The party the following afternoon began on the spotty lawn in front of the Kubiaks’ long, low concrete house.  Sweet flavored drinks were laid out on folding tables, with things less likely to spill positioned atop the blocks of native sandstone that were dotted sporadically around.  Yarec sniffed at some phosphorescent red punch and then went looking for a biscuit, while Ris sipped her own drink and looked around at the other guests.

Gatherings like this were not uncommon events.  In this thoroughly rural region, separated from the cities that remained along the ocean coastlines, lifestyles had regressed.  As the wealth and ready access to varied forms of culture that characterized the epoch of great nation-states had dissipated, people returned to a focus on community and family.  Whether any of these strangers were Yarec’s blood relatives, they were the kind of people who had shaped his upbringing.  They knew stories about his earliest explorations and exploits, and some of those anecdotes would probably be recounted that very day.  How many days, in contrast, had Mrissa known him?

Yarec returned with a string bag of baked nuggets and found his lover gazing distractedly at the other milling partygoers.  He tapped her lightly on the shoulder.  She tossed back the remainder of her drink and started to reach for another; but the punch had a bitter synthetic aftertaste, and she changed her mind.  She drew back her hand, and another woman bustled past her, wearing a black dress with heavy shoulder straps that looked like it might have belonged on a brisk winter day in Sankirk, forty or fifty years ago.

The woman straightened up, balancing two cups of punch and a cube of protein in her right hand.  “Pardon me,” she said, trying to squeeze between Mrissa and Yarec.  She glanced over Yarec’s face in passing, and a sense of familiarity brought her up short.

“Yarec ban Silfien,” Yarec said, holding his hand out faceup.  The woman grasped it from above and applied a very tentative pressure.  “You’re Tellura Rovish, right?” he went on.  “I think I remember you as a little girl, running around in the grass.”  The woman’s expression signified, not suspicion exactly, but dissatisfaction with his identity.  Her own age was indeterminate, but she was definitely not young.  The more intense ultraviolet light of the mountain plateau had stiffened her skin, and there were layered creases across her forehead and cheeks.  She had not benefited from the regime of frequent renewals that had just placed Yarec in a completely new body.

They spent a little while chatting, before the partygoers started to move inside.  The shift occurred gradually.  The double doors of the longhouse were thrown open, revealing the receiving room, draped in brown bunting, inside.  Then, as the dust and heat outdoors became too tiresome, people found themselves drifting inside.  In pairs or small groups, they passed through the broad portals.  The doors’ synthetic surfaces had been crudely molded into square panels, each with a staring human face in the center.  The hydrocarbon composite had not been artificially tinted, so the faces had a flat off-white complexion, very subtle tinged with green.  Their skin and hair were exactly the same color—and even their eyes, which gazed out, pupil-less, looking as mindless as the cold lenses of any robotic surveillance device.

Mrissa and Yarec were near the middle of the trickle.  Past the eerie entrance, they found six more long tables, arranged in a sunburst pattern.  Stacks of circular crackers, rich in fiber, sat alongside troughs of variously flavored dipping sauces.  The closest table, which jutted straight out toward the entrance, had a vaguely pinkish mixture.  It’s odor was earthy and tangy like vinegar.  It was a local favorite, and Yarec’s nose recognized it instantly, although he could not remember what it was called.  “Red root” something?  “Hash root”?  Most the guests, including Yarec, scooped some up as they moved past the table. Yarec grabbed one of the carbohydrate discs and dipped it in the trough.  He offered the wafer to Mrissa, but she waved the offering away.  The sauce’s tart vegetable odor was unfamiliar and not really to her liking.  Yarec shrugged and took a big bite himself, savoring the distinctive taste, which had known since… childhood? he thought.

Where the tables came together, their ends formed an open hexagon, and in it stood a pedestal supporting the centerpiece of the room.  It was a statue, about sixty centimeters tall, of a muscular athlete.  It was elegantly proportioned, displaying the subject’s great strength without making him look musclebound.  It was old, but Yarec could see it had obviously been created as a copy of an even older work.  Sculpture was one of the oldest art forms and one that could still be practiced, even with only rudimentary tools.  So it was also an art form that was still widely appreciated, even if no contemporary sculptures could approach the scope of earlier works.  Far to the east, there was supposed to be a mountain on which men had carved the face of the legendary founder of the States United Armed Forces.  Its location was lost, but a dreamer named Carter had once gone in search of it, wanting to see what race of humans most closely resembled the ancient gods.

Yarec did not feel like dawdling among the snacks.  The party was already tiring him out, and he wanted to sit down for a while.  They found seats in the next room, along one of the long tables that had been laid out in rows.  Yarec plopped down and sipped something.  He meant to get up and go back to the buffet, but it seemed that before he knew it, other guests were sitting down around him, and a bread course was on its way.

Yarec never remembered most of what anyone said at dinner.  There was a lot of chitchat about local characters, mixed in with tactful inquiries about Mrissa’s background and interests.  The locals seemed to know better than to ask Yarec about what he had been up to.  He volunteered some information in general terms—places he had visited, cultural events witnessed—and his neighbors seemed satisfied with that.  They were curious about Mrissa’s line of work, until she told them that she and Yarec had met professionally.  After that, the other diners shied away from such topics.  They were happy, however, to hear about her extensive travels and her interests in music and literary archaeology.

Mrissa was never overtly the sole center of attention, but she got to spend more time talking than any of the other people seated around her.  Yarec listened and was reminded of how little he actually knew about this woman he had somehow fallen into living with.  She had a sister, who might or might not still be alive.  As a child, she had always dreamed of travelling by air, but when she actually got a chance to fly, it terrified her.  She had a middle initial in the Devanagari alphabet, in honor of one of her father’s co-workers, who had saved him from serious injury more than once.

