Kate had paced all day and all night; she wasn’t about to stop now. Her 90 mph mind had entered a new dimension, ratcheting up somewhere beyond the speed of sound so that what issued from her flying lips became a garbled, spluttery, incoherent mass.
“Mother–you better get–son of–shnarg–vleedle ming damn poufta–better bring my–”
Every so often, Gene and Pete would look at each other and shrug with their eyes. It was one minute to 10:00 a.m. Sven had warned them, but despite having lived with the Jensens for some months, not even the old man could have imagined what it would be like. The little paranoid schizophrenic redhead had neither slept nor eaten, accepting Soothers four at a time but burning through the prescription downers without so much as a blink. Forty-five minutes ago, she had begun craving.
“There’s got to be a bottle of something in this f*****g dump!” She had screamed at them for refusing to help her look, accusing them of hiding the good stuff, caromed from cupboard to cupboard to under the couch, under the couch cushions, behind the lamp, in the lamp, behnd the doors, upstairs and down where she fell twice, once nearly breaking a wrist that had been broken a dozen times before, crying for her man as she went.
“Sven Jensen, you get here please before I die!” Sobriety had not truly been a problem until now. Cravings like this no longer existed in her world…or so she had thought.
“I hate myself! I want to die! F*****g whore b***h!
The men had no idea whether that last might be self-directed or if it was directed at the imprisoned Tina, the little traitor who no doubt remained fully capable of throwing Soul-hate at her in her weakest of moments.
At precisely ten a.m., a sleek gray turbo coupe rolled smoothly to a stop in the driveway. Ahot Ajki got out and came to the front door. Pete let him in. Gene had taken up his position in the recliner and cast an anxious glance toward the rattled redhead.
No worries. It was like a switch had been thrown; the tiny nutzoid Hoelringer had become stone cold strong–on the surface, anyway–in less than a second. The Jensens told a story about her drinking days, a time when she had front snap kicked a steel apartment door in a drunken rage, the thunder from her power rumbling the entire building. Minutes later, cop cars surrounded the place, responding to a front office reports of a shot fired in her residence.
When informed of this absurdity by uniformed officers with their hands on their weapons, looming in her front door like Darth Vader in Princess Leia’s prison cell, she had supposedly fallen to the floor laughing hysterically–instantly sober.
Watching her now from the corner of his eye, Gene finally believed.
“Mr. Mansk,” the Guild man smiled in greeting, “Are we ready for your second session?” The Eurasian’s smooth style was marred this morning; he was good, but that he was under strain was obvious to every Sandfire operative in the room.
“You look a little tired, Mr. Ajki.” Gene’s concern was genuine–though not for the man he addressed. “Perhaps we should postpone a day or two?”
Visible relief flooded Ahot’s face. “I-I can handle the job all right, Mr. Mansk, I assure you. But I can also understand why you might be uneasy. This type of work does require one to be at one’s best, and unfortunately a family matter kept me up last night. I fear I must confess I’ve had very little sleep.”
LIkely none, Gene thought drily. Aloud, he said simply, “I’m in no hurry, Mr. Mansk.” He pretended to consult a pocket calendar. “The headaches are so minor I barely notice them any more. Are you booked on Thursday?”
“Not at present. I’ll have my secretary rework the appointments. It really would be nice to get a couple hours of sleep. Thank you.”
Pete showed the Guild Rep out, watching tensely until the coupe had pivoted, launched skyward, and was lost to view–then he bolted for the screen-wall. Kate beat him there, ripping the fabric aside. Sven was huddled against the real wall in near-fetal position. His bulging backpack jutted upward, making him look a bit like the hunchback of Notre Dame had humped a gargoyle and had a kid. There was no color whatsoever left in his face, his fists were clenched hard enough to whiten the knuckles…and he was not moving.
“He’s gone, baby,” Kate was saying, crooning to her man. “Ajki’s gone. You’re safe. Are you all right? Don’t die on me! What happened to–”
One fist lifted slowly, index finger unfolding in the timeless “hold on a second” sign. Kate silenced herself with an effort, straining to hear the two raspy words he directed not to her but to Pete:
“Plan B!” Pete snapped the command, loudly enough for Gene to hear, sharply enough to penetrate Kate’s mental confusion. “Get to the car now!”
“I’ll help carry him–” Kate began.
“No. The backup vehicle is loaded. I can carry Sven alone. Kate, you take the middle front seat. Gene, you’re riding shotgun. Go. Dammit, Kate, GO!”
