Cold wind cut
Kella's eyes as she crept to the crest of the hillock to look for hunting
parties in her wake. Nothing on two legs was in sight, just dusty gray and
brown vegetation covering thousands of identical hillocks in every
direction. The western horizon was still blurred by smoke, which surprised
her. Things must be bad if they'd not gotten the fires under control by now.
Maybe the prison authorities decided to let the place burn.
The sky was empty of movement. The attack that had enabled her escape would
have knocked out any fliers or, at minimum, their control systems. One good
pulse would fry anything left unshielded. Of course, if the orbiting scanners
were working then this was for nothing and she and her companion would soon be
picked up and--
She cut that thought off and scrambled down to where Farron lay
curled on the lee side in an attempt to escape the wind. His head rested on
one crooked arm, and he was sound asleep. Kella envied his easy surrender to
the physical. Her own body craved rest, but her mind wouldn't settle enough
to allow it; she had to focus to keep it from racing in useless speculation
about the future. Useless, since it was unlikely she had one. Options for
escapees from Riganth were limited to a return to their cells or death.
Freedom was a fool's hope.
Kella gave an inward shrug. Fool or not, she
would die before going back to her cage.
She was tempted to leave Farron
where he lay, but the man's skills were her only insurance against an
unknown future. He was not wanted, but necessary. If they were lucky they
had a few hours left to reach their goal--her goal; Farron was too doped to
think straight. If they hurried, a few hours might be enough. After that,
what was left of the authorities at the prison would have reorganized and
begun tracking down strays.
Farron protested the hard shake and subsequent
pull to his feet, but followed as she threaded between the higher bits of
drab landscape. Except for the cough he'd picked up in prison, the only
sounds in this primal world were their footsteps and the endless susurrating
wind bearing them away to infinity. It stank of burning plastic, chemicals,
She took Farron's hand when he stumbled, leading him around
the less obvious obstacles. Touching another human felt strange to her after
so many days of isolation. In those stretches when she'd been aware enough
to mark the time, she kept count of at least three hundred of them, though
that had to be an underestimation.
Farron paused, his grip tightened,
stopping her. He blinked, puzzled. "Are we outside?"
"Yes, we're outside."
"Yes, it is."
Was he waking up or had he gone simple like
so many others? The drugs given to the general population induced docility
and suppressed the libido, but a percentage of prisoners reacted badly,
their brains shutting down by degrees. The worst were taken away. She heard
what happened to them. If Farron was too far gone it would be a mercy if she
broke his neck now than--
He struggled to get out words. "But. . .we
shouldn't be here. Should we?"
She felt a wash of relief. Cognition was
intact somewhere inside his skull if he could form that complex a question.
"It'll be all right. Come with me."
"My feet hurt."
He wore prison
scuffs, which were not intended for walks in the wilderness. Her feet were
encased in regulation boots, taken from a guard she'd particularly enjoyed
killing. The boots were too large, but she preferred their chafing over
bruises and cuts. "So do mine."
"We'll rest soon."
accepted her word and came along. They put a few more klicks between
themselves and hell.
The wind rose, roaring, thick with the smell of
destruction. She checked the sky, cursed, and quickly dragged Farron to the
steep base of a hillock, pulling him down next to her. Not the best shelter,
but it would have to serve. The wind moaned like a living thing, whipping
the low growing plants.
The orbit of Riganth's moon was such that it
eclipsed the sun once a day. Its apparent disc was much larger, blocking
light and warmth for a long, cold hour, sometimes more, depending on the
planet's own orbit. It made the planet's weather system. . .interesting.
"What's wrong?" Farron asked.
"Take a nap, we're fine."
Farron lay down
and kept himself to himself as she spooned her back against his front. She
felt awkward, unused to such contact. The need for shared warmth was more
important than her need for body space; she stifled the urge to move away.
The wind wailed around them; sharp gusts eddied in, plucking at her.
Oblivious, Farron coughed twice, fretting in his dreams. She tried not to
breathe his breath.
The delay was impossible, but she couldn't help
resenting it. They might stumble forward in this dry storm, but in the
twists and turns needed to negotiate the rough terrain, they'd soon lose
their way. It was just too dark.
She filled the time scanning the black
sky for the telltale lights of a flier among the shredded clouds, unlikely
as that might be. No pilot in her right mind would choose to go prowling
under these conditions. That left remote scanners, their operators safe
indoors, but those would be grounded as well. The little machines were
tough, but had their limits.
