Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

New Columbia

(Part 2 of 3)

by J. B. Hogan

(Click HERE to read Part 1.)

Meshica

19.

Ari drove the romspeed through the battered streets of Ebon like a mad, navigational genius. He wheeled over a street of broken concrete here, shot through a weed-filled alley there, raced down one deserted road after another as if he had some kind of internal guidance system set to take them out of Ebon's lethal streets the quickest way possible.

The rebel fliers, now on their own, and far from the relative safety of the corridor, held their breath in fearful anticipation, their weapons cocked and at the ready. Out here, somewhere in the heart of unknown Ebon, they were out of their element. There was no guide left now, no idea of finding their next one. They only knew to keep moving, urging Ari on silently, expecting disaster any moment, not thinking about a future, not considering hope.

And then, suddenly, the urban devastation of Ebon ended. The fliers shot out of the claustrophobic world of matriarchs, Panmus, and Bmercs and into the clear, into a wide open expanse of land stretching towards the rising sun. They sped down a long, straight, paved road, virtually without curves, for miles and miles.

As Ebon receded into the distance and into the past, the group began to relax. Weapons were uncocked, breaths came normal and regular, Ari slowed his breakneck pace. With their lives no longer under direct threat, the little group of runners once again concerned themselves with the more mundane realities of their situation. How much water did they have left? How much food? How much fuel?

"Four to five hours juice," Ari answered in response to a query from Severn, "maybe two to three more fossil. Longer if we go slow, do a steady run."

"Steady then," Severn ordered him.

"We've got parts of three liters of water," Kara said, checking the floorboard by her feet and counting one plastic bottle Severn held up, "but it's old stuff from the corridor rad shop."

"Crap," Severn shook his head in dismay, "is there anything to grub? I couldn't grab a jammin' crust when we blew."

"I'll check my gear," Kara said, "but it's most sure from the rad shop, too."

"I'd eat dog grub right now," Ari said, trying to be upbeat for Kara. She gave him a little smile before digging into her pack in search of something, anything, they might eat.

"Well?" Severn asked impatiently.

"Two tins of spiced pig," she answered pulling two rectangular cans of meat from her pack. She held them up for the men to see.

"Better than zero," Severn said, not sounding like it was.

"Opener?" Kara asked Severn, glanced at Ari.

"Shit," Severn said.

"There," Ari pointed to a button on the dash.

Kara pushed the button and a compartment popped open. Ari laughed at her surprised look. Chalk another one up for him. Kara rummaged in the compartment. Found a bottle and can opener buried at the back underneath silver tickets Ari had never bothered to pay, matchbooks and other drug paraphernalia, a small bottle of gin, three ginweed smokes in a neat little plastic pack, and a ring. Kara held the ginweed pack up long enough for Ari to see, then tossed them back in. She pulled out the opener and the ring, giving the former to Severn who immediately went to work on one of the pig meat cans.

Kara rolled the ring around in her fingers, admiring it. The ring was of medium width and made from a decent, but not sterling, silver. The setting was a light purple, amethyst Kara guessed, and had the faces of two eagles slightly elevated above the base, their beaks nearly touching. All in all, it was an impressive piece of jewelry. She held it up for Ari to see. He glanced over at it.

"A give me," Ari explained to Kara, as he guided them through rolling hills on a stretch of road bordered by thin stands of trees and mottled, off-green, but real, grass. "From my father."

"These birds are jammin'," Kara told him. It might have been the nicest thing she'd ever said to him.

"I don't get what they are," he said. "Got it as a tad."

"Aha!" Severn exclaimed from the backseat.

He had managed to open one of the tins. He extracted the pig meat, wiping the gelatin from it with his hands, then broke it in three chunks, handing Kara the larger, Ari the smaller piece. Then he fell to his meat like he hadn't eaten in days rather than hours. Ari and Kara ate more leisurely. Kara asked about Ari's parents.

"Both gone since first year booker," he told her, glad to not have her ready to shoot him at a moment's notice, hoping to keep on her good side. She held on to the ring while she ate, rubbing the raised eagle heads between her left thumb and forefinger while they ate and talked. "No chance to worry about 'em much."

"Jammin' ring," Kara repeated herself. Ari nibbled on his food.

"A give you," he said, pointing at the ring. Kara's eyes lit up and she smiled broadly. Ari thought he had finally broken through with her. She quickly shot down that notion.

"No," she said doubtfully, then emphatically, "no!"

"You can have it," Ari tried once more.

"No," Kara said firmly.

She pressed the button on the dash and tossed the ring back into the messy compartment. Ari watched his budding hope go with it. Kara looked away from him, out the window. Severn noisily finished his food in back.

"What's going on between you two?" he asked, sucking the grease and gelatin off each finger in turn.

"Zero," Kara said, unenthusiastically chewing on her chunk of compressed ham. Ari stared straight ahead at the straight road, keeping the romspeed at an even, easy pace.

"You're startin' to act like long mates," Severn sniffed. "Like a couple of ignos."

"Give it a rest," Kara told him without taking her eyes off the passing countryside.

The land had turned mostly brown now, sandy looking, with odd, spiny plants and trees she'd never seen before. In the distance were low mountains, standing brown and jagged like broken pieces of chocolate against the deep blue horizon.

"I'm still hungry," Severn said, by way of giving it a rest.

"You eat like the shit you ate," Kara told him. "We have to ration this."

"Here," Ari said, reaching his piece of meat back to Severn. Severn took it and greedily began eating again. Kara shook her head at Ari.

"You'll not get mine," she told him.

"I don't...," Ari began, then stopped, focusing on something far ahead in the road. "What the...?"

"Bread would be good," Severn said, not paying Ari any mind.

"What is it?" Kara asked, looking ahead with Ari.

"A fence," Ari said, squinting into the distance, "I think. And the hard road ends. Is it the corridor?"

"Can't be," Kara said, "we're too far from it."

"What then?"

"Severn?"

Severn managed to stop chewing long enough to look ahead down the road.

"I guess that's the Great Immigration Fence," he said with a burp. He concentrated on the outer world again now, realizing he'd let himself slip a little out of control. Not good in front of the highcit, even worse in front of the girl. He needed to keep her respect. "Built during the Migra wars."

"Migra wars?" Kara asked for her and Ari.

"Immigration wars," he explained as much as he knew. "The Meshicans were overrunning Bimhills and Toku. That's when the silver got so big, when the Erads started.

"They fenced 'em out?" Ari asked incredulously, his lack of historical knowledge embarrassing, even to himself.

"Must have," Severn shrugged his shoulders. "All I know."

He turned his head away from the front and popped the last of the food into his mouth, chewing it quietly and slowly. The romspeed bounced over a rough spot in the road.

"End of the pavement," Ari informed his captors. "All dirt from here on, looks like."

"Slow more," Severn told him, "keep a look see around. We don't need another surprise right away."

"No kidding," Kara agreed, nodding her head up and down.

"Slow and even it is," Ari said, taking a deep breath and throttling back more on the romspeed.

Out here in the middle of nowhere, driving his own vehicle, he actually felt pretty good -- considering the circumstances. Hell, if he didn't know better, they could have been a group of mates out for a Sunday buzz. He smiled without realizing it and whistled under his breath. Then, maybe catching some movement in his peripheral vision, he looked over at Kara. She was watching him with an odd expression on her face, as if maybe she thought he was a little crazy. One eyebrow was raised and an ironic smile twisted her mouth. Ari laughed out loud.

"What is so funny, cit?" Severn asked from the back seat.

"Nothing," Ari said, suppressing another laugh, "no thing."

"Just shut up," Kara told him, smiling herself, "and drive this stupid machine."

"Whatever," Severn said, not seeing the dynamic emerging in the front seat. "Just go on."

"Straight on," Ari said, taking a deep, contented breath, "straight on."

20.

At the height of the firefight during the rebel escape from Mother T's compound, the secondary Erad unit raced from their defensive position to provide back up for Rankin's group. In the heat of the battle Bead and his pack momentarily forgot the two dragalongs.

At first, neither Darden nor Meeler knew what to do. They had been watched so closely up to this point, several moments passed before they absorbed the reality of their new situation. It took Darden stumbling over an accidentally forgotten lasermag lying by a discarded pack to finally bring the message home.

"Hey," he hissed at Meeler, still afraid one of the murderous guards would suddenly reappear and cut them down or drag them back to the pack, "check it out, cit. A lasermag. Loaded."

"What?" Platt asked, looking around their position nervously. His head could have been on a swivel, he was moving it so fast watching for signs of danger.

"A lasermag," Darden repeated, "loaded. And here's another clip." He grabbed the extra clip and stuck it in his pocket. "Cit -- we're free. They forgot us."

"Listen to all that shooting," Platt said, cocking his head in the direction of the unseen firefight. "They must be killing everyone."

"And they'll kill us, too, when they realize they've forgotten us," Darden said. "This is our chance, we've got to fly."

"Fly?" Platt asked. "Fly where?"

"Any frappin' where," Darden told him. "What do we care. Let's break."

"But...," Platt began.

"But nothing," Darden said, grabbing the big Somecop by the shirtsleeve and pulling him along. "We're flyin' now. It don't matter where. Unless you wanna stay and hang with those jammin' killer types."

Platt began to jog behind Darden. Then they both started running. And running. And running. Running until they both had to stop and catch their breath. They were at a decayed intersection several blocks from the matriarchal compound. They could still hear the sporadic report of gunfire.

"Where to now?" Platt wondered, panting and holding his side.

Darden looked around. Shattered pavement, shelled out buildings, a hot sun nearly overhead.

"That way," he said, pointing down a dusty street to their right. "Towards where the sun came up. The way we've been traveling all along." Platt gave the FJ a questioning look. "I don't know why," Darden answered Platt's unspoken query. "Why not?" Platt shook his head up and down.

"OK," he said, "you lead."

Slower now, cautious, Darden with the lasermag in his hand, cocked and ready, the two ex-dragalongs wound their way through the devastation that was Ebon. After several hours and a near miss with a small Panmus recon squad, they came to a huge concrete ditch that might once have channeled the flow of a good-sized river through the urban area -- once, that is, when it had been a teeming vital place. Once, long before the big Somecop and the red-headed FJ had even been born.

"Let's get down in there," Darden suggested, pointing to the dirty floor of the ditch, with its trickle of foul looking water creasing a muddy path through the middle of at least a years' worth of refuse -- metal and otherwise -- that had been tossed or blown into the canal.

"There?" Platt wondered. "We won't be able to see where we're going."

"It runs that way to the sun," Darden said, pointing ahead of them, "and nobody will see us either."

"Oh," Platt nodded, seeing the obvious benefit of two outsiders not being seen in the streets of Ebon. "OK."

"You first," Darden told him.

He gave the slow moving Platt a push and the big SC slid down the concrete wall of the ditch and landed roughly, but safely, on a refuse littered mound of dirt.

"C'mon," he called back up to Darden.

The FJ tried to control his descent down the side of the ditch but it was too slippery and midway down he slid-tumbled into a heap by Platt's feet.

"Damn it," he cursed, pulling one of his boots out of the filthy flow of water just below them, "What puke."

"Hurry," Platt said, helping Darden up. "Let's fly. We got no grub, no nothin'. We gotta get someplace."

"Yeah," Darden agreed, shaking the stench-water off his boot. "We gotta."

Tramping along the edges of the canal, careful to avoid the dank, coppery water, the two men kept up an erratic pace. Neither was used to walking much and they paused frequently to catch their wind or rest their aching feet. But they knew better than to stand around too long, hungry and thirsty or not. There was no telling what kind of danger might be hovering just above the concrete walls of the ditch.

Platt in particular, his senses on edge after so long without a mass dosage of ginweed and chalkwater to dull them, kept a wary eye. He imagined Panmus and matriarchal armies at every bend in the canal, at every noise from the unseen world above. And he was sure that at any minute, he would look up to see the Erad pack scrambling down the walls of the ditch to retake them. To chain them up. To kill them.

"What was that," he cried out at the sound of a stone banging down the side of the canal and splashing into the trickle of water ahead of them.

"Shut up," Darden called back, trying to project his voice only at Platt. He was pretty frightened himself, though not quite as bad as the SC. "Just some rocks fell."

"It's gettin' dark," Platt groaned, stopping and looking around. "What do we do then?"

"Keep goin'," Darden answered, trying to act sure of himself. It was a considerable stretch.

"We could fall in this puke water," Platt countered, "or run right into an ambush. I'm thinkin' we should hole up for the night and go on at first light. Agreed?"

Darden considered Platt's concerns. They were pretty much his own as well but he didn't want to look too anxious to go along with the big SC's idea.

"If we keep moving," he said, "we won't think about not havin' no grub or water."

"It'll be dark soon," Platt said, "we'll fall down or get jumped or something."

The idea of traveling through the canal in the pitch dark caused the hairs on the back of Darden's neck to stand up. He acquiesced.

"Okay, first place looks hidee, we flop and Z."

"Yeah," Platt happily agreed, "yeah."

####

Well before dawn, hunger and thirst drove Platt and Darden from the resting place they made in back of a large piece of broken concrete wall jutting out far enough to provide the semblance of a hideout. Dark or not, terrified or not, they walked on. And on. On into the next day and afternoon, taking little catnaps when they could no longer continue. And then into the second night and finally another morning.

They were hardly moving now. Weakened by lack of food, dehydrated, tired of foot. And then the ditch was gone. It became a true river bed, with water not so foul running in it now -- but far too polluted to drink, as Platt discovered from just a fingertip's taste. With the concrete walls gone and the bank only a few feet high, they ventured up out of the river and onto solid, dry land.

Within a few yards of the bank, they found a narrow dirt path leading off slightly away from the sun. Platt didn't want to follow it, but Darden convinced him that a path meant cits, and cits meant grub and water. Armed with that hope, Platt followed the FJ along the trail towards a small group of dark, low hills. Coming over a rise in the path, bone weary and disheartened, they saw it. A water hole. Shrieking madly, the two young silvers ran -- now light footed -- to the water.

They flung themselves into it. Drank greedily. Shoved their heads under it. Let it pour off their faces. They laughed happily. They were still alive. Now they had water. Now they would have the strength to find food. When they had satiated themselves, the two solo runners took off their shoes and soaked their feet in the water at the edge of the hole. They leaned back and let the sun dry them off. Despite their growling bellies, they began to relax, close their eyes, even drift off. The wind rustled warmly around them, flies buzzed, the afternoon wore on.

In his exhausted sleep, Darden dreamed of a bedmate, long forgotten, saw her emerge naked from the waterhole walking sensually towards him. He reached for her, but there was a loud snap, and she pulled back, ran for the waterhole, disappeared. Then Darden heard more snaps and the rustling of dirt and sand. He drifted uneasily towards consciousness. Felt something hit against his feet. His eyes opened to forms, then focused on figures, men, horses.

"Wha...," he gulped out, reached for the lasermag but came up with air and empty fingers.

"On your feet," a rough voice ordered him.

"Who are you?" Darden managed to get out as a burly, malodorous man dismounted and roughly jerked him to his feet.

All the men around Darden, maybe as many as six or seven, wore a similar uniform: dusty, once black boots, dirty white cotton pants and shirts, and very large, wide brimmed circular hats. They were all dark skinned, burnt from the sun, with very black hair. They smelled awful and looked worse. Two of them had Platt's arms pinned behind his back while a third aimed a large, old-fashioned revolver at the big SC's groin. Platt made no effort to resist.

The one who spoke, the leader Darden assumed correctly, was particularly mean looking. He had a flattened boxer's nose, a sneering mouth beneath a large mustache, and harsh weather-reddened eyes. Despite the very pronounced smile lines around those eyes, it was clear that this man did not have a highly developed sense of humor. A smaller subordinate, short and skinny, held the captured lasermag on Darden.

"That's mine, hey," Darden said, reaching for the weapon.

The skinny man drew back. The leader put another lasermag, a much older one than the Erad weapon, up against Darden's forehead. Darden froze.

"Please, cits," Platt called over, diverting the danger for the moment, "please, we gotta have some grub. We're Xin' out from no chewin'. C'mon, cits, some chow. Please?"

One of the men holding Platt gave him a backhand chop to the neck. The big SC cringed and got quiet.

"Son of a bitch," Darden exclaimed, "out of the crapper and into the shit."

"Callaté," the leader told him, "shut up. You both shut up. You eat when I say so." Then to the skinny man: "Dame el 'stolo."

"Sí, jefe," the little man said, handing over the lasermag.

The leader felt it for weight and balance, looked through its laser sights, cocked it, cranked a round at a nearby cactus. The many-petaled succulent flew into a dozen parts.

"Muy bien," the leader said with a broad smile, "all right." He handed his old weapon to the disappointed-looking little man. Then he jabbed the ex-Erad lasermag into Darden's side.

"Anda," he said, indicating for Darden to move out. "Vaya."

"I'm goin', I'm goin'," Darden said, pushing the weapon away from his body, "don't get all cranked up."

The leader made as if to pistol whip Darden, who covered up with his hands. The other bandits laughed loudly.

"Son of a bitch," Darden grumbled again, as he shuffled along the path away from the water hole, away from the dull eastern sky, "son of a jammin' bastard."

21.

The dirt road went on for miles: straight, relatively smooth, uneventful. Which was just fine with Ari. They had been on it for several hours when, with Ari locked into a driving zone, Kara slugged him on the shoulder and pointed off in the distance to the right.

"What is it?" Ari asked, his arm stinging from Kara's hit. "What is it?"

"Severn," Kara said, by way of not answering Ari and turning to shake the rebel leader awake, "look out there. It looks like a house." Severn stretched and rubbed his eyes.

"Where," he said, looking out the wrong side of the vehicle.

"Up ahead. To the right. At the top of that rise."

"Well, I'll be," Severn said, "it does. And a big one, too."

Ari slowed to get a look. Whatever it was, it was very large.

"A lot of cits could be there," Severn speculated.

"It's in the middle of nowhere," Kara said. "What would it be doing out here?"

"There's a road up to it there," Ari said, pointing ahead.

"If it's a house," Severn suggested again, "there's bound to be cits. Where there's cits, there's grub -- and fuel. Take the road." Ari looked over at Kara.

"Take it," she confirmed Severn's order.

"You call it," Ari said.

He slowed the romspeed again and turned right, up the road. This road was also dirt, but it was very rocky and bumpy. Ari drove the romspeed at a crawl.

"Gee," Kara said sarcastically, "I hope we don't go too fast. We might get dizzy and faint."

"If I speed through here and bust a fuel line," Ari pointed out to her, "we might get dizzy and faint walking to that stupid house."

"Good one, highcit boy," Severn laughed from the back seat. Kara shook her head and muttered something about gender and genetics.

The road led right up to the structure, which was indeed a house, though it was unlit and deserted looking. Two-storied with gables above two big upper floor windows, it was white with a grayish-blue trim. Ari shut off the romspeed in a gravel driveway to the left of the main entrance. The three fliers got out.

As Severn and Kara walked slowly towards the house, weapons by their sides, Ari stuck his head back in the vehicle, popped the dash compartment open, retrieved the double eagle ring and pocketed it without the rebels seeing him. He closed the romspeed door and hurried behind Severn and Kara. Severn turned and held out his right hand. Ari looked at it and shrugged his shoulders. He couldn't believe they'd noticed him grabbing the ring.

"The key," Severn said, "give me the romspeed key."

"Oh," Ari sighed, "yeah, right. Here it is."

He handed Severn the ignition key and congratulated himself inwardly for pulling one on the rebels, though he wasn't sure why he'd done what he did or why it would be something for congratulations, inward or otherwise. Relieved regardless of the reasons, Ari followed Severn and Kara to the front door of the imposing and, from the vantage point of physical proximity, old house. Kara reached for a knocker by the door but paused briefly and looked up at one of the large windows above them on the second floor.

"What?" Severn asked, lifting his weapon.

"Nothing," Kara said, "just a funny feeling."

"Like we're bein' watched?" Severn suggested.

"Yes," Kara said.

"Same here," Severn corroborated her feeling.

Kara went ahead and rapped the knocker on the door. Ari looked up at the big window above them and sucked in his breath. There was somebody in the window. Watching. But they had vanished too quickly to make out who it was. Ari started to tell the rebels, thought better of it and stayed quiet, listening to Kara bang on the door. She banged again in a few moments, then again. Severn grew impatient.

"Just try it," he told her, "and keep your weapon ready."

Kara reached for the door knob like it was one of the slithering things they'd seen crawling along sideways by the road after they'd exited Ebon. But the doorknob was solid and dry and turned easily, opening the door inwardly to reveal the naturally lit interior of the house.

####

From the second floor where he was having his afternoon tea, the Keeper saw them turn off the main road and head for the house. He knew they had to be desperate characters because, except for the people from the co-op, that's the only kind that ever showed up. Showed up hungry, thirsty, looking for gas. Brandishing weapons, talking like fools, threatening him.

He'd been through it before. They made him a little nervous, but he hadn't lived out here by himself all these years without learning a few things himself. Mostly survival things -- tricks, ruses, whatever his fertile imagination could come up with. He'd outwitted them all, so far. And sometimes they weren't half bad. Just ignorant slobs, too dumb to figure much out.

He took his last sip of tea as they pulled into the driveway, then stood at the edge of one of the large windows to look down on them and size them up. Two men and a girl. A really pretty girl. The bigger of the two men acted like he was the boss, a very annoying trait. The other one, younger, very much less aggressive than the first two, hung back. Looked out of place, like he didn't belong with the man or girl, one or the other of which seemed to always be looking back at the younger one as if he might vanish or something. All in all, your typical desert runners. Either outlaws or fools -- or both.

"Whoa," he said out loud, ducking quickly away from the window. The younger one might have seen him. Oh, well, he thought, but staying clear of the window anyway, we'll just have to see what this bunch is after. It would be nice if they were different for a change. That idea seemed so remote he had to keep himself from laughing out loud. Sniffling through his nose, he headed for the stairway leading to the first floor.

####

Inside, the house was cavernous. The ceilings were high, a dozen feet or more and vaulted, and the rooms -- especially the one the rebels entered from the front door -- were massive. There were a number of doors leading to other rooms, also large though not quite as big as the main one and the fliers cautiously poked their heads in several of them looking for any signs of a resident or residents.

But the house was quiet. Its sparsely furnished interior gave off no sound. Severn popped out of the main room for a moment in search of a kitchen or food pantry. Kara and Ari stood in the middle of the room taking in the cool, musty smell of the place, checking out a heavy, thickly upholstered, old-fashioned sofa, and a few antique wooden chairs placed seemingly at random along the walls. Walls covered in bookcases.

"Look at all those," Ari said, amazed that he had not noticed the literally hundreds, maybe thousands of books lining the built in shelves along every wall in the room.

