Hollowed Memories, chapter 4, part 2

August 17, 2014

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  Farther on, the pavement was no longer maintained, and the best roadways were made of gravel.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.


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