The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“I hope you’re happy now,” Andreas told Katrina while his hands were firm on his hips. “I missed my boat.”

Katrina shrugged. “Couldn’t really be helped.”

Andreas glared at her, “I only missed it by five hours!”

Katrina sighed. She looked out across the bay. The entire shoreline was lined by either factories, highrises or condos of the Port of Dreams. Her eyes always slide towards the north. Steep cliffs and slopes flanked a mighty water fall cascading over an ancient dam. She knew what sit up in that reservoir. The city down at sea level was a far cry from any she ever seen. Buildings of steel and glass, and factories that belched only minute amounts of smoke, they were all far in advance of back home. Even the thousands of brick apartment blocks made Shownastadt look dead in comparison.

Dozens of ships and hundreds of boats all bobbed up in the bay. Unfortunately, not a single one headed for Tropico. A few were pulling in from the island nations, carrying fruits of its labor. Coffee, cigars and rum, only the former was legal in The State, as long as it was not Tropican. The others, those were prohibited under all circumstances, though Katrina thought it pointless. Who would want one of those nasty Tropican Cigars anyway? And the rum– why was that nothing more than fermented sugar?

Andreas paced around the dock. Even these were not the run-of-the-mill docks on the Jaipur River. Not even the least bit; these were solid structures of concrete. Many had their own cranes to lift the monestrous containers off barges. The most Katrina saw back home were primarily wooden. Grant it, not many freighters traversed the river, not when rails were so plentiful. As busy as this port was, these particular wharves were vacant. With no passenger ships scheduled for the week, only a few worked the terminal.

“Ten days,” Andreas muttered as he paced. Ten days, almost half an astro. “I’m going to have a bounty on my head by the time I get back.” He hoped it was an exaggeration. After all, he did pretty much walk off the contract to spring Katrina. Sure, he had a good reason, and all the dwarves would understand,– but this was not a personal fraternity, this was a business. Hopefully all the benefits he offered would outweigh this cost. If not, then the bosses might just take out a hit on him.

“Guess we’ll just have to wait,” Katrina said in a neutral tone. She was not exactly disappointed, after all, the great Dream City lay within grasp. If they were not going anywhere, might as well make the best of it. She was uncertain what that best would be. Andreas was not made of money, and she did not even have a dinar on her.

Andreas eyed her curiously. He would have assumed her words would be ‘you’ll have to wait’ as opposed to we. Maybe she would go to Tropico after all. Andreas could not promise anything, but he could help her start over. Or maybe it was something a little closer she had in mind. After Yarasov, the two argued about Dream City and Port of Dreams. One wish to head one way, the other– well the other.

One thing was clear. No matter which way they went, they could not do it on looks and charm alone. “Half an astro– I better go pay a visit to the bank.”

Katrina looked around. She had no idea where Andreas planned to find one. Up in Dream City, that was where the financial industry lay. “You better, unless you want to camp on the dock.”

Andreas shot her a grin. “You know, I just might do that.” Not by choice either. If his bank account was cleaned out, then what else could he do.

When Andreas said bank, this was not what Katrina had in mind. At first, she thought they were going down to catch the subway. The entry was rather sparse and dull. No schedules, no advertisements, and no passengers climbing or descending. It looked closed down, though maintained with care. She did notice many of the surface dwellers avoided the terminal. Very strange, especially considering the docks lay nearby. Thousands worked the docks, surely not all of them could own autos. Those who did not, had to find alternative routes.

Once down into the terminal, Katrina understood why it looked closed. It was. Rather, it was officially closed. Rails below were long gone, and only half the lights worked. It was not by random failure either; somebody deliberately left the odd row of lights off. Dim red light bathed the whole terminal in a sinister way. Katrina felt uneasy down below, and stuck close to Andreas.

Though closed, the place was far from empty. Sapiens and pygmaeus mingled as they entered and exited various shops. The shops looked new, looked added. They were built after the terminal closed, and not hastily either. These storefronts were symmetrical, clean and assembled with surprising pride. It was almost a small town’s commercial district, albeit underground.

In Andreas’s line of work, underground took on two meanings; literal and implied. These plainly illegal and off-the-record businesses were definitely underground. Certainly the authorities must know about this place. If so, they did not appear to care. She followed Andreas through the crowds and into a pleasant brick storefront. There was no sign above the door or on the window. The only obvious marking came in the form of a tool hanging on sign post– a hammer painted gold.

The interior looked much like Katrina’s former bank, like many banks. Minus the decoration of course. This underground bank was staffed by dwarves, and they made their workspace very utilitarian. Andreas headed up to the counter. Three booths sat evenly space apart. Behind each, stood a surly looking dwarf and plenty of machinery. One was immediately recognized as a form of teletype; a machine that delivered information from afar, and fast.

The dwarf was as far from friendly as Capelleon was from Towne. A polar opposite of Katrina’s teller. He glared at Andreas as he leaned against the counter. “What do you want?”

“What do you think?” Andreas replied, drawing a card from inside his travel worn jacket. He handed the plastic rectangle to the dwarf.

The teller eyed it over. “How much you worth?”

“Plenty,” Andreas said with a smile. At least he would be as long as the account was not already closed out. “Just punch it in and find out.”

The dwarf snorted, a very common response for the pygmaeus species. His snort relayed a great deal of skepticism. “We’ll see about that.” Andreas knew what that meant. As the dwarf rang up Tropico, Andreas knew a negative answer would not bode well for his health. On the outside, he was cool as can be, on the inside– his stomach was churning. In a few minutes, he would find out his position.

Those few minutes, as data flowed from machine in Port of Dreams to its alternative in Tropico City, stretched on longer than they should. He took a couple of glances at Katrina, who seemed both bored and nervous. That did not surprise him. How many times in her life had she seen so many non-sapiens in one place at one time. This was all new to her, and if his account was dead, the newness would not last.

The dwarf came stomping back with a length of ticker tape. Andreas could not see what was on the tape, but the approving expression worn by the dwarf said plenty. “Ok, you’re worth something after all.” He glance up from the tape and took his first notice at the red-haired sapien behind Andreas. “Whose the Sheila?” The dwarf recognized Andreas as one of his own, but Golden Hammer Enterprises had no lady ‘field operatives’.

“She’s with me,” Andreas told him. “And that’s all you need to know.” He spoke up to the teller. Sure, Andreas was made, but the teller’s status was higher. Only the most trusted of associates were allowed to handle money of the Dwarven Mafia.

The dwarf frowned. “She good at keeping quiet?”

Andreas gave him a wiry smirk. “You ever met a woman who was?”

Some things crossed species lines, and this was one. The dwarf could only answer with a boisterous, and very unprofessional laugh. “Alright, how much you want?”

Andreas paused to contemplate. “Just give me a thousand.”

Katrina’s attention was peaked. On thousand dinar! She only made half that much in a whole astro from her teaching job. It sounded like a sizeable sum, but how long would it last in this city? Long enough to visit Dream City anyway. With a ten day wait and plenty of cash, Andreas had no real reason to say no– well, except to be a jerk.

The dwarf stumbled away for a few seconds. A few seconds were all he needed to crack open his safe. He grumbled to himself as he drew a bundle of bills from its safe place. “There you go, one thousand dinar in twenty notes.”

Andreas took the bundle and began to thumb through them. He simply browsed the count, not making a definitive effort. To do so might insult the dwarf, but not likely. One who worked in an underground bank was use to not being trusted. Andreas then took up a nearby pen and put it to use. The dwarf gave him two forms to sign. Just with the cash, Andreas looked over the forms. “Looks in order,” he said, swiftly signing his name. “Good day to you.” All business.

The dwarf snorted. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Andreas took in a deep breath. It was nice to be in open sky again. Though he worked with and for dwarves, he did not care much for the underground. The fresh sea breeze brought back memories of home, though not a place in Tropico looked this wealthy. Port of Dreams had half as many autos as inhabitants, not to mention radios and telephones. The auto count was not that pleasing, but still impressive. Andreas found the traffic heavy, but not as sluggish as Florastadt. Odd how a much larger and heavier populated area had better traffic flow. Then again, Port of Dreams was built with autos in mind.

“Where are we headed?” Katrina asked him, with a somewhat hopeful tone.

“The autoway,” Andreas told her. “You want to see Dream City, fine, we’ll drive past it. You’ll get a clear view from the dam.” At two hundred meters in height, they would receive a good view of everything.

Katrina jabbed him in the back. “Drive by! You can’t just drive by.”

“Have to,” Andreas replied. “The only way to get to the opposite side of the harbor is over the dam.”

Though she held on from behind, Andreas could still feel her glare. “You can’t honestly say, that after coming all this way you don’t want to visit Dream City.”

She was right. Andreas would not mind visiting Dream City. Who would not? Cities on water were uncommon, but not unheard of– but a city on a two hundred meter deep lake. Now that was something. “No, but I can say that I wouldn’t mind being on my boat right now!”

Katrina sighed. He was so difficult, so she tried a different approach. “Tell you what, you can either go there, or spend the next week listening to ‘Can we go to Dream City?’ ‘Can we go to Dream City?”

Andreas began to wonder just why he put up with her all this way. Now that she was safe, he could just drop her off on the next corner. No, Andreas decided better. “You want to play tourist, fine!”

Katrina gave him a pat on the shoulder. “See how much nicer it is when we think alike.”

“You mean when I do what you say,” Andreas corrected with a mutter.

If Katrina heard, she gave no indication. “Get a move on. I hope you know the way.”

Backseat drivers– “Yeah, yeah, I’ll just follow the signs.” If the autoway and arteries had one thing in plenty, it was big green signs with direction arrows on them. Andreas tried to shoot his own glare via the mirror, but could not catch her gaze. She was in an oddly good mood today. The fact that Andreas was loaded and she was going to her dream destination contributed to that.

“You know, just because you missed your boat, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself,” Katrina informed him. It was that same tone she used when she taught.

Andreas wanted to glare even harder. “I’d enjoy myself a lot more back home.” Not to mention joyriding while he should be back working was not a good thing. The dwarves will certainly notice his withdrawal. Still, a thousand in Port of Dreams would not make them suspicious. After all, they knew the ship schedules same as anyone.

Katrina grew a little more exasperated. “Oh, just shut up and drive.”

Andreas did exactly that. He cruised the crowded autoway long enough to spot a rather spacious parking lot at the base of the cliffs and ancient dam. The paved space stretched for at least a whole square kilometer. Though many autos crowded near the cliff, the periphery was wide open. Andreas was not to picky about parking, after all this was not his Steelhorse. Though, seeing just how many stairs they must climb to reach the top– Andreas decided to get as close as possible. Not so much for his sake, but so he would not have to listen to Katrina gripe.

He was not even sure why he put up with her so long. He long since fulfilled his responsibility to bail her out, at least that was what he told himself. Abandoning her at the nearest stop was not much of an option. Abandonment was one experience nobody should have to go through. So then what? Take he back to Tropico? She already made her feelings clear on that place. Perhaps over the next week, she might find some opportunity for herself in Port of Dreams, or Dream City itself. If so, then Andreas can part knowing he fulfilled his duty. If not–

Andreas would worry about that later. Odds were, Katrina would fall in love with Dream City and decide to stay. She was certainly in a hurry to get there. He watched as her higher pace rapidly expanded the distance between the two. She best not get herself lost. Dream City is safe enough, but the Port of Dreams had all the same perils as any big city. A made man had no worries; even if a gangster is sent to the big house, he had little worries. Crossing any of the mafia companies or families had a way of making one quite dead.

Now Katrina, a single lost woman, she could fall victim. She had nothing of monetary value, which took any shield she could wield away. Without payment or bribing, there was no telling what the common scum would do to her. The Knights were preferable; at least they simply shot somebody and eliminated that perceived threat. His line of work put him into contact with small time crooks, though mostly that was negotiating with a hammer as the dwarves would say.