"Jeez," Kara said, "there wasn't half this many in our whole booker. Remember?"

Ari tried to remember the old booker days, tried to remember seeing anything like this, tried to remember Kara being there. Wondered why he didn't.

"I don't know," he said, "I don't know. I never seen so many, so many...."

"Books," a loud voice finished Ari's sentence for him, "those are called books, you ignoramuses. Ever see one before?"

At the sound of the voice, Ari nearly jumped out of his skin for fright. Kara whirled around in the direction of the voice, her long-barreled lasermag drawn, cocked and aiming for a target. Severn burst back in the room, waving his DC-40 wildly. It took the three of them a few seconds to zero in on the owner of the voice. He stood at the top of a stairway in back of the main room. He appeared to be unarmed. And very old.

"Who are you?" Kara said, really spooked by the old man's sudden appearance on the second floor landing.

"Be careful," Severn said, pointing his weapon in the general direction of the old man, "we're armed and dangerous. We're desperate runners."

Kara frowned at Severn's histrionics. The old man seemed amused, in an annoyed sort of way.

"Please," he said sarcastically. Apparently his standard tone, Kara thought. "You outlaw types are so boring. Every one that comes through here -- same old routine. We're desperate. We're killers. Watch your step, old man, this; watch your step, old man, that. Put away those idiotic weapons. I'm obviously no threat to such dangerous characters as yourselves."

Severn slowly lowered his DC-40 but kept his finger on the trigger. Kara laughed and holstered her weapon. The old man's feistiness quickly appealed to her. And as old as he was, he surely wasn't a threat to them.

"Cool it," she told Severn, "he's a harmless old ancient."

"Yeah, yeah," Severn rejoined, not finding the old man nearly as appealing as Kara. The old man made his way down the stairs to meet his new visitors.

"What is this place?" Ari asked, when the old man had shuffled up to the flier band.

"Something none of you cretins has probably set foot in before." Severn aimed his DC-40 at the insolent old man. "For heaven's sakes," the old man addressed the rebel leader, "what a paranoid. You need to learn to relax."

Severn kept the weapon pointed at the old man's very gray, mostly bald head. He was a wrinkled, wizened old character. Perhaps handsome in his youth, his splotched skin was a shade somewhere between the off-white of Bimhills and the darker brown of Meshica. He was shorter than Ari by several inches and very thin. He wore a light cotton shirt, a pair of dirty brown pants held up by a knotted length of rope, and a pair of faded blue canvas shoes. All in all, he looked like a good wind would blow him away. But he was cantankerous, nonetheless.

"I'll ask this time," Severn said toughly, "what is this place? And no fartin' around."

"It's a bloody library, you morons," the old man said with a wicked cackle, "can't you read? No, of course you can't. You're obviously from that bastion of the intellect, the place you call Bimhills."

"How do you know that?" Severn asked.

"Gosh," the old man answered, rubbing his chin and making a physical production out of pretending to think, "let's see -- Caucasians, driving one of your precious Toku romspeeds, armed to the teeth. Why, you wouldn't be rebels on the lam from your authorities by any chance, would you? Maybe got some of those lovely Eradicators after you, ey?" Kara and Ari both almost laughed. Severn was not so entertained.

"So you know all about us, huh, ancient," Severn said, moving closer to the old man. He held his DC-40 against the side of the old man's head. "Maybe you're a Bimhills spy, some kind of igno, undercover silver. Maybe I'll just X you out now." The old man rolled his eyes. Kara intervened.

"How do you know so much about us, gray one," she said, gently moving the barrel of Severn's weapon away from the old man's head. "Has somebody been here already? Looking for us?"

"No, my dear," the old man said with a kind smile for Kara, "I picked it up myself." He pointed a scrawny index finger at his ears, his eyes, his temple. "Listening, seeing, thinking."

"Who are you?" Kara asked. "How are you called?"

"I'm called the Keeper."

"The Keeper," Kara echoed. "Why?" The old man raised his arms outward, pointed towards the many books in the many shelves.

"What's all this for?" Ari wondered. The old man sighed.

"It's a library, you simpleton, didn't they teach you anything in your Godforsaken booker back in Bimhills?"

"He's a jammin' berserker," Severn sniffed, "all bones and near Xed out."

"Good God," the Keeper laughed. "You illiterate baboons. Excepting yourself, young lady."

"He talks the old talk," Kara said with a smile of realization.

"You're as wise as you are lovely," the Keeper told her. "But these other two." He shrugged his once strong shoulders. Kara laughed.

"We talk the same language," she said to the Keeper.

"That's right," Ari chimed, "the very same one."

"Of course we do," the old man said sweetly to Kara then turned to Ari. "If this horrible garbage you people spew out can even be loosely referred to as the English language. What you talk is jargon, slang, street patois, dearies, the language of wider communication as it were. Your kind has been speaking it like this for decades now. For decades of degeneration. You in particular, sonny, should know better. Given your background and all."

"How do you know anything about me?" Ari asked, stinging a little from the old man's direct attention.

"Jesus Christ, son," the Keeper said. "It's as clear as the nose on your face. Look around. Absorb some information. Think about it. Don't talk like a retarded parrot. Use the old noggin."

"You talk too much, old cit," Severn told the Keeper.

"You're the one's invaded my territory. Now you want to tell me how to talk. Get stuffed, big shot. You and your Goddamned arrogance."

"Cool it, you old shit," Severn said with some heat.

"Wait," Ari said, providing the intervention this time by stepping between Severn and the old man. "How does he know about me? I want to hear."

"Jabber with the old fart till you drop dead," Severn told Ari, "I'm gonna have a look around the frappin' joint."

"Frap this, jam that. Can't you dodos just say fuck? It's a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon word."

Severn made as if to slap the old man, but Kara stopped him.

"Take it easy, Severn," she said softly, but firmly.

"I'm out," Severn said, stalking off into the back of the house. He banged around the place a lot as he went.

"Your friend needs to learn how to relax, missy," the Keeper told Kara.

"We've had a difficult run," she replied.

"I can imagine," the old man said, easing his sarcasm some. "Still, there's no excuse...."

"We're sorry," Kara said. The old man smiled at her, his face crinkling into uncountable wrinkles.

"Do you just keep books here?" Kara asked.

"Oh, no," the old man said, "we've got videos and films, and audio recordings. My word, lots and lots of all of them."

"We?" Kara wondered.

"Not we anymore," the Keeper said sadly. "My wife and I. She's been gone a long time now."

"Where'd she go?" Ari said.

"She died, you nincompoop. I swear, for someone who's had your advantages, you are a dense one."

"There again," Ari said, pointing at the old man. "Why do you keep saying that? How do you know me?"

"I don't know you, sonny," the old man explained," but I see high citizen written all over you. And I've watched hours of film about your world, read hundreds of books, listened to Lord only know how many speeches, addresses, and so on. I know a great deal more than my appearance might lead you to believe."

"I believe you," Kara told the old man. He winked at her.

"All these things you -- watch, and hear," Ari said, "they're about?"

"The country. This country. Your world. Our world."

"Can I see them?" Ari asked. "Will you tell me? Show me?"

"What do you want to know about?" the old man said. "The Penal Cleansings of the '30s? The Immigration Wars, or Guerra de la Migra as they say here in Meshica? How about the First Great Invert or the Creation of the Zones? The Decades of Sand? The Formation of the IMC? Where would you like to start?"

If Ari had been taught well at the booker, which he hadn't, or if he'd shown an interest in the past, which he didn't, he would have known about the things the old man spoke of. Or at least recognized them. Kara had some working knowledge of the past from her rebel indoctrination sessions, but Ari had spent the majority of his teenage and young adult life in a ginweed and chalkwater haze. It was all new to him.

"Anything," he told the Keeper, "teach me anything."

"How about you, young lady?" the old man asked Kara.

"I better help Severn," she said, disappointing both Ari and the old man. "We've got to move on soon. Teach him what you want, but don't try any funny stuff, either of you. The needs of the rebellion come first. I wouldn't want you to get in the way of that."

"My word, no," the Keeper assured her. "Just a little information for the boy. That's all."

"Okay," Kara said, beginning to walk away. "Don't try anything."

"Scout's honor," the old man said, holding up three fingers. "She's lovely, but very, very tough," he said to Ari when Kara was gone.

"Yes," Ari agreed, looking at the empty doorway through which Kara had exited. "Very much so."

"Well, come on, son," the Keeper said, putting a bony arm on Ari's shoulder. "The world of knowledge awaits you."

22.

Kara left Ari to his history lesson with the Keeper and went in search of Severn. She walked past the stairway, winding her way through several interconnected library rooms that were filled from top to bottom with books, tapes, and films. Towards the back center of the house, she wandered into a large dining-kitchen area. Having found the place so easily herself, Kara expected to find Severn there loading up provisions for the road, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Taking a cloth bag hanging on a nail inside one of several pantries located on either end of a long wooden counter with a sink built into its center, Kara set about accumulating stores for the uncertain, but inevitable continuation of their journey to find the rebel base camp. Loading tins of meat and vegetables at the bottom of the bag, she put loaves of fresh baked bread, a few chunks of white, smelly cheese, and some dried fruit on top. When she had filled the bag to her satisfaction and pulled its drawstrings tight, she set it on the counter and went in search of another. Through the window above the sink, she saw Severn outside. He was holding something up, aiming it in the direction they had come. Kara found the back door and went outside.

"What are you doing out here?" Severn asked sternly, pocketing whatever he had held as he turned to face Kara.

"Just wanted to talk alone for a moment," she said sheepishly, feeling like a little girl getting a chewing out from one of the typically rude learners back at the booker. She didn't like it. "It's our first chance in a long time."

"Where's the old man and the high cit?" Severn wondered, his tone still hard and gruff.

"They're okay," Kara said. "The old man is giving him a history lesson."

"Lot of good that'll do," Severn snorted. "Keep an eye on him."

"I have been," Kara told him, "and I'll keep doing it. But we need to talk, without anybody else around."

"Okay. Shoot."

"Well," Kara began, Severn's cold authoritarianism continuing to make her feel like an ignorant tad in early booker, "I'm worried about the Erads for one thing. Why would they be trailing us?"

"Who said they were?"

"The old man seemed to think they might be. The Keeper."

"What does he know. He's completely zoned."

"Maybe. But I believe him. And besides, there was the escape from Mother T's."

"What of it?"

"You must have realized somebody helped us back there on the street outside. We would've been Xed out, but somebody laid down covering fire."

"And you think Erads did that?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Somebody did."

"Kara, Erads slaughter our kind. Always. Have you ever in your life heard of an Erad not cleaning somebody they were after. Or at least damn near doing it?" Kara considered that for a moment.

"No," she admitted, "never have." Erads weren't known for laying back, for showing restraint. They came, they saw, they killed.

"No," Severn laughed, "not lately." He put a hand on Kara's shoulder and kneaded it gently. "Whoever laid down that fire, it sure wasn't Erads. Some of Mother T's troops makes more sense."

"Yeah," Kara agreed, swayed by Severn's logic and the well documented and observed history of the Erads. "You're probably right. But still...."

"But still nothing," Severn cut off the last of Kara's concern. "Forget that foolishness. What else did you want to talk about?"

"We've got to push on, so I've loaded a sack with cans of grub and stuff. I'll do another one or two and if the old man has fuel and water, we're set."

"Good," Severn told her, "good work."

"What's our next step?" Kara asked. "We push on, sure. But to where? How will we find the main camp without a guide? We don't know where it is. How can we get to our people? And what if we are being tailed by the Erads; how will we keep them from following us right to the camp, assuming we ever find it ourselves?"

"Relax," Severn said, almost laughing at Kara's outburst, "be calm. You worry too much. We're safe here with the old man. For the moment. Relax."

"Relax?" Kara said, shaking her head at such a thought. "Relaxed is how you end up Erad bait."

"Okay," Severn said, openly laughing this time. "But cool it a little. Just keep an eye on that highcit boy and the old boneyard. They might be up to something -- useless as they both are."

Surprisingly, Kara found herself having to restrain an impulse to defend Ari. He was a really good driver after all, and he hadn't tried anything really stupid, at least not yet. She thought he might even possibly have a very, very remote chance of coming over to the rebel side if groomed slowly enough and properly. Off the ginweed and chalkwater, he wasn't such an igno as he at first appeared and besides, she thought, he was pretty cute. Handsome even. A woman could have a load worse night mate than him.

"Well," Kara became aware of Severn prompting her.

"Well?" she asked, not understanding.

"Are you gonna scope 'em, or what? You looked like you were in ginweed land."

"Oh," Kara said, face reddening, "it's nothing. I'm going."

"Concentration," Severn told her as she began to walk back to the house. "Focus. See one thing clearly at a time."

"Right," Kara said, opening the door to go back into the kitchen. "Focus. Concentration."

She let the door slam shut behind her. Severn watched the door through which she'd gone and shook his head. After a couple of minutes, he pulled a dark object out of his pants pocket and held it aloft. Then with a quick glance at the house, he stepped across the patio, went around a corner and disappeared from sight.

23.

Fierce fighters and expert desert dwellers that they were, Los Chingados, about a dozen strong, hovered around a small campfire in a clearing surrounded by mesquite and palo verde trees. Darden and Platt Meeler, their prize captives, sat huddled by each other to one side of the fire. The fire wavered in the light wind, causing the shadows of the men around it to assume strange shapes as they danced across the nearby trees. From a nearby hill, Erad Sgt. Cage, stealthy as a desert cat watching prey, observed the scene.

"What shall we do with these two?" Cage heard one of the Meshican outlaws say. The speaker was a scrawny little man who seemed to wave his arms a lot and seemed particularly nervous and high strung.

"Calmaté, Flaco," a bigger, wild looking man, clearly the leader of the group, reassured the little one. "In due time."

"Let's kill them," another of the outlaws said from the shadows of the camp. There was general laughter and agreement among the group.

"Sí, Matanza," the one called Flaco addressed the leader, handing him a gourd of something to drink. "Let's kill them. Let the crows and pigs eat them."

"No, no," Matanza said, taking a messy drink from the gourd, which reminded Cage he had gone without one for several hours himself.

"Muy serio, jéfe," Cage heard the skinny one say. "We should kill them."

"Flaco, Flaco," Matanza laughed, "que 'stoso eres. You are so funny." Then he addressed his band: "How many want to kill them?"

There was unanimous cheering during which burly Sgt. Cage began his withdrawal. Darden and Platt huddled together in fear. They felt their deaths were imminent. But Matanza held up a hand for quiet. The camp became still.

"Idiotas," he chastised his men, tapping two fingers against the side of his head. "No piensan, no piensan. You're not thinking. We can trade these two."

"To who?" Flaco asked, scratching his head. The image he had in his mind of desert birds picking the corpses of the two outsiders clean faded from his mind. He was disappointed. "Who would want them."

"The finca, amigo," Matanza explained to his not so bright second in command, "the Cardenista co-op. We will trade these two for real food, and for ammunition."

With remarkable agility, Cage pulled back then, making sure the outlaw guards neither heard nor saw him. The big Erad had seen and heard all he needed to. He knew where the outlaws and the two escaped dragalongs were. Knew the troop strength, weaponry. He could go now. The pack would act later.

"Why would they want these two?" Flaco wondered back at the fire.

"They are goody-goodies," Matanza said with disdain. "They always help everyone. Besides, they will work them. Two more hands for the fields."

"Bueno," Flaco reluctantly gave in to his leader's logic. "Let them live then. Do we have to feed them, too?"

"Como no," Matanza told him, "of course. But just what's left over."

"Hijole," Flaco said, shaking his head. He signaled to another of the outlaws to give the captives food and drink.

Darden and Platt, realizing that their lives were at least spared for the moment, ate greedily of the fried prickly pear and corn meal mush they were offered. And they drank heartily of the foul looking and smelling liquid that a snaggle-toothed outlaw handed them.

"Mira," the man laughed, watching Darden and Platt sloppily eating and drinking, "toman el pulque como animales. Que pochos. What a couple of pigs."

The outlaw band laughed at their compadre's joke, the noise traveling through the still air as a single distant sound heard by Sgt. Cage as he hurried through the desert back to the Erad camp.

24.

From almost the first moment the old man had spoken to Ari, the young highcit -- despite the Keeper's stinging sarcasm -- had felt drawn to the irascible guardian of history. Sharp tongue or not, the Keeper had a grandfatherly quality about him that easily swept away the residue of Ari's Bimhills cynicism.

The further he got away from his old world and the longer he went without his chemical crutches, the clearer Ari thought and the better he felt. He was positively amazed at this unexpected change in himself. Now this change had manifested itself in an interest in the old Keeper and the knowledge he both watched over and possessed within himself. With eyes opened in amazement, Ari listened to everything the old man told him, followed him from room to room trying his best to absorb every word, every video clip, every voice recording.

During the Keeper's ten cent history lesson, Ari learned about the collapse of the old order and the formation of the zones; the rise of the IMC; the horror of the penal cleansings in which tens of thousands of men were put to death; the bloody, senseless immigrations wars; the First Great Invert and the subsequent Decades of Sand; how there were countries still existing beyond what had once been called the United States. Countries that had suffered greatly as well and that had survived in altered forms, too -- some better, most worse.

And from Ari's last name, the old man was able to explain Ari to Ari himself. The Keeper surmised from their identical names that Ari's father had been one of the original shadpols in Bimhills and that Ari's financially unconcerned lifestyle -- like that of most highcits -- was the result of a large inheritance left him by his powerful father. Highcit privileges, such as never having to work, some leeway in the legal system, and being free to lead lives of dissolution, were the result of a ruling class economic system that allowed highcit progeny to live in unconcerned comfort.

The old man was quick, however, to remind Ari that highcit existence was and continued to be a socio-economic structure that depended upon the exploitation of other zones, the acquiescence (forced or otherwise) of the middle level cits, and the hard work of the mostly silent, despairing lowcits. And, of course, the enforcement of the Erads, FJs, and Somecops. It was nearly more information than Ari could process and he told the old man so.

"Didn't you ever pay any attention at all in your Godforsaken 'booker'?" the Keeper demanded to know.

"After our ginweed breaks," Ari explained timidly, "I didn't listen much."

"Good Lord, son," the Keeper said with some compassion, "they really gave you children that crap at school?" Ari nodded yes. "How horrible. Makes me almost want to be a rebel myself, if they weren't just as stupid."

"I don't think Kara is stupid," Ari said.

"No, of course she isn't," the Keeper said, "you're all just ignorant. It's not altogether your fault. Maybe hardly at all. But don't you want to learn things, boy? Didn't you ever wonder about things."

"I do now."

"What do you know? What I told you today? What I showed you? What about your own experience? Don't you have anything of your own, your self, your past?"

"The past?"

"Yeah, you know. Before today."

"Uh...," Ari began, fumbled in his pockets and found the double eagle ring.

"Your parents," the old man went on, "your childhood? No specific recollection at all?"

"I have this," Ari proclaimed, producing the ring. "My father gave me that." The old man took the ring from Ari and examined it.

"From the first Mr. Blanque, ey?" he sniffed, giving the ring a thorough examination. "The sign of the double eagle."

"Does that mean anything?" Ari asked.

"Oh, nothing but the symbol of those robber baron types who gained control of your precious Bimhills is all. Nothing more."

"It's not my precious Bimhills," Ari told the Keeper, feeling a little hurt. The old man's sarcasm sometimes felt like a knife cutting through nerve endings. Ari didn't like that feeling at all.

"It's not your 'Bimhills' either," the old man started to explain. The real name is Bev..., whoa, what's this?"

"What?" Ari asked, excited. "What? What?"

The old man didn't answer, he was suddenly absorbed with the ring. Ari watched him turning it in his wrinkled fingers. Then the Keeper pressed the inside of the ring and the facing eagles separated slowly.

"My God!" he exclaimed.

"What is it?" Ari asked, peering over the Keeper's shoulder.

"It looks like a microchip of some kind," the old man said. He walked over to a nearby table, opened a drawer and came up with a jeweler's magnifying glass. Ari watched in confused amazement. "Definitely a microchip. Of an old variety. If I could just...."

The old man cut off his sentence at the sound of someone approaching from an adjacent room. He quickly pressed the inside of the ring -- on a small round elevated dot Ari saw -- and the eagles closed back together. He hurriedly put the ring in Ari's hand.

"Here, hide this, boy," he told the stunned Ari. "Put it away."

"Why? What is it?"

"Don't ask. Throw it away. Forget about it."

"What is it?" Ari demanded again.

"What's what?" Kara asked, stepping into the room just as Ari repocketed the ring. The Keeper busied himself tidying up a dusty shelf of books.

"Nothing," Ari bumbled out, "it's nothing. The Keeper was telling me about the past."

"Well, he must have told you a lot. I scoped all over the whole house for you two. You better hang with me now, Severn is downstairs somewhere and he might think you were trying to fly or something." The Keeper turned to face Kara. He was shaking his head.

"Such a lovely girl," he said, "but what language. How did you get mixed up with this rebel lot? You seem far too bright to go along with their nonsense."

"It's not nonsense to us," Kara said, smiling. She, too, found the Keeper appealing despite his sarcastic, confrontational manner. "Maybe you've spoken the old speak so long, your ideas are old, too."

"May be, may be, missy," the Keeper allowed, "but when you tear down the IMC and its shadow politicians, what then?"

"Yeah, what then?" Ari repeated stupidly. Kara shook her head at him and rolled her eyes.

"We're working on that," she told the Keeper. "We were on our way to find that out maybe when we got jumped in Ebon."

"Why did you drag him along?" the old man asked, nodding at Ari. Kara considered an answer.

"I've already told you too much," she said, "but we needed him. Nobody jams a romspeed better." Ari couldn't mask his pride, swollen by Kara's rare compliment. He grinned idiotically.

"Oh, for heaven's sakes, son," the Keeper reprimanded the young highcit, "you act like a full blown cretin sometimes." Ari wasn't sure what a cretin was, but he let his smile fade.

"Old father," Kara asked, ignoring the exchange between Ari and the Keeper, "we need a guide through Meshica. Do you know one, one that we can trust?"

The old man started to answer, but before he could there was a loud racket downstairs, then the loud thumping of boots coming up. Kara motioned for Ari and the Keeper to get back, then drew her lasermag and knelt behind a chair ready to fire. The door to the room they were in burst open and a short, squat Meshican in white peasant's clothing was shoved into the room at the barrel of Severn's DC-40.

"Check this lowcit Meshican igno I grabbed trying to crawl up on us," Severn boasted, pushing the sandaled man into the center of the room.

"Marco," the Keeper cried out, "what are you doing here, son?" The peasant Marco opened his mouth to reply but closed it abruptly when Severn pushed the DC-40 against the side of his face. "Unhand this man, you idiot," the Keeper ordered Severn.