If any operators were left. Kella became
aware of an orange glow against the flying cloud cover.
The moon's transit crawled to a conclusion; the day's second dawn
asserted itself. Shivering, Kella stood and stretched warmth into her
"It's time, Farron."
He mumbled, coughed, and tried to
roll away into the peace of his folded arms.
"Come on." She nudged him
with her foot.
He shoved it away.
"Get up, unless you want to die."
He struggled briefly with his eyelids and lost. "There's no difference
between catching it here or anywhere else," he mumbled. "One way or another
we're dead. Yours is more work. I'd rather save myself the trouble."
speech was reassuringly lucid. Some parts of his brain had slept off more of
the drugs during the respite; the rest of him just hadn't realized it yet.
All he needed was a little push to get moving. "Would you really? If you're
that tired of living I can fix things for you."
"Don't do me any favors."
She stooped and closed both hands around Farron's throat and squeezed. She
did it slowly. His petulance changed to panic and he struggled, then
actively fought. He broke her hold and twisted away, gasping and coughing.
She kept her distance, hiding her own sudden fatigue.
Farron was fully
awake, on his feet, and glaring. "You rotten--you were really going to do
She showed her teeth. "Who says I've stopped?"
"I do, I was just
"Your humor could be the death of you."
"Only with you in the
audience. All right, you got me up." He gestured for her to assume the lead,
obviously reluctant to have her or her hands out of his sight.
a bearing from the sun and struck off.
"Where are we going, anyway?" he
She tried to answer, but the words didn't so much as form in her
mind, much less turn to speech. She had a mental picture of their
destination, but her ability to tell him about it was . . .temporarily
offline. "You'll see. We're close."
But their pace remained
slow over the uneven ground. She was tired to the bone, hollow with hunger,
and terribly thirsty. She speculated on the edibility of the plants, but
knew better than to risk it.
Farron called for a stop; Kella ignored him
and plowed on, right into a low solid object that cracked her shins as she
fell onto it.
"Hey, didn't you see that? I tried to tell you."
It was a
mound of metal and plas-crete, less than a meter across, sprouting from the
earth like an exotic strain of edible fungus. It was colored to blend with
the surrounding land. Kella stared, trying to recall what it was and why it
"What's the matter with you?" Farron demanded.
"Well, are we
Her memory flickered and she stood back, favoring her bruises.
He made a face. "Of course, always me." He examined a plastic
housing. "Locked," he pronounced, "and probably for a good reason. This is
part of the prison, isn't it?"
"No, of course not."
She'd fallen over a.
. .the correct word escaped her. A door then, she impatiently provided. The
one she'd been looking for, though not the one she'd visualized. Her
expectations conjured something more vertical. With a building attached.
All right, so the building was underground, shelter was shelter, and this
was the way in. "Open it."
He grimaced. "With what? I need specialized
"What kind of tools?"
"A cutter and circuit probe would be
helpful, and maybe a bypass with a program override."
what, leaves and dirt? Without the right tools you'd need a battering ram to
"I might just try one, providing the impact element is your
The look on her face was evidently inspiring. He found a rock and
after several tries, cracked the housing, peering at the exposed works.
"This is more along your line," he stepped back. "Have a go."
began trembling as she probed the mess. Her heart raced, and sweat suddenly
popped out on her forehead. She broke off before Farron noticed.
"No, and this is hardly my line. You're the specialist, you do
Farron swallowed his puzzlement and had another turn. "I'm not sure
what you mean. I'm expert enough with the right tools, but these
multi-binary probability codes are a bit over my head--I could spend the rest
of my life doing this."
"That is entirely possible," she said, with
"Still, I could try a more direct approach. This tech is just old
enough for us get away with. . .there, press that down and hold it."
had to struggle to keep from throwing up as he touched a bare wire against a
contact. Sparks flew and her hand jerked back.
"Wants to bite," he
remarked, sucking his own stinging fingers. He coughed and looked around.
"What the hell is that pong? Something burning?"
She'd been too distracted
to notice the worsening smell. The sky held more smoke than clouds. No point
climbing a hill to look. She could hear the approaching fire. A vanguard of
cinders tumbled toward them on the wind.
"Get it open, Farron. Now."