Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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 3 of 3)

by J. B. Hogan

(Click HERE to read Part 1.)
(Click HERE to read Part 2.)

Outworld

40.

Endgate, the last outpost between what remained of IMC order in the zones and the no man's land called the Outworld existed in a state of Darwinian anarchy. With its myriad seedy bars and myriad seedy characters, Endgate resembled a rundown version of Redsinthe, Bimhill's plezone region of fillbars and radshops. Black Gold Boulevard, the main east-west artery, was lined with dope bars, whorehouses, and pawn shops.

Exoco and Sincon Streets, running north and south, held the weapons stores, the vehicle dealers, the food and supply shops, and the ubiquitous fast fueler stations where the town's main clients -- the crazed oil tank truckers -- filled their vehicles for the wild run back through the zones. To the north of town were the rundown wood and aluminum shacks housing Endgate's permanent residents -- prostitutes, berserkers, and outcits running from the silver.

All in all, Endgate gave newcomers the impression that it was a throwback to an ancient, pre-IMC world, one they might have read about in their bookers if they had been so inclined, where frontier and border towns were wide open, with day to day order imposed not by law but by the arbitrary application of personal strength, weapons, or wealth -- in oil company chits. There was no bench in Endgate, no chasers, no silver. It was dirty, dangerous, and chaotic, with no visible sign of anyone in control. Except when the Outworld warlords, Carbon-Based and Feral T, came to town.

Driven from the more "civilized" zones, C-B -- as the denizens of the zone called him -- and Feral T, once goodcits during their days in IMC maxsec vats, were now rivals, occasionally allied when business needs so dictated. They had originally become rich and powerful by cornering the prostitution and gun trade in Endgate but split over a difference of opinion concerning profit sharing -- the massive C-B insisting on a 60-40 split, in his favor.

Ever competitive, the two berserkers eventually built paramilitary forces of their own and when C-B became strong enough to take the giant Sincon refinery south of Petrol City -- beyond which lay no one knew what -- Feral T matched that strike by overrunning and taking command of the equally large Exoco plant to the north of the city.

With the power and forces they commanded, C-B and Feral T entered into a shaky truce marked by infrequent but bloody violations. From time to time, one or the other -- very rarely both at the same time -- would come to Endgate and at least for that period of time the border city would have, through the warlord's personal strength and that of his soldiers, something resembling order to it.

Having developed their skills in the creative environment of the IMC's mostly ignored vat system, C-B and Feral T had established a lucrative quota system for their trucker clients in Endgate. In exchange for the physical services of the huge stable of prostitutes they maintained for the truckers' pleasure, C-B and Feral T would accept weapons, fuel, and vehicles -- which along with water and sex -- held highest value in the Outworld.

The quota system was simple: individual weapons, vehicles, and amounts of fuel could be traded for an established equivalent in sex, alcohol, or drugs. Both C-B and Feral T particularly liked weapons, so clients who could produce either six L-12 shotguns, four lasermags, or two DC-40s could pick one woman from a bar and take her with them in their fuel trucks. She belonged to them and they could do with her as they pleased -- the Outworld warlords seemed to have a never ending supply of women flowing out of the underbelly of the other zones, particularly plezone-oriented Bimhills.

The rebel contact in Endgate, Terranova, served as central liaison for both Carbon-Based, for whom he worked directly, and Feral T, for whom he worked under threatened penalty of death. Terranova, a scrawny, snaggle-toothed, filthy little man, collected C-B and Feral T's Endgate earnings -- skimming just enough off the top to not get himself Xed out -- and negotiated the larger weapons, vehicle, and fuel transactions with the trucker clientele.

He was renowned in the Outworld for his sexual and culinary proclivities which ranged from a predilection for very young partners -- of either sex -- to a rumored compulsion for cooked flesh, of the human variety. His drives, real or imagined, made him a near legend in the Outworld, a zone where all but the most remarkable of behaviors went essentially unnoticed.

Terranova sat behind a desk at the top of a short flight of stairs in back of the dimly lit Light Crude Bar counting the day's take when a burly man wearing trucker clothes probably two sizes too small for him came in. The man, a match for Feral T though not for the six foot five inch, three hundred and twenty pound Carbon-Based, found a table in a dark back corner and ordered a bucket of black beer.

The bartender brought the chits back that the man paid with and unobtrusively held them up for Terranova to see. They were IMC chits, not oil company ones, and they set off a red flag for the warlords' profit collector. Finishing his count and pocketing a handful of chits, including those of the new customer, Terranova rose and slowly descended the stairs to the bar.

"Back there," the bartender told him, jerking his thumb in the direction of the big man who was slamming down glass after glass of the foul concoction that passed for beer in Endgate.

"You seen him before?" Terranova asked.

"Never," the bartender said.

"How long's he been here?"

"A few minutes at most."

"Why would there be stragglers, right now?" Terranova wondered.

"You must've heard about the Erad massacre by now," the bartender said. "It's all over town. Two boys came in yesterday claimin' an Erad wasted a bunch of crazers out in the Long Wound No-mans's Land."

"Yeah, well," Terranova snorted, "there's that and there's all the BS about New Columbia floatin' around, too. Idiots yappin' about it like that one I dusted last week."

"Who was that?"

"Some stupid rebel. Rogers or Richards. Who cares. Said his rebel bunch had been whacked by berserkers from here. Can you imagine?" The bartender laughed. "Can you believe the wienie wanted to know how to get to New Columbia?"

"What'd you tell him?"

"Same bull as always: look to the mountains beyond Petrol City. There'll be a sign. The Sign of the Way." The bartender howled.

"Did he find his sign?" he asked.

"Yeah, at the wrong end of my L-12." Both men got a real laugh out of that one.

"What about the one back there?" Terranova asked when they had stopped laughing. "He's big enough to be an Erad. Does he look tough enough."

"Check him out," the bartender suggested. "Might just be a new driver."

Terranova nodded and made his way slowly towards the back door of the bar and the stranger.

"Hey, Terranova," a drunk muttered as the cash collector passed him by. "Hey."

"What'dya want, O.T.?" Terranova said, stopping to scrape the drunk's hand off his arm.

"D'ya hear about the Erad..."

"Heard it," Terranova said, shutting the man up with a sharp slap to the mouth.

Terranova continued his saunter, leaving the drunk rubbing his face. When he reached the big man's table he paused momentarily. The man didn't look up. Terranova moved slightly towards him, stopped. He wasn't sure in the poor light, but he thought he had seen the glint of a barrel. And it might have been a DC-40, the Erad weapon of choice. Worth tons here in the Outworld. Prudently backing away, Terranova smiled insincerely at the big man.

"Move on," the big man said into his glass.

Challenged on his own turf, Terranova reached for the long barreled lasermag he'd taken from the idiot rebel he'd Xed out only days before. But the big man was far too fast. This time Terranova had no trouble verifying the weapon type: it was a silver-issue DC-40. If the man wasn't an Erad, he was close enough for IMC work. Terranova stepped back and held both hands out, palms open.

"Move on," the big man repeated.

"Movin', cit," Terranova said. "Movin' now."

Backing down the aisle between tables, Terranova kept his eye on the big man's hands. One stayed out of sight, the other kept lifting the beer glass. Terranova pushed the back door open with his butt and bright light momentarily penetrated the hazy gloom of the Light Crude.

He let the door slam shut, and as he did it sounded like the big man with the big DC-40 released something sounding very much like a wounded animal's growl. Shaking his head, Terranova turned and headed off to the next collection spot. He figured he should get word out to C-B and Feral T that a crazer Erad, in workercit clothes was in Endgate. It was the kind of information they paid him well for. A plain clothes Erad in Endgate. His bosses would definitely want to know that.

####

Dodging thorny scrub trees and thistle bushes, Sgt. Cage had guided the romspeed cycle like he was in a desert slalom race. He was headed for the corridor road, his only hope of escape. The Long Wound warriors, whooping and howling at his back in pursuit, wildly shot arrows and long rifles in a vain attempt to stop him. Spinning around thick, jagged rocks and bouncing over the dusty, sandy terrain, Sgt. Cage managed to reach his goal -- flying over a final ditch to land roughly on the corridor road. He gave the machine full throttle and was soon distancing himself from the warriors. In a couple of minutes they turned back, back to help finish off the Erad pack.

Sgt. Cage, guts twisting from seeing Bead die and from leaving the rest of the pack behind, drove the cycle at maximum speed even when he turned and saw he was no longer being followed. He cursed into the hot wind that blasted his tough, square face and caused his eyes to tear and partially blur his vision. The sergeant raced on and on down the corridor; east, towards the frontier town of Endgate. Only once did he slow up -- that when he saw a momentary flash of glass or shiny metal in the hills climbing towards a mountain range just a few miles northeast of the battle he'd just escaped.

Cage throttled back briefly, the dust trail behind him dissipating, and pulled out the small tailing unit Lt. Rankin had given him, aimed it towards where he had seen the light and sure enough the unit's red light flashed. With a sardonic laugh, Cage revved up the cycle and drove on. He knew the rebel fliers would be going on to Endgate, too. It was only logical that they would. And he would be waiting for them.

About ten miles outside Endgate, Cage stopped to gather his bearings. He was at the top of a rise where he could see the vague outline of Endgate in the hazy distance. He pulled the cycle off the corridor and parked it on a flat spot just to the south of the road, then did a physical check of his situation. The cycle was low on fuel, but it had plenty to reach Endgate. He had his big killing knife in his boot, his DC-40 and several clips of ammunition beneath his leathers. There was a chunk of dried meat left in a saddle bag along with a swallow or two of hot water in a small plastic canteen. For an Erad that was plenty. More than enough. More than enough to carry out Lt. Rankin's final orders.

Final orders. The reality of his pack's end struck Sgt. Cage with the force of a commander's backhand. For the briefest of moments, he felt sorrow, pain. Then the trained anger took over. Revenge. Duty. He reached into his pocket and extracted the tailing unit. He aimed it behind him. Its red light flashed faintly. Still there, he thought, bound to come this way. He would be waiting for them.

And they would all die. The mole, the highcit, whoever was with them. He, Sgt. Cage, would avenge the pack and shove the assignment into the IMC's face, into Rep Alexander's face most of all. The pack had been tricked, slaughtered. All because of IMC bullshit. They had been kept on a leash, and it had cost them all -- except him, Sgt. Cage -- their lives. The fliers would pay. The IMC would pay. They would learn that Erads were not something to play with. That...

Abruptly Cage switched off his internal tirade. Something had made a popping sound in the thick scrub off to his right beyond the corridor. A sound like a stick being snapped by a heavy weight, perhaps by a foot. Sgt. Cage whirled and there they were: a half dozen outworlders, crazers, berserkers, roaming through the outer edges of Long Wound. Looking for vulnerable prey, which they thought they had found.

"Hey, cit," one of them, a scrawny, black bearded crazer with filed teeth, said to Cage. "Got any water? We're lost out here and we need water."

"Yeah," another berserker echoed. This one wore a black patch over his left eye, below which a thick scar ran perhaps four inches down his filthy cheek. "We're lost and need water."

"Hey," another foolishly said, "he's got on Erad leathers."

"Erad leathers?" the others laughed, perhaps a bit skittishly.

"Where'd you get the leather, cit?" Patch asked, resting his right hand on a holstered, old style lasermag. "Erads don't come out here."

"Probably found it on the corridor where we dusted the last ones that did," Filed Teeth smiled.

Cage didn't say anything, but he slowly reached for his canteen as if to give it to the crazers. His other hand disappeared inside his leathers.

"Whad'ya say, Erad boy," Filed Teeth goaded Cage, "got any water?"

Cage still didn't speak, he was figuring which crazers to kill first. Settled logically on Filed Teeth and Patch. They were the leaders, they would go first.

"C'mon, High Rep Erad," the other berserker who had spoken said, "share the water."

"Enough bullshit," Patch said roughly. "Enough games." He unsnapped his holster and began slowly withdrawing his pistol.

"OK," Cage finally spoke, "I'll share. I don't want any trouble."

"That's better," Patch said, letting his pistol slide back down into the holster. "That's a good cit."

"Yeah," Filed Teeth added arrogantly, "that's more like it. Be a good cit and hand over the water. That's a good deal. We're all brother cits." He stepped toward Cage.

"Halt," Cage ordered, his DC-40 materializing from beneath his leathers.

He aimed it directly at the crazer's solar plexus. Filed Teeth looked at the weapon and laughed. But he stopped where he was.

"He is an Erad," one of the other berserkers said. He and a couple of the others began to back away.

"No way in hell," Patch said, vainly signaling for the others to stay where they were.

"You really Erad, big cit?" Filed Teeth asked Cage, a nasty smile crinkling his nasty features.

"You decide," Cage sad, smiling malevolently.