The last turn of conversation that Yarec remembered was about aerial technology.  Some of the larger estates had fleets of tiny airborne monitors, to keep an eye on the whole properties.  They were typically the size of large beetles; they could have been built smaller, but they needed to be large enough to support small solar collectors.  After the children had gone back outside, to kick a black and red checkered ball around in the sand, one of the adults who remained at the table brought up a recent rumor that a new generation of flying devices was coming.  The were supposed to be so small that they could practically float in the air, like motes of dust.

“There could be hordes of them swarming around us by this time next year, and we might never notice,” said Kylia Tetson.  Yarec had always considered her a credulous old bat—although, he belatedly realized, she was probably younger than he was.

“Nobody who could afford that technology would be interested in anything going on here, dear,” said her husband.  Mrissa frowned at his pronouncement.  It seemed like a bizarrely presumptuous inversion, assuming that the people here were so unimportant.  As saboteurs, most recently working for a rurally-based resistance organization, Mrissa and Yarec knew better than to discount a whole region merely because it was a backwater.

“If you have nothing to hide, why should you care if there’re little bugs watching,” said someone farther down the table.  Yarec missed the identity of the speaker.  He was feeling a bit lightheaded, and his powers of observation seemed a little blurred.  He had been drinking Marshall Kubiak’s special cordial rather freely.  Alcohol should not have had much effect on him, but the cordial was unusual.  It was distilled locally, in small batches using an old-fashioned home reflux fractionation column.

“Who really has nothing to hide?” asked Mrissa.  It was a truism, but coming from her, it sounded ominous.

“Of course, there are things we do that I wouldn’t like to see broadcast,” Kylia Tetson said.  She glanced sideways at her husband.  His bushy gray eyebrows twitched, and he muttered something unintelligible under his breath.  Kylia went on, “Certain places should be private, and I don’t want to have to filter the air in my bedroom for microscopic prying eyes.”

“Yes, no spying on people in the privacy of their homes!” said someone else, quite animatedly.

“Why should someone’s home be special?” Mrissa asked.  “What if a person doesn’t have a real home?  I don’t.  I follow my work around.  Where am I supposed to find privacy?”

“Well, you’re not from around here,” said a man across the table, who Yarec could no longer recognize.  “Our sort don’t have that kind of problem.”

Yarec lurched to his feet to defend Mrissa against this provincialist slander.  He had a furious protest ready in his throat, but when he stood up, his legs quivered, and his head felt like it was stuck in a slow centrifuge.  The other diners became colorful blurs, green or orange according to their party outfits.  They seemed to wobble, revolving before his eyes in lazy ovals.  Then came pain.  It felt like fiery napalm was trickling down his arm, from the nape of his neck to his fingertips.

He cringed and felt himself listing sideways.  He tried to brace himself with his bad hand, but his muscle tone seemed to have melted.  His elbow buckled, and he collapsed onto the table.  He knocked over a drink, and his cheek was pressed against the corner of a hexagonal dinner plate.  The people around pulled back, but Mrissa was beside him, trying to help Yarec back into his chair.  She was yelling orders, but they just sounded like cymbals jingling against Yarec’s eardrums.

Someone gave him something warm to drink.  It had the citrate taste of synthetic fruit.  Mrissa laid him down on the floor, on a simple foam sheet that somebody had laid out.  Yarec realized Mrissa was repeating a question.  “My arm hurts,” he croaked.  Even after the fluids he had been given, his mouth felt so dry it was painful.  “Uh, hurts,” he said again, as Mrissa began gently peeling back the fabric of his right sleeve.

She rolled back the cuff.  Whatever she saw must have been alarming, and she pulled out a monocrystalline knife and gently slit the sleeve all the way up to Yarec’s shoulder.  The flesh underneath was rippling with red sores.  The lacework of cuts from the window glass, which he had thought was healing, was badly infected—practically fulminating with pus.

He had seen a wound like that at least once before, somewhere.  So much corruption.  Had the victim died?

Yarec had a vague sense of the Doc leaning over and giving him an injection.  Even though the throbbing pain, he felt the prick of the heavy-gauge needle pumping antibiotics into his tissue.  There must have been a massive dose of opioids as well, since he felt the pain muting and gray sleep overcoming him.  He seemed to have a brief instant of clarity, when the pain had subsided enough that he could reason again, but he was not yet quite inundated by slumber.  In that slender moment, he saw Mrissa looking down on him, tense with consternation, and around her a choir of other piously concerned faces.

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The house was not large.  It had a single story, with a gently sloping roof, although it also extended underground.  Yarec grabbed most of their gear and waded through the scrub grass to the front door.  The walls were heavily reinforced, and the door had an elaborate seal.  He went through the rituals to disengage all the locks.  He was not sure how he managed to remember all the codes and gestures, but each element came back just as he needed it.

The thick door swung open, and he stumped inside.  He dropped most of what he was carrying in the hall, and then Mrissa followed him through to the den.  The car shut off, and the front door closed automatically.  There was no light now, except a faint green blinking from the ceiling of the room.  For a while, they just sat together in the blackness, grateful to be secure at the end of their journey.

Suddenly, there was moonlight, dribbling in through the fabric-draped window.  The light seemed to energize them, as if they were wicked creatures of the night, from some fabulist fairy tale.  They enjoyed a brief celebration of their safe arrival, then groped their way to the bedroom at the back of the house and tumbled to sleep.

