Round Dance

A bit of flash fiction, for Chuck Wendig’s regular flash fiction challenge.

Round Dance

S. F. Pendragon

The left stabilizer fell off before the first mile.

Dammit, Su!” Rin dropped her rifle, and held on for dear life as the thundering autocart tried to spin out of control.

“Fear not, Rin.” Su’s voice was tight, and distant, as she braced her weight against the tiller. “We’ll catch them yet.”

Rin spared a glance for the ratfolk girl, then regretted turning her head. She closed her eyes, and prayed for her stomach to settle. “They’re only driving in the one direction, and we’re trying to drive in all of them!

“Not for long.” Su’s face was like stone, save for the occasional twitch of her whiskers. “You’ll need to go release the starboard anterior stabilizer-brace, and the starboard stabilizer should swing over to the middle. That’ll balance us out.”

“But the stabilizer-braces are –”

Rin lost her words as the the whole autocart lurched hard to the right. Su spoke on through the din of screaming engines and studded wheels on sand. “Underneath, yes. You’ll need to climb into the undercarriage.”

Rin’s stomach recoiled at the idea. Then she caught sight of the fleeing carriage – growing more distant every second.

Kir! Oh, Kir, my love! “Fine!” Her snarl was lost beneath the engine’s howl. She unstrapped her left leg; it would only get in the way.

On two elbows and one knee, Rin crawled back across the autocart’s chassis. Four huge, studded wheels thundered around her, but they provided no shelter from the noonday sun. Leather gloves protected her hands from sun-heated steel, but she had to move quickly to keep her knee and foot from burning.

As she approached the stern, the heat of the sun was overtaken by the heat of the spin-drive. The howling engine was Rin’s own design. The very laws of physics whined in protest about the big steel cylinder.

You’re doing your part,” she muttered, as she hunted for the ladder.

*

“What in Akzamiyu’s unholy name is that?” Sir Balil’s called from the back of the carriage. Her voice was rough, like sandpaper, and it cut through the clatter of axles and hooves.

She spoke Tiptelen with a thick accent, and Ioth had trouble with the language at the best of times. When Ioth put together what the Rumalian knight had said, she bit back a yelp, and looked left, to the west.

The demons behind the horizon were grinning at her. Always grinning. Always at her. Akzamiyu wasn’t among them, but still, it did not do to tempt them. Ioth took her left hand off the reins long enough to make the godsign against evil, and shouted, “Can you use a…” What was the Tiptelen word? “Bow machine?”

On the carriage floor, their prisoner groaned.

“What?” Sir Balil appeared beside Ioth, leaning forward over the back of the drivers’ bench. The knight was old enough to be Ioth’s mother, and she had pale skin that lacked the kiss of the sun. “Bow machine? Crossbow?” She held up her hands, and mimed shooting one.

“Yes!” Ioth waved frantically behind her, until her hand found the domed trunk. “In there!”

Rummaging. Sir Balil appeared beside her again. “This one?” The device in her hands looked as much like a vivisected clock as a crossbow.

“Yes, that one!”

*

Rin clung to the undercarriage, and tried not to think of the ground zipping past the back of her head. It had to be a good… foot, foot and a half away anyway. She shouted up to Su, “Hold it steady!It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine…

The ratfolk girl crowed down from above, “They will be ours! You and your beloved will dance over their broken forms!

She gets so poetic when her blood’s up. Rin tugged off her right glove with her teeth, and tucked it down her tunic. One-handed, she fumbled with the buckle holding the starboard anterior stabilizer-brace in place. “Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck…” She managed to wrench a fingernail, snarled, then closed her eyes to calm herself.

And then the world upended.

*

Sir Balil was actually knocked over by the force of the shot. She sat, stunned, in the back of the carriage, still clutching the strange crossbow, as she watched it land. A bright green explosion bloomed between sand and clear sky, where a moment before there’d been a charging contraption dwarfed by its own wheels.

No!” The prisoner beside her lifted her head as far she could, and strained for a look. The girl was bound with rope, but also bound by needles and tubes to the heavy contraption beside her. Sweat plastered blonde curls to her forehead, and she poured out a stream of her own language, that was just so much clucking to Balil’s ears.

Then the girl looked at Sir Balil, and snarled back in Balil’s own language, “What do you want the Meal-Capsulizer for, anyway?”

Balil’s answer was fierce and immediate. “An army marches on its stomach, child. If we could reduce an entire supply train to a handful of wagons – or have each soldier carry a whole campaign’s supplies on their backs – we’d have a tremendous logistical advantage over our enemies.”

She saw the girl’s eyes widen. “I’ll destroy the Meal-Capsulizer and myself, and then where will you be?”

Balil’s blood actually ran cold, and she covered her fear with a boot to the girl’s stomach. “You’ll destroy nothing, child!”

The blonde girl descended into silent coughing, as she struggled to get her air back. When she managed noise again, it was bruised laughter. “My name isn’t child, sir knight. It’s Kir. When Rin catches up to us, you’ll be using it liberally in your pleas for mercy!”

Sir Balil laughed herself. “‘When Rin catches up’? Child, Rin –” Balil glanced behind the carriage, and her words trailed off.

They were still coming.