Patch, Filed Teeth, and the other one who had spoken, began to edge away from each other, hands on their weapons, attempting to partially encircle Cage. The other three crazers kept moving slowly backward; Erad or no, they wanted none of this action.

"I take you to be a fat faker, wearing leather that don't fall to you by rights," Patch snarled at Cage.

Cage just kept smiling. Patch went for his pistol. It was the last thing he ever did. Like lightning, Cage swiveled his DC-40 away from Filed Teeth's gut and shot Patch smack in the face. The crazer toppled backwards, dead before he hit the ground.

Before Filed Teeth could draw his own weapons, Cage spun back and shot him twice in the chest. The agile Erad, expecting a shot from the third crazer, dove off the cycle, rolled on the ground and came up firing. He needn't have made the effort. The third man had frozen where he stood, hands away from his weapon. Two more shots from Cage dropped him. Stone dead.

Cage turned to the others, who were retreating as fast they could. He picked out the largest of them, one wearing a ragged, faded trucker's uniform, and with careful sighting put a DC-40 round through the back of the man's head. He let the other two crazers run off. They might be useful, he thought, tossing his Erad leathers behind a large prickly pear cactus and beginning to remove the clothes from the last man he shot, when I get to Endgate.

Now, downing the last of the putrid Light Crude Bar's beer, Sgt. Cage subtly took the mole tailing unit out of the trucker pants he wore. A little small, he laughed to himself, looking at the pant legs riding well up his large calves, but they'll do. Switching on the unit, he aimed it in what he figured was a westerly direction. The red light flashed, brighter this time than before on the corridor. With a self-satisfied chuckle, Cage shut the unit off and repocketed it. The runners were coming to him this time. He would relax and wait on them. The end was in sight. He was going to enjoy it.

41.

When the runners approached Endgate, they veered north -- as Aaron and Jinra had advised them -- onto a poorly maintained, less traveled and thereby safer road that brought them into the city by way of a side gate near a ramshackle residential area. Despite their efforts to be inconspicuous, they had donned ragged desert oil worker clothes also at Jinra and Aaron's suggestion, Ari's romspeed drew unwanted attention. So many people checked it out, men and young boys in particular, that the fliers decided to hide it and make their way to city center on foot.

Leaving the vehicle under a pile of debris in a deserted alley, the fliers mixed with the throngs of berserkers, truckers, whores, and oil workers, and went in search of the man called Terranova. No one they approached was at first even willing to acknowledge being familiar with the elusive Terranova, but in a bar on Black Gold Boulevard, the town's main drag, they did overhear a table full of truckers talking about the Erad massacre in Long Wound, although the account given seemed to greatly enhance the number of casualties, both on the Erad and Long Wound sides.

There was also quite a bit of talk about New Columbia, which at first thrilled and energized Ari, but after being approached by a half dozen or more "guides" with the same map to the supposed same green utopia, his excitement turned to boredom, then to annoyance, and eventually to a facile cynicism. He assumed lies were the stock in trade in this hell hole; except for the rumor he heard in another bar that some unknown crazer had jumped a bunch of Outworld berserkers and laid them pretty much to waste.

That story made all the fliers' ears perk up, although Severn was quick to downplay its possible connection to the Erad they knew had escaped the Long Wound slaughter. Yet he became so agitated after a while that when the group reached a promising looking bar called the Outworld Tanker, he refused to go in. Kara told him to watch Platt while she and Ari strode on inside.

"What?" Ari said too loudly, when the bartender casually pointed out Terranova to them. Ari had begun to doubt the outlaw berserker's existence. Kara quieted him with a well placed elbow to the stomach.

"Over there," the bartender said, motioning with his head towards the dark, dank back of the bar. Ari and Kara squinted in the poor light, but couldn't make much out.

"Thanks," Kara told the bartender, slipping him a ten chit note, which he held up to the light, snapped it from the edges a couple of times and then ceremoniously pocketed it. "C'mon," she said to Ari, pulling him along.

Passing tables full of workers, truckers, prostitutes, and Outworld berserkers, they found the profit collector sitting alone at the very back of the bar.

"Who wants to know?" Terranova snarled in response to Kara's inquiry.

"We're, uh, we're oil diggers," Ari invented, using a term he'd heard bandied about on the streets and in the bars of Endgate as they had walked along it mean streets. "Oil diggers looking for a guide."

Terranova checked him up and down. Then did the same with Kara.

"Oil diggers, huh?" he said, doubtfully, producing a huge roll of oil company chits which he started counting out on the table.

"That's correct," Ari said.

"Who do you work for?" Terranova asked, not looking up from his chit counting.

Ari glanced at Kara but she was looking away from the filthy, foul smelling profit collector.

"IMC oil council in Bimhills," Ari continued his extemporaneous invention.

"Never heard of such a thing," Terranova said.

He stopped counting long enough to look at Ari without making direct eye contact. Ari leaned away from him -- the guy was missing most of his teeth and his breath smelled as bad as rotting flesh.

"It's new," he went on with his lie, "they sent us here to find new oil. We heard you were the cit who could help us find new plugs. Talk to Terranova they said. He's the main cit. The one to jaw with."

"They said that in Bimhills?" Terranova asked, his vanity getting the best of him. "They know my name?"

"Oh, yeah," Ari embellished, "my topcits told me: Terranova or no one." In his peripheral vision, Ari could see Kara, re-engaging, getting ready to say something.

"They got that right," Terranova boasted. "I'm the head cit in Endgate. My word's the true deal."

"On the street they say it's Carbon-Based," Kara interjected, "or this Feral T."

"She an oil digger, too?" Terranova asked Ari, leering at Kara.

He moved a hand towards Kara which she deflected away from her breasts. The outlaw reached for his sidearm lasermag, but Kara had hers trained on him before he could draw. Conversation at surrounding tables stopped, and the patron's gawked curiously.

"Easy, missy," Terranova told her, "you'll be lizard bait before you get back to the bar."

Ari looked around. He saw several weapons aimed at them from different places in the bar.

"Take it easy, Kara," he said, lowering the barrel of her weapon with his left hand. "Mr. Terranova is the key cit here. His word's the bench."

Kara reholstered her lasermag. The bar relaxed. Conversations resumed.

"I like my oil diggers with fire," Terranova said to Kara, his concupiscence nearly frothing over. He was obviously undressing Kara in his mind, picturing her warm, soft skin under the dirty oil worker clothes she wore. For Kara, the attentions of this foulcit caused a chill to run down her spine.

"So where is it you want to seek out?" he asked, reluctantly turning back to Ari. "All the land by Petro City's been plugged full max. Where you plannin' to orb?"

"Way out," Ari said, "way gone from, uh, Petro City. To the end of the Outworld."

"There's nothin' but fire fields out there," Terranova said. "Dead and burning."

"Past there," Ari kept inventing, "past the fire fields, up near New Columbia."

"New Columbia?" Terranova said, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Who's been jabberin' about that?"

"It's all over the streets," Kara said.

"Yeah," Terranova laughed, "and so's syphilis."

"We want to go to New Columbia," Ari said plainly.

"Whoa," Terranova said, pocketing his chits and leaning back in his chair. "This puts a whole new light on things."

"Such as?" Kara asked.

"Such as you 'oil diggers' might not be the rebel fliers I've been hearing about, now would you?"

"No," Ari denied poorly.

"How would you know if we were?" Kara demanded. "There's no jawin' about that in the streets."

"Not everything in Endgate is above ground," Terranova said, eyeing Kara, whose hand had instinctively gone to the handle of her lasermag.

"That I'll give you," she replied, trying to get a reading from Terranova's shifty eyes.

"But I heard there was four of you," Terranova said, ignoring her. "Maybe four rebel runners and flyin' in a real hot, fancy romspeed."

"Maybe," Kara said, "maybe not."

"I tell you what," Terranova said to Ari, "I make you a deal, sight unseen. I'll give you four of my very best bedmates for that romspeed. All of 'em, you get all four -- to do with as you please. Best offer in the Outworld, citboy. Think about it. Quench any man's fire. Even one from Bimhills. Make you some chits, too. If you get my meaning."

Ari didn't know what to say. He looked at Kara. Terranova shifted his spiel to her then.

"So, maybe you don't want the girls. I'll give you three older romspeeds and two cycles -- and, I'll throw in a brand new DC-40 and one hundred rounds. What'ya say?"

"We're not rebels," Kara insisted, Terranova nodding his head as if he really believed her. "And we're not fliers. We just need a guide."

"To take us as far towards New Columbia as he can get us," Ari finished the idea.

"How did you hear about me?" Terranova asked. "How did you find me?"

"We found you by asking for you in every bar in Endgate," Ari explained. "We heard…"

"We heard about you on the street," Kara interrupted.

"Uh, huh," Terranova grunted. "I was thinkin' maybe you heard of me from one of my recent clients."

"We don't know anything about that," Kara told him.

"That's too bad," Terranova put on a sensitive face. "A Mr. Richards I think it was." He paused for a reaction, but got none. Maybe they weren't rebels. They would have known Richards if they were. He was sure of that. "Unfortunate fellow, lost in the fire fields they tell me. Decided not to use my services. Not a good idea."

"We do want your services," Ari said.

"But not your bull," Kara added. "Maybe we have the wrong man. Maybe we need a real guide."

"Take it easy," Terranova told her. "I might want to be your guide. But what do I get out of it? I've told you what I want. Even tried to trade for it."

"No romspeed," Kara said, "but we have IMC cits, IDflicks, and . . uh, a ring. Show him your ring, Ari."

"Not the ring, Kara," Ari said, feeling betrayed.

"Let me see it, sport," Terranova said, holding out his hand.

"Son of a bitch," Ari said, digging the ring out of his pants pocket. Terranova grabbed it away.

"Worthless crap," he pronounced to Ari's relief. "Here, cit, keep your frappin' ring. What was that about? I look like a pawn shop?"

"It's all the stuff we have," Kara said.

"I tell you what," Terranova drooled at Kara, "I'm a fair cit." He reached up and cupped her left breast in his bony right hand. She cringed but didn't move. He massaged her as he continued speaking. "If you got enough IMC chits, and if the IDflicks are top quality, old Terranova will see what he can do for you."

He reached out to put both hands on Kara's breasts but she pulled free from his oily grasp. Terranova smiled his yellow, jagged smile.

"We're good for it," Kara said, "all of it."

"When I get you where you're goin' maybe we still talk trade for the romspeed, right?" Terranova said. Kara looked at Ari.

"Right," he said. "Maybe. If we really have that romspeed."

"Right," Terranova said, "if you really have it. Alright then, enough jawin', rebcits, I mean goodcits, meet me back of the Light Crude Bar down the street here late tomorrow. We got a full moon. We travel to Petro City by night."

"Why to Petro City?" Kara asked.

"Because all roads in the Outworld lead to Petro City," Terranova laughed, leaning back in his chair. Kara and Ari stared at him. "That was a joke," he said, plopping back forward.

He pounded the table and guffawed again at his berserker wit. Kara and Ari still didn't join in.

"Well, go on then," Terranova finally told them. "Go. Get gear and grub and shit for the run. Go on, Get out of here. You're getting' in the way of business. "

"Tomorrow night," Ari said doubtfully, but he began to edge away from the table.

"Bring all your crap with you," Terranova repeated, "plenty of supplies. And that magic romspeed. If it exists," he cut loose with another loud laugh.

"We'll hold up our end," Kara said. "You just be there."

"Oh, I'll be there," Terranova said salaciously, "I wouldn't want to miss seeing you hold up your end. Not for nothin'."

"In your zone dreams," Kara dismissed the profit collector, "in your dreams."

She spun round and strode out of the bar, Ari hustling behind her. At their backs, they heard Terranova's laughter, foul and annoying, echoing through the dingy bar.

42.

Sgt. Cage sat on a rickety chair in front of a window looking down at the dilapidated shed where the fliers had stashed their romspeed. The panty-clad young prostitute he'd physically taken from one of Endgate's filthiest bars knelt before him, back to the window, face between his huge legs. Cage had chosen the girl because she was a paranoid, nosey little snitch and because she had connections who knew the whereabouts of the runner vehicle. During the previous day, Cage had chased off a few would be romspeed thieves, and in the evening bullied and overtipped the hotel clerk to get him and the girl a room with a view.

But now, despite her exotic, wild Toku looks, and her oral expertise, Cage wasn't enjoying the girl's work. Images of the Erad slaughter kept popping unbidden into his consciousness. In particular, he saw the hideous death of young Bead, his packmate and the promise of the Erad future. With a growl, Cage shoved the woman away, and kicked her, crying, backwards. She recovered her balance and tried to slap him, but he grabbed her arms, pinning both wrists easily with one big hand.

"You rotten shitcit," she spat at him.

