Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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New Columbia

by J. B. Hogan


BimHills

1.

Platt Meeler was so high on chalkwater and ginweed that Ari Blanque, who barely came up to the big Somecop's shoulders and was a good fifty pounds lighter, had to guide him through the shining glass and concrete alleyways of Redsinthe on Bimhills' lower east side. It was only a little after four in the afternoon, but the sky over Bimhills was so sooty dark it could have passed for early evening. All the rad shops and fill bars back on Westfeel Boulevard, Bimhills' main drag out of which Ari had just pulled Platt, were lit up like the Vegas strip Ari had once seen in a film when he was just a smalltad still going to the Booker.

Those were the days, before the first Great Invert, before the Decades of Sand, when there had been a world beyond Bimhills, beyond Ebon and Meshica -- one stretching into the unknown reaches of the forbidden Outworld. Out where it was rumored the flesh eaters lived, animal-like men who preyed on anyone foolish enough to stray there.

Puffing for breath, Ari led Platt away from the entropic tug of Westfeel Boulevard and towards Platt's romspeed vehicle, avoiding a pack of five Fulljohns smacking wads of Day's Hash and whipping long night sticks around like they were members of some obscene, synchronized headbashing team, which they were. Ari pushed Platt against the wall at the end of the smoggy but spotless alley until the FJs passed by, then lurched out onto Beatty Street, the weight of the big Somecop nearly knocking him to the ground.

"Damn it, Platt, wake up," Ari groaned uselessly at his barely conscious friend. Platt mumbled something about getting more women, the spittle in his mouth and throat bubbling the words into mostly unintelligible sounds. "Yeah," Ari laughed under his heavy load, "you're really ready for more women all right."

Ari finally pushed, shoved, and cajoled big Platt down Beatty Street to where it intersected with Gates by the simpark. They had left Platt's car on Gates, in charge of a sturch whom Ari paid too much, while they stormed the plezone out on Westfeel. Luckily, the smalltad sturch actually did watch the car and he helped Ari dump Platt into the rider's side of the two-wheel drive romspeed. Ari never could understand why a Somecop would want anything but a four-wheel drive. He couldn't count the times his 4-Rom had saved him from marauding Ebons, Tokus, and even FJs when he'd gotten too chalked or ginned out on the fringes of Bimhills.

Finding himself an empty bench by a nearby simtree, Ari overpaid the sturch again and when the kid left took out a fat ginweed, fired it up and leaned back casually puffing. Ginweed was okay to smoke but nicsmokes were against the law. You could do time for that. Time in the vats. The vats, where the nastiest Erads watched over the slimiest outcits. Even the toughest outwatch or outguard had it tough in the vats. Everybody did time in the vats, even Ari had done six months for street criss-cross but you did your best to stay out. The vats were crawling with prees and flakes and zoners. The prees liked it and they liked new young meat best of all. Ari had found out the hard way. Halfway through his ginweed he cringed at the memory. The prees and the others could keep it.

Ari liked it out here with the rad shops and the fill bars. He was a plezone kind of guy and he knew it. The vats weren't for him. And lately there was rumored to be a new kind of vatter. Something called a radcit. They got their name from being outcits who used Erad tactics in the vat and outside. Ari had never seen a radcit but he was afraid of them. It was said they wanted to turn Bimhills upside down and that some had been past Long Wound to the Outworld. They talked about outcits and cits, Fulljohns and Somecops, even outwatchers and outguards, as being the same and they dared talk about fighting back against the Erads and Shadpols. They also talked about a place called New Columbia that was beyond the Outworld. Thinking of it scared Ari and threatened to ruin his ginweed zone, so he tried to concentrate on his surroundings.

The simpark was covered above the tops of the simtrees, some thirty feet above the ground, by camouflage netting stretched tautly over the entire area of the small park. It was there to protect you from the blazing sun that burned down and through you on those occasional days when the air was somehow clear enough to let those unblocked ultra violet rays shoot down onto the planet without absorption. The simpark in that way was like an outdoor shade house, those refuges for midcits and highcits, people like Ari, to escape to on sun days. Up in the simtrees, Ari could see several kinds of birds and even a couple of squirrels, all poised as if in motion, all sims like everything in the park. Ari liked to zone in simparks -- they were so quiet and tranquil. He liked sim things in general. They were silent and motionless and clean. Safe. They didn't mess with your zone.

The only thing messing with Ari's zone was the heat. Despite the shade provided by the simpark it was still very hot and Ari was sweating heavily. He decided to do another ginweed so he wouldn't notice the heat and sweat. If you got far enough into the zone, you either got to where you didn't care about how you felt or you actually began to like it, no matter how uncomfortable you might have felt before. Ari wanted to get that far into the zone.

Halfway through the second ginweed, just as he was about to go fully into his zone, he heard a sound that jerked him back towards his senses. It was a sound that terrified all but the most powerful of high cits: the startling, clapping noise of Erad body leather. Ari crushed his ginweed out on the side of the bench and sat up alertly.

They were coming into the park from the street to Ari's left. Four of them: big, muscled, ugly, arrogant, brutish -- classic Erads. Ari never looked them in the face, few people did; they were all just Erads to him. Duplicates of each other. You stayed out of their way. They had full Pol power and took advantage of it. They made life and death judgments on the street. It was easier, and cleaner, than taking some foolish outcit to the Bench and wasting highcit time and money. Ari sat perfectly still but kept them in his peripheral vision.

The Erads, accompanied by a smaller, obviously far less potent, but still dangerous Fulljohn, were dragging two apparent crazer outcits -- one a smallish late teenage boy, the other a pretty but bruised young woman -- across the synthetic grass and concrete slabs of the park.

"Press on, scum," the biggest of the Erads, a particularly vile individual, said, "move through."

The other Erads bashed on the outcits to punctuate the big one's words. The boy stumbled forward and fell; the girl cried out. Another of the Erads, this one wearing very shiny leather, Ari noted, grabbed the girl by the hair and gave it a sharp tug to shut her up.

Ari had become so caught up in the little scene, trying hard to act like he wasn't watching it, that he failed to notice that the FJ with the Erads had broken off from the group and walked away. Suddenly, he was standing right beside Ari.

"Nice day, cit," the FJ said casually, his voice shocking Ari so much that Ari actually gave a start.

"Hmm?" he mumbled, not looking up.

Theoretically, Eradicators, or Erads, and Fulljohns, the regular police, as well as all the other varieties of privatized security forces, collectively known as the "silver," who kept Bimhills' streets safe and comfortable, were supposed to kowtow to well off, high-ranking citizens, highcits, like Ari. But it was never an especially good idea to become the center of an Erad or Fulljohn's attention anyway. They were too autonomous and too arbitrary to take for granted -- ever. That was one thing Ari had learned -- and he hadn't needed the Booker, from where he had somehow managed to graduate several years before, to tell him about it either.

"I know you," the FJ said, not unpleasantly, "don't I?"

"I don't think so," Ari said, still not looking up. His pleasure zone had been completely wrecked and now his nerve endings were tingling. The simpark looked stupid and plastic now, false, not calm and peaceful. Not restful. Damn these fools, he said to himself, then to the FJ: "Do you want to see an IDflick?"

"No," the FJ said, "I know you. You're highcit. It's OK."

"You know me?" Ari asked incredulously, finally looking up at the FJ.

The FJ was young, about Ari's age, medium height, a little thin, but very muscular. There was something about the not fully vicious blue eyes and the shock of red hair that was familiar to Ari.

"I know you from the Booker," the FJ said.

"We went to Booker together?" Ari asked.

"No," the FJ said, almost smiling, "I was sanpure. Before I was picked for Somecop. I used to clean the Booker. I saw you a lot."

"Now you're Fulljohn," Ari said, his attention drawn back to the center of the simpark where the Erads had stood the boy and girl up side by side near a simtree.

The boy's face was bloodied and bruised and the girl's clothes were torn half off, exposing most of her left breast. The Erads laughed crazily, occasionally taking turns at hitting the boy or fondling the girl, who slapped them away each time to a new round of laughter.

"Now I'm a Fulljohn," the red headed ex-sanpure confirmed.

Ari barely heard, he was fully engrossed watching the outcit girl defend herself. She was really remarkably pretty. Ari wondered why he'd never seen her or the boy before, and how they had become outcast citizens.

"Who are those people?" he asked the FJ. "What have they done?"

"They're radcits. Radicals. Rebels. I don't know the boy," the FJ answered, "but the girl is Kara Felt. You must know her. She was highcit. From your area."

"My area?" Ari wondered, looking at the girl more carefully.

When he did, she looked over at him. For the briefest of moments their eyes met across the concrete of the simpark and Ari saw a flash of recognition in the girl's eyes. Was it a plea for help? A challenge? Ari quickly looked away, afraid of what the girl might have seen in his eyes. Afraid of what he might have inadvertently expressed. When he looked at her again, she did not reciprocate.

"A real looker, ey?" the FJ said quietly by Ari's ear.

"Yes," Ari agreed, not looking at the girl, "a real looker."

"A looker from the old booker, huh?" the FJ snickered. Ari looked at the young man without understanding. "Get it," the FJ repeated, "she's a real looker from the old booker, ha, ha."

Ari tried to laugh but could only muster a weak smile. The FJ guffawed at his own joke. Ari wished that he had stopped at any other place on the planet than here just now. He'd rather face the outguards of Toku or Ebon than be in this simpark with this pack of Erads and the miserable rebel boy and girl. Kara Felt, he thought, I don't remember her at all. How could I not. She...

"Hey, watch it," the FJ suddenly yelled, jerking Ari back into the immediate reality. "Look out."

Frightened, Ari cringed down on the bench as the FJ pulled out his laser-mounted pistol and leaped past him. In the center of the park, the rebel boy was trying to escape. He had somehow broken free from the Erads and was stumbling away from them, reeling in the general direction of Ari and the fast moving FJ.

Fast as the FJ was, however, the Erads were faster. Before the FJ could shoot, two of the Erads opened fire on the rebel boy. With a deafening explosion, the Erad in shining leather, the commander of the group, a scar faced Lt. Rankin, according to the name tag blazoned above the left breast pocket of his uniform, let loose with his L-12, a laser powered, automatic 12-gauge shotgun. Simultaneously, Lt. Rankin's massive second in command, a Sgt. Cage, fired his DC-40 assault rifle in single shot mode.

The rebel boy was torn apart. By a millisecond, Lt. Rankin's 12-gauge rounds hit the boy first, blowing huge holes in his chest and right thigh. But before the boy could fall, shots from Sgt. Cage's .40 caliber weapon hit him once, twice, three times in the lower stomach area almost cutting the rebel youth in half. To the sound of Erad laughter and the girl's cries, the boy fell dead on the concrete floor of the park, blood draining from his limp, motionless body. Ari sat rigidly, stunned.

In that moment just after the killing, however, while the Erads admired their handiwork and Ari stared at it in shock, the FJ strayed too close to the rebel girl Kara. Spinning loose from the Erad who no longer held her tightly enough, Kara kicked out at the FJ and connected with his gun hand, knocking his weapon into the air. The lasermag pistol spun across the park, crashing onto the concrete and sliding right up to Ari's feet.

"Grab it," the girl Kara cried out, "help me, cit, shoot the bastards."

For a moment that seemed like an eternity, Ari looked down at the weapon. He and it seemed suspended in time and space, outside the realm of the other events transpiring in the park. In his trance, Ari did not see Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage turn their weapons on him, nor did he see the FJ and the other Erads once again corral and restrain Kara. For Ari, all the world was his little space in the park and this moment of concentration on the weapon by his feet.

He considered his options: grab the weapon and try to free the girl, an act that would certainly lead to his own death; attempt to flee himself, a move the Erads might misinterpret and gun him down before he took two steps anyway; or leave it alone, do nothing, stay uninvolved. As Ari made his choice, he raised his head and looked across the park at Kara.

"Take it," she cried again, "help me!"

Ari sighed deeply and began to form some sort of verbal response. But before he could, he saw movement at the edge of the simpark behind Kara. There seemed to be a figure there, perhaps more than one, lurking just beyond the rebel girl behind a wall of real shrubs that ringed the rear of the simpark. Mesmerized by the movement, Ari only heard as noise the yells of Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage.

"Hand it over, citizen," Sgt. Cage growled, aiming his DC-40 at Ari's head.

"He's highcit," the FJ yelled at Sgt. Cage.

"High citizen, then," Sgt. Cage corrected, "hand it over whoever you are. Or die."

"Easy, sergeant," Lt. Rankin said, "he's going to do it. Right, highcit? Just stay still, we'll get the weapon, don't move."

"Don't move," Ari mumbled, catching Lt. Rankin's last words. "Don't...move."

But as Lt. Rankin hustled to retrieve the loose pistol and as Kara released a string of oaths aimed at Ari, an explosion of light suddenly filled the park. In a transfixing display, the simpark was immediately, totally enveloped in sparkling, flashing colored lights.

Ari could see nothing but the lights. But he heard the footsteps of several people rushing into the simpark and he heard bursts of wild gunfire and small, loud explosions nearby. If he could have seen and understood what he saw, Ari would have been witness to a rebel rescue attack.

Under cover of the sparkle lights, five rebels had leapt from hiding places beyond the simpark and, wearing wraparound infrared goggles to see past the sparkle explosion, unleashed a barrage of lasermag pistol and exploding-tip arrow fire at the surprised Erads and FJ. Two Erads fell dead before Lt. Rankin and the others could extract their own infrared lenses and begin to return accurate fire. By the time they had, the rebels had wounded the red headed FJ and were making off with the girl, Kara Felt.

"Stop them," Ari heard Lt. Rankin cry out, but the battle had already been won.

There were several more quick bursts of gunfire and then the little simpark was quiet again. Frozen with dread, Ari sat stock still, waiting for what he didn't know. But at least now there was no more gunfire. In a few moments the sparkle lights began to fade out and the shapes of the simpark formed again. When at last he could see clearly again, Ari made out the bodies of the two dead Erads and two dead rebels, including the boy who had been killed before the attack. Between Ari and the dead rebel boy, the red headed FJ rolled back and forth on the floor of the simpark, groaning and holding his left shoulder.

Ari watched the FJ flipping back and forth and something like compassion began to awaken in him. He even began considering the possibility of helping the wounded man. He tried to picture what he would do but no clear image came to mind. The Booker never covered rebel attacks and it didn't teach First Aid. Then, as Ari began to tire of his internal dilemma, two healthy FJs pulled up in a camo romspeed and solved it for him. They hopped out of their vehicle and casually dragged the red headed FJ off -- presumably, Ari guessed, to the nearest morpher.

Moments later, in a miraculously short time it seemed, Ari found himself alone in the simpark. The rebels were gone, the Erads were gone, the wounded FJ gone. There were no signs of the dead, neither Erad nor rebel. It occurred to Ari that maybe all the chalkwater and ginweed he had consumed in the last few hours was causing him to hallucinate.

That's it, he tried to convince himself, I just got into a bad zone. That's all. There were no Erads, no FJ, no rebels. No killings. Only a very disturbing, very real hallucination. With a sigh and his zone completely gone, Ari decided to head back to Platt's romspeed and drive his Somecop buddy home. He stood up, stretched and started to walk off. Then he saw it.

There was blood all over the park. Blood where he had hoped he had imagined the rebel boy being shot, blood where the FJ and the Erads had been when he last saw them, blood all over the place. He knelt beside a pool of it. Touched it cautiously with his fingertips. It was blood all right. Real blood. It wasn't an hallucination. The whole horrible scene had been real.

Involuntarily, Ari shuddered from head to toe. Shaking as if he'd taken a sudden chill, like that time years ago, when he was just a tad and there had been this strange storm with an even stranger cold wind, Ari hugged his arms against his chest to get warm. Then looking around for leftover Erads or Full Johns, he darted from the park to the relative safety of Platt's vehicle. The big Somecop was sleeping blissfully in the rider's side just like Ari had left him. With a deep sigh of relief, Ari cranked up the romspeed, bolted out into the street and raced toward his home.

2.

A light, burning rain drifted down over Bimhills causing little puffs of dust to rise from the dead soil near the corridor linking Bimhills with Toku to the north and Ebon to the south. Ari drove his four-wheel drive romspeed recklessly fast across the rolling no man's land several miles outside Bimhills proper. Platt Meeler bounced around in the rider's seat, slopping chalkwater over himself and the floor of the romspeed. Ari was one of the best romspeed jockeys in the region and he loved to take his supercharged vehicle out into the semi-risky area bordering the trade corridor that linked all of the world known to the cits of Bimhills.

As it had been laid out for them at the Booker, the world was divided into very distinct ethnic enclaves. To the north was Toku -- oriental, industrial, a usually dependable trading partner for Bimhills. Toku was an extension of what had once been called the Pacific Rim. They provided most of the technology for Bimhills and elsewhere, as well as a steady supply of women for the thriving plezones of their southern neighbors.

Bimhills itself was primarily a consumer society, its currency based on dwindling but priceless fossil fuels, recycled technology, and an ages-old tradition of skillful bartering. Nearly as rich as Toku, Bimhills provided its high citizens, labeled so by birth or economic success, an impressive array of physical pleasures to keep them satisfied and disinterested in the activities of the ruling Interzonal Monetary Council.

The IMC took care of the regular and low citizens as well but their cooperation was less necessary than that of the highcits and therefore less rewarded. For those not willing to follow the rules there were the Somecops, the Fulljohns, and for instant, lethal judgements -- the Erads. From time to time a small opposition would arise, but they seldom grew beyond a few disgruntled members. Most Bimhills cits were simply too zoned to care. And therefore easy to manage.

Ebon, on the other hand, presented Bimhills with certain problems. A thriving drug trade existed between the shadpols of Bimhills and the matriarchal suppliers of Ebon. After the great penal cleansings of the third and fourth decades of the new century, the matriarchy had arisen by necessity from the anarchic ruins of male depopulated Ebon. The shadpols of Bimhills needed Ebon's drugs to keep the citizens quiet and docile and the Ebon matriarchs needed currency of whatever kind -- coin, foodstuffs, technology -- to maintain their power among the devastation that Ebon had devolved into. Except for the highly disciplined but few-membered cult, the Panmus, the surviving males in Ebon were for the most part freelancers -- crashing into weakly defended areas of Bimhills to pillage what they could. Despite official protests from Bimhills, the matriarchs did little to discourage the Ebon outlaw raids -- they needed the males for repopulation -- and so a tension existed between the rich northern zone and its embattled southern neighbor.

Ebon got the majority of their raw drugs from the region to its east -- Meshica. Meshica had been fenced out during the immigration wars, a decades-long conflict that settled little except to further isolate the Meshicans behind a twelve-foot high, radioactive fence. There were some breaches in the fence, but the price for knocking it down had been so high that Meshican leaders, called Cardenistas, had de-emphasized the effort and led their people to focus on refining crude fossil fuels and the farming of food and drug crops which were then sold for distribution on the corridor, mostly to Bimhills and Toku entrepreneurs. It had been a collective process and a very lucrative one for the Meshicans.

Past Meshica was Long Wound, the last refuge of the indigenous peoples. Completely independent and self-sufficient, Long Wound served the other zones as a buffer between them and the truly uncivilized chaos that lay beyond in the region known as the Outworld. In the Outworld all vestiges of traditional society had completely broken down. Outguards, armed patrols working for the IMC and guarding the corridors between the zones, were in the Outworld as apt to be as crazed as the berserkers who made the Outworld the completely mad, imminently dangerous place it was. Those poor souls who did stray, accidentally or otherwise, into the Outworld were seldom seen again.

For most citizens of the other zones, the term Outworld was synonymous with instant, horrifying death. There were rumors, none confirmed, that if you could make it past the Outworld there was another zone, a zone of myth and legend called New Columbia -- a place of real trees and real grass, of clean rivers, a place of safety, where the destruction of the third and fourth decades had not reached, where a person could be free, where people lived together by choice, where you could be happy.

But Ari knew little of this and cared even less as he raced his romspeed on the fringes of the Toku-Bimhills corridor. He was only interested in speed and the adrenalin rush of teasing unwary outguard teams, which he regularly did -- successfully. Clouds of dust followed his machine as he tore around, spinning donuts and burning U's. He sped by the remains of an old concrete-channeled river that once ran through the heart of the entire region.

The concave walls were now broken in many places, barely standing in others, and were often covered in strange, bold graffiti that Ari paid little attention to and wouldn't have understood if he had. Most of the graffiti was random outbursts by zoned out young cits like Ari -- crude remarks about sex and other plezone pleasures -- but among them were other messages, political messages. Messages, that if Ari had understood them, revealed an underbelly to Bimhills, one that was not content to spend its collective life in a ginweed or chalkwater zone, one that saw something wrong with the highly controlled excesses of Bimhills, one that opposed the IMC and -- according to the sprayings on the concrete walls of the old river bed -- wanted to alter or abolish it. Free Bimhills, these political messages cried out from the gray walls. Unity among the Zones. Down with the IMC.

To Ari, these messages were nothing more than a dark blur in his peripheral vision as he steered the romspeed and the zoned out Platt Meeler towards the far northwest corner of the Bimhills zone where Ari knew their presence would draw out an outguard team. Sure enough, as if on cue, ahead and to the left of Ari's speeding vehicle, an outguard romspeed emerged from behind a break in the corridor. With a squeal of glee, Ari sped up, drove right at the outguards.

"Hey," Platt grunted from his nearly catatonic zone, "what's that?"

"Outguards," Ari laughed, "watch this."

Ari aimed his romspeed right for the outguard vehicle and hammered down the accelerator. The outguards, not sure what the cit vehicle was up to yet, kept coming, though at a much slower speed. Giggling happily, Ari charged directly at them. As the vehicles neared each other, Ari could see the identification markings on the outguard vehicle -- TB37. A tandem Toku/Bimhills team, among the elite.

Ari laughed happily and pushed the romspeed to top end, steering it at the outguard vehicle in what now must have seemed to its occupants to be a suicide run. A game of chicken by a no doubt pampered, zoned out, crazed cit. Then, just as the two vehicles were about to collide, when Ari could see the look of fear and anger on the faces of the outguards, the two corridor monitors wheeled away to the left, letting Ari roar by. With dust and rocks flying, Ari spun his romspeed back around for another run at the outguards.

"Damn, Ari," Platt cried out, "you almost got us killed, man. We'll get busted for messin' with outguards. You always act like a berserker in this rom, man, what is it? Mellow out and let's get the crap out of here."

"Relax," Ari said with a condescending sneer for his buddy, "you act like a little tad girl half the time. Take some a hit of mindrest and lay off the chalkwater. Buck up."

"Here they come again," Platt said between taking tabs of mindrest, a strong sedative used to soothe the jangled nerves of uptight highcits, "here come the outguards."

But Ari was way ahead of Platt, he was gunning the romspeed at a hard intercept angle and was bearing down on the outguard vehicle.

"I'm going to splash these dudes into the next zone," he yelled above the racing engine noise. Ari always ran his romspeed at such high RPMs that the normally quiet machine sounded like a 12-wheeler delivering cement for repairing breaks in the corridor.

"We're gonna crash," Platt cried as the two romspeeds hurtled toward each other. "Oh, crap."

But again, at the last moment, the outguards cut away, letting Ari roar by, victorious for the moment.

"What useless sacks," Ari said, whirling the romspeed back around to face the outguards, "what weenies. This time I'll run 'em right back into the corridor. What a pair of tads."

"They're not moving," Platt said, pointing to the immobile outguard vehicle. "They're gonna shoot us."

"Calm down, Platt," Ari chastised his friend, "they can't do that. I'm a highcit. Only an Erad..."

"What's that," Platt squawked, watching an antenna-like mechanism slowly rise up from the roof of the outguard romspeed. "It's a death ray."

"Shut up, Platt," Ari laughed, "there's no such thing."

"They're gonna zap us, man."

"Dumb ass zone wreckers," Ari growled, "this is it. Strap up, Platt. We're goin' at 'em."

"Oh, sweet Outworld," Platt moaned, "we're going X and out."

Over Platt's whining, Ari gunned the romspeed and charged the outguards. He had no idea what he was going to do but he was the best romspeed driver in the zone and wasn't about to let a couple of two bit outguards show him up. No way. He accelerated and drove right at them. Their vehicle got nearer and nearer and yet they didn't move. Ari pressed on wildly with Platt watching through cracks in the fingers he held over his eyes. The big Somecop whimpered like a child. Then, no more than thirty yards from the outguard vehicle, there was a brief orange flash from the antenna-like contraption on their roof and Ari's vehicle sputtered, stalled, lurched to a stop just fifteen feet from the outguards.

"Shit," Ari cursed, "what the blasted fire."

"What happened?" Platt asked, lowering his hands. "Are we still alive?"

"They scrambled the rom drive somehow," Ari surmised, "must be their first run with it. Damn."

"They're getting out," Platt said, sliding down in the seat.

"Dork technos. Got the drop on me," Ari complained as the outguards approached the romspeed, one on either side.

"Show 'em your highcit IDflick, man," Platt told Ari, "hurry, show 'em."

"Yeah, yeah," Ari said, "I'll show the stupid thing."

The Toku outguard came up on Ari's side and tapped on the window. Ari slowly looked over. The outguard signaled for him to lower the window.

"Fun's over, cit," he told Ari when the window was down, "let's go."

3.

Ari and Platt sat on tall-backed wooden benches to the judge's left in the courtroom. Across from them, on another set of benches, were a dozen or so defendants, all cit or lowcit, awaiting their turn before the judge. All legal cases in Bimhills were settled by judges; juries had been a thing of the past for decades, well before Ari and Platt were born.

The IMC High Session, the universal council with power over all of the regional IMCs, had decided that citizen participation, even that of highcits, was counterproductive and unnecessary. Judges were selected carefully by each regions's IMC and they carried out the letter of IMC law almost to a fault.

The judge presiding over this day's cases was a short, fat, balding little man nearly swallowed up by his formal black and red robes. Ari, who outside his romspeed had again become meek and disinterested in things in general, watched the judge with a kind of glassy-eyed detachment. He hardly noticed the little man's nameplate, proclaiming him to be Vance Reneaux, High Judge.

To the right of Platt, who sat so still he was barely noticeable -- which was in fact his goal -- were the two outguards Ari had played chicken with out by the corridor. The guards stood at attention, eyes glued straight ahead except for occasional foul looks they aimed at Platt or Ari or both. They were clearly hoping the judge would come down hard on these berserking plezoners.

A few months in the vat would take care of the younger, soft one, they had conjectured; the Somecop being too stupid or too zoned for vat time to make an impression on. The young one, though, would be prime Grade A for the sickos and flakes in the vat. They'd chew him up and spit him out. The outguards' hopes for Ari's sentence would have to wait a while, however, as the judge had to pass sentence on two or three cases before Ari's. First up was a simple nicsmoke case.

The lowcit accused of nicsmoking was a scrawny, pock-marked kid, not much more than a smalltad really, obviously a lowcit booker dropout -- which meant he was on a fast track to nowhere, either some kind of subsistence sanpure job or time in the vats. The judge, with a nod from the kid's Free Chaser defender, rapped his gavel down and pronounced sentence.

"Five years in the West Corridor Vat," he said loud enough to cause the rats behind the woodwork at the back of the rotting courtroom to scurry away, "put him with the lifers and the rebel scum. Next case!"

The scrawny lowcit was dragged off by court Fulljohns, who shortened the convicted kid's wails with a few well-placed kidney punches. The Free Chaser followed behind, giggling at the spectacle, happy to be out of the oppressive, claustrophobic room.

Next on the court docket was an older woman, scraggle-toothed and dirty -- another subsistence level lowcit. She was accused of selling bread from a street corner near one of the lowcit subzones. She was represented by her Citfriend, a still youngish woman with enough residual physical appeal to sway the fat little judge's opinions. Leering at the Citfriend's tight fitting jacket, the judge motioned for her to approach the bench.

"That's a very becoming jacket, Citfriend," the judge drooled, "very tight, very full."

"Yes, your honor," the pretty Citfriend replied.

"Does it unbutton?" the judge asked, glassy-eyed.

The Citfriend slowly unbuttoned her jacket, the judge opening and closing his fat fingers in anticipation of each button that was loosened. When the jacket was open, the Citfriend managed a smile and pulled the jacket back so that the judge could admire the see-through blouse she wore with no undergarments.

"Come closer," the judge whispered hoarsely. The Citfriend moved up directly in front of the bench. The judge reached out with both hands and began rubbing the woman's breasts. "Will you be at the interzonal legal luncheon tonight, my dear?"

"Yes, sir," the Citfriend answered, making no effort to resist the judge's continued fondling of her breasts.

"Good," the judge said softly, voice cracking. "So very good." He continued caressing the Citfriend's chest for several moments more, then, apparently satisfied, stopped. The woman buttoned up her jacket and stepped back.

"One year," the judge announced with a leering smile for the Citfriend, "commuted to supervision by this skilled and charming representative of our poor downtrodden lowcits."

"Thank you, your honor," the Citfriend said demurely. "Your wisdom is matched only by your great compassion and concern for our citizenry."

"Next!" the judge called out with a final lecherous smile on his swollen face for the Citfriend.

The pretty representative led off the old woman, who mumbled into her teeth something about good luck and light sentences. The same Free Chaser who had stood up with the scrawny nicsmoker, led the next defendant, a burly, lowcit working man before the judge.

"What's this one about," the judge grumbled, annoyed at having to look at the ugly Free Chaser instead of a pretty Citfriend.

"Street criss-cross, sir," the Free Chaser said meekly. "It should be next on your agenda."