Once at the base of the cliffs, Andreas looked up at the stairs switching back and forth along the cliff face. Railing at the first step was high, coming up to Andreas’s chest. Safety was a serious concern, deadly serious. Though the cliff was not sheer, rather just really steep, the fall would not be survivable. The last twenty meters of the cliff was a sheer drop onto several building roofs. He paid no attention to those buildings; they were locked up with few windows. Not a very pretty way to run a business, so they must be utilitarian in nature, such as several lieus.

Andreas took another look at the long walk upwards. He started to reconsider the whole journey. Perhaps driving the autoway up to the top and trying to find an offramp was a better idea. Only two such ramps existed, on either side of the reservoir. Both were always packed with traffic, and besides, there was little parking along the lake anyway. Dream City absolutely forbade any vehicles. It was a floating city after all, and the only traffic it could handle was of the foot.

Upon closer investigation, the stairs appeared more carved than built. They were the same stone as the cliff. Oddly enough, it reminded Andreas a lot of concrete, only tougher. There was no way normal concrete could handle the wear and tear of thousands of feet every day. That reminded him of the stairs in Tropico’s capital building. The marble structure was two hundred years old, and he could tell. Two grooves on each step displayed where countless feet rubbed away over the decades.

Katrina soon joined Andreas’s gaze, tilting her head up as high as it would go. “It’s a lot higher than I imagined.”

“We can always turn back,” Andreas told her.

Katrina frowned. “Not a chance. This will be no different than a country hike back home.” Besides, everyone else was climbing. Though the stairs were not crowded, they did have plenty of traffic, perhaps a few persons per flight of stairs.

“A journey of ten thousand kilometers begins with a single step,” Andreas told her.

It was not exactly encouraging, but she took her first step on the long climb to Dream City. One step, followed by another, and another, and another. Before she knew it, Katrina was on her way. Each step brought her that much closer, but she had the feeling this was going to be an all day walk.

At around fifty meters, the two decided to take a break at one of the many rest stops on the stairway. The area was a rather large courtyard-like setting just sticking out of the cliff. Along with dozens of tables, several concession stands littered the area. There were sandwiches, hot food and cold drink, just like what Andreas would expect from a fair or carnival. A carnival without all the ruckus. Certainly, this high above the parking lot was not a place to be playing around.

Sure enough, he saw few in the way of children. Plenty of short people, either pygmaeus or the truly alien goblins. Maybe not a goblin, Andreas was not so keen on telling the two species of gobli apart. Aside from staying out of bright lights, there was little to differentiate gremlins from goblins. The two gobli he spotted, both drinking down human sodas, wore heavily tinted sunglasses. Andreas never found the red sun, for all its diameter, overly bright.

He could tell his own companion was thinking something quite different. Katrina did not care whether the little green men (or maybe women– hard to tell with mammal-like reptiles) were diurnal or nocturnal. Her expression showed genuine disgust, yet fascination. Clearly she seldom to never saw them in Shownastadt, or The State before that. Naveina was not a place to live if one was non-sapien. They did not care if fellow humans or the gobli embraced their culture or merged into the melting pot.

Speaking of which, Katrina certainly appeared to enjoy her frozen fruit kabob. That was a goblin dish. Despite the fierce looking sharp teeth in their mouths, gobli only used those for slicing plants. They had little to no meat in their diet. They ate pretty much the same produce humans did with some exceptions. There was a spice that acted like a narcotic to them, but Andreas could not recall its name. A couple of the crops gobli grew were rather toxic to humans– or at least their livers.

Katrina was not the only one enjoying fruit kebabs. Chirping little hobblers bobbed up and down, almost begging treats off the humans. The green birds, with blue crests upon their heads, sat perched upon the guard rails. Andreas was familiar with the five hundred millimeter tall birds; they lived in Tropico as well. Like most Tropicans, he saw the hobbler as a pest. The little herbivores were known for poking through gardens in the poorer neighborhoods.

Katrina knew nothing of that. All she knew was the little towneforms were cute. Sure, all fun and games until they take a chunk out of your finger. They hounded travelers, but Andreas noticed they stirred clear of the vendors. No doubt they would give the hobbler a boot or brick for his trouble. Better to try the tourist, and maybe get a handout.

“Aren’t they just darling,” Katrina said after finishing her snack. She was too hungry to give out any free bits.

Andreas snorted. “So cute they make me sick.”

Katrina shot him a sideways glare. “How can anyone not love them?”

“Simple,” Andreas explained. “When one is poor and relies on a garden to survive, one does not appreciate flightless birds pillaging their foodstores.”

As predicted, Katrina never considered that. Not surprising. Though mice also pillage, Andreas considered the little creatures cute, with their squiggly noses and big flapping ears. She turned a thoughtful gaze back to the hobblers. After receiving nothing from her, they moved to overlooking a different table. Not only were they pirates, but ungrateful pirates at that.

After a few more minutes of rest they continued their ascent. For all of the climb, not a single shred of shade covered any stairs. They were some umbrellas covering tables at the rest stops, but aside from that it was nothing but wide open sky. The throbbing red sun hammered down on all who traversed the trail. The only reprieve came when passing beneath the first of the autoway’s switchbacks. Shade was a little cooler but a lot noisier, as hundreds of autos drove overhead. Along with the noise, the stench of exhaust drifted down from so many autos rumbling forth.

Resting beneath the underpass was a sight Katrina never thought she would see. Five trim and slim humans stood in the shade and talked amongst themselves. Their figures were a little too perfect to be natural and their faces appeared carved from marble. There was a definitive air of beauty around them, along with a layer of arrogance. Katrina’s eyes narrowed as she walked pass them. They were the rarest of human species, and the most loathed. They were elves, and by their accents probably elves who escaped from Alpina.

Katrina could not help but feel hostile. Almost all her life she had been ingrained by The Party’s doctrine. They blasted anything not sapien, but came down hard on elves. Unlike pygmaeus and giganticus, Homo aurumus wanted almost nothing personal to do with anything that was not them. They had plenty of business dealings, and hoarded all they acquired. They were a generally secretive and reclusive species, often sticking with their own neighborhoods, their own stores and own cafes.

Where Katrina looked on with contempt, Andreas barely noticed them. He seen plenty of elves back home. With half the continent embroiled in war, Tropico often seemed the safest place for refugees. Unlike Katrina, Andreas saw a stubborn and hardy people. One of the elves even had a large basket on his back filled with goods. No doubt he headed for the bazaar, probably planning to set up to sell tomorrow. He was not the first merchant to be seen either; the two passed hundreds of merchandise laden peddlers on their long climb. It was bad enough when it was one’s own two feet, but to add a basket or hand cart to those feet–

It was enough to make everybody want more road access to Dream City, but that would do little good. The bazaar atop these stairs was in no way connected to the roads. More over, no vehicles were allowed in the floating Dream City, though both shores of the lake were filled enough. Even that was tame by Port of Dreams standards. As much of his life in the company of dwarves, Andreas could not help but think of the gnomish axiom; there has to be a better way.

The Port of Dreams was now in clear view. The entire circular harbor lay out across them, offering a wonderful panoramic view. This high up on the trail, only a few buildings towered above them. In fact, only one would tower above the ancient dam and Dream City. Andreas never caught the name of the building, but it was a glass and steel monolith reaching up for one hundred stories. Even at four hundred meters, it was not the tallest building in the world. Andreas believed that honor belonged to a tower back east.

Katrina was not so concerned about the view below. That was nothing but cityscape surrounding a boat infested bay. What concerned her was the sweat building on her brow. She had not sweat so much even in the western stretches of desert, where temperatures soared to over three hundred thirty. Of course there she had the wind blowing in her hair and did not have to hike two hundred meters up a steep climb. What she wanted more than anything was it to rain.

Not too much rain, not to the point of turning the stairway into a waterslide. No, she just wanted a little drizzle and an overcast. That would hit the spot. With nothing but pulsing sun and clear pink-red sky above, it was hard to seek relief from the heat. It was worse here than back home. In Shownastadt, only a river supplied the humidity, but here– Here the entire ocean gave forth its vapors. The mugginess threatened her climb. It was almost as if the atmosphere wanted her to stay down.

After another hour of climbing, the stairs finally began to level out. No longer did they zip back and forth across a vertical face. Instead, they went straight up the gradually reducing slope. Katrina felt a boost of energy from the sight. She was within reach of the top. Climbing the stairway to Dream City was an achievement all of its own, one she would rather not have to take again. Andreas must have chose this route in an attempt to keep her from reaching the top. For some reason or another, he just had little enthusiasm for going there.

Andreas also had little money. A thousand dinar was a fine some that any average worker would have taken, but it would not last a week in Dream City, even factoring in Marasuania’s highly valued currency. Everything up there was at least twice the cost as it was down below. Tropican politicians often blast the city. Being socialist, they often sited the division of rich and poor as being geographically obvious. The wealthy live above the dam, either in Dream City or the more middle-class areas on either shore. The poor live downstream, in smog infested land– the latter being figuratively speaking. Thanks to breezes from the sea or the land, not to mention rain, pollution is quickly dispersed.

“We made it,” Katrina said as she traversed the last steps up towards the bazaar. It was a long climb, and now rewarding. She never tackled anything so difficult in her life. “Sure is high up.”

Andreas walked behind her. “Don’t look down.” Andreas glanced over his own shoulder, seeing a train of humans and gobli following him. Below, bustling city engulfed the Port of Dreams. He spotted a few autos down below, but at two hundred meters, auto and pedestrian alike looked like bugs. Buildings and housing too appeared little more than scale models. The scene was something a model-train enthusiast would appreciate.

The only down side of the view came from the glass and steel towering over the rest of the city. Sunlight bounced off the highrises and bombarded climbers. Glare from below, glare from the horizon and glare from above. Katrina was right, this view would be more enjoyable with an overcast. He did look out across the ocean, hoping to spot his missed ship. Even at Towne’s large size, that ship would have crossed the horizon some time ago.

He spied plenty of other ships; passenger, cargo and naval. Only a few of the latter could be spotted. Three of them were crammed full of towers, stacks and guns, but one had little of anything. Aside from a tower along side its left, the ship’s deck was flat. Well not flat; several machines were crammed at the aft. Aircraft by the looks of it. Tropico had one of those, but not nearly as large as Marasuania. Then again, everything Tropico had was small by comparison. If Marasuania decided to get into the war, The State would feel the pain.

With only a few steps left, Katrina smiled at the wide doorway. “Shade,” she whispered with delight. Walking out in the sun for so long was torture. Grant it, she did not burn like she would have during a flare, but even a calm sun was a harsh one. She charged into the pavilion without hesitation.

Andreas soon joined her. It was nice to get out of the sun, even if it was what astronomers called a ‘red dwarf’. Did not look that small to him, but Towne orbited close. Many other stars he might see at night were far brighter than the sun. He tried to imagine how inhabitants of worlds that may or may not orbit those stars dealt with the sunlight. One thing was sure, anything as close to those stars as Towne was to its would be incinerated. That red sun was bright enough, Andreas did not want to think about an orange or yellow sun.

The bazaar was a novel prospect to Katrina, but it was something Andreas was familiar with. Back in Tropico, many such markets littered the streets of the cities. Sure, those all were outdoors and sold only the barest of merchandise, but Andreas recognized it all. Andreas’s attention was not first turned on the stalls and blankets scattered across the concrete floor, but instead to above. Whomever built this place looks like they left the job undone. Above he could see a vaulted roof, were wooden beams came together at a sharp angle.

The interior walls, all two of them, did not continue to the roof. Instead, they reached up four meters and stopped. They were more partitions than actual walls. Three archways were carved from the walls, and none had doors swinging on them. None were painted for that matter. They were simply covered with wooden panels. A simple design for a simple people. By the looks of some, they were poor simple folk at that.