"Shut your face and put your ass on the rack," Cage ordered. The girl made a face at him and flipped him off. "Sit down," he boomed.

She sat. Right next to the upper torso Erad leathers Cage had salvaged in the desert and hidden when he entered Endgate. The girl shoved them aside roughly, again jabbing the air with her middle finger. Cage laughed.

"You filthy outguard garbage," the girl told him, suddenly breaking into high pitched, cackling laughter.

"Shut up," Cage said, aiming his DC-40 at her chest. The girl shut up.

He signaled with his weapon for the girl to get back between his legs. She pouted and sulked, holding her arms over her small, bare breasts.

"Do it again," he said.

"You do it," she countered, "you the big, strong crazer."

"I'm not a crazer," Cage said. "Do it."

"More chits," the girl said. "You give me more chits."

"I'll give you shits," Cage laughed.

"Not work cheap," the girl said.

Cage pulled a pile of chits out of his pants pocket. There were IMC chits, oil chits, counterfeit chits. He had made efficient use of his time in Endgate. The several bruised truckers, workers, and crazers limping around town would have testified to that if they had known what hit them. Cage waved a fistful of chits at the girl.

"Do me," he said. The girl slinked back. He stuffed a wad of chits into the top of her panties.

"You goodcit," the girl cooed, resuming her task, "you real good cit."

"Yes," Cage groaned, letting himself feel the girl's work, kneading her head and pulling on her hair with his heavy fingers. The girl intensified her efforts. Cage closed his eyes and allowed himself a brief moment of pleasure. The girl kept working.

When he was done and the girl had cleaned them both up, Cage leaned back in his chair and lightly dozed. It was late in the afternoon and he'd been up for a day or more without sleep, watching the shed across the narrow street from the fleabit hotel. He needed some rest, even if just a catnap.

How long he nodded, he couldn't tell -- it was still light outside when he woke -- but he opened his eyes to find the girl standing beside him, trying her best to lighthand every chit he had on him. Cage closed his eyes again, played possum, felt the girl's ever so light touch in his pockets. She was extremely good. But when she reached the tracking unit, Cage sent her reeling across the room with a lightning backhand that the little woman never saw coming. She rolled against the window, mouth and nose bleeding.

"You lowest shitcit ever," she cried at him, "what's the matter with you?"

"Keep quiet," Cage said, taking the tracker out of his pocket. He clicked it on, saw the flashing red light. It was bright and strong, the flashes occurring very rapidly. They were nearby. They were coming for the vehicle.

"What that?" the girl asked between sniffling sobs.

"A thermonuclear device," Cage said, pointing the tracker at the girl, "it'll blow you up. Boom. Boom." He leaned back and laughed heartily.

"You crazy berserker," she told him, "you escaped vatter. Serial Xer, huh?"

"Wipe your face," Cage said, tossing the girl the dirty shirt she had been wearing when he drug her out of her bar. She did as she was told. This crazer was really dangerous. One true waster shitcit.

"What that really?" the girl asked, trying a more cajoling tone. "A radio?"

"Yeah," Cage said, first looking at the bright flashing light and then outside at the shed. These frappers had to be right around the corner.

Cage took a deep breath. He had a plan. Follow the runners into the desert beyond Endgate -- he was sure they were going in search of this idiotic New Columbia place that everybody in town seemed to have a rumor about and a map to -- and then waste them, one at a time. Slowly. He would make an example of them. He would make them pay for everything. For the L-T, for Tom, for Bead, for the pack. For the lousy crap-filled world, for his pain, for the pain of his family, for every frappin' lousy punch he'd gotten from his old man. They would pay. And pay.

"Get over here," Cage snarled at the girl.

Outside he saw the four fliers digging out their romspeed. Three men and a woman, dressed like oil workers. He saw at least one lasermag, one DC-40, and one old rifle -- carried by a pretty boy who must have been the highcit. The second of the men was one of the ignorant dragalongs who had escaped the pack back in Ebon. The woman and the third man were hard to see because they stayed in back of the shed where it was darker.

"What you want?" the girl asked, blocking Cage's view of the fliers.

"Do me again," he said.

"You gotta pay a lot," she said, wiping a trickle of blood from her nose.

"Do it," Cage commanded.

Cage kept a close eye on the shed while the girl worked him again. He found that he was extraordinarily aroused and he came quickly, just as the rebels pulled out of the shed and began to drive slowly away.

"You pay now," the girl said, cleaning herself with the dirty shirt again.

"Yeah, I pay now," Cage said, reaching behind his back. "Look here."

The girl smiled weakly. Suddenly Cage's left hand shot out, grasping her by the hair. Turning his powerful wrist outward, Cage lifted the girl's head, exposing her thin, white neck. The girl flailed desperately at him but her blows were useless against the Erad's strength. He held her head tightly, looked into her wide, terrified eyes and then drew his razor sharp killing knife from behind his back and with one terrible, but efficient movement, slit the girl's throat from side to side all the way to the bone. Blood spurted from her like a broken fountain. Cage quickly flung the lifeless body away, only getting his hands wet with the warm red fluid.

"All paid up," he said, wiping his hands and knife on the girl's clothes.

Casually checking the tracking unit again, Cage reholstered his knife, grabbed the leathers off the bed, and walked leisurely to his vehicle. He felt good. The rebels were as good as in his sights. They were a done deal.

43.

Late in the afternoon, the runners dug the romspeed out from under its junkpile camouflage. Ari eased it out of the shed and made a left turn onto the narrow street in front and drove them slowly, and inconspicuously he hoped, to their rendezvous with Terranova. Severn was particularly jumpy and at times poked his DC-40 out the window to discourage overly interested onlookers.

"Stop it," Kara snapped, when he had threatened a curious young boy at an intersection. "You're causin' everybody to look at us with that bull."

"I don't care," Severn rejoined, making eye contact with Ari in the rear view mirror. The higcit's big, dumb goodcit, Platt, sat in front beside Ari and kept his mouth shut, which was what Severn had advised him to do several times that day. "I say we're walkin' right into a trap with this Terranova."

"We've been over this backwards and forwards," Kara said, looking directly at Severn. "We don't have a hell of a lot of choices."

"Yeah, well what do you think he'll do when he sees we don't have enough chits and just the IDflicks of boy wonder up there and his rockhead friend."

"Hey," Platt objected to being called a rockhead.

"Shut up," Severn told him, jabbing the DC-40 against the big Somecop's back. "I told you to keep your jaw cranked tight.

"Stop flingin' that DC like a jammin' shitwipe," Ari told Severn.

"What?" Severn cried. "What? Are you up for me, plezone boy? You gonna fight for your goodcit and your hot bedmate, ey?"

Ari slammed on the brakes, the romspeed squealing to a halt. He turned around in the seat to confront Severn, but Severn's DC-40 was already in his face. Platt also turned but stopped when he saw the weapon aimed at Ari's head.

"That's right," Severn told Platt. "Ease back down."

"You ease down," Kara said, putting her lasermag against Severn's right temple. "This play crap is done. Back off. Ari, turn around. You too Platt." Ari and Platt slowly did as Kara ordered. She kept her lasermag trained on Severn until he lowered his DC-40. "Put that away," she told him.

"You taking the side of these two useless pieces of crap?" Severn asked. "We're rebels. We've fought the IMC together. They're nothing. You go with that?"

"I go with what keeps us alive," Kara said. "All of us."

"You've changed," Severn told her. "You let this pretty boy highcit change you."

"Holster the DC," Kara said, ignoring Severn's dig. Severn held the weapon at his side but didn't holster it. "Put it away." Severn looked at her as if he didn't hear. "Severn," Kara said authoritatively, "holster the DC."

"You're going too far, Kara," he said, eyes vacantly glazed. "You're not being straight up." Kara aimed her lasermag at Severn's chest.

"This is the straight up," she said, glancing at Ari in the mirror, "you got two choices: bail right now, get out, go your own way; or come with us. We're going to run the risk with Terranova. You choose. You make the decision. Jump or stay."

Severn silently considered his options. He imagined shooting Kara, then wasting the two shitcits in front. Then a better idea occurred. He pictured them all out on the desert, alone. No one for miles. He would dust the two idiots and sell Kara to Terranova. That would cool her hot butt. The idea made him giddy with excitement and anticipation. He would wait for the right moment. He could go with that.

"I can go with that," he spoke out his thoughts. "I stay."

Kara sighed and relaxed against the back seat. Severn holstered his DC-40 and folded his arms across his chest.The rest of the way to the rendezvous point, he was quiet, watching the teeming streets of Endgate, a peculiar smile on his face.

"Oh, four of you, huh?" Terranova sneered when the fliers got out of the romspeed at the meeting place. "And let's orb it -- there were, let's see, supposedly four corridor fliers loose in the zones. Random intersect, or something more?" He laughed at his little joke. None of the fliers found it particularly amusing.

"What of it?" Severn snapped.

"Nothin' to me, shit breath," Terranova growled back, "just a zoney kind of coincide, that's all."

"And that's all it is," Kara interjected. "A mind game, a false idea. We aren't the fliers."

"Right," Terranova said, "and I ain't the frappin'est guide in the O-World. Guaranteed to blast your asses right by the crazer outguards. You think you seen outguards in your lily-livered zone? Old TN will take you through the C-B's zone -- where outguards are men and the whores love it." Terranova again laughed at his own humor.

"Who's C-B?" Platt asked.

"Carbon-Based," Kara answered, "he's the main cit out here."

"Oh," Platt said, vaguely realizing how little of his own mind he'd been using for the better part of his life.

"Him and a guy called Feral T," Ari added for Platt. "They run the zone together, sort of."

Platt shook his head. Man, he thought, Ari has really changed. He was close to being a regular rebel these days.

"Wonderful," Terranova snorted, "I got a pack of brainiacs on my hands. I bow to your worships."

"Enough," Severn cut into Terranova's sarcasm. "Cut the jawin'. Are you a guide or a frappin' laughcit? Lead on."

"Surely, great one," Terranova said with a sickening little hiccough of a laugh. "But first we need to get the ridin' arrangements squared off."

"What's the problem now?" Kara asked with some impatience.

"Well, missy," Terranova leered at her, "I mean one of you fliers, uh, diggers rides up with me as insurance or there ain't no run. And I says it's you, girlie."

"No way," Ari objected, taking a step forward. Terranova pushed back his grimy shirt to reveal an old, but nasty looking DC-40 holstered at his side. He put his hand on the butt of the weapon. Ari stopped where he was.

"She don't go with you," Severn threw in. Terranova laughed his snaggle-toothed laugh.

"No woman with me," he said coldly, eyes narrowed fiercely, "no trip over the Outworld. No goin' by Petro City. No reachin' your precious New Columbia."

Ari wanted to object again, but Kara stopped him with an upraised hand.

"I'll go with him," she said to Ari, "but keep close. You got my back," she added to Severn.

"What do I do?" Platt asked foolishly.

"Keep your mouth shut and your eyes on the guide vehicle," Severn barked at him. The big SC shrugged. He was just trying to be a part of things.

"Let's blow then," Terranova said, walking backwards towards his rattletrap romspeed. It looked to Ari to be about a five year old model and it had taken a fierce beating on the outside. He wouldn't know how well it ran until he heard it cranked up.

"Stay tight," Kara told Ari, the hint of a plea in her voice.

"I'll be on him every second," Ari assured her. Kara winked at him and turned away.

"Come then," Terranova said, "let's bail. We're wastin' time."

The fliers piled into their vehicles and headed out across the rocky, barren, and sandy terrain of the Outworld. In the trailing vehicle, Ari's breath came in short bursts and his pulse thumped under his skin. But he couldn't tell if it was from the excitement of the run or if its source came from somewhere else, like the rider up ahead in the lead vehicle.

44.

A huge, white full moon shone down on the travelers as they made a midnight rest stop on their Outworld run. Eerie shadows darkened the sandy ground and a light, cool breeze blew dried leaves against the still warm tires of the two runner vehicles.

Severn stood to one side of the party, muttering to himself, while Ari and Platt huddled near Ari's romspeed, keeping their eyes on both the odd behavior of Severn and Terranova's fawning proximity to Kara.

"What's up with the rebel," Platt whispered to Ari, "has he gone nuts or what?"

"I don't know," Ari whispered back, "but he's acting really strange. He's messin' with his DC all the time. Keep him orbed tight."

"That Terranola, too," Platt said.

"Terranova," Ari corrected his old friend. "And you're right, did you see he never asked us for the chits or IDflicks we were supposed to give him for the run?"

"You kiddin' me?"

"Shhh. I got the feeling something's not on the level here."

"You still got the rifle?" Platt asked, leaning closer to Ari. Ari patted the weapon at his side.

"Still got," he said. "But it's shitfifty old. Maybe not worth a plug of prechewed day's hash." Platt shuddered at the thought.

