she kept looking down paying no heed to him, he eventually gave up trying to reason with her. ‘Until we see each other again then. Thank you, Rayna, and again I’m truly sorry.’

Kade left with a heavy heart. He was responsible for the genocide of many, the loss of dear friends, and just before he finally got his freedom, he allowed yet again a helpless young woman to face horrific trauma for the chance of escape. Looking at Rayna he wasn’t sure if it was even worth it all. He was certain his fate was in hell eventually, but not this day, not until he was sure that the King of this base was coming with him.

**

Lucas made it to the garage and was stunned to see all that was left.

‘Where are all the trucks, the rangers, the four-by-fours?’

‘Mutineers, Boss. Fucking traitors,’

Lucas sighed aloud, angry but more at himself for the failure of his management.

The garage doors were wide open, the winds blowing strong and the fields ahead were rapidly spreading the fire. A loud blast came from behind them, as it flung open a metal steel door.

Two strange looking women showed up. Lucas noticed they were wearing garments that looked very familiar, just as the one Rayna was wearing.

‘Both of you,’ he pointed. ‘You’re not whores?’

Kira raised her eyebrows. ‘Excuse me?’

Kim approached forward. ‘Hello, Lucas. Remember me?’

‘Am I supposed to?’ He dismissed.

Kim was stunned at the response. Kira pretended not to pay attention to avoid her friend further embarrassment. Kira never really knew their history. She did attempt to ask once but found the vagueness of her friend’s response more infuriating. ‘It’s an old story,’ she said and that was all. Kim was reclusive and that was that. She had many experiences, but no stories she wanted to tell.

The girls realised that the trucks looked very familiar, much like the ones that were chasing them around on the highway. ‘So, it was you people on that highway.’

‘So, it was you girls on the highway,’ the grunt replied as he remembered a story chronicling their first encounter with the warrior girls.

‘Look, you’re kinda late for the party. Or maybe you wish to stick around and see what happens,’ Lucas smiled as he hopped on the passenger side of a truck. The grunt initiated the engine and immediately they sped off.

A few other grunts showed up, running for the last remaining truck paying no heed to the women.

Kira and Kim quickly rush to beat them to it.

‘POW’ Kim fired a few rounds at them. They retaliated back with gunfire but the girls were quick enough to secure the truck. Kira took to the driver seat.

‘POW’ Kim stood on the back and fired with her shotgun at all those coming close. Two last shots and she was out of ammunition. ‘Click! Click!’

One of the grunts got closer trying to seize his opportunity. She flung the shotgun straight at him to distract and with one swipe of her metal claws, slashed across his face only to send him recoiling back, crying, holding on to the blood spurting out.

Kira rammed her toes on the ignition, and they too sped off into the fields.

‘What the fuck happened here?’ Kira saw countless dead on the field, some just unarmed girls, all dressed in white.

‘ Milk! Wow, some of them are actually Milk,’ Kim answered. ‘See if Rayna is here,’

‘There’s too many of them. And she wasn’t dressed like this,’

‘Change of clothes wouldn’t take long,’

‘Do you actually want her to be here? Let’s just hope she made it out,’ Kira retorted swerving left and right trying not the roll over the bodies.

Then all of a sudden,

BOOOOOM! A massive explosion lit the sky, bright as the afternoon sun and everything turned to white.

The entire fortress blasted into smithereens, launching huge boulders, rocks and rubble heading their way carrying smoke and flames with them.

The fields were now catching fire rapidly and Kira could feel the steering and her seat heating up fast.

‘CAREFUL KIRA, LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!’ Kim shouted as a large projectile came right for them, crashing just a few feet away.

‘Look!’ There’s the gate!’ Kira rammed on the pedals. She didn’t care if the tires busted and if their tiny bodies kept being flailed around every second or so, just as long as they could escape that hill. Kira just kept pushing through as Kim tried to hold on to the railings not to be thrown off the vehicle herself.

Lucas turned back and craned his neck to have one last look at his tower, his home now just a graveyard filled with blood and smoke, the fields or grain, corn, and food he used to supply the farmers and merchants, all burning before him. He saw piles of dead bodies decorating the roofs even, as though to mock him that his reign here was over.

‘She lasted this long, but everything and everyone has their expiration,’ he sighed in regret.

‘Boss, it wasn’t the wind that started the fire,’ said the grunt steering the wheel frantically. He knew he shouldn’t have said that, but in all the frenzy his conscience felt the guilt of not telling his master what really happened; how they were all bested by a girl and her friend, distracted by ‘tits and ass’ and how everyone had to pay the price for it.