"Shut up, ancient," Severn said, "I nabbed him messin' 'round out back."

"I've known this man his whole life," the Keeper said, appealing to Kara and Ari as well as Severn, "he's a farmer from the commune. That's all."

Severn drew his weapon away from Marco's head. The Meshican moved several large steps away from Severn and stood quietly by, holding his large round hat in his hands.

"You people tend to be a little rash in your judgements, don't you think?" the old man said, walking over and putting a scrawny arm around Marco's shoulders. Neither the rebels nor Ari fully understood the Keeper's criticism.

"We do what we need to do," Severn said brusquely.

"I can see that," the old man said. Then to Marco: "Are you all right, my friend? He didn't hurt you."

"No, señor," Marco answered. "Pero, el es hombre muy agitado. Creía que yo era un ladrón o algo asi. Vení aqui buscando a algunas personas que necesitan un guia."

"Un guia?" the old man asked, a smile beginning to crease his wrinkled face. "A guide?"

"Sí, señor," Marco confirmed, "a guide." The old man burst into cackling laughter. Ari and the rebels stared at him in amazement.

"You dolts," the old man said to them when he finally stopped laughing, "you simple Simons. This man is probably the guide you were looking for." Severn glanced at Kara.

"I told him we were supposed to meet a guide," Kara said, "but that's all." Severn nodded. He holstered his weapon and walked a few steps away from the others. "Ask him who he was going to guide," Kara told the Keeper.

"Ask him yourself," the old man said, "he does speak English. Probably better than you people do."

"Well," Kara asked Marco, "who was it?"

"I was supposed to guide two reb...," Marco began, then paused until the old man nodded that it was okay to continue, "two rebels. A man and a woman. But you are three, I'm sure you are not the ones."

"¿Eres Cardenista?" Severn interjected, surprising everyone. It seemed to be a password that even Kara was unaware of.

"Hace mucho tiempo," Marco confirmed.

"Conoces a Colombia Nueva," Severn continued the coded word play.

"Sí," Marco completed the pattern, "el mito y la verdad."

"Holy frap," Severn said, nearly laughing. "This is the guide we were supposed to have all along."

"What were you saying to him?" Kara wanted to know.

"Just a nonsense thing," Severn explained, "like a secret password, that's all." Kara looked at the Keeper. He nodded his head.

"Well, I don't like being left out of something that important," Kara told Severn. "What if you'd been Xed out and I was on my own?"

"But can you believe it?" Severn said, trying to bypass Kara's annoyance by ignoring it. "How did this cit zero in on us when we were lost ourselves?"

"Yeah," Kara said, turning towards Marco, Severn's ploy working, "how did you know where we were when we don't even know ourselves?"

"I didn't," Marco responded, "like everyone else in this part of Meshica, I come to el señor Keeper when I have a big problem."

"And finding us was your big problem?" Kara asked.

"Pues, señorita," Marco answered with a smile, "it was." The Keeper let out a burst of his sharp cackle.

"You lucky dumbheads," he said, addressing Severn more than Kara. "You get yourselves completely lost and who shows up in the middle of nowhere for you? The guide you were supposed to have in the first place. I'd say that's mighty good luck. Good enough to be an omen for your cause perhaps. Destiny has taken your hand."

"You babble too much, old man," Severn told the Keeper.

"Possibly," the grizzled guardian of knowledge replied, "possibly."

"I think you should hear whatever he has to say," Ari interjected.

"The young señor is right," Marco said, looking first at Kara, then at Severn. "El señor Keeper, he's a very smart man."

"Enough jawin'," Severn cut off the praise for the old man, "we need food and gear for the run. You get it all, Kara?"

"Already snagged it," she said. "There's two full bags of food, some blankets, and other stuff collected downstairs."

"Then let's crank," Severn said, pointing his DC-40 at Marco. "There may be an Erad pack haulin' up our sphinct. Time to bail." Kara wheeled for the door and Marco followed Severn. Ari didn't move.

"Now?" he asked forlornly. "Go now? Leave?" He looked sadly at the Keeper. The old man winked at him.

"Bust it, weenie boy," Severn said gruffly. "This ain't a choice ride for you." Ari looked confused. It did seem like a choice to him.

"Go on, son," the Keeper said kindly. "You can come again. You have much to learn. And I'll still be here. Go on. This is what you have to do now. You'll see someday." Ari raised an arm towards the old man. Severn grabbed it and drug Ari away.

"Get rollin', sack," he said, pushing Ari out of the room, "you're actin' like a vatter perv on me."

"C'mon," Kara told Ari, pulling him away from Severn.

Marco went down the stairs first, followed by Severn. Then came Ari with Kara behind him, her hand on his arm. Ari went with her, offering no resistance. After Severn's handling, Kara's touch was firm, but gentle -- almost affectionate Ari thought.

He realized as they left that her touch was far from disagreeable, in fact, it thrilled him, excited him. And then came the most amazing realization of all: not only had he stopped thinking about escaping, he was now anticipating what would happen next, looking forward to continuing the run to wherever it might lead. For Ari, who had seldom thought of anything but his next bout with ginweed and chalkwater or a head on game with outguards, this new sensation wasn't just exciting, it was practically liberating.

25.

Lt. Rankin held a radio to his ear and watched his nephew Bead pacing around the Erad camp like a caged animal. The boy had let the two dragalongs escape during the Ebon firefight and despite both elder Rankins' assurances that he had acted properly in bringing his unit up in support of the main Erad pack and that losing the two useless cits was hardly anything to worry about, Bead was upset and wanted some assignment that would allow him to atone for his "failure."

Watching the tough kid stalking across camp caused Lt. Rankin to smile. Bead was so much like his father -- and his uncle. A new squawking from the hand held receiver forced the lieutenant back to the task at hand: trying to understand what IMC Rep Alexander was jawin' at him across the often barely audible, static-filled line. They were nearly out of IMC earshot now, a fact that Lt. Rankin enjoyed, but he could unfortunately still pick up a good amount of Alexander's shrill speech.

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin responded to a question, "we are still receiving the mole signal. Yes, sir, not more than a few hours ago. We are tracking the coordinates."

The distant voice of the IMC bigwig scratched through the receiver again. Lt. Rankin was only able to pick up every other word or so. He tried to repeat them back.

"Keep...alive at all costs. Shadpol father...primary mission now...Blanque alive...has on him...he is...the only mission now. The 'only' mission now, sir, do I copy you correct?"

"Goddamn it, yes," Alexander's voice crackled over the line, loudly audible for the moment. "I want that Blanque boy alive, and I want him brought back here. Do you hear me, Rankin?"

"I'm sorry, sir," Lt. Rankin answered, winking at his brother Tom who had detached himself from the pack and walked up to the Erad leader. "I didn't catch all that. Repeat, please, sir."

Alexander repeated himself but most of it faded into the air between the IMC Rep's position in Bimhills and the Erad camp somewhere in the vast stretches of the Meshican desert.

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said into the receiver, as if he had understood Alexander's transmission. Alexander squawked something else about the highcit boy, Blanque. "Why is this particular highcit so important? Do you have additional information we should be apprised of, sir?"

There was a very long pause during which Lt. Rankin saw Sgt. Cage returning from his scouting mission. Tom Rankin went out to meet the big non-com. When Alexander spoke again over the line, he hemmed and hawed some drivel about IMC directives. Lt. Rankin clicked the receiver button every few seconds to simulate a further degeneration in the communication link. He imagined Alexander on the other end of the line: red-faced with frustration, barely able to control himself. Lt. Rankin signaled with his free hand for Tom and Sgt. Cage to join him. As they reached the lieutenant, Alexander's voice boomed out of the radio.

"Just do as I tell you, Rankin. Goddamn it."

Lt. Rankin smiled at Tom and Sgt. Cage and shook his head. He motioned at the radio receiver. They watched him click the receiver button several times.

"Sorry, sir," he said in between clicks, "the signal is breaking up. Can't hear you anymore. Will report at next scheduled transmission time. Over and out." Lt. Rankin switched the radio off and tossed it in the back of one of the 4-wheel drive romspeed military-style trucks the Erads drove.

"Someday," he told Tom and Cage, "there won't be a need for the Alexanders of this world. No IMC, no shadpols. An Erad world. Then there will be order. No more bullshit. Things will run right."

"To the Erads," Tom Rankin said, raising his right fist.

"Erads," Cage and Lt. Rankin echoed.

"Okay, sergeant," Lt. Rankin said after the cheer, "what do you have for us? Did you find any trace of anyone?"

"Yes, sir, I did," Cage answered proudly, "found 'em. Found the igno dragalongs."

"Bead," Tom Rankin called across camp to his son. "Get over here. Sgt. Cage has got some good news." Bead ran over to the older men.

"Yes, sir?" he said to his father. The father nodded at Sgt. Cage. Bead listened attentively and with growing excitement to Cage's report.

Cage described the Meshican outlaw band he'd followed, outlined their leader and apparent pecking order, gave the precise figure of their troop strength, detailed their armament -- including what appeared to be a newer lasermag -- and confirmed that the weenie dragalongs were captives of the outlaws. The last two pieces of information particularly excited Bead.

"Those two are the biggest shitcits I've ever seen," the youngest Rankin exclaimed, "they couldn't get free if they were thrown in the middle of the Outworld. Uncle, Lt. Rankin, let me go get them. Please. They ran on my watch and they probably lifted the lasermag Sgt. Cage saw. I can't let something like this ruin my career. I don't want to be demoted or drummed out because of those two tad jammin' weenie heads." The older men laughed at Bead's outburst. Lt. Rankin put his arm on his nephew's shoulder.

"Bead," the Erad leader said with a smile, "nothing is going to happen to you because of these two dragalong ignos. Trust me. But you can go get them."

"Frappin', jammin', hot shit," Bead said happily, "thank you, sir. When can I go?"

"Easy, boy, easy," Lt. Rankin laughed. "We've got some other concerns yet. Number one, our fuel is low. Supporting this many vehicles for this far and long is highly unusual."

Rankin accented his concern with a sweep of the arm that took in the Erad transportation: another pair of the military style romspeed trucks and a handful of one man romspeed motorcycles.

"We are also running out of food and water. Sgt. Cage, I suggest you and Bead take one of the trucks and keep close to the outlaws. They're bound to lead us to supplies and fuel. And when they do, we'll take what we need."

"Yes, sir," Cage said with a crisp salute.

"Sir," Bead ventured, "what about the rest of the pack?"

"We'll follow behind," Lt. Rankin explained. "Keep in touch by radio, but don't lose contact with the outlaws once you've reestablished it."

"Yes, sir," Bead said, giving a salute of his own.

"And don't get anxious, son," Tom Rankin told his progeny, "the lieutenant will call the last shot on the dragalongs."

"Yes, sir, father, sir," Bead said. Lt. Rankin stepped forward and put a hand on Bead's shoulder.

"You'll get your chance, Bead," he told his nephew. "I guarantee it."

"Thank you, sir," Bead said, popping another salute. The older Rankin men saluted back. Cage stood to one side and smiled.

"All right," Lt. Rankin said, looking at the sergeant, then back at Bead, "move out. You've got an assignment to do."

"Yes, sir," Bead said happily.

"We'll be in touch as soon as we make contact, sir," Cage told his commander.

"See to it," Lt. Rankin said.

He and his brother then whirled and headed towards the center of the camp where the other members of the pack were congregated. Bead and Sgt. Cage hustled over to the romspeed trucks, found the one with the most remaining fuel, cranked it up and headed for the open desert. The pack watched the vehicle, dust swirling up behind it, until it disappeared over a far ridge.

26.

Though it was rugged and primitive, life at the Lazaro Cardenas co-op -- especially when compared to the recent rebel run -- seemed idyllic. The Meshican cooperative reflected in miniature a mixed economy. All the basic needs -- housing, food, and natural resources -- were shared equally among the inhabitants. Creature comforts, if they could be called such, and non-essential consumer items were sold by street vendors or in mom and pop small store operations. Social, political, and legal problems in the co-op were handled by a board of representatives rotated once a year.

Because the co-op's purpose was to produce food for its inhabitants and to sell any excess to outsiders, Meshican, Ebon, or otherwise, everyone over the age of ten spent some part of each day helping with farming. The work was rotated too, so that one day a co-op resident might pick strawberries and the next dig post holes. During their stay, the rebels were expected to work right alongside everyone else. Severn in particular found the work to his distaste. Ari was little fonder of it, but Kara took to it at once.

"You should stay on with us," Rocio, the wife and mother of the family Kara and, not quite by chance, Ari were both staying with, said. "You have a natural feel for the earth. You are at home with it."

Kara stood, straightening the kinks out of her lower back from weeding in one of the several, large, communal vegetable gardens found throughout the co-op. Sweat glistened on her arms and on her forehead and cheeks, giving her a look of robust good health. From two rows over, where he worked with Francisco, Rocio's husband, Ari couldn't keep his eyes off Kara. Francisco kept nudging Ari back to his task at hand and teased him good naturedly, but the young highcit just couldn't seem to focus his attention elsewhere.

"I do like it here," Kara's voice carried over the garden rows, "but we have a mission. We must go on."

"And what is this mission?" Rocio asked. "Francisco and I have been with the movement for more than two years and we've heard nothing of any mission."

"It's classified," Kara said, realizing that the Keeper's old speak had rubbed off on her. "Only Severn knows anything about it. And I'm not sure he knows all that much."

"Let Marco and Severn figure it out," Francisco called over. "Relax. Stay with us for awhile."

"Yeah," Ari concurred, "relax." Francisco laughed.

"If you were more relaxed, amigo," he told Ari, "you'd fall asleep out here. Get to work. Tomorrow we work the marijuana cash fields. Then you'll see some work."

"Shoot," Ari complained.

"Where is Severn?" Kara asked, the fact suddenly occurring to her that she hadn't seen the rebel leader since the previous day when he had surprised her by having her keep the wrist watch he carried. The watch he had scarcely let her see before. Rocio looked over at Francisco. He shrugged his shoulders.

"Francisco," Rocio said. Francisco held up a hand in surrender.

"They left this morning, Kara," he said, pausing for an expected outburst from the assertive rebel girl. But Kara didn't seem fazed at all. She just looked vaguely distracted. "He and Marco went to see if they could get a scout to take you through Long Wound." Kara simply nodded her acknowledgment of the information.

"This Severn," Rocio said to Kara, while knocking the dirt off several large carrots she pulled from the light brown soil, "you've known him long?"

"Some time," Kara replied, touching the watch again in her pocket.

"He seems very, uh, agitated," Rocio said, "excitable, you know. Antsy."

"Well," Kara said, "it's been a hard run."

"Yes, but there seems to be something else."

"I, too, noticed it," Francisco agreed with his wife, "and he seems to get more so with each day that passes."

"I don't know," Kara said, not sure what the Meshican radcit couple might be getting at. "I haven't been cogiting on it." Kara thought of the old man, knew he would disapprove of that phrase.

"No," Rocio said, letting the topic drop. "I'm sure you haven't."

For the better part of the next half hour, the small group worked in silence, mostly weeding and cleaning up the garden, occasionally collecting some particularly delectable looking vegetable to use at that night's collective supper in the co-op chow hall.

All during the workday, Ari continued to watch Kara when he could, mull over what he had learned from the old guardian most of the rest of the time, and help with the work when Francisco would gently redirect him to his main duty. As the day grew long, the sun diminished in its intensity and shadows spread from the nearby sand hills and stretched tranquilly across the fields and buildings of the co-op.

Then an idea popped into Ari's head. He dropped his work tools and walked back through the co-op to where his romspeed was parked. Kara watched him with a bemused look on her face. Rocio and Francisco kept on working, though Francisco punctuated his chores with what sounded to Kara like colorful phrases though she didn't understand them. Ari soon returned and spoke quietly to Kara, pointing to one of the nearby sand hills, the tallest in the near vicinity. Then they all went back to work, even Ari. At quitting time, Ari straightened up, gave the hoe he had been using to Francisco and walked right up to Kara.

"Well?" he asked her softly.

"Well?" she echoed.

"Will you?" he asked hopefully, but not pleading.

"Yes," Kara said, looking at Rocio. Rocio took the bag of vegetables Kara held.

"Go on," she said. "Just be in time for supper, okay?"

"Okay," Kara said. "We will."

"Thank you, Rocio," Ari said, "Francisco."

"Go on," Francisco said with a smile, "then maybe tomorrow you'll be worth something in the marijuana fields."

"Thank you," Kara said to Rocio.

"Just go, go."

And Kara and Ari went. Walked at a good pace toward the hill.

"Díos mío," Rocio said, when the young fliers were out of hearing range, "que jovenes. Such young people."

"Not so different than we were, ey, mujer?" Francisco said, putting an arm on his wife's shoulder. "Not so very different." Rocio slipped her arm around Francisco's waist and they walked back towards the center of the co-op.

"No," she said, smiling a work-tired smile, "not so different at all."

27.

From a window balcony, the Keeper watched the bands of travelers passing along the distant road that traversed the searing Meshican desert. The first group he recognized right away. It was Matanza and his outlaws. Matanza, the foulest of the foul Chingados; just about the dirtiest, nastiest man in all of Meshica. And with him, his scrawny subcomandante, Flaco.

The Keeper had had his moments with the Matanza bunch, but thanks to some luck, some help from the Cardenas co-op, and some of his own patented tricks, the old man and the bandidos had reached a truce of sorts. They wouldn't try to plunder the library and the old man wouldn't torment Los Chingados with fake water mirages, or cause them to shoot at each other in crossfires that were the result of the Keeper manipulating lights and mirrors he had positioned and hidden in special places around the house and grounds. After shooting each other a few times, even Los Chingados had learned to treat the old man the way you might a rattlesnake if you found it in your bed roll or a gila monster making a home in your boots.

Through a pair of high powered binoculars mounted on a tripod, the Keeper watched Los Chingados' slow trek down the road. Most of the outlaws rode horses of varying colors and condition, while three or four peón cooks and bearers struggled to keep up on foot. The old man noted with some surprise and interest a cart being pulled along near the back of the group. A heavy-footed swayback pulled the cart forward erratically, causing its human cargo, two non-Meshican younger men, to be jostled around against the vehicle's wooden sides. The two men seemed to be having a rough time of it, as they appeared to be tied to one another with rope.

"Poor slobs," the old man said out loud to himself.

He kept watching the outlaws until they passed by the turnoff to his house and continued on along the road. As best he could tell, not a single Chingado appeared to even notice the house. They acted like there was nothing out there on the hill to their right and that pleased the old man. It reassured him that at least for the time being, the truce still held. He had so far been a match for Los Chingados and now they were leaving him alone. That was exactly the way he wanted it.

The second group to appear out on the road was a motorized pack. They drove several military-style vehicles of the four wheel drive and motorcycle varieties. From their slow pace and the distance they kept from Los Chingados, the Keeper surmised this band was trailing the outlaws. Because of the dust their vehicles raised, he couldn't clearly make out who the second group was until they were nearly parallel to the house. Then as they slowed by the road heading up to the house, the dust settled and in the glinting rays of the midday sun, the Keeper got a good look at them. He saw shiny metal, vicious-looking weapons, and the unmistakable reddish color of body leather. Erads. The old man involuntarily sucked air into his lungs.

"Oh, shit a brick," he cursed out loud.

Then he looked through the binoculars again. Yes. It was Erads all right. There was no mistaking that Roman Legion look. It was unique throughout the known world and probably triggered the same kind of fear in those who beheld it today as it had those who lived thousands of years ago. The Keeper checked them out again. They had stopped to look up the road leading to the house.

"Quick," the old man said, not caring that he was talking to himself like a senile old coot, "got to get the facade up."

Jabbering as he went, the Keeper hurried to a small ante-room leading to one of the larger upstairs library rooms. He reached behind a lamp and pressed a button. A door opened into a small interior room filled with survival foods, water, and gear. The old man went in and began to clear away papers and books from a desk. Knocking things here and there, he sat at the desk and lifted up its ostensible writing surface. Within the desk was a control panel covered with a dozen or so switches, buttons, and dials. The old man used his bony right hand to turn four of the dials. Then he paused to listen.

"There they go," he said with a contented nod.

For several moments he listened to the loud sound -- a mixture of grinding and swishing, as if a huge, paneled curtain were being drawn around the house. When the sound stopped, the old man got up and padded out of the room. He pressed the button to close the hidden room, then went back to his watching post. When he checked the Erads again with the binoculars, he saw that two of them had separated from the pack and come part way up the road on motorcycles. They had paused for the moment and were looking towards the house.

####

Lt. Rankin raised his right arm with index finger extended to halt the pack. A smaller road led off the main road to the right and there appeared to be a large structure, perhaps a house, it was hard to tell in the glaring sunlight, well back on the road and elevated, possibly up on a hill. Lt. Rankin turned around on the seat of his motorcycle to survey the pack. His brother Tom hopped out of one of the trucks and walked towards him. At the back of the pack, Bead and Sgt. Cage, back early that morning from locating the outlaws, rode rear guard on motorcycles. The rest of the pack looked tired and dusty, but vigilant and ready.

"What do you think, Tom?" Lt. Rankin asked when his brother reached his side.

"Looks like a big house to me," Tom said, squinting towards the horizon. Whatever the structure was, it seemed to float up and down on the watery heat waves rising from the desert floor.

"Have Bead and Cage check it out," Lt. Rankin said above the noise of the vehicle engines.

"Yes, sir," Tom said.

He signaled back through the pack for Bead and Cage. In moments, they came roaring up alongside Tom and the Lieutenant. The two subordinates popped sharp salutes for their superiors. Lt. Rankin pointed his left hand in the direction of the road. He motioned like he was shooting a lasermag pistol.

"See what that is," he ordered Cage and Bead.

"Yes, sir," they said.

Bead and Cage drove about a half mile up the smaller road, then stopped to check out whatever it was on the hill ahead of them.

"Does that look like a house to you?" Sgt. Cage asked Bead, both of them shielding their eyes.

"It did at first," Bead said, shaking his head in wonder, "but not now."

"Let's go a little farther," Cage suggested.

The two scouts drove on another quarter of a mile, maneuvering their motorcycles over the rough road. Then Cage halted them again.

"That's not a house," he said to Bead, "it's a weird lookin' hill or something." Bead shook his head.

"Looked like a house. But it wasn't."

Cage jerked his thumb back in the direction of the pack, and he and Bead headed back the way they had come.

"Well?" Lt. Rankin asked when they had rejoined the others. "Was it a house?"

"We thought so at first, sir," Bead explained, "I mean, it looked like one. But the closer we got, the more it looked like a hill or something."