The tall young man scooped up their leader, backpack and all, as if the 195 pounds of dead weight amounted to no more than a pillow full of feathers. By the time Kate and Gene had strapped themselves in, the Seeder was being deposited quickly but carefully in the rear seat, his backpack removed and a pillow placed under his head. Pete glanced at his watch as they pulled out of the garage, leaving the fancy flycar behind.
Kate said nothing until she heard a small moan from the rear seat.
“I’ve got to help–”
“No.” Something in young Pete’s voice stopped her.
Sven spoke to his girl for the first time, a hoarse croak. “Listen to Pete. I…be okay. Can…do myself. Just–”
“We’ve got it, boss,” Pete affirmed. He liked to call Sven that, Kate knew, just to tease his own boss, the overall boss of Sandfire Glass. Inside joke.
Kate acquiesced finally, settling for adjusting the inside mirror so she could see into the back seat. Which meant Pete was now dependent on the two outside mirrors only, but he was an expert driver, so bleep him. She watched intently as the Seeder slowly managed to open one hand enough to grasp an emergency NuDrink packet. He downed the contents of three such before finally closing his eyes and drifting off. His left fist, though no longer tight, remained closed–but to Kate’s batsonic ears, his breathing sounded deep and regular.
She never knew when her own head slumped forward, though somewhere amidst the various dream visions of blood, knives, and dancing feathers, she thought she heard someone say something about snoring.
When she opened her eyes, it took a while to figure out where she was…and who she was with. Her general rule of life was: Routine = good, Unknown = bad. She liked her rituals, thank you very much, and this rolling down a strange two-lane highway in some antique clunker surrounded by tall green foresty stuff did not feel like her morning kitchen with its ready coffee, waiting for her to cough clear the usual phlegm buildup that accumulated overnight.
Some kind of black man, or half black, a really tall dude, drove the car with sure precision. On her other side, a guy older than the car itself, a great grandfatherly type, gave off abundant body heat. Who were these men? Had she done them? She sat very still, staring straight ahead, trying to work it out in her amnesiac mind. Come to think of it, where was Garrett–
Her head whipped around. The Seeder was sitting upright under his own power, cleaning his fingernails with a tiny penknife. Worry about DNA traces flashed a momentary warning before she remembered there was no reason for a trace to be run on this vehicle.
“Good morning, babe.” He grinned his wonderful, toothless grin, then leaned forward to smooch her on the cheek. “Have a nice nap?”
“I–is it morning?”
“Nah. Just kidding. Three-oh-seven in the afternoon.”
“Oh. Where are we?”
“Ask Pete. Been out myself till about twenty minutes before you popped back into your body.”
The driver spoke over his shoulder. “Should be seeing what’s left of Pittsburgh pretty soon. The edge of the Blasted Lands.”
Kate thought about that. It would be interesting, seeing the results of the Jovian War’s longest and deadliest engagement. History holos showed great gouges in the ground, burned out sections of the United States covering miles and miles, aierial shots indicating little if any regrowth. Nothing nuclear, nothing biological or chemical, but everything else had been thrown into that one. It was said more than 90 percent of the civilian population of Ohio had died in the process, along with nearly 50 percent of the people in western Pennsylvania.
There must be millions of ghosts. She would have to be strong. No problem. Her man was still alive, still with her. She could do this.
“Okay, Master,” she said. “What happened?”
“First things first. Pete, how’s the fuel?”
“Getting down. Shuld be a recharging station at Pittsburgh, though. These old solarchems are in high demand in the Bee-ells, from what I hear.”
“Yeah, I heard that, too.” The Blasteds were rebuilding, but it was a slow process. Cheap, easily recharged transportation would understandably be of greater value there than probably anywhere else in the country. “Okay. Let’s fuel up and see if there’s some kind of restaurant that offers red meat other than rat, cat, dog, or horse. I could use a little bovine protein.”
Pete glanced at Sven in the rear view mirror he’d promptly readjusted once Kate had fallen asleep. “Supposed to be lots of deer in the area the past few years. Will venison do?”
“Yeah. If it’s not gutshot or road killed. Um…guess you’d all like to hear how it went now, huh?”
“Nah,” Gene Trask put in with barely a trace of sarcasm, “Why don’t you build the suspense a little more? It’ll put just that much more pressure on these old kidneys.”