Andreas did not care much for the goods on sale. One stall he walked past had a variety of tools, all forged from steel. The fact all were made of iron alloys surprised Andreas. Iron was rare, along with any element heavier than it. Most of those heavy metals were reserved for buildings and ships, seldom wasted on tools. Besides, the metal rusts easier than aluminum or titanium. The thought of trying to drag all that up from below made him shudder. The stall next to it had stacks of wool and linen, along with already made clothing. A few lookers but he could not spot any buyers. The sounds of haggling echoed through the halls. That was a familiar sound, for he did plenty of that in his own marketplaces.

Another stall– or rather square blanket spread out across the tarmac– did catch his attention. Books, and lots of them. He knew how much a box of those weighed, and certainly did not envy the one who hauled those up the stairs. By the looks of their paper covers, the books were used, some heavily. Might be a good idea to pick one or two up before his boat came back. The trip home would be long and boring; no luxury liner for him.

Andreas found that he had to hustle Katrina along. Though she wanted to reach Dream City, her eyes wandered from seller to seller. He had to keep close too. What started as a trickle at the entry quickly backed up once deep inside. Four species of humans and two of gobli were too many species to cram into one building. All sort of merged together, not unlike the great herds across the Sevestapoli. They bumped and collided, bouncing off each other. Some were polite, while others grumbled.

The two continued until they reach the final partition. Unlike the other two, this one was only half goods. The other half was food and drink. Both could use a break, as Andreas suggested. “Let’s take a break.”

Katrina stopped, and looked back curiously. “We’re not that far,” she said, pointed to the lighted exit up ahead. “You can just walk a little farther and we can get some proper food.”

Proper and more expensive. “Fine, walk farther later. The city’s been here for quite some time, and I doubt it’ll up and leave any time soon.”

Katrina turned her back to him and acted to leave. “Well I am going to see it now.”

“Then it’s been nice knowing you,” Andreas said with a wave as he headed to check out the food.

Katrina immediately about-faced and shot him a fierce glare. “Why must you be so cold?”

“For the same reason you’re so unreasonable,” Andreas replied.

Katrina scoffed. “I’m unreasonable?”

Andreas smiled. “Glad we can agree on that.”

Katrina did not share his humor. “This coming from the most difficult and stubborn man on all of Towne.”

“That’s why I’m still single,” he said, this time a little cooler.

Katrina found herself cut off. It was hard to come back on a line like that. It was harder still to continue arguing. She knew him for only a short time, but that was long enough to know he would not budge when he believed himself correct. Whether or not he was– that was another story. “Fine, be that way.”

Instead of stomping off and forgetting she ever crossed paths, she plopped herself down at the nearest table. It was a fairly plain metal mesh table, aluminum unless she was wrong. Both aluminum and titanium were prime metals around the world. They were also hard to separate from their base molecules. That required monestrous amounts of power– which the ancient dam just happened to provide. Dozens of smelters in Port of Dreams churned out the pure metals tonnes every day.

The chair was harder than those at the rest stop. It too was made of a mesh. Katrina struggled to make herself comfortable. Too hard, so bad that maybe it was a better idea to strike out on her own. Just where she would go and more importantly, what would she do for a living, kept her from acting. She did not like feeling so helpless, not one bit. She hoped somewhere out in the city lay her second chance. Either way, starting over will not be easy.

A few overheard the two trade words. Andreas received no trouble, but a few scowls went Katrina’s way. Her accent was strictly Navenian, and The People were not exactly what one would call popular. A couple of elves glared at her viciously. Katrina was oblivious to the attention, but Andreas caught it. Those elves must be from lands overran. Those unlucky enough to stay behind were removed. Removed to where, nobody knew– though the People’s Government in Tropico had their propaganda version. It included engineering super-humans and ‘purging’ the rest. After all, The Party did desire to purge its lands of all non-sapiens. Andreas was weary about taking that mission statement literally.

After a minute, Andreas sat at the same table. He carried a plate of chips, that is deep fried strips of potato, and sat it down in front of him. He dug in without hesitation. It was alright, but not the best chips he ever ate. It was missing something, probably in the batter. That is assuming they did not just dump it in grease.

Katrina watched him eat with little delight. “Aren’t you going to share?” she asked after a few impatient seconds.

Andreas looked up at her, as if he just now noticed her presence. “First you don’t want any, now you do. Will you make up your mind?” He did not wait for an answer. Instead, he pushed the plate forward, making his offering.

Katrina took one of the chips, and examined it carefully. It was unlike anything she ever ate before. Where did it originate? What was its ingredients? Above all, what did it taste like? The latter was easily answer. She took a bite out of the chip, and analyzed the flavor. “Salty,” she commented after she finished the chip. She then tried best to wipe the oil off her fingers. “And greasy.”

Andreas nodded. “Sure is. I tell you, the People’s Pub cooks up a superior batch of chips.”

Despite Katrina’s original complaint, she ate several more of the chips. She ate far slower than Andreas, who put away the plate in a matter of minutes. With his hunger put to rest, he was ready to get moving. Time to see what this Dream City really looks like.

Katrina gasped at the beauty before her. She heard stories and seen picture, but never imagined Dream City to be so splendid. Across the bluest lake she ever saw, hundreds of floating hubs sat on the glassy surface, connected by hundreds of more bridges. She walked slowly across the causeway, enjoying every second. What was this way made from? Highly polished cement or marble? She could not tell. The causeway, despite all its traffic, was perfectly smooth and without blemishes.

Though far many more walked the causeways that climbed the stairs, the whole road seemed less crowded. Most of the people, of every species, were leaving the floating city and visiting places on the mainland, whether it be the bazaar or beyond. Only a few headed back out to sea, so to speak. By just walking down the causeway, Katrina felt suddenly inadequate. She had been wearing the same dirty clothes since setting out from Shownastadt.

“The first thing I’ll do is buy some new clothes,” Katrina declared.

Andreas followed closely behind. “Sounds like a good idea. Maybe visit the dry cleaner afterwards.” His suit had seen better days. He headed towards the city without her level of enthusiasm. He did see the aesthetics of Dream City, and certainly the design. His buddies in the Golden Hammers would certainly appreciate the level of craftsmanship that went into Dream City– even if it was not built by pygmaeus.

Dream City came into being when humans came back to this land after a long absence, thousands of years ago. They came to farm the plentiful land by the reservoir. Unfortunately, every predator imaginable hung around the giant watering hole. Though most feared man, the roadwalker was a definite exception. Those giant birds would tear apart a hut without thinking twice. In order to stay safe, let still farm the land, the settlers were forced to live on boats. That in itself was a danger, since crocodiles used to live in these waters. One will occasional wander down river even to this day, but not stay for long. They either met a grizzly end, or were scared enough to never show their faces again. Those that used to live by the dam were wiped out by the settlers.

Over the centuries those simple boats evolved into glass and steel platforms floating on pontoons of helium. Now days, the most dangerous animals in the water are likely the meter long goldfish that frenzy for food. And in time, a wall went around the mainland portions of Dream City. Roadwalkers and other monsters of the night still roam the adjacent lands, but they long since learned the city was more trouble than it was worth. Andreas tended to agree, but since he was already here he might as well take a look. Besides, his boat would not arrive for quite some time.

The causeway brought them to the first of many hubs, circular platforms that held all of Dream City’s buildings. This one did not. They passed beneath a sign reading ‘Welcome to Dream City’. This city limits hub was ringed by dozens of benches, all facing toward a large fountain dominating the platform. The fountain was three layers high, not counting the pond at its base. At the highest level, bronze dolphins squirted water into the air. All three levels overflowed with water pumped up from the reservoir. The effect was a waterfall taking up every degree of a circle.

“Simply amazing,” Katrina said in awe as she stared at the city sculpted from crystal and marble.

“Now that you’ve seen it, we can leave,” Andreas told her, though he did not carry much seriousness in his voice.

Katrina ignored him. “Now I just need to find a nice little boutique. I wonder what sort of clothes they’ll be selling this astro.”

Dream City did have a fashion elite, who liked to retire wardrobes at lease once a week. Andreas guessed some folks just had nothing better to do with their money. “Just stay away from the shoe stores,” he told her dryly. The last thing he wanted was for this woman to go off and browse the shoes. She would be there all week.

On cue, Katrina looked down to her shoes. They were once dressy, but after so much time on the road, they looked a little worse for ware. Not to mention not particularly comfortable. “I better get some new shoes too.”

Andreas groaned. Figures. At least she would not hassle him for the rest of the week. “Why not save that for another day. Let’s just get some close and find a place to stay.”

Katrina sighed, now realizing just how worn her body felt. “Very well, but I do expect some decent food later.”

“Expect all you want,” Andreas told her as he picked up his own pace. He passed Katrina before she could shoot him another glare. She had plenty of practice over the past few days. Before she could even say a word, Andreas cut her off. “Come on. I’d like to find a place before tomorrow.” After climbing for the better part of the day, he was dead tired. He was in no hurry to explore the city. Why rush when one shall have nine more days for the task.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

One morning later, Andreas parked the Steelhorse near a guardrail on one of Autoway Two’s bridges. Beneath was not a river, though the savanna they now passed through had many, but one of the Sevestapoli Plains’ many wildlife corridors. Beneath flowed something stronger than water. A herd numbering in countless thousands headed north. Never before had Andreas, or Katrina, seen such a massive show of life.

Never before had either seen so many four-legged birds in one place. Towneforms were predominantly avian in form. A majority were just like the Terraform birds, bipedal, but not all. The Lambei was a well known exception. The rhinoceros size birds thundered across the plains. Just like a rhino, each sported a horn on their nose. Unlike the rhino, whose horns were clumps of modified hair, the lambei horn was solid bone. It gave their beak a distinct pick-axe appearance.

Aside from the horn, they appeared rather inconspicuous. Each were coated in orange fathers, with black splotches on the males. Studies proved that black was no really black. Those patches reflected light from ultraviolet bulbs. Since human eyes could not see it, it only appeared black. Seemed odd to Andreas for a towneform to use ultraviolet; the sun was reddish-orange after all. One might think they would lean towards infrared.

“Wish I had a camera,” Katrina said.

“Certainly postcard material,” Andreas admitted. “I wonder how many are in this herd.”

Katrina shrugged. “The herds can number into the millions. Whomever thought of these corridors did us a great favor.”

Andreas grunted in agreement. He could only– no, he did not want to imagine the backup in traffic a million-member herd crossing the freeway would cause. That sort of snarl was likely visible from orbit; or at least the horizon. After another minute of watching, Andreas kicked up the kickstand and turned over the engine. “I could watch this all day, but I have a ship to catch.”

Katrina frowned. Must feel good to have a place to go. She literally had nothing better to do than watch the lambei, or the wildebeest that they resemble. “How much longer?” She knew the distance on maps, but was so unaccustomed to driving, she had problems gaging the duration.

“Three days,” Andreas told her. “Assuming we don’t stop along the way. Let’s just try to avoid any further distractions.”

Katrina leaned over his shoulder. “You’ve done a horrible job at avoidance thus far.”

“Why thank you. You’re vote of confidence strengthens my resolve,” Andreas replied dryly. “Now I shall endeavor to do my best, if you stop playing tourist.”

Katrina hissed back at him. Not that he was entirely wrong; Katrina did want to take a look at the lambei. She never seen large animals in the wild. The largest she ever seen where the odd paracophant working the field in place of a fuel-starved tractor. Benzine was pricey and rationed, fish in the river were not. “Then you better avoid such natural beauty.”

Andreas sighed. If there was a way to drive way clear of Florastadt, then that was a good idea. However, that would require a couple more days. He was not expert on ship schedules, but he knew a ship sailed from Port of Dreams to Tropico City every tenth day of the week, twice an astro– astronomical year– sometimes three. Failure to arrive in three days, and he would have to wait half an astro. “It’d be easier if you’d just sleep the rest of the way. Cuddle up and I’ll make sure you won’t fall.”

Katrina scoffed loudly at him. “Just shut up and drive!”

With a laugh, Andreas complied.