"Don't tell me what's on my agenda, you sack," the judge snapped, rifling through a pile of papers before him on the bench.

"Sorry, sir," the Free Chaser apologized.

"Sorry, sir," the judge mimicked. The Free Chaser coughed and looked away. "Got anything to say for yourself, cit?" the judge gruffly asked the working man. The big man took a deep breath, thought about a response, started to give it -- but the judge cut him off.

"No, huh? Well, I've got something to say: two years. Case closed. Next."

The Free Chaser led the burly worker off, both of them too stunned to even react. The little judge chuckled to himself and looked over his agenda.

"One more and I'm closing up shop," he announced generally to the courtroom. A few sighs and groans were heard but a harsh look from the judge restored silence. "What are you two here for," he growled over at Ari and Platt, "having sex in the street? Smoking more than your quota of ginweed? Huh? Well speak up. Do you have a Chaser?"

"Uh," Platt grunted.

"You shut up," the judge told him. Platt shut up. "You talk, boy."

"Me, Sir?" Ari asked.

"Who else?"

"We brought them in, your honor," the Toku outguard volunteered. "Reckless endangerment in a romspeed. Violating interzonal neutral space, code 18...."

"Stop," the judge ordered, holding up his left hand. "You're not Chasers, you're outguards. I've got the charges right here, keep quiet."

"Yes, sir," the Toku outguard said.

"You're highcit, boy?" the judge asked Ari.

"Yes, sir," Ari answered.

"Been here before?"

"For criss-cross, sir."

"Did I give you time?"

"Six months vat time."

"Very lenient."

"Yes, sir."

"What do you think I ought to do to you this time?" Ari shrugged his shoulders. "How does a year sound to you?"

"It, uh -- ," Ari began. The outguards winked at each other.

"One year it is, then," the judge said.

He began collecting his materials to leave. The outguards slapped hands. The judge looked over at them.

"Of probation," he added, to Ari and Platt's great joy, "for the both of them."

"Damn," the Toku outguard muttered.

"What's that?" the judge asked, turning towards the outguards.

"Nothing, sir," both men quickly replied. "Nothing at all."

"Good," the judge said, "I've got a date for the luncheon and I don't want to be late. Court adjourned. Get out, all of you."

Without looking back, the judge stormed out of the room. The courtroom crowd began to filter out, Ari and Platt hanging back, laughing and celebrating their good luck. As they neared the double doors at the front of the courtroom, the outguards moved up alongside them, one on either side.

"You got lucky today, cit," the talkative Toku outguard said to Ari, "I catch you again out there and there won't be anything left of you to bring up before these idiot judges. You understand me?"

Ari tried to laugh the threat off, but the outguard put a sharp, metal-studded black leather glove up against his throat. Ari turned his head to avoid the studded spikes and when he did he involuntarily gasped. Across the courtroom, standing by one wall in a poorly lit corner was the rebel who had initiated the simpark attack on the Erads.

Suddenly the outguards and the year's probation were forgotten. Ari felt a sinking feeling in his stomach and a chill ran down his spine. They were brazen these rebels, these radcits. Right in the courtroom, with outguards, FJs and Somecops everywhere. And the rebel was looking right at Ari. And smiling?

Ari kept watching as the rebel stepped away from the wall and into the light. The Toku outguard had continued his threats in Ari's ear but Ari couldn't hear them, he was locked in on the rebel. The man moved quickly towards the door but paused for the briefest of seconds, and nodded knowingly, familiarly to Ari. A nod of acknowledgment, of complicity. And then, before Ari could react, refuse to recognize that nod, do anything, he was out the door and gone.

"Just one more time," the Toku outguard hissed next to Ari's head while the Bimhills outguard pushed Platt towards the doors, "and you'll live to regret it."

"Yeah, yeah," Ari blurted out, turning to face the Toku outguard, surprising even himself with such a sudden outbust of aggressiveness, "and if I ever go out there again I'll put your puny romcycles into the corridor wall. Judge said probation, you lose, we're gone. C'mon, Platt."

And leaving the shocked outguards immobile at the doors, Ari and his goodcit hustled out of the courtroom into the blue haze perpetually blanketing Bimhills.

4.

On a rare, nearly clear day, the white-yellow sun above Bimhills shone brilliantly, causing Ari and the occasional fellow pedestrian to squint against its power. Even for midday in Bimhills the streets and sidewalks were lifeless, reflecting the real and decreed need to obey Reg. 2973. When the sun's unfiltered rays got past IMC-specified Level 12, so direct they would blister the unprotected skin in fifteen minutes, Bimhills cits logically and legally had to seek shelter.

Ari spotted a Shade House and crossed the glistening street to find refuge from the oppressive heat and scorching rays. Opening the door, he felt a knee-weakening blast of chilled air and heard the complaints of cits annoyed by the intrusion of light and heat into the cool, dark interior of the building. Ari quickly closed the door behind him and waited just inside until his eyes adjusted.

When he could see in the diminished light of the Shade House, Ari noted that the place wasn't nearly as crowded as he had expected and he easily found a big, unoccupied chair. The chair was cool and relaxing, made of a pressed foam that provided both support and comfort. As Ari leaned forward to press a yellow button on the front of the chair and reduce the chair's vibrating impulses, a female host appeared. The chair slowed its vibrations to a mild rocking motion and Ari wiped his brow with a clean handkerchief he pulled from the back pocket of his white cotton jumpsuit.

"What's it to be, cit?" the hostess asked, moving close enough so that Ari could see her full breasts swaying appealingly beneath the threadbare T-shirt she wore above a pair of the shortest shorts that even Ari, a true denizen of Fill Bars and Shade Houses, had ever seen.

"What's for havin'?" he smiled, cupping one of the girl's perfect breasts in his right hand and lifting it as if he were measuring its weight.

"I could put out your fire for you, if you're in a sexin' mood," she offered. Ari patted her on the behind but didn't respond. "Also got some new mind sparkle, clean and direct from the labs. Or the regular chalkwater and ginweed."

"Give me the regular," Ari said, detaching his hands from the girl's body. "Large chalkwater, two ginweeds."

"Be right back," the hostess said, winking flirtatiously.

"See to it," Ari said, swiping at the girl's receding backside and missing.

Laughing to himself, Ari leaned back in the chair and checked out the rest of the Shade House. Among the sparse crowd were a few ex-vatters, vile looking guys lurking in the vibrating chairs or in small booths toward the back of the house, and several couples discreetly seated in the corners for maximum privacy.

Ari knew that scene, he'd come to Shade Houses many times seeking a quiet, out of the way place to meet a woman he wasn't supposed to be with. Closing his eyes at the memory of his last conquest, the mate of one of his old learners at the booker, Ari breathed deeply and relaxed.

"Excuse me, sir," the hostess said, snapping Ari out of his reverie a few moments later, "here's your order." The girl set the large glass of chalkwater on a table in front of Ari and handed him two ginweed joints.

"Thank you," he said, handing the hostess his highcit ration card, which had just been renewed with several thousand chits worth of credit on it. "Give yourself twenty credits."

The girl showed her appreciation, after registering the bill and tip on the credit changer she carried on her hip, by leaning forward and pressing her breasts against Ari's face. She rubbed them back and forth slowly, simultaneously reaching down and massaging his inner thigh. Ari leaned forward to kiss her, but the girl pulled back with a laugh.

"Maybe another time, handsome," she said, brushing her hand over Ari's crotch. "I'll see you again."

"Yet bet you will," Ari told her.

The girl winked again and left to attend to one of the men in back who kept waving at her annoyingly. Ari thought about having Platt roust the guy out when he, Platt, and E.P., the oddball techno freak who worked on and souped up Ari's romspeeds, got to the Shade House as Ari expected them to any time now.

E.P. had built a descrambler for Ari, one that would block the new outguard invention that had killed his machine out by the corridor and got him and Platt put on probation. With E.P.'s new device, Ari would again have the edge on the corridor outguards and he couldn't wait to try it out. Platt and E.P. were bringing the updated romspeed to Ari, who in turn had brought a special book of chits for E.P.

About halfway through the chalkwater, with most of one ginweed smoked, Ari heard the Shade House front door open and his two goodcits came in from the harsh, glaring light of the outdoors.

"There he is," Platt said, when his and E.P.'s eyes had adjusted to the Shade House darkness. "Hey, Ari." Ari waved his friends over.

"Slide a couple of chairs up," he said, "and get something to drink and smoke."

The hostess helped Platt and E.P. move a couple of empty chairs up by Ari, then left and brought out their orders.

"Well?" Ari asked when the girl had gone again.

"You're set," E.P. told him, "on the honor of Electro Pirate himself."

"It worked in E.P.'s garage, Ari," Platt confirmed, "we aimed a swiped outguard scrambler right at it. E.P.'s thing blocked it dead. Engine ran like a mind sparkle dream."

"Great," Ari said, reaching his chit payment across to E.P. "Thanks, as usual."

"Mine," E.P. tapped his chest in reciprocity, "my pleasure."

"It's outside and ready," Platt told Ari, "ready to run those outguards to the wall."

"Cool," Ari smiled, lifting his chalkwater to toast with E.P. and Platt. The three of them clicked their glasses sharply together. "Another round?"

"I got to bail, cits," E.P. explained, "lots of techno work a-waiting. No time for plezonin'."

"Always time," Ari contradicted.

"I gotta burst, too," Platt said. "Somecop shift."

"What a couple of weenies you two are," Ari derided his friends. "Stick around, this waitbabe is burning hot." "

"No can do, cit," E.P. said, eyeing the hostess hungrily, "I got work to do. Gotta back off the poon."

"No way," Ari snorted, "nothing beats poon." E.P. shrugged his shoulders.

"We got to go," Platt repeated, "it's a long way from this hole to work. C'mon, E.P."

"Okay," Ari said, "but tomorrow -- we go full plezoning, day and night."

"Full plezoning, citizen," E.P. laughed, slapping hands with Ari. "I'll get my work done tonight, we'll melt down Redsinthe, top to bottom."

"Now you're talkin'," Ari said.

"We're dust," E.P. said, standing up, "free floating molecule memories."

"What crap," Platt said with a laugh. But he also rose to go. Ari stayed seated.

"Tomorrow," he said.

"Tomorrow," Platt and E.P. echoed.

Ari watched his goodcits leave, averting his eyes from the glaring sun when they went through the door. After they left, he signaled for the hostess and for several minutes they amused themselves by openly fondling each other. When they were on the verge of doing the "foul deed," as Ari recalled one of his ridiculous learners at the booker refer to it, the hostess pulled away, flicking Ari in the crotch with a well-aimed finger. Ari laughed and grabbed himself. The hostess kissed him once more, very roughly, then disappeared into some dark recess of the room. Ari noticed she'd managed to lift another fifty chits from him for her troubles and he found that highly amusing.

When it became evident that the hostess wouldn't be returning for awhile, Ari turned his attention to getting really zoned. He had ordered another tall chalkwater and two more ginweeds and when he finished those he was so out of it he could barely move. He closed his eyes and dreamed of racing his romspeed by the corridor and of sexually charged encounters, real and imagined, he'd had with women during his waking and zoned hours.

Sometimes he wasn't sure which women had been flesh and blood, and which had only been a creation of his drug addled brain. It occurred to him that it didn't really matter much. The dreams were as intense to him as actual, real life experiences. It all felt good, and feeling good was what Ari had always been about.

"Feeling good, ey, cit?" a male voice suddenly asked Ari. Ari kept his eyes closed, unconcerned, waiting for what this voice -- which he assumed was in his own head -- would say next.

"He's completely zoned," another voice, a feminine voice, interjected.

Ari liked this voice. He was sure this was going to turn into a good sex dream. He sighed deeply and let his head fall back. But it hit something hard, metallic. That wasn't a good part of the dream.

"Slap his ass awake," the woman's voice said.

Ari didn't like the sound of that too much. His sex dreams were always mild and gentle. Not harsh and physically rough.

"Wake up, little highcit," the male voice spoke again.

Ari didn't like that voice now either. This was turning into a bad dream. Ari breathed deeply and opened his eyes to stop it.

"Well, well, he's alive," the female voice said sarcastically. Ari squinted his eyes to try and focus on the speaker.

"Who are you? What do you want?" he asked.

"Oh, no, cit," the male said, "we do the asking. You do the quiet thing."

"Leave me alone," Ari complained, trying unsuccessfully to get up from the chair, "you're jammin' up my zone."

"Oh, we're jamming up his zone," the man said, making a production out of pretending to care, then pushing something very hard and clearly made of metal against the side of Ari's head. "Why don't you just relax, cit, and shut the hell up."

Ari tried to turn his head away from the feel of the metal, obvious now even to him that it was a gun, but the girl pushed his face back to the front. Ari closed his eyes briefly and tried to concentrate. When he opened them again, they focused clearly on his surroundings.

"What do you want?" he asked.

The man stepped up closer to the front of the chair where Ari could see him. Ari's eyes widened.

"That's right, cit," the man said, "we've seen each other before."

"The simpark," Ari said softly, the memory coming back clearly, "and at the bench. You're rebels."

Ari stirred as if to jump up but he was too slow and the rebels too fast. They pinched him tight against the chair and he felt metal against his ribs on both sides.

"I think I should just waste this retread of a plezonin' bastard myself," the woman gruffly whispered.

"Now, now," the man said calmly, "no need for a scene. He'll come along quietly, won't you, cit?"

"He's nothing but a doped up dunghill," the woman said, "he was that way as a kid in the booker for crap's sake."

"You -- know...," Ari began, unable to resist looking at the woman. She held a long barrel lasermag against his right rib cage. "Kara! You're Kara Felt."

"No shit, genius," Kara said, shaking her head, "I'm surprised that pickled brain of yours remembers anything at all."

"The Erads had you. You escaped. You're still bruised." Kara ran a hand over the remaining dark spots on her otherwise lovely face. "We were at booker together. Now you're a rebel. You're both rebels."

"Stand up, Einstein," the man said, nudging Ari on his other side. "The two of you can have a booker reunion later. Now get up and walk out of here with us. Nice and easy."

Casually, Kara and the rebel leader led Ari through the dark aisles of the Shade House and back outside. It was extraordinarily hot and bright on the street. One of the realities of Shade House days, which the rebels knew perfectly well, was that even though it was unlawful to be out in these dangerous conditions only a handful of the most crazed Erads would be foolish enough to be out trying to enforce the law. Shade House days, if you protected yourself well enough, were perfect days to pull off raids and robberies. And kidnappings.

Kara and the rebel leader immediately pulled out dark sunglasses and large hats from interior pockets of their light tan jumpsuits and applied a thick layer of sunblock on their faces from a tube Kara produced. They made sure their jumpsuits covered every inch of their bodies and that the flaps on their big, bush hats fell over their shoulders to protect the back of the neck. Each then put on thin, skin colored gloves. When they were fully protected, the rebel leader looked over at Ari, whose face, hands, and neck were already reddening.

"You don't have any protection from this, cit?" he asked.

"I drove my romspeed down," Ari said, immediately wishing he hadn't. But the rebels already knew that anyway.

"Yes, we saw it," the rebel leader said, "it's just a few blocks up. You still should have worn no-sun gear."

"Stop fussing over this useless zoner, Severn," Kara said harshly, "who cares if he's protected. He's a highcit sack. I say we snag him, dust him, and dump him. He's shit."

"Easy, Kara," Severn counseled, "you're taking all this too personally. Mr. Blanque is an upstanding high citizen. I'm sure he's more than willing to cooperate with us. Isn't that right?"

"Yes," Ari said, shaking his head up and down.

"The punkass sat right there in the simpark and watched the Erads kill little Freedy."

"He's not a warrior, Kara. He's a highcit. He's never been taught to see the other side of things, right?"

"Right," Ari quickly agreed. Kara sneered and put her lasermag against the side of his head.

"I'd still like to ice him," she said.

"He's good for highcit ID, for chits, and for his hot romspeed. Correct, citizen? And he's a really good jockey. I scoped him make two outguards look like smalltads out by the corridor."

"You saw that?" Ari asked.

"We like you, highcit," Severn said, "we've been scoping you for awhile."

"I hate to break up your little romance," Kara said dryly, "there's the romspeed."

"Okay," Severn said, "now cit, you -- oh, hell, I left a DC clip back in the Shade House."

"Forget it," Kara said, "we don't have time to go back. They may be tracing us now."

"No," Severn said, "no traces, nothing left behind. I'll be back in seconds. Stay here."

"Get in," Kara ordered Ari, when Severn had jogged back towards the Shade House. Ari opened the romspeed and slid into the driver's seat. Kara sat beside him, her weapon trained on his upper torso.

"That wasn't very smart," Ari dared venture a moment later, "leaving his clip back at the Shade House. What kind of rebels are you?"

"Shut up, butthead," Kara told him, "or you'll find out."

"What's one DC clip? Is it worth getting captured for?"

"Zip it, dork," Kara growled, "or you'll find out."

"What does DC stand for anyway?" Kara lifted her lasermag and put it against Ari's temple.

"It stands for dead citizen," she said coldly. "Any more questions?"

"N...no, no," Ari said. "No more questions."

5.

"Understood," Erad Lt. Rankin said into a wall phone at a substation on the edge of the Redsinthe sector in Bimhills. "Copied and understood." Then he signaled for thick-armed Sgt. Cage.

"Sir," Sgt. Cage said, presenting himself sharply in front of the lieutenant.

"We have a situation, sergeant," Lt. Rankin explained. "Corridor fliers. Rebels. Radcits. Probably the same bunch that jumped us in the simpark." Sgt. Cage's eyes opened wide.

"We been lookin' for them, sir," he said in a tone almost sexual in its anticipation. "It's, uh, uh....."

"Serendipitous?" Lt. Rankin suggested.

"I don't know what that means, sir."

"Lucky. Our good luck," Lt. Rankin told the heavy-bodied sergeant.

"Yes, sir! Our good luck. When do we leave?"

"IMC Rep Alexander is on his way. He'll brief us on the parameters of the mission."

"Yes, sir," Cage spat out, unable to conceal his distaste for IMC bureaucratic types.

Even though they paid their considerable salaries, Erads like Sgt. Cage and Lt. Rankin had no use for their shadpol bosses and were barely able to restrain their hostility towards them. Nothing appealed to an Erad more than those occasional times when a shadpol was dropped from favor and it was the Erads' job to stalk and eliminate the offending former power broker. It did one's heart good to see them groveling right before you put a DC-40 round right between their eyes. Chickens they were, scared of their own shadows. Erads loved to bring them down.

"Well, gentlemen," IMC Rep Alexander said to Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage when he arrived at the substation some minutes later, "we have a situation here."

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said over the surly silence of Sgt. Cage. "We have a situation."

"Fliers," Alexander again repeated what the Erads already knew. "Radcits. Rebels." Sgt. Cage looked away and spat on the substation floor. Alexander pretended like he didn't notice.

"That is what we've been informed of, sir," Lt. Rankin said.

The scrawny, intense Rep looked the two Erads over for signs of incipient insubordination. Alexander had been around long enough, had gotten his skinny butt into enough "situations" to know that Erads fed on signs of indecision, weakness. If you didn't keep a hard, tight rein on these men, they would turn the tables on you, shadpol or not, and chew you up and spit you out. He also knew how to reward their loyalty: extra chit books, new weapons and vehicles, plenty of credit at special Erad plezone bars where no outsider dared stray.

Erads killed people for a living and sharp shadpols like the fiery-eyed Alexander never let himself forget it. The Erads, though few of them understood it -- thankfully for the shadpols -- were in fact the power behind the power. They kept the cits in check. Stopped budding rebellions, cleaned up after failed and successful coups. Wise shadpols made sure that the personal needs of these powerful enforcers were met and exceeded as much as possible.

"The rebels must be dealt with appropriately," Alexander said, running a bony hand through his thinning, greenish-tinted blonde hair.

"Eliminated, sir?" Lt. Rankin asked, assuming as usual that this was simply a political and legal formality.

Supposedly, Erads had to have permission to "eliminate" cits, but that was a technical issue, one seldom pursued with much conviction or enthusiasm. But Lt. Rankin was a veteran of the force and he followed the traditional ways still.

"Are we to terminate them?" Sgt. Cage managed a snorting chuckle.

"If it was up to me, lieutenant," Alexander said, briefly glancing at Cage then focusing on Lt. Rankin, "I would have you kill them all."

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said. Sgt. Cage nodded his approbation.

"Rebellion must be stamped out," Alexander went on, his eyes flaring red, his face mottling, "wherever it tries to get a foothold. Our zone is a perfect zone. We don't need malcontents fouling it up."

"Yeah," Cage agreed, shaking his head up and down vigorously. Alexander gave the sergeant a withering look that halted the big man in his celebratory tracks.

"The radcits have to be wiped from all zones. No matter what the costs."

"They've taken a highcit, too, sir," Lt. Rankin felt compelled to say, for he had once been a highcit himself. Years ago, before the "accident" that had brought him down. "You would still take them all out, even at the cost of the highcits lif...."

"At whatever cost," Alexander spit out to the Erads' mild surprise. "No prisoners would be my policy. I'd let you boys do your jobs. But...."

"But?" Lt. Rankin prompted.

"But it's not up to me," Alexander frowned, "the interzonal IMC council has decreed that this pack of lowcit slime is to live. They want them unharmed."

"Unharmed?" Lt. Rankin said, lifting a finger to ensure that Sgt. Cage, a former lowcit, didn't take umbrage at the shadpols offhand remark.

"Yes, damn it, can't you hear? Unharmed. Untouched. You're to get a pack of your people together and trail the rebels. Not kill them. You're not trying to catch them; we want their camp. We want to learn how they access New Columbia and then we can snuff them out once and for all."

"New Columbia?" Sgt. Cage said dumbfounded.

Everyone talked about New Columbia, but it was supposed to be a made up place. Now the IMC representative had spoken about it as if it were a proven fact.

"Yes, you simcit," Alexander growled at Cage, "New Columbia. Now I suggest the two of you get your pack together and get out on the corridor."

"Do I choose my own people, sir?" Lt. Rankin asked.

"Except for two," Alexander said, "the IMC has two men picked out for you to take along."

"May I ask who they are, sir?"

"It doesn't matter to me. I don't know them. One's a Fulljohn, I believe, the other a Somecop. A couple of lightweights, but with information on the highcit and the rebels. You can use them to identify our quarry."

"And then?"

"And then do as you please. I don't imagine you'd need them after they've served their purpose."

Cage snickered as he and Lt. Rankin popped to attention at a sign from Alexander that he was leaving.

"A final word," the shadpol said quietly to the two Erads, "keep this in utmost secrecy. Do the job. Do it right and the reward will take care of itself."

"Yes, sir," Lt. Rankin said, snapping a salute to the shadpol rep.

"Thank you, sir," Sgt. Cage added. Alexander gave him a look of pure disgust and then turned and stalked away. "I hope that bastard drops someday," Cage said when the IMC rep was gone. "I want to be the one that DC-40s him."

"It's your call if he does," Lt. Rankin said with a cold laugh. "He'll have it coming."

"It gets me rigid just thinkin' about it," Cage sneered. "I cain't hardly wait."

6.

The Bimhills corridor, like its northern counterpart running through Toku, was a twelve-foot high concrete wall rising up imposingly on either side of the wide highway linking the zones to one another. If twelve feet of smooth, hard concrete wasn't enough to discourage travelers from making unauthorized exits from the corridor, perhaps the barbed and concertina wire, interspersed with jagged shards of filthy glass, that covered the three feet wide top of the walls would do the trick.

Amazingly, though infrequently some crazed out cit, probably out of his head on mind sparkle or chalkwater, would try to scale those uninviting walls. Invariably, the citizen became target practice for the outguards who patrolled the corridor; and if the outguards didn't act fast enough, the cit would be a walking bullseye for some musclebound, DC-40 firing Erad looking to dust someone just for the fun of it.

But mostly the corridors were simply traffic lanes, busy avenues connecting the zones; thoroughfares for the heavy trading of vegetables, meat, technology, especially romspeed drive chips and vehicles from Toku, guns, drugs, fuel -- all the things that kept any society going. On any given day, tons of products and consumables passed between its walls.

There were romspeeds, electronic gear, and weapons from Toku in the north, to be sold and distributed all the way out to Long Wound. From Bimhills: money, guns, and pleasures -- carnal and otherwise. Out of Ebon, where the wall was frequently and dangerously breeched, came lab produced drugs, personal protectors, and women for all pocketbooks and proclivities. Meshica, where the concrete of the wall gave way to a ten foot high chain link fence, produced the meat and vegetables, the refined fuel for vehicles, and when needed, a large and ready pool of inexpensive labor.

Beyond Meshica was Long Wound, and here the corridor was no longer a physical thing. The highway kept on alright, but there was no wall or fence around it. Yet the corridor was safer here than anywhere else. The outguards of Long Wound needed no physical barrier, they patrolled it with a vigilance that was virtually unseen yet powerfully effective. You could drive the Long Wound corridor for hours and never see one of their outguards, but the moment they were needed, two or more -- sometimes as many as a dozen -- would appear within moments to calmly, but firmly, deal with the situation.

Past Long Wound was the Outworld. There was no corridor in the Outworld. When you left Long Wound heading east into the desolation of this barren land, you were on your own. There was some trade between Long Wound and the outworlders but it was for essentials only and the ten or so miles on either side of the border between the two zones was a kind of buffer zone, a DMZ of sorts, separating the last vestiges of what went for civilization from the anarchy of the Outworld.

The Outworld was filled with berserkers, ex-vatters and zoners -- the jettisoned refuse of the other zones. Out here you fended for yourself. Only a complete nutcase or someone desperate to escape certain death at the hands of the Erads would likely pass this far. To go into any zone other than your own was always a very risky proposition: to enter the Outworld was to take your life in your hands.

"Try anything stupid," Severn warned Ari as the two of them and Kara Felt sped through Bimhills in Ari's romspeed, "and your life won't be worth a plug chit, even if you do have highcit passage on the corridor."

Severn punctuated his threat by leaning forward in the back seat and laying his pistol style DC-40 on Ari's shoulder. In the rider's seat across from Ari, Kara trained her lasermag on Ari's crotch. Ari winced involuntarily. Kara smiled and adjusted the sight farther down Ari's leg.

"Thank you," Ari said, still feeling the cold metal of Severn's DC-40 against his neck.

"You're welcome," Kara laughed maliciously.

Ari glanced over at her. Her face was still marked from the beating she had taken from the Erads that day in the simpark, but otherwise was apparently no worse for the wear. The brown and bluish bruises did not detract from her good looks in the least. In fact, Ari thought, they might have even enhanced them -- in the way that they did certain plezone bar hostesses. Whatever, she was prettier than ever, it was just too bad she was so hostile and holding that weapon so dangerously close to his package. He was thinking she might be a good one-night mate if they had met under different circumstances.

"Watch out," Kara yelled at Ari suddenly, reaching for the wheel. Ari jerked his head back to the front and easily maneuvered around a slower romspeed that had pulled out in front of them. "Keep your eyes ahead, where they belong," Kara said, smirking.

Ari wanted to try a smile on her, but she had pushed the barrel of her weapon against his ribs and that had a definitely negative impact on his desire to flirt with the pretty radcit.

"He really can drive these things as advertised," Severn commented from the back. "Very impressive reflexes."

"That was nothing," Ari said, sounding arrogant and overly confident considering his current circumstances, "I can do that blindfolded."

"If you don't watch where we're going," Kara said, "that's how you'll get to do it, you cocky shitcit."

Ari checked Kara out again quickly, making sure his gaze didn't linger too long. This girl would probably shoot him while he was driving she was so crazy, he figured. But, man, what a looker. A real looker from the old booker, the redheaded FJ's comment that day in the simpark came back to him.

"So where are we going?" Ari dared to ask.

"You piece of....," Kara began.

"Take it easy, Kara," Severn told her, "the highcit's no fool. He's going to help us and not be any trouble at all, are you, Mr. Ari Blanque?"

"Chillin' down and freezin' out," Ari said, imitating a line he'd heard an Ebon outguard use once when he'd strayed down along the Bimhills-Ebon frontier. Kara laughed and shook her head.

"You're an idiot," she said.

Ari wondered if that was meant to be a put down or not. He had seen something in the radcit girl's eyes, something about the way she looked at him.

"Maybe," he smiled at her. "But I'll be better at steering if I know the map we're following."

"Oh, brother," Kara said, shaking her head. This silly highcit was trying to impress her with what he thought was a knowledge of interzonal slang. He'd picked up a couple of phrases, but they were already out of date. What a nitwit.

"The cit is right," Severn concluded in his deep, authoritative, and slightly dramatic voice, "he will do better if he knows where we're planning to go."

"I doubt it," Kara said.

"No, I would," Ari said, hoping he sounded earnest and forthright. Kara shook her head again.

"It hardly takes a genius," she commented. "Any fool would know."

"The corridor," Ari pronounced, not looking over at Kara.

"Case closed," she said, removing her pistol from his ribs.

"Case closed?" Ari asked, making eye contact with Severn in the rear view mirror.

"Just drive, cit," Severn said, leaning back in the seat, his face gone now from Ari's mirror.

"Oh," Ari said, getting Kara's joke at his expense.

"Hell fire," she muttered, "what a ridiculous, stoned out, plezoner." Ari started to turn towards Kara and defend himself.

"Drive," Severn said, the tone of his voice carrying the clear message that he was used to giving orders without getting any squawk back in return.

"Sure," Ari said hurriedly, "sure."

He kept his eyes straight ahead then and concentrated on driving. Severn laid his head against the top of the back seat and closed his eyes. Kara fussed with the barrel of her lasermag and kept checking Ari out. The romspeed whistled through the crowded streets of Bimhills.