"A hill or something?" Lt. Rankin asked skeptically.

"More of a butte, sir," Sgt. Cage added.

"A butte?"

"Yes, sir."

"A butte."

"Yes, sir."

"All right," Lt. Rankin said, shaking his head, "let's move out."

Bead and Sgt. Cage resumed rear guard and the rest of the pack prepared to go. They waited for Lt. Rankin's signal. With a last, puzzled look over at the structure in the distance the Erad leader motioned for the pack to head out. As they began their slow pursuit of the Meshican outlaws, several of the pack could have sworn they heard a high pitched, cackling laughter echoing in the hot desert wind. With a momentary sense of unexplainable foreboding filtering through their ranks, the powerful Erad pack drove on, on across the desert, on with a mission that with each passing day was becoming as hard to identify and to reach as the wavering, floating images they followed into the distant Meshican horizon.

28.

The giant yellow-orange globe of the sun slowly dropped towards the purple mountains in the far western horizon, sending welcome shadows stretching across the desert floor towards the brown hills beyond the co-op proper. A light wind blew through the tall plants in the huge marijuana fields on either side of and behind the tallest of the hills and there was a hint of moisture in the otherwise oven-like air, moisture produced by the heavily irrigated fields. On the tallest hill, Ari and Kara sat next to each other on a large flat rock letting the incipient dusk envelope them in rest and tranquility.

"This is a cool place," Kara said softly, looking down at a group of co-op children playing hide and seek among the palo verde and mesquite just beyond the marijuana fields. "I wish the camp had been here."

Ari looked over at this action-toughened rebel, but all he saw was a smooth, beautiful profile. He had never yet been able to reconcile her good looks with her politics. In the Bimhills Ari had known, girls like this became mates or plezoners. They didn't join shadowy rebellions and shoot people at the drop of a hat.

He tried to come up with something to say that wouldn't make him sound like some ignorant fool, but he couldn't think of anything. Instead, he pulled out the pack of ginweed smokes he had ferreted away and asked Kara if she wanted to split one with him. To his considerable surprise she said yes and she didn't seem interested in where it came from. Ari lit an old fashioned wood match on the rock, got the smoke going and after a couple of puffs handed it to Kara. She smoked on it slowly, leisurely, then handed it back to Ari.

As they continued smoking, Ari moved closer to her and allowed his fingers to linger on hers a little longer each time they exchanged the smoke. Kara didn't seem to mind. In moments, they were very much in the "zone." Ari put the smoke out, tapping the fire off on the rock by his feet when they were finished and re-pocketing the remainder for later use. Even though he was a wealthy highcit, Ari never wasted his drugs.

For upwards of a quarter hour, then, the two young people sat quietly on the rock, watching the day end, saying nothing. After awhile, Ari turned his attention again on Kara's profile and just sat there openly admiring it. She finally became aware of his scrutiny and looked over.

"What is it?" she said almost in a whisper.

"How did I ever miss you?"

"I guess you just weren't too bright," she said with a little laugh.

"No," he agreed, touching his forehead, "I would say pretty dull."

"You're not so dumb," Kara said. "You were learning a lot from that old man."

"What a funny old bird, huh?" Ari said. "I think we're both starting to jabber a little like him now."

"You mean the old talk?"

"Yeah."

"He had no dull gray matter," Kara said.

"None," Ari said. "He told me so many things in so little time. About the past, about now, about us."

"Us?"

"Our world. Bimhills, Meshica. All the zones. How they used to be called different names. And that the country was really big. There were millions of cits, everywhere. And the bench was upside down, like from now."

"I don't understand," Kara said.

"Smoking nicotine wasn't illegal," Ari explained, "and criss cross on the road neither. Stuff like that."

"I read something of that in the booker," Kara said, leaning back to an almost prone position.

The huge orb of the sun had begun to drop behind the mountains now and an even deeper feeling of calm began to settle over the land. The air was cooler and the wind brushed gently against their clothing, their sun darkened skin. Ari settled down next to Kara, his body nearly touching hers. She didn't move away.

"It's so beautiful here," she said quietly. Ari looked at the sunset, then back at Kara.

"Beautiful," he said. Kara looked at him and smiled. He thought his breath might stop. "Did I not know you at all at the booker?"

"You were highcit," Kara said, looking away. "I wasn't. You didn't seem to notice."

"I never knew."

"We're from the same zone, but it might as well have been we were from Toku and the Outworld."

"What was your family?"

"Workcit father. Mother. Three brothers and a sister."

"Are they back there?"

"They're all gone."

"All gone?"

"Dead or in the vats."

"Your whole family?"

"My father, my brothers, an aunt. Enough of them," Kara said. Ari let out a deep breath.

"Why?" he asked.

"IMC crap," Kara told him, her voice betraying no emotion, no self-pity. "Political stuff."

"Is that why you're with the rebellion? With Severn?"

"Yes," Kara answered calmly. "The shadpol bastards who run the show have to be stopped. The cits have to rise up and take back the zones."

"My father was one of those shadpols," Ari confessed. He didn't know how Kara would react to the news. "The old man knew who he was."

"The old man knew everything."

"You're not mad at me because of that?"

"Ari, Kara said earnestly, looking the young highcit directly in the eyes, "we knew who you were before we snatched you. All of you highcits have some kind of shadpol crap in the backdrop. You just never used your brain before. You were too zoned and plezoned to wonder about anything or care about anything."

"That's what the Keeper said, too."

"He was maxed out in the gray and spoke right," Kara said, dropping the oldspeak momentarily.

Ari fiddled with the ring in his pocket. He wanted to show it to Kara again, to gain her trust and respect. Maybe it was important for some reason. The old man had seemed to think so. Ari almost had it out of his pocket when Kara pointed to the horizon.

"Look," she said, touching his shoulder to turn him towards the sunset. He reluctantly looked away from her. "Look how beautiful the sky is. The sun just went below the mountains. Jammin'."

Ari let the ring drop from his fingertips into the bottom of his pocket. The sunset and Kara were far too compelling to risk losing the pleasurable sensation of each over the possible importance of an old ring. Instead, he reached out his hand and held Kara's. When she didn't pull away, he linked his fingers with hers. To Ari's reborn senses it was almost like jamming with a really good bedmate. He closed his eyes and breathed in her smell, felt her warm skin. He didn't move a muscle for fear of losing the moment.

When he felt Kara stir, Ari opened his eyes and looked at her. In the dying light, he could see a smile upon her lips. Her beautiful lips. He leaned towards Kara and kissed her. The contact sent shivers like electrical sparks coursing over and through his body. He pulled back and took her other hand in his.

"I'm really sorry about your family," he said.

"Thank you," she said, rubbing his fingers with hers.

"Kara?" he asked.

"What?"

"Am I still your prisoner?"

There was a long pause. Ari held his breath. It was too dark now for him to get an accurate reading from her face. He waited.

"No," Kara said at last, "but ...."

"Don't tell me," Ari interrupted her. "I don't want to know. It's enough for now."

"Ari," Kara said, squeezing his hand.

"Please," he said, "no more."

"All right."

"Thank you."

In the dark, Ari reached for Kara again. He found her and kissed her once more. When they separated, neither spoke again. They quietly sat beside each other, arms and legs touching, listening to the sounds of the co-op behind them, feeling the cool air on their skin. It was a contented, peaceful time. Night had come to Meshica.

29.

Mid-morning of the second day after Kara and Ari's ginweed sunset, the co-op alarm bell began clanging loudly and wildly. A boy out irrigating a lettuce field far from the safety of the co-op had spotted a contingent of men on horseback riding from the west.

"What is it?" Kara called out to Rocio as they worked in the co-op mess hall preparing the day's communal lunch.

"I don't know," Rocio answered, throwing off her apron and hurrying towards the door.

Outside, the co-op was a madhouse of activity. Men, women, and children raced this way and that hollering instructions back and forth. The youngest of the children were taken indoors, the older ones continued helping the grownups lock up supply areas and retrieve weapons for the co-op defense militia.

The weapons were old: lever and bolt action rifles, revolvers, and an occasional semi-automatic pistol. All in all, it probably represented no more power than a single modern day Erad DC-40. Hurrying through the turmoil, Kara and Rocio found Francisco and Ari as they rushed into the co-op from working in nearby fields.

"What's the matter," Rocio breathlessly asked her husband.

"Bandidos," he answered. "Outlaws, coming straight for us. Maybe a dozen, fifteen."

Ari stood next to Kara, but as she had ever since their time alone on the hill at dusk, she ignored him.

He didn't know what to make of her coolness to him, her detachment. He wanted to say something, but was afraid. And this was hardly the time or place to pursue personal matters. As Ari was letting those ideas go, a teenaged boy jogged up and handed rifles to both him and Francisco.

"Damn," Kara exclaimed. "I left my weapon in my room."

"Hurry," Francisco told her, "we'll be up on the wall. Come on," he said to Ari and Rocio, "let's go."

By the time Kara retrieved her lasermag and rejoined the others on the narrow walkway built on the inside of the wall that shielded the living area of the co-op, the outlaws were in sight and coming steadily forward. When they were perhaps a quarter of a mile away, they stopped.

"What are they doing?" Ari asked Kara. She didn't answer.

"One of them's coming with a white flag," Rocio said. "They want to parlay." Francisco held up his hand.

"Don't fire," he called out, "he's coming to talk."

The bandit halted his horse about thirty yards from the co-op and held up the white flag.

"I know this one," Francisco told Kara an Ari. "His name is Flaco Rivéra. He's the right hand man to Matanza, their leader. A real piece of work. Both of them. They're Los Chingados."

"Los Chingados?" Kara asked the question Ari also had in mind, "who or what are they?"

"Very bad hombres," Rocio answered for Francisco. "Outcasts in Meshica. They only know to take what they want. We've had trouble with them before."

"Oyé," the bandit Flaco called out to the co-op. "Buenos dias." When there was no response he waved the flag at the co-op. "You see I come in peace. To talk. Who is your jéfe? I will speak with him."

When no one still answered the bandit, an old man on the wall near Francisco and the others called out in an age-cracked voice:

"No one here is el jéfe, but Francisco will speak for us. Please, Francisco."

"Muy bien," Francisco agreed reluctantly. "All right."

"You then are the jéfe?" the bandit called up.

"We have no jéfe," Francisco reiterated, "but I will speak for the co-op."

"How do you don't have a jéfe?" Flaco wanted to know, maneuvering his horse for a better look at Francisco. "Do I know you?"

"What is it you want?" Francisco said.

"You are not very polite, señor," Flaco said. "Can't you see the flag I carry?"

"Bueno," Francisco said, "how can we help you, señor?" Flaco nodded his head approvingly.

"As you can see, señor, we have ridden a long way. We are tired and thirsty. And hungry, too. We were wondering if you had enough food and water for us and our animales. We can trade you for it. We have things to trade. Good things."

"Un momento, amigo," Francisco told the outlaw.

"Como no," Flaco replied, tilting his broad brimmed hat respectfully toward the co-op.

Francisco climbed down from the interior wall walkway and gathered with the old man who had spoken first to the outlaw and several other elders. They debated among themselves for several moments, then climbed back up onto the walkway.

"Señor," Francisco called out to the bandit, "the Lazaro Cardenas Co-op will always help travelers in need. Gather your people together and we will bring the food and water out to you."

"Qué bueno," Flaco said, with an attempt at an ingratiating sincere smile. "Muy amable." He made a little bow towards Francisco, then turned and rode back to rejoin the other outlaws.

In the co-op, Francisco organized the party that would take food and water out to the bandits. When they were ready, he led the little procession including Ari and Kara, outside the co-op walls. To no one's real surprise, the outlaw band had gathered uncomfortably close to the co-op. They were only about seventy-five yards out and except for Flaco and Matanza, had dismounted and were gathered around and under a small stand of palo verde trees that provided a little shade and respite from the blistering sun.

For the first time, the co-op group saw that the outlaw entourage included two men who were hooded and tied up in a hay wagon driven by a demonic appearing, fat-cheeked outlaw whose face was so scarred it looked like the man had been in a dozen knife fights, and lost them all.

"Bien, nidos," Flaco greeted Francisco and his party when they approached the outlaws. "We'll do good business. We trade for food and water."

"They've got lasermags," Ari whispered to Kara.

"One new, one old," she affirmed. "The jammer with the new one must be Matanza."

Francisco stopped his group ten yards from the outlaws. Several of them came out from under the palo verdes, hands on their weapons. The co-op group spread out on either side of Francisco, hands on their weapons as well. There was a long pause in which each side sized up the other. No one spoke. Flies buzzed loudly beneath the sparse palo verde branches. Each nervous movement from either side was magnified, the slight movement of a hand or leg causing the leather of weapon-holding holsters to creak ominously. Finally, smiling broadly, Matanza slid from his horse -- Flaco hurriedly doing the same -- and stood upon the sand facing the co-op band.

"I am Matanza," he said forcefully, "I am El Rey de Los Chingados. El king. I take what I want." The creaking of holster leather increased. "But today, today I feel...," he paused eyeing the co-op weaponry, in particular Kara's lasermag, "good. I want to trade today. You co-op people work hard, you offer us what you can. We will trade."

"Must be desperate," Kara spoke out of the side of her mouth to Ari.

He nodded, barely hearing her. Sweat stood out on his forehead and his palms were so wet he feared having to actually fire the rifle he held. The standoff was more intense than anything Ari had experienced before and he felt as if he were in a fog. The negotiations between Francisco and the outlaws seemed far away and confusing and he was hardly aware when the food and water was placed before the bandits. Francisco was apparently reluctant to take the two men in the wagon in trade even when the outlaw Flaco hopped up onto the wagon and removed their hoods to show that they were well and healthy.

Ari was still really out of it until something, an instinct or a feeling -- he wasn't sure which or what, finally made him re-concentrate and focus on the captured men. Both were in filthy peasant clothes and had dirty, unkempt hair and beards, nothing there of real interest. But a closer inspection showed him that one of the two captives was redheaded, the other really big, and really familiar. Ari's eyes widened in surpise. It was the red-headed FJ from the simpark battle and the big man was:

"Platt," Ari cried out in amazement, causing both sides to panic and draw down their weapons, "Platt Meeler!"

####

Sgt. Cage finished assembling his .30 caliber sniper rifle and began sighting in his target. To his left, Bead had already put his plastic stock field weapon together and had Darden, the redheaded FJ, in his crosshairs. The .30 caliber sniper rifles weren't necessarily the most accurate of long range Erad weapons, but they were light and easy to break down, put together, and carry. For expert marksmen like Bead and Cage, their own skill and the powerful telescopic lenses made up for any deficiencies in the weapon.

"I'm gonna take out that skinny, jammin', shitcit of a bandido by the wagon," Cage told Bead. "Who you clampin' on?"

"That redheaded piece of dragalong shit."

"I got first shot."

"Yes, sir, sergeant."

"Let's take 'em."

####

At the sound of his name being called out, Platt Meeler stumbled forward in the wagon. He almost managed to lift his huge frame off the bed when he saw Ari.

"Ari," he cried back to his friend. "Ari."

Ari started to come forward but the sound of outlaw weapons cocking froze him in his tracks. Francisco held up his hand and the two sides held their fire, though barely.

"You know these men?" he asked Ari.

"That's my best friend," Ari explained. "C'mon, we've got to get him."

"Me, too," Darden called from the wagon.

"Stop," Matanza ordered. "Nobody move. This is a new thing. These are your people? Then we want more food and water for bringing them safe to you."

"They're not 'our' people," Francisco emphasized. "Our visitors here know them, that's all."

"What visitors?" the head bandido asked.

"This hombrecito, and the young woman."

"Ay, Chihuahua," Matanza whistled, really seeing Kara for the first time, "que guapisima. We'll trade you all these men for her."

"Mira, señor," Francisco said earnestly, "we have been courteous to you and helped you like we would anyone who was in need. But we do not trade for human beings."

Matanza came several feet towards Kara for a better look. Rebels and co-op soldiers spread out but kept their weapons pinned on one another. Matanza walked right past Francisco and Ari and directly up to Kara. When he stood before her, the rebel leaned forward as if he would kiss her. When he did she slapped him hard in the face. The outlaw drew back his hand as if to hit her back, but several rebel weapons swung directly at him.

Looking around, Matanza laughed, and giving Kara a filthy-toothed smile, slowly backed off, backtracking to the side of his sub-chief Flaco. Flaco wasn't smiling. He took dead aim on Kara and began to squeeze the trigger. Kara ducked to her right but then stopped. In disbelief she watched the left side of Flaco's head suddenly explode, splattering bloody pieces of skull and brain all over Matanza and the ground beside him.

In the next moments, before they heard the pulsing distant report of the rifle that had killed Flaco instantly, the standoff between the outlaws and the co-op seemed to move in slow motion. There was the thunderous sound of nearby weapons being discharged, the cries of bandit and farmer as they fell wounded or dead to the ground, and an overwhelming sense of physical impotence as each side sought shelter from the deadly flying metal.

As they darted behind a palo verde being torn apart by outlaw bullets, Ari and Kara saw Francisco fall to their right, face first in the road; and looking up at the wagon, they saw Platt dive for the redheaded FJ, spinning him just enough so that another long range shot tore through Darden's right shoulder and not through the back of his head where Bead had the shot had been aimed. And they saw Matanza leap onto his horse and spur it on, away from the firefight -- his men following after. Then they heard again the far off pulsing sound of the rifle used on Darden and time resumed its normal speed.

Outlaws and co-op people raced everywhere, everywhere away from each other and the unseen shooters who were dropping them from somewhere completely out of sight. Platt kicked the back off the wagon and drug Darden down, blood from the FJ's wound staining the wagon, clothes and ground.

Kara and Ari lifted Francisco and drug him groaning towards the co-op. They didn't look back at the outlaws; they could hear them galloping away on their horses. More distant shots followed and though the bullets had already found their mark on outlaws who fell to the earth with metal shattered skulls, the strange, terrifying sound sent the small squad of poorly armed farmers running faster still for the safety of their walled co-op. At the gates, Kara and Ari stumbled in, nearly falling on Francisco as a shot meant for Kara blew a hole in the chest of a waiting guard and one meant for Ari harmlessly tore a huge chunk of wood off one side of the gate.

"Hurry," Kara screamed as she and Ari hauled Francisco inside, Platt Meeler hurrying behind them with Darden on his back. "Close the gate. Get under cover. Out of sight."

The gate slammed shut behind the last returning farmer and Kara and Ari slumped on the ground by Francisco.

"Francisco, Francisco," Rocio cried, running to her husband's side. She turned him over to face her. He was smiling.

"Just through the thigh," he said, the smile turning to grimace, "I don't think it broke the bone."

"Damn you, you idiot," Rocio said, switching to a cooing voice as she stroked the sides of Francisco's head, running her fingers into his sweaty hair.

"Help me," Darden cried out from where Platt had leaned him against a nearby support beam on the wall. "I'm bleeding to death."

Platt corralled a thin, long-haired young woman racing by with a first aid kit.

"Here, help here," he said, pulling the girl towards Darden. The redheaded FJ reached for the girl but he had lost so much blood he slumped to one side. The girl looked over at Rocio.

"Go ahead, Emma," the older woman said, "he is losing much blood. Help him first, then Francisco."

Francisco squeezed his wife's hand. She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. The young girl, Emma, began working to stop Darden's bleeding.

"Francisco," a guard called down from the wall, "Los Chingados have gone but with the binoculars I see someone else way off to the west."

"Are they headed this way?" Francisco asked, groaning as he turned to look up.

"Maybe. They are very far away."

"Keep watching. Let me know."

"Sí, amigo."

"Francisco," Kara said, "who out here could possibly shoot that good?"

"They blew that outlaw's head completely away," Ari said, "and you didn't hear the sound till way after."

"They were a long way off," Rocio said.

"Sí," Francisco agreed, shifting to ease the pain in his leg. "And there's only one bunch that can shoot like that."

"Erads," Platt said loudly. He had left Darden in Emma's hands and stood behind the others. They turned to face him.

"Platt, my old goodcit," Ari said, jumping up and hugging the big somecop, "I almost forgot you were here. Look at you, a dirty shitcit outlaw with an ugly beard. I never grayed to view you again." Platt shook his head.

"Doubles for me, you plezone jockey."

"Enough of the reunion," Kara told the old friends, pointing at Platt, "you said Erads. How do you know that?"

"Who the hell is she?" Platt asked, looking at Ari.

"I'll explain later," Ari told him. "What do you know about the Erads?"

"They're after us," Darden called over haltingly. "And you, too, crazy mothers, they...."

"Hush," Emma told the FJ, brushing her deep brown hair back as she applied a compress pack and bandage to Darden's shoulder. The FJ grinned at her and fainted. The girl elevated his feet and with some difficulty moved him into a more comfortable position.

"They're after all of you?" Rocio asked, looking from Kara to Ari to Platt.

"Shit," Kara said, "we're jammed. And Severn's gone."

"He and Marco will be back soon," Francisco suggested hopefully.

"Damn it," Kara said, "we can't stay here. If the Erads are coming after us, the whole co-op will be in danger. Those bastards will dust everybody."

"You can't go," Rocio said. "Where will you go?"

"What about him?" Francisco asked, pointing at Darden.

"One cit you can probably hide okay," Kara said, thinking fast. "When they see us bail, they might leave the co-op alone."

"We can't let you do this," Rocio said.

"It's the only way," Kara said. "Francisco knows I'm right." Rocio looked at her husband. He nodded. "Is your romspeed ready?" Kara asked Ari.

"Yes," he said, "we can give 'em a hellfire run for it."

"You'll never get away from those crazed Xers," Platt said.

"We don't have a choice," Kara said, "unless you got a scheme, captive boy." Platt shrugged.

"We gotta fly," Ari said, "you know they'll clean us if they snag us."

"Listen," Kara said, turning back to Rocio and Francisco, "Marco and Severn have to come back this way on the road, right?"

"Sí," Francisco affirmed.

"Then we should meet them on our wayout."

"They will come back by the road," Rocio said, "but we don't know where they went. They could be on the corridor still or in Long Wound. It would maybe be just a lucky chance if you saw them."

"We'll find them," Kara said.

"The corridor's out here again somewhere?" Ari asked.

"Sí, amigo," Francisco said. "The long dirt road that runs in front of us ends in a T with another road far from here. Take to the right and you will find the corridor."

"Jammin'," Ari said, giving Francisco a thumbs up sign.

"We must get you food and water for the trip," Rocio told Kara. "I will see to it myself. If you must go, be ready to go quickly. And go with the rebellion."

"Go with the rebellion?" Platt said, puzzled, as Rocio hurried off. "Rebellion? I, uh, shit." He pointed at Kara. "This is the babe that snatched you. She's a rebel?"