Andreas hit his blinker and took the next offramp. After an hour of nagging by his passenger, he had little option but to delay his trip. Half way through the State of Aleppo, they came across the most famous of all Marasuania’s parks, Yarasov National Park. The park, second oldest in the nation, centered around the hundred kilometer long Lake Yarasov, along with the Yarasov Ridge. On a savanna cris-crossed by farms and settlements, Yarasov was the largest ‘unspoiled’ segment. Unspoiled if one did not count the lodges and rest stops dotting the park’s trails.

The city of West Florastadt greeted them like a fresh breeze across the plains. The air around the long lake, and the Green River was several degrees cooler than the open plain, albeit muggier. Unlike the open plain, traffic snarled through the city, most of it tourists. Florastadt was the gateway to Yarasov after all, and the natives loved their park– almost to death. If not for the five dragons living around the lake, the place would likely have turned into a giant, tacky, tourist trap.

Or a massive refugee camp.

Katrina pointed out several gobli with a shriek. She never seen the– creatures– before, certainly never wearing sunglasses. Black shades and big flappy green ears clashed. To this, Andreas set her straight. These gobli were of the gremlin species. Their photosensitivity went well beyond any human’s range. Most shocking of all, at least to Katrina, was that these little green men walked out in broad daylight, and mingled with the humans.

“Crying out loud, Katrina,” Andreas grumbled. “They live here.” Her intolerance never ceased to amaze him.

Katrina considered this for a moment, before noting Andreas’s calm demeanor. “You don’t act surprised.”

“I’m not. Seen plenty of goblins and gremlins before,” Andreas told her. Along with Marasuania, Tropico was the only other place were gobli were openly welcomed. Most other places simply tolerate them, while a few try to exterminate them. He tried to explain this to her closed off mind.

“How can the Reds call them citizens?” she asked.

Andreas chuckled. “Same way they do with me; taxes.” A bit of an exaggeration, considering that state-owned monopolies fund much of the country.

Katrina snorted with heavy skepticism. “Oh and I’m sure you report every dinar earned to the treasury.”

“The Golden Hammers report every legitimate dinar earned,” Andreas told her, and simply left it at that.

“Uh-huh,” came Katrina’s dry reply. No doubt they did report their honest income, but how much could that possibly be? The whole system reeked of corruptness. Gangsters cheat their taxes and in return, the government looks the other way since they smuggle Tropican products into prohibited areas.

Andreas returned his full attention to the road, which was now quite crowded. They drove down Florastadt’s Lakefront Drive. It was quite a unique road, as it sits precariously on steep sloops. Meters below lay the currently calm waters of Lake Yarosav. Above it– above it were slopes to, but unlike the cliffs, these were long ago cut away and dug into.

Scenic downtown West Florastadt was built right into the hillside. Store fronts looked the same as anywhere else in the world, but that was about all. Their roofs were covered in sod and shrubs. Their interiors melded into the sandstone slopes. Katrina could look up and see the rest of the city almost on top of the downtown. A few more centuries of build up, and this might be underground.

All along the drive, Florastadt’s namesake hang from every lamppost. Multi-colored baskets of various flowers gave the city more cover. In a way, they matches the mis-matched colorings of shops. One was blue, its neighbor red and the next green. Little color coordination was given in building this part of town. The locals dressed in a rich diversity of color, not unlike their favorite shops. All walked on the store-side of the road, on a sidewalk nearly as wide as the street itself.

Traffic moved at a crawl. Andreas cursed the layout, wishing the locals would have made downtown with a four-lane road like any normal city. He directed some of his silent curses towards Katrina. She was adamant about seeing this park. Though Andreas explained it would add a day to his trip, and he might just miss his boat, she refused to listen. How could one drive through Aleppo and not see Yarasov? She was not about to be the first.

Andreas would not have minded traversing the park and viewing the wildlife if he had more time, but another time. He wanted to rejoin his comrades. If one kept the Golden Hammers waiting, then one might find oneself in the crosshairs of a bounty hunter hired by said organization. They trusted him, as much as any pygmaeus could trust a sapien, but they would not take any chances of Andreas’s capture. He would sooner die than give The State a single bit of information, but the Golden Hammers could ill afford to take the chance of their trade routes being revealed. Still, Andreas was confident he could return home before the hitman ever found him.

“As colorful as I imagined,” Katrina said, derailing Andreas’s train of thought.

Andreas slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting the vehicle in front of him. He had a few different choice words to describe this city. “Stupid birds,” he muttered, watching as a family of quail appeared from the eclipse of the forward vehicle. This city had as many quail as humans, perhaps more.

If not for feral cats, and bird-cats, this city would be overran by the delightful little bubble-brains. Andreas had yet to see any bird-cats. The quadrupedal towneforms looked much like a cat with a beak, covered in feathers. They hunted the same way too. They lacked the strong, solid tail; instead had something that was more at home on a pheasant or peacock.

“I use to watch all sort of newsreels about Yarasov,” Katrina said, to no one in particular. “It was so captivating, the wilderness, safaris, and the thrill of exploration.” It captivated her much in her youth, before The Party decided that all foreign media perverted The People’s minds and was thus banned. “Andreas, do you remember the Natural Warrior?”

Andreas smiled, not hearing that name in quite some time. “Who doesn’t?” He was one of the boldest of naturalist, unafraid to get into the thick of things. Poisonous snakes, prides of lions and cranky elephants. He even managed to land a short interview with a dragon. Grant it, the dragon in question was a very social red, but still–

“I used to go into the theater every week to watch his latest adventure,” she did until the Marasuanian’s shows were banned. That was a few years before he retired. News was so hard to come by back home. “Is it true he retired?”

Andreas nodded. “Yes. Spends his days managing his zoo, but one of his children took up the mantle of Natural Warrior. Been a few astros since I last watched it.”

“Then you’ll just have to stop at the next theater, won’t you?” Katrina’s tone was more commanding than inquiring. Just because Andreas was the one who wrecked her life did not give her the inherit right to treat him as a servant.

Andreas ignored her, not wanting more delays. Traffic offered more than enough. They were wading through a sea of Mark Twos. The box shaped auto, were pumped out by the Celeon Iron Works by the millions, all of them black. Andreas wondered how the drivers told their vehicles apart. He felt disorientated just looking at it. Ahead and behind, the roads were clogged with nothing but the same. Glimpsing in his handlebar mirror, Andreas easily spotted another exception.

His eyes went wide and his face turned grim. It was not a MK-Two, not by a long shot. It was an AMC, one that certainly seen better days. The auto was covered in dust and mud. Its bow was so dented, it amazed Andreas that the radiator still worked. Andreas glimpsed the driver, whose focus was directly ahead. Andreas was starting to really loath the MK-Twos; a Steelhorse stuck out like a lighthouse in this sea.

“Don’t look now, but we’re being followed,” Andreas told her. He felt her shift on her seat. “I said don’t look.”

“How can you tell?” Katrina asked. All she glimpsed were a bunch of those ugly box autos, well except one AMC.

“Since you ignored my advice and looked, did you notice something out of place?” Andreas asked coolly.

Katrina frowned. “Kind of sticks out.”

“And did you notice it looked a little beat up?” Andreas continued.

Katrina shook her head. “No. I’m not suppose to look after all.”

Andreas sighed. “Take a peak in the mirror, you see it. See how it looks beat up, like it was driving off road, and spent a little time in a ditch?”

Katrina tensed. “You don’t think its that Knight–“

Andreas snorted. “Who else would drive such rundown auto. Hopefully its engine’s just as battered; make it easier to lose.”

“Lose it?” Katrina asked with wild skepticism. “This bike is more obvious than any AMC.”

Andreas glared in the mirror, right back at her reflection. “If we’re so obvious now, you yelling like a hysterical maid who saw a mouse isn’t help us blend in.”

“Then do something.” She snapped, not even trying to keep her voice down. A few locals did offer the Steelhorse curious glances.

Andreas looked down at the fuel gage. He just filled it up in a little town some twenty kilometers west. He hoped fueling their would give him no reason to enter Florastadt, but Katrina saw it differently. With a four hundred kilometer long main trail, driving it will be stretching his fuel budget. “Will do.”

When Andreas passed two streets without attempting to turn, Katrina began to wonder. “Well, are you going to do something today?” When Andreas nodded, Katrina added. “What then?”

“You wanted to see the park, then that’s what we’ll do.” If anything, it might shut her up for a while.

“That’s your plan!” Katrina started to feel a sense of doom creep up behind her. “Hoping an elephant will trample him?”

“That’ll work too.” His fuel reserves were high, but was the Knights? A Steelhorse could outrange a normal AMC, but he was unsure about the modded ones.

“Great, just great,” Katrina muttered. “This is worse than when you made me jump from that auto.”

Andreas smiled. “Only if it fails.”

Andreas spent most of the day driving through the scenic Yarasov National Park. He lost his opponent several times, only to meet up again. Each time, they never managed to get close enough to cause worry. If not for the threat behind, he might have enjoyed the drive. Plenty of life, both Terraforms and towneforms, roamed to capture ones attention. Both hoped one herd or another would separate them from their pursuer.

No such luck. Not even the boldest of animals would approach the road. The animals of the plains learned to fear the animals of the road long ago. The numerous species intermixed as they roamed the park. Andreas spotted quagga, oryx, addax, bison and even fleet footed gazelle. Out of all those, the bison seemed oddly out of place with their shaggy heads, as opposed to the shorter hairs of the rest. One half expected them to overheat and collapse beneath the hot, pulsing sun.

Thus far, only Terraforms were spotted in the orange grasses. The feathered beasts were oddly quiet. Andreas was thankful. No towneforms meant no roadwalkers. At fourteen meters in length, and four meters at the hip, these scaled up roadrunners were the most feared animal in all the Sevestapoli (after the dragon, and naturally other humans). The giant birds did resemble the small roadrunner in many aspects, though were far more muscular. Unlike the smaller namesake, roadwalkers never had to worry about flight. Their wings were little more than dinky arms tucked into their sides.

Andreas peered ahead across th open plains, keeping his eyes open for any giants. The earlier hours were spent navigating the wooded hillside. Far easier to lose a Knight there than on the open plains. It was an odd case of deja vu. Open plains, somebody following them. Perhaps Andreas should take the bike off-road and try to ditch him again. It sounded good on paper, but this land was home to a Blue, and they had little tolerance for apes who left the road.

Those hazards would turn to his advantage. Andreas stopped his bike off the side of the road just long enough to tie a long leather strap to his left handle. “What are you doing?” Katrina asked. “He could catch up at any moment.”

Andreas did not think that the case. “When I tell you to grab the handle, grab it,” Andreas instructed her as he waved the leather in his hand.

Katrina nodded. She glanced back again, waiting for signs of approaching vehicles. “Ok, but aren’t you going to get moving?”

“Not yet,” Andreas told her. He reached down into the saddlebag, fishing for a bottle of water.

“No? And why not?” She gave him the same tone she would have given a student– no, not student, that lose still stabbed deep into her. The same tone one might use with a defiant child. “If we just sit here, he will catch up.”

“I’m counting on it,” Andreas replied, gulping down a mouthful of water. “Trust me, I got it all worked out.”

Plank leaned forward in his seat, his eyes narrowing to dagger-like points. There, up ahead, he found them. They must have stopped for a quick break, thinking they lost him. The Knight smiled. That little break cost them dearly. They obviously spotted him, because the Steelhorse was on the move again, this time off-road. Did they think to run him into another ditch? The same trick would not work twice.

Plank swerved his auto onto the same access road. It was a well worn dirt road, one used by game wardens and field researchers. It was also a dead-end, that much was certain. That mobster would not be walking off this road. Plank reached over and patted a twelve millimeter revolver in the passenger seat. He was through with trying to catch him. The woman was a must, for she would know the names of any other dwarven sympathizers within The State, but the man– who would miss another thug?