7.

"I don't like having to take those two, lieutenant," square-jawed Sgt. Cage said, nodding his close-cropped head at the assembled platoon of men across the room from the two veteran Erads. All but two of the group standing at ease by one back wall wore the unmistakable leathers of the Erads. "Can't we dump 'em somewhere?"

"You heard the IMC Rep, Sgt. Cage," Lt. Rankin said, not unsympathetically, "he ordered we use them."

"What a pile of shadpol crap."

"They do the payin', we do the slayin'," Lt. Rankin quoted what the Erads thought was a very pithy, witty saying. Sgt. Cage managed a rough smile.

"So which of those idiots is which?" he grumbled. Lt. Rankin checked the personnel list on the clipboard he held.

"The redheaded one is Darden, the FJ. He was the one shot in the shoulder during the rebel raid at the simpark."

"Oh, yeah," Cage grunted, "I remember. Nearly jammed up the whole thing."

"The Rep thinks because he went to the same school as the kidnapped highcit, this Ari Blanque character, that he can be of some use to us."

"I doubt it," Sgt. Cage said. "We know what the highcit looks like, what else is there to know?"

"We're stuck with him for now," Lt. Rankin said with a shrug.

"Yeah, so who's the clod in the rent-a-Somecop uniform?" Cage asked, laughing.

"Best friend of the Blanque guy," Lt. Rankin explained. "Platt Meeler. He was passed out on chalkwater and ginweed in their romspeed when the simpark thing went down."

"Naturally," Cage sniffed, shaking his head. "What a couple of useless sacks to drag along, slowing us up, fouling up the mission."

"Oh, they won't do that," Lt. Rankin promised the sergeant, "they interfere one time, that's all they get. Then they're yours." Sgt. Cage nodded appreciatively. "If they make it to the first Ebon gateway, I figure it'll be a miracle. They won't last. We won't have to worry about them long."

"Good," Sgt. Cage said coldly, "dump the baggage as soon as we can. That's the way I like it."

"So do I," Lt. Rankin concurred, "so do I. Now, sergeant, form them up for the mission briefing."

"Yes, sir," Cage said, popping a salute that Lt. Rankin lazily returned. "On the double."

Sgt. Cage called the platoon to attention smartly and then marched them into a briefing room at the back of the substation, the redheaded FJ and the heavy Somecop looking more than a little confused and nervous. When the men were seated, Lt. Rankin came in for the briefing.

Looking the men over, Lt. Rankin did a quick head count. A dozen, including the FJ and the SC and not counting himself and Cage. Fourteen all together. Hell, he thought, that's enough to bring the IMC Inner Council, the High Session, down from its lofty, shadowy perch. It was no wonder the ruling class were called shadpols; except for their front men, like Alexander, who did the dirty work out in the real world. The true shadpols, the big ones, remained permanently hidden in the dark and secretive shadows of the IMC. Nobody really knew who ran the IMC. And it was meant to be that way. How could anybody overturn, overthrow, a power structure that they couldn't see, that was impossible to find?

Shaking the thoughts of the IMC and shadpols in general out of his head, Lt. Rankin again focused on his men. Without the two who didn't belong, it was a very good group. All of the Erads were already known to him and Sgt. Cage. They were from Lt. Rankin's brother's company and included Tom, the brother, as well as Bead Rankin, Tom's son and Lt. Rankin's favorite nephew. Both the brother and the nephew were younger, thinner versions of Lt. Rankin, right down to the acne-scarred faces. Formed from the same deadly Erad mold. The rest of the troop were your garden variety Erads. Big, tough, strong -- lethal. Lt. Rankin was pleased with them, knew they resented the presence of the two intruders just as he and Sgt. Cage did.

"All right," Lt. Rankin barked out to his men, "listen up, and listen up good. This is a special mission. Different than most you've done. This is a no shooter." The Erad platoon groaned as one. "I know, I know," the lieutenant sympathized with them, "no shooting to an Erad is like no fresh meat for pervs in the vat."

The men laughed loudly. They'd all done vat watch and knew how the pervs salivated over new boy vatters. It disgusted and stimulated the Erads. Such talk made Darden and Platt squirm in their seats.

"But we have our orders," Lt. Rankin went on when the troop had settled down. "This is tracking only, chasing. Chasing after some fliers. You'll get the specific details later. We track, we may be asked to capture, but we are not to kill." The troop groaned again. Lt. Rankin held up a hand to silence them. "Enough, you understand the orders, do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Yes, sir," a couple of Erads said without enthusiasm.

"I don't believe the lieutenant heard you," Sgt. Cage snarled at them.

"Sir, yes, sir!" the platoon roared in unison. Darden and Platt joining with such energy a couple of the Erads turned to look at them.

"More like it," Sgt. Cage said, staring down the dragalongs.

They looked away from the sergeant and fell silent. They might not be Erads themselves, but they weren't idiots either. They knew it would be a constant hell for them being with these elite killers and they were just trying to feel their way through it all, to lessen the likelihood of direct confrontation with their "fellow" officers. To keep from getting themselves killed by their supposedly own people, much less the radcit rebels they were going to chase.

In the pause after Cage spoke, Darden exchanged a quick look of solidarity with Platt. They'd better stick together, it might be the only hope they would have of coming back from this mission alive. Lt. Rankin cleared his throat to speak again and the room fell stone silent. The Erad leader's voice carried across the room like a small cannon shot.

"We are authorized, however," he explained, "to eliminate any interference with our prime mission. Any interference, from anyone, anytime, anywhere."

"Yeah," a couple of the Erads cheered. "More like it." Lt. Rankin held up a hand to quiet them.

"All right, troops," he commanded, "now get your gear stowed and squared away. We have to be set to go at a moment's notice. We get the call, we go. Now jump to it."

"Yes, sir," the Erads responded together, rising from their chairs, then moving quickly out in formation. Platt and Darden were left temporarily by themselves in the briefing room looking lost and a little scared. Sgt. Cage sidled up next to them, looking his most ferocious.

"Move it, " he snarled, "get your butts out there with the other men and get ready to go. Now, bust it."

"Y..yes, sir," the two outsiders stammered, hurrying to get out of the room and away from the two Erad leaders. "We..we're going."

"Hustle it up," Cage repeated, jabbing a finger in the direction of the door. Darden and Platt raced out of the room.

"What a couple of piss ants," Lt. Rankin said, coming up beside Sgt. Cage. "Useless pieces of crap. They'll never last."

"Probably won't make the corridor," Cage sniffed.

"They'll be lucky to make it out of the briefing center if we don't go in there and keep our men under control," Lt. Rankin advised his top sergeant with a laugh.

"Let 'em stew for a couple of minutes, lieutenant," Cage said, "it'll be good for 'em. Give 'em a taste of the real world." Lt. Rankin thought about it for a minute.

"Give them five, sergeant," he said, "then go rescue them and get the troop ready."

"Yes, sir," Cage said happily, saluting Lt. Rankin. "Five and out."

Lt. Rankin returned the salute, then spun and walked away leaving Sgt. Cage standing in the middle of the room smiling vacantly.

Ebon

8.

"Take the next gateway, cit," Severn told Ari, nuzzling the barrel of his DC-40 against the back of Ari's neck, "and don't try to lose the romspeed in back of us either."

Ari glanced in the rear view at the romspeed he'd seen suddenly veer in behind him a few clicks back. He had hoped they were outguards come to rescue him but Severn had burst that bubble for him. Somewhere within Ari was the seed of an impulse to blow that other romspeed off the corridor. He knew he could do it. He could tell from looking at the vehicle in the mirror and from the maneuverings of its driver as that unseen person struggled to stay up even when Ari was basically just cruising.

These people might be rebels, radcits -- even killers, as they were -- but they were abject rookies when it came to matching up romspeed knowledge and skill with Ari. And they wouldn't know about the outguard scramblers and, for sure, knew nothing about the descrambler E.P. had put on Ari's machine. That could be Ari's ace in the hole. He would use it if he had the chance. One let up on their part, he thought, and he could lose their rebel tail and draw out an outguard rescue party in a flash. Just one break, he thought, stopped, again became acutely aware of the external world. Severn had cocked his DC-40 right by Ari's ear.

"Slow up, cit," Severn commanded, the cold steel of his weapon against the side of Ari's face, "g up."

"They're still behind us," Kara said, turning to check on the trailing rebel vehicle.

"Nice and easy through the checkpoint," Severn said near the back of Ari's head. The muscles alongside Ari's neck involuntarily tightened.

"Relax," Kara laughed at his discomfort. "Play this right and everything will be fine."

"S..sure," Ari managed to say, the flash of cockiness he had felt behind the wheel dissipating in the harsh glare of reality.

For the first time, he realized -- in a way maybe that going without ginweed or chalkwater long enough to let your brain clear up a bit -- in that way he realized he was a kidnapping victim, a pawn in some rebel/IMC game he had no way of fathoming, a hostage in a potentially deadly corridor run.

Because, his clearing mind understood, there could be no mistake about it, what they were doing now, he and the rebels, what they were making him do was exactly what the killer Erads waited for, lived for. Radcits or outcits on the run. They ate that up. It was a chance to purge the zone of lowlifes, to dust a few crazers. Realizing that scared Ari and he almost came into the gateway too fast. Severn responded by whacking the DC-40 against the side of Ari's face, cutting his ear.

"Ow," Ari cried out, grabbing his ear and grimacing at the sight of fresh blood on his fingers. "How can I drive if you're goin' to bash me?"

"Sorry," Severn said, sounding oddly as if he meant it. Ari shook his head. Kara dug around in her bags and came out with a handkerchief.

"Here," she said quietly, her voice calming Ari some, "let me clean that up." She dabbed the cloth against Ari's ear.

"Ouch," he complained.

"Don't be a baby," Kara chastised him.

Ari glanced over at her and was surprised to see her smiling at him. It was a confusing smile for Ari, simultaneously attracting and repelling him. On the one hand she was a beautiful woman -- brave, strong, and seemingly, not always a rigid radcit hardass. But on the other hand, she was still a rebel, his kidnapper, his possible executioner.

It occurred to Ari -- perhaps for the first time in his life -- that despite his highcit status he was to a large extent nothing but a walking target for the potentially lethal forces that swirled around and behind the zones. Forces that sometimes, like they had with the Erads at the simpark and then as they had with the rebels in the Shade House and now in Ari's own romspeed, materialized into a real, palpable threat -- one that could in an instant become the instrument of your death.

There were crazed Somecops like Platt, FJs like the redheaded kid, loose cannon outguards like the ones who tried to vat him, vicious killers like the Erads, and now berserker rebels poking guns into the side of his face and forcing him to fly the corridor like a deposed shadpol trying to escape from the long arms of the IMC -- arms that included every one of these lasermag, DC-40 toting packs of loonies from the Platt Meelers of the world all the way to this pretty young killer in the seat beside him.

When he thought of it that way, Ari didn't see a whit of difference between them. He only knew he wanted to stay alive. He wasn't so sure how he would do that given his current precarious situation, but he told himself he would do whatever he had to. Outguard, FJ, Somecop, Erad or rebel, as long as he was driving his own romspeed he had a chance and he would play whatever hand was getting ready to be dealt to him with all the cunning he could muster. There were too many plezones to hit yet, too many mates to. . . .

"Hey, hey," Severn snapped Ari out of his new found emphasis on self-preservation with a bop on the cut ear, "snap to it. Here comes a gatekeeper. Play it cool."

"Yeah," Ari grunted, rubbing the sore ear, but not finding any blood on his fingers this time. He felt Kara's weapon against his side, hidden from view under a light jacket she had lain over her arm. Ari watched the gatekeeper approach calmly. He even took time to look around the gateway itself.

He and his rebel abductors were in the highcit lane, meaning once the gatekeeper saw Ari's IDflick, the rest of the security check was perfunctory at best. One obvious reason why these radcit fliers had stolen Ari and his vehicle. Plus the fact that he had nearly unlimited fuel credits and more chits than a lowcit saw in a year. And, of course, one of the best vehicles and a record of having shown he knew how to handle it.

Over to their right, Ari saw the trailing romspeed pull into one of the commercial lanes in the gateway. So that was their ploy. Just big boys running produce or dope or guns between zones. Probably fitted out with fake IDs for that scene -- lowcits working for the man. Security was tighter, but speeded up to get the goods through. Fuel was scarcer and weaker, further reducing their ability to match Ari and they were not authorized to buy guns or drugs at gateway rad shops or fill bars. Another advantage for Ari and, simultaneously, another reason for the rebels to use him and keep him alive.

Across the lanes to his right, on the outside of the gateway, Ari saw several outguards hanging together beside their vehicles. They held their helmets in their hands and struck postures of cockiness and bravado, hips stuck out to one side, free hands poised on shell-belted lasermags. Ari wasn't sure, but thought he might have recognized at least the Toku outguard who had caught and tried to vat him before. When Ari checked again, thinking he might signal to the outguard, he was no longer there.

Turning his attention back to the left, Ari saw a building that housed a gateway combination rad shop and fill bar. With proper ID, a highcit or other privileged citizen could buy a limited amount of food, drugs, and weapons from a limited supply of such items in these places. Ari assumed that once past gateway security, the rebels holding him would demand he buy weapons and ammunition for them.

It was a reasonable assumption, but for Ari a surprising one, given the short history he had of thinking in this manner. For a moment he longed for a simpark and the forgetfulness of a huge glass of chalkwater and about a dozen ginweed smokes. This longing was shortlived. The gatekeeper was rapping on Ari's window. Maybe he'd been rapping a long time, maybe Severn and Kara had been cursing Ari, demanding that he respond to the gatekeeper. Maybe he heard Kara cock the weapon she again held against his ribs.

"Let the window down, cit," the muffled gatekeeper's voice insisted between raps.

Ari thought the man's voice sounded as if it were coming to him from deep underwater. He turned his head slowly to look at the gatekeeper. The man's face was red. Ari lowered the window.

"ID," the gatekeeper ordered, motioning toward himself with an index finger.

Ari flipped down the visor above the steering wheel and pulled out his IDflick card. The gatekeeper took it, slowly checked it front and back. Then he turned back to one of several ID readers stationed alongside the edge of the gateway lane and ran the IDflick through it.

This will zap them, Ari thought, assuming his abduction would already be on record and that, incompetent and surly as they were, a pack of outguards would shortly surround the romspeed and get him out of this absurd radcit kidnapping. He hated outguards on principle but he knew he could always figure a way out of trouble with them. With these radcit crazers, he didn't have a clue. They might be like the supposed flesh eaters in the Outworld -- completely berserk and eager to kill at any second. At least outguards were still corralled to some degree by the law and the murky shadpols.

"Checks out fine, sir," the gatekeeper ruined Ari's dream of immediate rescue, "you're clean highcit. Power, palatables, plezone props right up ahead on the left. Thank you for using our gateway, highcit, pleasure doing business. Have a safe journey. Come see us again."

"Sure," Ari grumbled, feeling Kara pull the weapon away from his side. Ari pressed a button by the door and the window closed quickly and silently.

"Very good, cit," Kara told him, "that gatekeeper was properly impressed with your status. Was downright polite, for a stupid two-bit, semi-Full John."

"Yes," Severn agreed from the back, "very good. You did well, Mr. Romspeed Jockey. Taking you along is going to turn out to be a very good thing. Good idea, Kara."

Ari turned his head to look at the rebel girl. She met his gaze and held it. A snake, Ari thought, fighting his physical attraction for Kara. Deadly. A killer. They're using me to escape the zone and meet up with their berserker rebel friends. Why didn't that ID scan pick me up as missing? Crap. Use my ID. Use my highcit freedom. My chits. My credit. For guns? Dope? Fuel? For what else?

Severn nudged Ari in the shoulder from behind and signaled with his hand towards the rad shop/fill bar. Ari pulled up when the traffic moved ahead. He brought the romspeed up next to the fuel stop, adroitly maneuvering the vehicle -- the skill with which he did so lost on his rebel captors -- equidistant between the juice recharger and the fuel pump. Now what, he thought?

"Now what?" he said.

"Stay with jockey boy, Kara," Severn said, "and make sure he doesn't mess up the refueling. I'm going to go inside and get some gear."

"Take the IDflick," Kara reminded Severn, poking Ari with her weapon. Ari reached up to the visor for the IDflick and handed it back to Severn.

"Thanks, cit," he laughed, opening his door, "you're very kind." Ari sighed, still hearing Severn's sarcastic laughter after the rebel had slammed the romspeed door and headed off for the gateway rad shop.

"Don't take it so personally, cit," Kara told Ari after they had sat in silence for several moments. "We kind of like you. You're a great romspeed driver. We've watched you."

"I can see how much you care," Ari sniffed.

"Oh, poor cit," Kara said dramatically, "did we interrupt your plezoning and break into your little high? We're so sorry. There are only thousands of cits suffering all over the zones so that you can happily destroy your body and your brain -- whatever of each there still is."

"Why me?" Ari asked, turning to look Kara in the face. She smiled disarmingly at him.

"Why not? It had to be someone. Why not you? I told you not to take it personally."

"Not take it personally? Not take it. . . ."

"Listen. Just relax. Severn'll be back soon and we'll be on our way."

"Where are we going?"

"Huh uh," Kara said, wagging a finger at Ari. "We'll tell you when you need to know."

"Well, if it's on down the corridor," Ari summoned up the courage to say, "you better tell that other bunch to stick close if they can or I'll dust 'em."

"My, my," Kara said, giving Ari a lengthy onceover. Maybe this highcit had some hidden talents, she thought, maybe he hadn't completely wasted himself on the innumerable fleshly pleasures in the haunts of Redsinthe he so often frequented. And degenerated or not, he was still young -- and pretty handsome, too.

"Who are those people in the other vehicle anyway?" Ari asked. "Where did they come from? How many of you people are there?"

"So many questions," Kara answered with a flirtatious smile, "so little of your business." Ari looked away from the pretty rebel girl, again confused by her reaction to him and by his to her. "You'll know who they are in good time," she said, this time without sarcasm or irony.

Ari was silent. Kara looked around the interior of the vehicle. Her eyes came to rest on the descrambler. She'd not seen anything like that in a romspeed before. She figured it was some speed enhancer given Ari's reputation and she said as much to him.

"Uh, it's nothing," Ari lied, "just a Toku design that never made it."

"Oh," Kara said, nodding as if she understood.

There was another long, awkward silence with Ari and Kara trying to act like they weren't sizing each other up. Kara finally spoke again.

"You don't really remember me, do you? From the booker, I mean."

Ari looked at her, tried to imagine how he could not have noticed a girl so pretty.

"I'm not sure."

"It's okay, you don't have to pretend. If you don't remember me, you don't remember me."

"I zoned a lot then."

"Like you don't zone now?"

"Were you younger than me?"

"I was one level back."

"Well, that's it. I never saw you."

"I saw you every day. You always smiled at me."

"I did?"

"Yes, you . . .," Kara began, but was interrupted suddenly by Severn's return.

The rebel leader opened the door behind Ari and hopped back in the vehicle. He was carrying several bags of supplies -- food, drinks, some boxes of ammo Ari saw flash in one of the bags Severn jostled as he climbed in. Severn saw Ari looking back and the rebel smiled broadly.

"Nice IDflick, cit," he said, taking the card out of his shirt pocket for a moment and pointing it at Ari. Ari moved as if to reach back for the ID card but Severn casually repocketed it.

"Yes," Ari said, turning back towards the front of the vehicle, "very nice." Severn gave a sly look to the back of Ari's head. Ari caught a glimpse of it in the rear view mirror.

"What were you two yappin' about?" Severn asked, putting some of the sacks on the floorboard and leaving one beside him on the back seat. "I saw your jaws moving like you were a couple of land sharks."

"Nothing," Kara said, reaching back and poking around in the sack on the back seat. She pulled out a plastic bottle of purified water. "We weren't talking about anything. This water must have cost a pretty penny, at one of these gateways."

"On the cit," Severn gave Kara a big smile. She turned away and joined Ari in looking out the front window. "And nothing might be interesting to me, Kara."

"We were talking about failed Toku designs, that's all," Kara said, worrying Ari that she would cause Severn to notice the descrambler.

Ari wanted that to stay his little secret. It might somehow turn out to be his escape from these radcits. But Severn didn't notice the descrambler, mentioning Toku and a romspeed design in one breath made him, like anyone, interested in these vehicles, immediately think of the rumor about exploding romchips in some, maybe all, Toku produced romspeeds.

"You know," Severn said, telling Ari nothing he hadn't been hearing since he was a kid but which seemed like hot news to the rebel leader, "these Toku babies supposedly are built to explode on certain mileages. You heard that?"

"I heard it," Ari said.

"Just a rumor," Kara put in.

"No," Severn disagreed, "I've heard of at least two or three of these that have gone up at a preset mileage deal."

"Sounds like a load of bull to me," Kara said.

"45,086," Ari said, turning to look at Severn.

"Right. And some at 60,845."

"45,086," Kara asked, looking from Ari to Severn with a frown, "60,845? What? What does that mean?"

"It means," Ari began to explain, "that some Toku romspeeds, maybe a lot of them, even most of them, have a mileage preset built into the motor chip."

"Yeah," Kara said, "so?"

"So," Ari looked at her confidently, glad for the moment to have anything over the rebel girl, "it means that...."

"Shut up," Severn cut in brusquely. "Clam up and drive. Get us out to the corridor. Move it."

Kara quickly faced forward in the vehicle, her rebel training and instincts instantly putting her back into alert mode. She held her lasermag by her side and checked the gateway area for signs of trouble.

"We've been here too long," Severn said by way of explanation for his sudden shift from conversational to cautionary mode. "Head us back out to the corridor."

"Good idea," Kara said, glancing at Ari who put the romspeed in gear and pulled out into the traffic heading back to the corridor. He noticed the tailing rebel vehicle across the way also pull out and head for the corridor reentry lanes. As Ari guided the romspeed towards the south exit marked Ebon, the other rebel vehicle cut over and pulled in behind him.

I could blow them away right here, he thought, sizing up a gap in the traffic at the Ebon entrance to the corridor, and leave them behind one of these produce trucks smelling rotten vegetables. One quick jog to the right, a left, and.... But just as Ari's fantasy reached its peak, the trailing rebel vehicle of a sudden broke off, sped towards the left and the entrance to the corridor leading back to Bimhills.

"What the...," Ari blurted out before catching himself. He saw Severn's smiling face in the rear view mirror.

"Another little surprise for you, ey, cit?" Severn smirked.

Ari looked briefly at Kara, who kept up her vigil of the world external to their vehicle.

"They were just our escort out here to the gateway," Severn explained, making eye contact with Ari in the rear view mirror. "It won't hurt for you to know that. They were just along in case something went south at the gateway. Just a little back up. You understand the need for back up, don't you, cit?"

"I guess," Ari said, not understanding.

He had to slow the romspeed just as they were about to get back on the corridor when two big trucks cut in front of him. He was looking for a way to get past the trucks when the back door opposite Severn opened and a tall, bearded black man in a camouflage fatigue outfit climbed into the car, plopped down in the backseat and pulled the door shut.

"Bobby S?" Kara asked, whirling to face the newcomer. Ari tried to divide his time between looking at the road ahead and at the uniformed man taking up space in the rear view mirror.

"Yes," Severn responded to Kara's question. "This is Bobby S."

"That's me," the black man said, with a big, insincere smile. "Bobby S. at your service."

9.

Most Erads were culled from the ranks of burly, lowcit working men, but Lt. Rankin was different. He'd been born a highcit and lived a life of thoughtless indulgence and decadence much like Ari, until he'd been caught nicsmoking and fornicating with the mate of an unforgiving member of the IMC High Inner Council. Highcit or nocit, Lt. Rankin was vatted on the spot. But he was stronger than the average highcit and the maximum vat they sent him to didn't scare or break him, it just made him tougher.

After a few years on ice, a sympathetic vatguard helped recruit him for the Erads -- those most elite of all Bimhill's many types of police. And he was well suited for it. He was tall, muscular, and powerful. And he had something a lot of the Erads didn't -- intelligence. That made him an even more dangerous Erad because he understood why he was killing outcits on the street -- and it didn't bother him.

In time, as much a matter of personal safety (Erads had been known to kill their own in order to advance in rank and privilege) as of family togetherness, Lt. Rankin recruited his nephew Bead for the force and then the boy's father, Tom, the lieutenant's brother. With those two on board and with steady, loyal Sgt. Cage at his side, Lt. Rankin had one of the best known and most feared Erad units in the zone.

At face value, however, the current mission, as laid down IMC Rep Alexander, would do little to enhance the fearsome of Rankin's group. With the redheaded FJ and the bulky Somecop tagging along and the order not to kill, things were going against the basic Erad grain. Rankin would have to take care of that little problem, and soon. In the meantime, he had to interrogate the gateway guard, the one who had reported seeing the romspeed jockey who looked like the Bimhills highcit kidnapped by the rebels.

"Yes, sir," the nervous gatekeeper confirmed Ari's ID to Lt. Rankin, "that's him. His hair is longer now and more blond, but that's the highcit from the romspeed."

The gatekeeper was completely intimidated by Lt. Rankin's imperial presence. Lt. Rankin knew it. He was used to this kind of reaction from the non-Erads of the world. From crazer Outworld outguards to members of the ruling class, everybody was afraid of an Erad and those like the lieutenant and his band were the most terrifying of all. He smiled and pocketed the picture of Ari.

"Did you happen to see who else was in the vehicle with him?" Lt. Rankin asked the weak-kneed gatekeeper who felt like he was in first level getting an ass chewing from his teacher.

"There was a man and a girl -- a young woman," the gatekeeper said in a quavering voice.

"And?"

"And?"

"What did they look like, son? The man and the girl?"

"Uh, the girl was -- pretty, I think. Shorter hair, light brown maybe."

"Did she look bruised around the face?"

"I..I couldn't see that well, sir. She was on the other side of the driver."

"Alright. What about the man?"

"He was tall, medium body, short dark hair. He got out and went into the rad shop. Bought some stuff and came back. Then I got busy."

"I'm sure you did," Lt. Rankin said, the disdain he felt for the gatekeeper palpable in his voice. "How about the vehicle? Did you notice it before you got so 'busy'?"

"Yes, sir," the gatekeeper answered quickly, "it was a 4-rom, gray, a dull gray, big antenna, four door, thick dirt tires."

"Did it have an ID number?"

"I missed it, sir."

"Never mind, we can get that elsewhere. Anything else you noticed in between your many tasks here?"

"Uh, uh."

"For example, did they go back out on the corridor?"

"Yes, sir, they did."

"Which way?" The gatekeeper pointed south. Toward Ebon. "Is that all?"

"Well, sir, maybe something." Lt. Rankin motioned with his right hand for the gatekeeper to continue. "I think somebody may have jumped into that vehicle as they were getting back on the corridor."

"What?" Lt. Rankin roared. "Who? Who jumped in? Man? Woman? What?"

"A man, sir, a black man?"

"You're asking me?"

"No, no. It was. It was a black man."

"And you didn't stop them, gatekeeper? That didn't look funny to you?"

"We were really busy just then, sir, I didn't, uh...."

"Forget it," Lt. Rankin snorted.

"But, sir, I..uh...."

"Relax, cit," Lt. Rankin stopped the gatekeeper. "Calm down. This is enough."

"Oh, thank you, sir," the gatekeeper gushed his appreciation. Any contact with Erads could end very badly; the gatekeeper might be getting out of this one alive -- a major success.

"In the future," Lt. Rankin counseled the gatekeeper, "I would advise you to be more observant, more vigilant."

"Oh, yes, sir, I will, sir" the gatekeeper vowed. "I definitely will."

"See to it that you do," Lt. Rankin said, turning and walking back towards the group of Erads that had accompanied him to the gateway. The gatekeeper stood rooted to his position, watching the Erad walking away. He released a deep breath of air.

"You can count on me, sir," he called after Lt. Rankin. "Any time. If you need anything, just call on...."

Lt. Rankin held up his right arm without looking back at the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper shut up and hurriedly turned back to his gateway duties. A scrawny, balding little cit in an underpowered all electric car had pulled up and was trying to show his IDflick.

"Move on, move on," the gatekeeper barked at the little cit. "Get this piece of crap out of the way. Move it along."

He looked up to see if the Erad commander had seen the tough way he handled the scrawny cit, but the Erads were gone. They had already left the area.

10.

Severn didn't trust Bobby S. even as far as he could throw him, as he recalled how an old saying went. Bobby S. was a well-known black mercenary, a Bmerc in the current lingo, and he had a well earned reputation for lethal efficiency and for working exclusively for the highest bidder. Severn had promised Bobby enough chits to buy a new romspeed if he would help lead them through Ebon's dangerous streets, but he knew perfectly well the Bmerc would sell the whole pack of them out to Erads, the IMC, or anybody else, if a higher offer were presented.

The key was to stay high bidder until Bobby's services were no longer needed. After that, everyone went their separate ways -- with no guarantee that five minutes after he stopped guiding them through Ebon, Bobby S. might not be hunting them in the Meshican zone. Bobby S. was a true mercenary, the only side he took was the money side. Period.

Kara might be uncomfortable with that, and God knew what the useless highcit romspeed jockey might be thinking -- he was sure checking Bobby S. out a lot in the rear view mirror -- but as for Severn he liked the mercenary arrangement. It was all for currency, a simple exchange. No long term tie-ups, no ideology to run aground on, a cleaner kind of wreckage left behind.

"So, Bobby," Severn said, handing a bottle of plain alcohol, clear gin that he had picked up back at the gateway rad shop, over to the Bmerc, "how's Queen Mary these days? You still her main jammer?"