Yarec woke up once more in the middle of that night.  Cloudy gray-green moonlight drifted through the round barred window.  Mrissa was lying facedown next to him, arms and legs splayed out awkwardly, as if she had fallen asleep before even finding the time to get comfortable.  The heavy steel fan mounted on the ceiling blew air across his sticky skin, making his extremities itch.  He found a green plastisilk sheet on the floor and draped it over Mrissa’s pale, vulnerable-looking body.  The breeze still tickled at the corners, but Mrissa looked much more peaceful with the slow rise and fall of her breathing protected underneath the fabric.

He walked down the hall to the small shower stall.  Yarec flipped the switch to start the water flowing and stepped underneath the icy trickle, not bothering to wait until the heater had generated enough warmth to reach a more comfortable temperature.  The water, pumped up from a deep well, spattered in the darkness against the skin of his face and back.  He raked fingernails across his flesh, scouring away the grimy sweat.  He shivered as the burning on his hand subsided into numbness.  Then, feeling refreshed and satisfied, he towelled himself dry and rejoined Ris in bed.

 

“Someone’s at the door,” Mrissa whispered.  It seemed too early for visitors.  The watered-down liquor Yarec had bought from a roadside vendor operating out of an armored truck was still in effect.  It thinned the blood, letting it pound freely around the temples.  With each knock at the door, there was a painful little thump in Yarec’s head.  And the knocks came rather quickly, one after another.  Word had apparently gotten around that Yarec had come home, and somebody wanted to see him.  The visitor’s rapping was not quite loud or rapid enough to actually seem rude, but under the circumstances, Yarec considered it quite unwelcome.

Mrissa elbowed him casually and hid her head under one of the analog pillows.  It was Yarec’s house, and he needed to deal with the disturbance.  He rolled off the bed and felt around on the floor for something to put on.  Bending over, he nearly lost his balance and had to steady himself against the laminated plastic bed frame.  After a few seconds rustling through travelling clothes and rumpled blankets, he decided there was nothing appropriate.  So he opened up his clothes chest.  He tapped the wall-mounted control lamina, and a square of plastic flooring rose up.  It moved jerkily at first, with a soft hiss as the pressure levels inside and outside the airtight container equalized.  It took a few moment for the mechanism, which had been dormant since a wintry mountain day many years before, to smooth itself out, but once it was warmed up, the square glided up effortlessly and stopped just shy of flush with the ceiling.  Underneath was a tiered rack, loaded with all the garments Yarec had left behind here.

He pulled down a gray tunic, with a cord to cinch it at the waist.  He wriggled it over his head and stuck his feet into his pair of high, hard boots.  Without socks, they chafed his heels a bit as he stomped down the hall to the front door.

There were three locks, one with a simple cylinder and deadbolt, the other two electromechanical.  Yarec jogged them open, one by one, and the knocking stopped, as whoever was waiting outside heard the latches snick free.  He cracked the door open and leaned his head out, making no attempt to hide his grizzled appearance.  The reddened light of the early morning accentuated his bloodshot eyes.  He had a scraggly growth of unkempt beard, and his sun-baked right arm was spotted pink with irritation.

Outside stood Marshall Kubiak.  There was no real doorstep, just a patch of bare sand in front of the narrow door.  Most of Yarec’s property was completely overgrown, with a mixture of native purple-flowered shrubs and various invasive plants that generations of foolhardy gardeners had introduced as ornamentals.  Kubiak had taken a couple steps back and was grinding his left boot restlessly in the sand.  He was a tall man and would have towered over Yarec if his patch of sand had not been ten centimeters lower than the doorsill.

A bonhomie grin spread across Kubiak’s weathered face as Yarec peered out, squinting.  Kubiak’s eyes flicked across Yarec’s scruffy new visage–noticing the shape of the eyes, following the sharp line of the jaw.  “Yarec, my boy!” Kubiak cried, satisfied with the family resemblance.  “So you’re back home.  Been a long time, huh?  Well, welcome back.”

“Thanks, Marshall.”  Was “Marshall” his given name, or some kind of antiquated military title?  Yarec could not remember.  “It’s good to see you too.”  He made an exaggerated sidelong gesture toward the sun with his eyes, then added, “Although I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“Yeah, well, I wanted to let you know as soon as possible.  I only just heard last night that you were back, so I came right over this morning.”  Kubiak paused for a moment and licked his lips, then said, “We’re having a big get-together tomorrow, at our place out by Bloch Creek.  We’d love you to come.”

“Oh, thank you,” Yarec mumbled.

“It’s not too formal.  It’s just nice for the whole neighborhood to get together once in a while.  You know, there should be a lot of us old-timers there.”  Kubiak rubbed a large hand through his thin, graying hair as he spoke.  “I’m sure there’s plenty of folks who’d love to see you again.  And probably plenty more who want to meet you.  You’re a bit of a living legend.”

“Gosh, I hope not,” Yarec said, a bit chagrined that any of his exploits could have become part of the local folklore.

Kubiak chuckled and explained, “You’re the local boy who hit it big.  That means people will talk, about whatever they think you’ve gotten up to.”  He nodded sagaciously.  Marshall Kubiak was rich enough to have travelled and experienced enough to know that whatever his neighbor did during his extended absences, it was not going to be an appropriate conversation topic for a grange supper.  “There certainly will be some new faces you’ll want to meet.  I forget—” Kubiak said, “how long have you been away?”

“Uh… maybe four years?”  Yarec tried to reckon backwards, although he did not usually care much about the passage of time.

“Yeah, it’s been a while,” Kubiak agreed.  “Oh, I nearly forgot,” he added, reaching into the pocket of his open overcoat.  “Made you an invitation.”  He held out a folded card—rough stock for old-fashioned printing.  In a digital simulation of spidery handwriting, it gave the date, time, and location, along with some other pertinent information.  “As I said, it’s not super formal, and you’re welcome to bring along any foks who’re in town with you.”

