Chapter 116:

Chapter 116 - Ballistona Bound


After her harrowing experience the night before, Roulette had retained just enough energy to crawl into the backseat of their newly acquired vehicle and fall dead asleep. When, hours later, she awoke, the girl peered out the window to find an expansive view of some oddly familiar terrain baking in the midday sun.

Given how flat and featureless the deep west tended to be, she was surprised she could still tell it apart from all the other dusty plains they’d crossed in their travels. But, even after many years away, the feeling was unmistakable: these were her dusty plains. Everything from the sweltering dry heat to the cracks in the ground to the relative absence of red rock mesas gave it away–she was back in Ballistona County.

She was home.

It felt bittersweet. On the one hand, it was good to be back. There was something nourishing about laying eyes on the sprawling tracts of land she remembered from childhood. On the other, though, those memories were shot through with guilt, shame, and the pain of loss. She had always imagined that when she came back, she’d not only be older, but wiser. Stronger. More resilient. A conqueror, ready to reclaim what was hers.

Instead, she’d arrived at her lowest. It took everything she had not to beg her friends to turn the car around. She desperately wanted a few more hours–hell, maybe a few more years–to roll along with them and just be. Gunn could wait. The Czars could wait. The whole world could wait, for all she cared! In setting out to find a way to save her home, she realized that she’d found a new one in them.

…And it was terrifying. Because, as she’d learned, she couldn’t protect them any better than she could her father.

“Look at little Petunia with her head in the clouds.”

Roulette turned to scowl at her mother, but something about the way she looked–all pale and rumpled, with legs that bent at odd angles–gave her pause.

“I know that look. Don’t you go feelin’ sorry for me,” the older woman grumbled, shifting in her seat until her back came to rest against the right rear door. “The worst of the bleeding’s stopped, thanks to Meathead up there tearin’ off half his shirt to help staunch it.”

“You are welcome, by the way,” Marka added from the passenger’s seat.

“Oh, don’t act like you did it out of the goodness of your heart! You just wanted an excuse to show off yer pecs.” She cackled and pounded on the back of his seat, then turned her attention back to Roulette. “Anyhow, I should be right as rain after a big supper ‘n’ a long rest. That can wait ‘til we’re finished with Gunn o’ course.”

Roulette cocked a brow at that. “Mom, really? You can barely sit up straight!”

“I don’t want to hear it, Petunia. I’ve been waitin’ for this for a long time.” CJ stuck out her chin and glanced out the back window, pointedly ignoring her daughter’s anxious frown. “Even if I was half-dead, with one eye knocked loose and my guts spillin’ out of me, I wouldn’t miss the chance to see that man get what’s comin’ to him. You should understand that better ‘n’ anybody.”

The girl had learned long ago not to show weakness in front of her mother. This time, though, the feelings were just too big to suppress. “I used to,” she said in a small voice. She looked down and fiddled with the hem of her skirt, desperate to avoid looking the older woman in the eye. “...But lately I got to thinkin’ that maybe all this is a mistake. Maybe we’re doin’ it for the wrong reasons.”

She could practically hear CJ wincing in disgust. “That’s quitter talk.”

“I know. I know it is,” she replied. “I just… I have this feelin’ that something terrible’s about to happen. And the only real reason for it is that I couldn’t let go of the past.”

CJ seemed to sit with that for a while, fingers drumming on her upper thigh as she considered. “You’re thinkin’ about it the wrong way, hun,” she said. “When it comes to good deeds, yer intentions don’t matter. I should know–I’ve gunned down some of the nastiest sacks of shit on the range just for lookin’ at me wrong. And trust me, Gunn’s as nasty as they come.”

“But what if we can’t do it?” Roulette’s hands balled into fists as she fought back the tears. The idealism that had carried her so far was wearing away, and terrible images had started cropping up unbidden in her mind: visions of her friends lying broken and bloodied, their bodies riddled with bullet holes. “What if I’m not strong enough to protect everyone?”

“You won’t be,” CJ said flatly. “This ain’t a fairy tale. Everyone who’s ever pushed to make things better has lost a friend or two along the way. That’s just the way she goes.”

Roulette didn’t know why she bothered. Exchanges with her mother had always been like this: distance when she longed for closeness; pragmatism when she needed reassurance; harsh reality when all she wanted was to live in her beautiful delusions just a little bit longer. At various times throughout her childhood, she’d wanted to be just like her. Strong. Sure. Unyielding.

…But with every lecture, the truth came clearer. To be that way–to be like her–she would have to leave the best parts of herself behind. Her empathy. Her optimism.

The very things her father had worked so hard to instill in her.

Suddenly, Marka’s deep, resonant voice cut through the silence. “We do not expect you to protect us, Roulette.”

“Petunia,” her mother snapped.

He shook his head. “Roulette.”

“Marka’s right,” Morgan added, taking his eyes off the road just long enough to glance back at her and flash a smile. “We chose to go along with you knowin’ full well that it might end badly. Whether we knew it at the time or not, we were lookin’ for a purpose. And now that we have one, we won’t stop ‘til we see it through.”

Marka nodded along with his words, kindling a small flicker of hope in the girl’s aching heart. “Marka… Morgan… Thank you,” she quavered, straightening up in her seat. “For a minute, there, I think I forgot who I was.”

Morgan snorted at that. “Join the club.”

She looked back at her mother to find an inscrutable expression on her face. “Sometimes I forget just how much of your father you’ve got in you,” she mused. “He was a natural leader. Could make people see the good in themselves. And when things went wrong, he’d get moody just like you.”

CJ laughed bitterly, then, gazing out the back window at the wide open sky. “He always said he loved me for how strong I was. I guess he was too, in his way.” Eventually, her eyes flicked back to meet Roulette’s. “Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

If Roulette had been standing, that little comment surely would’ve toppled her. Never in her life had her mother said anything so… Complimentary. She had no idea how to respond to it, so she didn’t–instead, she just smiled to herself and gazed out the window, looking out over the parched earth of her home county with fresh eyes.

Then, like a stormcloud, a dark mass of scrap and soot rolled into view dead ahead. It towered over the surrounding homesteads, belching a steady stream of black smoke into the otherwise spotless sky, and Roulette couldn’t help but feel her hard-won confidence waning yet again.

“Ballistona Enclave,” CJ sneered. “The ugliest eyesore on the range–besides Gunn himself, of course.”

Roulette leaned out around the driver’s seat, gawking at the hellish-looking pseudo-city in disbelief. It was huge. A twenty-foot barricade of scrap encircled a vast array of shoddily-constructed buildings, most of which were scarcely tall enough to crest the enclave’s walls. Only the arms factory–the centerpiece of Gunn’s operation–rose high enough to call attention to itself. Its wide, flat roof was lined with smokestacks, all of which churned out a constant stream of inky black vapor opaque enough to blot out the sun. Segue Enclave had its share of smog, but this?

This was on another level.

“It looks like a miserable place,” Marka observed. “Who would want to live their lives under a shadow like that?”

“Anyone who’s anyone,” CJ answered with a shrug. “Outside of Trigger City, this is the biggest–and richest–settlement in Wesson. Here, the range’s wealthiest rub shoulders with soldiers ‘n’ peons. They all dance to Gunn’s tune, hopin’ to earn a scrap or two from his table.”

Roulette couldn’t tear her eyes away from it. It put the fear in her like nothing else, knowing it was their duty to bring down such an expansive empire on their own. Yet, the longer she looked at it, the more agitated she became. Little by little, she felt that fear being tempered into resolve.

Little by little, she felt the embers of her long-lost determination flaring back to life.

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