Lucas turned to him while his brows furrowed with curiosity, ‘What exactly are you saying?’

***

The girls took a long road south back to their rendezvous point, the same hill that overlooked the base. Kira stopped to catch her breath. She closed her eyes and sighed. Cold soothing droplets fell from the sky dressed her face and arms.

Kim touched her friend’s shoulder. She pointed a few meters away. ‘Look!’

‘Our horses?’

‘And our things,’

Kira blew a loud whistle with her tongue alerting the horses to their position. They raised their necks, neighed in delight and they trotted toward them.

Kira looked out of the truck and saw the flames engulf the entire hill. The hurricanes had now dissipated, just leaving behind a light soothing breeze with a cold drizzle alongside the ambience of rustling leaves. Kim and Kira to a moment for themselves. ‘What a day they have had?’ so they thought.

In the far distance, they heard hooves thumping, approaching from downhill. It was Rayna’s and on its back, hunched to the side, struggling to keep straight, it was carrying the girl clad in just a long drape. The horse whinnied excitedly to see the rest of them.

Rayna thanked her trusty companion and struggled to get down. With a prosthetic leg fastened to her back on a sling, she limped toward her friends.

Kim walked ahead downhill and stopped her at her trail. ‘WAIT!’

She obeyed.

‘What are you doing here?’

Kira soon followed.

‘Hey,’ she noticed Rayna had no answer. Instead, she just kept her head down the whole time as like the timid little creature she was. Kira noticed the bruises and gashes on her. ‘She has seen some things in there,’ she figured. Kira then noticed the leg.

‘Is that?’

‘It was,’ Rayna mumbled.

There was a still silence out of respect.

‘‘I’m sorry, but we have had quite a bad day ourselves. So, please Rayna, tell us what is you want,’ Kira spoke out.

‘I…,’

‘What?’ Kim shouted. Rayna cleared her throat and tried again. ‘I…,’

Kim was getting impatient. ‘You lost the crossbow didn’t you?’ she shook her head and started to pace away. ‘Look, Kira, you might not know this, but those girls we saw out in fields, they were all whores. I know that because that is what Milk people do. Just fucking inbred disease riddled whores. You are one of them too, aren’t you? That’s why you keep making up stories,’ she tried to get under Rayna’s skin. ‘And you went back to save your whore friends. But by the looks of it, nobody escaped.’

Rayna had thought of Kim as a friend, but apparently on she did. Even if Kim didn’t see it or treat her as one, Rayna wanted to believe there was more to her than just the colour of her skin. She wanted to tell out everything, for once in her life, the absolute truth.

‘I….,’

‘God, this woman,’ Kim left.

‘I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!’ Rayna exclaimed. ‘PLEASE! I’d do anything… I just have no-one-else,’ she started weeping.

‘And what do you think this party is? Some fun little happy girl convoy?’ Kim retorted.

Kira saw a look of desperation in the girl. She remembered the first time she saw her, in the woods, alone. There was something captivating about her, and about her resilience to stay alive. She realised that Rayna was roughly her daughter’s age. She convinced herself that Rayna and Kate weren’t all that different. Perhaps they just needed their mothers. Mothers who shouldn’t have abandoned them.

Kira offered her hand to Rayna. Stunned, Rayna looked up with her wet glossy eyes wide open. Kim started to laugh. ‘You serious? You’re actually buying this?’

‘Come,’ Kira said grabbing the wrist of the girl and walked her up back the hill mound.

They stood there, in a line, backs against the truck, watching the sky turn into night, and the bright flames dying off in the rain. They heard their horses neigh and whinny as if sharing stories of their own and it made them chuckle a little. Kira decided to make camp and Rayna volunteered to start the fire to which Kim vehemently opposed. ‘You already have some burns. Just sit the fuck down.’ Rayna wasn’t sure if that was genuinely a nice gesture but she took any win she got.

Kira took out a loaf of fresh bread and smelled it. ‘Nice,’ she sighed aloud and broke it for the three for them to share. As they ate under the stars around the fire, they were blessed with a spectacular view of dancing white smoke in the distance. It was blissful in a way, to watch all of it burn after everything it took from them.

Kim had mixed feelings about the whole ordeal. She was not the type to get emotional, but a small part of her wished that Lucas did remember her because he owed her an explanation, or so she thought. ‘Where’s my Ben? What did you do to him?’ she mumbled under her breath, but Rayna heard and didn’t react. Little did Kim know that Ben had left the fortress about the same time they had arrived. He was just alone this time, heading toward the deserts on his trusty mare in search of a very important car and a very important person.

storm clouds over highway

END OF ACT 1

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