Ground Zero

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Ground Zero

Post  Ethan Ramey on Sun Sep 12, 2010 2:00 pm

Ethan Ramey had visited Little Bethlehem only once or twice, but that was ample enough time to take it in, digest it all, and move on. At least, it had once been.

Now Little Bethlehem was hidden behind a cloud of dust, still settling from the explosion that had literally rocked the West only days prior. The dust hung in the air and clung in the nose and eyes, made its way into the water and stung the throat. It hid Little Bethlehem like a close secret, blanketed the countryside, and murdered the wildlife. Twice Pearse and Ramey came across bloated dogs, lying by stones and dead from exposure, but no sun had killed them. In fact, the sun hadn't been visible this day, not from inside the cloud. Even the rest of Pearse's group, riding tight but paces behind, slipped in and out of view as they journeyed through the badlands.

None of these men felt the need to ask Pearse if their course was correct. No one doubted his guidance, and Ethan was unsurprised. Pearse was a calculated man who took calculated risks, and rarely erred. These truths were as evident as the clothing he wore, and had been from the beginning. Their trip through the dusting only reinforced what was already obvious: Pearse knew what he was doing.

His guidance proved genuine, as expected, when Little Bethlehem literally sprang from the dust. The small troupe exited the cloud and pulled their bandannas down, breathing deeply at air that didn't sting. This was followed by bouts of coughing, because the air of Little Bethlehem, although clear of dust, was marred with something else. It smelled like gunpowder and smoke, as well as another fragrance, something sweet but sickening.

Ethan thought it the smell of decay.

Pearse didn't cough, nor did he remove his bandanna. He rode straight into the town at a slow pace, and the others followed.

Little Bethlehem was no more. Here were the remains of a once vibrant, albeit small, settlement. Now, vacuous structures stood blackened, in sharp contrast to the daylight. The sun filtered through smoke and dust, which clotted above the town rather than within, and even the air seemed dirty and dead. Sweltering horseflesh lay abundantly about the town, still hitched to posts and troughs. In some of the troughs, the water ran bloody, like a Biblical plague. And the dead littered the ground, for there were few left to see to them.

About them, a few survivors milled aimlessly. One approached Ethan's horse and stared vacantly up at him. Another stepped up to one of their men and held his hands out, pleading.

"What do you want? I don't know what you want."

The survivor lowered his hands and his eyes, but he never uttered a word.

The saloon was now open to the sky, and warmth radiated from it like a forest fire. Smoke clung to its loose boards and rose in small wisps into the daylight. While most of the town was all but leveled, the saloon was the worst of all.

"The alcohol caught," Ethan said, solemnly. Pearse gave him a knowing look.

Inside the bar, seated at the window, was the body of Saul. His head lay upon the table, as if he were napping. The skin of his cheek, however, was grafted to the blackened tabletop, melted and solidified there. The air sizzled around him still, a testament to Ethan's theory.

Pearse surveyed the area with a discerning eye, but he didn't slow, nor did he speed up. He kept his group at a consistent trot and a straight line, all the way through the skeletal remains of Little Bethlehem and out again. From outside the town, Ethan slowed for a last look. So did one of Pearse's compatriots. Pearse turned to them both, and, ignoring Ethan, spoke coolly to his hired gun:

"You're to stick to the task at hand."

The man immediately wheeled around and fell back into line. Though the comment had not been directly addressed to him, Ethan did the same. They rode into the dust on the far side of Little Bethlehem and it swallowed them whole.

And then Ethan noticed the change in Pearse. Over the course of the journey, there had been few exchanges. Pearse had driven them hard and always straight, cutting across the countryside and through the dusting - hell, even through Little Bethlehem - like a razor. He was focused on the destination, something Ethan knew little about. Whatever they were to find ahead was a mystery to him, but it tugged at Pearse, drawing him ever onward in a way that bordered on obsessive. But Pearse controlled this compulsion the best he could, speaking amiably and always calmly, and driving them hard but never too hard. Now, however, he seemed - distracted? anxious? Possibly both. Ethan sensed excitement, and from a man as generally collected as Liam Pearse, it was disarming.

