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When the fire bombs of Serenity had begun to fall on the Freelands like some divine retribution, Luna and Tia had been together.
They were sat with a small group of Grims, huffing in some steam to relax after their ordeal at the river.
‘Fucking get some of that in yer,’ Charlie, one of the Grims, leered. His dirty teeth were almost corroded away – an inevitable result of not brushing them for so long – but he had a kind heart that could not be hidden by his unphotogenic appearance. ‘Medicinal grade, this un, ladies.’
He waved over some of the pink – it was the colour, smell, and taste too, Luna discovered when it hit her airwaves properly, of candyfloss – steam and they breathed in hard, simultaneously erupting in waves of laughter.
‘How’s that grab ya?’ Charlie beamed.
‘Grabs me just right, like,’ Luna tittered, waving her arm through the smoke, cupping it and shoving more of it towards her gaping mouth.
‘This is the shit, Charlie,’ Tia laughed, sitting back, already more relaxed.
‘Strong batch this, Charlie lad,’ said Woody, one of the other Grims from camp. King Solomon himself had christened him Woody because when he’d first came to the Freelands he’d been wearing a cowboy hat that had made him look like Woody off Toy Story.
Woody was proud as punch to have been given one of the King’s nicknames – only the Grims with the stoutest hearts or finest banter were awarded such an honour.
From that day forward, everyone had called him it. The King had an uncanny habit of giving nicknames that stuck.
‘Cheers, Woody, lad,’ Charlie beamed, taking in another lungful of his pride and joy. ‘I like the watermelon one best, myself, but this one has proved popular.’
‘This is my favourite,’ Tia laughed.
She still hadn’t had enough.
Her hands cupped more and dragged it towards her.
It was like it was pulling her to her feet and she couldn’t resist.
As she dragged more into her lungs, she danced from foot to foot in a wild jig.
‘He-hey,’ Charlie bellowed, joining her in a dance, shaking his hips from side to side with reckless abandon.
‘Check out fuckin’ snake hips there, like,’ Luna chortled.
The others joined in too; the steam, the laughter and the dancing was contagious, every Grim knew that.
Timmy the Cross-eyed Grimmy, later shortened to just Timmy the Grimmy (another of King Solomon’s finest nicknames), Josh and Maria were on their feet within the blink of an eye, bellowing laughter and hurling themselves around in a desperate attempt to get more steam in their lungs.
An explosion went off in the distance.
They all hooted and cheered, as was the custom when hearing an explosion in the Freelands.
‘Life sucks and then you die,’ they chanted in unison. ‘So suck some steam in by the fire.’
They collapsed in fits of laughter, laughing so hard their sides ached and heads pounded and tears began to roll down their cheeks.
Another explosion went off from the other side of the camp, the tin sector, as though trying to outdo the other camp.
‘WOOOOOO!’ Woody shouted, raising his arms to the sky like people had used to do at rock shows before.
The whoops and cheers died down after reaching a crescendo.
They rolled in the dirt, holding their aching guts.
Then another, much louder, explosion hit.
‘Shiiiit! That sounded big,’ Tia said, looking slightly worried, even though that was almost impossible when under the influence of steam.
‘Na,’ Timmy the Grimmy said, still tight in the clutches of his mirth.
‘I think she’s right,’ Charlie said, standing up high and peering into the distance.
The vast clouds of steam and smoke from the bonfires – and a few rising flamebows in the distance – made it very hard to see.
‘Just a sec,’ he said, still smiling in spite of the growing sense of unease in his gut.
He moved to one of the wooden fences and used the inbuilt indentations to climb up to about halfway.
He squinted and saw flaming projectiles flying over the fences.
‘Whoa, this is some powerful shit,’ Luna giggled. ‘The air’s on fuckin’ fire here, like.’
‘This is bad,’ Woody said, joining Tia and Charlie in their realisation. ‘Really fucking bad.’
A horrifically distorted voice began to shout things.
Then it sounded like a weird song started.
It reminded Luna of an old song she had heard in church before.
The Grims in other areas were still thinking it was part of the festivities, cheering and whooping as they always did, completely unaware that something was wrong, even as death rained down upon them in fiery balls.
‘We gotta warn everyone,’ Josh said and ran off, shouting at the top of his lungs.
‘They’re not far from here,’ Charlie said from his vantage point at the top of the fences.
‘Best get the fuck outta Dodge then, like,’ Luna said.
The fence near Charlie suddenly erupted in a wall of flame.
Charlie fell on his back, his upper body doused in fire.
In spite of the pain and the fear, he was still giggling.
‘Best fucking way t’ go, I guess,’ Luna muttered.
The flames consumed Charlie, the acrid scent of his burning flesh and clothes mingling in with the sickly sweet smell of the steam.
They weren’t worried, thanks to the steam, but they felt an urgent need to get out of here.
Kyle stood his ground, climbed the portion of the fence that was still on fire, and aimed a shot at the advancing dozer.
He got maybe half a dozen shots off before the gun clicked empty.
Then the truck hit the fence and smashed it to the ground, snapping the heavy wooden logs like twigs.
The fence landed on Kyle, pinning him to the floor.
Added insult to injury was the left hand wheels going over the fallen fence, squishing his body into the dust with sickly splatters of blood and popping of bones.