*

The sun swung over Rin’s head twice. It was high above for a third time when the autocart crashed down on the sand once more. She clung to the steel chassis as it clattered and bounced.

Well, there’s my rifle gone, she thought. And my leg. And then the autocart was speeding across the sand once more. Backwards. “Suuuu!

“Never fear!” Su’s voice sang up from beneath. The autocart lurched, and then began charging more or less forward.

And now, with gravity working with me… With two hands now free, Rin made short work of the strap that anchored the stabilizer-brace. She pulled hard on the metal bar, yanking the other end out of the starboard clavicle-anchor.

She threw the bar over the side. Of their own volition, two more steel braces fell away. Two heavy springs sprang, one pushing and jutting into the empty air, then dangling below the chassis. The other pushed against the starboard stabilizer-strut; it swung over, under the chassis, and slammed into place with a heavy clunk.

The difference was immediate. The ride didn’t become silky-smooth, but it got a whole lot better.

Su cried, “Ahahaha! They’re ours!

*

Kir kept taunting the Rumalian knight, and weathering the occasional kick. Gotta keep her attention off what I’m doing

Kir had been hooked up to the Meal-Capsulizer when Sir Balil and Ioth had snatched her. They hadn’t taken the time to unhook her.

And the Meal-Capsulizer was still on.

Kir fumbled behind herself with bound hands. She took hold of the tube that ran from her left forearm and into the guts of the device, and yanked.

She felt the other end of the tube come free. Gods willing, it had taken the valve with it, and the blood reservoir, long since full, would be starting to leak out into the guts of the Meal-Capsulizer.

*

“How do I again?” Sir Balil’s questionable Tiptelen, from the back of the carriage.

Ioth’s heart hammered in her chest. The enhancements on that crossbow mean it takes several hours to reset, as well as a toolkit that I don’t have with us on this carriage. And damned if I can render that in Tiptelen. “They’re not dead?”

“They’re coming!”

There was a shout from behind her, oaths in several languages, and a horrible clatter. Then an Otherworldly whisper at her ear – We’re butchering your companions, and soon we’ll start on you. Ioth felt a demon’s chitinous hand settle on her shoulder. She began to smell burning blood, coppery and dry in her throat.

Ioth jerked her shoulder hard, to shake the hand off, and shouted, “You’re not real!”

*

Kir tried not to breathe the smoke pouring from the Meal-Capsulizer, but she was feeling the effects of a handful of kicks from Sir Balil. As the device overheated, vents and fans clogging, Kir scrunched up as tight as she could. The dimensional agitator was on the other side of the Meal-Capsulizer‘s heavy power-core; the core would probably shield her, but she couldn’t be sure.

Sir Balil was huddled in the far corner, fruitlessly fiddling with Ioth’s complex crossbow. Soon she gave this up, and buried her mouth and nose in her sleeve, to try to screen out the smoke.

There was a bang, and Kir’s little corner of the carriage suddenly sagged.

This was a bad plan, Kir thought. But it was the only plan.

Sir Balil rose up from her corner, and shouted at Ioth, “Stop the horses!

No!

We can’t go! The cart is… bad! Stop the horses!

*

Rin saw the blast, and saw the carriage ahead half buckle. She saw it slowly come about.

Suuuuu?” she called down. “Did any of the weapons survive the flip?”

“Just my dirk, and… ooh, and your cane.”

Rin frowned. “We’re gonna need ’em in a minute. And anything else we can get our hands on.”

As the carriage grew closer, she saw one of its occupants hop down from the back, bearing a sword and shield.

Which leaves Ioth and dearest Kir still on the cart.

“Hey, Su?”

“Yes!”

“Here’s what we’re going to do…”

*

The autocart slowed, and came to rest. The whole chassis thrummed as the spin-drive idled. Su carefully unstrapped herself, and managed a controlled drop down to the hot sand. She stepped out from under the chassis, and into the blasting sun.

Su considered herself a brave woman. She’d grown up in a mountain village east of Gul-Ven, knowing no ratfolk but her own family. She’d built her own culture, taking bits from her parents and bits from the humans around her, and built a reputation as a lunarum engineer on par with any in the Empire.

But that there was a Rumalian knight, and Su was just a mechanic with a knife.

Su walked a score of paces away from the autocart, and brandished her dirk. “Hey! You with the sword!” She tried three different languages.

The knight laughed, and called back in Tiptelen, “Little one!”

Yeah, I’ll show you how little… Su shouted back, “Big enough for you!”

And then the big knight charged.

Su clutched her dirk with both hands. Gotta make it look good! She swung the big dagger wildly; she didn’t have to feign furious panic.

The knight stood and let her flail, thank the gods. Yeah, yeah, laugh it up Sir Human. Su kept it up until the knight grew bored of the show and drew her own sword.

Su retreated. One step, two steps, fall… She dropped on her back, and splayed out as flat as she could, her snout turned to the side.

And then Rin yanked the safety bolts off the spin-drive. Physics snapped back into place, and disrupted a column of space a hundred yards fore and aft from the steel cylinder. It dissolved the tips off all the whiskers on Su’s left cheek.

And then Sir Balil was twelve stone of blood and bone and steel, scattered across the desert.

*

Ioth didn’t put up a fight. They bound her, patched up the carriage, and rode for home.

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