Foot crushing accelerator, the AMC raced forward. A stream of dust kicked up behind him, sounding a beacon to distant eyes. No matter, his quarry already knew he was in hot pursuit. There was no escaping him on the open plains. While the road was bumpy, the general area remained flat. No stones bigger than fists littered the ground, and not a ravine cut through it. The grasses around here were short, perhaps a herd consumed the plants before moving on. The field hid no obstacles, and only a few trees dotted the landscape.

Various small creatures, quail, rabbits and such, scurried to avoid the speeding auto. Plank ignored them, focusing on catching the Steelhorse. He worried not about fuel, he just filled the tank at a little rest area a hundred kilometers back. That offered him enough leeway to safely return to Florastadt. He was in a hurry. Not only was he not about to give them another chance to flee, but he wanted to go home. Marasuania was a foreign and disturbing place. Non-sapiens were allowed to roam freely, as were the gobli. Worst of all, elves lived here. Many who escaped relocation and processing made their way across the mountains and plains.

What sort of scum were these Marsuanians? Not only did they allow elves to enter their land, but they did not even segregate them. They are truly not The People. As soon as the war is won in the west, it must turn east to purge mutations and defects from the genome. Like all the Knights, Plank believed in The People, and its right to rule the world. All others were inferior, to be pushed aside like a lion would a cheetah. The People were strong and would win the struggle, just as Plank was strong and would win this race.

Andreas glanced into his mirror, watching the Knight grow closer. Yes, he was gaining, but did he not think it was too easy? Who knows. Perhaps he was like a cat, so caught up in the chase as to be oblivious to the dangers ahead. Andreas knew it dangerous, but he had to wait until the AMC pulled up right along side of him. No doubt the Knight was armed, but he was not the only one.

“Now what!” Katrina snapped, sensing the Steelhorse slowing.

“Grab the strap!” Andreas told her.

Katrina did not argue. She reached forward, grabbing the leather strap. “Now what?”

“Just pull on it, I’ll keep it stable,” Andreas told her as his free hand went into his dusk covered jacket. He felt the familiar grip of his ‘957. “You got it?” When Katrina nodded, Andreas drew his pistol and tapped the breaks.

Katrina did exactly as Andreas said. She pulled on the strap, offering resistance to an otherwise loose control. She felt Andreas turn the bike, maneuvering to let the AMC drive up along side them. It did not take her intellect to figure out his plan. He was going to shoot the Knight. She glanced over her own shoulder and spotted that very AMC rapidly approaching. Instead of pulling along side, the auto hit the bike. Katrina squealed as the bike started to loose control. She tightened her grip on both strap and Andreas.

Andreas hissed and cursed the Knight. He regained control and swerved wide. He managed to maneuver along side the auto’s passenger side, at a distance of three meters. He glared at the Knight, whose expression of rage was as clear as the reddish sky. The face was so stern, it did not even flinch as Andreas took aim. Nor did it change when Andreas fired off a round.

The bullet his the window, leaving a spiderweb crack running across it. Andreas growled, firing again. Another web, but no penetration. Andreas swore at the Knight. Bulletproof. He should have guessed. The Knight smiled back at Andreas, gloating over his immunity. That and the revolver he picked up. Bigger than ten millimeter by Andreas’s guess. If his pistol could not break the glass, then neither could the Knight’s.

Andreas fired another shot, keeping any ideas from his enemy’s head. He would have to roll down his window to fire clearly, and Andreas was not about to let him. He glanced at the battered front end of the auto. It must be armored as well, otherwise the last time he ditched this Knight, the radiator should have cracked. Andreas might even be impressed by the combination of armor and speed, that is if a Knight was not behind the wheel.

“Ok, I’ll just have to try another tactic,” Andreas muttered. His eyes slowly slid from the radiator to the unprotected wheels. Where they self-sealing? Perhaps, but then he will just have to shoot all of them. He pulled further away from the AMC, and unleashed two rounds into the front tire. If it was self-sealing, it would do little good now. The tired ruptured, showering the Steelhorse in shreds of rubber. The AMC swerved wildly out of control.

Andreas pulled back while shooting the second right tire. The rounds hit, but it did not explode. Two blowouts would take the auto out permanently. If the Knight had a spare, he would be back on the road in no time. Instead of escaping and making the most of the delay, Andreas accelerated and pulled in front of the skidding auto. The Knight lost any control over his AMC, and the squeal of breaks echoed across the plains.

Andreas began his assault on the left side, starting with a couple of shots at the driver’s side window. The Knight still gripped the wheel and made no attempt to reach for his weapon. His concern was not to roll. Andreas gave him assistance by taking out the other two tires. Neither exploded, but with those popped, the auto ground to a halt.

Andreas used that as a signal to escape. He fired the last of his rounds at the auto, keeping the Knight pinned behind the safety of shielded glass. Big revolvers had little range, so getting clear of the danger zone took seconds. That did not stop retaliation. The sharp pang imitating cannon fire boomed behind the Steelhorse. Katrina glanced back to see the Knight standing beside his auto, firing frantically at the escapees.

Andreas did not bother to take a final glance. Four flat tires, one of which destroyed– this was one Knight who would not be following them any more. Even if he was rescued, how would he explain being well over a thousand kilometers inside Marasuania. If found, the game wardens would detain him just for leaving the trail. More over, if found– the local dragon would not be pleased.

Plank kicked the flattened tire of his AMC as he threw the revolver to the ground. He cursed the gangster and offered a string of oaths as the Steelhorse retreated back to the road. He had them, and just had to wait until he exhausted his own ammunition before dropping the driver. Would the woman survive the crash? Plank was beyond caring. Forget capture, he was going to eliminate both of them. No matter what it takes, he would take both of them down. So what if he returned back home, at least neither of them would.

Plank lost most of his steam, and looked down at the damage. The windows were nothing, but four flat tires– he had only one spare, and that would replace the shredded one. After that, he would just have to drive back to the road and flag down some assistance. It disgusted him to have to rely on help, but what choice did he have. Surviving the open plains was a slim bet, so no choice really. At least he had sense enough to leave his uniform back in Shownastadt. There was no way he could explain his presence. Sure, he was on official business, but Marasuanians cared not for The State.

Plank walked back to the trunk and prepared to open it. He patted his pants pocket and realized the keys were missing. He was in such a haste to take parting shots, he must have left them in the ignition. It was a trivial matter and he would simply retrieve them. One more inconvenience in a day full of them. Plank gave a tug on the door handle and did not move. The door would not open. He gave it another tug. Plank swore out loud. The door was locked.

Plank rushed to the next door, then the next, trying all of them. The Knights of The State were not in the habit of leaving doors unlocked. He never remembered locking it. He picked up his empty revolver and began to club the already fractured window. Hit after hit, and not a chip broke free. He cursed with ever hit, quickly tiring the anger from him. With one final hit, he slumped up against the auto.

Terrific, just terrific. No wheels, no ammunition, not even any water. He was stuck, and stuck good. He was unsure how far from the road his pursuit took him, but it was a several hour hike. The sun was overhead, and night just a few hours away. It was going to be a long walk, and a lot of hassle. Too many question will be asked, and too many answers will be divulged. Back home, he would simply commandeer the vehicle and pick up his pursuit. It was going to be a long night, and he might not survive. But if he was to die in Marasuania, he will die after getting his revenge.

Katrina looked out the window at the plains below. It was nice to be indoors after a long day on the road, air condition running and food on the table. Her trip in the park was not as delightful as she hoped. Constant chase really ruined the day. Now, nearing nightfall, she received the only pleasant view of the plains. Several giraffe grazed the nearest acacia grove, wary as night crept up upon them. Katrina shared their concern.

“I still say this is a bad idea,” Katrina said in a low voice, as if someone might overhear.

Andreas swallowed another bite from his turkey sandwich before replying. “Relax, we’ll be fine. We left him a good ten kilometers from the road.” He said nothing else before indulging in the luxury restaurant. Plenty of small cafes and tacky stores in the park, and Andreas wanted one with a little class. Thus he pulled into this thatched roof restaurant overlooking the park.

Katrina poked around her salad with a fork, still a little nervous. “How long will it be until he’s after us again. He’ll chase us all the way to the Port of Dreams.”

Andreas smiled. “Then we have nothing to worry about. I have– associates there. If the Knight comes in looking for a fight, he won’t be walking out.” It was not a gloat, it was a guarantee.

Somehow, that did not comfort Katrina. Nor did the prospect of landing in Port of Dreams. She was still unsure what she would do there. She knew Andreas planned to sail south, but she just could not bring herself to goto Tropico. What would she do in a city with no friends, no contacts, and no help. Not that she had any friends anymore. A couple of days ago, she would have blamed Andreas with all her heart– but now, what was the point. He was the only human she knew in a thousand kilometer radius.

And here she was, stuck eating food he paid for. Without him, she would be cast into the wind. She took another look out the window, deciding to change the subject. “It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?”

Andreas looked up at her, the red light illuminating her face, perfectly framed by her darker red hair. “Certainly is.” As annoying as Katrina could be, he could not deny that she was a fine looking woman. Perhaps under different circumstances, some other sparks would fly between them– other than the electric ones of tension.

Katrina sighed. “I would have loved to see more of the park.”

“Don’t worry,” Andreas told her. “You’re still alive, plenty of hope that you can come back one day.”

Katrina looked at him, for once with a smile on his face. “You know, that’s the most positive thing I’ve heard you say. Here I thought you were just some bitter thug.”

Andreas snorted. “What are you talking about, I am some bitter thug. Ah, just eat you dinner so we can get out of here. I’d like to make it to East Florastadt before night fall.”

Plank drug his feet forward, one after the other. How many hours has he spent walking. Too many, and not enough daylight remained. It was not likely he would make the road by then. Even if he did, so what. Scavengers roamed the roads at night, looking for any creature hapless enough to run out in front of traffic. Now ravens and crows did not concern Plank, but much larger hyena would prove problematic, especially if he could not bluff them away.

The plains were quiet. He spent the past hours realizing just how quiet Yarasov was. He was use to urban life, to constant noise, whether it be traffic or air conditioning. Curse that gangster. Had he never stepped foot in Shownastadt, Plank would not be in this mess. Curse him twice for flattening all the tires and leaving him stranded. And curse him eternally for making Plank lock himself out of his own auto. How could he catch him now? Plank was not sure, but he knew he would. The hours of exhaustion might have dulled enthusiasm, but would not extinguish his resolve.

His automatic marching stopped for only an instant. A sudden drop in light caught his attention, bringing Plank back to the real world. He glanced around, yet spotted nothing tall enough to block the sun, or even obstruct it. Plank shrugged it off and continued, just as a thud resounded behind him. Again he stopped, and this time his eyes did spot something. A pair of bird-like eyes glaring back at him. Around those eyes were not a familiar feathery body, but one with pebbly skin. A long narrow snout filled with pointy teeth emitted a very cat-like hiss.

Plank’s black heart nearly stopped. The local Blue, a long slender dragonette ruling the largest of territories, stared down the bipedal intruder. Plank was no dragonologist, but he could read mad. Arikara stalked forward, part bird and part leopard in grace, her head parallel and ear flaps flattened.

“What business do you have here, ape?” she said with a snarling accent.

Plank’s eyes went wide. He heard stories about dragons, who had not, but never imagined one would speak.

Arikara cocked her head. “Do you not understand me? You are trespassing. Give me a reason not to kill you now.” To illustrate her point, she held her hand up, talons extended.

What could he say to a dragon? By the look she gave him, reminiscent of the look he gave lower humans– or even rodents and bugs– made him think her mind was made. This dragon was going to kill him where he stood, and there was not a thing he could do. Nothing except die like a Knight. He braced himself for the impact, standing at attention and gathering as much dignity as he could muster.

Arikara mused at his actions. What was this little ape doing? She was no expert on humans, but this appeared to be a combative stance, kind of like when two males try to stare each other down. If she were a Red, or even a Black, she might be curious. But she was not, she was a Blue, and Blues did not tolerate intruders. She was about to dispatch this vermin when a familiar scent tickled her nostrils. She lifted her head to take in a deep breath. Yes, very familiar.