"Ugh," he grunted. "Foul stuff."

Ari almost laughed, but a sudden movement by Severn stilled the young highcit's amusement. Platt saw it too and nudged Ari. Ari slid his hand onto the trigger guard of his rifle. Severn stepped up to where he made the top point of an isosceles triangle with Ari and Platt the angle on his left, Terranova and Kara on his right.

"What's the action, cit?" Terranova asked Severn from across the camp. Ari could see the oily profit collector's hand drop to his sidearm.

"I," Severn began like a man who had nearly lost the ability to speak, "I have a scene for you."

"A scene?" Terranova laughed. "For me? What's happened cit, the moon bake your brain?"

"No, no," Severn said humorlessly, "listen."

"Yeah?" Terranova prompted.

"Severn," Kara said, "settle down. We don't have far to go. You can make it. Ease up."

"Listen to me!" Severn commanded loudly. "Shut up."

"Slow, citman," Terranova said, "slow and smooth."

"Terranova," Severn said, as if he couldn't hear the others speaking to him. "Here's my scene for you. These two over here, they're mine. I dust 'em. The girl, she's yours. You can sell her. Make a bunch of chits."

"Shut your face, Severn," Kara said. "You're completely crazed. Nobody's dustin' nobody, and you sure as hell ain't selling me to this thing or anybody else. Now settle down."

"It's a good scene," Severn said to Terranova, ignoring Kara. "You gotta..."

"Wait," Ari broke in, "stop. Listen."

"What?" Platt asked anxiously. "What is it?"

"I thought I heard something, saw something, in the shadows," Ari said. "Listen."

"Listen, dumbcit," Severn blurted out, "I'm goin' to dust you two right now."

"There'll be no dustin' for you tonight, cit," a powerful, deep voice boomed from the shadows beyond the rest camp.

Ari and Kara went for their weapons, but from all sides of the camp the loud noise of many more being cocked stopped them in mid-motion. Severn spun around wildly and in fright and confusion fell onto the ground, dropping his DC-40 out of reach. The shadows of two men passed through the camp and in seconds Severn was a helpless captive. A heartbeat later, other men had disarmed and captured the remaining fliers.

"My liege," Terranova spoke into the shadows beyond the camp. He stretched out his arms, palms upward. "Welcome."

With a series of loud snaps, a bank of powerful lights went on around the camp. Blinking into the white light, the rebels made out a form emerging from the darkness behind the lights. It was a man like no other they had seen, half a foot taller than his largest subordinate, he was as thickly trunked as a good-sized tree.

He wore dusty oiler clothes that barely covered his huge muscles and there was no hair on his body from his shaved head to his massive thighs and calves save for his unexpectedly bushy eyebrows. He had a crooked, hawk nose, and a rock solid jaw above which his thin, slightly effeminate lips were always twisted in a nasty smile. He had strange, penetrating eyes that seemed to glow with a hellish fire. Overall, he was a terrifying apparition, all the more so for appearing unannounced in the middle of the night in the middle of some God-forsaken spot in the Outworld.

"I am Carbon-Based," the man proclaimed, "Lord of the Outworld. Supplier of oil to the zones."

"Oh, hell," Platt muttered to Ari, his big body shaking in fear. "We're dust."

"Be quiet," Ari hissed back.

"I am above the silver," Carbon-Based went on, terrorizing Ari and Platt with a glance their way. "I am above the shadpols, above the IMC. In the Outworld, I am the lord of all I survey."

"And I," another voice boomed from the darkness across the camp, "am lord of all not his."

"Heh, heh," Terranova cackled idiotically, "our second liege: Feral T."

Feral T stepped theatrically into the light for the runners to see. Platt had another shaking episode and Ari held the big SC's arm to steady him. Severn knelt in the sand, abject fear and confusion on his face.

Kara, arms held behind her by two berserkers, sized up Feral T. He appeared to be an ethnic mix, probably Ebon with Bimhills, she thought. He had long, coal-black hair that grew straight down over the shoulders of his rotting, black leather uniform. He had a dark, short beard and mustache and his features were good if not handsome. He had thick brows below a wide forehead, a straight nose, full mouth and high cheekbones. He wore a black patch over his right eye and the left appeared, in the lighting, to be blue.

Though not nearly as big as Carbon-Based, he was better proportioned and had an intelligent look lacking in the other giant Outworld warlord. Feral T bowed to the group, his good eye lingering on Kara, and then walked over in front of Carbon-Based. His men mingled in among the giant warlord's, each group cautiously watching the other.

"Oh, God," Platt murmured to Ari, "they're goin' to hack each other and we'll all be Xed out, man."

"Be quiet," Ari told Platt again. "Clamp it."

Platt shut up, but his big body still quivered. These were two of the biggest, most powerful and foul looking men Platt had ever dreamed of, much less seen, and he was just plain afraid.

"So," Feral T said to Carbon-Based, "what do we have here? Three little mice and a whore princess?"

"What do you want?" Carbon-Based demanded.

"My fair share is all, C-B," Feral T said, smiling insincerely.

"You don't have a share," C-B retorted. "I got here first."

"Everything in the Outworld is fifty-fifty," Feral T said, "as we agreed. Or have you forgotten our pact?"

There was some stirring among the backing troops, mostly among Feral T's black clothed men. C-B's soldiers, in dirty off-white oiler clothes, squared up with their opposite numbers. C-B raised an enormous hand.

"So," he repeated to Feral T, "what do you want?"

Feral T looked over at Ari and Platt, then beyond them to their romspeed. He barely glanced at Severn, but allowed his gaze to stop on Kara. He looked her up and down appreciatively. With a devilish, devious look at C-B, Feral T walked over to Kara. He stood before her, and without ceremony touched her breasts. Kara struggled against the two men who held her but they only tightened their hold.

"The whore," Feral T pronounced, "I want the whore."

"No," C-B's voice carried loudly across the camp. "She's mine. I got here first. The first spoils are mine. You can't have her."

"I want her," Feral T insisted, playing out his game.

Born a breeder child in Ebon, Feral T had been early captured and raised by the enigmatic Panmus. One of the things he'd been taught before his natural bent towards violence and corruption got him expelled from their ranks was that sometimes you had to act like you wanted one thing when you really wanted something else. Feral T had seen the hot new romspeed with his first casual look around the camp. The whore was fabulous looking, but the romspeed was power. He, Feral T, could always get a good looking whore. A new romspeed from the civilized zones was another matter altogether.

"I said she's mine," C-B stonewalled Feral T.

"Maybe we should let her choose," Feral T suggested, running a finger along Kara's cheek. She spit at him but missed his face, hitting instead his breast leather. Feral T drew back to hit her. Kara cringed.

"Stop," Carbon-Based ordered, "do not harm the merchandise."

"Of course," Feral T said, pulling his hand back and smiling at Kara, "you're right. Damaged goods cost chits." He turned from Kara and faced Carbon-Based again. "I still want her," he declared.

"She's mine," Carbon-Based held firm. Feral T slowly walked around the camp, seemingly deep in thought.

"Okay," he said after a few moments, "you win, C-B. You got here first, the whore's yours. But..."

"But what?"

"I still want my share."

"Stop jammin' and say," Carbon-Based demanded.

"Very well," Feral T said, taking another long look at Kara, then shorter ones at Severn, Ari, and Platt. "I want..."

"Say it, you frapper," Carbon-Based growled impatiently. "Stop playin' mind sparkle on us. Out with it."

"That vehicle," Feral T completed his sentence, pointing at Ari's romspeed. "I want that vehicle." Carbon-Based laughed.

"The vehicle? You want the vehicle?"

"The vehicle."

Carbon-Based looked over at Terranova as if to get his opinion on the deal. Terranova shrugged his shoulders and smiled his oily smile.

"Take it, then," Carbon-Based said. "The woman's mine."

"The pact holds," Feral T stated.

"The pact holds," Carbon-Based agreed.

Feral T walked past Ari and Platt and began checking out the romspeed. Carbon-Based turned to settling accounts with his slimy profit collector.

"What about you, oilbag," he said to Terranova, "what shall I give you for your services?"

"Whatever my liege offers is all too fair," Terranova said, bowing obsequiously to the giant warlord.

"You make me puke," Carbon-Based told him, spitting onto the ground as if Terranova were a bad taste he could expectorate. "Pick your play thing and be done with it."

"I would like the girl," Terranova dared say.

"You ignorant, frappin', splayfaced flakehead," Carbon-Based fairly exploded, "you don't listen, you don't think? The whore is mine. Choose again."

"Yes, yes, C-B," Terranova said, bowing so low his face practically scraped the ground. "Not the girl. Not the girl."

"Not the girl," C-B confirmed.

Terranova, disappointed he couldn't have the soft-fleshed girl, looked the other runners over. He stepped up to Ari and Platt and checked them out. He pulled their heads back by the hair and he punched on their arms, legs, and torsos. Then he went over to the wild-eyed Severn and did the same.

"Well?" C-B prompted him. "Which is it to be, you flesh chewin' flake?"

"Him," Terranova said, raising his right arm. Ari and Platt could barely stand to see who he pointed at. "This one. The tough rebel cit." He tapped Severn on a trembling shoulder. Ari and Platt let out audible sighs of relief. "He will be a job for tendering up."

The outlaws and their bands of crazed berserkers whooped and hollered. A few of them fired shots into the air. Carbon-Based raised a hand to halt the merriment.

"What about the other two?" he asked the group.

"Leave them to me," Feral T said, stepping out of the dark by the vehicles into the lighted center of the camp. "I've a treat for them. It'll be a good stretch, if you follow me."

Carbon-Based did not follow, but Terranova whispered in the big warlord's ear and the puzzled look on his face was replaced by one of amusement.

"Stretch it is, then," he said to Feral T, laughing. "Do what you want." He then raised a huge mitt of a hand and signaled to his troops. "Petro City," he commanded, and his soldiers formed around him, Terranova and Kara in the center near the warlord.

While Carbon-Based's group roared away, Feral T organized his band behind Ari and Platt. He motioned to several of his men and they surrounded the two young goodcits.

"Take care of them," Feral T ordered, "and do it right. The slow way."

"Yes, sir," one of the crazers said. "On your backs," he told Ari and Platt, others shoving the two goodcits down onto the sandy ground.

"Oh, hell," Platt moaned, as the crazers hammered stakes of wood into the soil. "Oh, frappin' hell."

45.

Ari and Platt spent a fitful night on the warm sand beneath the cool, distant light of the full moon. Stripped to the waist and staked face up, they had been left to the mercy of the elements -- or worse -- by Feral T and his men. Their initial terror had just begun to ease when, no more than a half hour after the outlaws had driven off, Feral T howling with glee in Ari's romspeed, they heard the sound of another engine.

Ari twisted his head to see but could only make out that it was a cycle of some kind. He and Platt waited breathlessly for what they did not know to occur, but after pausing for several moments, the driver of the cycle revved his engine and went on. On in the direction of the outlaw bands, as well as Ari could figure from his restricted position.

For the better part of the next hour, the two young goodcits passed the time driving each other into a paranoid frenzy focusing on the chances of an immediate, painful demise. They imagined wild animals ripping their flesh off, the outlaws returning to stab and shoot them, the unseen cycle driver emerging from the shadows to burn and cook them -- and serve them up as an entree for Terranova.

Finally, their imaginations spent, they fell asleep from exhaustion sometime in the middle of the night. Early the next morning, while it was still dark but with the eastern horizon beginning to lighten, they awoke within minutes of each other -- dry throated but otherwise safe and sound.

"Ari," Platt spoke first, voice cracking over cracked lips, "Ari?"

"What?" Ari croaked back.

"I'm thirsty," Platt whined, "max thirsty."

"Don't talk about it," Ari said, twisting vainly against the stakes. The outlaws had tied them with strong hemp cords that would take at least a sharp knife to cut.

"What are we going to do?" Platt asked pitifully. "We're going to die out here."

"We'll be okay, Platt," Ari consoled his goodcit, "save your strength. We'll get out of this somehow. They didn't X us out when they had their chance. That was their mistake."

"Who do you think that was last night on the two-wheeler,?" Platt wondered.

"I figure it had to be the Erad," Ari said.

"Oh, hell," Platt shuddered.

"Easy," Ari told him.

"Right," Platt agreed, "go easy. Smooth it down."

Both men were quiet for several minutes then, the only sound their ropes squeaking against the wooden stakes and the swishing of the sand blowing across the ground. Ari rearranged his body from time to time as certain parts of the ground would suddenly get very warm for a moment or two. He hoped the field they were staked out in wasn't really a field of fire, but the varying temperatures of the soil around and beneath his body told him that hope was wasted.