They cut their path through the dust and countryside, the carnage of Little Bethlehem heavy on their minds, the mystery ahead heavy on Pearse's. Then they arrived at the mines outside of town, where the air was clear and clean again, and also still. Below them, what had been the entrance to the shafts was now a jumble of rock and crossbeams, sealed to them at this juncture. But their view was magnificent, as the mouth of the mine emptied into a canyon, and the canyon rose slowly to the level ground a mile east. And in this steep box, seated amidst rubble and mine carts, was a large object, pointed diagonally and defiantly towards the heavens. It filled the canyon almost entirely.

To Ethan, it looked like a cannon. To Pearse - well, who other than himself knew what Pearse saw when he saw such a thing?

Behind the cannon, or whatever it might be, were marks in the dust, leading to the caved-in entrance to the mine. Long ropes were tied at intervals along the object, hundreds of them, trailing along the ground and hanging loosely from its heights.

A team of miners had been moving it, dragging it out from the depths. There was no sign of them here, now, although sparse darkened spots dotted the dirt and rubble, as if fires had been lit and left to burn out, and the debris cleaned away.

"Was this the cause?"

This from one of the hired hands, and directed at Pearse. Pearse didn't respond; he seemingly didn't hear the query. His eyes were locked on the object in the canyon below them. A light wind whistled suddenly through the canyon, and Ethan felt a shiver run up his spine. But he could not deny a sense of awe at the sight before him. Even the Indian seemed to display some emotion, though subtle and indiscernable.

"Brooding over this immensity, I ask, on this bondless land..." Ethan began. The quote had come without calling to his mind, but it seemed fitting. This, Pearse heard, and he turned to him. There was a fire in his eyes as he spoke, finishing the quote:

"Who rules over man's destiny?"
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That Familiar Feeling

Post  Mr. Pearse on Sat Oct 02, 2010 12:29 am

Gazing down upon the cannon, Pearse felt himself on the brink of an edge he could not see, bound by a future he could not know. Although he had hoped the sight of his goal would bring answers, his mind was beset by only further specters and half-formed thoughts. The cannon stood larger than a house; its barrel shimmered like a kaleidoscope, dancing with colors outside the skill of mortal hands and reach of mortal minds. The thing seemed to possess its own gravity.

And it beckoned Pearse closer.

The Irishman was the first to move, spurring his horse to a trot as he traveled parallel to the canyon and toward its only entrance short of a plunge to the bottom. Behind him, the others reluctantly broke their gaze and followed suit. Bill and Stefan rode as a pair, hard faces no longer able to hide their increasingly frayed nerves. The Indian took up the rear, guarding against any sudden ambush – or sudden change of heart. Ramey, however, seemed flush with an energy he had not showed in days. He rode well ahead of the other three followers, lagging only slightly behind Pearse himself, who now moved with the purpose of an arrow in flight.

Approaching the path into the canyon proper, the Irishman almost dropped his reins as an involuntary tremble overtook his body. The air was electric. He spoke aloud, hardly conscious of his one, bespectacled listener who by now had pulled beside him.

“I’d almost forgotten what it was like, that moment before leaping off the cliffside to fortune unknown. I last felt it the better part of a decade past, knee-deep in Virginia mud and watching a wave of blue sweep up the White Oak Road…”

Ethan’s curiosity got the better of him. He knew enough to recognize a centerpiece name from the Battle of Five Forks, itself the battle which had broken the back of the Confederacy’s hopeless defense of Petersburg – and bid for independence.

“You were there until the end, then?”

Pearse glanced toward Ethan, visibly impressed. “Aye. The end of the end. We drew straws, and it was me and mine whom Pickett chose to throw between him and the Yankee encirclement. We checked our rifles, we went over the top, and we stood not a chance…”

A jolt of realization passed over Ethan’s features, but he made no comment. In an obscure footnote to an obscure text, he had once read of the final, fruitless actions at Five Forks. That text – now lost amidst the immense swell of Civil War histories and memoirs – had mentioned a lost battalion. It had also mentioned the name of the battalion’s slain officer: one Lieutenant Colonel Liam Pearse.