"I said I'd explain later," Ari began, but Kara had already stepped up to Platt and laid her lasermag against his temple.

"That's right bright boy, I'm the babe that locked onto your shitcit pal here and now you, too, slim." She motioned at Ari with her free hand. "Fork over the weapon."

"But, I'll..we'll need it," Ari resisted.

"I'll hold it for now," Kara said with authority. Ari handed over the weapon.

"Ah, hell, Ari," Platt said, "you weenie sturch. You let her do that?"

"You saw it with your own eyes," Kara sniffed. She motioned for Ari and Platt to back up, which they did.

"Where you goin'," Darden muttered, momentarily rousing from his faint. "Don't leave me. Don't." The girl Emma held Darden tightly as he fainted again.

"He can't go anywhere," she said.

"You take care of him," Platt said. "He's goodcit. We were snagged by the Erads and those crazer big hats that had us here. He's goodcit. Don't let him fade."

"I'll take care of him," Emma said, wiping fresh blood from the edges of the bandage she had put on the FJ's wound. "I will."

"Let's bust it," Kara told Ari and Platt as Rocio returned with food and jugs of water. They grabbed the supplies and raced for the romspeed.

"Que vayan con suerte," Rocio and Francisco called after. "Go with good luck."

"Ustedes tambien," Kara shouted back one of the phrases she'd learned during their stay at the co-op, "you, too. Good luck."

30.

Bead and Cage wanted to go after the dragalongs right into the farm compound but Lt. Rankin called them off on the radio. Instead, they quickly formed up with the rest of the pack and pursued the escaping outlaws. It wasn't much of a pursuit. The pack dropped the outlaws one by one, capturing their animals to replace several of their own nearly fuel dry vehicles. Only the wild outlaw leader and two of his luckier men managed to escape into the nearby hills.

"Do we finish it, sir?" Sgt. Cage queried Lt. Rankin as the Erads regrouped around the bodies of four outlaws who had mistakenly chosen to stop and fight. The pack could see dust lifting up behind the hooves of the three remaining outlaw horses as they were being ridden hell bent for the safety of the rocky hills a half mile away.

"No," Lt. Rankin said, "they're not worth it. I doubt that they'll cause much trouble in this zone for awhile." The pack laughed.

"Sir, sir," a young pack member cried out, "look. There's a vehicle flying from that farm place."

Lt. Rankin and the others turned to see Ari's romspeed shoot out of the farm's main gate, make a fast right turn, and then angle to the left towards the road leading east across Meshica.

"Sgt. Cage," Lt. Rankin said calmly, "get a couple of men and consolidate what fuel we have left in one truck and two cycles. The rest of the pack will ride these animals."

"Yes, sir," Cage said, saluting.

"Sir," Tom Rankin addressed his brother, "what about the farm? They helped the dragalongs and the rebel fliers. Shouldn't we make them pay?" Lt. Rankin smiled at his brother.

"Don't worry, Tom, we'll dust 'em on the way back. They'll get a little Erad fire and shit storm for their trouble. A lesson for the outzones. Don't jam with Erads." The pack let loose a loud cheer.

"Yes, sir," Tom Rankin said when the pack had settled down.

"From this moment," Lt. Rankin said, to another round of cheers from his troops, "we are taking back complete control of the pack. Those fliers out there have to be running for the rebel base camp. I intend for us to trail them there and wipe it out. That will do for the IMC. As for the fliers themselves, my instinct tells me the mole is working both sides. The mole is carrying a tracking device and," he paused to surreptitiously check the flasher tracking signal on the unit he carried in his pocket -- it was pulsing red -- "he's with those fliers."

"For sure, sir?" the young pack member who'd seen the fliers break from the farm compound asked, wondering how the lieutenant could be so sure.

"Stands to reason, Crad," Lt. Rankin told the younger Erad. His tone indicated there was no more to say on the subject.

"Yes, sir," Crad said snappily. "Understood, sir."

"Anyway," Lt. Rankin went on, "I want those people in that vehicle. I want them alive. We're going to get every bit of information that they have out of them. Then we're going to make examples of them. Examples no one will forget. People will see them and know the true power of the Erad pack. Dust back to dust."

A thunderous roar of approval burst from the pack. Several men even fired their weapons into the air, stimulating the pack to further celebration and thoroughly terrorizing the trembling farmers hiding behind the walls of the Lazaro Cardenas co-op. But for the time being, there was no need for such fears. The Erad pack busied itself in preparation for the continued desert trek by consolidating the fuel as Lt. Rankin had ordered and by scavenging the co-op food and water the outlaws had left behind in their mad scramble towards a mostly illusionary safety.

When all was ready, Lt. Rankin gave the signal and the pack moved out. They traveled slowly to conserve fuel and because the fliers track was so easy to follow. As they passed within a half mile or so of the co-op, Lt. Rankin directed the tracking unit at the walled structure itself. There was no flashing red light. When he redirected it to the front, the way the fliers had gone, it flashed brightly. They were definitely on the right track.

31.

Ari drove the romspeed as fast as he could along the road heading east across Meshica. The thought of being the focus of an Erad pack kept his energy and senses at peak levels. Knowing the pack was back there somewhere caused him to frequently check the rear view mirror, always with the fear that the Erads would appear suddenly over a rise in the distance behind, coming hard, closing, closing fast. But when they reached the T in the road that Francisco had described, several hours had passed since they fled the co-op and there was still no sign of their pursuers.

Kara had Ari stop at the deserted intersection and the three fliers took long enough to relieve themselves, eat a bit of food and drink sparingly from their water. Platt, having been given nothing but cooked prickly pears during his time with the outlaws, was ravenous and Kara had to stop him at gun point from devouring their meager store of provisions. After the break, she gave the go ahead and Ari made the right turn that would presumably take them to the Meshican corridor -- a welcome relief after their recent off-corridor experiences.

"Pull over here," Kara told Ari, a couple of hours later, as the sun began to set behind a far range of mountains to their right. Ari put brought the romspeed to a halt and took it out of gear. "See over there?" Kara added, pointing to a small group of foothills. "Go behind the biggest one of those rocks; we'll camp for the night."

Ari drove the two hundred yards or so to the rocky hill, circled around behind it and shut off the romspeed. Stretching wearily, the fliers, under Kara's direction, made something of a camp on a flat space near the base of the hill. Ari had ferreted away a handful of matches from the co-op and with them managed to get a small fire started. As night set in and the desert cooled, they huddled near the little blaze and sipped more water; Kara divvying out a bit more food, Ari passing more than half his share to his big Somecop friend.

"He eats like a pig," Kara said, watching Platt shove the food into his face.

"You would, too," Platt told her, "if you hadn't chewed nothin' but cactus things like me and Darden been doin'."

"Darden? Is that the red-headed type with you and the outlaws?"

"Do you remember Darden?" Ari asked Kara. "He said he was at booker with you. With us."

"I remember him from the simpark all right," Kara said emotionally, the memory of her torture and the death of little Freedy welling back up from across time and space.

"That's him," Ari confirmed.

"I don't know nothin' of that," Platt said, "but we escaped the Erads. Pulled a quick one. Back where them dark people were."

"You were in Ebon?" Kara asked. "You and this Darden?"

"Yeah. Them Erads was all cranking their DCs and lasermags and stopped watchin' me and Darden. We bailed on 'em."

"Right into Los Chingados," Ari said. Platt grunted and wiped stray food out of his scruffy beard and licked it off his fingers.

"Wait a minute," Kara said, grimacing and looking away from Platt, "that means...."

"What?" Ari asked.

"The Erads definitely must have laid down that burst when we bolted Mother T's."

"Erads save us?" Ari wondered, shaking his head.

"Erads can do anything," Platt said, patting his stomach and burping.

"You're right," Kara told Platt, "but why? Why would they help us fly? Unless...."

"Unless what?" Ari asked.

Kara didn't answer. Some important things were becoming clear to her but she wanted to run them by Severn. Yet lately he had been either too unsettled or unwilling to talk. Or out of the loop altogether like he was now. Maybe they would find him and Marco tomorrow on the road to the corridor. She hated the idea of making the run through the rest of Meshica and then Long Wound by herself, basically guarding the two non-radcits up front. Ari had changed a lot, but he was hardly a rebel yet, and the big one seemed too stupid to figure it out at all. He was probably just plain dangerous.

"Don't try anything," Kara told Ari and Platt as she settled in to rest on the other side of the dying fire. "I'm a light sleeper and if you make a move I'll dust you. Both of you."

"I wouldn't do anything like that, Kara," Ari said.

Platt squinted at his friend through the flickering light cast by the fire. There was something odd about the way Ari spoke to this rebel girl. This rebel girl who had kidnapped him.

"Okay," Kara said, her tone softening.

Not sure what to make of whatever was going on between Ari and the rebel girl and too tired to care anymore right then, big Platt nestled in on the other side of the fire and in moments was snoring away, completely oblivious to his surroundings. Ari got up then and found a soft place to sleep above Platt and Kara. Kara watched him out of sleep-heavy eyes, but she also was too tired to care. In a heartbeat, she was out. Sound asleep.

Ari looked at her face, light and shadow playing off it from the fire. She was an extraordinarily pretty woman from any perspective. Ari moved a couple of small chunks of wood onto the fire and tidied up the blaze. Then he lay by its warmth, head angled to watch Kara. In a matter of moments, he, too, was sleeping soundly.

####

They had been on the road for about two hours the next morning when Ari spotted the approaching vehicle.

"Look," he cried out, "look up ahead. Isn't that the co-op truck?"

Kara leaned forward, careful not to get too close to the Somecop, to see for herself.

"Yes," she said, "yes. It's them. Pull over up here."

Kara had Ari shut off the romspeed and then, with Platt, move several feet away from the vehicle where she could watch them while she talked to Severn and Marco.

"You're sure they were Erads?" Severn asked, after Kara had filled him in on the co-op shootout.

"Yes," she said. "That big guy back there with Ari, uh, the highcit, he's a Somecop. Him and a Fulljohn named Darden -- the one that was in the simpark that day, the redheaded one, remember?" Severn shook his head in the affirmative. "Well, they were dragalongs with the Erads, probably to ID the highcit. They escaped after the firefight in Ebon and got caught by the Meshican outlaws. In the fight, they shot the Fulljohn and one of the outlaws from so far away we didn't hear the sound of the rifles for a long time. And then they nearly hit all of us. We figured only Erads were that good."

"You're probably right about that," Severn agreed.

Oh," Kara added, suddenly remembering the watch in her pocket, "you forgot this. You can have it again."

"No," Severn said, holding up his left hand, "no. You go ahead and keep it on you for now."

Kara shrugged and dropped the watch back in her pocket. She was getting used to Severn doing odd little things she wasn't expecting.

"Well," she asked when neither Severn nor Marco were more forthcoming, "what did you find out? Is there a rebel camp? Do we know where it is?"

"Sí, señorita," Marco answered, "we do. It is near the Outworld border. In the hills. Not far from Endgate."

"Endgate? What's Endgate?"

"That is the border town at the end of Long Wound. It is in no man's land. After Long Wound, before the Outworld."

"It doesn't sound good."

"It's not, señorita. It is a, how you say, hell hole."

"Yeah, whatever," Severn put in, bored with Marco and Kara's colloquy. "Now who's the big shitcit over there with the igno highcit again?"

"He was with the FJ back at the co-op," Kara explained. "He's a goodcit of Ari's."

"Big deal," Severn said, raising an eyebrow at Kara's use of the highcit's name, "dump his butt."

"I heard that," Ari called over to Severn.

"Who cares, cit," Severn said.

"He don't go, I don't go," Ari said flatly.

"I'll X your ass out right now," Severn said, reaching for his DC-40. "I can drive that piece of crap romspeed myself."

"You couldn't drive it in a simpark," Ari countered. Platt laughed.

"You frappin' sacks," Severn said hotly, unholstering his weapon. Kara stepped between the rebel leader and his antagonists.

"Easy," she said. "Cool it. We still need the highcit. You know he's the best driver. I had to bring the SC. Otherwise the Erads would have for sure gone for the co-op."

"Maybe they did anyway," Severn suggested. Kara had to allow that possibility.

"We tried to draw them after us."

"We? Us?" Severn questioned.

"We'll need anyone we can get if the Erads find us."

"I don't know."

"All right," Kara said, exasperated with Severn and turning to address the two non-radcits, "will you two help fight the Erads? Or do we X you out right now?"

"I will," Ari said. Platt looked at him. Ari signaled with an upraised thumb.

"Me, too," Platt swore. "I'll fight. I hate the thievin' bastards anyway."

"Okay?" Kara asked, facing Severn. He shook his head.

"What the frap," he frowned, "but one mistake and they're dust."

"Dust," Kara repeated.

Ari and Platt exchanged looks. Ari sighed.

"Let's bail," Severn ordered, "we get back to the corridor before night we can fuel up again and get the Long Wound guide early tomorrow morning."

"So you found one?" Kara asked.

"Yes," Severn answered. "A goodcit of Marco's. Marco says he can take you anywhere and lose anybody on your tail."

"He's the best," Marco said, "he'll take you to where you want to be. I have known him many years now."

"Okay," Kara said. "Sounds good."

"Crank the vehicles and let's bail," Severn said. "And you, highcit boy, no funny stuff. Got it? Follow Marco and that's all."

"He won't try anything with my lasermag by his ear, will you, cit?" Kara said toughly.

"You know I won't anyway," Ari told her as they climbed into the vehicle. "I don't know why you say things like that."

"Just go on," Kara said, then added something in a very low voice directed at Ari alone.

"What?" he asked, strapping himself into the driver's seat.

He could have sworn she said I'm sorry. As he pulled away behind Marco's old truck, Ari looked in the rear view mirror for confirmation but Kara wouldn't look at him.

Shaking his head, Ari followed the slow moving truck in what amounted to a crawl for his romspeed. He didn't mind though. He was sure of what he had heard Kara say. Funny how things worked out sometimes. This crazed run might end up being the best thing that ever happened to him. Stranger things happened to cits all the time these days. Lots stranger things.

Long Wound

32.

Even though he was only in his early thirties, Carson Begaye was First Elder of the Long Wound People's Council. He had risen quickly in the council when at twenty-five years old he negotiated a trade agreement with the crazed Outworlders. Carson had succeeded, where older more experienced negotiators had failed, in forging a trade arrangement whereby cash poor Long Wound exchanged food, mostly meat, and high grade peyote to the Outworld bosses, Carbon Based and Feral T, for fuel which the Long Wound People then sold to the Meshican co-ops.

The People, last vestiges of a once great native population of proud warriors and nomads, needed very little fuel of their own. They contented themselves with the small amount allocated by the IMC for allowing the huge fuel tankers to roar across the Long Wound corridor on their way to drop off points in Meshica, Ebon and, of course, primarily in Bimhills and Toku.

Besides his official role as First Elder, Carson Begaye was the acknowledged champion of vanishing, the Peoples' time honored method of combating IMC police authority, Outworld crazers, and corridor renegades like the fliers Carson had signed on to escort across Long Wound. Despite having the Meshican, Marco, as their guide, these fliers were making a very loud, reckless run across the land. Carson hardly even had to tap into his skills at vanishing to stay hidden from this bunch as he followed their progress from Meshica into western Long Wound. He would watch them, size them up, and when they stopped -- make contact.

Remaining unseen by the not-People was usually very simple and could be used to scare them off or to unnerve them like he had done when he made the talk with the Outworlders. The not-People became very agitated when a Long Wound Vanisher would appear and disappear to them at will. Carson and the other People found this process, and the not-People's reaction to it, highly entertaining. Very amusing. Carson was enjoying this thought when he walked out of the afternoon sunlight and into the midst of the corridor fliers who had stopped their run long enough to relieve themselves by the side of the smooth, dirt corridor road. Carson came right up to a young flier who was urinating on the dusty soil and scared him half to death.

####

The blazing sun was halfway past its midway point when Ari saw Severn waving his arm out the window of the vehicle ahead, signaling for the trailing romspeed to pull over. Ari slowed up and guided his vehicle to a stop right behind Severn and Marco.

"Shut it off," Kara said from the back seat, resuming the authoritarian tone that now pricked Ari's senses.

Kara seemed intent on acting as if they had never had their sunset together at the co-op, and that both surprised and hurt Ari. He tried to adopt his old Bimhills plezone attitudes about bedmates, but with Kara it just didn't seem to work. Preoccupied with his thoughts of her, Ari got out with the others to relieve himself on the dusty, desert ground.

Kara went behind a small tree several yards from the vehicle while the men spread out in a line by the road with Severn on one end of the line and Marco on the other. Despite any supporting evidence, Severn seemed convinced that Ari and Platt would try to bolt at any moment, so he kept an eye on them and told Kara and Marco to do the same. Platt grumbled something about rebel crazers but went ahead and did his business, sighing contentedly when he was done. Ari had trouble starting and the rest of the group was reforming near Kara's tree before he was able to let loose a satisfying stream onto the ground. His satisfaction was short lived.

Suddenly, out of the sun to Ari's left, a tall, black haired man appeared as if by magic. If Ari had not been so taken aback, in fact dousing the front of his own pants, he would have noticed that the hatless man wore an off-white shirt, covered to the midsection by a lightweight blue and gray blanket, dirty brown pants and a pair of leather moccasin-like shoes.

"Who are you?" Ari squawked out, causing the other fliers to turn back towards the romspeed.

Severn and Kara reached for their weapons, but the man anticipated their moves. With remarkable speed and agility he drew an old fashioned .44 magnum revolver and an equally out of date sawed off .12 gauge shotgun from beneath his blanket, aiming them -- one over the top of the other -- right at Severn and Kara's hearts. The rebels froze, their hands in mid air.

"Whoa, alto, stop," Marco cried out, raising both hands above his head. Platt cringed by Marco's side, holding both hands up before himself as if they would shield him from the man's guns. "Nobody shoot," Marco added quickly, "this is Begaye. He is a Long Wound elder. He's your guide across Long Wound. Calma. Everybody calma."

"Marco, you jammin' berserker," Severn growled, "I cant' believe I let you spring this on us."

"Easy, amigo," Marco cajoled Severn, as Begaye maintained his aim on the rebels. "This is a good hombre. A Long Wound radcit. But the People don't like to be seen first by whites like you. In their zone, they call the plays."

"Who are the People?" Ari asked, having regained most of his composure.

"That's what the Long Wounders call themselves," Marco explained. "They call themselves the People."

"Do the People speak," Kara asked sarcastically, "or do they just aim their weapons at you all the time?" Begaye laughed, showing two rows of white, perfectly formed teeth. He lowered his weapons.

"Jeez," Ari told the tall elder, "you scared the crap out of me." Begaye winked at him.

"You are in Long Wound now," he said in a deep resonant voice, "this is our zone. You will learn that it is quite different than all the others. You are travelers here, visitors in our land. We tolerate your presence just as we do the food and fuel tankers, but you must remain on the corridor. The land outside it is holy. Sacred."

"Marco says you know where our base camp is," Severn interjected abruptly. Begaye looked at him with narrowed eyes. "That's all we need from you, 'Elder'; we can take care of ourselves. Corridor or no corridor."

Marco moved to cut off the incipient hostility between the guide and the rebel leader as a huge oil tanker truck went roaring by.

"Begaye is here to help us," Marco said, when the dust kicked up by the speeding tanker had settled, "he's radcit, like us, like you. Without him, we cannot cross Long Wound. No one can."

"Yeah," Severn groused, adjusting his DC-40 in its holster, "fine. But no more of these tricks; sneaking up on us."

In reply to Severn's posturing, Begaye holstered his own weapon and then crossed his arms twice in front of his face, palms inward. Platt jumped from behind Marco with a little squeal. Two more men, younger, near carbon copies of Begaye, appeared out of the sunlight. They held long rifles at the ready.

"Holy shit," Ari said with a whistle.

Kara shook her head. It was obvious that the People were capable of things not even dreamed of in Bimhills -- or even Ebon or Meshica. They were very impressive.

"These are my cousins," Begaye said by way of introduction. "The bigger one with the long pony tail is Grant Begaye; the one with the blue cavalry jacket is Reno, his younger brother. They are my uncle Travis' boys. My uncle is the chief of Long Wound."

"Is everyone in Long Wound named Begaye?" Ari asked sincerely. The Begayes laughed heartily.

"It is a very common name in Long Wound," Marco told Ari, "like Cardenas in my zone. You know?"

"Oh," Ari said, nodding.

"Are we ready for the journey, then?" Carson Begaye asked, after several moments of silent, continued sizing up between the two groups.

"How about food and fuel?" Kara asked.

"Yeah," Ari seconded, "are there gates on your corridor with radshops or fillbars?"

"There are stops enough in Long Wound," Carson said earnestly, while his young cousins looked the runners over, especially Kara. "If you use what you have and need correctly, crossing Long Wound is possible."

"What about outguards?" Ari asked.

"They are People," Carson said simply.

"How do we know you know where the rebel camp is?" Severn challenged the elder Begaye.

The young ones cocked their heads at Severn. He shifted uncomfortably to his right, presenting them only his profile. Grant and Reno looked at each other and smiled.

"A rebel camps exists," Carson Begaye said evenly, "in the hills near Endgate. They are left alone. How they do is up to them."

"What does that mean?" Severn wanted to know. Kara waved off his concern.

"What is this Endgate really like?" she asked Carson. "Marco said it can be really bad."

"Marco spoke true," the Elder told her, "but we should not have to go there."

"You don't want to go there," Marco said. "It is a truly bad place."

"All we want is to reach our fellow cits at the base," Kara said to Carson, "that's all. Can you take us there?"

"I would not be here," Carson said, as another fuel truck rumbled by.

"Let's stop jawin' and bust it," Severn said impatiently, "we'll never get there standin' here lettin' the tankers sand blast us."

"Goodbye, then, goodcits," Marco said, offering his hand to Severn. "I must return to the co-op. They will need help there. And I must check on the old man as well."

"Go safe," Kara said, hugging Marco.

"Go safe," he repeated to her.

"Tell the Keeper I remember all he told me and showed me," Ari said to Marco when they shook hands.

"I will," Marco said, nodding goodbye to Platt who stood now to one side eyeing the younger Begayes. They frowned back at him.

"Go with friend Marco," Carson told his cousins, "there may be bad silver coming on the trail. Stay with the sun."

"Stay with the sun, too, uncle," the boys said as they and Marco began moving away.

Marco got into the co-op truck and started it. He turned the vehicle around in the road and drove off slowly with a wave to the flier band. The Begaye cousins again had disappeared from sight. But as Marco drove away, they materialized on horseback behind the slow moving co-op vehicle. With a wave of their long rifles, they rode off after Marco.