To ease his mind, Ari tried remembering the things he'd seen and done since the run began what now seemed so long ago. He remembered the Simpark battle where he'd first seen Kara, the run in with the outguards on the Toku-Bimhills corridor, the day at the bench, his kidnapping. He recalled the panic at the beginning of his captivity and the flight to Ebon. Bobby S., pretty Trooper Gabriel, the matriarchs, the explosive escape. He envisioned the tranquil days at the Meshican co-op, the sunset he shared with Kara. And he could still picture the old Keeper's house and the things the old man had shown him.

The Keeper had taught him so much in such a short time and together they had discovered his ring. The ring. Ari shifted his body in an attempt to feel the ring in his pants. It seemed to still be there. Someday, he vowed to himself, he would return to the ancient Keeper to learn all the old man could teach him. And he would seek out Carson Begaye in Long Wound and hope to see the visions again at the mind dream ceremony. As for the Outworld, he would just as soon wipe it off the face of the earth. As soon as he could find and rescue Kara that was.

"Ari," Platt interrupted the highcit's memories, "Ari?"

"What, Platt?"

"What are you thinkin' about?"

"All the things that have happened since this run began."

"You really seen a lot, huh?"

"You must've, too. I'm really glad we got joined back up in Meshica."

"Me, too," Platt said. "But you must've really orbed some strange stuff. Me and Darden was locked down tight by the Erads and then when we busted out, we got smoked by the jammin' Meshican outlaws. We seen nothin' but crap ditches and capture camps, cit."

"We were breeders back in Ebon," Ari said.

"Breeders," Platt asked, "what's a breeder?"

"Like bedmates," Ari explained.

"Oh," Platt sighed, wishing he was with one back in Bimhills right now.

"I was with a great soldiermate named Gabriel," Ari went on, "a tall brown woman. Then in Meshica we met this ancient, he called himself the Keeper. He knew everything. And taught me some of it." Platt turned his head to see his old goodcit better in the growing light.

"Then at the co-op," Ari continued wistfully, "Kara and I had a ginweed and just jawed and orbed the sunset. It was, well, then we had to bust when you and Darden showed. You saw the rest yourself. Except the mind dream ceremony with Carson and the other elders in Long Wound. That was a max high."

"You seem really different to me, Ari," Platt said quietly. "Way diff than back in Bimhills."

"I am different, I think," Ari said.

"Are you a rebel now?" Platt asked. Ari thought about it for a moment.

"I don't know," he said, "I just think I'm different. Don't you feel different without the ginweed and chalkwater all the time, without the plezones?" Platt considered it.

"Yeah," he answered, "I guess I do. I miss them. But I don't get all what's goin' on, Ari. I can't figure it all out."

"Me neither," Ari agreed, "me neither."

"But we stick together no matter," Platt said hopefully, "like old times?"

"Yeah, we stick together. Like old times."

"That's max," Platt began, "that's real..."

"Hush," Ari shut him off, "shh. Hear that?"

"What?" Platt gasped.

"Shh, there's a..."

Ari's sentence trailed off as a shadow crossed over their heads. They could hear light footsteps in the sand behind them.

"Oh, hell," Platt groaned.

Ari leaned his head back as far as he could to see who was there. A figure darted back out of sight. Ari lay flat again to rest his neck. Platt was rigidly still, expecting to be killed any minute. The shadow whisked by again. Platt yelled. But not about the shadow. A small fire had erupted by his leg, flames briefly biting at his calf before going out.

"Frappin' jammer," Platt moaned. "A craphole field of fire. Yow!" Another flame spurted up and out by his face.

"Help us," Ari called out to whomever was behind them. He had to take the risk. The field of fire would get progressively worse as the sun rose, eventually cooking him and Platt.

"Help us get loose." Two more small flames lit up on either side of Ari.

"Help," Platt cried. "Help."

The shadow appeared over their heads again and both men reared back on their necks to see who it was. The light was strong enough now to make it out.

"A jammin' sturch," Platt exclaimed, flopping back down flat. "A tad."

"Can you help us, young cit?" Ari asked the boy, straining his neck to see the kid upside down. "Let us loose."

"Loose?" the boy said.

"Yes," Ari said, "loose."

The boy walked between Ari and Platt and turned where they could see him. He looked to be about ten or eleven, dirty, ragged, and he was holding a very long, very sharp looking knife.

"Are you crazers?" the boy asked.

"Cut us loose, you little frapper," Platt cursed, twisting towards the boy, who lithely hopped out of harm's way.

"Cool it, Platt," Ari told his goodcit, "this is a good tad, a young cit. Right?"

"Are you C-B's crazers?" the boy varied his question. "Feral T's?"

"No," Ari said, "we're runners. They did this to us. We need to get free to get them."

"Cut us loose, sturch," Platt half demanded, half pleaded. The little boy kicked sand on Platt, who spat some out that the wind blew in his face. The boy laughed.

"Hear me, young cit," Ari brought the boy's attention back to him. "We were captives of this C-B, and Feral T left us here to burn up in this fire field. We need your help to get free, and to save our friends from those crazer outlaws. Please cut us loose."

"One arm first," the boy said cautiously.

He cut the hemp holding Ari's left arm. Ari immediately swung the arm over and began trying to free his right arm. It wouldn't budge. The boy stood by watching. He turned back then and cut the rope holding Ari's right leg.

"He's torturing us," Platt complained, dodging several more small eruptions of fire under his body.

"No, he's being cautious," Ari said. "He should be. That's good. Take your time, tad," he told the boy, "I won't move till you cut me free."

That seemed to be what the boy was looking for. He cut Ari's other leg loose and then chopped the binding holding the highcit's right arm. Ari rubbed his wrists and forearms. Then sat up and did the same to his feet and ankles. The boy stood to one side of Ari, the long knife in hand.

"Thank you, young cit," Ari told the tad. "You're a true goodcit."

"Don't try nothin'," the boy said, brandishing the knife.

"You're the chief," Ari laughed, holding up his hands.

"Cut me loose," Platt bawled.

"You clamp it," the boy said. "One crazer one, then the other."

"What's your name, cit?" Ari asked.

"What's yours?" the boy countered.

"Ari," Ari said, extending his hand. The boy warily shook it, keeping the knife ready. "Ari Blanque."

"Jamel," the boy said, "just Jamel."

"Well, just Jamel," Ari said, "you have a camp close by? We need transpo to fly after those crazers that left us out here."

"What about me?" Platt asked, sliding away from a larger fire that flared near his legs.

"Camp's over there," the boy pointed beyond the sand hill beneath which Ari and Platt had been staked out.

"Take me there?" Ari asked the kid.

Without another word, the boy took off running up the sand hill beyond the stake out. Ari hurried after him.

"Hey," Platt yelled after them, "hey. What are you doing? Where are you going? Come back. Hey. What about me? Hey."

Despite Platt's cries, Ari and the boy soon disappeared over the hill, leaving the big Somecop to dodge increasingly frequent bursts of fire erupting around him.

"Son of a frappin' tad jammer," Platt exclaimed, as a flame shot up between his legs. "Ari, you rotten shitcit, why'd you leave me here like this? Ari!"

For the better part of a half hour, Platt had been squirming away from little fires -- Ari's name always on his lips and always used in vain -- when he heard a rumbling sound to his right beyond the sand hill behind which Ari and the sturch had disappeared. Twisting himself to see better, Platt held his breath, hoping for what he didn't know. The rumbling grew louder. And louder still. Then, with a metallic thump, a big truck came banging over the top of the sand hill heading pall mall for the staked out Somecop.

"Frappin' fire," Platt cried. "Stop that thing."

The truck roared up to Platt, exhaust popping and coughing, brakes screeching, and stopped within a foot of his face. Platt spit out sand and coughed from the foul smoke boiling out of the vehicle. Ari and Jamel jumped down out of the truck.

"You no good rotten jammin', sack of…," Platt began at Ari, who produced another long bladed knife like the desert sturch had cut him free with.

"You're welcome," he laughed, swinging the knife down to cut the SC free. Platt rolled over, rubbing his hands and feet, then stood up.

"Damn you, Ari" he complained, while Ari grinned a big, teasing grin, "you could have cut me loose before. You could have taken me with you."

"No time," Ari laughed. "There was no time. By the way, Platt Meeler meet Jamel. Just Jamel. Jamel, this is my old goodcit, my true goodcit, Platt Meeler."

The boy held out his hand. Platt refused to take it.

"I know the frappin' sturch's name," he griped. "Heard it same as you. Where'd you get the truck?"

"Nice to meet you, too, mister," Jamel said. Ari tousled the sturch's dirt and sand spiked hair.

"The truck was Jamel's father's," Ari explained to Platt. "His father was dusted by Outworld crazers some back."

"Lots of people get dusted," Platt said. He was still feeling hurt about being left tied up at the stake.

"You'd be dust if it wasn't for me," the kid told him.

"Yeah, so what?"

"The sturch says we can use the truck to go after Kara," Ari said, pushing the kid back to keep him from kicking Platt in the shins. "If we take him along."

"Take him along?" Platt huffed. "That little jammer."

"It's my truck, you big shitcit," the boy reminded Platt.

"Yeah," Platt said, "what if we just clamp it and leave your sturch butt out in this fire field?"

"Just try it," the boy yelled, trying to kick Platt again. Ari separated them once more.

"The tad goes," he told Platt. The boy made a face at Platt. Platt growled at him. The kid hid behind Ari.

"Look in back of the truck," Ari told Platt. Platt raised a questioning eyebrow, but walked to the back of the truck and looked in the bed.

"Frappin' hell," he whistled, pulling out a long, scoped, caseless sniper rifle.

"Got ammo, too," the kid informed him.

"This is what they were shooting at us with back at the co-op," Platt said to Ari. He swung the rifle around and tried to knick the sturch with it, but the kid jumped out of the way. "Where the fire did he get this from?"

"Who cares," Ari said. "Now we've clamped it. Get in. Let's go. We've got a lot of ground to make up. Come on."

"The sturch rides in back," Platt said petulantly.

"My truck," the boy replied.

"Get in back," Platt ordered him.

"Both of you get in," Ari told them, "the sturch between us." The kid stuck his tongue out at Platt. Platt feinted at him with the butt of the rifle. "Get in," Ari repeated.

The three of them clambered into the vehicle. The kid between Ari and Platt. Platt frowned at the sturch.

"Just don't start yappin'," he said. "Keep your jaws clamped, you frappin' little jammer."

"You got a foul foodhole," the sturch said.

"Shut up," Ari said authoritatively, "both of you."

Platt started to say something else but a glare from Ari stopped him. The sturch laughed gleefully. Ari drove the truck off in a northeasterly direction, per the sturch's directions. The vehicle lumbered over the barren terrain, its engine sputtering, black smoke pouring from the exhaust. Behind them, fires continued to erupt from the ground until the field where Ari and Platt had been staked out was nearly consumed in flames.

46.

Sgt. Cage followed the rebel fliers out of Endgate and across the burnt out husk of earth called the Outworld. Even though it was soon dark, he kept a good half hour between himself and his prey. The trail was easy to follow, and Cage spent his time thinking how he would soon dispatch them all and how when he returned to Bimhills there would be a certain IMC Rep Alexander who would require a one on one life adjustment, Erad style.

Lost in his retaliatory thoughts, Cage was annoyed at himself when, sometime after midnight, he came upon the highcit and useless dragalong staked out in the desert. Why in hell didn't I dust 'em all in Endgate, he inwardly chastised himself, correctly surmising the rebel band had been overrun by Outworld berserkers of some sort. He checked the tracking device. It showed the rebel mole was not one of those staked down, but was somewhere up ahead slightly to the northeast and rapidly moving away.

The Erad sergeant paused for a few moments more, considering his next course of action. No more jammin' around, he told himself, taking in the terrain, and the staked out men in the extremely bright light of the full moon. He looked at trailing device again. The red light was flashing rapidly but getting weaker. He should follow the light and end the rebel run for good. But what about the two down there on the sand? Should he waste them now, take his vengeance right then?

No, he thought, that would be too merciful. They were already staked out to die, either from exposure, from animals, or from other stray bands of Outworld crazers. They would die slowly and painfully this way. He would leave them to die and check on their rotting corpses when he came back on his return to Bimhills and his greater revenge. With a sardonic laugh, Cage cranked up the romcycle and drove off, following the easy trail of the berserkers, frequently checking the tracking device. It kept up a steady, bright red flashing all through the rest of the night and into the next day.

Towards midmorning, the tracking light became a solid red glow and Cage knew his target had stopped. Slowing the romcycle, he drove to near the top of a sand hill, shut the machine off and crawled to where he could see the land below. What he saw was Petro City.

Sprouting from the soil like some rusted, blackened Ozymandias, Petro City was massive, metallic, and the primary source of fossil fuel for all the zones. The road leading from it was filled with oil tankers and oil workers, giving it the appearance of a cathedral devoted to the great, black god of oil -- which it was.