Plank watched in amazement as the dragon gave him a vicious smile, just before leaping into the air. Apparently all the stories about dragons were false. They were nothing but display and threats. He had little time to gloat. He turned back towards the road and started his march. He only managed three steps before laying eyes on an even more terrifying sight.

Ahead of him, no more than a hundred meters, stood a giant bird. The bird’s head reached over four meters above the ground. It reminded him of so many road runners that cross the road, only bigger, buffer and meaner. The giant’s beak were lined with sharp teeth. The creatures tail, along with orange, had long lines of blue and black.

Plank took a step back, and frantically looked for an escape. No rocks, no trees, and little cover. Long grasses would do little to hide him from a giant bird. No matter, it was too late. The thoughtful eyes of the giant locked onto Plank. He now understood why the dragon left. It was not his bravado, but the sight of an even more fearsome predator. Was the monster even hungry? Perhaps it simply saw him as a toy. Plank knew cats played with mice. Plenty of uncertainty in his future, with one exception. His goal was no longer vengeance, but survival, and that goal now appeared a million kilometers away.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 3

Chapter 3

After a long night of driving, Andreas pulled off one of Sevesto Mountains highways. He crossed the border a good hour ago. It was a long-winded run, but he dodged the checkpoints and any of The State’s observation posts. This high in the mountains, Andreas reveled in the cool breeze. Humidity was still high, but temperature hovered around two hundred ninety-three, a cool twenty above freezing. In all his life, the only places this cold he could find were up high. Lower altitudes were much warmer, whether it be a wet heat or dry.

Andreas took the first offramp he could find. By the strange stares he received, he was likely the first vehicle in many days to come into Lake Vista from the west. Their looks were not hostile, not many anyway, more curious than anything else. Few visitors to this once thriving tourist town came from Goai since The State conquered it. Few came from the Marasuania side of the border these days. Unlike the farms and pastures along Route 15– the highway’s State name– Lake Vista looked quite depressed.

Lake Vista, name of both a lake and a town not far from might Mount Bellevista, once was a premier tourist destination. Its trails are ranked among the highest in the range. War anxiety and fears of invasion kept the middle and upper class clientele at a safe distance. Yes, before Andreas entered his current employment there was no way he could afford to drive through the town, let along stop. After a long night, stop he must.

Behind him, the weight on his back began to stir. Somewhere on that long and dull highway, Katrina fell asleep. She dozed long since before he crossed the border. He could not blame her. There was little to see on the highway at night, and even less to do. Somehow, she managed to hang on while dozing. The fact that Andreas did not take any sharp turns or have to shake pursuit helped out in that respect.

“Where are we?” She asked, slightly groggily. Sleeping siting up, and on a bike, made her wake more tired than when she fell asleep. She could not remember when, but one thing was certain; it was not a good night’s sleep.

“Lake Vista,” he called over his shoulder.

Katrina bolted to an upright position. “Lake Vista!” Marasuania. The border. She was no longer in The State, no longer home. Her sleepiness vanished and found itself rapidly replaced by yesterday’s events. Of all she lost, and how it was this man’s fault. Katrina glanced around the renown resort town. Much to her disappointment, it seemed rather drab. Liveliness aside, she felt the chilly air being blown from Mount Bellevista.

To the south, she saw the behemoth. So massive, it was hard to miss in the forest of lesser peaks. So tall was it, that glaciers permanently reside atop its jagged peak. The orangish snow matched many of the trees in the vicinity. Only the sharp green of Terraform plants broke the monotony. The broad leaf greens enveloping the lake were a good sign to her; it meant snow never falls at this altitude. Too bad the same could not be said about the air.

“Too cold here,” she muttered.

Andreas laughed. “Enjoy it while you can.”

Katrina glared right through him. “Easy for you to say. You have a jacket.”

Andreas shook his head. “Not for long. It’s going to get a lot hotter as soon as we clear these mountains, so I suggest you enjoy the cool alpine air while you can.”

Katrina did not want to think about it. Her life was behind her and what lay ahead was utterly unknown. A cloud of foreboding hung over her head, darkening her already dismal day. All she wanted was to wake up and end this nightmare. The aches in her body gave her all the proof required as to the reality before her. If it were a dream, at least she would not feel the kink in her back.

Andreas felt the same way, as far as stretching was concerned. He had no problems with the status of his life. They were across the border and safe– at least for the moment. More over, his new Steelhorse was running on fumes. These bikes could drive five hundred kilometers on a single tank of petrol. Too bad its previous owner had not filled the tank. Andreas turned the bike into the first gas station he could see.

He glanced up to see the sign; a bird sitting on a perch. He knew this place. It was a Migration Station. Migrations were common throughout the states of Marasuania. The combination petrol-convenience stop serve the drivers in this large nation. Here, the culture of the auto reigned supreme; at least one auto per household. So prevalent was personal transportation, that only the largest cities had any mass transit, and even then it was sparingly used. On the downside, many large cities were covered in a blanket of exhaust.

Andreas brought the Steelhorse up to the nearest empty pump. An attendant stood nearby, rushing towards the new customer. Andreas kicked the stand into place and dismounted the mechanical horse. Andreas handed him a crisp five dinar note. Fortunately, Marasuania’s currency dominated its neighbor’s economies. So powerful was it, that Endopia did not even bother to make its own currency, it just bought them from Marasuania. Andreas traded some of his Tropican script for Marasuanian the moment they touched down on the mainland. “Keep the change,” he told the attendant. The Steelhorse only held ten liters, so a five more than covered the two point five liters per dinar cost.

Katrina joined him, feeling liberated when she stood. Sitting on that bike for so long made her sore, so sore that she only realized hunger after she stretched out her tired limbs. Thirsty as well. A bottle of wine should numb the past couple day’s of trauma. No, not wine. That was the strongest drink permitted in The State. Now that she was abroad, stronger liquor was out there. “I need a drink,” she muttered.

“What do you want?” Andreas asked. Katrina turned towards him, and watched him head towards the convenience part of Migrations Station.

“Where are you going?” She asked, not wanting to let him out of her sight.

“The store,” he replied flatly. “You want something or not?”

“A fine café latté and a stack of Dolei waffles topped with cream of strawberry,” she ordered wishfully.

Andreas waved back to her. “Coffee and doughnuts it is.”

Katrina looked at the bottle in Andreas’s hand, musing at its red contents. “Tropican Punch? Just how old are you.”

Andreas took another swig of juice while stowing twenty liters worth of water into the Steelhorse’s limited baggage. “Old enough to drink what I want and not care what you think about it.”

Katrina turned her nose up at Andreas’s bitter response. She took another sip of the coffee, wishing it was café instead of this strong toxin. It certainly woke her up, but had the viscosity of motor oil. She gazed off into the distance while Andreas worked. With so many snow capped peaks, it was hard to believe they would need all that water. She knew the Sevestapoli Plains were dry and hot, who did not, but stocking up like this left her with a bad feeling.

Nobody else gave the two a second glance. Stocking up on supplies, as far as the locals were concerned they were either campers or refugees. This particular state within Marasuania was already swamped with refugees and immigrants, what were a couple more? Katrina never saw the appeal of camping. She would take electricity and running water over roughing it in the green and orange woods. And she saw a lot of woods.

Throughout much of the land, forests were long ago cleared away by farmers. She never thought much about forests, but seeing the orange and green battle each other for supremacy struck her as beauty. So tranquil, and so full of life. A sharp contrast to the stale habitat inside The State. Lack of order did leave her a bit unnerved. It was far from quiet, however. Thousand of birds, both Terraform and towneform, squawked in the same fierce competition as the trees grew.

It all reminded her of when she migrated to one of The State’s many colonies. In the homeland, cities and farms reign supreme. Forests of smokestacks rose from an industrial sea. Smoke and soot choked the air, snuffing out life in the vicinity. What few forests existed were long since turned into game reserves. It was a paradise for hunters, but not for nature lovers. Besides, those so-called forests were overran by boar and deer, along with a few trophy species.

“You ready or not?” Andreas asked for a second time.

Katrina blinked, clearly missing his first question. “Say what?”

“Are–you–ready–to–go?” Andreas asked, deliberately slowing his speech to an exaggerated slowness. “Unless you prefer to stay here.”

Katrina nodded. “Go. Right. Yes, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” Go, yes, but where to? She was clueless as to their destination, and suspected Andreas would simply drifting.

“Hey Andreas!” Katrina yelled for the third time. “Where are we going? Listen to me!”

“Talking to me at one hundred and twenty isn’t a good idea,” Andreas yelled back at her. His focus was on the curving mountain highway, and navigating it at a hair over one hundred twenty kilometers and hour. It was not quite the bike’s maximum speed, but it still sucked down the fuel faster that a reasonable speed. Whomever decided what speeds were reasonable obviously never tried to put as much space between them and The State. He would not feel safe until they hit the hot lowlands, and its endless stretches of flat desert and savanna. There was something about wide-open spaces that simply detoured ambushes.

“Well? Are you going to answer me or–“ her voice trailed off into a shriek as Andreas swerved nearly off the road.

“Bloody jackalopes!” he yelled back at the rabbit with small bone protrusions on his head. Those small horns gave them their name, for they resembled antelope and gazelle antlers. Growth for horns, and bubbles for brains.

“Watch where you’re going!” Katrina griped, momentarily taking her attention off her question. Only momentarily.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m headed to Port of Dreams to catch the first boat out of there,” Andreas finally answered.

“Dream City!” The city of dreams, the most romantic city in the world. Katrina read about it, seen moving pictures showing the city. Ever since she first lay eyes on it, she fell in love with Dream City. High atop a reservoir overlooking the ocean, a city sat upon the waters. It is said to be a model of the legendary Atlantian city of Tethystadt. A prestigious city of lights and water, so far above the Gulf of Dreams that the tops of the highest skyscrapers were in clear, level view.

“No, the Port of Dreams,” Andreas repeated himself, bursting her bubble. The Port of Dreams, the larger city below Dream City. It was a city of glass and steel on one side, and monestrous factories on the other. Both were powered by the massive dam that backed up the Mara River. The lower city was clogged with traffic and workers, and far from a prestigious stop.

“Why on Towne would you want to go there?” Katrina hissed at him. There were far closer industrial ports. The fact that half of the Federal Republic of Marasuania’s trade flowed through it only made the place less desirable to visit.

“To catch a ship to Tropico,” he said slowly, as if talking to a child. Sometimes he would prefer to be dealing with one. Unlike women, children knew when to shut up.

“Tropico!” she repeated, with both shock and horror. “You can’t be serious. Whatever for?”

“Because it’s home,” he told her.

“You’re a Red?” the more she learned about him, the more she wished she would have came in late yesterday. Tropico, bastion of socialism for most of the world. It was said they had four exports; coffee, cigars, rum and revolution.

“Oh for general’s sake!” Andreas snapped back. “Lady, I said I’m going there. You’re free to hop of this ride whenever you like.”

“And do what?” she asked. She was not about to ditch Andreas until he fixed this whole mess.

“Teach,” Andreas told her, pausing for a second. “Oh wait, you’re Naveinian; you only know how to teach what your Party tells you to. You folks gave up your will after you voted those monsters into power.”

Katrina stared at the back of his head, trying to burn holes through that dense matter. “At least our government was elected,” she said with a mutter. Trying to explain anything to this man was a losing battle. She held on to silence and decided to simply enjoy the rest of the drive. The mountains were so pretty, and what lay beyond was far from it.

Katrina lost count of how many times she regretted not enjoying to cool mountain air. A few hours after leaving Lake Vista, they cleared the Sevestapoli ranges and hit the flattest land she ever saw. The air here was far from cool. Aside from the breeze blowing past due to the Steelhorse’s movement, the air was still and sweltering. The temperature had to be at least– three hundred twenty degrees, nearly fifty above freezing. The fact that it was midday and the red sun centered itself in the middle of the pinkish sky did not help matters. Good thing Andreas bought so much water, though Katrina would never admit it to him.