"Whew," Ari let out a deep breath, "amazing."

"We can't all fit in the romspeed," Severn said when Marco and the Begaye cousins were gone. "Marco should have ridden with those boys."

"All of you can go in the vehicle," Carson said. "I do not need it." He whistled loudly and a beautiful brown and white horse trotted up out of the sunlight. "This is Cochise. We will lead you through Long Wound."

"What a wonderful animal," Kara said. "What kind is he?"

"Pinto," Carson said. "He's a pinto."

"Let's go," Severn said, heading for the romspeed. "We'll be Erad bait if we stay here jabberin' any longer."

Kara shook her head so that Carson saw she didn't share Severn's impatience. The Elder slid up onto the bare back of his horse smoothly, effortlessly. Ari whistled softly again.

"I'll follow you, Mr. Begaye," he called over, starting the romspeed.

"Carson," the Long Wound elder said, as the runners piled into the romspeed, rebels in back. "Just call me Carson."

"Just call us corridor dust if we don't bail," Severn yelled out from the rider's back window of the romspeed.

Begaye laughed loudly and gave Cochise's reins a solid tug. The animal reared up, front feet a foot or so off the ground, and with a snorting whinny, cantered off down the dusty corridor. Ari jammed the romspeed in gear and followed after.

33.

The Erad pack had stopped for a short break under what shade trees they could find and had been resting for ten minutes or so when Crad, acting as a scout, called back a corridor sighting on the radio.

"We got bogies on the road ahead," Lt. Rankin told Bead and Sgt. Cage a few moments later, "take the pulsers and see if a dusting is needed."

"You bet, sir," Bead said with a happy smile.

"Only if necessary," Lt. Rankin stressed.

"Yes, sir," Sgt. Cage said with a sharp salute.

"Go on," Lt. Rankin said.

Bead and Cage reached Crad in about ten minutes.

"What'ya got?" Bead asked the young lookout.

"They're well off still," Crad said, "but it looks like one cit, ID unknown, driving an old vehicle with two other unknowns beside him on animals."

"Animals?" Sgt. Cage asked.

"Yes, sir," Crad answered. "Horses. On either side of the vehicle. But sometimes very hard to see."

"Check 'em out," Sgt. Cage told Bead, indicating the scopes on their pulse rifles.

"Got 'em," Bead said. "What do you say, sergeant?"

"Target practice," Cage said.

"Only if necessary," Bead laughed.

"Horsemen first," Cage said, unsmiling, "then the vehicle."

"Yes, sir, sergeant," Bead said, grinning and sighting in what appeared to be the smaller of the two horsemen. "I got the one front left. With the blue coat on."

"No question but dangerous hostiles," Cage told Crad. "Radio it back."

"Yes, sergeant," the scout said.

"Whoomp," Bead said, imitating the sound of the pulse sniper rifles. "Whoomp. Whoomp."

####

Grant Begaye rode some fifteen yards behind and to the right of Marco's old truck watching the far horizon for signs of movement. Reno was up ahead to the left, whistling a tribal tune and acting happier than what Grant thought was reasonable under the circumstances. They were nearing the far west end of their zone and these Erad men their uncle had warned them about might appear at any moment over one of the low hills dotting the landscape up ahead. Reno was always too happy for Grant.

The younger boy didn't seem to see life the way the rest of the People did. He was an easy going boy, quick to laugh, slow to anger, way too trusting. It wasn't that Reno wasn't interested in the old ways, such as learning the sun vanishing or eating the sacred cactus -- in fact he was excellent at the one and very reverential in his use of the other -- but he had a joy for living that was seldom seen in the difficult world of Long Wound. Grant realized that his concern for his little brother was simpler than all the thinking about it. He just loved the kid.

"Be quiet up there," Grant called to his brother. "They can hear you for fifty miles."

"Who can?" Reno asked, waving to Marco in the truck. Marco smiled and waved back.

"Holy warriors," Grant said, shaking his head.

"Don't be such an old man, brother," Reno yelled back. "See what a beautiful day it is."

"Right," Grant said, a sudden feeling of foreboding coursing through his system.

He instinctively spurred his horse into the glaring, sandy soil just off the corridor road. A flash from a distant hill preceded by only a millisecond the tearing bullet that ripped through Grant's right shoulder like it was made of butter and not skin, muscle and bone. Grant wheeled his mount to see the back of Reno's head blow off and splatter to the ground. The boy's dead body was still astride his mount when the twin pulsing sounds reached Grant's ears.

More flashes of light drove Grant further into the desert away from Reno's body, now fallen lifeless off the horse, and away from the corridor where two bullets found Marco's face, exploding his skull and brain across the back window of the truck. Veering crazily, the vehicle left the road and crashed upside down beneath a huge prickly pear cactus.

Spurring his horse frantically, Grant rode into the desert, bullets biting into cactus and soil around him. He rode hard, fast, wildly willing himself not to be seen by the distant killers, cursing himself for not being alert enough, crying for his lost brother and the Meshican friend. He rode from side to side, zigzagging to the north, out of harm's way, far from the safety of Cibola, the bosom of the People, his people, the people he had disgraced by his lapse in vigilance, by his lack of respect for an enemy far deadlier than his young mind had before imagined.

34.

For the rebel fliers the journey to the Long Wound capitol of Cibola was thankfully uneventful. There were places along the way to stop for food, fuel, and water, and they took advantage of them. Except for the remarkable growth of an accompanying party of local warriors who seemed to appear out of nowhere to ride along the side of the corridor in ever increasing numbers, the run actually began to seem like nothing more than a casual drive down a long, quiet road in the country.

Inside Ari's romspeed, Platt continued to consume more than his share of the food they obtained and Severn expressed some anxiety over the size of their ever expanding escort, but generally the little group felt more at ease than they had since any one of them could remember. Traveling mostly early and then late in the day and camping out along the way, the runners made good progress across the open expanse of Long Wound. On the second day after Carson Begaye had appeared as their guide, around mid-morning, Kara spotted the zone's capitol city.

"Look," she said, nudging Severn who was nodding half asleep, "up there. Up on that hill to the left. That must be their main city."

"Where?" Severn asked, yawning and stretching. The nights sleeping on the desert floor were relaxing but tended to cause the joints of the urban dwelling fliers to stiffen in the morning hours.

"I see it," Ari said, slowing up the romspeed to get a better look. "Up there. See the reddish colors."

"Houses," Platt said, squinting through the sun reflecting windshield. "Must be made of some kind of red brick or something."

"Stucco," Carson said, leaning down from his horse beside Platt's open rider's side window. The big Somecop nearly went airborne.

"Cripes!" he exclaimed. "Where the frap did you come from? Are you a jammin' ghost or somethin'!"

Carson let out a hearty laugh. These not-People were so easy to fool. And to scare. Even Outworlders and their foul outguards could be easily tricked. They had almost no awareness of their own senses. They could neither smell, nor hear, nor see well. The People used this to their own advantage and were happy and thankful for it.

"Take the fork in the road ahead to the left," Carson said, now appearing beside Ari on the other side of the vehicle. Ari was surprised by Carson's sudden manifestation but showed no sign of fear. Rather, Carson thought, this not-People might actually like being tricked. The Long Wound elder found that amusing and likable about the young driver of the loud road vehicle.

"Okay," Ari said, the hint of a smile on his face further amusing Carson.

The village of Cibola was built upon the top of a plateau rising several hundred feet above the desert floor. It was about three quarters of a mile from the corridor and, from its elevation, a perfect place to view both the traffic on the corridor and any movement anywhere in the surrounding desert, from all directions. It was a great watch place for the sharp-eyed Long Wound scouts and an eminently defendable elevated position. From Cibola, any enemy buildup or advance could be easily spotted and as had happened numerous times in the past, from Bimhills silver to Outworld berserkers, be repelled.

One road, the one the rebels now traveled, led into Cibola, into its narrow alleyways and busy streets. Driving at a crawl through the bustling village, Ari absorbed its buildings and its people.

Most of the village was residential, consisting of one level homes made of a reddish-brown stucco formed around thick palo verde limbs. White pieces of driftwood were stuck into the top sides of the houses at irregular intervals for decoration. Each home seemed to have a small garden of sorts along the side or in back and children or old people tended them.

Towards the center of the village was a communal washing area where many of the women of marriage and childbearing age congregated to clean the simple cloth clothing worn by the People. Further on, as the road wound up a slight incline on the generally flat plateau towards several buildings that seemed to serve a ceremonial or civic function, the group passed a colorful marketplace where foodstuffs, clothing, and household items were noisily bartered. Just past the marketplace was an open air ramada and Carson signaled for the travelers to stop there.

"What is this?" Severn asked, as several older women appeared and began preparing places for the runners beneath the thatch-covered roof of the ramada.

"You can rest here," Carson explained, "eat, drink and sleep."

"What about the base camp?" Severn wanted to know. "We have to go on. There may be Erads behind us."

"Never mind the Erads," Carson said, making a horizontal cutting motion with his arm. "Tonight the People gather. Tomorrow we go to the camp."

"Unacceptable," Severn said, stepping towards Carson. "I don't care...."

"We've come this far," Kara intervened, putting a hand against Severn's chest, which he pushed aside, "one day more won't matter."

"How do we know this isn't another trap?" Severn demanded of Kara, of Carson.

"If this were a trap, rebel," Carson said matter-of-factly, "you would already be dead."

"Let's take it easy," Kara again played the peacemaker.

Severn turned his back on Carson and walked to one side of the ramada. Two old women looked at the red-faced flier and giggled. He frowned at them.

"Carson," Kara redirected to their guide, "what about our camp? Do you know where it is? And how far?"

"It is not far," he assured her, "but we do not hear from them often. Tyler," he added, turning to a man who had walked up to see what was happening at the ramada, "any word from the rebel camp?"

"No, brother," the man called Tyler answered. "Not for some days. But this is not unusual."

"This is your brother?" Kara asked.

"Yes," Carson said, "my older brother, Tyler Begaye." Ari snickered.

"Everybody here really is named Begaye, aren't they, Mr. Begaye?" Carson nodded and smiled.

"So it seems, little brother, so it seems. But you can just call me Carson." Ari laughed. Platt scratched his head. "Tonight," Carson went on, "as I said, the People meet. Now you rest and eat. We will leave early tomorrow."

"Thank you," Kara told the First Elder sincerely. "All of us thank you."

Carson looked over at Severn who still stood with his back to the others.

"Yes," he said, motioning for all the people in the ramada to leave. "I can see that."

Raising his rifle in salute, First Elder Carson Begaye strode away from the ramada, his pride and strength evident in every step. The other People fell in behind and followed him.

35.

After having scouted for the pack, Crad now rode rear guard on horseback. The young Erad had never ridden a horse before and though he was rapidly getting the hang of it, he was not yet completely comfortable astride the animal. But Crad was feeling very good, very strong. He had spotted the old vehicle and the two strange riders accompanying it and watched with pride as Bead and Sgt. Cage shot them down.

The only blot on the action was that one of them had managed to ride away, bullets whistling in his direction as he faded into the desert beyond the corridor road. Crad pictured the escaping rider, imagined he must be dead because he had definitely taken a hit, but speculated about the man's end -- bled to death, died of exposure? He just wondered whatever became of that mother. Lost in his thoughts, Crad didn't notice that he had drifted well behind the pack until he looked up and saw that they had disappeared around a bend in the road.

"Yow," he said out load, "I better bust. The pack's getting ahead of me."

Crad reached his hand back to slap the horse's flank but stopped in mid motion. He felt a sharp pain in the middle of his back and then a heavy weight landed on him from behind. He tried to reach for his weapon and to call out, but his arms wouldn't move and his voice wouldn't work.

####

Grant Begaye, the blood from his shoulder wound drying, had circled around the Erad pack keeping himself out of sight. Then he trailed them for several miles, making sure of their numbers, gauging their strength in weaponry. He knew he should ride on back to the village and inform his cousin and the council about the invaders, but he thought of his brother Reno lying dead on the desert road and of the Meshican friend in the truck and anger rose in him, drove him to tail the killer band, waiting for the right moment. The right moment for cold, reasoned revenge. And then the trailing one on the horse, who could just barely control the animal, fell behind the others who had rounded a bend out of sight. Grant acted without thinking.

Riding up to within a few yards of the last not-People soldiers, Grant withdrew the short lance he carried on his thick leather belt, aimed and threw it directly at the man's back. It stuck clean, though not as deeply as Grant wanted, and the man flexed his back outward in pain. Fearing the soldier would cry out, Grant spurred his horse hard and with a wild leap, landed astride the soldier's horse, pushing the lance in the man's back out of the way and clamping his left hand over the soldier's mouth all in one motion.

The soldier grunted and tried to turn towards Grant, but the young warrior jerked the man's head back and with a deft movement of his long hunting knife slit the soldier's throat from side to side, deep to the bone. The man made a final gurgling sound before Grant pushed him off the horse and onto the dirt road. Grant took a moment to make sure the man was really finished, then rode the dead man's horse and caught his own mount. Switching horses smoothly and adeptly, Grant grabbed the reins of the soldier's pony and rode into the desert.

Three hundred yards in he stopped to listen. He could hear the cry of a cactus wren, the buzzing of a nearby bee, the rustling of a small animal; but there were no man sounds. Satisfied that the not-People soldiers had not followed him, Grant kicked his horse in the flanks and with the dead soldier's horse in tow, rode on in a round-about way back to the capitol village of Cibola.

36.

Ari was asleep near the roadside front of the ramada, having a strange dream about himself and Kara trying vainly to escape the Redsinthe plezone area of Bimhills, when a rough hand clapped over his mouth and nose scaring him awake.

"Shhh," Carson Begaye said close to Ari's right ear. "Be quiet. Come with me."

Ari rolled over, wide-eyed with surprise and fear but moving quietly as he had been told, and stood up, careful not to bump Platt who slept near him. Across the ramada, Severn and Kara had fallen asleep in half sitting guard positions. It occurred to Ari as he sleepily and warily followed the Peoples' Elder that for all their toughness, training, and experience, Severn and Kara were just as out of their element here in the far zones as he was.

"Come," Carson said softly when Ari lagged behind.

"Where are we going?" Ari whispered. Carson answered by motioning for Ari to keep following.

The Elder led Ari up two short blocks straight out from the ramada, then turned up a narrow road to the right for two or three more. As they walked, Ari's dread diminished, replaced by simple curiosity. Where in the world were they going and why? Why him, why Ari? These People, as they called themselves, were very interesting. For some reason, the image of the ring his father had left him popped into Ari's head. He reached in his pocket and felt it there. What was its meaning? Why had the old Keeper in Meshica reacted to it the way he did?

Sometimes, Ari realized, there seemed to be something about this run that was as if it were part of some larger thing, that it had a meaning he was only beginning to become dimly aware of. One thing he knew for sure -- he was not the same Ari, the same Bimhills highcit he had once been. Or at least he didn't think he was anymore. He felt different. Like he was becoming stronger, more intelligent, more aware.

"Here," Carson spoke through Ari's thoughts, putting out an arm that Ari bounced off of.

"Whoa," Ari said, catching his balance and feeling ridiculous at his clumsiness. I might be different, he chastised himself inwardly, feeling silly for thinking he'd become some better person, but I'm still not much. "Where are we?"

"This is the council house," Carson said. Even in the poor light, Carson could see the astonishment on Ari's face. The Elder laughed. "The People are generous human beings," he explained, "sometimes, if things are right and the feeling is good, we let a not-People share our dream ceremony so that that person will understand the way of the People. Who we are, where we come from, what has been our history. I, as the council Elder, invite you."

Carson pushed aside the rope and wood hinged leather door to the council house -- which Ari could now make out was really a small, circular, hut-like structure maybe eight feet tall at its center and perhaps twenty feet in diameter -- and indicated with a nod for Ari to enter.

Inside the council house, sitting around a small fire in its center, were a half dozen of the People, including Carson's brother Tyler, who extended a hand in welcome to Ari. Carson closed the door behind them, and then he and Ari found room among the other men before the fire.

Elder Begaye spoke for several moments in the People's tongue, which Ari guessed was an introduction to and explanation for his presence among the People here in the council house. One older man with several missing front teeth spoke briefly and then offered Ari the first of several pungent smelling pipes that were passed around the room. The leafy substance in the pipes burned brightly and was strong enough to cause Ari to begin coughing. Carson handed him a hollowed out gourd filled with a murky liquid that immediately coated Ari's throat and stopped the coughing.

After the fourth pipe, a very long one, went around the room, Ari began to feel a prickling in his extremities as if tiny pins were being stuck in him. And after the pricking sensation came a kind of numbness and a sense of time and movement slowing down. Not as intense as ginweed, Ari noted to himself, and more mellow. A really nice smoke. He looked over at Carson and smiled. The Elder winked at him.

"Maximum cool," Ari said to the group. "Very smooth. A real ease down. A good zone."

The People looked at each other, then at Carson. The Elder shrugged his shoulders and spoke to them in their language.

"What did you say to them?" Ari asked.

"I said I didn't understand what you said either." Ari wanted to laugh along with Carson but found that he couldn't.

"It's getting hard to speak," Ari said, rubbing his jaws and running his numbing tongue against the back of his teeth.

"It should always be hard to speak," Carson said.

"Why?" Ari managed to get out.

"Because true wisdom," Carson told him, "is silence."

Ari considered that for a moment. It sounded very profound. Very wise. He said as much through his deadening lips.

"Well I must not be too wise," Carson snickered, "I'm talking to you."

The People broke into a brief paroxysm of knee slapping and guffaws. Ari felt like he'd been set up for one of the innumerable pranks tads pull on each other in the early years at the bookers. He laughed loudly inside but only a smile showed without. Carson put a hand on his shoulder to show he was only playing.

"I didn't know they could understand me," Ari struggled to say.

The snaggle-toothed man handed Ari a gourd of the murky drink across the fire. Ari drank slowly, letting the liquid course down and further numb his throat.

"It is time," Carson announced several minutes later, well after the last of the pipes had been smoked.

Ari looked over at the People's Elder, saw him produce a leather pouch from somewhere and place it in front of him near the fire. He raised his hands above his head, forming a triangle shape with the tips of the fingers touching. The other men followed suit and Ari imitated them. Then, lowering his head, Carson spoke a long, emotional prayer -- Ari assumed -- during which the other men held their heads up, but closed their eyes. Ari did the same, his usual moment or so behind the others.

When Carson was done, the entire group began a kind of deep-voiced chant and one of them, another old man with extraordinarily long gray hair, placed a pile of small sticks on the fire and then sprinkled a fresh smelling dust-like substance over the flames. Ari watched reddish smoke rise from the fire and drift towards the top of the council house. It was remarkable, he noticed, that so little smoke remained in the room; it seemed to be drawn quickly up and out of the house, leaving the air relatively fresh and clean.

When he looked back down, the men were passing out something that looked like moldy rocks to each other and Carson held a handful of them out to Ari. Ari didn't know what to do. Carson held up two fingers on one hand and made an eating motion with the other.

"Oh," Ari said, rocking back and forth slowly. "I understand."

"Chew a lot," Carson told him.

"I will," Ari said.

"Go ahead," Carson said, "dream food."

"Dream food," Ari echoed.

He put two of the mouldy rock-like buttons into his mouth and began chewing. They tasted bitter and hard and felt like they had a fuzzy mold growing on them.

"Chew," Carson said, seeing the grimace on Ari's face.

Ari chewed and chewed. And swallowed the weird juice from the mushrooms. He coughed, and fought a gag reaction. What if they are poisoning me, he thought, momentarily terrified. What if it's some kind of ritual sacrifice ceremony or something. He had an impulse to leap to his feet and run out of the council house. He even imagined himself doing so in his mind, but his numbed body was rooted to the skin-covered dirt floor of the house like a heavy anchor hooked to the bottom of a shallow inlet -- he wasn't going anywhere.

Finally, after an interminable time of chewing, Ari managed to consume the People's dream food. Several moments later, his stomach began to growl and gurgle.

"Oh," he groaned, trying to stand but only listing to his left towards Carson.

Ari's head began to spin and he felt terribly nauseous. He thought he was going to pass out. Then he felt strong hands lifting under his arms and dragging him, the toes of his shoes scraping over and bunching up the floor rugs, towards the door. Outside, he was let go and he knelt to one side to the council house wretching miserably into a small ditch running beside the road.

He thought he heard distant laughter and once managed a look at the sky, which was ablaze with bright white stars wavering and dancing in the cool, clear air. Then he felt the strong hands again and in what could have been seconds or an eternity found himself once more seated before the council fire.

Sighing deeply, Ari stared into the bright, friendly flames of the fire. He felt far, far from himself and though he knew his eyes were open, felt that he was sleeping, dreaming. It crossed his mind that no mind sleep, or mind rest, or even mind sparkle produced in Bimhills could possibly match the potency of the People's dream food. And, then, just as he was beginning to feel a little bit in control again, when he believed he had reached some peak level, the dream food truly kicked in.

In an amazing rush of vision and insight, a series of mental visions -- so strong at times they seemed to be playing out in the very air of the council house -- passed through Ari's consciousness like a Sunami wave of understanding.

He saw before him, as if he were physically there, the far, far distant past when the not-People, his ancestors, arrived in the land. He saw the People, human beings locked in the eons-old struggle to survive in a harsh, pre-industrial world, watch the not-People warily, make first tentative steps toward contact. And then he saw the People attacked, their men shot, rounded up, imprisoned. He saw the old People, and the women and children, run down, gunned down, strung up on trees.

He saw the not-People spread over the land, destroying it and the People as they went, and then grow without control, covering every bit of usable soil. He saw then their fall. The Great Invert, the horrible slaughter in the prisons, the near dying out of the not-People, the formation, the consolidation of the zones and the IMC. He envisioned his mother and father. Smiling at him. Laughing. His father handing him the double eagle ring. He saw the ring open and within it he saw Bimhills, saw fires burning, buildings shattered by explosions.

Overwhelmed, Ari shut his eyes, swallowed, felt his throat dry. He reached out a hand for water and it was there. Someone handed him a full gourd. He drank slowly from the gourd, letting the water run down his throat in trickles, letting it soothe his thirst. Another hand took the gourd away. Still another rested for a moment on his shoulder. He felt its strength, a supportiveness almost like affection. He opened his eyes and the images came again.

This time he saw the Erads. A pack of twelve or more. They were pursuing him in an open field and then they were running. Running wild and scared. Running and falling, falling and dying. And the terrain of the vision changed. He saw a dusty, black land, felt himself struggling to escape it, felt Kara's presence, longed for her. Longed for a place to be with her. Saw the black land end, stretch towards tree-filled mountains, verdant, hazy; and four peaks, two on either side of a deep valley cut between the mountains. In there was something. Something and someone -- a place of hope.