Bobby S. took a huge drink out of the bottle of gin and winked at Kara in the front seat. She glanced over at Ari who was watching Bobby with awe in the mirror. Kara shook her head. Men, she thought, same old baloney year after year. Nothing changes.

"Naw, man," Bobby S. answered Severn, after wiping some stray gin off his mouth with a dirty uniform sleeve.

Ari wondered why that uniform wasn't a dead giveaway to the Erads and other types of law running around -- bands of Fulljohns, stray Somecops. Then he remembered the Bmercs had special status in the zones. It was more like a badge than a bullseye. It was an emblem of the profession.

"I ain't with her no more," Bobby S. went on after another big gulp of gin, "I work for Mother T now."

"Mother Theresa?" Kara asked.

"That's right, young princess," Bobby S. addressed Kara, mocking the formal tone men like himself used, men who had done time as breeders for the matriarchal warlords like Queen Mary and Mother Theresa who ruled Ebon after the vast depopulation of the zone's males during the penal cleansings of the 30s, when they addressed young women of breeding age.

"Mother Theresa. The biggest, meanest, most lovin' Mama in the Ebon zone. And it's a good thing for you cits that I do work for her. You'd be ate up if you tried to come through here on your own. Yes, sirs and young princess, chewed up and spit out. Like bad lettuce from Meshica."

"I suspect," Severn commented, "that you would be in just about the same state if Queen Mary got a hold of you again."

"You're right there," Bobby S. admitted. "The Queen do not like to lose a man, any man. Especially she don't want to lose Bobby S. Bobby S., the Bmerc. Hardest ass on the corridor."

While Bobby S. boasted, Severn gave him a thorough once over. Bmerc, breeder, renowned guide and killer. Had done time in the vats in both Bimhills and Meshica. With facial and other scars to prove it. Bozas they called the vats in Meshica, for reasons none of the occupants of Ari's romspeed understood. Bobby S. had been in them all.

He was tall, wiry, muscles as hard as rocks, taut like knots. His thin face, punctuated by misleadingly sleepy-looking brown eyes, was covered in a scraggly, matted beard turning gray around the sides of the chin and on the temples. Originally he had had a thin nose, but now it was wider and flatter from being broken in the many scuffles mercs, of whatever ethnicity, got into. When he smiled, he showed a row of large white teeth made memorable by an occasional gap where one had been extracted, another knocked out. He had big hands and a slow way about him that was completely deceiving.

"Who are these other cits?" he asked when he had finished talking himself up. "They with you, Sev?"

"This is Kara Felt," Severn introduced the young rebel girl, "one of our very best operatives. She just had an unfortunate run in with a bad pack of Erads. Luckily, we managed to get her out but lost a young boy that was with Kara and took a couple of casualties in the process."

"Erad trouble is the worst trouble," Bobby S. said sympathetically, reaching forward to snap the first two fingers of his right hand with Kara's in one of Ebon's lesser known greetings.

Ari was suitably impressed that Kara knew how to return the greeting. She had clearly experienced many things Ari knew nothing of.

"You lucky to get away with your body parts still together, young princess," Bobby S. added, shaking his head. "Ooee, Erads is nasty jammers. They put a hole in you and then step in it and laugh. Bobby S. stays clear of the Erads. He ain't no fool."

"That's what we heard," Kara said, smiling at Bobby S.

He liked the way this girl looked and acted. Short, nicely cut brown hair, sweet smile, and pretty light green eyes. Strong jawline, high cheekbones like a Long Wounder and a firm, full mouth perfect for kissing. Bobby S. liked what he saw. Kara turned back to the front under the Bmerc's steady gaze.

"So who's the jockey up there? Who is this speedy little gamecit?" Bobby S. asked, turning his attention away from the back of Kara's head and her thin lovely neck.

"That's Ari, Ari Blanque," Severn explained, "he, uh, volunteered to accompany us on this run. Be our driver. He's a top notch romspeed jock, a talent discovered by and not lost on our rebel leadership. He's also highcit and very generous."

"Oh," Bobby S. said with a big smile, "generous is he? Maybe he'd want to make old Bobby a gift of this here machine when you all come back through Ebon, huh?"

"N. . . not even, cit," Ari managed to squeak out to the reflection of Bobby S. in the rear view mirror. "This is my whole world. I live for this machine."

"Or die for it," Bobby S. said threateningly, squinting at Ari in the mirror. Ari gulped. Bobby S. broke into a big laugh. "Don't worry, young cit, I'm just fun...."

"Hey," Kara suddenly yelled, at the same time hitting Ari in the arm to get his attention back onto the corridor and out of the rear view mirror, "watch out! Look ahead up there, it's an outguard team and they look like they're going to cross over onto our side of the corridor. Speed this piece of crap up."

Ari jammed the gas pedal down, but the outguard vehicle had already crossed over the corridor median and was turning against traffic to face them.

"Shit," Bobby S. cursed, pulling a vicious looking short barreled, L-12 pump shotgun from somewhere beneath his clothing.

He hammered a round into the chamber and rested the weapon between the two front seats. Hearing the metallic action of the L-12 cocking almost caused Ari to lose control of his bowels but the challenge of the approaching outguard team kept him too occupied to completely lose his cool.

Vehicles behind and to the side of Ari automatically dropped back at the sight of the outguard machine now idling ahead on the corridor and aimed against the normal flow of traffic. Ari slowed some but he was so used to dueling with outguards that his instinctive reaction was to consider a course of evasive action. He had played this high speed game so many times that its nuances and skills were virtually second nature to him. He throttled back and let his romspeed roll to a rumbling stop.

"What you doin', jockey boy," Bobby S. hissed in Ari's ear, "you tryin' to get us dusted by the silver?"

"Chill out, Bmerc brother," Ari said, thinking he was cool.

Despite the danger they faced, Kara looked away from Ari in embarrassment. Bobby S. frowned and shook his head. Severn put his weapon alongside Ari's temple.

"Now's the time to show us how well you can jockey these things, cit," the rebel said threateningly, near the back of Ari's head, "or maybe you want this to end right here. Is that what you want, plezone boy? No more ginweed, no more jammin' shade house girls?"

Ari briefly considered both possibilities -- neither seemed particularly good. He also considered playing a trick on his captors: letting the outguards catch them. He might somehow get away if he did that, maybe. Just as he was imagining the outguards saving him, one of them leaned out the window of their vehicle and fired a tracer flare warning shot. It exploded just to the left of Ari's side of the romspeed, kicking up orange-yellow sparks off the concrete and hurling bits of concrete against the side of the vehicle. Without thinking, Ari shoved his vehicle in gear and made a straight run for the outguard vehicle.

"What the hell are you doing?" Severn cried out.

Kara pointed her lasermag at Ari's ribs again. Ari felt like a target at one of those citfairs that used to come around Bimhills when he was a tad. The kind you paid three chits for three shots from a CO2 gun at some scarred up outcit who was locked onto a revolving metal wheel with nothing but metal glasses, a leather mask and a hard leather cup over his privates to protect him from the wild marksmanship of Bimhills' elite and spoiled offspring.

Ari shuddered at the memory and increased his speed. The outguards began to react now, the one on the rider's side fired two more warning shots then pulled himself all the way back in the vehicle as Ari approached them at apparent ramming speed.

"What are you doing, you crazy shitcit," Bobby S. howled. "You gonna kill us all."

"I know what I'm doing," Ari yelled back, completely focused on the outguard vehicle.

Sweat popped out on Severn's forehead and he pulled his weapon back away from Ari's head. Kara divided her time between quick checks of the oncoming vehicle and the maniacal profile Ari presented to her as he drove them on at a mad clip towards the outguards.

"What is that?" Kara yelled, seeing a large antenna suddenly appear on the roof of the outguard vehicle.

"Oh, hell," Bobby S. exclaimed.

Severn just looked confused. He'd been with the rebels too long to be up on the latest corridor technology. Like Kara, he wasn't sure what was happening. Ari smiled to himself, again considered letting the outguards take him. The scrambler they were activating would be the perfect excuse, a legitimate reason to give up. It would kill the engine. Maybe the rebels would lose their cool and Ari could bolt out and leave his fate up to the outguards. That was hardly a cheery thought. They were a lot better than Erads, but you would hardly want one as your best friend.

"No funny stuff," Kara said, eliminating the escape fantasy. Ari wondered if she knew about the scrambler. No way, it was too new.

Continuing on full tilt, Ari reached his right hand towards the descrambler switch on his dash. He would try to hit it just as the flash of the outguard scrambler was released. Then with his engine still running he would win the game of chicken with the outguards, like he always did, and blow by them before they could react.

Out here by Ebon, and the further on you went it was said, the gateways and the outguards got more and more scarce until they ended all together at the outworld. Ari had seldom been this far from Bimhills before but he could see that the structured control of his home zone rapidly vanished as you fled from it.

"That thing is turning towards us," Kara cried, seeing the outguard scrambler antenna hone in on their romspeed. "It's going to fire."

The orange flash came so quickly it nearly scrambled Ari's engine chip even though he flipped the switch on his descrambler with remarkable speed. The romspeed jerked momentarily, lurched forward, then kicked back in again. In the general panic after the outguard firing, only Bobby S. had seen Ari flip the descrambler; now the Bmerc watched with admiration from the back seat as Ari hit the romspeed overdrive -- a fossil fuel afterburner -- and the rebel band shot past the outguards, leaving them stunned and immobile in the center of the corridor.

Ari looked back in the rear view mirror, saw the other vehicles on the corridor move up and past the outguards as well -- were they acting in support of the escaping romspeed? He laughed to think so. Whether in support or not, the other vehicles provided Ari with an even greater edge and he had soon left all signs of the confrontation far in the distance.

Back in Bimhills, Ari thought, or by Toku, other outguards would be in pursuit almost immediately, but out here on the corridor there were so few outguards and they were so far apart that there was little chance of another intercept group. At least not immediately. It was both the blessing and the curse of the outlying regions of the corridor: there was less and less law, but conversely less and less restriction. You had to be prepared for whatever might come up out here. That's why Severn had contracted with Bobby S. He was the man for this kind of run. And right now he was a pretty excited man.

"Whooee," he exclaimed, slapping the back of Ari's headrest, "what a jammin' jock, man. You left those OGs back there with their cranks in their mitts. You got ever'thing on this baby. Hot engine, afterburner, descrambler!"

Ari couldn't hide his surprise that Bobby S. understood about the descrambler. He actually turned around to look at the remarkable Bmerc.

"Hey," Kara yelled, "keep your eyes on the road. You berserk, cit?"

Ari concentrated again on driving but wasn't able to hide a big smile. Until the feel of metal from Severn's DC-40 assault pistol removed any remaining humor from the situation.

"You sneaky little piece of highcit shit," Severn said through clenched teeth, his pistol poking against Ari's ear. "I ought to waste you right now and drive this jammin' thing myself. Holding out on us like that. What were you gonna do, use that thing to escape from us, huh? Was that it?"

"Chill out, Sev," Bobby S. laughed, reaching over and moving the rebel's weapon slowly away from Ari's head, "the cit was just showin' off. Havin' a good time, right jockey boy?"

Ari smiled broadly in the rear view mirror. Severn drew back his DC-40 and leaned against the seat with an annoyed frown for Bobby S. and Ari. Ari glanced over at Kara to see if she'd heard Bobby S. use the phrase she'd hassled Ari about using before. She returned Ari's glance but it was tinged with mock disgust and, Ari was sure, an underlying hint of sexuality and promise. Ari tapped the steering wheel light-heartedly and sped them on down the corridor.

11.

Lt. Rankin had pulled his brother Tom, his nephew Bead, and Sgt. Cage off to one side of the Erad outstation near the Ebon corridor to brief them on the latest communique from IMC Rep Alexander.

"Close that door will you, Bead?" he asked his favorite among brother Tom's considerable brood of children.

Bead was the oldest son, a strong, obedient boy. He followed orders to a T. He was brave and skillful, just the kind of man -- as were his father Tom and the ferocious Sgt. Cage -- to have with you, especially on a mission like the one they were on now, with the IMC pulling all the strings and making their task all the more difficult and dangerous.

"Yes, uncle, I mean, yes, lieutenant, sir," Bead said in his chopped tone military way. He pulled the door to and stood with his back against it, his father on his right, Sgt. Cage to his left.

Sgt. Cage, of course, could have been the poster boy for an Erad recruitment campaign. Gigantic, loyal, vicious, not too bright. He had all the qualities Erad commanders were looking for in their field troops. Cage had a spotless record in the field. Dozens of missions, dozens of kills. And none of it ever seemed to bother the brutish non-com. But it had not always been that way for Cage.

When Cage was a child, living with his family in their dilapidated dwelling on Bimhills' far east working class subzone, he had been different. He had had less brutish feelings, more sympathy for the world around him. But his old man, a machinist at some foul, forsaken plant hidden in the underbelly of Bimhills that helped keep it running properly for the benefit and satisfaction of its highcits in particular, had begun early to beat those feelings and that sympathy out of the boy Cage.

Drunk every night, the old man brutalized his wife, Cage's sickly, terrorized mother, and when the boy would try to intervene the old man would howl at him like a raging beast and pound the child into submission. When Cage was about nine, he never really knew how old he actually was since his family was illiterate and kept no records, the boy -- who was already showing signs of the eventual large size he would grow into -- became enamored of the only naturally existing wild animals left in Bimhills: pigeons. The boy began capturing, caging, and raising them. All hidden from the father.

But then one day the father discovered the pathetic little coop that Cage kept his half dozen scraggly birds in and in front of the boy snapped the heads off the birds one by one with his huge, dirty machinist's hands. Cage attacked his father, screaming and crying, and the old man beat the boy unconscious. After that Cage changed, became mean, started beating up other kids, laying traps for the old man. At eleven, Cage was sent to a junior, reform vat and the young boy never saw his family again.

He grew huge in the reform vat -- and tough and mean and lethally dangerous. A vatguard, as so often happened, recruited him for the law, first as a vatguard then a Fulljohn. But Cage was too vicious for the FJs and eventually he was spotted by Erad recruiters and brought into their ranks.

Cage felt like he had found home again and the Erads were his family. He quickly worked his way up the ranks to sergeant through a series of efficiently lethal assignments. Now he had been with Lt. Rankin for a couple of years and the lieutenant was like a father to him. The one he never really had. He was completely loyal to Lt. Rankin and the lieutenant knew it and appreciated it. He treated Cage nearly as if the burly sergeant were an equal to Rankin's own brother Tom and nephew Bead.

"All right, boys," Lt. Rankin addressed his core team with a smile, "a few spoils from the IMC."

Lt. Rankin was known for generously spreading war trophies among his men, especially his base unit, which for some time now had been Tom, Bead, and Cage. He would give lesser items out to the other Erads but core team would definitely be given the better spoils. It was how the Erad system worked; it kept the men happy. And a happy Erad, as the promo put it, is the last Erad you'll see.

"For you, sergeant," he said, handing Cage a specially made .45 caliber personal protection handgun the big sergeant had spotted during one of their recent raids.

The semi-automatic weapon, a handcrafted version of the old army .45 from an earlier time, was excellently made, a real prize. Cage cradled it like a baby, swung it around, aimed it at a door, a wall, a picture of Grand IMC Rep Hart that was displayed prominently at the front of the room.

Lt. Rankin laughed at Cage's joy, at the big man's simple approach to life -- which was that anyone other than an Erad was barely worth the cost of the bullet that would terminate their non-Erad life force. Grand IMC Rep Hart was no different to Cage than the rebels they were chasing, or the feeble FJ and Somecop they had had to drag along on this mission. Lt. Rankin patted Cage on the shoulder and reached back into a bag he held to find prizes for Tom and Bead.

"Thank you, lieutenant," Cage finally said, so wrapped up in his new toy he had nearly forgotten his Erad bearing.

"My pleasure, sergeant," Lt. Rankin told him with a smile.

Cage happily went back to aiming his .45 at imaginary enemies threatening the very existence of the noble Erad brotherhood.

Lt. Rankin gave his brother a slender, eight-inch serrated blade, killing knife with his name and rank engraved on the handle. It was of the finest hard metal available and had an edge pre-sharpened so fine it could cut hairs, sheets of paper on edge or the thick muscles and tendons of out of control citizens. It was an extraordinarily lethal hand weapon and Tom appreciated its quality and utility. For the boy, the lieutenant produced a trophy -- of sorts. It was a nose-flattened bullet encased in a two-inch thick circle of glass. The inscription read: Bead Rankin, 10/25/75, Kill 1.

"The first kill," Bead smiled happily, shaking his uncle's and his father's hands. "I thought the bullet was lost. Thank you, uncle."

"We kept it hid long enough for you to give up on it," Lt. Rankin told his nephew, "figured we'd surprise you better this way."

"Oh, yes," Bead said humbly, "this is great. I can't wait to show mother."

"It will go well with your collection at home," his father suggested, "this makes the perfect center piece."

"How many is it now?" Lt. Rankin asked Bead, the pride he felt in his nephew readily apparent.

"Twelve, no, thirteen," Bead answered, "counting that outcit the other night in Redsinthe."

"A baker's dozen," Tom smiled, even more proud of his son than his brother was.

"Yes," Lt. Rankin said, slapping the shoulders of the three other men, "a good baker's dozen. Ha, ha."

"Shootin', and stickin', and bullets," Cage said with a far away look in his eyes, "what more could you want?" The Rankin men laughed heartily at the sergeant's heartfelt summation. Cage was indeed the ultimate Erad warrior.

"Okay, men," Lt. Rankin told the others when the merriment had subsided, "now here's where the mission stands up to this moment."

The three Erad comrades closed ranks on their leader. The lieutenant went on.

"We've all done several cross-zone ops before; we know the dangers. The pack, except for the two dead weights we've been ordered to carry along, is tough and prepared. We won't have a problem. But the twist as you all know is that we're not the aggressors here. This is more of a tracking mission. The rebels are on a run, and IMC Rep Alexander thinks they're headed for their base camp somewhere probably beyond Ebon."

"Tracking them through the uncivilized zones could get difficult," Tom Rankin interjected, "if we have to engage hostiles, we could lose the track."

"You're right, Tom," Lt. Rankin told his brother, "and that's where we have an edge."

"An edge?" Bead asked.

"Yes," the lieutenant explained, "we've got a mole."

"Somebody with them?" Cage wondered.

"Correct," Lt. Rankin nodded. "When possible, our agent will feed info back through phones or radio transmissions. If worse comes to worse the agent has a transmitter."

"Do we know who our man is?" Tom Rankin asked.

"We don't even know if it is a man," his older brother answered. "We just know our agent is in."

"If we lose the agent and the transmitter?" Cage questioned.

"You know the drill, sergeant," Lt. Rankin said, "Erads react to whatever situation arises. That's our job."

"Yes, sir," Cage said.

"Okay," Lt. Rankin went on, "obviously the rebels are going to have to go through Ebon and with the breeches in the wall, they may not make it out anyway."

"Queen Mary and Mother Theresa," Cage said, rubbing his chin, "and their armies."

"Exactly," Lt. Rankin said.

"Are we supposed to help them make it?" Tom Rankin asked.

"That, too," his older bother confirmed with a resigned shrug. "If we can. But not if it puts us in a position we can't get out of. We'll keep our distance, track the rebels, and try to stay out of the way of the matriarchal armies."

"What if they do get them, I mean the mat..matri....," Bead began.

"Matriarchal armies," his father finished for him.

"Yes," Bead said smiling, "that."

"We'll keep a low profile," Lt. Rankin said, "use the surprise element. If the rebels need help to escape and it won't endanger any of us -- except for the dead wood we're carrying for the IMC -- then we'll provide limited help. But we need to remain undetected. This is a covert action."

The men laughed at Lt. Rankin's reference to the tag along FJ and Somecop, but understood the serious and potentially lethal ramifications of the current officially unrecognized assignment. They were in outzones on their own. They had only themselves to depend on. They understood that. That was the point of being an Erad. At least the inner core of the pack, the Rankins and Sgt. Cage, had complete confidence and trust in one another. They had all done it before. It was a tough assignment, but it was what they lived for. When Lt. Rankin called them to attention before returning to the rest of the pack, his brother, nephew, and loyal Sgt. Cage snapped to with pride and alacrity.

"All right, men," Lt. Rankin said as he dismissed them, "let's go get it done."

"Yes, sir," the men called out with gusto, "yes, sir."

12.

Ari cruised along the deserted corridor wondering a little why none of the outguards they had passed since the earlier confrontation seemed to take an interest in them. If he'd been more aware of things or less absorbed in Bobby S.' string of colorful stories about narrow escapes and wondrous deeds through the outlying zones, Ari might even have become suspicious at the lack of official concern over the flight of a group of dangerous rebel kidnappers. In fact, Ari never consciously considered the danger he and his "companions" were in until Bobby S. shocked them all with a tossaway comment.

"What did you say?" Kara asked, glancing at Ari as she turned to look back at the Bmerc. Kara's tone caused Ari to listen more critically to what was being said.

"I was just saying," Bobby explained, "word is there's an Erad team tailing you all."

"How did you hear that?" Kara demanded. Bobby S. shrugged.

"I got my sources."

"Why would Erads follow us?" Severn asked. "They kill; they don't tail."

"That doesn't make sense," Kara said, turning her back to Severn and Bobby S.

Although she tried to appear unconcerned, Ari saw a look of fear -- perhaps dread -- momentarily cross her pretty features. She looked at him briefly, but it was not a friendly look. Ari concentrated on the road ahead.

"You seem pretty well informed for a free roaming Bmerc," Severn said to Bobby S. "You got other hot news for us? Anything we should know about?"

"I know you need to get to the other side of Ebon," Bobby S. responded. "And I know you won't get there without me."

"Possibly," Severn said, noticing a visible tightening of Kara's neck muscles as the young rebel woman stiffened in the seat in front of him, "possibly."

"No possibly about it," Bobby S. laughed, "a done deal. No Bobby S., your deal is done. Get it?"

The Bmerc laughed uproariously at his little joke. Ari smiled at Bobby S. in the rear view mirror; he got a real kick out of the tough, flamboyant Bmerc. Severn and Kara seemed rather less amused.

"So tell us more," Severn said, grimfaced. Bobby S. winked at Ari in the rear view mirror but got serious.

"I don't know where you people plan to go but I know you have to get at least to Meshica."

"At least," Severn confirmed coldly.

"And I know who your contact is. I'm going to take you to him." Kara turned back around to look at Bobby S.

"And who is our contact in Meshica," she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm, "another Bmerc like you?" Bobby S. ignored the little dig.

"Not at all, young princess," he said, "he's Meshican. A real radcit, a Cardenista in fact. He's been a guide in Meshica for years. A good man. You'll find he...."

"Whoa," Ari cried out suddenly, slowing the romspeed dramatically, "look up ahead. Look at that!"

"Oh, hell," Severn groaned, "damn. The corridor is completely down. Stop this thing, Blanque, stop!"

"Cool it," Ari shot back, way ahead of the rebels, "I got it covered."

And like the topnotch romjockey he was, Ari did have it covered. He brought the romspeed to a gentle stop directly in front of a six hundred meter gash in the corridor. The road was totally gone, now no more than a deep pockmarked scar of dirt, holes, and jagged chunks of the concrete wall that had been intended to fence trouble out, not create it. Even Ari's romspeed couldn't cross this obstacle.

"Hell," Kara said, "what crap."

"Not good," Bobby S. corroborated. Kara turned on the Bmerc.

"You know so much, how come you didn't know the corridor was down here? Or did you?"

"No, missy," Bobby S. defended himself, "I swear I didn't know. This must have just happened."

Severn observed the rubble before them. It had obviously been there for some time. There were weeds already growing in some of the muddy areas.

"No it didn't," he said quietly. Kara looked at him and drew her lasermag.

"Let me dust him, Severn," she pleaded, "the lyin' piece of shit." And to Bobby S.: "I ought to clean you."

"Easy now, young sister," Bobby S. said, no humor left in his voice or face, "we have to stick together. Now for sure." He pointed off to the left of their position. "This here over here is the Panmus' sector. Stickin' with Bobby S. is your only chance now. Understand?"

"Panmus?" Ari asked, looking back at Bobby S. "What are Panmus?"

"Panmus have the only male sector in Ebon," Bobby S. explained. "They are their own men. Independent. Dedicated. Religious. They don't take bull from anybody. No mothers, no queens, no rebels, no Bimhills highcits. Especially no Bimhills highcits." Ari swallowed hard. "Little jockey brother, they survived the penal cleansing, as your IMC jammers called it. Genocide they call it. And they vowed no one would ever do that to them again. They are armed and they are very dangerous."

"That's a wonderful story," Kara said, shaking her head at Ari's wide-eyed reaction to Bobby S.' brief history of the Panmus, "so how do you propose we avoid these people, these men?"

"I can do it, little sister," Bobby S. smiled confidently at Kara, "just leave it up to old Bobby S. You pay the chits, I'll do the job."

"I'm touched by your loyalty," Kara said.

"Loyalty is money," Bobby S. said, "and money is loyalty."

"You're getting paid, and plenty," Severn said. "So what's our next step? This is your game."

"Hang with me," Bobby S. said. Then to Ari: "Young jock, how's the juice level on this 4 by?" Ari checked his power gauge and the afterburner meter.

"Over half on power, or a little more. But probably only enough fossil for one more afterblast, if we need it."

"We may," Bobby S. said turning back to Severn. "Food? Water?"

"Enough for a couple of days," Severn answered, "longer if we ration."

"Start rationing right now," Bobby S. said.

"Where are we going?" Kara asked. "How do we get out of here?"

Bobby S. patted Ari on the shoulder. Ari looked back at him in the mirror. Bobby S. was smiling. Ari couldn't help but like the guy. He could tell the Bmerc knew what he was doing. With him on your side you had a chance.

"Young jock," Bobby S. said, "back this baby up a bit. See that hole in the fence over away from the wall?"

"Yes," Ari said, slowly backing up the romspeed.

"Through there we go across a field and into the back streets of the Panmus subzone. After that, you follow my directions to the letter and we'll slide right by these brothers. I know a fuel and food dump in the interzone between the Panmus and the two women's zones. We get there, we got a chance to find our way back to the corridor. You ready?"

"Say the word," Ari told Bobby S. "I'm the jock for the job."

"Yes, you are," Bobby S. said, smiling at Severn and then at Kara who was looking back at him.

She and Severn exchanged concerned looks. Ari kept backing the romspeed until he was parallel to the broken fence Bobby S. had pointed out. He looked in the rear view mirror in anticipation. Bobby S. winked at him.

"Word!" the Bmerc cried.

Ari slammed the romspeed in gear, made a hard turn and shot through the hole in the fence. The romspeed bounced and rattled across the untended field beyond.

"Holy crap," Kara exclaimed.

Severn grabbed the seat and held on. Bobby S. laughed loudly and slapped his hands together happily. Ari drove through the field like a madman possessed.

13.

IMC Rep Alexander paced nervously in front of Grand IMC Rep Hart's long oak desk. Hart watched his head of Defense and Covert Operations with a scowl on his decadence-bloated face. Hart, whose frowning visage adorned the walls of all official buildings in Bimhills and in interzonal areas across the region, was the nominal leader of the powerful Inner Council of the IMC.

Chosen by his colleagues in the High Session, as much by arm-twisting coercion as by merit or general respect, Hart ruled with as iron a hand as his profligate lifestyle would allow. Rumors of Hart's proclivities -- a penchant for extremely young mates, of either sex; a mammoth appetite for the trappings of power: several new romspeeds each year; a huge opulent home protected by dozens of specially assigned Erads; and a legendary thirst for clear gin -- he was said to consume a quart a day -- these rumors had given Hart a reputation through the zones that bordered on the mythic.

Tie his overzealous use of Bimhills' Erad force against a cowering, submissive populace and you had the latest in a long line of IMC strong men -- demagogues, tin horn dictators, personal and public bullies. And yet, as many in the zones knew, for all of Hart's power and for all the power of the IMC and its Inner Council, they were just a shadow politician front for a more ominous, more hidden, more powerful shadpol force.

In Toku, this force was called the Fujinju -- a predatory, lethal, unseen organization with the true power over, under, and through the zone. In Bimhills, the equivalent organization had no name. But it was there just the same. And it was just as strong. It was the real power behind the world. Momentarily flashing on all this, Grand Rep Hart suddenly became angry, felt an overwhelming urge to exert his authority.

"Stop that idiotic pacing," he yelled at Alexander. "You're driving me crazy. Stand still, you ignoramus." Alexander froze in his tracks. "Out with it. Out with whatever incompetence you've managed to 'achieve' this time."

Alexander coated the bitter taste of swallowing his not inconsiderable pride with a grimly satisfactory image of his bloated superior being buggered, shat upon and shot repeatedly in the head by a pack of huge, faceless Erads.

"Yes, sir, Grand Representative Hart, sir," he heard himself say. Alexander's stomach rolled and burned, and his eyes and head hurt. But his face reflected none of it. It was a passionless mask. The only face for Hart -- if you expected to last long. Hart waved his hands impatiently at Alexander.

"Speak," Hart said. Alexander controlled an urge to bark like a dog.

"I, uh, we are concerned, sir," he said out loud, "about the rebel fliers."

"Concerned?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, why? Talk."

"We've lost direct contact with them, sir."

"This is unexpected? You knew they'd be crossing zones. You know Ebon is in chaos. Why the sudden concern? You've got people at their back, don't you? Hell, you assured me you had someone inside. Isn't that so, Representative Alexander?"