So desolate was the land, that little Terraforms lived in the desert. All the land was covered in orange plants, with only the odd green cactus standing as a guardian, the only thing breaking the endless orange. So desolate was the land– they had yet to pass a single car, and only a couple headed the other way. Andreas was satisfied by the distance he gained by driving at break-neck speeds on mountain roads, that he slowed to a leisurely cruising speed. He exhausted more than half of his fuel at those high speeds, and now need to conserve until the next town, several hours away.

By slowing down, he could finally relax. It was as hot as hot could be, but it was a dry heat. Hot days in Tropico were muggy enough to melt the candy coating off a certain treat that claimed not to melt in one’s hands. There was a water source nearby, probably underwater. He could tell because Palmero Palms stood in small groves off to his left. The towneform plants reminded him of regular palm trees, hence the name, except that these broad leaves were a pale orange. The groves offered the only shade for hundreds of square kilometers.

Katrina did not care for the desolation, but the land did strike her as peaceful, more so than the hustle and bustle of mountain resorts. “Rather tranquil, don’t you–“ she lurched forward, her words leaping before completion. Her face slammed into Andreas’s back, much to her annoyance. She quickly pushed herself away from him. “What’s the big idea?”

Andreas dropped both of his feet, keeping the now still Steelhorse from toppling. “That!” he pointed forward.

“What?” Katrina looked over his shoulder and could only see a small furry mass strolling across the road. The creature reminded her of a weasel, albeit a little wider. The creature’s stance, standing defiantly in the middle of the road struck an image in her mind. “Badger.”

“How’s that for tranquility?” Andreas asked with a smirk. The badger glared at the bike, as if to say ‘how dare you interrupt my walk’. Andreas stood down quite a few ugly mugs in his day, but never would he want to get locked in a staring contest with a crossed badger. For a moment, he thought the small furry critter might just charge him. He heard stories about these guys telling off a dragon. Alas, once the badger was quite content that this wheeled intruder was no threat or challenge, he hustled across the road– at his own leisurely pace.

“What a mean stare,” Katrina commented.

“I don’t know,” Andreas replied. “You’ve given me worse.” He never gave Katrina a chance to wipe her look of indignation before he revved the engine, and continued his journey.

“Don’t look now,” Andreas said, an hour after the badger incident. His eyes constantly jumped from the road ahead, and reflections of behind. “But we’re being followed.”

Katrina’s gazed over eyes blinked back into focus. She turned her head and spotted his concern. “By that?” she asked, referring to the plain black AMC following on them. She scoffed at the idea. “If you’re really worried, just speed up.”

“I’m already going a hundred, and that thing’s gaining,” Andreas insisted, hardly believing it himself.

“Preposterous!” Katrina retorted. She was no expert on autos, but no AMC could even top ninety. This she explained to Andreas the same way she would to one of her students.

“What if it modded?” Andreas threw it back at her. “Install a half-way decent supercharger and even an AMC could hit one hundred kilometers an hour.”

“Who’d do that?” she asked, only knowing that word referred to altering an auto’s factory specifications.

Andreas sighed at her naivete. “Only two types; smugglers and law enforcement.” He emphasized the law enforcement bit, deciding to use it instead of copper, for the enforcement he had in mind carried no copper badges.

“You don’t think it’s the Knights, do you?” Katrina asked, not imagining them violating neutral territory just to chase them. Sure, Andreas did break into their temple of justice, and killed several Knights. Even if one was determined enough, how would he cross the border? Surely not the same way Andreas managed; that road was so bumpy it rocked her to sleep.

“It ain’t your local neighborhood gunrunner.” Nobody on Towne would bother trying to smuggle weapons into Marasuania. That was about as useful as importing coffee into Tropico. That AMC might be modded, but there was no way it could keep up with a bike. Even if whomever chased them crammed a supercharger into that auto, Andreas could spin circles around it. He gunned the engine and added as much speed as the bike’s engine could muster.

Plank smiled viciously. So they finally noticed. Yes, this must be the couple of troublemakers, the blights on his record. After a long pursuit; sneaking across the border, driving at insane speeds in nighttime mountains, and hitting the Bellevista Highway after refueling, he finally found his target. With his pursuit auto’s massive engine, twice that of a normal one, he would overtake the Steelhorse no matter how hard they tried to flee.

His only problem was taking the two. He could kill them, and quite easily. Just ram the bike and it would spin out of control. Nobody could survive a crash at over a hundred kilometers an hour. Collision would be a last resort, for it would damage his own auto as well, possibly injuring him. He could shoot them too, but would hold back. Capturing them took top priority, alive yes, wounded, he will play it as it came.

Much to his pleasure, the road stretched forward, in a long straight path. No maneuvering, not turning. It left them nothing but raw power. No more than ten minutes sat between him and victory. Yes, he would overtake that bike. After all, pursuit autos were designed just for that. No vehicle on the road could possibly outrun him. There was no escape.

While Katrina screeched, Andreas howled in delight as the Steelhorse became airborne. At over a hundred kilometers an hour, jumping from asphalt and onto dirt was nearly suicidal. He knew little about the capabilities of a Knight’s pursuit auto, but felt it gaining. Had he stayed on the straight and narrow, that villain would be on his bumper in minutes. By hitting an almost hidden dirt road, he hoped to shake the Knight.

Perhaps ‘road’ was too strong a description for this pockmarked path. It was almost a game trail, something he would expect ranchers to herd their cattle upon. That left him with an unsavory thought, hitting a mass of domesticated buffalo at full speed. With so many obstacles ahead, he could not afford to look back. Dodging rocks and scattering roadrunners took priority.

“He’s still behind us!” Katrina shouted over the roar of air and crashing of wheels.

“Determined as a wasp at a picnic,” Andreas cursed the Knight the same way he would when flying insects buzz him while relaxing under the Tropican sky. Andreas wished he could speed up, but with so much debris, it was out of the question. Instead, he took to dodging and evading various obstructions and traps. This Knight chased them with a blind determination. Perhaps he might not spot the hole in front of him. If he was keeping pace with the speeding bike, then a single pothole might just tear off one of his wheels.

Andreas’s swerving kicked up dust and pebbles. If he was lucky, some of those big ones would smash the Knight’s windshield. The dust alone obscured him from any gunshots. Not the way he wanted to end his life, gunned down on a desert road, yet it was rather appropriate. Perhaps if he could take the bike clear off the road– but no, if he hit just one of those rocks, it would take them out instead.

“Can you reach the bars?” Andreas asked.

“What?” Katrina replied. Bars? “What bars?”

“The handlebars! Can you steer so I can shoot?” If dust would not free him, then maybe he could shoot his way out of this mess.

Katrina released her grip, but only for one hand. The other arms she kept wrapped around him, securing her to the bouncing bike. She stretched her grip, but could only touch it with her fingertips. “No!”

Andreas hissed in frustration. Getting chased like this did not suit him one bit. At least in the city, he could lose his pursuer. Out in the open lands, no matter how free of ambushes it might be, he stuck out like a beacon in a sea of orange. They were as obvious as the green cacti here and there. “You really need to start exercising,” Andreas complained.

“Well excuse me for not being so adapt at fleeing authority!” Katrina shot back. Bad enough she was now an outlaw, hunted by her own people, but to have Andreas hassle her along the way– that just added insult to injury.

“I’ll forgive you this time,” Andreas smirked while he spoke.

“You are so insuffer–“ Katrina shrieked again as Andreas his a bump hard, so hard she bit her own tongue in midsentence. Her eyes waters from sharp pain and dust. Yesterday was bad enough, but today was turning out worse. It made her want to cry.

“Perfect,” Andreas grinned, spotting a nice grove in the road. He hit the grove and the dip at great speed. Both he and Katrina felt their stomachs jumped into their throats from the drop, only to be thrown back into place on the rise. Andreas turned his back to the gutter, hoping his opponent would take the bait. The Knight was so obsessed with catching him, that he was blind to any danger.

Katrina wanted to smack Andreas for the last move. She was about to hurl a nice insult at him, when she heard a sharp crash behind them. She glanced back, not seeing the AMC on their tail. As the dust settled she spotted the auto with both forward wheels locked in that same grove. What was a dip for a bike, turned out to be a trap for a larger vehicle. Katrina sighed in relief, knowing the predator just tripped himself out in the middle of nowhere.

A few minutes later, Andreas slowed the Steelhorse down to safe speeds. Even if more than one Knight was on his tail, that second must stop to aid the first. They were butchers, but not even they would leave their own kind behind in the middle of the world’s hottest desert. Just thinking about it made him thirsty. Andreas decided they were safe, and gripped the brakes. The bike skid to a stop, leaving a dust cloud around it.

“What are you stopping for?” Katrina asked, her gaze locked on the enemy behind. The enemy now absent from view.

Andreas reached down into one of the side holds, saddlebags of sorts, and pulled out a bottle of water. He popped the top and took a long swig of refreshing elixir. “I’m thirsty.” As and added thought, he drew a second bottle and tossed it over his shoulder.

Shocked by the sudden movement, Katrina fumbled for the bottle. She knew the plastic would not shatter like glass, but her reflexes kicked in all the same. “Now? That Knight is still behind us, and still armed.”

Andreas brushed the thought aside. “He’s got more pressing matters to attend to. And we’re out of range of any weapon he could carry.” Even if he brought along rocket-propelled grenades, they were still out of range. That was all assuming her was still alive. That dip stopped him rather abruptly. “We’re be in the Port of Dreams before he can summon a tow truck.

Katrina gave the distance auto a final glance. “You better be right.”

Plank rubbed his neck, trying to crush the pain within him. Between whiplash and pounding headaches, Plank’s troubles just began. He cursed the gangster for escaping him, and cursed himself for crashing. Was this a clever trap? No, not possible. Plank would not be fooled so easily. Again he cursed, this time his own lousy luck. He paced around his auto, checking for damage.

The gully that sunk his auto was not too deep. Just enough so the front bumper failed to clear before the wheels hit. Looks like it hurt him more than his auto. If not for the safety belt, he would have flown clear of the vehicle, and been in worse shape. At least he was alive, and in working condition. It would take a little work, but he could dig this auto free. All Knight vehicles included survival kits, including small shovels for digging out during the wet season. He just wished he brought along a wince.

He took a close look at the ground beneath his front bumper. The ground was shaded, yet completely dry. The radiator was intact, and the engine not leaking and he hoped the axle was not snapped. Both wheels faced the same direction, straight ahead, so he doubted that. Plank stomped around towards the trunk, and popped it open. He was determined to dig himself out before night fall. He picked up the small shovel and decided to get busy. Hot as it was, he would rather work in the sun, for who knew what sort of creatures would come out once the sun set.

Katrina pushed the heavy door open, letting the rush of cool air welcome her. She took her first look inside what passed for a motel in Palmero Oasis. It looked rather run down on the outside; a structure built from cinder blocks and concrete, topped off with a shallow roof. The whitewash peeled in many places. Seeing how this was the only inn with a hundred kilometers, they did not feel picky about keeping up looks. Perhaps it was the war, and lack of travel into the mountains, that enhanced its depressed appearance.

True to Andreas’s word, the rest of the day flew by uneventful. The only traffic spotted came either in the form of snake slithering across the road for shade, or a bird of prey resting atop a telephone pole, and their atl prey running for cover. The birds blended into the orange plants, making them all but invisible to towneform predators, but stuck out like a beacon to the Terraforms.