And then Carson Begaye's face was before Ari, his lips curled in an almost smile, speaking, saying something.

"What?" Ari thought he heard himself say out loud.

The Carson face said softly:

"Wisdom is Silence."

"What?" Ari asked again.

"Wisdom," the voice spoke.

"Wisdom," Ari repeated, feeling extraordinarily sleepy. He yawned. Closed his eyes. Stopped the visions. He felt himself go to sleep. Felt himself drifting, drifting far above the dusty land of Long Wound, high over the blue earth, far out into the sky, among the distant planets, the cold, observant stars.

37.

Ari was sleeping the dead sleep of the innocent when a pair of tough but gentle hands began trying to shake him awake. He turned away from the contact believing it to be part of the dream he was having; one of himself and Kara working in a fruit orchard of some kind. The dream seemed so real he thought he heard her voice calling him. The shaking grew more persistent, the voice louder. Ari rolled over on his back and slowly opened his eyes. Kara was in fact standing over him.

"Kara," he said sleepily, thinking the dream had been real and that she was there helping him in the fields. Then he realized where he was: flat on his back in the council room. What was Kara doing there? "Kara!" he exclaimed, sitting up. "What? What is it?"

"Get up," she said, "hurry. The Erads ambushed Marco and Elder Begaye's cousins. Only the older boy lived. He just came back to warn everyone."

"Warn everyone?" Ari said groggily. He wasn't getting all Kara was saying. The night before had been such an incredible experience he felt as if he were still on some vast, distant mountain looking down on the rest of existence. "Where are the People?"

"Oh, wake up, Ari," Kara said impatiently. "What were you doing here? Come on, sit up. The Erads are closing in on us. They're going to dust everybody. We've got to run."

"All right," Ari said, standing. The cobwebs were still thick in his brain and he struggled to fight his way through them. A clear thought managed its way to his consciousness. "You came for me," he said. Kara looked away.

"Yes," she said to the council house wall. Ari shook his head from side to side, forcing himself back to clarity. He was very thirsty.

"I've got to have water," he said.

"Okay," Kara said, looking around the room. She spotted a bucket and a gourd by the ashes of the previous night's fire. There was water in the bucket. She filled the gourd and handed it to Ari. He drank loudly, emptied that gourd and then another.

"What do we do?" Ari asked when he had finished drinking.

"Carson and the cousin will take us to a safe place for now. After that, we don't know."

"Let's go then."

"Here," Kara said, handing Ari the rifle she had taken from him when they had met Severn and Marco back on the corridor. "You may need this."

Ari looked at the weapon, then back at Kara. Her expression revealed nothing, but her actions spoke loudly to the highcit romjockey.

"What about Severn?" he asked her.

"I'll manage him," Kara answered. "Now, come on."

"Let's bail," Ari said, hoisting the weapon over his head. "We're out of here."

####

Carson and Grant Begaye led the rebel fliers out of Cibola, generally eastward, across a wide river and beyond, to the base of a mountain range. The runners hid their romspeed behind a rocky hill, covered it with limbs and leaves from the nearby desert scrub, and took up positions on the north side of the hill. The Begayes left them, assured them someone would come for them, to lead them on to the rebel camp.

Severn was for pressing on, for finding the base on their own, but Kara convinced him of the illogic of that move. They had no idea where they were or where their compatriots were holed up. Between their lack of knowledge of the area and the pursuing Erads, Kara argued that they would stand a better chance staying where they were, even if that meant fighting the Erads head on.

"Is that why you gave romjockey boy a weapon?" Severn asked, leering at Kara and Ari. "Why not one for his sack of crap SC goodcit there, too?"

Severn pointed his own DC-40 at Platt. Platt shifted his body out of direct line with Severn's weapon.

"When the time comes," Kara said, "I will. If we all have to fight the Erads to live, we all will."

"You got that straight, sister," Platt said. Severn shut him up with a glare.

"So what makes jockey boy different?" Severn continued his dig at Kara. "He your new bedmate, young rebel princess, as the late, great Bobby S. would say?"

"Nobody's anybody's bedmate," Ari said, stepping towards Severn.

"Shut up," Kara told the two men, who squared off threateningly. "We are not bedmates. Just back off. Both of you." She pushed Ari back with the barrel of her lasermag.

"My, my," Severn said, "hasn't the little highcit come a long ways. Are you one of us now, jockey sturch? Have you joined the rebel cause?"

"Shut up," Kara told Severn. The rebel leader's jaws tightened.

"I don't know what's been goin' on between you two," he said, "but your tad boy better stay out of my face. I'm the leader here and if he jams up one thing, he's dust."

"You don't get it at all, do you?" Ari responded, then dug for words he'd learned from the Keeper. "You act like a moron, a cretin. Kara's the real leader here. You just shoot off at the mouth all the time and then vanish when we might need you. You haven't done anything but jaw from the first time I saw you. And don't bring up Bobby S. either. You're not even in the same zone as him."

"Why you little...," Severn began, raising his DC-40. Kara stepped between them again.

"Stop it," she ordered. "You're still the leader, Severn. Calm down. And you, Ari, just ease off. Relax."

"Hey," Platt interrupted the confrontation, "you shitcits wanna cut the jaw fest. Check it out across there. The Long Wounders look like they're bashin' it with the Erads."

"My God," Kara exclaimed, as she and the men suspended their face off and hurried over by Platt to see.

Out across the plains beyond the big river they had crossed, in a group of rolling hills rising up from a small tributary of the larger river, the runners could see dust clouds rising from several locations. Then came the unmistakable report of small arms fire.

The People's warriors had engaged the Erads in a direct confrontation. It was an amazing thing to see, even from a distance as great as that from which the rebels saw it. No one had ever challenged an Erad pack head to head before. It was unthinkable. It had never happened in any of the zones before. Not that anyone knew of anyway. It was a chilling, thrilling sight.

38.

Uncharacteristically, the Erads had not realized anything was wrong until Bead checked the rear out of trained habit and saw that Crad, the rear guard, was no longer there.

"Hold up," he advised the pack, slowing his romcycle. "I don't see Crad back there anymore."

"Bust it and check," Lt. Rankin called back from the head of the pack. "Sergeant Cage, go with him."

"Yes, sir," Cage saluted.

He and Bead backtracked in search of Crad. They found him about a half mile behind.

"Son of a jammer," Cage said when they were alongside the body.

"Shit," Bead groaned, almost throwing up.

Crad lay on his back, the point of a broken spear sticking out through his stomach. His head tilted back crazily, the gaping gash where his throat had been cut still draining blood. Flies buzzed loudly around the wound. Crad's eyes were open in final death shock and he had begun to discolor and bloat.

"Radio back," Cage told Bead.

"Dispose of the unit," Lt. Rankin's tough voice cracked back in response to Bead's call.

"Yes, sir," Bead responded distractedly. He couldn't take his eyes off the gash in Crad's throat.

"We missed the one son of a jammer," Cage said, pulling two small plastic containers from a pack strapped to the back of the cycle.

"Damn opcit crazers," Bead cursed Crad's escaped killer while Sgt. Cage spread the contents of the two packets over the dead Erad's body. "They'll pay for this."

"Your two packs," Cage told Bead.

Bead found his packets -- labeled Lye-150 and HCL Cleaner -- and handed them to Cage. The sergeant spread their contents over the dead Erad's body. Working together, the two compounds began to bubble, to sizzle, to spread rapidly over the corpse. In less than ten minutes, the body was a decomposed mass of bones and gelatinized flesh. Bead held his nose.

"Frappin' hell," he said.

"Let's bust," Sgt. Cage said.

"I already bailed," Bead said, cranking up his romcycle. Sgt. Cage started his machine and the two Erads, sickened by their task, rode off to rejoin the pack.

####

Lt. Rankin stopped the pack just before the top of a small rise in the road, the early morning sun causing him to squint into the bright light. The pack had safely made it past a city of some note built on a hill to the north as they traveled eastward on the corridor road. He had checked his tracking device and saw from the faint flare that the fliers were not in that city, but were in fact still out ahead somewhere and a good distance away, judging from the weakness of the signal. Lt. Rankin signaled for the pack to move out, but when his lead vehicle cleared the top of the hill, he brought them to an abrupt halt again. Below them, at the bottom of the hill, were perhaps a dozen Long Wound soldiers on horseback.

For some moments, the two groups didn't move. They just looked each other over, staring at one another as if watching a wide, full screen outdoor flicker. Then the Long Wound soldiers acted. They began to chant, to cry out and then to let loose howling war cries. The Erads went for their weapons but the People's warriors fired first, sending a salvo of arrows at the Erads that fell harmlessly amid the pack. One warrior towards the back, however, held a DC-40 with Erad markings and he cranked off a wild round that knocked up dirt around Lt. Rankin's vehicle.

"That's Crad's DC," Bead yelled somewhere off to Lt. Rankin's right.

A war cry now rose up among the Erad ranks. The two groups shouted back and forth, waving their weapons threateningly at each other.

"Get the bastards," Lt. Rankin bawled out above the rattling din. Charge!"

With a mighty roar, the Erad pack stormed down the hill at the Long Wound soldiers, firing as they went. The Long Wound warriors turned their horses and rode hard down the corridor road into the sun. The Erads pursued them like madmen, firing, yelling, cursing.

Dust rose up behind the fleeing riders, filtered the sun's light, blocked the Erad's sight. But they raced on anyway, firing up the road, seeking revenge for their fallen comrade. Finally, Lt. Rankin realized the enemy had disappeared into the sun, that the pack was wasting precious ammunition.

"Cease fire," he cried out. "Halt firing."

The order went through the pack, the firing became sporadic, stopped. The pack slowed. Regrouped around the lieutenant. Lt. Rankin waited for the dust to settle. He saw nothing on the road ahead. Heard nothing but the sounds of the pack around him.

Straight ahead was another rise in the road, this one steeper than the one before. Ahead to the left, a series of low rolling hills, cut in places by a meandering creek or small river. It would have been a beautiful sight, Lt. Rankin noted to himself, if it had not held so much potential danger.

"All right," he barked to the pack, "move out in time and a half."

The pack started as one, traveling fast, but not recklessly, spread out on either side and to the back of their commander, senses keen, eyes trained on the treacherous land around them. Lt. Rankin thought he saw something off to one side of the upcoming rise, pointed his right arm forward to charge and the pack stormed over the top of the hill. What they saw caused them to brake their vehicles to sliding stops, rein in their wild, nervous animals.

Below the hill on which they stopped, directly before them on the corridor road, and further back on both sides of the road spreading off towards the small river that could clearly be seen snaking through the land, were several hundred mounted Long Wound solders. The stunned pack took in the size of the enemy force, gauged its strength, the combat possibilities and odds.

"Holy hell," Bead spoke into the tense silence.

"Son of a bitch," Cage cursed softly.

Lt. Rankin's mind raced through several engagement scenarios. He rechecked the enemy numbers and positions, the terrain, the distances. None of his perceived scenarios looked good.

"Listen up, men," he told the pack, forcing the resolve into his voice, "we start forward slowly, then on my signal make for those hills to our left. If we can get there, get to the top of those hills, we may be able to set up a defensive perimeter. Hold them off."

"Yeah," the pack concurred. All but Bead.

"Sir," he addressed his uncle, "hold them off till when? We're low on food, fuel, water. Low on ammunition. Hold them off how? For how long?"

Seldom, almost never, did an Erad question a superior's orders, object to a course of action, present a counter point of view. It was an invitation to disaster, to being driven from the pack, or worse -- elimination. The rest of the pack looked at Lt. Rankin, waited for his response. Expected Bead to be summarily dealt with. But their commander didn't upbraid the young Erad -- and his reaction had nothing to do with shared blood, all the Erads knew that -- he just smiled an odd smile and ignored Bead's questions. It was then the rest of the pack understood. Lt. Rankin signaled for them to move out before the idea could take complete hold.

"Steady, pack," he said, holding up his left hand as they advanced slowly towards the enemy, "steady." Twenty yards down the hill, he jabbed the air with his left arm. "Now," he cried out, "now."

With the lieutenant at their fore, the Erad pack broke from the corridor, raced wildly into the desert land beyond the road, headed for the hills above the small river. With a high pitched, yodeling cry, the Long Wound soldiers charged after them.

Shouting and firing, the Erad pack tore across country, fleeing for their lives. The People's soldiers broke into three groups: one rode hard to intercept the leather-clothed not-People soldiers where the small river crossed before the low hills; another group swung around behind and to the left; the third mounted a full attack. A phalanx of twenty warriors broke through the middle of the pack, splitting it into two disorganized troops.

Bead and his father, Tom, were in one half of the divided pack, which was surrounded and driven northwesterly angling away from the river and hills. Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage were in the other group and it drove hard towards the center of the hills. None of the Erads had time to notice that the third group of Long Wound soldiers were no longer in sight.

With the pack torn in two, the Long Wound soldiers began to drop the madly firing Erads. One from Lt. Rankin's group fell, then two in Bead's. Bead, his father, and their few men left were harassed from all sides; they dismounted, fell behind machine and animal to fire back at their pursuers. Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage miraculously reached the creek, drove desperately across it and leaped to the ground to try and dissuade the many Long Wound soldiers attacking them.

And the Erads did well, fought with the fury that was their stock in trade. They dropped many Long Wound soldiers, filled the air with their deadly sounds, soaked the soil with the native People's blood. But it was only a matter of time.

Even in the heat of the battle Lt. Rankin could see his brother Tom fall, a Long Wound spear through his throat, saw the other Erads with Tom splintered from each other, running towards the hills, cut down from all sides. Lt. Rankin grabbed Cage and with a voice made harsh from yelling and from the smoke in the air told him to run, to save himself.

"I can't do that, sir," Cage said, ducking behind the Erad truck with Lt. Rankin.

"You have to," Rankin told him, "you must. You have to complete the mission."

"No, sir," Cage yelled.

"That's a direct order, sergeant," Rankin said. "Get those fliers. For us. For the pack."

"Sir, my place is here with the pack."

"Don't argue, Cage. Listen. The rebel mole is a double. I think he turned us. Caused this. Get him. Here take this."

Rankin handed Cage the tailing unit. Cage knelt closer to Rankin as an arrow banged off the side of the Erad truck just by his head.

"The flashing red light is the mole's tracer," Rankin explained breathlessly. "And get that highcit. Alexander said something about a ring. Something about shadpols and a ring the highcit has."

"A ring?"

"Yes, now go, sergeant. You must."

"Sir."

"Go. There's no time. Alone, maybe you can get out. It's the only chance. You can get past them on the romcycle, then outrun them to Endgate. It's the only place the runners can go."

"Yes, sir," Cage said, looking for a chance to make a dash for his abandoned romcycle.

"Sgt. Cage," Lt. Rankin called.

"Sir?"

"Don't let us down. Always remember this day."

"Yes, sir. I will, sir."

"Go. go."

And Sgt. Cage went. He leaped back astride his romcycle and cranked it up. He drove back across the small stream, nearly losing control of the vehicle, mentally noting the blood he saw mingled with the clear water. He exploded out onto the dry land beyond the creek, saw Bead to his right. Saw the young Erad running towards him, arrows sticking in his chest and legs. And he saw the warrior they failed to kill break from a crowd of soldiers beyond Bead. He saw the warrior ride alongside Bead, lower Crad's lost DC-40 and blow the top of Bead's head off. With a shout, the warrior then galloped after Cage, another half dozen of his men joining in the chase.

But Cage's unexpected maneuver had caught his enemy off guard, and he rode insanely for the corridor. Bullets and arrows whistling around him, the Erad sergeant hit the corridor airborne, landing hard and sliding nearly to the point of laying the cycle down before righting it and accelerating to top end down the center of the smooth dirt road. A tower of dust rose up behind the romcycle and Cage quickly outdistanced the horse-mounted soldiers galloping after him.

As he roared off, Cage could not know or see that the third group of Long Wound warriors, the group that had vanished at the very beginning of the battle, had reappeared over the top of the hill behind Lt. Rankin and the few of his men who were still standing and fighting. He could not see the warriors drop down off the hill to ride through the remaining Erads, slaughtering them where they stood or where they ran, finally cutting down Lt. Rankin himself.

Only one thing was in Sgt. Cage's mind: escape to Endgate, kill the mole, capture the ignorant highcit and his mysterious ring. And at the end, at the very last, the bulky Erad sergeant could not hear the deafening cheer rise up from the scene of the Erad slaughter. Could not hear the Long Wound warriors celebrating their greatest, bloodiest victory. Sgt. Cage could not see or hear this, the end of his pack; but he knew it was all over. He could sense it. He could feel it in the marrow of his bones.

39.

The corridor runners watched the battle from afar. Saw the dust raised, heard the gunfire. And then, when it looked like the issue had been settled, a separate, solitary cloud of dust appeared in the distance, coming down the center of the corridor road.

"What's that?" Platt asked, pointing out toward the corridor.

"Carson or his cousin maybe," Kara said hopefully.

"It's hard to tell from this far," Ari said, squinting to focus in on the lone runner, "but it doesn't look like one of the People."

"Erad!" Severn and Kara exclaimed together.

"Give me that rifle," Severn ordered Ari. Ari pulled his weapon back.

"You can't hit him from here," he said. "And besides that, you shoot at the Erad, he knows we're out here. What if his pack is right behind him?"

"The weapon, shitcit," Severn demanded.

"No," Ari resisted.

Severn moved towards him. Once again, Kara stepped between the two fussing men.

"Cut the crap," she told them, "we don't need this now. And besides, Severn, Ari's right."

"Ari's right?" Severn exploded. "Ari's right? Since when does this useless piece of shitcit tell me what's right or wrong. I'm in charge of this run. I'm telling who what to do, and when. I'm the leader. I'm in charge."

Neither Kara nor Ari said anything. They let Severn's words hang there in the tense air between them, their foolish import reverberating back to the speaker. Severn glared at them, fists clenched at his side.

"Well," Platt broke into the charged space around him, "you can stop jawin' now, the cycle jammer is already gone. He slowed for a sec, like he was gonna come this way, then busted on down the corridor."

"You stone crazers," Severn hissed at the others, Platt included, "now we got a stray Erad out here somewhere looking for us." He stalked to the edge of their hideout, peered out at the corridor, turned back to the others. "Kara, you still got the watch on you?"

"Yes," she answered, "you know I do. We already talked about it."

"Oh, yeah," Severn said quickly, "I forgot. You keep it. You can keep it on you all the time." Kara looked over at Ari. He shrugged.

"Okay," she said, "whatever."

"Here comes some more," Platt announced. The four of them gathered at the edge of their hideout to better see the corridor.

"Two dust trails this time," Kara said.

"A truck and a cycle," Severn noted.

"More Erads?" Ari wondered.

"I hope the hell not," Kara said.

"They're slowing up," Platt said, as the approaching vehicle reduced speed then almost stopped on the corridor.

"What are they doing?" Severn called.

"They're coming up here," Kara told him the obvious, as the two vehicles turned off the corridor and began the slow trek to the hideout.

"That's one of the People on the cycle," Ari said, as the machines crept closer and closer. "It's Grant. Carson's cousin."

"That's Carson in the truck," Kara added, when the lumbering military vehicle was close enough to see the driver.

"Hot damn," Ari cheered. "Man, am I glad to see the People."

"You are a complete crazed dumbcit," Severn told Ari. "These people are as bad as the Erads. They slaughter everybody." Ari shook his head.

"You don't have any idea," Ari rejoined. "You know nothing about the People."

"Yeah, well, jam you," Severn said petulantly as the two People warriors reached the hideout, the engines of their vehicles coughing and sputtering. Kara and Ari hurried out to greet them, to find out how the battle ended.

"It is done," Carson said simply, when he had climbed down from the truck. "The enemy are no more."

"We killed them all," Grant Begaye exulted, shutting off the romcycle. "I myself shot the one who killed my brother."

"They were dangerous men," Carson added, "very strong. They fought hard. We lost many People as well."

"We cut them all down," Grant said, lifting his rifle over his head. "The invaders have been destroyed."

"Except for one," Severn corrected Elder Begaye's excited cousin. "We saw one escape here on a romcycle. He went right by us."

"One is not a threat to us," Carson said. "It is not wise to kill all of your enemy. Victory is enough." Grant let out a loud cheer.

"Yell all you want," Severn sneered at the two warriors, "any live Erad is worth twenty of you people." Grant snarled at the rebel leader and Carson had to hold back his young cousin.

"Forget that," Kara interjected, "the Erad is our problem. But for now, we still have to find the rebel camp. That is our mission, isn't it, Severn?"

"Uh, yes," he answered, shuffling his feet as if he realized how ridiculous his last outbursts must have seemed to the others.

A ridiculous leader, he knew, was one who wouldn't keep the position long. Especially not with a hot shot like Kara around.

"Yes," he added more forcefully. "Forget the Erad, the camp is what matters now."

"All right," Kara said. "Elder Begaye, can you lead us there?"

"That's why we are here, young woman," he said.

"Good," Kara said, "then let's go. We need to finish this. We must." The rebels grabbed their weapons and gear and headed for Ari's romspeed.

"Way to go, cit," Platt said to Grant as the big Somecop walked past the young Long Wound soldier, "you really Xed out the Shitrads." Grant frowned at the SC.

"You had a great victory today," Ari told Carson as the Elder helped the fliers stow their gear. "I saw it in my dream."

Severn looked at Kara and rolled his eyes. She shook her head at him. He shrugged his shoulders and went around to the other side of the romspeed.

"All can see," Carson said cryptically to Ari, "if they but open their eyes."

"Let's bust it," Severn called over from behind the romspeed. "You'll jaw so long there'll be time for the whole Erad army to get here."

"Okay," Kara said, "let's move out. Elder, you and your brave cousin will lead us?" Grant swelled up his chest proudly.

"I will lead," Carson said, "Grant will follow, and watch from behind."

"Let's go," Kara said. "Let's bail."

####

Mid-afternoon of the day following the Erad slaughter, with Grant Begaye now on point and his older cousin riding rearguard, the rebel band stopped beneath a stray stand of cottonwoods growing beside a dry wash. The fliers had crossed over the mountains beyond the previous day's battle scene and onto a barren, hot plain leading to yet another range of mountains, though these appeared to be a good deal smaller. The next range was perhaps twenty-five to thirty miles in the distance, but the air was so clear out here, far from the filthy skies of Bimhills and Ebon, that roads and trails were easily visable on the face of the mountains.

"Up there," Grant Begaye told the weary runners, who stretched against the sides of the vehicles or lounged in small shade spots beneath the cottonwoods, sipping on water and nibbling their rationed provisions, "up there is where we have to go." He pointed out at the far mountains. "We are not so far now."