"That is true, sir, but...."

"But my shadpol ass, Alexander. What do you people need to do a job, a battalion of elite Erads for God's sake?"

"No, sir."

"Don't you have a tracking device on your mole, Alexander? You didn't forget that did you?"

"We do have a sensor, sir."

"Then what's the problem?"

"The problem, sir," Alexander explained, his voice icy and laden with irony, "is that Intelligence failed to notify us of a major breech in the Ebon corridor."

"Intelligence failed to notify you? That's rather odd since you're the head of Defense and Covert Operations, wouldn't you say, Representative?"

"Sir, I do not command Intelligence."

Nor respect, Hart thought, almost laughing out loud at Alexander's unintentionally humorous reply had his annoyance with his Defense Chief not been so strong. Hart loved his position of power, but his inferiors like Alexander frequently bored and irritated him. Next to him they were weak, small, puny. They disgusted him.

"That's obvious," Hart sneered at Alexander. Alexander didn't respond. "Well, man," Hart went on angrily, "what do you intend to do about it?"

"Sir, the rebels have vanished into the Panmus subzone of Ebon. We do have the sensor trail, but it is weak and erratic. I know I don't have to tell you how bad that area is."

"No," Hart said bluntly, "you don't."

"And beyond the Panmus, sir, the women warlords."

"Mother Theresa and Queen Mary."

"Exactly, sir."

"Two amazon, killer ex-lovers on the prowl for male breeders."

"Perhaps a bit overstated," Alexander dared say, seeing what looked like excitement in Hart's eyes at the thought of the two women warlords.

Queen Mary, when she was still just a soldier in Mother Theresa's army, had fallen into Hart's hands when he had been a subrep like Alexander was now. There were rumors about Hart and Queen Mary, nee Mary Jones: that they had shared quarters even when he had essentially been her warden. Nothing was ever proven. She had eventually disappeared back into Ebon, reemerging a few years later as the primary rival to her old boss and also former lover, the potent Mother Theresa.

"Perhaps," Hart said, his calm tone surprising Alexander, "but I suspect things could get pretty interesting for our little group of fliers."

"Not too interesting, we shouldn't hope, sir," Alexander said. "Our goal is to track them to the rebel base camp after all, no?"

"Yes," Hart said, focusing again on the rebel "situation." "Trail them to their main camp and destroy it. Cut off their lifeline to the outworld."

"Or to New Columbia."

"Just a rumor, Alexander, you know that."

"It may be, sir, but it's as good as fact to their followers. It's their utopia. Their hope. It's a very dangerous idea."

"Hogwash," Hart snorted.

"Whatever you say, sir. At the very least we need to keep on them through the outworld."

"If that is where they're going. Am I going to have to personally run this mission for you, Alexander?"

"No, sir."

"Has your Erad pack vanished on you, too? You do still have contact with them, don't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then what's the problem?"

"I was concerned, sir, I wanted to brief you. That's all."

"And cover your backside."

Alexander didn't react to Hart's needling. He knew if the mission failed he stood a good chance of demotion. One demotion was bad, two worse, three perhaps fatal. The shadpol drop was often very rapid, with terminal consequences. The same Erads he now commanded might one day be the instrument of his death. And very willing instruments at that. The bastards lived for the shadpol drop. Inwardly he cursed himself for having even come to see Hart. It had been a mistake. Now all he could do was buck up and cut his losses.

"Yes, sir," Alexander said, filling his voice with an instantly manufactured false confidence. He was quite good at that. It had gotten him past a lot of difficult spots.

"Good," Hart said, his short fuse snuffed out by Alexander's properly authoritative tone. Strength, whether of act, word, or tone of voice was what Hart understood, respected. "Your concern is duly noted. Now get out of here and do your job. Cut the rebel line, destroy their camp, their movement. That's your job. Simple, no?"

"Simple," Alexander echoed his boss, "yes, sir. Quite simple indeed."

"Leave me," Hart said, ending the meeting with the flick of a fat wrist.

Alexander snapped his heels together, did an about face and headed for the door. Before he was halfway across the room, Hart had pulled a bottle of clear gin from a desk drawer and unscrewed the cap. Alexander heard the sound of metal twisting against glass but he didn't dare turn around. Hart took a massive slug of the odorless, powerful liquor and spit half of it out in a stream aimed in the general direction of Alexander's retreating figure.

14.

Because of Bobby S.'s knowledge of the area and his skill as a guide, along with Ari's remarkable driving ability, the fleeing rebel band managed to navigate their way through the Panmus territory unscathed. They dodged sporadic gunfire, some of it aimed at them, avoided burning wrecks and occasional explosions, maneuvered -- thanks to Ari -- through the shelled out, urban devastation that was the Panmus subzone. When they reached the border of the matriarch-controlled primary zone of Ebon, they silently celebrated.

Much danger lay ahead, but the Panmus subzone was perhaps the darkest, most forgotten, least hopeful place in all the zones. For the small group of fliers, especially Ari, it was a great place to be away from. Pausing briefly on a deserted street just beyond the Panmus subzone, the runners took a collective deep breath -- except for Bobby S. who watched the others with something like a twinkle in his eye -- and gathered their wits about them.

"How we doin' for fuel," Bobby S. asked Ari. "Ey, jockey boy?"

"We need both kinds," Ari said, checking his gauges. "Juice and gas."

"Where in the world do we find fuel or anything else around here?" Kara asked Bobby S.

"That's why you got Bobby S. with you, young princess. I know where we can get it all."

"Excellent!" Ari said, suitably impressed. Bobby S. laughed and slapped Ari on the shoulder.

"You betchum, white driver," the Bmerc said with a big smile. Kara rolled her eyes at Ari, then looked away.

"How far to this place you know," Severn asked Bobby S.

Bobby S. noticed the hint of a funny sound in Severn's voice. A hint of fear. Severn had become nearly silent during their run through the Panmus subzone and when he spoke he sounded quieter, less confident, less like a tough rebel leader. Bobby S. had seen this happen to a lot of men, and some women. The further they got from their own zone, no matter how bad that zone might be, the more timid they became, more cautious. He assumed that that was what was happening to Severn now. He was just a little out of balance being a good ways from the structured world of Bimhills. At least that was how Bobby S. summed up the situation, given how little he really knew about Severn.

Severn, or someone purporting to be him, had gotten Bobby S. on the interzone line and proposed the guide gig for the fliers. Bobby S. had faxed his picture and stats across the zone to Bimhills along with his price. He had been surprised at the lack of haggling over that, especially by rebels -- who always had a tough time coming up with money and materiel. But this Severn hadn't paused for a second. He had hired Bobby S. on the spot. And he didn't fax his picture, or anything else, back to Bobby S.

But the Bmerc was used to that. Most of his work was clandestine. For one side or the other. Or for drug, gun, food runners. Fuel jobs were big, too. That's why he knew where everything was in just about every corner of every zone. It was a dangerous vocation -- it could turn on you at any second -- but Bobby S. liked it. Most of the time he was free of the common restraints on the cits of any zone and he was comfortable most anywhere, unlike this rebel leader Severn, who looked like he was moving towards edginess.

"Cool, brother," Bobby S. told him, "it's only a few blocks from here. Take a right up there by that intersection with the burnt Somecop vehicle on the corner," he instructed Ari. "It's just a little ways from there."

"Good," Severn said slowly, precisely, sensing the Bmerc's awareness of his, Severn's, discomfort.

"Cripes," Kara said, as Ari made the right turn, "this zone is completely burnt out."

"Neglect, little sister," Bobby S. said seriously, "decades of neglect and disuse. This was once a breathing, living place. People lived here, good people. People fighting to stay alive; fighting for their children's lives."

"What happened?" Ari asked, truly interested to know.

"Another time, young jockey," Bobby S. said with a sad smile, "another time. Left at the next corner." Ari made the corner. "That's it up ahead. Over to the right."

"I don't know," Severn said, looking worried.

"Looks deserted to me," Kara added.

"Try it, jockey boy," Bobby S. told Ari.

"We need fuel," Ari said catching Severn's eye in the corner of the rear view mirror.

"Do it quick," Severn instructed him. Ari maneuvered the romspeed off the road and onto the driveway leading up to the fuel stop. It did look deserted.

"I don't see anybody," Ari said, pulling the vehicle up to an electrical system recharger in front of the dark, main building at the stop.

A sign over the building declared this stop to be Best Charge, The Peoples' Choice. Ari wondered in what century this had been the best anything and anyone's choice at all. Last choice maybe. That would have been more apt at least.

"This smells," Kara said.

"Easy, princess," Bobby S. said.

"I don't see anybody," Ari repeated, feeling the tension inside the vehicle rising with each passing moment.

"They don't come out," Bobby S. said calmly, "until they can tell who you are and if you look like you can pay. Keep your weapons where they can see them but don't wave 'em around. We don't want a firefight just over fuel and maybe some grub."

"No," Ari agreed with Bobby S. wholeheartedly, "we don't want that." Bobby S. patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.

"Shut the engine down, my jockey man," Bobby S. told Ari. "It's a sign of good faith."

"Got ya," Ari said. He shut the romspeed motor off.

"Come on, young princess," Bobby S. said to Kara, "let's go find the fuel stop brothers."

"I've got to piss," Severn told Ari when Kara and Bobby S. had gotten out of the romspeed and walked over to the fuel stop office.

"Yeah," Ari said absentmindedly. He was watching two large, armed men appear from a side repair bay and approach Kara and Bobby S.

"Don't think about running," Severn warned Ari. "You wouldn't get two blocks in this zone. And I'll be watching you anyway."

"Uh-huh," Ari grunted.

The big men and Bobby S. appeared to be negotiating a deal. Bobby S. was very animated, arms waving back and forth. The two big men alternately laughed and scowled at the Bmerc. They didn't seem to notice Kara was even there. Ari looked over at his side mirror and watched Severn walking towards a doorless outhouse standing alone and rundown to one side of the fuel stop.

When he looked back up, Kara and Bobby S. were signaling for him to get out and refuel. One of the big brothers came over, unlocked the electric recharger and a standard fuel pump beside it. The big man took several steps backward and stood there watching Ari, keeping his weapon pointed towards the young romjockey. Ari cranked up the electric charger and happened to look over to his left to see Severn come right back out of the toilet and go around the side of the building nearest the road.

Shrugging, Ari hooked the charger to his vehicle and flipped the power switch. In a matter of seconds, the romspeed was recharged to capacity. Ari unhooked the power cables from his vehicle and prepared to refuel the afterburner system. When he looked up from his work, he noticed that both the big brothers were gone and so were Bobby S. and Kara. He could see part of Severn around the side of the outhouse where he stood in front of what looked like an old fashioned phone stall attached to the side of the building.

Ari remembered seeing a picture of one of these back in the booker. And that memory made him think of Kara who, to Ari's relief, reappeared just then with Bobby S. They had their arms full of sacks of provisions, which was also a relief to Ari since with the passage of time and the emptying of the drugs from his system he had begun to develop a considerable appetite. Funny, he thought, I don't remember being very hungry before. Smiling to himself, Ari finished the refueling and hung the fossil fuel handle back on the pump.

"Food, little brother," Bobby S. said with a big grin, as he and Kara reached the romspeed, "plenty food."

"What's so funny?" Kara asked, seeing the last vestiges of Ari's little smile still on his lips.

"Nothing," Ari said, "I'm just getting hungry is all."

"That's funny?" Kara said, shaking her head. This highcit is a peculiar one, she thought.

"Where's the man?" Bobby S. asked, opening a back door and tossing the sacks of food inside. "Where's Severn?" Ari nodded towards the outhouse.

Around the side of the outhouse, Severn was beating the receiver against the side of the stall.

"Damn you," he growled at the ancient equipment, "you stupid crap-infested...."

Suddenly he froze. About six inches from the right side of his head he could peripherally see several metal barrels pointed right at him. Turning ever so slowly, he looked at the holders of those weapons. They were four young women, all wearing gray fatigues with a red and gold crown emblazoned over their left breasts.

"Not a peep," the largest of the four, a muscular girl with two stripes on either sleeve warned Severn.

"Not a peep," Severn agreed.

Slowly, at the prodding of the young women, he turned and walked back around the outhouse towards the others waiting at the fuel stop.

"Hey," Bobby S. yelled when he saw Severn come towards them followed by the female escort.

Bobby S. and Kara quickly cocked their weapons and aimed them at the approaching party. Ari stood stock still, only moving his eyes to look at Severn and the women who halted at the sound of the loading weapons. Two of them held Severn, the other two isolated one on one with Bobby S. and Kara. Bobby S. pointed a finger at the women.

"Step aside, young princesses, we are just passing through. No need for this."

Kara fidgeted back and forth, shifting her weapon from one woman soldier to the other. Severn acted like he was going to speak, but one of the women clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Easy. Go easy," Kara yelled. "Let our man go. We're just moving through. There's no...."

"There's no reason for anyone to get wasted here," a woman's voice boomed from behind Kara. Bobby S. and Ari nearly jumped out of their skins. Kara stood rigid as a pole.

"Mother T," Bobby S. said, voice going all warm and friendly.

The big woman, Mother Theresa herself, stepped up to where Ari and Kara could also see her. She winked at Bobby S. and motioned for several of a dozen or more women accompanying her to disarm Kara and the Bmerc.

"Don't harm that boy in front," Mother Theresa said, pointing at Ari, "he's lookin' kind of cute."

Ari managed a feeble smile. Two pretty soldiers surrounded and frisked him, then stood by with their weapons aimed at his crotch.

"You lowcit bastard," Kara cried at Bobby S. after the soldiers had disarmed her. "You set us up. You led us right into a trap. You filthy...."

"Easy, little sister princess," Bobby S. said, raising his arms in the air, "be cool. These are my people. This is my mistress. Calm down and we'll be alright."

"Bobby S.," Mother Theresa said, shaking her head, "you are so full of it. But adorable still. Young white soldier," the mother then said to Kara, "please come with me and my girls. You, too, Bobby S. And don't forget cutie-pie there."

"We're at your service, my liege," Bobby S. said, bowing. Mother Theresa laughed happily.

"You soldiers over there take this handsome boy and that other man in their vehicle and follow us," she ordered her troops.

"Yes, ma'am," the soldier with two stripes said, saluting Mother Theresa. "Get in," she told Severn, pushing the rebel leader towards Ari's romspeed.

One of the pretty soldiers with Ari signaled for him to get behind the wheel. She slid in on the rider's side, her weapon trained on Ari.

"Ari Blanque," Ari said, foolishly trying to introduce himself.

"Shut up, man," the two-stripe soldier snapped at him from the back seat where she and another soldier had Severn sandwiched between them. "Just drive this piece of crap and follow Mother Theresa."

"Yes, ma'am," Ari said smartly. The girl beside him smiled.

"What a bunch of shit," Severn grumbled.

"Shut up," the two-striper told him, "or I'll bash your stupid pumpkin in."

Severn gave the girl a nasty scowl but he shut up. Ari started the romspeed and followed Mother Theresa's entourage like he was told.

15.

Mother Theresa's Headquarters, or the MHQ as her soldiers called it, was actually a huge warehouse inside a barricaded compound that once had been a junkyard. Mother Theresa and her troops salvaged the place, made it a nearly impregnable fortress against the assaults of other matriarchs like Queen Mary, the ever hostile Panmus, and the occasional Erad or Fulljohn action -- most typically a guerrilla attack by special Erad teams sent to destroy Mother T and her fuel, food, and drug empire. For over fifteen years, no one had been successful in doing so.

Besides the MHQ, the compound consisted of a large aluminum covered Quonset hut housing a highly profitable drug lab; a multilevel food storage building with several months of stockpiled foods and fresh water; an array of camouflaged fuel tanks and two electrical recharger units; and five dormitory-style barracks at the back of the compound where the women soldiers were housed. All of the buildings in the compound, except the barracks, were watched by heavily armed guards, three of whom had been assigned to escort Kara to a private audience with Mother Theresa herself.

"Don't blame this on Bobby S., soldier girl," the stocky matriarch said after she had offered Kara a glass of homemade wine which the young rebel declined. "We found you on our own. That car thing you were riding in has been the talk of the zone. That pretty boy can sure drive. Does he know how to drive anything else?" Kara ignored Mother T's knowing wink and happy laughter. "You do know what I'm talking about, don't you, honey?"

"I know," Kara said, averting her eyes from the matriarch who sat in an elevated, high-backed wooden chair that could pass for a throne of sorts.

"Oh, yes. I forgot. You girls in the other zones got all the men you need. A pretty man here, a pretty man there, it don't mean nothin' to you at all."

The guards around Kara smirked. The closest to her, the two-striper who now wore a fatigue shirt the name tag on which identified her as Trooper Gabriel, gave her an approving once over. Kara could feel the trooper's eyes on her but kept looking straight ahead at the great matriarch.

"Sugar," Mother T said, "you need to cool it a skosh. We're all women here, all soldiers. You're in no danger. You're welcome with us. And you brought us three men, including my wayward Bobby S. We're in your debt. Would you like one of our breeders for the night? We always have a few fresh and ready to go."

"No," Kara said, trying to hide her surprise, even shock, at this first hand confirmation of what she had always believed was just a rumor about Ebon. "No. I don't think so."

"Maybe jockey boy is her private stock," Trooper Gabriel suggested to the snickering delight of the other two guards.

"Is that right, soldier?" Mother T asked, frowning at the guards who immediately became serious again. "The jockey boy is your personal stash?"

"N...no, ma'am," Kara replied, coloring against her will. Mother T raised an eyebrow. "He's just a highcit zoner we got to drive for us."

"Don't be BSin' old Mother T," the matriarch said, wagging a finger at Kara. "We're not ignoramuses here. We know you snatched that boy for a corridor fly to your rebel camp."

"Geez," Kara said, shaking her head, "who doesn't know about us?"

"What do you mean, soldier girl?" Mother T wondered.

"Your precious Bobby S. told us we were being shadowed. Shadowed by Erads."

"Erads!" Mother T exclaimed. "Shadowing rebels into our zone? What the hell is that about?"

"Shall we bring in Bobby S., Mother?" Trooper Gabriel asked.

"Yes," Mother T said, nodding her head. "And the other two with him as well. A little confab. That will be good."

Trooper Gabriel nodded to her two subordinates and they hurried off to get the men.

"You been with the rebels long, young sister?" Mother T asked when the soldiers had gone.

"Long enough," Kara answered curtly.

"Listen, honey," Mother T said, leaning forward confidentially, "you can drop the surly act. You're not a prisoner here. All women are free, and soldiers, among us. We are all sisters, sisters together."

"What about the men?" Kara asked.

"Breeders for pleasure," Mother T said.

"And for children," Trooper Gabriel added.

"I didn't see any children," Kara said. "Where are the children?"

"Never you mind about that," Mother T said. "They're safe. We see to our children."

"Are the men safe, too," Kara asked. "Where do you keep them?"

"They are well taken care of, honey," Mother T said. "They have their own quarters. They live very well here."

"Can they leave if they want?" Kara questioned the matriarch.

"Each person controls their own destiny," Mother T responded. "Each makes their own choice."

"They're lucky to be breeders," Trooper Gabriel said. "They eat good. They're safe. They have all the pleasure they want."

"Except freedom," Kara said.

"Enough, enough," Mother T said, weary of the discussion. "Men are for breeding. Don't fret about it, soldier girl. There are many good things in Mother T's zone. Forget the men. We have good food, good drink, plenty of fuel. We are armed and strong. And we can always use another sister. You could stay with us, join our army. Be one of us. Would you like that?"

Kara thought about that for a few moments. She figured she'd better come up with a good answer or the heavy matriarch might suddenly change from friendly benefactor to deadly enemy. From offering the cooing sounds of a dove of peace to the sharp bite of a lethal black widow.

"I had considered...," Kara began a weak reply.

Fortunately for her, it was interrupted by the loud entry into the MHQ of the returning soldiers and the three men. The group approached Mother T's throne, five sets of shoes slapping loudly on the hard wood floor of the MHQ. The soldiers halted the men a few paces behind Kara and Trooper Gabriel. After a moment, Mother Theresa motioned for the men to come forward. The two guards brusquely pushed them past Kara and Trooper Gabriel.

Severn tripped and nearly fell, but caught himself against one of the guards and in righting himself tried to wrestle her weapon away. But the other guard and Trooper Gabriel quickly surrounded the rebel leader, weapons cocked and aimed at his head. With a snarl, Severn released the first guard and her weapon. The guards pushed him back to the front of the room in front of Mother T. She was laughing and shaking her head.

"A frisky one," Mother T said, "I think I feel love comin' on."

She laughed again and slapped her knees. Severn turned his head away, catching Kara's eye with a withering stare. She shrugged her shoulders. Severn turned back around to face the matriarch.

"You are a specimen, aren't you?" the big woman asked with a lascivious wink. Severn sneered at her. Mother T waved her hand as if to dismiss his tiring belligerence. "Bobby S.," she addressed the Bmerc, "this young soldier girl here tells me there's an Erad pack out there somewhere looking for these people."

"I heard so, my sweet Mama T," Bobby S. said, his ingratiating charm practically filling the vast room. Mother T wagged a finger at him.

"Don't you be tryin' to get on my good side, you no count bad boy. I can't never keep you here long as I intend to, you rascal. Come here, you devil, give mama some sugar."

Bobby S. dutifully did as he was told. The soldiers, used to the Bmerc's privileged position with the matriarch, made no special moves to protect their leader. Mother T squeezed Bobby S. Tight, pinching his butt and then, when she released him, leaving one hand to linger on his crotch. The Bmerc leaned over and kissed Mother T's cheek. She swatted his rear and pushed him away.

"Now tell me, boy, about these Erads. Mama don't like bullshit and she likes Erads a whole lot less. What you know, baby?"

"Only what I hear in the air."

"Uh, huh. And what would that be?"

"My rebel clients here have drawn the attention of a special Erad pack. It ain't clear why, but they're back there. Somewhere."

Kara and Severn exchanged looks again and for Kara it seemed that at that moment she understood perfectly well why Erads would have been sent after them. She wished she could somehow tell Severn, if he hadn't already guessed himself.

"Erads always come up in your face," Mother T said. "It ain't like them to hold back."

"No," Bobby S. agreed.

"Gabriel," Mother T addressed her main guard, "get some people on this by morning. I want to know where the Erads are and what they want. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," the trooper said, clicking the heels of her military boots.

"And what about you, handsome boy," Mother T said to Ari, shifting her attention completely off the Erad problem. "I know you ain't one of these vicious rebels, but who are you?" Ari managed a small smile for the matriarch. "Are you a white mercenary that got unlucky?"

"No," he said meekly.

"Ma'am," Trooper Gabriel corrected Ari.

"No, ma'am," he hurried to add.

"No?" Mother T asked. "Then what do you do, baby? Are you a weapons man? Naw, you're too pretty for that. You sure you ain't just a pleasure breeder." All the women, save Kara, laughed.

"He's a drivin' fool, Mother T," Bobby S. said. "Tremendous. Maybe the best I ever seen."

"Oh, my," Mother T said, waving a hand in pretended awe, "mercy me. A drivin' fool. Is that what you are?"

"I drive pretty well, ma'am," Ari answered, checking his answer with Trooper Gabriel. She nodded.

"Mama, I tell ya," Bobby S. began to tell the story of the recent corridor confrontation, "this young fellow took these outguards. . . ."

"Enough, enough," Mother T cut Bobby S. off, "I'm convinced. I believe. So these rebel folk snatched good lookin' to be their driver. Very impressive. And now it's all done. You at Mama's place now. This rebel man and my Bobby S. The rebel girl and her boy jockey. Boy, you're a double captive now." Mother T and her guards got another good chuckle over that. "Now enough of this. We got people on the Erad situation, it's time to have some fun. Gabriel, I want this, uh, Severn fellow and my Bobby S. cleaned up and brought to my quarters. I'm feeling a powerful lovin' comin' on."

"Yes, Mother T," Gabriel said.

"And you soldier girls can choose straws for the jockey boy -- that is, if our new sister hasn't laid claim to him already."

"No," Kara blurted out, then more calmly: "No, no, he's not mine."

Ari gave her a look mingling fear and disappointment but Kara bowed her head and didn't see it. Trooper Gabriel and the other soldiers rounded up the men to hustle them off to the breeder's quarters. Mother T stood up, clapped twice for two attendants who rushed to lead the matriarch away from her throne.

Kara stood there quietly while the room emptied. After a moment or two of indecision, she left the MHQ and headed off to her barracks. She didn't yet know what to make of the new situation, but she knew that they -- at least Severn and Bobby S., she didn't want to think about the cute highcit right now -- had to get away from this upside down, female military world. And with the men kept under lock and key, if they were to escape it was probably pretty much going to be up to her to pull it off.

Nothing presented itself immediately, as far as breaking out went, but she knew she would think of something. With luck and a certain knack of her own, she'd escaped vats, traps, and even Erads. And here the women didn't even guard her, treated her like one of their own.

That would be her edge, she thought confidently as she reached her building and went in, my ace in the hole, our way out of this male breeder prison. This kind of place might be okay for Queen Mary and Mother T and Trooper Gabriel -- and their breeder men like the slippery Bobby S. -- but it was just a barrier to her and Severn. An obstacle in the path of the rebellion.

She went into her room and sat down on the bed with a sigh. All that Severn had told her so far was that they had information, information that was vital to the success of the rebel cause. Information that had to be delivered to the highest ranking rebel leaders, whoever they might be and wherever they might be in hiding.

Kara stood and walked to a large window at the back of her room. Through the dusty panes she could see the quonset hut used to produce the drugs that brought in so many chits for Mother T's empire. Trooper Gabriel and another soldier appeared at the back of the drug lab next to one side wall of the compound. Then another soldier came out and positioned herself by the door. The women talked for a moment, then Gabriel and the soldier who came out with her walked off in the direction of the MHQ.

So that's where the breeder quarters are, Kara surmised. In back of the drug lab. Perfect. During the day, have the men work at making every kind of mind altering and mood changing chemical in the known zones, breed them at night. And where were the children? Were there none? Did Mother T sell them off? Bothersome questions. But secondary to the task at hand. Escape was Kara's focus. She would put her mind to it. She would get it done.

She turned away from the window. On a small desk across the room were writing paper and some pens. Crossing the room purposefully, Kara grabbed a folding chair, slid it up to the desk and sat down. First things first, she told herself, taking a piece of paper and finding a pen that worked. Step one, as she had learned from her rebel mentors, know your immediate surroundings -- ways in, ways out. With a renewed sense of mission she started phase one of her escape plan -- drawing a detailed map of Mother Theresa's compound.

16.

"What you think they're going to do with us?" the lanky, redheaded FullJohn, Darden, asked Platt Meeler during a rare moment when the Erads left the two dragalongs alone.

"X us out, I figure," Platt said gruffly. "What do you think?"

"Easy, man," Darden tried to placate the big Somecop, "I'm not the opcit here."

"Yeah?"

"It's these leathers, not me."

"Yeah," Platt eased up some, "they've put me in a major outzone, too. You got the right ground."

"No sweat," Darden smiled, glad the thick-fisted Somecop was just feeling testy like he was. Being with Erads was bound to shake anybody's insides loose. Even other kinds of police and security, collectively called "silver," like themselves. He told Platt as much.

"On the level," Platt agreed. "But what's there for it? We so much as move and these berserkers will clean us."

"Without doubt," Darden said, "and I still don't know why they drug us along."

"Me neither," Platt said.

"Cogit on it. What do we share between us?" Darden asked.

"I never seen you before they drug us off together," Platt said, scratching his stubbly chin.

"Same here."

"You run in Redsinthe? The plezone?" Platt asked.

"No, I got a steady bedmate" Darden explained. "I hang under her roof."

"You a weapons jock"

"Only for work."

"Hmmh."

"What about you?" Darden shifted the questions onto Platt. "Besides lasermags, chalkweed, and fastmates, what do you do? We've never worked together?"

"No."

"There's got to be common turf."

"Uh....," Platt strained his not terribly sharp mind to think. Darden stood up and checked on the Erads. Luckily, they were still out of sight.

"Check it," he suddenly said, snapping his fingers, "how about the law? You been before the bench lately? Been jacked for crisscross or nic?"

"No....," Platt began, then remembered. "Yeah, I have. Had to face the bench. Just back some."

"What for?" Darden asked. "What did you do?"

"Nothin'," Platt answered, getting a hangdog look. "I didn't do nothin'."

"Well," Darden said, knowing full well the arbitrariness of Bimhills law. "That happens."

"Yeah," Platt said, "you know how it runs."

"Mal," Darden said.

"Mal," Platt echoed. "And we had this judge, a fat little perv, man, he was claspin' on the citfriend right before us. Really lockin' on her front, catch me?"

"The citfriend was your chaser?" Darden wondered.

"No, no, an old bag before us."

"Oh."

"Damned old perv robe."

"Yeah, I hear that," Darden said, "but why were you there? You were up before, no, not for some cit you jammed up, right?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah," Platt redirected his straying mind. Darden looked around again nervously. You never knew when the Erads would come back. Even with their protective leathers, they could sometimes sneak right up on you. Platt went on. "We were up for outzone jockeying."

"Outzone jockeying, you?" Darden quizzed. "Oh, you said we. Who was we?"

"Yeah, it was we. Me and a goodcit of mine. We hung out lots."

"What's the cit's name? Maybe I heard of him."

"Ari," Platt said.

"Ari?" Darden questioned. "Ari Blanque?"

"Straight up," Platt said, surprised. "That's my man, Ari."

"We were bookermates," Darden explained to the uncomprehending Somecop. "Way back."

