The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

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.

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