Cage whistled softly and forced his eyes from the stunning sight. Below him, to the east on his right, was an encampment of perhaps two dozen large tents, the largest of which was closest to him and contained -- according to the readout on the tracking device -- the rebel mole. Cage smiled. The final showdown was at hand. He breathed deeply. Nothing felt better to an Erad than the anticipation of a bloodletting except for its actual accomplishment. All that remained was to figure out how to go about doing it.

Cage slid off the hill and considered several options. In moments he had settled on a plan. Putting on his Erad torso leather again, Cage thumped his own chest with a thick fist and exulted by loosing a low growling cry. Then he got down to business: checking and cleaning his weapons, examining his ammunition, taking ceremonial food and water. He was ready. All he had to do now was wait for the right moment.

####

Carbon-Based rested his massive body on two extraordinarily large pillows near the center of his main tent, fiddling with a watch he had taken from the rebel girl. Since their return to Petro City earlier in the day, the giant warlord had sampled the girl's wares and found her very much to his liking.

She was fiery, tough, and had resisted him each time he had taken her. He especially liked that. She had fought with all her might, just as much the second time as the first, and she had never surrendered willingly, never accepted defeat. She was a special female all right, and would bring a pretty penny from the oil truckers and crazers in Petro City.

The massive warlord had the girl near him now, holding her by a rope tied to her waist. Terranova hovered in a dark corner of the tent with the rebel man, who was tied like the girl, and the foul profit collector harassed the man repeatedly -- pinching him on the arms and legs, grabbing at the squirming man's crotch. The man would try to kick Terranova, but the laughing collector would control him by pulling hard on the rope. Suddenly, as the great warlord and his scrawny minion amused themselves with their captives, the front of the tent was thrust open letting in a blinding ray of sunlight.

"What the…?" Carbon-Based said, shielding his eyes.Terranova scooted toward the outer edge of the tent, pulling Severn along by the rope tied round his waist.

Out of the blazing light strode Sgt. Cage, Erad leathers slapping, DC-40 aimed at the giant warlord's face.

"Who are you?" Carbon-Based boomed, when he could see the intruder.

"I'm the reaper man come to collect your rebel soul," Cage said, pointing his tracker at Carbon-Based, who now held what the tracker keyed off: the watch Kara had carried for so long.

"What are you jawin' about?" Carbon-Based laughed, convinced this crazer was completely zoned -- mind sparkled and dangerous.

"Your run is over, whoremaster," Cage said, sneering at Kara.

Carbon-Based tightened his hold on her. Kara didn't pull back from the warlord's tug, despite the imminent danger. She was focused completely on Severn who refused to acknowledge the look of fiery hatred and indignation she sent his way.

"You're a zoned crazer," Carbon-Based told Cage. Big men with weapons didn't especially scare the great warlord, they were all over the Outworld.

"He's Erad, C-B," Terranova piped up from his dark corner. "See the leathers. Oh, woe."

Terranova ducked as Cage swung his DC-40 in the collector's direction. Carbon-Based moved slightly but Cage had the weapon trained back on the warlord in milliseconds.

"How'd you get past my guards?" Carbon-Based demanded to know. He was becoming annoyed with the crazer's game.

"They're resting comfortably," Cage said, patting the long knife he wore on his ammunition belt. It was the same knife he'd used to kill the whore in Endgate, but now it was streaked with the drying blood of Outworld berserkers. Terranova grabbed his own throat and gasped. Carbon-Based shifted on his big pillows.

"Easy," Cage told him, "go slow."

"Besides your own death, Erad," Carbon-Based said coldly, "what is it you want? I thought the invisible ones dusted all of you in Long Wound."

"Shut your face, mole," Cage snarled. "I been trackin' you for weeks." He held up the tracker for the uncomprehending warlord to see. "If you didn't want me to find you, you should've turned your mechanism off."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Carbon-Based said truthfully.

"Stand up, mole," Cage ordered. "Slowly." Carbon-Based got to his knees, then stood up cautiously.

"You're making a big mistake, cit," he said.

"You are making a big mistake," Kara emphasized to the Erad. She was forced to a crouch as Carbon-Based stood.

"Shut up, missy," Cage said. "Stick to your whoring."

"You are a dumb son of a jammer," Kara shot back, standing.

Cage turned slightly towards Kara and suddenly the room was alive with movement. Terranova cried out and bolted from the tent, dragging Severn under a loose side with him. Kara dropped back to her knees and Carbon-Based went for his sidearm, a long barrel lasermag. It was a fatal error. Cage whirled back towards him and before the giant could draw his weapon, the Erad sergeant put two rounds from his DC-40 into the warlord's face, killing him instantly.

Carbon-Based's lifeless body thudded to the tent floor, bouncing off the huge pillows he'd been resting on before.His lasermag bounced onto the floor and slid up to Kara's feet. Without pausing, she grabbed the weapon and rolled behind the large pillows, simultaneously firing three rounds at Sgt. Cage, who had paused a split second too long to admire his handiwork.

Two of the rounds whizzed harmlessly by his head, but the third round caught the Erad in the right shoulder knocking him flat of his back. On the way down, his Erad-honed instincts kicked in and he cranked off a round that hit Kara's left arm, ripping through the flesh and splattering blood on the tent wall behind her.

Ignoring the wound, Kara raced from the tent -- sure that Carbon-Based was dead, not caring if the Erad was or not -- blind angry in search of Severn. Having panicked and tangled himself in Terranova's rope, Severn was less than fifteen yards beyond the main tent. Terranova was nowhere in sight, but several crazers poked their noses out of other tents to see what all the shooting was about. Kara focused only on Severn.

"You bastard," she cursed, stopping a yard from her former mentor and brandishing the lasermag wildly, "you were selling us out from the very start."

"No, Kara," Severn cried, struggling to free himself from the rope, "let me explain."

"Explain, my ass," Kara spit back, "you rotten, lousy son of a ..."

Severn, loose at last, leaped at Kara, grabbing for the lasermag. She dodged, but he hooked her wounded left arm and knocked her to the ground. Grimacing in pain, Kara twisted away, kicking and hitting, tearing herself from Severn's desperate grasp. Rolling over onto her knees, Kara took aim with C-B's lasermag.

"No, no, Kara," Severn pleaded, "don't shoot."

When she hesitated, Severn lunged again. Kara shot him square in the chest. He reeled backwards, fell, a look of stunned disbelief on his face. Kara kept her lasermag trained on him. Slowly, painfully, Severn staggered to his feet. More crazers began to pour out of the tents. Kara stayed focused on her target.

"Kara," Severn said again, voice weak and bubbly.

He reached out a hand for her. Her second shot hit him in the forehead, a small, symmetrical hole appearing, then a small trail of blood. A confused look twisted Severn's features, and then he fell face forward onto the sandy Outworld soil.

Dejected, dispirited, and now aware of the pain from her wound, Kara stood silently over Severn's dead body and lowered the lasermag to her side. Disconsolate, she paid no attention to the world around her, neither the crazers stirring about, nor Ari, Platt, and the little sturch Jamel approaching in the beat up junker truck, nor the sound of a tent door as it opened and closed.

"Don't move a jammin' muscle," a deep voice told her. "Drop the weapon, missy, and step back."

Kara turned around slowly, not dropping the weapon but making no effort to defend herself either. Cage, holding his DC-40 in his good left hand, aimed for Kara's breast. She looked up at him, at the DC-40, and beyond, to the hillside behind him where she saw Ari climb out of a truck and point something their way. She looked back at Cage, fought to regain her senses. She had to do something. Had to help, even if she felt dead inside.

"We can work together," she managed to say, "I can be your bedmate."

"Not likely, whore," Cage growled. "Not when you're dust."

The big Erad re-sighted his DC-40 exactly between Kara's eyes. She didn't move.

"Take your best shot, fraphead," she said coldly.

"Bye, bye, little wh…," Cage began.

In a heartbeat, Kara heard the kachunking sound of a sniper rifle. It was the same sound she had heard at the Meshican co-op shootout. Erad sniper rifle, she noted to herself, watching Cage stagger backwards, a strange, uncomprehending look in his eyes. The DC-40 fell from the big man's hand and hit the ground as his body did, the upper torso leather he wore making a loud slapping sound on the Outworld ground.

For a moment longer, Kara didn't move. Then she heard and felt the crazers running all over the camp and she took off in a dead run for Ari and the truck. Ari jumped back into the vehicle, revved the chugging engine, and drove with abandon -- the vehicle flying noisily up and over small sand hills -- towards Kara. When they were within a few yards of each other, Ari slid the truck to a halt and leaped out to get her.

"Ari," she cried, hugging him without restraint. Ari held her tight, felt something warm on his hands, looked down at her arm.

"You're hit!" he exclaimed.

"I'll be okay," she said.

"You're okay," Ari echoed, holding her tight.

She was still shaking and Ari couldn't tell if she was going to explode with anger or break into tears. Throughout the long ordeal of the run, he'd never seen her this way.

"It'll be all right," he said, running his hands through her hair.

"That frappin' Severn," Kara said, voice shaking, "he was theirs. All along. A filthy IMC traitor, and that giant bastard warlord, he..."

"Shh," Ari said softly, kissing her ears and hair, "easy. You're alright now. The bastards can't hurt you anymore. It's over. It's all over now."

"Hey, jockeyman boss," the little boy, Jamel, called from the truck, "check it out." He pointed towards the crazer tent city.

"Who's that?" Kara asked, wiping her nose and looking over Ari's shoulder at the truck.

"That's Jamel," Ari told her, "just Jamel. He cut us loose in the desert."

"Hi, Jamel," Kara smiled through her pain.

"Hi, pretty missy," Jamel said, "what's your name?"

"She's Kara," Ari said, "let's save the intros for later."

"They're formin' up by that series of pumps down there," Platt yelled, now also jumping out of the truck. "We gotta bolt and bolt fast. Terranova will have every crazer in the Outworld on our butts."

"Jamel," Ari said, "help me get Kara in the truck. We're bailin'. Now."

"Wait a sec," Platt said.

"What?" Ari questioned.

"Jamel," Platt told the tad, "get me the rifle." Jamel looked at Ari.

"Do it," Ari told him. Jamel hopped out and raced to the bed of the truck to retrieve the rifle.

"Okay," Platt said when the boy handed him the weapon, "go ahead. Everybody pile in the truck."

"What are you going to do, Platt?" Ari asked.

"Just get ready to go," Platt answered. "Be ready to bolt like a mad jammer."

Ari and Jamel helped Kara into the vehicle, then they jumped in, the boy in back. Ari kept his foot on the gas, ready to go. They all watched Platt. The big Somecop laid the rifle across the hood of the truck on the rider's side and sighted it in. After a nerve-wrackingly long time, he fired, the rifle making its familiar kachunking sound. The fliers looked down at the fuel pumps where the crazers had congregated. They saw them scatter after the shot, some returning ineffective fire. Platt shot again and this time sparks flew all around the pumps.

"Damn," he cursed.

Settling the weapon down once more, Platt fired a third time. There was a huge shower of sparks and then a flare sprouted at the edge of the pumps, spread quickly, divided into more. Crazers ran in all directions, screaming, shooting their weapons at everything and nothing. And the pumps blew. First a smaller pump on one end, then one next to it, then all of them.

The explosion rocked the desert with a sand-shaking boom. Flames leaped nearly one hundred feet into the air, whipped across the desert, immolating slow-footed and slow-reacting crazers in an awesome boiling, roiling conflagration.

"Burn, burn," screamed the tad Jamel, jumping up and down in the backseat of the truck.

"Go," Platt yelled, leaping into the back of the vehicle beside Jamel. "Hammer it."

And hammer it Ari did, driving the truck wildly past the burning pumps, past the scorched crazer bodies, past the remains of their tent city.

"You really got lucky there, Mr. Crotchburn," Jamel laughed at Platt, his voice quavering comically as the vehicle bounced roughly over the rugged terrain.

"Shut up, you jammin' little sturch," came Platt's quaking reply.

The words were tough, but the Somecop was smiling at the tad as Ari piloted the vehicle as fast as he could away from the hell hole that was Petro City. "Shut your ugly little hole."

47.

After the escape from Petro City, Ari drove due east for two hours and then, operating on instincts awakened during the mind dream ceremony in Long Wound, he turned north and drove another hour and a half before exhaustion forced the fliers to stop and rest. They awoke the next morning, hungry and thirsty, bodies stiff from sleeping in the truck.

"We've got to find water and grub," Kara voiced the obvious.

"How's your arm?" Ari asked.

"Okay," she said tonelessly.

Ari checked the wound. It did not look good. But he was less concerned about Kara's wound than the lifelessness in her speech. There was a quality in it he'd never heard before. She sounded resigned, as if she had given in to fate, as if she were letting the insidious sickness of defeatism creep in to her always strong, unconquerable soul.