"But I still don't figure the hook between us," Platt said. "I mean the Erads and all."

"The rebel attack in the simpark," Darden said out loud to himself, snapping his fingers, "of course. They got us for ID."

"ID?" Platt wondered. "Of who?"

"Your goodcit," Darden told him. "Don't you get it? We're being drug along for positive ID of Ari."

"Where is he? Where are we going?"

"When did you last see him?"

Platt pondered for a moment.

"Some back."

"I don't know much and the Erads don't want us to know anything at all, but I heard your citfriend was copped by rebel fliers."

"What?"

"Copped by rebel fliers. On a run down the corridor." The idea finally began to sink in for Platt.

"He's highcit. They want us to point him out so they don't dust him?"

"Seems probable. Except they gotta have ID on him, they...."

"What?" Platt asked, Darden's pause making the big SC uncomfortable. It looked like something else had occurred to the FJ. "What?"

"Maybe we're just bait or something," Darden speculated. "We don't know what they're doing or why they want us. The whole thing is starting to stink. Whatever they brought us for -- ID, bait, or whatever -- as soon as it's done, we're done. Zapped. Xed out. We gotta bust out, cit."

"No shit," Platt said, the fear in Darden's eyes affecting him as well. "How?"

"I don't know," Darden shook his head. "But we're just like vatters here with these Erad mothers. They hate us. They'll off us as soon as we've served their purpose. Whatever that is. Or even before knowin' these bastards."

"I want to spring Ari from the radcits," Platt declared.

"Bad idea," Darden told him. "We better come up with a way to spring ourselves first."

"We get out, we're goin' for Ari straightaway," Platt said firmly, stepping towards Darden. The FJ had to look up at the big SC.

"Take it easy, cit," he said calmly, holding up a hand. "We're same cits here. I'm square with you." Platt backed off.

"You got any ideas for gettin' loose?" he asked. Darden put an index finger to his own lips. Platt listened, heard the slapping sounds of Erad leather approaching. "What do we do?" he whispered.

"Next free space we get," Darden whispered, "we come up with an exit scheme. Dig?"

"Dig," Platt concurred, stepping back from Darden.

Darden quickly moved away from Platt. Suddenly, a frowning Sgt. Cage stalked up to the young men.

"What's up here?" he snarled at the two dragalongs. Neither Darden nor Platt looked at the Erad. "Well get your foul asses in gear," Cage bellowed, "we're movin' out."

"Y..yes, sir," Darden said, grabbing his things and hurrying past Cage.

"You," Cage snapped at Platt, "double time it!"

Platt took his time, picked up his pack and then walked slowly towards Cage. The tough Erad stared at him, arms tensed as if ready to attack. Platt raised his head and the two men locked glares. Cage jabbed a thumb in the air.

"Move it," he commanded.

"I'm goin'," Platt said, still staring Cage down. "I'm goin'."

17.

"Don't they teach you anything in those bookers of yours, cit?" Bobby S. asked Ari rhetorically.

The Bmerc and the doubly captive romjockey sat opposite each other at a stained wooden table in the center of a quonset hut where the female soldiers had brought them after the audience with Mother Theresa. While Bobby S. was giving Ari a quick history of Ebon, Severn hung by a small window acting disinterested. Ari made no such pretense, the Bmerc and his stories fascinated the young highcit.

"I didn't pay much mind," he told Bobby S., "you know what I mean?"

"Well, young jockey cit, the reason we're where we are right now is that back when the zones hadn't completely separated out, the Grand IMC Shadasses decided the vats was way too full of skin cits like myself. There was too many of us and it cost too many chits to keep us all up. They held us like dogs and fed us like rats but it was still too much. They didn't want to pay the measly chits it cost to keep us breathing."

"Were you there? Were you in the vat then?" Ari asked. Severn turned towards them from the window and answered for Bobby S.

"Hardly. He isn't old enough to have been in the vats then." Ari looked disappointedly at Bobby S.

"Part true," the Bmerc corrected Severn. "Too young for an IMC Max Security vat, but already in a sturch vat."

"A sturch vat?" Ari asked. "There were sturch vats?"

"For skin cits," Bobby S. told him. "For the Ebon zone and for Meshica."

"Bull," Severn said to the window he again looked out of, "just mindsparkle memory."

"No, sir," Bobby S. insisted calmly, "dead true."

"So then the men were zapped," Ari said.

"Yes," Bobby S. went on, "nearly all in the vats were Xed out. Then the women got strong. Women like Queen Mary and Mother T. But before them, years before. Other powerful women."

"What were their names?" Ari wondered.

"Don't remember so good," Bobby S. said. "Seems like it was like now, Queen this, Mother that. Same stuff. They got the power and took to keepin' breeders. Except for the Panmus. They get one of them every now and then but overall the Panmus keep to their own small zone."

"You been with both Mother T and this Queen Mary?" Ari asked. "What's that like?"

"You're a prisoner," Severn said from his lookout post, "like right now. You like that, highcit? You like the bull this Bmerc is feeding you?" Bobby S. started to stand up. "Come on," Severn said turning towards the table again. "You and all your crap." Bobby S. considered a response momentarily, then eased back in his chair.

"You just scared Mother T gonna plezone your butt to death, rebel man," he told Severn, laughing.

Ari didn't laugh much, the thought of Mother T's bulk on his own body scaring him too much to find the idea amusing.

"Crap," Severn said, turning back to the window. He saw Trooper Gabriel and two of her soldiers walking briskly their way. He glanced over at Bobby S. and Ari, but decided not to say anything.

"One thing I know, young cit," Bobby S. continued for Ari's edification, "when Queen Mary hears about us there'll be big trouble around here." Severn sniffed loudly. Bobby S. ignored him.

"Man, I wish I could get to my romspeed," Ari said, "we could grab Kara and get out of here before they do anything to us."

"I'm looking at it right now," Severn said without turning to face Ari. "You should make a run for it."

"Don't listen to him, little brother," Bobby S. told Ari. "It's self death. On the spot. You don't want to do that for nobody. Especially not for a mate you're warm for."

"I..I'm not warm for her," Ari began a stuttering denial. "I never said that. She's just...."

"She's just what?" Trooper Gabriel said catching Ari and Bobby S. completely off guard as she and her two soldiers burst into the room.

"N..n..nothing," Ari truly stuttered this time.

Good looking or not, Trooper Gabriel was armed, dangerous and clearly used to being in charge. She walked directly up to Ari, her soldiers staying back in defensive positions by the door. Bobby S. looked over at Severn, his cold gaze communicating annoyance at the rebel leader for letting him and the jockey boy get taken by surprise. Severn gave a little shrug of his shoulders. Bobby S. made a mental note to never trust Severn again, for anything.

"Stand up," Gabriel told Ari and Bobby S. "You," she motioned to the Bmerc, "move over by that one there by the window."

"Severn," the rebel identified himself to Trooper Gabriel. She waved him off and moved up very close to Ari.

"You look tasty," she said, her chest nearly touching Ari's.

Ari breathed deeply. The clarity with which he was beginning to see the world now that he had been completely drug free for the first time since he was a kid, made him timid and self-conscious. Both were new feelings for him, at least when it came to women. Trooper Gabriel's strength and close physical proximity caused him to feel shy and uncomfortable. She pursued the advantage.

"Are you taken by the soldier Kara?" she asked brusquely, touching the collar of Ari's shirt. He looked down to avoid her probing eye contact.

"No," he said to his shoes. Gabriel put her hand under his chin and lifted his head up.

"Don't you like what you see?" she asked with a smile. "Aren't you Bimhills highcits used to all the pleasure you can take? Jammin', chalkwater, gettin' stiff with your day's hash. That's how it is in the highcit zone, ey, pretty boy?"

Ari looked to Bobby S. and Severn for guidance. Severn shook his head in disgust. Bobby S. nodded, an almost imperceptible signal to remain calm, to play it smooth.

"Yes," Ari told Gabriel.

"Yes?" she laughed. "Yes, you are used to pleasure or, yes, you like what you see?"

"Both," Ari said softly. "Both."

"That's more like it," Gabriel said, tugging Ari to her. There was an awkward moment during which she reached down between Ari's legs. He gasped. "Take those other two," Gabriel told her soldiers without looking away from Ari. "Take them to Mother T, she got a powerful love comin' on and she'll need both of 'em tonight."

The soldiers and Bobby S. snickered; Severn sneered his disapproval but no one paid him any mind.

"C'mon, rebel bad boy," Bobby S. made fun of Severn to the amusement of the women soldiers, "your momma's calling."

"Shove it," Severn said, redfaced.

"Better save that," Bobby S. laughed, "you gonna need all your strength for Mother T. She don't like weenie breeders. You be ready or she'll chew you up and spit you out."

"Quiet," Gabriel commanded forcefully, momentarily facing the soldiers and the two grousing males. "Get them out," she added, jerking a thumb towards the door, "now."

"Yes, sister soldier," the guards said, herding Severn and Bobby S. towards the front door with the barrels of their weapons. The men went without resistance.

"Over there," Gabriel ordered Ari, when they were alone in the room, "on the sofa."

"On the sofa?" Ari asked.

"On the sofa."

Ari did as he was told. Trooper Gabriel walked to the front door and locked it. She laid her weapons on the table where Ari and Bobby S. had been sitting. Then she approached Ari, unbuttoning her uniform blouse as she walked. He watched her coming towards him with a mixture of fear and excitement. When she reached the sofa and was standing over him, Gabriel removed her blouse. Ari instinctively reached for her smooth, round breasts. They were dark brown, melon-shaped and firm. He rubbed the hard nipples, stroked the full sides. Gabriel groaned. Ari ventured to kiss her stomach just below the breasts.

"Lay down," she commanded, voice throaty and sensual. "Take your pants off." Ari did as ordered, Gabriel hurrying him along. She pulled at his belt, unfastened his pants and reached within. "You're mine, boy," she said, stroking Ari.

"Yes," he whispered, shocked that while he was making love to this Ebon beauty the image of Kara kept flashing through his mind.

It was all too confusing to him. The withdrawal from his drug high zone, the kidnapping, Kara, this Ebon world. Then Trooper Gabriel mounted him from above, riding up and down, and Ari did what all good Bimhills highcits did best: he gave himself completely over to the pleasure of instant physical gratification. The future with all its entanglements and complications would just have to wait. All that existed, all that mattered, was the instant of pleasure, the sensual moment, the now.

18.

As a provisionally accepted sister soldier, Kara had access to most areas of Mother T's compound. She stayed in the regular soldiers' barracks, attended general meetings, and was allowed to roam around pretty much at her own discretion. As days, then a week, and more days passed, Kara took advantage of her freedom to familiarize herself with the compound.

She discovered where they hid Ari's romspeed, learned how to operate the fuel supply equipment, found where the food stuffs were stored. She generally acquainted herself with anything that might help in an escape attempt, including all entryways and exits to the fortified compound, one of which she learned of by accident, seeing Trooper Gabriel use it to make a clandestine, late night drug run. Kara was all set to go should the opportunity arise. As for the men, she wasn't so sure.

Bobby S. was impossible to read; Kara couldn't tell any difference in his behavior whether he was running free in the zones or held prisoner for the sexual gratification of Mother T. Ari and Severn, on the other hand, had settled too comfortably into their new breeder lifestyle. Their early qualms had apparently faded under the steady mating they performed; Ari with Trooper Gabriel, Severn with the great matriarch herself.

The men were eating well, gaining weight, and -- in Kara's opinion -- acting docile and foolish. They laughed all the time and spent their days in the breeders' quarters lounging about and playing cards. Using her status among the other women, Kara visited the men in their barracks, trying to jolt them out of their new found lethargy born of excess pleasure.

"Do you remember at all what this run is about?" she demanded of Severn early one sooty morning during their second week of captivity. Bobby S. hustled out of the area to avoid the inevitable sermon he knew was coming from the rebel girl.

"Take it easy, Kara," Ari answered for Severn, tossing a card down on the table.

"Shut your hole, you jammin' butthead," Kara exploded. "I wasn't talking to you."

Ari shut up, but chafed inside. He didn't like Kara's attitude at all here at Mother T's. She acted like she was in charge of everything. But she wasn't. He didn't think it was so bad living in the compound. It could get boring, but the food was good and Trooper Gabriel made sure she extinguished his personal fires on a daily basis. It was sure better than running down the corridor on a rebel fly. You bet it was.

"What's the deal, Kara?" Severn asked over Ari's sulking.

"I believe," Kara said, her sarcasm as thick as the foul air over Ebon, "we had a mission before you two ignoramuses became jammin' slaves here. We are captives, you know. Or don't you remember?"

"You kidnapped me," Ari reminded Kara, "in case you don't remember. I don't see why I...."

"I told you to shut the hell up, jockey boy," Kara yelled at Ari, her face reddening with anger. "If you couldn't drive that romspeed so well I'd leave you here anyway. You deserve to be a slave; you're such an igno sturch. Maybe we should just leave you. I can drive that thing. We don't need you."

"Cool it," Severn said, for once playing the peacemaker.

He stepped between Kara and Ari and tried to put his arm on Kara's shoulder but she jerked free and shoved him away. Severn held his hands up to indicate he wouldn't touch her again. Kara turned away.

"You gotta take it easy, Kara," Severn spoke to Kara's tense back. "I haven't forgotten what the run is for. I haven't forgotten the mission."

Kara let out a deep breath, her shoulders relaxed some. She turned around to face Severn.

"You could have fooled me," she said, "all I see is a couple of men acting like fools over steady mating. Is that all you want? Him," she pointed at Ari, "that thing over there I can understand. But we have a mission, Severn, people are depending on us. We can't get off the track."

"I know, I know," Severn tried to mollify her. "You're right. I'll hone in again. Maybe I've become lazy. Stopped thinking about our true mission."

"What is your 'true' mission," Ari chimed in, giving Kara a wicked little grin.

She doubled up her fists and moved towards him. Severn physically intervened.

"Easy, easy," he said, "forget him, forget...."

Severn's words were cut off in mid-sentence by a loud sound from outside. Then another.

"What the hell?" Kara said, her question lingering unanswered in the sudden quiet inside the room. The two rebels and their captive held still then, not moving, waiting to identify the sounds they heard.

"Grenades," Severn cried after another explosive sound boomed across the compound. "Somebody's blowin' off grenades."

With their rebel training and experience, Kara and Severn instinctively ducked low and ran towards the door. Before they could reach it, however, a wild-eyed Bobby S. came crashing in.

"What's going on?" Kara yelled at him.

Bobby S. brushed past her to his living area on one side of the barracks. He grabbed his pack of belongings, stuffed some things in the bag and turned to go. Kara and Severn stood in his way.

"What?" Bobby S. asked.

"You tell us," Severn said. "What's up?"

"Queen Mary," Bobby S. answered. "Queen Mary heard about us new breeders and she's coming to get us. I don't know about you rebels, but one matriarch is all old Bobby S. can take in such a short time. I'm sailin' out." Severn grabbed him by the shirt and held him.

"We had an arrangement. You're not going anywhere without us."

Bobby S. knocked Severn's grip loose with two well placed forearm shivvers. Severn stood back, he and Kara poised to jump Bobby S.

"Easy, cits," Bobby S. said, producing a small caliber lasermag pistol from his bag. He pointed it back and forth from Severn to Kara. They froze, as rooted to the floor as the terrified Ari was to his chair. "We all get out of here alive, I'll still be your man, but Bobby S. looks out for number one, all the time. You people come or stay, don't make no difference to me."

Bobby S. made for the door but before he reached it, it slammed open again and a sister soldier ran into the room. Caught in mid-stride, Bobby S. found himself staring down the barrel of the soldier's DC-40.

"Drop it," she ordered the Bmerc. "Now!" Bobby S. reluctantly let his pistol drop to the floor. "You two," the soldier motioned to Ari and Severn, "get over with him by the wall."

Ari and Severn hustled over by Bobby S., the three of them huddled together side by side, their agitation barely under control.

"Don't move a muscle," the soldier warned them. Then to Kara: "Pick up that lasermag, sister. Do it." Kara hurried towards the weapon. "Easy," the soldier told her. Kara slowly picked up the weapon. "Hand it to me." Kara reached it out butt first to the soldier.

"Take her, Kara," Severn cried out. "Get us out of here."

"Take her down, princess," Bobby S. exhorted Kara.

Ari didn't move. Severn leaned forward as if he would attack. Kara gave the weapon to the soldier.

"A real sister," the soldier said.

"Damn it," Severn cursed.

"Move out," the soldier told her prisoners, "hurry."

She moved around behind the men, but as she did small arms fire erupted again and several explosions rocked the building. In the confusion of sound and flying dust, Ari bolted forward. He threw himself at the soldier wildly, tripping as he ran, falling against her legs. Surprised, the soldier dropped the lasermag pistol. In a heartbeat, Bobby S. retrieved it and put a round squarely into the soldier's forehead. She rocked backwards, fell sideways, landed on top of Ari. Severn grabbed the dead soldier's DC-40 and headed for the door, Bobby S. by his side. Kara held back, working to pull Ari from under the soldier's body.

"Hurry up," Severn called from the door, "get his butt in gear or leave him."

"Follow me...," Bobby S. began just as another of Mother T's soldiers barged through the door.

This one had no chance. She took a lasermag round in the chest from Bobby S. and Severn nearly cut her in half with two blasts from the DC-40. The soldier fell at the door, part in, part out of the building. Her own DC-40 clattered across the floor and Kara, having freed Ari, quickly retrieved it.

"Okay," she said, dragging Ari along by the arm, "bust it."

Outside all hell was breaking loose. Queen Mary's forces had breached part of the compound wall. There were isolated fire fights breaking out all around the compound and explosions shook buildings and shattered windows. The captive band, with Kara now at its head, raced through the combat, ducking and diving to avoid being hit.

"Over there," Kara yelled above the din, "the romspeed is locked up in that building by the fuel dump."

"How do we bail if we can't even get to it?" Severn hollered back,

"Trust me," Kara told him, "trust me."

"I do," Bobby said.

"Me, too," Ari seconded.

"C'mon," Kara motioned to Ari, then told the other men, "cover us."

"You got it, young princess," Bobby S. said.

"Go," Severn said.

He and the Bmerc laid down covering fire in all directions and followed Kara and Ari towards the fuel dump. Barely slowing up, Kara blew the lock off the building housing the romspeed and she and Ari disappeared inside. Bobby S. and Severn hid as best they could on either side of the partially opened doors of the building. Moments later Bobby S. and Severn cheered when the doors of the building burst open and Kara and Ari emerged in the romspeed.

"Get in," Kara shouted through the open rider's window. Bobby S. and Severn leaped into the vehicle, slamming the doors shut behind them.

"Now what?" Severn yelled from the back seat.

"Relax," Kara told him. "Ari, see that place on the wall across the compound? It looks like a line down the wall?"

"Y..yeah."

"Aim right for it."

"Aim right for it?"

"Just go. Go."

Against his will and better judgement, Ari put the juice to the romspeed and the vehicle shot straight out across the compound towards the place Kara had indicated.

"I hope you know what you're doing, little sister," Bobby S. cried.

As the vehicle sped nearer and nearer to the compound wall, Bobby S. and Severn pinned to the back seat with dread, Kara leaned out her window and leveled the DC-40 at it.

"What the ...," Severn said.

"We gonna ram that mother?" Bobby S. asked the wind rushing by his face.

"Stop this frappin' thing," Severn screamed at Ari, who was driving like the wall ahead of them was an outguard duo he could make chicken out. "We're going to crash into the wall. What's the matter with you?"

Kara's DC-40 answered Severn's and Bobby S.' questions. She fired two rapid bursts, both of them hitting a barely visible knob beside the line in the wall she had pointed out. With a metallic grind, the wall began to move, open outward.

"Holy shit," Bobby S. exclaimed.

"We're still going to hit it," Severn shouted, as the romspeed roared towards the opening.

Ari eased off the juice slightly and steered towards the widening gap in the wall. Only a driver of his skill could have had any chance of making it through the narrow space available and under the circumstance. And Ari didn't quite make it either. With a painful screech, the rider's side of the romspeed scraped against the metal wall, putting dents all along the side of the vehicle and tearing off the back fender.

But the vehicle made it out of the compound, bouncing out into the street and swerving wildly from side to side. Ari sped up and fought to regain control. Just as he nearly did, a grenade went off across the road to his left, causing him to swerve back to the right. Jerked from its moorings, the back left door popped open and an off balance Bobby S. was thrown out onto the concrete.

"Stop," Kara yelled at Ari. "Stop, Bobby S. fell out."

"Go, go," Severn countered her. "Screw him."

Ari could do neither. He was battling to control the romspeed as it rocked back and forth and spun from side to side.

"Oh, hell," Ari said breathlessly, slowing the romspeed. "Oh, shit."

"I see Gabriel," Kara cried out, as Ari managed to right the vehicle. "And there's Bobby S., he's running away from the compound...oh, my God."

Ari braked the romspeed and checked the scene in his rear view mirror. Trooper Gabriel and a handful of her soldiers were in the street by the compound gate where the rebels had broken out. Ari saw the fleeting image of Bobby S. hustling towards a shelled out factory building across from Mother T's compound. Then he saw the explosion. It was big enough to have been a mortar from somewhere or perhaps Trooper Gabriel and her people had fired several grenades at once. Either way it appeared to hit right where Bobby S. had been running. The fliers heard the explosion as if it were right beside them and then a huge cloud of smoke and dust rose into the air where the Bmerc had been. Ari turned with Kara and Severn to better see, but there was no sign of movement after the air cleared. And there was no sign of Bobby S.

"Jam it," Ari said, "he got it."

"Forget it," Severn said coldly, grabbing Ari and pushing him around to face the road. "He's gone. Drive, sturchboy, drive."

"Damn you, Severn," Kara said, taking a last look at Trooper Gabriel and her soldiers pinned down now in a firefight with a platoon of Queen Mary's people.

"Damn you," Severn countered, "you hated his guts. You wanted to kill him yourself."

"He was our way out of here," Kara screamed back, "what the hell do we do now?"

"Shut up," Severn told her. "We run for it. We got no choice." Then seeing a contingent of Queen Mary's troops moving to block the road ahead, he yelled at Ari: "Push it, highcit jock. Hammer it or we're dead."

"I'm hammerin'. I'm hammerin'." Ari yelled back.

"Frappin' sack of crap," Kara cursed under her breath, not sure she meant Severn, or Bobby S., or Ari, or the whole jammin' world. "What a frappin' sack."

####

Lt. Rankin and the Erad pack had been watching Mother T's compound for two days when one of the scouts picked up night time movements in the near vicinity. Using a special infrared scope, the scout reported build-ups to the front and sides of the matriarchal compound.

On the morning of the raid, Rankin's battle sense told him combat was imminent and he split the men into two groups, one on either side of the compound, a block or so back from the area, to provide cover should the rebel fliers somehow find a way to escape. A part of him hoped they wouldn't, IMC mole be damned, because Erads playing a supportive role didn't set well with him or his men. And the combat he expected could be advantageous -- he could use it to waste the two igno dragalongs the ever-interfering IMC had stuck him with.

On the morning of the attack, when the Erads knew what the people in the compound didn't seem to -- that they were in immediate peril -- Lt. Rankin took his brother Tom, Sgt. Cage, and a few of the other men and took up positions in back of an area south and west of a secret exit they'd seen Mother T's people use. He sent Bead, the rest of the men, and the two dragalongs to the opposite end of the compound and told them to stay out of sight, provide necessary cover, and if the opportunity arose, Bead was to personally eliminate the two non-Erads. Bead laughed and saluted Rankin smartly. The boy was bound to be a great Erad. He took pride in his work. He enjoyed it.

When the shooting started, Lt. Rankin moved his people into firing positions but they kept out of sight. Erads were well known for their prowess in fighting but when the circumstances called for it, they could be prudent as well. Lt. Rankin indicated to his men that they were to stay put for the time being, wait to see if the rebels found their way out.

A quarter of an hour into the assault on the compound, a scout left behind in a decaying two story building saw the rebels tear across the compound in Ari's romspeed. He signaled to the main group and then hurried to join them as the pack moved up to new hiding places across the street from Queen Mary's attacking troops.

Lt. Rankin maintained the cease-fire until he saw the rebels' Bmerc guide fall out of the careening romspeed and disappear in a blinding explosion. The lieutenant watched a small group of Mother T's troops, who had apparently been chasing the fleeing rebels, fight their way slowly back into the compound under withering fire from the main group of Queen Mary's attackers. He still held the cease-fire until the romspeed was almost to the Erad position.

Lt. Rankin's confirmation that the rebels they sought were in the fleeing romspeed came from a source only he knew about. Unknown even to his brother Tom and Sgt. Cage, the lieutenant carried a small tracking mechanism with a red flasher activated by a similar one carried by the rebel mole. As the rebels approached the Erad position, Lt. Rankin saw the tracker begin to rapidly blink red and he knew absolutely that the IMC agent was in the highcit jockey's souped up romspeed.

Patiently, Lt. Rankin held the group's fire until a platoon-sized force of attacking troops emerged from behind the remains of what appeared to have once been a church or small school. When they began to zero in on the vehicle, Rankin gave his signal to fire. And fire the Erads did -- DC-40's, slug-loaded L-12's, grenades, intermittent disposable hand-held rockets.

Caught off guard, several of Queen Mary's soldiers fell in the first Erad barrage and when the initial firing continued unabated, more fell and those left dashed for cover. In a hell storm of weapons fire, the Erads accomplished their mission: the rebel romspeed shot through the confusion of whistling metal and rolling smoke to disappear around a distant corner and out of danger from the dueling matriarchies.

Lt. Rankin called for a cease-fire. The Erads slowly pulled back from their offensive posts and regrouped several blocks away from the battle scene. Excited and happy, they laughed and slapped each other on the back. Until the lieutenant did a head count. Two men missing. The two dragalongs. They had used the battle to get away as well. Sgt. Cage was particularly livid over their escape.

"Those frappin' chickens," he growled to the company, "I'll track the jammers down myself and X 'em out."

Lt. Rankin patted the big killer on the shoulder.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," he said with a chuckle, "those igno jammers won't last the night. Remember where we are. Ebon. If the fat old women don't get 'em and turn 'em into weenie breeder mate slaves, then the Panmus will get 'em. And you know what they'll do. They'll skin their frappin' butts and leave 'em for the wild dogs to eat."

"Oh, yeah," Cage said, slowly getting Lt. Rankin's drift, "yeah, skin 'em alive."

"Skin 'em," the other Erads chanted. "Skin 'em alive."

####

Meshica

19.

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

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

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

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

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

"Steady then," Severn ordered him.

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

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

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

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

"Well?" Severn asked impatiently.

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

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

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

"Shit," Severn said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Aha!" Severn exclaimed from the backseat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No," Kara said firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What then?"

"Severn?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But...," Platt began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You first," Darden told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

####

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You call it," Ari said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?" Severn asked, lifting his weapon.

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

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

"Yes," Kara said.

"Same here," Severn corroborated her feeling.

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

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

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

####

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

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

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

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

####

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How do you know that?" Severn asked.

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm called the Keeper."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We?" Kara wondered.

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

"Where'd she go?" Ari said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Okay. Shoot."

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

"Who said they were?"

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

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

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

"What of it?"

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

"And you think Erads did that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well?" she asked, not understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

23.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I do now."

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

"The past?"

"Yeah, you know. Before today."

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

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

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

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

"Does that mean anything?" Ari asked.

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

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

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

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

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

"My God!" he exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

"Why? What is it?"

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

"What is it?" Ari demanded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hace mucho tiempo," Marco confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Erads," Cage and Lt. Rankin echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, sir," Bead said happily.

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

"See to it," Lt. Rankin said.

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

26.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Shoot," Ari complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Well?" he asked her softly.

"Well?" she echoed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you," Kara said to Rocio.

"Just go, go."

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

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

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

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

27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

####

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

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

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

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

"Yes, sir," Tom said.

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

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

"Yes, sir," they said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A butte?"

"Yes, sir."

"A butte."

"Yes, sir."

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

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

28.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How did I ever miss you?"

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

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

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

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

"You mean the old talk?"

"Yeah."

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

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

"Us?"

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

"I don't understand," Kara said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I never knew."

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

"What was your family?"

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

"Are they back there?"

"They're all gone."

"All gone?"

"Dead or in the vats."

"Your whole family?"

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

"Why?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

"The old man knew everything."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kara?" he asked.

"What?"

"Am I still your prisoner?"

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

"No," Kara said at last, "but ...."

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

"Ari," Kara said, squeezing his hand.

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

"All right."

"Thank you."

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

29.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it you want?" Francisco said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

####

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

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

"That redheaded piece of dragalong shit."

"I got first shot."

"Yes, sir, sergeant."

"Let's take 'em."

####

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

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

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

"You know these men?" he asked Ari.

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

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

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

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

"What visitors?" the head bandido asked.

"This hombrecito, and the young woman."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Maybe. They are very far away."

"Keep watching. Let me know."

"Sí, amigo."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Doubles for me, you plezone jockey."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sí," Francisco affirmed.

"Then we should meet them on our wayout."

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

"We'll find them," Kara said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, sir," Cage said, saluting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's him," Ari confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

"What?" Ari asked.

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

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

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

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

"Unless what?" Ari asked.

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

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

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

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

"Okay," Kara said, her tone softening.

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

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

####

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Endgate? What's Endgate?"

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

"It doesn't sound good."

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

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

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

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

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

"Who cares, cit," Severn said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We tried to draw them after us."

"We? Us?" Severn questioned.

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

"I don't know."