This jogged Yarec’s memories of social niceties, and he asked, “How is your wife doing, by the way?”

Kubiak’s grin contracted a little, but his voice was a genial as ever.  “Miss Vikki had to have a couple of operations, but she’s doing good now.  We had to go down to Camp Thackry for the surgery, and it took her a couple weeks down there to recuperate.  But the docs did a really good job, and her liver is like new.”

Camp Thackry was not the kind of place Yarec would go for medical treatment, but he assumed that it had a competently functioning hospital.  He nodded politely and said, “Give her my regards.”

“Of course I will,” Kubiak said, “and you should tell her yourself tomorrow.”

“I’ll try to make it,” Yarec said.  He scratched around his eyes.  “I really do have a lot to take care of around here though, and I’m still pretty zonked out from the long trip back.  I’d like to come by, but I don’t know how long I can stay.”

“Well, we’d love to see you,” Kubiak reiterated, “and anybody else you want to bring along.”

“Thanks, thanks,” Yarec mumbled.  He waved awkwardly and pulled back through the door, which he discovered he had been leaning on awkwardly through most of the conversation.  Marshall Kubiak returned his wave and kicked off toward his motorcycle.  Yarec shut the door and clomped back to the master bedroom.

Mrissa was sitting up.  She raised her eyebrows as he kicked off the boots and fumbled with with the belt of his tunic.  “Who was that?”

“Guy from a few kilometers down the road is throwing a party because he wants to meet you,”  Yarec yawned.  “He and his wife want us to come over to their ranch tomorrow.  Big shindig.  Everybody from the area will probably be there.”  He ignored the open chest and dumped the tunic on the floor.  “The guy out there—Marshall—I used to know him and his wife pretty well, a long time ago.”

“Are they relatives of yours?” Mrissa asked.

“I don’t think so,” Yarec said.  “They could be distant blood relations.  Out here, halfway to nowhere, everyone knew everyone else.  When there was a big gathering, everyone was invited, and if somebody didn’t come, there would be talk.”

“Are you saying that we need to attend, or otherwise there’ll be gossip?”  She kissed him on the side of the neck as he laid back down on the bed.

“Oh, the gossip is unavoidable,” Yarec said, as he fumbled with the covers.  “I’ve been away for I don’t know how long, and you’re new.”

Mrissa frowned.  “I’m going to be on display then?  The local marms will be snickering behind their hands, at what you’ve brought back from the city.”  She sighed and added, “If it’s inevitable, I might as well face it and get it over with.”

Yarec hurried to distance himself from such resignation.  “No,” he said, “on the contrary, I want to hurry up and show off my hot new lady friend.”

“Aw,” she said.  “You’re sweet, even if you’re probably a liar.”  She touched his hair and gave him a sidelong grin.  Yarec laid back against the lumpy pillow, and she curled up across him, stretching her arm across the smooth, hairy muscles of his chest, crooking her bare leg over his body, and listening as he whispered softly about how beautiful her eyes were.

The road near the railroad terminus was relatively smooth—gray-black asphalt mixed in with pebbles of the local stone.  Farther on, the pavement was no longer maintained, and the best roadways were made of gravel.  The automobile bumped along, the chassis vibrating irregularly.  Mrissa whistled along with the beat of the plastic tires, with the yellow sun blazing against the back of her head.

The tinting of the passenger side window was very dark and not adjustable.  It kept out the most scorching ultraviolet rays of the desert plateau sun, but Yarec still felt a great deal of warmth on his right side.  He looked out through the haze.  Here and there, dark splotches indicating human activity interrupted the pale reddish terrain.  At one point, they passed near an open pit mine.  A little spur broke off the main roadway.  It led up to a gate set in a five-meter fence made of steel wire and concrete.  The fence protected valuable veins of transition metal ore.  As these deposits were stripped out of the earth, people fought over them, and beside the gate stood a stubby steel tower, with three machine-gun-carrying soldiers standing ready at the top.

“Are those our guys?”  Yarec asked.

Mrissa did not answer until they had sped well past.  As the open scar of the excavation faded away behind them, she allowed the car to decelerate a little.  “I don’t think so,” she said.  “Those weren’t the uniforms of the guys that hired me—I mean, us—but there are so many factions.  They might have been friends of friends.  Or friends of friends of….”  Her voice trailed away to make the point.

Yarec did not respond for a while.  The car’s hydrocarbon motor had begun to cough intermittently.  He listened to the noise, mixed in with the clatter of the gravel beneath the tires.  Then he said, “Real friends aren’t so common, I find.”

Mrissa seemed to take that as some kind of backhanded accusation.  Eyes narrowing, she concentrated on the road ahead and began once more to accelerate.  Yarec himself was not entirely sure what he had meant, so he didn’t bother trying to defend himself.  He just stared out the window again, watching the landscape turning slowly around them, as the road swept around a high sandstone mesa.

On the other side of the mesa, protected from the prevailing winds, they found a small settlement.  It had a cluster of blocky houses and a cross street called Pine, with a few scraggly, long-needled trees growing near the intersection.  They refilled their fuel tank two thirds of the way to the top, while the gossipy filling station attendant questioned Mrissa effusively about the car’s unusual exterior art.

The rough weather back down south was stirring up dust storms.  Little reddish-gray twisters wound ropy, whirling paths across the terrain.

“Get weather like this often around here?” Mrissa asked.

The girl pumping the fuel said, “Not too often—couple of times a year.  I think the last time I saw this many sand funnels was autumn.”