Never before had she seen such an empty land in person. She wondered if Andreas was going to drive all night again. That is until they spotted a small town of six hundred off in the distance. Palmero Oasis was just that, an oasis in the middle of the desert. Surrounding the constant spring were numerous ranches, and tens of thousands of head of cattle. The town was built solely for them and their ranch hands. Palmero Oasis had little else; an inn, a grocer and a single Migration Station. That was the first stop Andreas made, to top off the steelhorse. He had to maneuver through a small herd of cattle. He cursed the domesticated aurochs, and how they strolled across the highway like they owned it. He was glad he did not have to drive into town; all three of the businesses sat between the highway and sixth street.

Katrina stepped into the room, looking down curiously at the gray rug. It was a drab color, and matched the white and tan wall paper. The room, if one could call it that, reminded her a lot of her own apartment. It had kitchen and bathroom, and perhaps was half the size of her former home. Cozy was one word to describe it, though it did lack the color Katrina enjoyed. Her home had lots of green and blue and even some red.

Along with the rooms, this place had all the extras to fill it. Stove, oven and even an ice box. A table sat in one corner, with four chairs surrounding it. On the opposite side, sat a lush couch that added a little blue to the room. She frowned upon seeing only one bed in the room. Were they all this way, or just this one. Aside from that, the room was quite a bargain at fifteen dinar a night. She glanced back at the door as Andreas walked through, carrying a bag full of empty water bottles. Yes, this place had a lock; several locks in fact.

“Secure,” she commented.

Andreas paused for a second, before remembering just how ‘open’ The People were forced to live their lives. “Yes, well not everyone wants the government barging in at all hours. See, in the outside world, there’s this thing called ‘privacy;.”

Katrina frowned. She was a rather private person herself, and did not want to hear a lecture from a career criminal. “And if you didn’t have these things called ‘thieves’ you wouldn’t need locks.”

Andreas kicked the door shut and continued towards the kitchen. “We have nothing to take, so leave it unlocked if it makes you feel better.” Andreas smiled as he spoke, but hid it from Katrina. He knew what she would do.

“Thieves do not bother me,” she replied, rushing over to the door. She sealed each of the three locks with a loud clash. “I am sharing a room with one after all.”

Andreas frowned. Nothing made an argument personal faster than comparing him to a common criminal. Yes, he worked for the Golden Hammers, and yes they dealt in several underground areas, and yes, Andreas had completed a few shady jobs in his day– but he was no petty thief. “If you don’t like it, you’re free to sleep outside.”

Katrina glared at him from around the corner. That was not such a bad idea, even if the creepy crawlies came out at night, it could not be any worse than him. She would too, but the prospect of that Knight still worried her. The Knight was out after he life, whereas Andreas seemed content just harassing her. The worse part was that she needed his protection, and he knew it. “You are so, so– insufferable!”

Andreas could only give her a smug look. “That’s why I’m still single.” He spared her a glance long enough to watch Katrina land on the couch in exasperation. He knew he should not be so hard on her, but she was a bit of a burden. Grant it, it was his fault for bringing her along. More over, it was his fault she was in this whole mess to begin with. Sure, they managed to get Hawk’s papers because of her guidance. He regretted dragging her into this mess.

He knew he should have just passed her by in the university. Had he, then he and his buddies would be back in Tropico drinking in celebration. Dwarves do love to toast a job well done. In theory, he could have just left her in the Knight’s mercy. That was what his colleagues wanted. None of them had any interest in the sapien female. Not that Andreas did either. Sure, she was attractive, when she was not glaring at him, but a woman from The State was far more trouble than she was worth.

No, he could not leave her at their mercy. He would never forgive himself. Andreas had enough guilt in his life. He made enough mistakes, the worst costing the life of someone dear to him. He wanted to live without getting another drop of innocent blood on his hands. He just wants to do his job and try and live his life in peace. Peace without anyway, he doubted he could ever have it within.

What was he to do with Katrina? Andreas suspected she would follow him to Tropico. Affection had nothing to do with it; it might just be a simple matter of not having anywhere else to go. More likely, she was waiting for him to fix what he broke. Unless The State lost this war and destroyed, he could see no way to give her that life back. She was an exile, a fugitive from The State’s perverse concept of justice. Whatever he would do, it would have to wait until they were in Port of Dreams.

Katrina’s face softened as she sunk into the surprisingly soft couch. “Quite comfortable,” she said with delighted surprise.

“Glad you like it,” Andreas said. He left the empty bottles upon the table and jumped on to the bed. “Enjoy!”

Katrina gave him a shocked stare. “Enjoy? You’re going to make me sleep on the couch? What sort of gentleman are you?” She sputtered in indignation.

Andreas made a sour face. “Lady, I paid for this room, I’m using the bed.” Why could she not just agree with him once? How many hours passed since he last lay stretched out over a bed. It might not be the most comfortable one in the world, but it will do. Not even horizontal for a minute and already the weight of sleep was pressing on him. He was hungry too, but food could wait a few more hours. A shower would be nice too, and maybe a chance of clothes. The shower will still be there in the morning, and clothes he would simply have to dream about. “Night,” he said with a yawn. After about forty hours on the go, Andreas earned himself a nap.

Katrina slept fitfully on the couch. It was comfy enough for her body, but her mind just would not allow it. She lay there half the night, tossing, turning and thinking. Thinking was the worst of the three. Her mind crossed many topics; her future, her past, her life. Her worrying finally gave way to sleep, but when she awoke, her fatigue was just as high, if not more so. Upon blinking to life, her nose picked up the most peculiar smell; that of cooking.

She sat up groggily and glanced over at the bed. That jerk was already up. Of her night’s worries, he was not one of them. Andreas had plenty of chances to do her harm. Perhaps he was waiting until she least expected it– perhaps not. When he was not being insufferable and rude, he was all business. There was a seriousness to him. It was like her wore it as armor, to hide something deep inside. Not surprising, after all a gangster did have many secrets.

Katrina climbed off the couch and decided to push any thought of Andreas from her mind until after she ate, and maybe after having a nice hot shower as well. Once she was refreshed, then she could give him a piece of her mind. Upon standing, she stretched towards the ceiling, trying to work out some of the kinks she developed overnight. So much for that couch being comfy. A nice sore neck and lower back was her reward.

She rubbed her back as she rounded the bed. How fun would it be to ride that stolen Steelhorse today; not very. When she looked up, she saw the table set and food sitting upon it. Two plates, one Andreas was already finishing, the other sat unused. She could almost swear it was waiting for her. She never would have guessed this glorified crook could cook. No doubt a skill learned because of his impossible nature; if he did not cook for himself, then who would?

She looked down at the meal. It was a rather simple breakfast comprised of eggs, cheese and diced potato. It was a dish she could find in any restaurant back home. “An omelette,” she said with a quizzical tone. She expected far less from a bike-riding thug; less as in nothing at all.

Andreas looked up from his meal with an irritated look upon his face. It was almost as if to say ‘what, not good enough for you’. His grimace melted into a dry smirk. “Where you expecting tequila and cornflakes?”

After a meal, a fine tasting one at that, and a nice hot shower, Katrina felt refreshed. Even her sore back felt a little more lively. She would have liked a longer shower, but the stupid thing jumped from hot to cold too many times. When she dried off and dressed, she learned the reason. Andreas took that same time to clean the dishes. It was a job best left to the cleaners, especially when it interfered with hot water. Andreas refused to leave it, as he was a firm believer in cleaning one’s own mess. When he declared it so, Katrina was filled with a little hope. Did that mean he would clean up the mess he made of her life?

Andreas refilled the bottles of water while Katrina waited at the table. While he worked, she took the time to brush out her hair. Two days with at least a rinse was too much. The brush she found was nicer than expected, and looked brand new. Was it near the bathroom sink the night before? Katrina could not remember. The bathroom seemed to have everything she needed, except a tub. Now an hour long hot bath would cure all that ails her. Maybe one of the nice hotels in Dream City. Despite Andreas’s plans, she intended to go there. No way would she pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, certainly not when she would stand beneath the magnificent city.

Maybe she would part ways with him there. She had no desire to visit the tropical stronghold for world socialism. It use to be a premier vacation spot for The State’s wealthy, long before The Party came into power. After the rightful government was overthrown, the wealthy of the world quit visiting. Katrina, like most of The People, ignored the fact that the world’s middle class and naturalist still flocked to the island. She could not imagine dwarves wanted to live there. After all, they were the pinnacle of free enterprise– so why would they live where a command economy rules.

Andreas finished sealing the last bottle and dropped it into the bag. He removed the Steelhorse’s saddlebag, bringing it in with him. Seemed a lot simpler than carrying the bottles out one at a time. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he looked down at Katrina, still brushing out her hair. “Are you ready, or do you need another hour to get ready?” He had yet to meet a woman who was on time– a sapien one any way.

Katrina frowned. “Oh can I really get an extra hour, how generous of you,” she said with a dry sarcasm. She made one more run through her hair before setting the brush aside. She stood to face Andreas. “Ready when you are.”

Andreas glanced over at the brush. “You’re just going to leave it?”

“It’s not mine,” she told him. Perhaps she should take it, but it was so new, she just had to let the next guest use it. Either that or the motel takes real good care of their insides. She noticed a twitch in Andreas’s eye as he walked passed. It was only then did the possibility donned on her. Did he buy it? That would explain why it was so new. She would have thought him incapable of such considerations before breakfast. “You know, breakfast was quite delicious.”

Andreas only shrugged as he walked out the door. “Just made too much, didn’t want to throw it out, not with so many around the world starving.” His voice was cold, almost accusing.

Katrina just shook her head. She was trying to pay him a compliment, and he shoots back with a snap. It was like she was trying to push her away. Why save her, why bring her along to the ends of the world if he just planned to repel her. Was he deliberately trying to keep his distance, keep himself detached? It was natural, one of The People and a Tropican, natural born enemies. Yet, unnatural, for here they were, fleeing together across a neutral land. Bah! It was too early to ponder fate. Katrina decided she should just pick up the brush and hurry after him, before Andreas decides to leave without her.

Andreas stopped the Steelhorse just short of the onramp. Overhead, he heard more traffic zoom past in a minute than he heard during all of yesterday. Only a few minutes passed since they left the motel, and Andreas was still fuming. It was as he always said; no good deed went unpunished. He tried to do something thoughtful, and it flew right over her head. Typical, just typical. One would think he would have learn better by now.

Andreas took out the first bottle of water and took a drink. A few hours will pass before he gets another chance. Before him lay one of Marasuania’s freeways, Autoway Number Two. It ran from north of here all the way to the coast. It was four lanes, two in each direction, of concrete and no speed limits. Andreas planned to open the throttle as far it would good and get this trip over with. Port of Dreams lay a few days down the road.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Katrina asked impatiently.

Now she was in a hurry. “I’m going to take a wild guess that you’ve never been on a freeway.”

Katrina shook her head. Of course she had never, why would anyone in The State? “Always took the train.”

Figures. Andreas should have known. The State rationed its fuel tightly, and its new colonies were so widespread, that only rail could connect them. Perhaps they planned to build their own freeway, in the event they win. World looks rather grim, and Andreas could see it going either way. The State commanded the north of the continent, and as long as they did not make too many enemies at once, they might have a fair shot of victory. In that case, Tropico will not be far enough away; he will have to hope the first train to Capelleon. And seeing it lay millions of kilometers away, it would most certainly be the first train to Capelleon.

“What do you think about this marvel of modern engineering?” Andreas asked.

“Noisy,” Katrina observed. “And dangerous.” How many drivers were killed in any given year in the fastlane?

Andreas nodded. “Freedom isn’t free,’ which doesn’t mean do what your government tells you to, it means to live free is inherently risky. Life is full of danger, and in the end, life is fatal.”

“A bit philosophical for a road,” Katrina told him.

Andreas finished his last sip of water and tucked the bottle back into its place. “Yes it is,” he glanced back at her as he revved the engine. “Just relax and enjoy the ride. Oh, and try not to fall off.” Without waiting for her snappy comeback, Andreas hit the accelerator and jumped onto the freeway. They made it to the open road, and Andreas saw nothing but smooth sailing the rest of the way.