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

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

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

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

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

"Dust," Kara repeated.

Ari and Platt exchanged looks. Ari sighed.

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

"So you found one?" Kara asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Wound

32.

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

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

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

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

####

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Holy shit," Ari said with a whistle.

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

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

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

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

"Oh," Ari said, nodding.

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

"How about food and fuel?" Kara asked.

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

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

"What about outguards?" Ari asked.

"They are People," Carson said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go safe," Kara said, hugging Marco.

"Go safe," he repeated to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

33.

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

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

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

"Only if necessary," Lt. Rankin stressed.

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

"Go on," Lt. Rankin said.

Bead and Cage reached Crad in about ten minutes.

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

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

"Animals?" Sgt. Cage asked.

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

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

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

"Target practice," Cage said.

"Only if necessary," Bead laughed.

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

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

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

"Yes, sergeant," the scout said.

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

####

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If this were a trap, rebel," Carson said matter-of-factly, "you would already be dead."

"Let's take it easy," Kara again played the peacemaker.

Severn turned his back on Carson and walked to one side of the ramada. Two old women looked at the red-faced flier and giggled. He frowned at them.

"Carson," Kara redirected to their guide, "what about our camp? Do you know where it is? And how far?"

"It is not far," he assured her, "but we do not hear from them often. Tyler," he added, turning to a man who had walked up to see what was happening at the ramada, "any word from the rebel camp?"

"No, brother," the man called Tyler answered. "Not for some days. But this is not unusual."

"This is your brother?" Kara asked.

"Yes," Carson said, "my older brother, Tyler Begaye." Ari snickered.

"Everybody here really is named Begaye, aren't they, Mr. Begaye?" Carson nodded and smiled.

"So it seems, little brother, so it seems. But you can just call me Carson." Ari laughed. Platt scratched his head. "Tonight," Carson went on, "as I said, the People meet. Now you rest and eat. We will leave early tomorrow."

"Thank you," Kara told the First Elder sincerely. "All of us thank you."

Carson looked over at Severn who still stood with his back to the others.

"Yes," he said, motioning for all the people in the ramada to leave. "I can see that."

Raising his rifle in salute, First Elder Carson Begaye strode away from the ramada, his pride and strength evident in every step. The other People fell in behind and followed him.

35.

After having scouted for the pack, Crad now rode rear guard on horseback. The young Erad had never ridden a horse before and though he was rapidly getting the hang of it, he was not yet completely comfortable astride the animal. But Crad was feeling very good, very strong. He had spotted the old vehicle and the two strange riders accompanying it and watched with pride as Bead and Sgt. Cage shot them down.

The only blot on the action was that one of them had managed to ride away, bullets whistling in his direction as he faded into the desert beyond the corridor road. Crad pictured the escaping rider, imagined he must be dead because he had definitely taken a hit, but speculated about the man's end -- bled to death, died of exposure? He just wondered whatever became of that mother. Lost in his thoughts, Crad didn't notice that he had drifted well behind the pack until he looked up and saw that they had disappeared around a bend in the road.

"Yow," he said out load, "I better bust. The pack's getting ahead of me."

Crad reached his hand back to slap the horse's flank but stopped in mid motion. He felt a sharp pain in the middle of his back and then a heavy weight landed on him from behind. He tried to reach for his weapon and to call out, but his arms wouldn't move and his voice wouldn't work.

####

Grant Begaye, the blood from his shoulder wound drying, had circled around the Erad pack keeping himself out of sight. Then he trailed them for several miles, making sure of their numbers, gauging their strength in weaponry. He knew he should ride on back to the village and inform his cousin and the council about the invaders, but he thought of his brother Reno lying dead on the desert road and of the Meshican friend in the truck and anger rose in him, drove him to tail the killer band, waiting for the right moment. The right moment for cold, reasoned revenge. And then the trailing one on the horse, who could just barely control the animal, fell behind the others who had rounded a bend out of sight. Grant acted without thinking.

Riding up to within a few yards of the last not-People soldiers, Grant withdrew the short lance he carried on his thick leather belt, aimed and threw it directly at the man's back. It stuck clean, though not as deeply as Grant wanted, and the man flexed his back outward in pain. Fearing the soldier would cry out, Grant spurred his horse hard and with a wild leap, landed astride the soldier's horse, pushing the lance in the man's back out of the way and clamping his left hand over the soldier's mouth all in one motion.

The soldier grunted and tried to turn towards Grant, but the young warrior jerked the man's head back and with a deft movement of his long hunting knife slit the soldier's throat from side to side, deep to the bone. The man made a final gurgling sound before Grant pushed him off the horse and onto the dirt road. Grant took a moment to make sure the man was really finished, then rode the dead man's horse and caught his own mount. Switching horses smoothly and adeptly, Grant grabbed the reins of the soldier's pony and rode into the desert.

Three hundred yards in he stopped to listen. He could hear the cry of a cactus wren, the buzzing of a nearby bee, the rustling of a small animal; but there were no man sounds. Satisfied that the not-People soldiers had not followed him, Grant kicked his horse in the flanks and with the dead soldier's horse in tow, rode on in a round-about way back to the capitol village of Cibola.

36.

Ari was asleep near the roadside front of the ramada, having a strange dream about himself and Kara trying vainly to escape the Redsinthe plezone area of Bimhills, when a rough hand clapped over his mouth and nose scaring him awake.

"Shhh," Carson Begaye said close to Ari's right ear. "Be quiet. Come with me."

Ari rolled over, wide-eyed with surprise and fear but moving quietly as he had been told, and stood up, careful not to bump Platt who slept near him. Across the ramada, Severn and Kara had fallen asleep in half sitting guard positions. It occurred to Ari as he sleepily and warily followed the Peoples' Elder that for all their toughness, training, and experience, Severn and Kara were just as out of their element here in the far zones as he was.

"Come," Carson said softly when Ari lagged behind.

"Where are we going?" Ari whispered. Carson answered by motioning for Ari to keep following.

The Elder led Ari up two short blocks straight out from the ramada, then turned up a narrow road to the right for two or three more. As they walked, Ari's dread diminished, replaced by simple curiosity. Where in the world were they going and why? Why him, why Ari? These People, as they called themselves, were very interesting. For some reason, the image of the ring his father had left him popped into Ari's head. He reached in his pocket and felt it there. What was its meaning? Why had the old Keeper in Meshica reacted to it the way he did?

Sometimes, Ari realized, there seemed to be something about this run that was as if it were part of some larger thing, that it had a meaning he was only beginning to become dimly aware of. One thing he knew for sure -- he was not the same Ari, the same Bimhills highcit he had once been. Or at least he didn't think he was anymore. He felt different. Like he was becoming stronger, more intelligent, more aware.

"Here," Carson spoke through Ari's thoughts, putting out an arm that Ari bounced off of.

"Whoa," Ari said, catching his balance and feeling ridiculous at his clumsiness. I might be different, he chastised himself inwardly, feeling silly for thinking he'd become some better person, but I'm still not much. "Where are we?"

"This is the council house," Carson said. Even in the poor light, Carson could see the astonishment on Ari's face. The Elder laughed. "The People are generous human beings," he explained, "sometimes, if things are right and the feeling is good, we let a not-People share our dream ceremony so that that person will understand the way of the People. Who we are, where we come from, what has been our history. I, as the council Elder, invite you."

Carson pushed aside the rope and wood hinged leather door to the council house -- which Ari could now make out was really a small, circular, hut-like structure maybe eight feet tall at its center and perhaps twenty feet in diameter -- and indicated with a nod for Ari to enter.

Inside the council house, sitting around a small fire in its center, were a half dozen of the People, including Carson's brother Tyler, who extended a hand in welcome to Ari. Carson closed the door behind them, and then he and Ari found room among the other men before the fire.

Elder Begaye spoke for several moments in the People's tongue, which Ari guessed was an introduction to and explanation for his presence among the People here in the council house. One older man with several missing front teeth spoke briefly and then offered Ari the first of several pungent smelling pipes that were passed around the room. The leafy substance in the pipes burned brightly and was strong enough to cause Ari to begin coughing. Carson handed him a hollowed out gourd filled with a murky liquid that immediately coated Ari's throat and stopped the coughing.

After the fourth pipe, a very long one, went around the room, Ari began to feel a prickling in his extremities as if tiny pins were being stuck in him. And after the pricking sensation came a kind of numbness and a sense of time and movement slowing down. Not as intense as ginweed, Ari noted to himself, and more mellow. A really nice smoke. He looked over at Carson and smiled. The Elder winked at him.

"Maximum cool," Ari said to the group. "Very smooth. A real ease down. A good zone."

The People looked at each other, then at Carson. The Elder shrugged his shoulders and spoke to them in their language.

"What did you say to them?" Ari asked.

"I said I didn't understand what you said either." Ari wanted to laugh along with Carson but found that he couldn't.

"It's getting hard to speak," Ari said, rubbing his jaws and running his numbing tongue against the back of his teeth.

"It should always be hard to speak," Carson said.

"Why?" Ari managed to get out.

"Because true wisdom," Carson told him, "is silence."

Ari considered that for a moment. It sounded very profound. Very wise. He said as much through his deadening lips.

"Well I must not be too wise," Carson snickered, "I'm talking to you."

The People broke into a brief paroxysm of knee slapping and guffaws. Ari felt like he'd been set up for one of the innumerable pranks tads pull on each other in the early years at the bookers. He laughed loudly inside but only a smile showed without. Carson put a hand on his shoulder to show he was only playing.

"I didn't know they could understand me," Ari struggled to say.

The snaggle-toothed man handed Ari a gourd of the murky drink across the fire. Ari drank slowly, letting the liquid course down and further numb his throat.

"It is time," Carson announced several minutes later, well after the last of the pipes had been smoked.

Ari looked over at the People's Elder, saw him produce a leather pouch from somewhere and place it in front of him near the fire. He raised his hands above his head, forming a triangle shape with the tips of the fingers touching. The other men followed suit and Ari imitated them. Then, lowering his head, Carson spoke a long, emotional prayer -- Ari assumed -- during which the other men held their heads up, but closed their eyes. Ari did the same, his usual moment or so behind the others.

When Carson was done, the entire group began a kind of deep-voiced chant and one of them, another old man with extraordinarily long gray hair, placed a pile of small sticks on the fire and then sprinkled a fresh smelling dust-like substance over the flames. Ari watched reddish smoke rise from the fire and drift towards the top of the council house. It was remarkable, he noticed, that so little smoke remained in the room; it seemed to be drawn quickly up and out of the house, leaving the air relatively fresh and clean.

When he looked back down, the men were passing out something that looked like moldy rocks to each other and Carson held a handful of them out to Ari. Ari didn't know what to do. Carson held up two fingers on one hand and made an eating motion with the other.

"Oh," Ari said, rocking back and forth slowly. "I understand."

"Chew a lot," Carson told him.

"I will," Ari said.

"Go ahead," Carson said, "dream food."

"Dream food," Ari echoed.

He put two of the mouldy rock-like buttons into his mouth and began chewing. They tasted bitter and hard and felt like they had a fuzzy mold growing on them.

"Chew," Carson said, seeing the grimace on Ari's face.

Ari chewed and chewed. And swallowed the weird juice from the mushrooms. He coughed, and fought a gag reaction. What if they are poisoning me, he thought, momentarily terrified. What if it's some kind of ritual sacrifice ceremony or something. He had an impulse to leap to his feet and run out of the council house. He even imagined himself doing so in his mind, but his numbed body was rooted to the skin-covered dirt floor of the house like a heavy anchor hooked to the bottom of a shallow inlet -- he wasn't going anywhere.

Finally, after an interminable time of chewing, Ari managed to consume the People's dream food. Several moments later, his stomach began to growl and gurgle.

"Oh," he groaned, trying to stand but only listing to his left towards Carson.

Ari's head began to spin and he felt terribly nauseous. He thought he was going to pass out. Then he felt strong hands lifting under his arms and dragging him, the toes of his shoes scraping over and bunching up the floor rugs, towards the door. Outside, he was let go and he knelt to one side to the council house wretching miserably into a small ditch running beside the road.

He thought he heard distant laughter and once managed a look at the sky, which was ablaze with bright white stars wavering and dancing in the cool, clear air. Then he felt the strong hands again and in what could have been seconds or an eternity found himself once more seated before the council fire.

Sighing deeply, Ari stared into the bright, friendly flames of the fire. He felt far, far from himself and though he knew his eyes were open, felt that he was sleeping, dreaming. It crossed his mind that no mind sleep, or mind rest, or even mind sparkle produced in Bimhills could possibly match the potency of the People's dream food. And, then, just as he was beginning to feel a little bit in control again, when he believed he had reached some peak level, the dream food truly kicked in.

In an amazing rush of vision and insight, a series of mental visions -- so strong at times they seemed to be playing out in the very air of the council house -- passed through Ari's consciousness like a Sunami wave of understanding.

He saw before him, as if he were physically there, the far, far distant past when the not-People, his ancestors, arrived in the land. He saw the People, human beings locked in the eons-old struggle to survive in a harsh, pre-industrial world, watch the not-People warily, make first tentative steps toward contact. And then he saw the People attacked, their men shot, rounded up, imprisoned. He saw the old People, and the women and children, run down, gunned down, strung up on trees.

He saw the not-People spread over the land, destroying it and the People as they went, and then grow without control, covering every bit of usable soil. He saw then their fall. The Great Invert, the horrible slaughter in the prisons, the near dying out of the not-People, the formation, the consolidation of the zones and the IMC. He envisioned his mother and father. Smiling at him. Laughing. His father handing him the double eagle ring. He saw the ring open and within it he saw Bimhills, saw fires burning, buildings shattered by explosions.

Overwhelmed, Ari shut his eyes, swallowed, felt his throat dry. He reached out a hand for water and it was there. Someone handed him a full gourd. He drank slowly from the gourd, letting the water run down his throat in trickles, letting it soothe his thirst. Another hand took the gourd away. Still another rested for a moment on his shoulder. He felt its strength, a supportiveness almost like affection. He opened his eyes and the images came again.

This time he saw the Erads. A pack of twelve or more. They were pursuing him in an open field and then they were running. Running wild and scared. Running and falling, falling and dying. And the terrain of the vision changed. He saw a dusty, black land, felt himself struggling to escape it, felt Kara's presence, longed for her. Longed for a place to be with her. Saw the black land end, stretch towards tree-filled mountains, verdant, hazy; and four peaks, two on either side of a deep valley cut between the mountains. In there was something. Something and someone -- a place of hope.

And then Carson Begaye's face was before Ari, his lips curled in an almost smile, speaking, saying something.

"What?" Ari thought he heard himself say out loud.

The Carson face said softly:

"Wisdom is Silence."

"What?" Ari asked again.

"Wisdom," the voice spoke.

"Wisdom," Ari repeated, feeling extraordinarily sleepy. He yawned. Closed his eyes. Stopped the visions. He felt himself go to sleep. Felt himself drifting, drifting far above the dusty land of Long Wound, high over the blue earth, far out into the sky, among the distant planets, the cold, observant stars.

37.

Ari was sleeping the dead sleep of the innocent when a pair of tough but gentle hands began trying to shake him awake. He turned away from the contact believing it to be part of the dream he was having; one of himself and Kara working in a fruit orchard of some kind. The dream seemed so real he thought he heard her voice calling him. The shaking grew more persistent, the voice louder. Ari rolled over on his back and slowly opened his eyes. Kara was in fact standing over him.

"Kara," he said sleepily, thinking the dream had been real and that she was there helping him in the fields. Then he realized where he was: flat on his back in the council room. What was Kara doing there? "Kara!" he exclaimed, sitting up. "What? What is it?"

"Get up," she said, "hurry. The Erads ambushed Marco and Elder Begaye's cousins. Only the older boy lived. He just came back to warn everyone."

"Warn everyone?" Ari said groggily. He wasn't getting all Kara was saying. The night before had been such an incredible experience he felt as if he were still on some vast, distant mountain looking down on the rest of existence. "Where are the People?"

"Oh, wake up, Ari," Kara said impatiently. "What were you doing here? Come on, sit up. The Erads are closing in on us. They're going to dust everybody. We've got to run."

"All right," Ari said, standing. The cobwebs were still thick in his brain and he struggled to fight his way through them. A clear thought managed its way to his consciousness. "You came for me," he said. Kara looked away.

"Yes," she said to the council house wall. Ari shook his head from side to side, forcing himself back to clarity. He was very thirsty.

"I've got to have water," he said.

"Okay," Kara said, looking around the room. She spotted a bucket and a gourd by the ashes of the previous night's fire. There was water in the bucket. She filled the gourd and handed it to Ari. He drank loudly, emptied that gourd and then another.

"What do we do?" Ari asked when he had finished drinking.

"Carson and the cousin will take us to a safe place for now. After that, we don't know."

"Let's go then."

"Here," Kara said, handing Ari the rifle she had taken from him when they had met Severn and Marco back on the corridor. "You may need this."

Ari looked at the weapon, then back at Kara. Her expression revealed nothing, but her actions spoke loudly to the highcit romjockey.

"What about Severn?" he asked her.

"I'll manage him," Kara answered. "Now, come on."

"Let's bail," Ari said, hoisting the weapon over his head. "We're out of here."

####

Carson and Grant Begaye led the rebel fliers out of Cibola, generally eastward, across a wide river and beyond, to the base of a mountain range. The runners hid their romspeed behind a rocky hill, covered it with limbs and leaves from the nearby desert scrub, and took up positions on the north side of the hill. The Begayes left them, assured them someone would come for them, to lead them on to the rebel camp.

Severn was for pressing on, for finding the base on their own, but Kara convinced him of the illogic of that move. They had no idea where they were or where their compatriots were holed up. Between their lack of knowledge of the area and the pursuing Erads, Kara argued that they would stand a better chance staying where they were, even if that meant fighting the Erads head on.

"Is that why you gave romjockey boy a weapon?" Severn asked, leering at Kara and Ari. "Why not one for his sack of crap SC goodcit there, too?"

Severn pointed his own DC-40 at Platt. Platt shifted his body out of direct line with Severn's weapon.

"When the time comes," Kara said, "I will. If we all have to fight the Erads to live, we all will."

"You got that straight, sister," Platt said. Severn shut him up with a glare.

"So what makes jockey boy different?" Severn continued his dig at Kara. "He your new bedmate, young rebel princess, as the late, great Bobby S. would say?"

"Nobody's anybody's bedmate," Ari said, stepping towards Severn.

"Shut up," Kara told the two men, who squared off threateningly. "We are not bedmates. Just back off. Both of you." She pushed Ari back with the barrel of her lasermag.

"My, my," Severn said, "hasn't the little highcit come a long ways. Are you one of us now, jockey sturch? Have you joined the rebel cause?"

"Shut up," Kara told Severn. The rebel leader's jaws tightened.

"I don't know what's been goin' on between you two," he said, "but your tad boy better stay out of my face. I'm the leader here and if he jams up one thing, he's dust."

"You don't get it at all, do you?" Ari responded, then dug for words he'd learned from the Keeper. "You act like a moron, a cretin. Kara's the real leader here. You just shoot off at the mouth all the time and then vanish when we might need you. You haven't done anything but jaw from the first time I saw you. And don't bring up Bobby S. either. You're not even in the same zone as him."

"Why you little...," Severn began, raising his DC-40. Kara stepped between them again.

"Stop it," she ordered. "You're still the leader, Severn. Calm down. And you, Ari, just ease off. Relax."

"Hey," Platt interrupted the confrontation, "you shitcits wanna cut the jaw fest. Check it out across there. The Long Wounders look like they're bashin' it with the Erads."

"My God," Kara exclaimed, as she and the men suspended their face off and hurried over by Platt to see.

Out across the plains beyond the big river they had crossed, in a group of rolling hills rising up from a small tributary of the larger river, the runners could see dust clouds rising from several locations. Then came the unmistakable report of small arms fire.

The People's warriors had engaged the Erads in a direct confrontation. It was an amazing thing to see, even from a distance as great as that from which the rebels saw it. No one had ever challenged an Erad pack head to head before. It was unthinkable. It had never happened in any of the zones before. Not that anyone knew of anyway. It was a chilling, thrilling sight.

38.

Uncharacteristically, the Erads had not realized anything was wrong until Bead checked the rear out of trained habit and saw that Crad, the rear guard, was no longer there.

"Hold up," he advised the pack, slowing his romcycle. "I don't see Crad back there anymore."

"Bust it and check," Lt. Rankin called back from the head of the pack. "Sergeant Cage, go with him."

"Yes, sir," Cage saluted.

He and Bead backtracked in search of Crad. They found him about a half mile behind.

"Son of a jammer," Cage said when they were alongside the body.

"Shit," Bead groaned, almost throwing up.

Crad lay on his back, the point of a broken spear sticking out through his stomach. His head tilted back crazily, the gaping gash where his throat had been cut still draining blood. Flies buzzed loudly around the wound. Crad's eyes were open in final death shock and he had begun to discolor and bloat.

"Radio back," Cage told Bead.

"Dispose of the unit," Lt. Rankin's tough voice cracked back in response to Bead's call.

"Yes, sir," Bead responded distractedly. He couldn't take his eyes off the gash in Crad's throat.

"We missed the one son of a jammer," Cage said, pulling two small plastic containers from a pack strapped to the back of the cycle.

"Damn opcit crazers," Bead cursed Crad's escaped killer while Sgt. Cage spread the contents of the two packets over the dead Erad's body. "They'll pay for this."

"Your two packs," Cage told Bead.

Bead found his packets -- labeled Lye-150 and HCL Cleaner -- and handed them to Cage. The sergeant spread their contents over the dead Erad's body. Working together, the two compounds began to bubble, to sizzle, to spread rapidly over the corpse. In less than ten minutes, the body was a decomposed mass of bones and gelatinized flesh. Bead held his nose.

"Frappin' hell," he said.

"Let's bust," Sgt. Cage said.

"I already bailed," Bead said, cranking up his romcycle. Sgt. Cage started his machine and the two Erads, sickened by their task, rode off to rejoin the pack.

####

Lt. Rankin stopped the pack just before the top of a small rise in the road, the early morning sun causing him to squint into the bright light. The pack had safely made it past a city of some note built on a hill to the north as they traveled eastward on the corridor road. He had checked his tracking device and saw from the faint flare that the fliers were not in that city, but were in fact still out ahead somewhere and a good distance away, judging from the weakness of the signal. Lt. Rankin signaled for the pack to move out, but when his lead vehicle cleared the top of the hill, he brought them to an abrupt halt again. Below them, at the bottom of the hill, were perhaps a dozen Long Wound soldiers on horseback.

For some moments, the two groups didn't move. They just looked each other over, staring at one another as if watching a wide, full screen outdoor flicker. Then the Long Wound soldiers acted. They began to chant, to cry out and then to let loose howling war cries. The Erads went for their weapons but the People's warriors fired first, sending a salvo of arrows at the Erads that fell harmlessly amid the pack. One warrior towards the back, however, held a DC-40 with Erad markings and he cranked off a wild round that knocked up dirt around Lt. Rankin's vehicle.

"That's Crad's DC," Bead yelled somewhere off to Lt. Rankin's right.

A war cry now rose up among the Erad ranks. The two groups shouted back and forth, waving their weapons threateningly at each other.

"Get the bastards," Lt. Rankin bawled out above the rattling din. Charge!"

With a mighty roar, the Erad pack stormed down the hill at the Long Wound soldiers, firing as they went. The Long Wound warriors turned their horses and rode hard down the corridor road into the sun. The Erads pursued them like madmen, firing, yelling, cursing.

Dust rose up behind the fleeing riders, filtered the sun's light, blocked the Erad's sight. But they raced on anyway, firing up the road, seeking revenge for their fallen comrade. Finally, Lt. Rankin realized the enemy had disappeared into the sun, that the pack was wasting precious ammunition.

"Cease fire," he cried out. "Halt firing."

The order went through the pack, the firing became sporadic, stopped. The pack slowed. Regrouped around the lieutenant. Lt. Rankin waited for the dust to settle. He saw nothing on the road ahead. Heard nothing but the sounds of the pack around him.

Straight ahead was another rise in the road, this one steeper than the one before. Ahead to the left, a series of low rolling hills, cut in places by a meandering creek or small river. It would have been a beautiful sight, Lt. Rankin noted to himself, if it had not held so much potential danger.

"All right," he barked to the pack, "move out in time and a half."

The pack started as one, traveling fast, but not recklessly, spread out on either side and to the back of their commander, senses keen, eyes trained on the treacherous land around them. Lt. Rankin thought he saw something off to one side of the upcoming rise, pointed his right arm forward to charge and the pack stormed over the top of the hill. What they saw caused them to brake their vehicles to sliding stops, rein in their wild, nervous animals.

Below the hill on which they stopped, directly before them on the corridor road, and further back on both sides of the road spreading off towards the small river that could clearly be seen snaking through the land, were several hundred mounted Long Wound solders. The stunned pack took in the size of the enemy force, gauged its strength, the combat possibilities and odds.

"Holy hell," Bead spoke into the tense silence.

"Son of a bitch," Cage cursed softly.

Lt. Rankin's mind raced through several engagement scenarios. He rechecked the enemy numbers and positions, the terrain, the distances. None of his perceived scenarios looked good.

"Listen up, men," he told the pack, forcing the resolve into his voice, "we start forward slowly, then on my signal make for those hills to our left. If we can get there, get to the top of those hills, we may be able to set up a defensive perimeter. Hold them off."

"Yeah," the pack concurred. All but Bead.

"Sir," he addressed his uncle, "hold them off till when? We're low on food, fuel, water. Low on ammunition. Hold them off how? For how long?"

Seldom, almost never, did an Erad question a superior's orders, object to a course of action, present a counter point of view. It was an invitation to disaster, to being driven from the pack, or worse -- elimination. The rest of the pack looked at Lt. Rankin, waited for his response. Expected Bead to be summarily dealt with. But their commander didn't upbraid the young Erad -- and his reaction had nothing to do with shared blood, all the Erads knew that -- he just smiled an odd smile and ignored Bead's questions. It was then the rest of the pack understood. Lt. Rankin signaled for them to move out before the idea could take complete hold.

"Steady, pack," he said, holding up his left hand as they advanced slowly towards the enemy, "steady." Twenty yards down the hill, he jabbed the air with his left arm. "Now," he cried out, "now."

With the lieutenant at their fore, the Erad pack broke from the corridor, raced wildly into the desert land beyond the road, headed for the hills above the small river. With a high pitched, yodeling cry, the Long Wound soldiers charged after them.

Shouting and firing, the Erad pack tore across country, fleeing for their lives. The People's soldiers broke into three groups: one rode hard to intercept the leather-clothed not-People soldiers where the small river crossed before the low hills; another group swung around behind and to the left; the third mounted a full attack. A phalanx of twenty warriors broke through the middle of the pack, splitting it into two disorganized troops.

Bead and his father, Tom, were in one half of the divided pack, which was surrounded and driven northwesterly angling away from the river and hills. Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage were in the other group and it drove hard towards the center of the hills. None of the Erads had time to notice that the third group of Long Wound soldiers were no longer in sight.

With the pack torn in two, the Long Wound soldiers began to drop the madly firing Erads. One from Lt. Rankin's group fell, then two in Bead's. Bead, his father, and their few men left were harassed from all sides; they dismounted, fell behind machine and animal to fire back at their pursuers. Lt. Rankin and Sgt. Cage miraculously reached the creek, drove desperately across it and leaped to the ground to try and dissuade the many Long Wound soldiers attacking them.

And the Erads did well, fought with the fury that was their stock in trade. They dropped many Long Wound soldiers, filled the air with their deadly sounds, soaked the soil with the native People's blood. But it was only a matter of time.

Even in the heat of the battle Lt. Rankin could see his brother Tom fall, a Long Wound spear through his throat, saw the other Erads with Tom splintered from each other, running towards the hills, cut down from all sides. Lt. Rankin grabbed Cage and with a voice made harsh from yelling and from the smoke in the air told him to run, to save himself.

"I can't do that, sir," Cage said, ducking behind the Erad truck with Lt. Rankin.

"You have to," Rankin told him, "you must. You have to complete the mission."

"No, sir," Cage yelled.

"That's a direct order, sergeant," Rankin said. "Get those fliers. For us. For the pack."

"Sir, my place is here with the pack."

"Don't argue, Cage. Listen. The rebel mole is a double. I think he turned us. Caused this. Get him. Here take this."

Rankin handed Cage the tailing unit. Cage knelt closer to Rankin as an arrow banged off the side of the Erad truck just by his head.

"The flashing red light is the mole's tracer," Rankin explained breathlessly. "And get that highcit. Alexander said something about a ring. Something about shadpols and a ring the highcit has."

"A ring?"

"Yes, now go, sergeant. You must."

"Sir."

"Go. There's no time. Alone, maybe you can get out. It's the only chance. You can get past them on the romcycle, then outrun them to Endgate. It's the only place the runners can go."

"Yes, sir," Cage said, looking for a chance to make a dash for his abandoned romcycle.

"Sgt. Cage," Lt. Rankin called.

"Sir?"

"Don't let us down. Always remember this day."

"Yes, sir. I will, sir."

"Go. go."

And Sgt. Cage went. He leaped back astride his romcycle and cranked it up. He drove back across the small stream, nearly losing control of the vehicle, mentally noting the blood he saw mingled with the clear water. He exploded out onto the dry land beyond the creek, saw Bead to his right. Saw the young Erad running towards him, arrows sticking in his chest and legs. And he saw the warrior they failed to kill break from a crowd of soldiers beyond Bead. He saw the warrior ride alongside Bead, lower Crad's lost DC-40 and blow the top of Bead's head off. With a shout, the warrior then galloped after Cage, another half dozen of his men joining in the chase.