"Oh, hell," Platt cried out from the back seat.

"What?" Ari asked, jerking around to see.

"Back there," Platt said, pointing through the back window, "look."

Boiling up from the desert floor behind them was a large, whirling, brown dust devil -- moving very fast in their direction. Smaller clouds spun up near the main center one, their sand and dirt cores spreading high into the air. In only moments the fliers could see the earthbound source of the cyclonic formations.

"Damn," Ari groaned.

"It's a million crazers," Platt bawled.

"That's my romspeed in front," Ari said more calmly. "Feral T is jockeyin' my romspeed."

"Uh, cits," the sturch Jamel said, "this is where we push the fire out of this junk heap."

"You're right, tad," Ari said, winking at the boy, "we're bailin'."

Ari jabbed the truck in gear and drove like a madman, but there was no way the vehicle could move fast enough. They would be overtaken in a matter of minutes. Without warning, Ari suddenly slammed on the brakes, bringing the truck to a sliding halt with its broadside facing the crazer assault front. The others looked at him as if he'd gone mad, which perhaps he had.

"If we're going to die anyway," he told them, trying to sound brave, "we might as well fight to the end. We've come too far to give up without returning a shot."

"I guess there wasn't any reason to save you two after all," Jamel said glumly. Ari patted the tad on the shoulder.

"Sorry, sturch," he said.

"Easy for you to jaw," the boy countered.

Ari tousled the tad's hair and ran to the back of the truck to snag the sniper rifle.

"Here," he said, tossing it to Platt.

"Till dust do us part," Platt said, loading the weapon with the last three rounds he had.

"Till dust," Ari said. He then helped Kara out of the truck. "Let me have the lasermag?" he asked, reaching out his hand. Kara winced as she handed him the weapon.

"Leave the last one for me," she said. "I'll not be their prisoner again."

"No," Ari said, "you never will again."

He started to turn towards the approaching onslaught of desert crazers, but Kara stopped him with her good arm. She hugged him one-armed and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thank you," she said, "for coming to get me." Ari held her and looked into her light green eyes.

"You once came for me, Kara. I owe it to you." Kara leaned towards him and kissed him on the lips.

"Hello," Jamel broke in, "cut the slush and gush, will you, jockey man? I figure we're about five minutes from the big X out, you know."

"Clamp it, sturch," Platt growled, "or you'll be crazer meat."

"He's right," Kara said, squinting against her pain.

"I can fix you up, missy," the boy told her.

"I bet you can, Jamel," she said, "but we just don't have the time."

"We grab a miracle, missy," Jamel said, "I'll fix you right up."

"Enough of that," Ari told the boy, then to Platt: "Try to waste Feral T. If we drop him, it may turn the others."

"Right!" Jamel said sarcastically.

"Be quiet," Platt ordered him. The boy shut up.

"Do it soon, Platt," Ari said, watching the crazer vehicles coming hard less than a half mile away.

Platt took aim with the sniper rifle. Kachunk. Sand flew harmlessly around the lead vehicle, Ari's romspeed. Platt missed again.

"One more," Ari coached him, "take your time. Easy."

Platt fired. And hit the romspeed, but the round only smashed the left front headlight.

"Damn it," Platt cursed.

"We're less than dust," Jamel said.

"Ari," Kara said, "don't let us be caught alive again."

"No," Ari answered, "never."

He held the lasermag up by his shoulder, ready to kill his companions if need be, hoping for at least a clean shot at Feral T before the crazers tore them all to shreds. They were maybe a quarter of a mile away now. Then Ari heard something strange.

"Wait!" he cried, holding up a hand to keep the others silent. "Wait. Listen."

Ari stood and cocked an ear towards the oncoming berserkers. There. There was a definite sputter from his old romspeed, a cough, a chug. The assault slowed with their leader.

"Out of fuel?" Platt wondered.

"Oh, please, please," Ari begged some unseen force. The others looked at him as if he'd completely gone crazed this time. "Please, let it be. Just once let it be true."

"Let what be true?" Kara wondered.

"What?" the sturch asked.

"Oh, my achin'…," Platt began.

Ari looked out over the truck. The crazers had almost stopped. Over the sound of their idling engines, he could hear his old vehicle chugging, belching, spitting. Then there was a high pitched whistle.

"Get down," he shouted at the others. They all dove behind the truck, missing in their quest for safety, a most remarkable explosion.

Ari's old romspeed, the vehicle he had used to torment countless outguards, that he had driven so well through the many dangers of the zones they had crossed, that had served them all so well, went up like a mini-megaton bomb. The blast created a huge fireball that decimated the crazer ranks and produced a white, boiling mushroom cloud like those that had once risen above the civilian cities of the long-memoried workers in the Toku plants where the fabulous romspeed vehicles were produced.

"Frappin' hell," Platt gasped, peeking over one of the truck's fenders. Ari kneeled beside him.

"Maximum, maximum, cool," he laughed, looking at the devastation strewn over the desert beyond them.

The fire storm had dissipated well before reaching their position and now all they could see were the exhaust trails of what few crazers survived and pieces of vehicles and human beings spread everywhere, blackened and some still burning.

"The Toku engineers," Ari said, shaking his head in admiration and gratitude -- though he knew a day or two either way and he would have been that fireball out there -- "are the highest brains. Absolute maximum cool."

New Columbia

48.

"What happened back there?" Platt asked Ari as the fliers drove through the dusty land at the far, unknown edge of the Outworld. Ari had spotted the faint hint of a mountain range in the hazy distance and headed directly for it. Nobody else had a better idea. "Why did your romspeed blow like that?"

"Remember back in Bimhills how E.P. used to tell us that the Toku designer cits put bombs in the romspeeds to go off at a certain mileage?" Ari said.

"Yeah," Platt scratched his head. "I guess so. What about it?"

"E.P. said there was some special deal about why they did it, I don't know myself, but..."

"I bet the old man in Meshica would know," Kara said from the back seat. She and Ari looked at each other in the rear view mirror. "The Keeper."

"Yes," Ari agreed, smiling at Kara and receiving a weak one back.

At least she's feeling a little better, he told himself. The deal with Severn had really hit her hard. She had once put a lot of faith in the traitorous rebel leader.

"What old man?" Platt wondered.

"Remember I told you about him when we were staked out before Jamel rescued us," Ari answered, winking back at Jamel. The tad squirmed happily in his seat. He was pretty fired up to be making a crazed run with these weird fliers. "He would know the reason why it's certain numbers. All I know are two: 45,086 and 60,485. Mine was just about to turn 45,000 when Feral T took it. One more day and we'd have all gone up like he did."

"Max excellent," the tad chimed in with a laugh. "You'd been burnt dust, cits smokin' in a fire field."

Platt reached back and tried to give the tad a punch, receiving a bite on the hand for his trouble.

"Ow!" he cried. Jamel laughed.

"That's what you deserve," he told Platt.

"Little fart," Platt groused, but kept his hands out of the back seat after that. He sucked on the side of his hand where the little tooth marks punched up clear and red. "Fart bucket."

"He may be a fart bucket," Kara said, nudging the kid in the ribs, "but he kept you both from being burnt dust, with or without the Toku bombs."

"You're right," Ari told her. "We owe him. But still," he added a few moments later, "I'd for certain like to know what those numbers mean to the Toku."

"Maybe you'll get your chance to find out, someday," Kara suggested.

Ari looked at her in the rear view mirror. She's already thinking of going back, he asked himself, when we're still running the other way? He started to ask her what she meant but she wouldn't make eye contact with him in the mirror. He looked back a couple of more times, then just concentrated on driving. The little group was silent as the old truck chugged and wheezed across the barren land.

####

With a final wheeze and a handful of sputters, the old relic of a truck finally shut down, out of fuel. The mountain range Ari had aimed at was still some way off, but he estimated they could reach it by nightfall.

"How we set for grub and water?" he asked the group.

Everyone checked whatever stores of food and drink they might have managed to hold onto during the wild events of the last days. Pooling everything, Ari figured they had enough for one day, two at the outside if they were very strict on the rationing. And it was hard to ration Platt, as the big Somecop was a notorious overeater and drinker.

"The sturch don't need as much as we do," Platt argued when Ari proposed the rationing.

"All get equal or nobody does," Kara frowned at the SC, her hand sliding to Carbon-Based's lasermag which she now wore at her side.

"Be cool," Ari intervened, "I'll hold everything and do the split when we stop. Acceptable?"

"Yeah," Platt grumbled, a hurt look on his face. He didn't see why the rebel woman would dust him over eating some sturch's extra grub.

"Kara?" Ari asked.

"Acceptable," she said, wincing involuntarily.

"Your arm still hurt you, missy?" Jamel asked.

"Yes, Jamel," she answered truthfully, "sometimes." The sturch looked around them.

"You wait right here, missy," he said.

"Okay," she laughed, shrugging at Ari's quizzical look.

Jamel ran over to a large prickly pear cactus and cut off two big ears with a small knife he pulled from the pocket of his dirty, threadbare pants. The boy chopped the cactus up on a flat rock and formed the small pieces into a ball.

"Here," he told Kara, "hold out your arm."

Kara did as the boy asked and he squeezed the cactus ball until an oozy liquid dripped out. He poured it directly onto Kara's wound and gently massaged it in. Then he flattened the cactus ball out and pulling a tattered blue bandana from his back pocket, placed a portion of the cactus on Kara's injury and tied the bandana around her arm to hold his homemade poultice in place. Kara patted her arm and adjusted the bandage.

"What do you think, missy?" the boy asked hopefully.

"It feels good," Kara told him, thinking it might actually have helped the pain. She put her hand on the tad's head and ran it through his dirt-knotted hair. "Thanks, boykid."

"I think you're really pretty, missy," Jamel basked in the glow of Kara's smile and thanks.

"And you're my handsome medcit," she said, putting her good arm around the boy's small shoulders. He put his arm around her waist.

"Okay," Ari asked the group, "ready to move on?"

"Ready," Jamel said brightly.

"Let's go," Kara concurred.

"Frappin' sturch," Platt muttered to himself, thinking how he would rather have his arm around Kara's waist than the ignorant little tad's.

"Platt?" Ari called when the big SC was slow to get moving.

"Yeah, yeah," Platt answered with a glum look for his old goodcit. "I'm comin'."

####

Ari had made a good estimate of their distance from the mountain range. They entered a dried up wash leading to a high walled canyon just about sunset and reached the end of the canyon some half hour later. Ascending upward, they bushwhacked their way to the top of a hill, with Ari first onto the summit. Even in the dying light, he was amazed at what he saw below and beyond the hill.

Suddenly, the world had begun to green again. Near them were plants and trees that none of the runners knew the names of. Short trees with cone-like, sharp needled leaves, and green bushes everywhere, some with long arms rising from their centers. Ahead were more mountains but they appeared in the weak light to be very green, completely covered with grass and trees. Close by, Ari saw several tiny creatures, like miniature versions of the fake squirrels he'd seen in Bimhills' simparks. Only these were real, and jumping around. Watching the little animals scurry around made him laugh out loud.

"Oh, my," Kara said, joining Ari at the top. She stood close to him, the tad holding her hand. Platt angled his way up behind them.

"Grub and drink," he gasped, plopping down on the ground.

"We'll camp here," Ari said. "Tomorrow we can cross those hills over there."

"Hell, yes, camp here," Platt grumbled. "My feet are about to X me out."

"I'm gonna X you out," Jamel said playfully, jumping at Platt. The big SC swiped at the tad but missed as usual. Jamel laughed.

"C'mon," Kara told the boy, "let's make a place to rest. Then Ari can ration our food and water."

"Okay, missy," the boy said, sitting on a rock several feet from the moaning Platt.

Despite Platt's complaints, the group had a sustaining, if meager, meal and in short order both the SC and the tad had drifted off to an exhausted sleep. Kara joined Ari on a large boulder looking out toward the next range of mountains and the onset of the rising moon. She sat beside him on his left, protecting her wounded arm which Jamel's poultice was rapidly healing.

Ari turned slowly towards Kara as she sat down, her body touching his side. In the growing brightness of the massive harvest moon, now fully above the mountains before them, Ari could see her face clearly, beautiful as ever, if not more so, in the warm, yellow light. Yet it was tinged now at the corners of the eyes and mouth with a hurt, a sadness.

"Severn got what he deserved," Ari said impulsively, feeling he could somehow purge her pain by directly confronting it.

"Yes," was her simple reply.

"He crossed you. And the rebellion. I never liked him."

Kara said nothing. But she slipped her good right arm around Ari's left. He could feel his heart pulsing and took a deep breath to calm himself. The moon continued its climb, bathing the two runners in its clear light.