“It’s a little wetter up north where we’re headed,” Yarec put in.  “You won’t see anything like that up there.”

The armored tank glugged up a few more liters of fuel; then Mrissa and Yarec piled back into their car set off again.  A dust devil paralleled their motion for a few hundred meters, weaving a bit to and fro, until it collapsed into a shapeless poof of grit.  They left the hamlet behind, and the road turned to run almost due north, extending before them like a mottled gray stripe.

As they moved, the signs of active habitation grew less, but there were frequent reminders that at one time, even the most barren patches of the continent had been inhabited.  The modern road ran parallel to an older highway, along which the ancient builders had raised their edifices.  The car’s onboard computing system had a guide to them, probably installed by the same idiosyncratic tourists who were responsible for the paint job.  The most remarkable structure was the ruin of an immense outdoor aquarium.  Some fantastically wealthy dreamer had erected it as the center of a whole mansion complex.  What remained of it now was only a frame.  Four square concrete pillars rose twenty meters into the air, marking the corners of the tank.  Huge plates of hardened glass had stretched between them, anchored at the sites of rusty metal projections.  The glass had been torn down and shattered long ago, but gravelly chips of it remained.

Mrissa slowed down a bit, to get a view of the odd ruin.  Yarec thought he might have seen it before, or something like it, somewhere.  Three of the four massive pillars were cracked and ragged at the top, but the fourth was still smooth and square.  Little white ingots of glass lay strewn in the sand, between and around the columns.  They had been worn to a frosted finish by the rolling sands, like the eroded fragments of bottle glass that one could still find washed up on sandy seashores.  Perhaps, Yarec thought, there were even the ground-up remains of corals from the ancient aquatic display mixed in with the plain desert sand.

“Slick,” Yarec said.  “Quite a sight.”  His voice was soft; even the most decayed remnants of the elder days could still sometimes fill him with awe.

“The old ones were fools, Yarec,” Mrissa said.  “They wasted the entire world with extravagance like this.”

“You’re right, naturally,” he admitted, “but you can’t help but be impressed by the scale of all this pointless construction.”  It seemed impossible to question the audacity of the ancients’ vision.

They were sharply interrupted by a burst of gunfire, followed by a cloud of obscuring sand that seemed to well up all around them.  The shots—four in rapid succession—missed, as they were probably intended to.  “Warning shots,” Mrissa hissed.  “Warning us  not to resist when they try to rob us.”

From the ruins, which now lay on both sides of the gravel road, brigands were emerging.  Men dressed in dirty tan, with dark cloths wrapped across their mouths and over their hair, sprinted out from their hiding places behind pillars and tumbled walls.  Most were on foot, carrying long green rifles.  However, there were also three or four vehicles, which were easy to hear but hard to see, since they kicked up the fine desert dust into a shroud of invisibility,

Mrissa’s first reaction was to accelerate.  The car’s chassis vibrated angrily as she pressed the vehicle to go faster.  Then she quickly had to brake.  A set of huge wheels were visible up ahead, blocking most of the road.  At first, they could barely be seen, but as the car closed in, the rest of the vehicle coalesced into view.  The body was high and massive, and it seemed to shimmer in the wild heat and dust.  This was a very skillful ambush.  They must have been tipped off by someone who saw us back in town, Yarec thought.

Mrissa had not heeded the wordless warning to stop, and the next shots might have killed them if she had not already begun to veer out of the way.  She steered left off the packed gravel.  They felt the deadening sand under them and heard it hiss beneath the frantic rubberine wheels.  Mrissa jerked the steering yoke clockwise and counter, weaving to enhance traction, but they were still slowing down.  Their momentum would not last long off the road, and in only a few more seconds, the vehicle would be stalled completely.

Meanwhile, the thieves were not waiting for their prey to plow to a stop.  They fired more shots—real shots this time, meant to disable the car and maim its occupants.  Yarec and Mrissa ducked their heads, but the billows of reddish dust had now switched to protecting them in part.  There was so much debris floating around that the attackers could not manage a single disabling shot.  However, their bullets did make contact.  Slugs rammed into the car doors, some burying themselves in the metal panels, some ricocheting off the painted explosions.  Then Yarec’s dark gray window shattered under the onslaught.  Rounds tore through it, dumping razor chips of plastic on Yarec’s flank.

Yarec began to cough, as sand and dust whipped into the car.  The flecks stung his eyes and clung to the blood on his fresh lacerations.  Squinting out, he saw the bandits catching up in the rear and closing to cut the car off on the right.  “They’re on me!” he choked out.

Mrissa shot him a wild look.  He saw her lips move, but he could not hear the words.  She turned her full attention back to the terrain ahead, grimacing as she squinted through the billows of grit.  Yarec reached for his knife and pistol.  He kept as low as he could while still following what was happening outside the car.  When the bandits got a few steps closer, he would open fire.

Then Mrissa veered back toward the roadbed.  The movement took Yarec by surprise, and he had to brace himself to keep from lurching into Mrissa’s lap.  He heard a rush of violent noises—the car motor straining, guns firing and bullets spattering against the door panels, strained voices shouting orders.  The loudest of all was the raw scream of metal against metal, as Mrissa’s steering clipped the car door against the corner of the heavy tractor that was obstructing the roadway.