"Look," Ari said, also pointing towards the mountains. "Something's coming."

"Oil tanker," Carson said, cupping his left hand over his eyes. "With two of our outguards on point. Just stay low here. They won't stop. They don't care who they see out here, but it's best we stay out of sight anyway and keep off the corridor for now. It is hard to say what will happen because of yesterday."

"Any sign of that one Erad who escaped?" Kara asked Carson. He looked at Grant and shook his head.

"Only that he was following the corridor. Endgate lies another day beyond these hills before us. It is a place where an Erad will do well. He will fit in there. Do not forget him in your minds. He will always be there, out there, somewhere, until he kills you or you kill him. That is their way."

"We know that," Severn said, "we come from Bimhills, you know."

"That is very clear," Grant responded with a sneer for Severn. "Clear as the Long Wound sky."

Severn frowned at the young warrior, considered a response but was cut off by the whistling roar of the approaching oil truck. The big tanker, with two Long Wound outguard vehicles in the lead, roared past them, perhaps a quarter of a mile out from the wash. A huge dust cloud boiled up behind the truck obscuring the landscape and the corridor road down which it traveled.

"Fuel to keep the IMC in power," Kara said, intervening between Severn and Grant, when the truck had passed and its noise faded to a low rumble. "The IMC, the true enemy."

Intervening for Severn was getting a little old to Kara these days. He had not seemed the same to her since Ebon, at least since they had escaped from there. He did small things that didn't always add up: disappearing at times, being hostile to their allies like the People, and whatever the deal was with that watch of his. Kara made a mental note to confront Severn about these things the next time they were alone. Maybe when they got to the rebel camp. Kara looked forward to that.

The rebel camp -- refuge, a place to rest for a couple of days perhaps, to clarify the mission, the rebellion, the run, her relation to Severn, to Ari. She set high stock in reaching the rebel base. It would be a good place, she just knew -- hoped that would be true. The truth was she was finally getting tired. She wanted a place to rest for awhile, in safety, in solidarity. She was sure the rebel camp could and would do all those things for her.

"How much longer to the camp?" she asked Carson, but his young cousin answered.

"Two, maybe three hours by the corridor," Grant said, "longer off it."

"Isn't this land off the corridor sacred?" Ari asked.

"Good God," Severn grunted, "now the jockey's talking sacred."

"The truly sacred ground can only be trod by the People," Carson explained, ignoring Severn. "We will only take you where it is allowed."

"How will we know we've reached the base?" Kara wondered.

"They always send someone out to meet us," Carson told her. "Their guards are very good. They should be. We trained them ourselves."

Grant laughed. Severn shook his head.

"Enough fun and games," he said, "if we're going, lets's go. Otherwise X out the jawin'."

Grant Begaye stepped directly up to Severn. Face to face.

"Perhaps," he said coolly, his features revealing nothing of his inner state, "it's not the jawin' that needs to be Xed out, but the listener."

"Go for it, sturch boy," Severn growled, hand moving towards his holstered DC-40. Carson and Kara pulled the men apart.

"Severn, stop this!" Kara demanded. "These are our friends." Carson led Grant several feet away from the confrontation.

"Then keep that one away from me," Severn blustered.

"Easy, cousin," Carson said, restraining Grant. "Forget about it."

"Come on," Kara addressed the Begayes, "I apologize for this. It has been a long, difficult run. We're not ourselves."

"Then who are you?" Grant provided the punch line that in another time and place might have been funny.

"We're your friends," Kara said earnestly, "your thankful and honored friends."

"Come," Carson said, letting his cousin go. "Enough of this. We must get on to the camp before nightfall. There's no time for these diversions."

"Agreed," Kara said. Then to Severn: "Agreed?"

The rebel leader muttered his acquiescence and headed for the romspeed. Kara sighed. She looked at Carson and shook her head from side to side. He smiled at her.

"Let's go," he said, "the sun begins to drop behind us. The time is right for traveling."

####

When they reached the base of the mountains where the People said the rebel base was, there was still about two hours of light left in the day. They had crossed over the corridor some two miles back and followed Grant Begaye up a smooth wash canyon that seemed to dead end a few yards from where they had stopped their vehicles and got out.

"Grant," Kara asked the young warrior and scout who sat astride his captured romcycle. "Where are the guards?"

"They have always met me well before here," he said. "This is not usual."

"Is this as far as you've ever been?" Ari asked.

"Yes," Grant replied.

"It is the agreement between us," Carson said.

"I will look ahead for an opening," Grant added.

"We'll keep an orb on your cousin while you're gone," Severn said, unsnapping his holster and holding up his DC-40.

"Severn, for frap's sake," Kara said, disgusted.

"It's okay," Carson assured her and his kinsman. "Look for the camp. Be safe."

Grant got off the romcycle and quickly disappeared behind the rocks and scrub desert plants at the end of the canyon. But not before he had pointed a warning, and perhaps challenging, finger at Severn. Severn snorted and walked to the back of Ari's romspeed. Ari and Platt found some large rocks to sit on and had a bite to eat and some water. Kara and Carson Begaye kept a wary eye out for the young scout. In a few minutes, Carson held up his hand.

"What is it?" Kara asked.

"Listen," he told her. Kara listened intently but could hear nothing.

"Over there," Ari said, appearing at her side. She looked at him, surprised. "A low whistle, ahead to the right."

"Exactly," Carson said. "Let's go."

A few feet beyond what looked like the end of the canyon, a narrow trail wound around behind several large boulders and through a patch of thick scrub. They found Grant another twenty yards ahead, standing at the base of a thatch covered rock nearly as tall as he was.

"Great," Severn said, "more boulders. More cactus branches."

With a laugh, Grant tugged on the branches to one side of the boulder.

"What the...?" Platt began.

The boulder separated, pulled apart, revealing a cave entrance eight feet high.

"Frappin' hell," Ari said. "Orb that out."

"Must be ten feet wide," Severn commented.

"Closer to twelve," Carson suggested. He held his left arm out toward the entrance. "Kara, please." Kara started forward.

"No," Severn stopped her. "The two People first, then romjockey and the Somecop, Kara and me last."

"Fuck, Severn," Kara said, relying on the old talk word the Keeper had admonished them about using.

"He is right," Carson said.

"No, he's not," Kara disagreed.

"The People are not afraid," Grant said, and he and Carson went into the cave entrance. Ari followed but Platt held back.

"You tryin' to trick us with this shit," he said to Severn.

"Move it, dragal...," Severn said, then cut himself off. "Just move on."

"Yeah, yeah," Platt grumbled, understanding that Severn's DC-40 did the ordering here. He followed Ari in. Kara and then Severn followed.

"Look at this," Ari proclaimed as the rebels came out of the entrance behind him and into a massive central cave.

Kara held her breath as she took in what she correctly surmised was the very heart of the rebel base. The main cave in which they now stood was circular, roughly one hundred feet in diameter with a vertical height at its peak of fifteen to eighteen feet. There was sunlight coming from somewhere and all in all it reminded Kara of a huge place called a cathedral that she had once seen in a flicker back at the booker. Three corridors led off from the main room and the group checked each one in turn.

The left corridor led to another inner chamber, perhaps half as big as the main one and it was clearly an eating area. In the center of the room was a large rectangular table lined with benches and in one corner there were tins and boxes of provisions with IMC stamps on them -- apparently stolen or somehow confiscated from corridor supply runs. A large rock oven was at the back center of the room which, like the center room, had a source of light from somewhere high above.

The central corridor was also lit well from above and it ran to what seemed to be a strategy or meeting room, the centerpiece of which was a round, wooden table. Beyond this room was yet another that contained several large boxes of ammunition and weapons and to Ari's delight -- a couple of old model romspeeds.

The rightmost corridor led to a less illuminated area which, based on the number of hammocks strung and low lying cots spread around, had clearly been the rebels' sleeping quarters. Severn was about to tell everyone to regroup when Grant and Carson held up their hands.

"Wait," Carson said.

"What for?" Severn demanded.

"Look, cousin," Grant said, "over here."

"Wounded men," Kara cried out, seeing what the Begayes had picked up with their keen senses.

The group moved towards the men, who were lying at the far back of the room in a very dark spot, but the sound of two L-12s cocking stopped them dead in their tracks. Out of the light coming from the doorway into the sleeping area, a man and a woman materialized as if out of nowhere. Severn and Kara wheeled toward them reaching for their weapons but they were looking down the huge L-12 barrels before they could draw. Grant Begaye held his arm in front of Severn and Kara.

"Aaron," he said, "Jinra, I see you have learned your lessons well."

"You are a good teacher, my friend," the man called Aaron said, stepping into view to shake Grant and Carson's hands. "Hello, Elder Begaye." The woman left her weapon aimed at the not-People in the room.

"It is good to see you again, Aaron," Carson said. "You, too, Jinra."

"The People honor us with their presence," the woman said, nodding to both Carson and Grant..

"Who in fire are these cits?" Severn questioned.

"Who are you?" Jinra countered.

"We are from the rebellion," Kara explained. "I'm Kara Felt. This is our leader Severn and these two are our, uh, companions, Ari and Platt. Severn and I have come to join you in the main resistance here."

Both Aaron and Jinra laughed mirthlessly. Up close, Kara was able to see and evaluate them better. The male, Aaron, was about Severn's height but thinner with a rough look to his sharp features that were somewhat obscured by a day or two's stubble. His almost black hair was cropped short above a prominent forehead. Beneath thick eyebrows, his dark eyes seemed to burn, either from hunger or fear, or maybe both. He had skinny but muscular arms and seemed hard in a way that gave the general impression he was a person who seemed to not have a lot to lose. Kara figured he had seen a lot of action.

Both he and the woman, Jinra, wore rugged pants and shirts, too dirty and patched to reflect much of their original color or quality. Jinra had long, light brown hair that was matted and dirty and hung over her face, mostly hiding it. Kara could see light brown eyes, high cheekbones and a small fine nose above full lips and a strong jaw. She looked tough, too, but not quite as wild as Aaron.

"Why do you laugh?" Kara asked.

"We are the resistance," Jinra said, the information hitting Kara like an Erad punch to the stomach. "All of it. Out here anyway."

"What?" Kara gasped. "What happened?"

"Outworld berserkers," Jinra elaborated, "on a supply attack. Hit us in the middle of the night. Maybe fifty of them. We were not prepared."

"We're all that's left," Aaron said. "Plus our three wounded there. The rest we buried."

"Except for Richards," Jinra added.

"Richards?" Severn entered the conversation.

"Another radcit," Aaron answered, "one of us. Another fighter."

"We drew straws," Jinra said, "Richards went to Endgate. We had not seen the People in weeks, we didn't know what else to do."

"We're sorry," Kara said sincerely.

"What about this Endgate?" Severn asked. "We hear it's a very dangerous place."

"It is," Jinra said, "but you have to go there if you hope to reach New Columbia."

"New Columbia!" Kara cried, only a second before Ari did the same.

"You mean," Ari asked incredulously, "there really is a New Columbia?"

"None of us has actually been," Jinra told him, "but others have come to us from there."

"Amazing," Severn said, rubbing his chin.

"New Columbia is real," Ari said, more to himself than the others.

"What was this Richards going to find in Endgate, Jinra?" Kara asked.

"A guide. A man there who supposedly knew the way to New Columbia."

"What is this man's name?" Carson Begaye asked.

"I can't remember, Elder," Jinra told him, "it began with a T. Something like Tora or Terra."

"Terranova?" Carson suggested.

"Yes," Jinra said, "that's right. Terranova. How did you know?" Both Carson and Grant Begaye shook their heads.

"Bad man," Grant said simply.

"You'd be better off dealing with a snake," Carson added, "with no offense to the brother snake."

"They're all snakes in Endgate," Jinra said.

"Apparently so," Severn commented.

"This Terranova character, then he's definitely in Endgate?" Kara asked.

"Yes," Aaron said.

"Can you take us there?" Kara wondered. Ari exchanged looks with Severn.

"Our responsibility is to our wounded, Kara," Jinra said. "We can't. We don't dare leave them."

"Carson? Grant?" Kara asked turning to the People warriors.

"Don't ask them, Kara," Aaron interjected. "New Columbia lies far beyond Endgate but you must pass through the border city to reach it. The People will not enter Endgate. To them it is a most unholy place."

"Aaron speaks straight," Carson said, nodding his head. "It is forbidden the People to enter into that unsacred place."

"Only bad is there," Grant said.

"There's no argument there," Jinra agreed.

"We don't know anything about Endgate," Kara said, "or how to find out how you get from there to New Columbia. There's got to be a way."

"Terranova supposedly knows the Sign of the Way," Aaron said to Kara, "that's why Richards went to seek him out."

"The What of the What?" Severn asked, frowning.

"The Sign of the Way," Aaron repeated.

"What does that mean?" Kara asked.

"We don't know for sure," Jinra said, "there are so many rumors and stories coming out of Endgate, but the sign is something about when you see some mountain peaks across from each other then you are near New Columbia.

"For shit sake," Severn snapped, "that's pure bull."

No it's not, Ari wanted to say, vividly recalling his dream in Long Wound. But there was no way he would reveal anything to Severn. Especially something like the dream vision.

"We've been holed up here for months," Aaron said, "we're all runners like yourselves from the zones. We know nothing of the Outworld or what may lie beyond it except what reaches us by word of mouth." Severn let out a deep breath.

"So this is really all there is?" he said. "This is the base camp and you're the rebel army?"

"We were stronger before," Aaron said defensively.

"And we will be again," Jinra added.

"So this is your pathetic rebellion," Severn laughed.

"Our rebellion," Kara corrected him, "or have you forgotten so soon the repression of Bimhills, the squalor of Ebon, the...."

"Don't preach to me, girl," Severn cut her off, "I was just jawin'."

"Maybe you should keep your jawin' to yourself," Kara told him angrily.

Severn squared around towards her. Ari started to step towards Severn. Carson Begaye held up a hand.

"Calm yourselves, people," he said, "calm yourselves. There are wounded here who need help."

"You're Elder," Kara said, backing off sheepishly. Severn and Ari relaxed.

"Aaron," Carson Begaye went on, "Jinra. Grant and I will return to Cibola and send back our healer. She can make your wounded well."

"Thank you, Carson," Aaron said. "We would be in your debt."

"No debt," Carson replied.

"We should go now," Grant counseled his older cousin.

"Yes, Grant," Carson agreed, "we should go. We will send the healer right away."

The People warriors shook hands with Jinra and Aaron and made preparations to leave. Aaron and Jinra escorted them out to the main cave. Kara followed.

"We thank you, too, Carson," she said, "and you, Grant. You have helped us more than we can repay."

"Do not forget the one who escaped," Carson told her. Aaron and Jinra looked over at Kara.

"I'm afraid we brought at least one Erad with us," she told them. "I'll explain later."

"Elder," Ari suddenly called out, hurrying into the main chamber, "wait." Carson turned to face the young romjockey. "I had to give my thanks, too," Ari said, "for the honor you paid me in Cibola and for the gift you and the People gave me." Carson reached out with one hand and held Ari's arm.

"The gift of dream vision was given to you freely," Carson said, "use it wisely."

"I'll try," Ari said.

"Goodbye, then," Carson said to the group. Grant held up his captured DC-40 in a farewell salute. The runners and their new hosts waved goodbye. Grant and Carson turned and walked quickly away. In seconds they were out of sight.

"Finished your goodbyes?" Severn asked, entering the room with Platt stumbling before him.

"Is there somewhere I can talk to my 'leader'," Kara asked Aaron and Jinra, "alone?"

"The meeting hall behind us is good," Aaron said.

"You're right, young princess," Severn said sarcastically, "we got some jawin' to do." Then to Aaron and Jinra: "Keep an eye on these two." He pointed his DC-40 at Ari and Platt.

"Knock that off," Kara told Severn, "let's do it."

They stomped into the meeting room area, walking nearly to the back of the room before they stopped and faced each other.

"What the frappin' hell is with you?" was the first thing out of Kara's mouth. "You're getting more and more flakey the farther we get out here. Are you losing it or something?"

"I don't follow," Severn stonewalled her.

"Follow this, then," Kara said. "Ever since Ebon you keep disappearing, you get more and more crazed about useless crap like your jammin' watch, and now you're ripping the rebellion. Sometimes I don't think you're same cit I knew back in Bimhills. What's the deal here?"

"There's no deal."

"No deal? Nothing."

"Nothing," Severn said, beginning to heat up again, "except we been running like idiots through every zone in the world, we nearly get Xed out a dozen times, then we find the base we been orbin' for completely zeroed out. Other than the fact that the rebellion we fought for doesn't even exist, I guess that's about all that might be jammin' me up."

"That's it."

"That's it."

"Well, tell me this, leader," Kara demanded, "what do we do now then?" Severn walked a few steps from her and leaned against the large round table that was the room's highlight.

"I'm for turning back."

"What?" Kara yelled. "You're for what? Turning back? To where? Do the run again, go back? For what? To what?"

"Take it easy," Severn told her. "I don't see any other way."

"Look," Kara said. "I'm as low as you are on this. Whatever our plan was for the run, it means nothing now. It's hard to take, but I accept it now."

"Kara," Severn said, voice calm and even now, "the plan was for us to get here, mix with the main rebel force for an offensive against Bimhills. A full attack on the silver and the shadpols. But as you can see, this is not going to happen. There is no base. There are no rebels. There is no rebellion."

"So what do we do now?"

"We go back."

"That's not an option. Not for me."

"You got another plan?"

"Yes, stay."

"Here? What for?"

"We can eat and rest. Try to find New Columbia."

"New Columbia is a sim, Kara. A fantasy. A dream."

"But you heard Jinra. There's even a contact in Endgate."

"Endgate? We'd be lucky not to get zeroed out in Endgate, much less find this Terrawhatever."

"Terranova."

"This is crazy thinking. Nuts."

"There's nothing for us here," Kara said, almost pleading. "No radcits left. Nobody here. Maybe they're all in New Columbia."

"Maybe Bimhills isn't controlled by shadpols," Severn said with heavy-handed irony. Kara looked down at her feet. She seemed genuinely unhappy. "You really believe there is such a place as New Columbia, don't you?"

"I have to believe in something," Kara said, raising her head. She looked squarely at Severn.

"Well, what about the two zoner shitcits?" he asked, looking away from the candid intensity of her gaze.

"We give them a choice," she said.

"Yeah. Go back or die."

"No, damn it. Stay here or come with us."

"Come with us?" Severn cried. "Come with us? I'm not tadsittin' those two useless sacks another second."

"Suit yourself," Kara told him. "I'm sure there's some kind of transpo Aaron and Jinra can set you up with."

"Son of a jammer! You don't give me any options."

"You have plenty of options."

"I'm in charge here. I'm the leader. I say what we do."

"Leader of what?" Kara countered. "You said yourself there's no rebellion left. No rebellion. No leaders. It's a solo deal now."

"You push hard, Kara."

"I'm not going back through that hell and there's no reason to stay here. I'm for pushing on to New Columbia."

Severn started to present another argument for doing just the opposite but he realized from Kara's set jaw and determined look that it would get him nowhere. He considered his own alternatives. They did not look good. He chose to stick with numbers. Going either direction solo made no sense. There was still that berserk Erad out there somewhere.

"All right, all right," he acquiesced, "but you keep the zoners under control or I waste them."

"There'll be no need for that," Kara said, smiling grimly. "Then we go on."

"We go on," Severn agreed.

"Let's go back to the others."

Inside the main room again, Kara told Aaron and Jinra the new plan.

"There's still plenty of food and water," Aaron told Kara, "and we have some fuel and supplies. You can take what you need."

"You're free to stay with us as long as you need to," Jinra added. "Hopefully, the Outworlders won't return right away. I imagine they think they've cleaned us out."

"Thank you," Kara said. "You are truly goodcits." She turned then towards Ari and Platt. "You two are not rebels," she told them, "our cause means nothing to you. From this moment, you are free. Free to go back to Bimhills, to Cibola, to wherever."

"Yeah," Platt said with a big goofy smile, "Ari, my good cit, let's bust first sun. Zoom the corridor. We're in Redsinthe smokin' ginweed and sloppin' bedmates in no time." Ari shook his head.

"No, Platt," he said, causing the big Somecop's happy face to fall faster than a boulder dropped into a canyon. "That's not what I want." He returned Kara's look and spoke to her. "Not anymore. I want to go on." Kara smiled at him. Both Platt and Severn looked disgusted.

"We're going on to find New Columbia," Kara said to Ari. "We have no idea what the future will hold."

"I want to go with you," he told her.

"Nauseating," Severn said.

"Frap, Ari," Platt interjected. "You're really different now, cit."

"Yes," Ari said, not breaking eye contact with Kara. "I am. Kara, I want to go on. Platt can do as he wants. He's free, right?"

"Yes," she said, matching Ari's gaze.

"Ah, shit, man," Platt grimaced, "that's chilled ice on my back, goodcit. You ask too much." Ari broke eye contact with Kara and looked at Platt. Platt shuffled from side to side. "Ah, shit," he groaned again. "You frapper, Ari. I'm coming with you." Ari laughed.

"We're coming," he said to Kara.

"It's settled then," she said. "We leave in two days. Aaron and Jinra, we'll take you up on your offer of shelter and supplies." Aaron and Jinra nodded their approval.

"Son of a bitch," Severn muttered.

"To New Columbia," Ari said, raising his rifle above his head.

"For holy shit," Platt said, cringing. He'd never heard such things come out of his old friend's mouth.

"To New Columbia," Kara said.

"First," Aaron reminded them, "you've got to deal with Endgate."

"And then the Outworld," Jinra added. "Feral T and Carbon Based and...."

"Frappin' hell," Platt said.

"This New Columbia sure as hell better be there if we make it past all this crap," Severn said.

"It will be," Kara said simply.

"It's there all right," Ari said, his confident tone surprising everyone, including himself. "I'm certain of it."

"You better be, romjockey boy," Severn said. "I didn't come this far to get Xed out by Outworld berserkers. Especially not on some fantasy run to some mind sparkle dream place."

"Don't worry," Ari told the former rebel leader, "it'll be there."

"We'll see," Severn said, "we'll see."

CONTINUED NEXT MONTH


© 2009 J. B. Hogan

Bio: J. B. Hogan's e-book Near Love Stories is currently available online at Cervena Barva Press. 55 of Mr. Hogan's stories and over 40 of his poems have been published in various journals including Gloom Cupboard, Word Catalyst, Aphelion, Istanbul Literary Review, Cynic Online Magazine, Admit 2, Every Day Poets, Ranfurly Review, and Dead Mule. (His recent Aphelion fiction appearances include Door Gunner and The Last One, December 2008.) J.B. lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

E-mail: J. B. Hogan

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.