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21 - Highway Time

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TURNER WOKE TO the silent house, the sound of birds in the apple trees in the overgrown orchard. He’d slept on the broken couch Rudy kept in the kitchen. He drew water for coffee, the plastic pipes from the roof tank chugging as he filled the pot, put the pot on the propane burner, and walked out to the porch.

Rudy’s eight vehicles were filmed with dew, arranged in a neat row on the gravel One of the augmented hounds trotted through the open gate as Turner came down the steps, its black hood clicking softly in the morning quiet. It paused, drooling, swayed its distorted head from side to side, then scrambled across the gravel and out of sight, around the corner of the porch.

Turner paused by the hood of a dull brown Suzuki Jeep, a hydrogen-cell conversion Rudy would have done the work himself, Four-wheel drive, big tires with off-road lugs crusted in pale dry river mud. Small, slow, reliable, not much use on the road.

He passed two rust-flecked Honda sedans, identical, same year and model. Rudy would be ripping one for parts from the other; neither would be running. He grinned absently at the immaculate brown and tan paintwork on the 1949 Chevrolet van, remembering the rusted shell Rudy had hauled home from Arkansas on a rented flatbed. The thing still ran on gasoline, the inner surfaces of its engine likely as spotless as the hand-rubbed chocolate lacquer of its fenders.

There was half of a Dornier ground-effect plane, under gray plastic tarps, and then a wasplike black Suzuki racing bike on a homemade trailer. He wondered how long it had been since Rudy had done any serious racing. There was a snowmobile under another tarp, an old one, next to the bike trailer. And then the stained gray hovercraft, surplus from the war, a squat wedge of armored steel that smelled of the kerosene its turbine burned, its mesh-reinforced apron bag slack on the gravel. Its windows were narrow slits of thick, high-impact plastic. There were Ohio plates bolted to the thing’s ram-like bumpers. They were current. “I can see what you’re thinking,” Sally said, and he turned to see her at the porch rail with the pot of steaming coffee in her hand. “Rudy says, if it can’t get over something, it can anyway get through it.”

‘Is it fast?” Touching the hover’s armored flank.

“Sure, but you’ll need a new spine after about an hour.”

“How about the law?”

“Can’t much say they like the way it looks, but it’s certified street-legal. No law against armor that I know of.”

“Angie’s feeling better,” Sally said as he followed her in through the kitchen door, “aren’t you, honey?”

Mitchell’s daughter looked up from the kitchen table. Her bruising, like Turner’s, had faded to a pair of fat commas, like painted blue-black tears.

“My friend here’s a doctor,” Turner said. “He checked you out when you were under. He says you’re doing okay.”

“Your brother He’s not a doctor”

“Sorry, Turner,” Sally said, at the stove. “I’m pretty much straightforward.”

“Well, he’s not a doctor,” he said, “but he’s smart. We were worried that Maas might have done something to you, fixed it so you’d get sick if you left Arizona..

“Like a cortex bomb?” She spooned cold cereal from a cracked bowl with apple blossoms around the rim, part of a set that Turner remembered.

“Lord,” Sally said, “what have you gotten yourself into, Turner?”

“Good question.” He took a seat at the table. Angie chewed her cereal, staring at him.

“Angie,” he said, “when Rudy scanned you, he found something in your head.”

She stopped chewing.

“He didn’t know what it was. Something someone put there, maybe when you were a lot younger. Do you know what I mean?”

She nodded.

“Do you know what it is?”

She swallowed. “No.”

“But you know who put it there?”

“Yes.”

“Your father?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know why?”

“Because I was sick.”

“How were you sick?”

“I wasn’t smart enough.”

He was ready by noon, the hovercraft fueled and waiting by the chainlink gates. Rudy had given him a rectangular black ziploc stuffed with New Yen, some of the bills worn almost translucent with use.

“I tried that tape through a French lexicon,” Rudy said, while one of the hounds rubbed its dusty ribs against his legs. “Doesn’t work. I think it’s some kind of Creole. Maybe African. You want a copy?”