She yanked the yoke around, trying to squeeze back onto the road; but she missed, barely.  The right wheels made it onto the gravel, but the left ones were still on the shoulder.  The car lurched, trying to get traction.  Mrissa gunned the motor, to extract as much acceleration as the wildly spinning tires would allow.  The steering pulled to the left, and it felt like the whole vehicle was listing.  After an apparent eternity, which Yarec knew in retrospect could not have been more than a couple seconds, Mrissa veered again, dumping the car all the way back on the roadway.  It seemed like the last possible moment; any longer, and the car would have spun out or flipped right over.  Through the wrecked hole that had previously been a window, the smell of burnt hydrocarbons reached his nose.  It was an acrid mixture of exhaust from the overtaxed engines and tire skids, all mixed in with the flying sand.  Yarec’s eyes were watering, and his ears seemed to be ringing, amidst the now-constant patter of gunfire.  Yet they were straightened out on the road, past the ring of attackers.  Mrissa continued to weave to and fro, avoiding most of the bullets.  They would escape.

They kept going, at nearly top speed, for about fifteen kilometers.  Mrissa never seemed to look back; her eyes remained fixed on the road ahead.  Yarec, on the other hand, kept peering anxiously back.  He had little to contribute; the escape was in Mrissa’s hands, and with nothing useful to do, he was getting twitchy.  Not much remained of the car’s oval rear windshield, just chips around the edges and a single dangling tracery, held together by the remains of the tinted coating.  Looking back through this wreckage, Yarec saw no sign of pursuit.

When Mrissa finally took some pressure off the throttle, and the scrape and roar of the road and engine diminished enough for reliable conversation, she turned to Yarec and said, “They were waiting for us.  Somebody back in that town must have tipped them off.”

Yarec nodded.  “Yeah, some slime back there tipped them off that we were coming,” he said.

“I just said that,” Mrissa said icily.  “I thought you said you knew this area better.”

“I’m not from around here,” he explained.  “My territory is farther north.”  He did not bother to add, And knowing the general area would hardly have protected us from roving ambushers.  Instead he said, “Let’s just get the hell away from those naja dogs and any of their friends.”  Mrissa agreed with a curt nod and hit the accelerator again.

They jolted to a halt at the next village.  A couple miles outside, the pavement reappeared.  It was tarry and stinky—obviously quite recently resurfaced.  Mrissa followed the soft black track and skidded in next to another used vehicle lot.  Alerted by the rough chugging from the car’s engine, a saleswoman bounded out of the lot office with a woven plastic bonnet jammed over her head.

She had only a couple of vehicles to offer, but Yarec picked one out in a hurry and paid over an exorbitant quantity of rare metal ingots.  They traded in their old car, riddled with small-caliber bullet holes and leaking several different essential fluids, as scrap.  The replacement was low and boxy, painted a pale silver-gray that would be good for keeping cool in the hot sun.  Yarec took over driving.  He took a couple kilometers to get the feel of the manual steering and acceleration.  Then he fired up the motor and the car blazed north.

Mrissa promptly fell asleep.  Yarec wished he could do likewise, but he obviously had to drive.  He wanted to make it back to his high plains hideout without any more delays, except as absolutely necessary.  And even if he could have pulled off the road to rest, his arm was in too much pain.  Mrissa had applied ointment and elastic dressings to the webwork of bloody slashes on his forearm.  The cuts seemed clean—free of glass shards—and they ought to start healing in a couple days; however, at present his forearm was saturated with a burning, tingling sensation.  The pain was good, in a way, he thought.  It kept him alert and constantly aware of his surroundings.

He kept going long past nightfall, with only occasional stops for him and his passenger to relieve themselves.  The route took them over two mountain ridges, hundreds of kilometers along the sparse web of roads that still decorated western North America.  For long stretches, they saw no one.  Under the overcast skies, there was no light at all except what was emanating from their own vehicle.

Mrissa was asleep again when they pulled through the hamlet.  It was an unremarkable place, and they had driven by half a dozen similar villages since that afternoon.  Houses, some of them fortified with heavy walls and gates, stretched out along the roadside.  Branches led off to more structures—warehouses, hash houses, and mercantile shops.  Yarec slowed, almost to a stop, and prodded Mrissa’s shoulder.

“We’re almost there,” he said.

Mrissa woke up with a twitch.  She frowned, twisting her freckled face into a sideways mess of creases.  Then she looked around grumpily, trying to make out the details of their surroundings.  There was enough light from the headlamps to make out some of the dull, boxy buildings.  “Are we stopping here?” she asked.  “I want to get back to sleep.”

“It’s just a little past the main town and down a side road,” Yarec said.

Mrissa made a dissatisfied grunt, but she let her fingertips play briefly across the back of Yarec’s right hand, before she hugged herself and tried to get comfortable again.

Yarec had to pull over and get out to look around twice.  He ought to have been able to find his way without the slightest difficulty, but in the darkness, all the lanes crossing the main road seemed to look the same.  Each one looked almost right, yet somehow not quite.  Yarec peered up each of them, as they wound toward the escarpment west of town.

He finally found the way and turned their car up the drive.  The dirt trace wound back and forth around small outcroppings of rock.  Yarec came to the last fork and turned left, in between two heavy black boulders.  Past these hulking sentinels, the car’s four blue-white beams finally lit up the destination.

“Nice place,” Mrissa murmured, and Yarec felt a tiny, unexpected swell of pride.

Chapter 4:  Inland

They rendezvoused in the rail terminal east of town, where at least a dozen tracks converged.  The train tracks, coming in from secondary stations located at various points inland, dipped underground, passing along ancient tunnels cut from the bedrock and lined with flaking concrete.  First the lines ran inward, like long spokes; then they bent, and lined up in parallel just as they reached the passenger hub, forty feet beneath the asphalt streets.