But Cage's unexpected maneuver had caught his enemy off guard, and he rode insanely for the corridor. Bullets and arrows whistling around him, the Erad sergeant hit the corridor airborne, landing hard and sliding nearly to the point of laying the cycle down before righting it and accelerating to top end down the center of the smooth dirt road. A tower of dust rose up behind the romcycle and Cage quickly outdistanced the horse-mounted soldiers galloping after him.

As he roared off, Cage could not know or see that the third group of Long Wound warriors, the group that had vanished at the very beginning of the battle, had reappeared over the top of the hill behind Lt. Rankin and the few of his men who were still standing and fighting. He could not see the warriors drop down off the hill to ride through the remaining Erads, slaughtering them where they stood or where they ran, finally cutting down Lt. Rankin himself.

Only one thing was in Sgt. Cage's mind: escape to Endgate, kill the mole, capture the ignorant highcit and his mysterious ring. And at the end, at the very last, the bulky Erad sergeant could not hear the deafening cheer rise up from the scene of the Erad slaughter. Could not hear the Long Wound warriors celebrating their greatest, bloodiest victory. Sgt. Cage could not see or hear this, the end of his pack; but he knew it was all over. He could sense it. He could feel it in the marrow of his bones.

39.

The corridor runners watched the battle from afar. Saw the dust raised, heard the gunfire. And then, when it looked like the issue had been settled, a separate, solitary cloud of dust appeared in the distance, coming down the center of the corridor road.

"What's that?" Platt asked, pointing out toward the corridor.

"Carson or his cousin maybe," Kara said hopefully.

"It's hard to tell from this far," Ari said, squinting to focus in on the lone runner, "but it doesn't look like one of the People."

"Erad!" Severn and Kara exclaimed together.

"Give me that rifle," Severn ordered Ari. Ari pulled his weapon back.

"You can't hit him from here," he said. "And besides that, you shoot at the Erad, he knows we're out here. What if his pack is right behind him?"

"The weapon, shitcit," Severn demanded.

"No," Ari resisted.

Severn moved towards him. Once again, Kara stepped between the two fussing men.

"Cut the crap," she told them, "we don't need this now. And besides, Severn, Ari's right."

"Ari's right?" Severn exploded. "Ari's right? Since when does this useless piece of shitcit tell me what's right or wrong. I'm in charge of this run. I'm telling who what to do, and when. I'm the leader. I'm in charge."

Neither Kara nor Ari said anything. They let Severn's words hang there in the tense air between them, their foolish import reverberating back to the speaker. Severn glared at them, fists clenched at his side.

"Well," Platt broke into the charged space around him, "you can stop jawin' now, the cycle jammer is already gone. He slowed for a sec, like he was gonna come this way, then busted on down the corridor."

"You stone crazers," Severn hissed at the others, Platt included, "now we got a stray Erad out here somewhere looking for us." He stalked to the edge of their hideout, peered out at the corridor, turned back to the others. "Kara, you still got the watch on you?"

"Yes," she answered, "you know I do. We already talked about it."

"Oh, yeah," Severn said quickly, "I forgot. You keep it. You can keep it on you all the time." Kara looked over at Ari. He shrugged.

"Okay," she said, "whatever."

"Here comes some more," Platt announced. The four of them gathered at the edge of their hideout to better see the corridor.

"Two dust trails this time," Kara said.

"A truck and a cycle," Severn noted.

"More Erads?" Ari wondered.

"I hope the hell not," Kara said.

"They're slowing up," Platt said, as the approaching vehicle reduced speed then almost stopped on the corridor.

"What are they doing?" Severn called.

"They're coming up here," Kara told him the obvious, as the two vehicles turned off the corridor and began the slow trek to the hideout.

"That's one of the People on the cycle," Ari said, as the machines crept closer and closer. "It's Grant. Carson's cousin."

"That's Carson in the truck," Kara added, when the lumbering military vehicle was close enough to see the driver.

"Hot damn," Ari cheered. "Man, am I glad to see the People."

"You are a complete crazed dumbcit," Severn told Ari. "These people are as bad as the Erads. They slaughter everybody." Ari shook his head.

"You don't have any idea," Ari rejoined. "You know nothing about the People."

"Yeah, well, jam you," Severn said petulantly as the two People warriors reached the hideout, the engines of their vehicles coughing and sputtering. Kara and Ari hurried out to greet them, to find out how the battle ended.

"It is done," Carson said simply, when he had climbed down from the truck. "The enemy are no more."

"We killed them all," Grant Begaye exulted, shutting off the romcycle. "I myself shot the one who killed my brother."

"They were dangerous men," Carson added, "very strong. They fought hard. We lost many People as well."

"We cut them all down," Grant said, lifting his rifle over his head. "The invaders have been destroyed."

"Except for one," Severn corrected Elder Begaye's excited cousin. "We saw one escape here on a romcycle. He went right by us."

"One is not a threat to us," Carson said. "It is not wise to kill all of your enemy. Victory is enough." Grant let out a loud cheer.

"Yell all you want," Severn sneered at the two warriors, "any live Erad is worth twenty of you people." Grant snarled at the rebel leader and Carson had to hold back his young cousin.

"Forget that," Kara interjected, "the Erad is our problem. But for now, we still have to find the rebel camp. That is our mission, isn't it, Severn?"

"Uh, yes," he answered, shuffling his feet as if he realized how ridiculous his last outbursts must have seemed to the others.

A ridiculous leader, he knew, was one who wouldn't keep the position long. Especially not with a hot shot like Kara around.

"Yes," he added more forcefully. "Forget the Erad, the camp is what matters now."

"All right," Kara said. "Elder Begaye, can you lead us there?"

"That's why we are here, young woman," he said.

"Good," Kara said, "then let's go. We need to finish this. We must." The rebels grabbed their weapons and gear and headed for Ari's romspeed.

"Way to go, cit," Platt said to Grant as the big Somecop walked past the young Long Wound soldier, "you really Xed out the Shitrads." Grant frowned at the SC.

"You had a great victory today," Ari told Carson as the Elder helped the fliers stow their gear. "I saw it in my dream."

Severn looked at Kara and rolled his eyes. She shook her head at him. He shrugged his shoulders and went around to the other side of the romspeed.

"All can see," Carson said cryptically to Ari, "if they but open their eyes."

"Let's bust it," Severn called over from behind the romspeed. "You'll jaw so long there'll be time for the whole Erad army to get here."

"Okay," Kara said, "let's move out. Elder, you and your brave cousin will lead us?" Grant swelled up his chest proudly.

"I will lead," Carson said, "Grant will follow, and watch from behind."

"Let's go," Kara said. "Let's bail."

####

Mid-afternoon of the day following the Erad slaughter, with Grant Begaye now on point and his older cousin riding rearguard, the rebel band stopped beneath a stray stand of cottonwoods growing beside a dry wash. The fliers had crossed over the mountains beyond the previous day's battle scene and onto a barren, hot plain leading to yet another range of mountains, though these appeared to be a good deal smaller. The next range was perhaps twenty-five to thirty miles in the distance, but the air was so clear out here, far from the filthy skies of Bimhills and Ebon, that roads and trails were easily visable on the face of the mountains.

"Up there," Grant Begaye told the weary runners, who stretched against the sides of the vehicles or lounged in small shade spots beneath the cottonwoods, sipping on water and nibbling their rationed provisions, "up there is where we have to go." He pointed out at the far mountains. "We are not so far now."

"Look," Ari said, also pointing towards the mountains. "Something's coming."

"Oil tanker," Carson said, cupping his left hand over his eyes. "With two of our outguards on point. Just stay low here. They won't stop. They don't care who they see out here, but it's best we stay out of sight anyway and keep off the corridor for now. It is hard to say what will happen because of yesterday."

"Any sign of that one Erad who escaped?" Kara asked Carson. He looked at Grant and shook his head.

"Only that he was following the corridor. Endgate lies another day beyond these hills before us. It is a place where an Erad will do well. He will fit in there. Do not forget him in your minds. He will always be there, out there, somewhere, until he kills you or you kill him. That is their way."

"We know that," Severn said, "we come from Bimhills, you know."

"That is very clear," Grant responded with a sneer for Severn. "Clear as the Long Wound sky."

Severn frowned at the young warrior, considered a response but was cut off by the whistling roar of the approaching oil truck. The big tanker, with two Long Wound outguard vehicles in the lead, roared past them, perhaps a quarter of a mile out from the wash. A huge dust cloud boiled up behind the truck obscuring the landscape and the corridor road down which it traveled.

"Fuel to keep the IMC in power," Kara said, intervening between Severn and Grant, when the truck had passed and its noise faded to a low rumble. "The IMC, the true enemy."

Intervening for Severn was getting a little old to Kara these days. He had not seemed the same to her since Ebon, at least since they had escaped from there. He did small things that didn't always add up: disappearing at times, being hostile to their allies like the People, and whatever the deal was with that watch of his. Kara made a mental note to confront Severn about these things the next time they were alone. Maybe when they got to the rebel camp. Kara looked forward to that.

The rebel camp -- refuge, a place to rest for a couple of days perhaps, to clarify the mission, the rebellion, the run, her relation to Severn, to Ari. She set high stock in reaching the rebel base. It would be a good place, she just knew -- hoped that would be true. The truth was she was finally getting tired. She wanted a place to rest for awhile, in safety, in solidarity. She was sure the rebel camp could and would do all those things for her.

"How much longer to the camp?" she asked Carson, but his young cousin answered.

"Two, maybe three hours by the corridor," Grant said, "longer off it."

"Isn't this land off the corridor sacred?" Ari asked.

"Good God," Severn grunted, "now the jockey's talking sacred."

"The truly sacred ground can only be trod by the People," Carson explained, ignoring Severn. "We will only take you where it is allowed."

"How will we know we've reached the base?" Kara wondered.

"They always send someone out to meet us," Carson told her. "Their guards are very good. They should be. We trained them ourselves."

Grant laughed. Severn shook his head.

"Enough fun and games," he said, "if we're going, lets's go. Otherwise X out the jawin'."

Grant Begaye stepped directly up to Severn. Face to face.

"Perhaps," he said coolly, his features revealing nothing of his inner state, "it's not the jawin' that needs to be Xed out, but the listener."

"Go for it, sturch boy," Severn growled, hand moving towards his holstered DC-40. Carson and Kara pulled the men apart.

"Severn, stop this!" Kara demanded. "These are our friends." Carson led Grant several feet away from the confrontation.

"Then keep that one away from me," Severn blustered.

"Easy, cousin," Carson said, restraining Grant. "Forget about it."

"Come on," Kara addressed the Begayes, "I apologize for this. It has been a long, difficult run. We're not ourselves."

"Then who are you?" Grant provided the punch line that in another time and place might have been funny.

"We're your friends," Kara said earnestly, "your thankful and honored friends."

"Come," Carson said, letting his cousin go. "Enough of this. We must get on to the camp before nightfall. There's no time for these diversions."

"Agreed," Kara said. Then to Severn: "Agreed?"

The rebel leader muttered his acquiescence and headed for the romspeed. Kara sighed. She looked at Carson and shook her head from side to side. He smiled at her.

"Let's go," he said, "the sun begins to drop behind us. The time is right for traveling."

####

When they reached the base of the mountains where the People said the rebel base was, there was still about two hours of light left in the day. They had crossed over the corridor some two miles back and followed Grant Begaye up a smooth wash canyon that seemed to dead end a few yards from where they had stopped their vehicles and got out.

"Grant," Kara asked the young warrior and scout who sat astride his captured romcycle. "Where are the guards?"

"They have always met me well before here," he said. "This is not usual."

"Is this as far as you've ever been?" Ari asked.

"Yes," Grant replied.

"It is the agreement between us," Carson said.

"I will look ahead for an opening," Grant added.

"We'll keep an orb on your cousin while you're gone," Severn said, unsnapping his holster and holding up his DC-40.

"Severn, for frap's sake," Kara said, disgusted.

"It's okay," Carson assured her and his kinsman. "Look for the camp. Be safe."

Grant got off the romcycle and quickly disappeared behind the rocks and scrub desert plants at the end of the canyon. But not before he had pointed a warning, and perhaps challenging, finger at Severn. Severn snorted and walked to the back of Ari's romspeed. Ari and Platt found some large rocks to sit on and had a bite to eat and some water. Kara and Carson Begaye kept a wary eye out for the young scout. In a few minutes, Carson held up his hand.

"What is it?" Kara asked.

"Listen," he told her. Kara listened intently but could hear nothing.

"Over there," Ari said, appearing at her side. She looked at him, surprised. "A low whistle, ahead to the right."

"Exactly," Carson said. "Let's go."

A few feet beyond what looked like the end of the canyon, a narrow trail wound around behind several large boulders and through a patch of thick scrub. They found Grant another twenty yards ahead, standing at the base of a thatch covered rock nearly as tall as he was.

"Great," Severn said, "more boulders. More cactus branches."

With a laugh, Grant tugged on the branches to one side of the boulder.

"What the...?" Platt began.

The boulder separated, pulled apart, revealing a cave entrance eight feet high.

"Frappin' hell," Ari said. "Orb that out."

"Must be ten feet wide," Severn commented.

"Closer to twelve," Carson suggested. He held his left arm out toward the entrance. "Kara, please." Kara started forward.

"No," Severn stopped her. "The two People first, then romjockey and the Somecop, Kara and me last."

"Fuck, Severn," Kara said, relying on the old talk word the Keeper had admonished them about using.

"He is right," Carson said.

"No, he's not," Kara disagreed.

"The People are not afraid," Grant said, and he and Carson went into the cave entrance. Ari followed but Platt held back.

"You tryin' to trick us with this shit," he said to Severn.

"Move it, dragal...," Severn said, then cut himself off. "Just move on."

"Yeah, yeah," Platt grumbled, understanding that Severn's DC-40 did the ordering here. He followed Ari in. Kara and then Severn followed.

"Look at this," Ari proclaimed as the rebels came out of the entrance behind him and into a massive central cave.

Kara held her breath as she took in what she correctly surmised was the very heart of the rebel base. The main cave in which they now stood was circular, roughly one hundred feet in diameter with a vertical height at its peak of fifteen to eighteen feet. There was sunlight coming from somewhere and all in all it reminded Kara of a huge place called a cathedral that she had once seen in a flicker back at the booker. Three corridors led off from the main room and the group checked each one in turn.

The left corridor led to another inner chamber, perhaps half as big as the main one and it was clearly an eating area. In the center of the room was a large rectangular table lined with benches and in one corner there were tins and boxes of provisions with IMC stamps on them -- apparently stolen or somehow confiscated from corridor supply runs. A large rock oven was at the back center of the room which, like the center room, had a source of light from somewhere high above.

The central corridor was also lit well from above and it ran to what seemed to be a strategy or meeting room, the centerpiece of which was a round, wooden table. Beyond this room was yet another that contained several large boxes of ammunition and weapons and to Ari's delight -- a couple of old model romspeeds.

The rightmost corridor led to a less illuminated area which, based on the number of hammocks strung and low lying cots spread around, had clearly been the rebels' sleeping quarters. Severn was about to tell everyone to regroup when Grant and Carson held up their hands.

"Wait," Carson said.

"What for?" Severn demanded.

"Look, cousin," Grant said, "over here."

"Wounded men," Kara cried out, seeing what the Begayes had picked up with their keen senses.

The group moved towards the men, who were lying at the far back of the room in a very dark spot, but the sound of two L-12s cocking stopped them dead in their tracks. Out of the light coming from the doorway into the sleeping area, a man and a woman materialized as if out of nowhere. Severn and Kara wheeled toward them reaching for their weapons but they were looking down the huge L-12 barrels before they could draw. Grant Begaye held his arm in front of Severn and Kara.

"Aaron," he said, "Jinra, I see you have learned your lessons well."

"You are a good teacher, my friend," the man called Aaron said, stepping into view to shake Grant and Carson's hands. "Hello, Elder Begaye." The woman left her weapon aimed at the not-People in the room.

"It is good to see you again, Aaron," Carson said. "You, too, Jinra."

"The People honor us with their presence," the woman said, nodding to both Carson and Grant..

"Who in fire are these cits?" Severn questioned.

"Who are you?" Jinra countered.

"We are from the rebellion," Kara explained. "I'm Kara Felt. This is our leader Severn and these two are our, uh, companions, Ari and Platt. Severn and I have come to join you in the main resistance here."

Both Aaron and Jinra laughed mirthlessly. Up close, Kara was able to see and evaluate them better. The male, Aaron, was about Severn's height but thinner with a rough look to his sharp features that were somewhat obscured by a day or two's stubble. His almost black hair was cropped short above a prominent forehead. Beneath thick eyebrows, his dark eyes seemed to burn, either from hunger or fear, or maybe both. He had skinny but muscular arms and seemed hard in a way that gave the general impression he was a person who seemed to not have a lot to lose. Kara figured he had seen a lot of action.

Both he and the woman, Jinra, wore rugged pants and shirts, too dirty and patched to reflect much of their original color or quality. Jinra had long, light brown hair that was matted and dirty and hung over her face, mostly hiding it. Kara could see light brown eyes, high cheekbones and a small fine nose above full lips and a strong jaw. She looked tough, too, but not quite as wild as Aaron.

"Why do you laugh?" Kara asked.

"We are the resistance," Jinra said, the information hitting Kara like an Erad punch to the stomach. "All of it. Out here anyway."

"What?" Kara gasped. "What happened?"

"Outworld berserkers," Jinra elaborated, "on a supply attack. Hit us in the middle of the night. Maybe fifty of them. We were not prepared."

"We're all that's left," Aaron said. "Plus our three wounded there. The rest we buried."

"Except for Richards," Jinra added.

"Richards?" Severn entered the conversation.

"Another radcit," Aaron answered, "one of us. Another fighter."

"We drew straws," Jinra said, "Richards went to Endgate. We had not seen the People in weeks, we didn't know what else to do."

"We're sorry," Kara said sincerely.

"What about this Endgate?" Severn asked. "We hear it's a very dangerous place."

"It is," Jinra said, "but you have to go there if you hope to reach New Columbia."

"New Columbia!" Kara cried, only a second before Ari did the same.

"You mean," Ari asked incredulously, "there really is a New Columbia?"

"None of us has actually been," Jinra told him, "but others have come to us from there."

"Amazing," Severn said, rubbing his chin.

"New Columbia is real," Ari said, more to himself than the others.

"What was this Richards going to find in Endgate, Jinra?" Kara asked.

"A guide. A man there who supposedly knew the way to New Columbia."

"What is this man's name?" Carson Begaye asked.

"I can't remember, Elder," Jinra told him, "it began with a T. Something like Tora or Terra."

"Terranova?" Carson suggested.

"Yes," Jinra said, "that's right. Terranova. How did you know?" Both Carson and Grant Begaye shook their heads.

"Bad man," Grant said simply.

"You'd be better off dealing with a snake," Carson added, "with no offense to the brother snake."

"They're all snakes in Endgate," Jinra said.

"Apparently so," Severn commented.

"This Terranova character, then he's definitely in Endgate?" Kara asked.

"Yes," Aaron said.

"Can you take us there?" Kara wondered. Ari exchanged looks with Severn.

"Our responsibility is to our wounded, Kara," Jinra said. "We can't. We don't dare leave them."

"Carson? Grant?" Kara asked turning to the People warriors.

"Don't ask them, Kara," Aaron interjected. "New Columbia lies far beyond Endgate but you must pass through the border city to reach it. The People will not enter Endgate. To them it is a most unholy place."

"Aaron speaks straight," Carson said, nodding his head. "It is forbidden the People to enter into that unsacred place."

"Only bad is there," Grant said.

"There's no argument there," Jinra agreed.

"We don't know anything about Endgate," Kara said, "or how to find out how you get from there to New Columbia. There's got to be a way."

"Terranova supposedly knows the Sign of the Way," Aaron said to Kara, "that's why Richards went to seek him out."

"The What of the What?" Severn asked, frowning.

"The Sign of the Way," Aaron repeated.

"What does that mean?" Kara asked.

"We don't know for sure," Jinra said, "there are so many rumors and stories coming out of Endgate, but the sign is something about when you see some mountain peaks across from each other then you are near New Columbia.

"For shit sake," Severn snapped, "that's pure bull."

No it's not, Ari wanted to say, vividly recalling his dream in Long Wound. But there was no way he would reveal anything to Severn. Especially something like the dream vision.

"We've been holed up here for months," Aaron said, "we're all runners like yourselves from the zones. We know nothing of the Outworld or what may lie beyond it except what reaches us by word of mouth." Severn let out a deep breath.

"So this is really all there is?" he said. "This is the base camp and you're the rebel army?"

"We were stronger before," Aaron said defensively.

"And we will be again," Jinra added.

"So this is your pathetic rebellion," Severn laughed.

"Our rebellion," Kara corrected him, "or have you forgotten so soon the repression of Bimhills, the squalor of Ebon, the...."

"Don't preach to me, girl," Severn cut her off, "I was just jawin'."

"Maybe you should keep your jawin' to yourself," Kara told him angrily.

Severn squared around towards her. Ari started to step towards Severn. Carson Begaye held up a hand.

"Calm yourselves, people," he said, "calm yourselves. There are wounded here who need help."

"You're Elder," Kara said, backing off sheepishly. Severn and Ari relaxed.

"Aaron," Carson Begaye went on, "Jinra. Grant and I will return to Cibola and send back our healer. She can make your wounded well."

"Thank you, Carson," Aaron said. "We would be in your debt."

"No debt," Carson replied.

"We should go now," Grant counseled his older cousin.

"Yes, Grant," Carson agreed, "we should go. We will send the healer right away."

The People warriors shook hands with Jinra and Aaron and made preparations to leave. Aaron and Jinra escorted them out to the main cave. Kara followed.

"We thank you, too, Carson," she said, "and you, Grant. You have helped us more than we can repay."

"Do not forget the one who escaped," Carson told her. Aaron and Jinra looked over at Kara.

"I'm afraid we brought at least one Erad with us," she told them. "I'll explain later."

"Elder," Ari suddenly called out, hurrying into the main chamber, "wait." Carson turned to face the young romjockey. "I had to give my thanks, too," Ari said, "for the honor you paid me in Cibola and for the gift you and the People gave me." Carson reached out with one hand and held Ari's arm.

"The gift of dream vision was given to you freely," Carson said, "use it wisely."

"I'll try," Ari said.

"Goodbye, then," Carson said to the group. Grant held up his captured DC-40 in a farewell salute. The runners and their new hosts waved goodbye. Grant and Carson turned and walked quickly away. In seconds they were out of sight.

"Finished your goodbyes?" Severn asked, entering the room with Platt stumbling before him.

"Is there somewhere I can talk to my 'leader'," Kara asked Aaron and Jinra, "alone?"

"The meeting hall behind us is good," Aaron said.

"You're right, young princess," Severn said sarcastically, "we got some jawin' to do." Then to Aaron and Jinra: "Keep an eye on these two." He pointed his DC-40 at Ari and Platt.

"Knock that off," Kara told Severn, "let's do it."

They stomped into the meeting room area, walking nearly to the back of the room before they stopped and faced each other.

"What the frappin' hell is with you?" was the first thing out of Kara's mouth. "You're getting more and more flakey the farther we get out here. Are you losing it or something?"

"I don't follow," Severn stonewalled her.

"Follow this, then," Kara said. "Ever since Ebon you keep disappearing, you get more and more crazed about useless crap like your jammin' watch, and now you're ripping the rebellion. Sometimes I don't think you're same cit I knew back in Bimhills. What's the deal here?"

"There's no deal."

"No deal? Nothing."

"Nothing," Severn said, beginning to heat up again, "except we been running like idiots through every zone in the world, we nearly get Xed out a dozen times, then we find the base we been orbin' for completely zeroed out. Other than the fact that the rebellion we fought for doesn't even exist, I guess that's about all that might be jammin' me up."

"That's it."

"That's it."

"Well, tell me this, leader," Kara demanded, "what do we do now then?" Severn walked a few steps from her and leaned against the large round table that was the room's highlight.

"I'm for turning back."

"What?" Kara yelled. "You're for what? Turning back? To where? Do the run again, go back? For what? To what?"

"Take it easy," Severn told her. "I don't see any other way."

"Look," Kara said. "I'm as low as you are on this. Whatever our plan was for the run, it means nothing now. It's hard to take, but I accept it now."

"Kara," Severn said, voice calm and even now, "the plan was for us to get here, mix with the main rebel force for an offensive against Bimhills. A full attack on the silver and the shadpols. But as you can see, this is not going to happen. There is no base. There are no rebels. There is no rebellion."

"So what do we do now?"

"We go back."

"That's not an option. Not for me."

"You got another plan?"

"Yes, stay."

"Here? What for?"

"We can eat and rest. Try to find New Columbia."

"New Columbia is a sim, Kara. A fantasy. A dream."

"But you heard Jinra. There's even a contact in Endgate."

"Endgate? We'd be lucky not to get zeroed out in Endgate, much less find this Terrawhatever."

"Terranova."

"This is crazy thinking. Nuts."

"There's nothing for us here," Kara said, almost pleading. "No radcits left. Nobody here. Maybe they're all in New Columbia."

"Maybe Bimhills isn't controlled by shadpols," Severn said with heavy-handed irony. Kara looked down at her feet. She seemed genuinely unhappy. "You really believe there is such a place as New Columbia, don't you?"

"I have to believe in something," Kara said, raising her head. She looked squarely at Severn.

"Well, what about the two zoner shitcits?" he asked, looking away from the candid intensity of her gaze.

"We give them a choice," she said.

"Yeah. Go back or die."

"No, damn it. Stay here or come with us."

"Come with us?" Severn cried. "Come with us? I'm not tadsittin' those two useless sacks another second."

"Suit yourself," Kara told him. "I'm sure there's some kind of transpo Aaron and Jinra can set you up with."

"Son of a jammer! You don't give me any options."

"You have plenty of options."

"I'm in charge here. I'm the leader. I say what we do."

"Leader of what?" Kara countered. "You said yourself there's no rebellion left. No rebellion. No leaders. It's a solo deal now."

"You push hard, Kara."

"I'm not going back through that hell and there's no reason to stay here. I'm for pushing on to New Columbia."

Severn started to present another argument for doing just the opposite but he realized from Kara's set jaw and determined look that it would get him nowhere. He considered his own alternatives. They did not look good. He chose to stick with numbers. Going either direction solo made no sense. There was still that berserk Erad out there somewhere.

"All right, all right," he acquiesced, "but you keep the zoners under control or I waste them."

"There'll be no need for that," Kara said, smiling grimly. "Then we go on."

"We go on," Severn agreed.

"Let's go back to the others."

Inside the main room again, Kara told Aaron and Jinra the new plan.

"There's still plenty of food and water," Aaron told Kara, "and we have some fuel and supplies. You can take what you need."

"You're free to stay with us as long as you need to," Jinra added. "Hopefully, the Outworlders won't return right away. I imagine they think they've cleaned us out."

"Thank you," Kara said. "You are truly goodcits." She turned then towards Ari and Platt. "You two are not rebels," she told them, "our cause means nothing to you. From this moment, you are free. Free to go back to Bimhills, to Cibola, to wherever."

"Yeah," Platt said with a big goofy smile, "Ari, my good cit, let's bust first sun. Zoom the corridor. We're in Redsinthe smokin' ginweed and sloppin' bedmates in no time." Ari shook his head.

"No, Platt," he said, causing the big Somecop's happy face to fall faster than a boulder dropped into a canyon. "That's not what I want." He returned Kara's look and spoke to her. "Not anymore. I want to go on." Kara smiled at him. Both Platt and Severn looked disgusted.

"We're going on to find New Columbia," Kara said to Ari. "We have no idea what the future will hold."

"I want to go with you," he told her.

"Nauseating," Severn said.

"Frap, Ari," Platt interjected. "You're really different now, cit."

"Yes," Ari said, not breaking eye contact with Kara. "I am. Kara, I want to go on. Platt can do as he wants. He's free, right?"

"Yes," she said, matching Ari's gaze.

"Ah, shit, man," Platt grimaced, "that's chilled ice on my back, goodcit. You ask too much." Ari broke eye contact with Kara and looked at Platt. Platt shuffled from side to side. "Ah, shit," he groaned again. "You frapper, Ari. I'm coming with you." Ari laughed.

"We're coming," he said to Kara.

"It's settled then," she said. "We leave in two days. Aaron and Jinra, we'll take you up on your offer of shelter and supplies." Aaron and Jinra nodded their approval.

"Son of a bitch," Severn muttered.

"To New Columbia," Ari said, raising his rifle above his head.

"For holy shit," Platt said, cringing. He'd never heard such things come out of his old friend's mouth.

"To New Columbia," Kara said.

"First," Aaron reminded them, "you've got to deal with Endgate."

"And then the Outworld," Jinra added. "Feral T and Carbon Based and...."

"Frappin' hell," Platt said.

"This New Columbia sure as hell better be there if we make it past all this crap," Severn said.

"It will be," Kara said simply.

"It's there all right," Ari said, his confident tone surprising everyone, including himself. "I'm certain of it."

"You better be, romjockey boy," Severn said. "I didn't come this far to get Xed out by Outworld berserkers. Especially not on some fantasy run to some mind sparkle dream place."

"Don't worry," Ari told the former rebel leader, "it'll be there."

"We'll see," Severn said, "we'll see."

####

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. J.B. lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

E-mail: J. B. Hogan

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