Meanwhile, the Irishman continued to speak. “It is the waiting which does it, not the bloodletting which follows. Combat is quick and decisive: a man either dies, or he does not. But as to the final moments before the combat – it is a feeling not of this world.” Pearse’s voice softened. “It is that same feeling which stirs here, and which has stirred all across the Territory these last long days. Not dread, not excitement, but instead dark and unrelenting expectation...”

Rounding a final bend, the party reached the canyon floor. There was no avoiding the cannon now. Its frame drew sunlight like a sponge, while its vast network of ropes and pulleys extended, web-like, across the length of the chasm. Its barrel set in a firing position, the object looked ready to set the whole of Earth alight. Stefan whimpered softly.

It was the last sound he ever made.

The crack of a gun echoed from both walls of the canyon at once. Stefan slumped, clutching at his neck. At the same time, a series of barbed ropes – disguised by the dusty topsoil – burst from the earth, catching the survivors’ horses by the legs and underbellies. As the steeds toppled, their riders followed with them.

Pearse had no chance to wonder at how he had been caught so hopelessly unaware. In danger of falling under his horse, he leapt into a controlled dive, narrowly avoiding another rope which could have taken off his legs. By the scream which pierced the chaotic scene, Bill was not so lucky.

Before the group could recover, their ambushers were upon them, crying hoarsely at the top of their lungs. Although human, they moved with a speed and ferocity which defied all expectation. Through the horrible din, there was no time to tell their number. Some wore tan-colored robes, while others wore the finery of artisans and merchants. Still others wore nothing at all. Their armaments were just as varied. Some wielded clubs, others knives, others their fists. A few carried firearms, but they did not use them. At this point, there was little need.

Despite the flurry about him, Pearse was able to rise to his feet unmolested, bad leg throbbing in agony. His companions were not so lucky. The Indian, face set in a soundless roar, was surrounded by no less than five attackers. Even as the brave batted one to the ground with the flat of his hand, the other four tackled him from all sides. Receiving dozens of hammering blows to his head and small of his neck, not even the Indian could persist for long. He collapsed, crashing to the earth like an oak.

Ethan, momentarily spared the treatment given the Indian, leapt upright and drew his revolver from his belt. Yelling fiercely, he aimed and fired, and – with a result that must have surprised himself most of all – his shot rang true. One of the nearby figures pirouetted and collapsed. Stunned by his own success, the doctor had no chance to fire twice. The ambushers were instantly upon him with clubs and fists, and while he did manage to cling to consciousness, he likely wished he hadn't.

Bill – caught under his flailing horse and cut by the barbs himself – received the worst fate of all. Where the attackers were restrained in their treatment of Ethan and the Indian, they showed no such mercy to Pearse’s surviving hand. A group quickly congregated around the trapped mercenary, knives glinting ominously as they were repeatedly buried and brought to the ready once more. The work was not fast, and Bill was made to suffer every instant of it. When the screams finally stopped and the crowd dispersed, there was little left to identify the spot where a man had once lain.

Amidst all this carnage, Pearse drew and leveled his LeMat with same lightning speed which had earned him infamy across the Territory. This time, however, his duelist’s instinct was not enough. As his vision focused and his concentration returned, he found himself the target of five different gun barrels, their owners arranged in a loose semi-circle around him. The ambushers’ faces were set in wide, toothy smiles. These expressions contrasted sharply with their eyes, which seemed wholly devoid of warmth or life. They regarded their prisoner hollowly, more like wax statues than flesh and blood.

Although the Irishman knew he was beaten, he did not lower his weapon. When he spoke, his voice was strained; his harsh fall had taken its toll. Bill’s pitiful cries were still ongoing, but Pearse made no move to free him, nor did he even glance in his direction. Instead, his gaze remained fixed on the figures before him.

“You’ve taken me by trick and cowardice. Name your purpose, and present your terms.”

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It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
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