Heavy plate glass doors, which hummed and slid back whenever a human form or a gust of subterranean breeze passed near, separated pairs of tracks.  There were few passengers present.  The trains ran infrequently, and there was little reason to tarry at the station.  But as Yarec and Ris traced their way cautiously, inconspicuously towards their outbound track, they were surrounded by voices.  Scratchy voices, of conductors probably long dead, echoed off the slick tile walls.  Their messages, announcing arrivals and departures hours or days ahead of time, overlapped to become an unintelligible morass.

On track nineArriving from Rand Track sixAt fourteen oh seven The train from Stardhaven will be delayed untilArriving from Track change, please take noticeNine forty-six

The pair were carrying only three light bags between them, with a few extra clothes, food, and other necessities.  They huddled on a damp bench, waiting for their train to arrive and trying to look as unobtrusive as possible.  Mrissa had been the one who first suggested leaving town.  At the time, they had been cooped up in a hotel room she had booked several days earlier, observing the chaos that had followed their sabotage mission.  Out-of-town festival-goers were looking on in horror as armed squads roamed the streets.  Some of the gangs had been deputized by the city-state itself, to augment the overtaxed police force.  However, a much larger number were working for the faction that had operated the factory.  They were out looking for revenge, prowling the neighborhoods most associated with Mrissa’s employers, harassing or assaulting anyone who they thought might have been complicit in the attack.

The factory itself was on fire.  The islet on which it stood had become a sinister beacon, blazing in yellow and red.  The hard rain kept the conflagration from spreading across the canals to other parts of the city, but the factory’s vats and barrels of organic compounds fed a bonfire that no storm could extinguish.  When night fell, the merry multicolored lights of the festival had been replaced with a single column of furious firelight.

Safe houses were probably not safe now.  The faction that had hired Mrissa and Yarec had put their own bullies out of the streets, to defend their territory.  However, their greatest strength was in the hinterlands, among the wildcat miners who scraped the dry earth for veins of transition metal.  They would probably be forced to withdraw from Sankirk itself, and the open warfare would move back into the countryside.  Mrissa had been watching news updates on a large computing lamina, spread out flat on a soft double bed that she and Yarec were not going to use.  It was difficult to gauge the severity of the unrest from those dim video snippets, and the torrents of rain outside the hotel blocked out any sounds of melee and gunfire.

Then there was an explosion, just a few blocks away.  It was not an especially large blast, but the sound and vibrations cut easily through the blanket of the storm.  It might have killed scores of people, or none at all, but it was positive proof their location was insecure.  They had to leave.  So the pair split up; Mrissa had to send a secure message to their employers, and Yarec was responsible for reconnaissance and assembling additional provisions.  Once these tasks were completed, they met up at the train station, to get transport out of the city.

The station, like many of Sankirk’s relics from brighter days, was located in the toniest part of the city.  It was no architectural marvel; even when it was new, it had been strictly functional, with no better decoration than cheap stenciled murals.  Above it, on the bank of the river, was a huge semicircular arena, open to the sky and the water.  Even today, wealthy residents could watch boat races or pyrotechnic displays from its aluminum benches.  Around the arena stood the waterfront mansions of the city’s magnates, intermixed with old concrete bungalows, whose antediluvian age alone made them valuable properties.  Sometimes rich families bought them and constructed whole walled compounds around them, caring for the simple structures like esthetic gems.

No such care and attention went into the maintenance of the the railway terminal, but the city leaders always kept it functioning as a symbol of Sankirk’s affluence.  It provided a metaphorical connection to an earlier epoch, as well as a physical link to the towns and villages in the surrounding desert.  The regular train service, carrying passengers and commercial goods, helped the city maintain its cultural and economic hegemony over the backcountry.  Through the nearest glass doors, Yarec and Mrissa watched laborers unloading a set of long, off-white freight cars, removing boxes and crates of all shapes and dimensions.

Little commotions disturbed the departure platforms now and then, but they were only caused by people, like Mrissa and Yarec, who were desperate to leave town.  Groups of locals got into arguments, and out-of-towners stomped their feet, all anxious for trains to carry them away from the sudden eruption of civil strife.  Some jumped onto the first passenger car to pull in, but others had specific destinations in mind and had to wait until the right train arrived.

Yarec was not particularly choosy about which way he went, although he certainly liked some of the outlying areas better than others.  The digital schedules (and the constantly intoning voices as well, if he bothered to listen to them) told him that there was a train heading northeast due to arrive, unload, and depart again within the next three quarters of an hour.  So that was the route he decided on.  Going by train had also been Mrissa’s idea, but as far as she was concerned, all directions were the same, so long as they were travelling outward; and she accepted Yarec’s choice with a curt nod.

The train swept into the station with a echoing screech.  The original magnetic braking system had become unreliable, and it had been supplemented with a cruder frictional mechanism.  The retrofit had placed long black boxes along the sides of the train, down near the wheels.  From a distance, they almost seemed to be dragging against the ground, and as the train squealed closer, Yarec could see they were crisscrossed with warning notices.  Passengers and cargo loaders were admonished not to climb on or place any cargo on the brake assemblies; failure to heed the warning could result in damage to the mechanisms, injury, or dismemberment.

A group of women, all rather similar in appearance although widely varying in apparent age, exited the train through the nearest door.  They might have represented three generations of the same family, visiting Sankirk together.  Apart from them, there appeared to be no other incoming passengers in that car; Yarec waited, but no one else emerged.  Farther down the train, two men were unloading a small shipment of cubical yellow boxes.  Yarec grew impatient, waiting for the information screen to announce that the train was finally boarding new passengers.  Under other circumstances, he might have barged aboard before the formal announcement, but right now, he knew it was better just to wait and not run the risk of attracting attention.  Eventually, the screen changed to display the sea green word “BOARDING,” and he and Mrissa slipped aboard.  They found seats together and stowed their minimal baggage by their feet.  Soon they heard the rumble of the brakes being released, and the train began to crawl backward out of the station.  Looking out through the small plastic windows, they saw the cold lights of the station fall away as they accelerated into the near blackness of the tunnel.  Mrissa sighed softly, feeling significantly safer than she had on the platform.