"Is there time left for us, Ari?" Kara asked softly, sadly, as they gazed out on the moonlight drenched terrain before them.

It was a scene of natural beauty and grandeur neither of them had ever witnessed in their young lives.

"Is there still hope? Is it too late for everything?" Ari waited several moments before answering, his voice catching when he did.

"No," he said, disengaging his arm and putting it around Kara's waist, "it is never too late. Not until the very last second, the very last breath. Not until all the world is dust. We can go on. The earth can come back. The air, water, the citizens." He paused and looked up at the giant moon hanging above them. "If it doesn't die completely, we can live. Must live."

Kara leaned closely against him. He held her tight. Kissed her on the brow. She took his hand and squeezed it.

"We can make it," she said quietly, her voice still tinged with sadness but stronger now.

"Yes," Ari said, holding her to him as they watched the great moon's slow accent in shared awe, "yes, we can."

####

Ari woke to screaming. Sleepy-eyed and stiff, he found Kara had fallen asleep on his left arm and when he pulled the arm from under her, waking her from a deep slumber, the arm was all tingly and temporarily useless. He stretched and flexed the arm until he could use it to help Kara to her feet and then tried to locate the source of the yelling.

It was Platt and Jamel -- and some strange, half clothed man. They were facing each other across the campsite where Platt and the boy had slept and were screaming unintelligibly at each other. If the presence of the man had not been such a shock, Ari would have found the sight highly amusing.

The man, looking for all the world like a caveman Ari remembered seeing in a comic book when he was a tad, was jumping up and down, letting loose a piercing shriek. He was barefooted, with something like a loincloth and a strip of a shirt for his clothing, and his hair, matted and shooting out in all directions, was wild and dirty. Platt and Jamel were shrieking back at the man and throwing rocks at him, which he agilely avoided.

"What the hell is going on?" Ari yelled above the din.

The wild man stopped screaming and cocked his head at Ari and Kara.

"He's a complete crazer," Platt said breathlessly. "He jumped us out of nowhere."

"He jumped us, that's right," Jamel backed up Platt.

"Shoot him," the big Somecop told Ari.

"Shoot him?" Kara laughed. "Look at him. He's just slowheaded or crazy. That's all. He's some kind of a wildcit. Probably escaped from the Outworld like us.

"I don't care," Platt said, "he was gonna dust us."

"With what?" Ari asked, grinning.

The wild man was still motionless, head cocked to one side, watching Ari and Kara. Then he gave a start as if something had bitten him on the backside. Ari and Kara laughed as the man hopped back and forth across the campsite from them. Seemingly spurred on by their laughing, the man leapt and gyrated until Jamel and finally Platt began laughing. The man jumped and spun and began calling out to the group.

"What's he saying?" Kara asked.

"Sounds like inco..lia, incolia or some such thing like that," Ari guessed.

"Incolia," Jamel called back to the wild man.

"Incolia," the wildcit cried excitedly. "Incolia."

"Crazed as a madcit on ginweed and chalkwater," Platt shook his head.

"He's motioning to us," Jamel said, "like he wants us to follow him."

"Not probable," Platt said.

The man kept signaling to the group. He would walk away a few steps, motion, then repeat the process. Jamel and Platt used the space opened up to rejoin Kara and Ari.

"Let's grub and then follow him," Kara suggested. "Maybe he's from a settlement or something out here."

"This is all we have left," Ari told the others, producing a very small amount of food and water.

"Divide it evenly," Kara told him. "Everybody equal."

"The sturch is a lot smaller," Platt complained. "He doesn't need as much."

"Everyone equal," Kara repeated. Platt looked to Ari for support. He did not receive it.

"All equal," Ari said.

"Crap," Platt said petulantly, but he accepted the split.

"Where's the crazer?" Jamel asked when the little breakfast had been consumed. They looked around the area but didn't spot the man right away.

"Over there," Ari said, catching sight of wild hair sticking out behind a bush. "He's still acting like he wants us to follow him."

"If nothing else," Kara said, "he may lead us to grub and water."

"And maybe," Ari began, an idea suddenly dawning.

"You don't think?" Kara asked him.

"Think what?" Platt said.

"Incolia," the wild man shouted at the group again, repeating what was apparently his only phrase, "incolia."

"It's as good a chance as anything else," Ari said. "We're out of food and water. The wildcit is eating and drinking something. I say we follow him. New Columbia may not be out here, but maybe something is."

"Incolia," the wild man cried again.

"I'm with Ari," Kara said, "we try to follow him."

"Max excellent," Jamel said.

It was all a great adventure for him. And it sure beat being stuck in his own foul settlement back in the Outworld.

"I hate it," Platt said, but he had no alternate plan or argument. "I hate it."

####

They followed the wildcit all day. And he did lead them to water. Fresh water running in small rivulets through the progressively denser forest. The water was cool and clear, and tasted better than any water any of the group had ever drunk before. And there was food. Of sorts. Jamel saw the strange man picking something off some long, slender bushes and putting it into his mouth.

They were berries, black and red and green ones. Some were sharp and bitter, especially the green ones, but the really dark black and red ones were sweet and good and the group soon learned to eat just those. From time to time, the wildcit would disappear, but he would always re-emerge from behind a thick bush or a heavily leaf-laden tree to wave and make his one word cry of "incolia." During the long day, the group trekked on behind him, sipping water and eating berries wherever and whenever they were available.

Late in the afternoon, with the sun casting long shadows across the forested hillsides, Ari paused to take in their surroundings. The others had gone on several yards when he called out.

"Look," his voice echoed off the hills beyond them and back through the hollows through which they had hiked. "Up ahead."

The others stopped, squinted back at Ari, tried to follow the direction he pointed at with his arm.

"Look, there they are."

"What?" Kara called back.

"Up ahead. Up there," Ari said. "The four peaks like I saw during the ceremony in Long Wound. The Sign of the Way."

"Oh, man," Platt whispered to Kara. "He's gone crazer now, too." Kara dismissed the idea with the wave of a hand.

"No more crazer than you," Jamel told Platt. Platt chased the boy behind Kara, who stopped the big SC with an annoyed frown.

"You're all crazers, I think," Platt sulked. Jamel stuck his tongue out at him. Platt growled back.

"Hush, you two," Kara told them.

"Yes, missy," Jamel smiled up at her, grabbing her hand. She patted his head with her left hand and realized her wound had nearly healed already. At least the soreness was gone.

"The Sign of the Way?" Kara called to Ari, resting her arm lightly on Jamel's small shoulders. Ari hustled up to join them.

"In my mind dream in the council room," he explained, "I saw these peaks. And remember in Endgate, the maps to New Columbia always had something about the Sign of the Way?"

"New Columbia?" Kara wondered. "Do you think?"

"Highly not probable," Platt grumbled.

"I don't know," Ari said. "But we have to pass between the peaks anyway to keep going."

"Look," Jamel said, "the crazer is going that way, too."

"Let's go then," Kara said. "Lead, Ari."

With Ari in front, the group walked until sunset, passing between the four peaks, two on either side of a large wooded canyon, just at dusk. The crazer stayed ahead of them the whole way, sometimes motioning for them to follow, at others doing his vanishing/reappearing act. As the last light was fading, they walked along a ridge and when the wind rustled through the leaves, the outline of a large valley could be vaguely distinguished. With heart suddenly pounding, Ari thought he saw -- for the briefest of seconds -- the glimmer of a light in the distant valley. He walked slower, watching keenly. Again he thought he saw the glimmer.

"Stop," he told the others, who followed close behind.

"What?" Kara asked.

"I thought I saw something," Ari said. "I thought I saw a light down there."

"No," another voice broke in, a voice so nearby that the little group nearly jumped out of its collective skin. "No incolia. Rest now."

"Holy shit," Platt exclaimed, "the shitcit can jabber."

"No light," the wild man spoke out of the near darkness. "Rest. Sleep now. No incolia." Then he rustled away, his steps receding into the blackness of the forest.

"Scared the hell out of me," Ari said.

"Me, too," Jamel said, holding Kara's hand tightly.

"Very strange cit," she commented quietly, the woods around them silent again. "Very strange."

"It is too dark to go on now," Ari judged.

"Can't orb nothin'," Platt agreed.

"Find a flat place," Ari said. "We'll sleep here."

The group searched out a suitable campsite nearby and by the time the massive full moon cleared the nearby mountains, washing them in bright yellow light, they had bedded down on soft dirt, or leaves, or piles of dead needles from the many pine trees under which they rested. Worn out from their endless hiking, they were all asleep in a matter of moments.

####

Ari woke to a light rain, hungry and thirsty. His first instinct was to avoid the rain. Bimhills rain was always of the acid variety, but this fell gentle and easy and he opened his lips to it, letting the drops fall into his mouth, swallowing them slowly. The others stirred and seeing Ari, imitated him. The water was cool and refreshing and tasted good. They laughed and cupped their hands to drink the water, playfully flipping the excess at each other.

"Look," Jamel said in the midst of their play.

He pointed to the ground at the center of their campsite. There were several piles of berries, nuts, and roots there.

"The wildcit," Kara surmised.

Ari looked around, but the strange man was nowhere to be seen.

"How do you eat this?" Platt asked when the group collected around the food.

"Break those hard things with a rock," Jamel explained, "and tear the outside off the long ones."

"How you know that?" Platt asked.

"Orbed it back in the Outworld," the boy shrugged.

"You're quite a boykid," Kara told Jamel, running a hand through his hair.

"You bet, missy," he said.

"Let's eat," Ari said unnecessarily.

Platt and the boy tore into the berries and nuts, Ari and Kara peeled some of the smaller roots and nibbled on those. They were sweet but a little pungent. Yet a lifesaver nonetheless. The group ate hungrily and happily, saving -- at Ari's suggestion -- a portion of each food for later in the day. When they had their fill, they headed on, continuing east into the rising sun, hearing -- they thought -- on the breeze rustling through the trees over their heads, the childlike laughter of the wildcit.

Around mid-day, the path they followed through the forest and underbrush began to descend, dropping down out of the mountains toward a valley they occasionally glimpsed through the heavy foliage. They saw animals they'd only known in simulation: deer, squirrel, a variety of colorful birds. The air was cool and clean and they breathed easier than they ever had in their lives. Finally, they reached a clearing on an overlook and the great valley they had been approaching spread out before them, shimmering, verdant, cultivated, with streams crisscrossing from side to side.

"Fire almighty," Platt exclaimed.

"It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen," Kara gasped, clasping Ari's hand tightly. "Look at it."

Below them on the valley floor were broad fields of crops Ari and the others had never seen before much less knew the names of. There were animals grazing, people working. Small collections of houses dotted the countryside and in the distance was a large settlement. The small band of fliers stood silently on the overlook, awed by the beauty and wonder of this new land.

"Down there," Jamel broke their silence, pointing to another overlook several hundred feet below. "Listen. It's the crazer."

The wildcit was waving to them, motioning for them to come down. They heard his familiar cry: "Incolia. Incolia."

"Incolia," Kara and Ari repeated, the meaning of the crazer's strange cry now all too obvious. "New Columbia. Incolia. New Columbia. He's saying New Columbia."

Ari hugged Kara and kissed her. Then they grabbed Platt and Jamel and began leaping and jumping for joy.

"We made it," Ari cried. "We found New Columbia."

"It's real," Kara said. "It's really real."

"Check it out," Platt said, pointing below, "they're coming."

"They're waving at us, too," Jamel said happily.

"Maybe they got grub and stuff," Platt speculated excitedly. He grabbed Jamel and flung the boy around a couple of times.

"Put me down, you big dumbcit," Jamel cried. "All you think about is stuffing that giant foodhole of yours."

"Ignorant tad," Platt grumbled, but he let the boy go. Jamel dusted himself off as if Platt had messed up his dirty, threadbare clothes. Ari laughed and pulled Jamel to his side. The boy stuck his tongue out at Platt -- who returned the favor.

"They are coming for us," Kara told the others. "They're calling now, too."

"Let's go down to meet them," Ari said, taking Kara's hand. Jamel ran around behind Kara to hold her other hand. Platt moved up beside Ari.

"Yes," Kara said with a look at Ari that at once conveyed joy, hope, the promise of a shared future, "let's go down and join them."

"Right ground," Platt said earnestly.

"I'm with you, missy," Jamel said, squeezing Kara's hand.

"The run is over," Ari said, "we're homecits now."

Buoyed by hope and optimism, the little group of travelers walked down off the mountain out into the valley below. A throng of people, a virtual rainbow of mixed races from all zones, the wildcit near their front, welcomed the four runners. They circled around them protectively, absorbed them into their ranks. United at last, the four individuals blended into the mass of people, disappeared fully within their ranks. The run was over. They had reached home.

THE END


© 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, and, of course, Part 1 and Part 2 of "New Columbia" (October and November 2009).) 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.