The girls didn’t see this as Woody had already shepherded them out of the maze of logs.
Timmy the Grimmy brought up the rear.
Paulo was in the middle.
‘We’re gonna make it,’ Woody said, coping well with the sudden leadership role that had been thrust upon him.
If it hadn’t been for the steam he knew he’d have been curled up in a ball, sobbing.
‘Looks like we don’t have many bullets,’ Tia said.
‘I managed t’ get a few from those rapist assholes at the garage,’ Luna said. ‘But it ain’t gonna be enough, like.’
‘Best defence is to run as fast as our ever-loving legs can carry us,’ Timmy the Grimmy said, his hand an ever-present force shoving the girls on.
The fence immediately behind them went up in a hail of splinters and flames.
Flying shards struck Timmy the Grimmy and Luna in the back, but did no serious damage.
The whole of the Freelands seemed to be flames.
They ran past a camp fire, Grims all around it, marvelling at the light show.
‘Someone’s attacking us,’ Woody shouted, trying to rouse them from their partying.
A few of them followed, but the others stayed, clawing in steam, until the bullets of Serenity’s religious zealots tore holes in their giggling bodies.
More shots raked the fences behind them.
Another dozer blade came through the fences directly in front of Woody.
He narrowly avoided being impaled by a falling log and fired his machine gun up at the top of the vehicle.
The bullets clanged off the paintwork, showering them with sparks.
The gunman on the top began to turn the gun towards them.
Tia, against Woody’s wishes, dived onto the dozer blade and began climbing up, a knife clenched tight in her teeth.
‘Tia! No,’ Luna said, going to drag her back.
Timmy the Grimmy grabbed the back of Luna’s dungarees and hauled her back hard.
He hurled her to the floor and laid on top of her, shielding her with his frame.
Bullets tore the air above them.
Luna screamed, trying to get free.
She was unable, but she did manage to move enough to see what was happening, though she would later wish she hadn’t.
The gun turret turned with agonising slowness.
Tia was directly beneath it, trying to get around the side of the dozer.
‘Get back, Tia,’ Woody shouted. Then he too dived to his feet as the gun began to spit fire.
The gun raked the ground by Woody, just missing him. The arc of bullets stopped a few inches from Luna and Timmy the Grimmy.
One of the Grims from the second fire was cut in half by the blast. He was still grinning as his heart began to pump his life out into the dusty earth. Giggling like a schoolgirl, he tried to shove his innards back into his body.
Tia was on top of the dozer now, trying to climb up.
With agonising slowness, the gun turned.
It was inches from her belly when she let out a horrific scream.
The realisation that she was not going to make it hit her hard.
But not as hard as the high-calibre round from the gun turret.
It tore out most of her guts and showered them over her friends.
They could see the dozer’s paintwork through the gaping hole in her belly.
She swayed, unsteady, then raised her knife and threw herself up at the gunman.
The knife sunk into his chest, making him stop just enough to let go of the controls.
‘This is our chance,’ Woody said, blood spattered across his face.
Luna was a broken woman; shock had set in already.
She was pale and staring blankly.
If it wasn’t for the steam her mind would have shattered and left her an empty shell.
Woody drew his revolver now, a weapon he’d brought with him to the Freelands. He didn’t have many bullets, so they had to count.
With this in mind, he darted up the side of the dozer and hurled the gunman from its top.
He landed in a heap on the ground, his neck at an unnatural angle.
Already Woody was inside the cab, attacking the startled inhabitants.
The driver flew out as Woody’s arms flailed and his lips screamed curses.
The passenger – assault rifle in hand – followed shortly after.
Tia was staggering around on the bonnet of the dozer, blood gushing from her belly and her mouth.
She turned round, just as Luna went to get on the bonnet.
Gunshots from one of the other dozers raked their position.
Luna didn’t duck. She was too absorbed in what had befallen her friend.
Tears rolled down Tia’s cheeks as she realised what was happening to her.
Luna couldn’t cry, she was numb. This didn’t feel real. Like a steam dream.
Luna and Timmy the Grimmy helped Tia up the side of the dozer, her blood spraying all over the vehicle’s white paintwork.
Woody gently lifted her down into the cab.
Tia shook her head.
‘I’m not going to make it,’ she said, her voice barely audible over the explosions and screams and gunshots and crackling flames that seemed to blanket the entirety of the Freelands.
Tia was pale as a corpse now. The metal floor beneath her was a gushing river of blood.
She didn’t have long left.
‘I’ll look after him for you,’ Luna said.
And Tia knew what she meant. This was on her mind too, judging by the look on her face.
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Luna finally joined her.
‘I love you,’ she said, hugging Tia tight as her body began to twitch. Warm blood soaked into Luna’s belly.
‘Go,’ Tia said, her voice faint now. ‘Tell him I love him too. I always did. I always will.’
Luna nodded, tears streaming down her face now.
Tia began to convulse.
She opened the door and threw herself out.
Gunshots began to fire all around them.
‘At least they’ll think we’re one of them,’ Woody said, trying to get to grips with the controls for the immense dozer.
He spun it round, flattening more of the fences as he went.
‘Sorry everyone,’ he said, wincing.
Luna watched, numb, as Tia’s body slowly grew smaller and smaller until it was no longer a part of her world.