When the train emerged from the tunnel, they looked back toward Sankirk.  Even through the sheets of rain, Yarec could see the pillar of flame rising from the factory.  It was distorted, like a faint column of light ascending toward the gray blankets of cloud.  If there were still any lights from the festival, they had vanished into the storm, but the factory fire remained visible for a long time.

The tracks were climbing eastward into the mountains.  After passing through the first of the old tunnels, the route was completely hemmed in by cliffs, and there was nothing left to see outside, except the distant flares of lightning.  The rain was weaker here than down on the coastal plain, but it still rattled noisily against the thin metal hide of the train car.  The beating of the rain was interspersed with groaning rolls of thunder, which pounded off the peaks and made Mrissa shiver.

She and Yarec were alone in the train car.  It could have seated twenty, but there were few passengers going this way in the dead of night.  The lights were dim, just enough for them to see the aisleway and the simple digital controls at each seat.  Yarec knew he had to get some sleep.  He reclined his seat the twenty centimeters it would allow and closed his eyes halfway, but he still felt too keyed up to sleep.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mrissa’s curving shape.  She was reading something on a handheld device.  She reeked of dirty rain, and Yarec knew he did too.

He had formed an idea of where they were going, but he had not told Mrissa yet.  Their orders were to stay together until their employers had time to evaluate the mission’s success and could assure the pair’s safety if they returned to Sankirk.  Since Yarec was in charge, Mrissa was just following along with him, and for now, she seemed satisfied with that.

“Ris,” Yarec said.

“Yes?”  She turned her head slightly toward him, while she continued to read.

“Uh… uh.”  Yarec’s mumbles were lost amid the sound of the rainfall.  He pulled his reclining body upright, opened his eyes, and said quickly:  “Do you need to be back in Sankirk any time soon?”

“No.  I told you I’m not from around there, and I don’t have any other jobs lined up after this one.”

“I think perhaps we should disappear for a while,” Yarec said.  “You know, lie low.  That was an awfully sophisticated operation we hit, and I don’t know whether they’re going to come after us.”

“Fine,” Mrissa said.  “You have a spot in mind, I take it?”

“Yes, up farther north.  I know the area.”

Mrissa nodded, and Yarec laid back again.  He closed his eyes to check the time, and when he opened them again, the beginnings of the predawn light were creeping in through the train car windows.  His mouth was hanging open, and he seemed to have drooled a bit on Mrissa’s shoulder.  She was snoring, very slowly, and she twitched but did not wake when he lifted his head to work the kinks out of his neck muscles.

They rode all the way to the end of the line.  Around noon, the train pulled into a dusty red town.  They had finally outrun the storm, and the sun was blazing down through a haze of sandy debris.  Mrissa and Yarec disembarked and crossed to the railway station cafe for some hot food.  The meat-flavored gruel was not much of an improvement over the dry bars they had eaten for breakfast, but the steaming coffee did really perk them up.

As he waited for the waiter behind the counter to mix up another couple cups, Yarec asked, “Do you know where we can buy a car around here?”

The man shrugged.  “There’s a couple lots around town.  One is right down the street.  Me, I don’t drive.  It’s easier to just hitch a ride on a truck if I need to get somewhere.”  He plunked the heavy plastic mugs down in front of Mrissa and Yarec.  She lifted hers up convivially and then took a slow sip—as much as she could manage without burning her mouth.  It was almost the same way she drank alcohol, Yarec noticed—gradually at first, then finishing the cup in one big slug.

Yarec felt sore and itchy, especially around his right forearm and hand.  He rubbed the back of the hand on the ceramic tile of the bar.  The rough grout in the creases scraped soothingly against the red, sun-baked flesh.  Beside him, was Mrissa was grabbing at her hair again.  She twisted it around into a crude rope and tossed it forward over her shoulder.

She looked over at Yarec.  “You want to take a drive?” she asked.

“I’d rather get some more sleep,” Yarec said.  He took another gulp of coffee to stifle a yawn.

She finished his thought:  “But we should put some more distance between us and the city.”

“Yeah.”  Yarec motioned for the waiter to bring him another bowl of gruel.  Mrissa went back to reading while he ate, occasionally stealing spoonfuls for herself.

Yarec finished quickly—too quickly, it seemed; he did not want to be on the move again so soon.  They exited the station and walked down to the car lot the waiter had been talking about.  No one else seemed to be around.  The locals knew better than to be out walking the streets during the highest heat of the day.

There were only a few cars for sale.  They were parked in a ring around the two-room cement bunker that was the dealer’s office.  Mrissa picked one out, a two-seater with an unusual custom paint job.  The roof of the vehicle was pale blue like the sky, while the front and sides showed images of crumbling ruins under a hail of yellow-white bomb explosions.  Yarec dickered with the dealer over the price.  The engine was fairly new, and the man wanted more than Yarec thought it was wise to pay—not because there was any shortage of funds, but because he did not want to be memorable as a spendthrift.  They eventually reached an agreement, and the dealer—a little man with burnt mahogany skin and a soft white mustache—handed over the identifier key.

“Let me drive first,” Mrissa said, casually lifting the key out of Yarec’s hand.  She tossed her bag behind the driver’s seat and sat down at the controls.  Yarec yawned and scratched his itchy forearm, then settled in beside her.  She adjusted the position and consistency of her seat, then gunned the motor and took off northward with a screech.