“No,” Turner said, “you hang on to it.”

“Thanks,” Rudy said, “but no thanks. I don’t plan on admitting you were ever here if anybody asks. Sally and I, we’re heading in to Memphis this afternoon, stay with a couple of friends. Dogs’ll watch the house.” He scratched the animal behind its plastic hood. “Right, boy?” The dog whined and twitched. “I had to train ‘em off coon hunting when I put their infrareds in,” he said. “There wouldn’t’ve been any coons left in the county.

Sally and the girl came down the porch steps, Sally carrying a broken-down canvas carryall she’d filled with sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. Turner remembered her in the bed upstairs and smiled. She smiled back. She looked older today, tired. Angie had discarded the bloodstained MAAS-NEOTEK T-shirt in favor of a shapeless black sweatshirt Sally had found for her. It made her look even younger than she was. Sally had also managed to incorporate the remaining bruises into a baroque job of eye makeup that clashed weirdly with her kid’s face and baggy shirt.

Rudy handed Turner the key to the hovercraft. “I had my old Cray cook me a precis of recent corporate news this morning One thing you should probably know is that Maas Biolabs has announced the accidental death of Dr. Christopher Mitchell.”

“Impressive, how vague those people can be.”

“And you Just keep the harness on real tight,” Sally was saying, or your ass’ll be black and blue before you hit that Statesboro bypass.”

Rudy glanced at the girl, then back at Turner. Turner could see the broken veins at the base of his brother’s nose. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a pronounced tic in his left eyelid. “Well, I guess that’s it. Funny, but I’d come to figure I wouldn’t see you again. Kind of funny to see you back here.”

“Well,” Turner said, “you’ve both done more than I’d any right to expect

Sally glanced away.

“So thanks. I guess we better go” He climbed up into the cab of the hover, wanting to be gone Sally squeezed the girl’s wrist, gave her the carryall, and stood beside her while she climbed up the two hinged footrests. Turner settled into the driver’s seat.

“She kept asking for you,” Rudy said. “After a while it got so bad, the endorphin analogs couldn’t really cut the pain, and every two hours or so, she’d ask where you were, when you were coming.”

“I sent you money,” Turner said “Enough to take her to Chiba. The clinics there could have tried something new.”

Rudy snorted. “Chiba? Jesus. She was an old woman. What the hell good would it have done, keeping her alive in Chiba for a few more months? What she mainly wanted was to see you.”

“Didn’t work out that way.” Turner said as the girl got into the seat beside his and placed the bag on the floor, between her feet. “Be seeing you, Rudy.” He nodded.

“Sally.”

“So long,” Sally said, her arm around Rudy.

“Who were you talking about?” Angie asked, as the hatch came down. Turner put the key in the ignition and fired up the turbine, simultaneously inflating the apron bag. Through the narrow window at his side, he saw Rudy and Sally back quickly away from the hover, the hound cowering and snapping at the noise of the turbine. The pedals and hand controls were oversized, designed to permit ease of operation for a driver wearing a radiation suit. Turner eased them out through the gates and swung around on a wide patch of gravel drive. Angie was buckling her harness.

“My mother,” he said.

He revved the turbine and they jolted forward

“I never knew my mother,” she said, and Turner remembered that her father was dead, and that she didn’t know it yet. He hit the throttle and they shot off down the gravel drive, barely missing one of Rudy’s hounds.

Sally had been right about the thing’s ride; there was constant vibration from the turbine. At ninety kilometers per hour, on the skewed asphalt of the old state highway, it shook their teeth. The armored apron bag rode the broken surfaces heavily; the skim effect of a civilian sport model would only be possible on a perfectly smooth, flat surface.

Turner found himself liking it, though You pointed, eased back the throttle, and you went. Someone had hung a pair of pink sun-faded foam dice above the forward vision-slit, and the whine of the turbine was a solid thing behind him. The girl seemed to relax, taking in the roadside scenery with an absent, almost contented expression, and Turner was grateful that he wasn’t required to make conversation. You’re hot, he thought, glancing sidelong at her, you’re probably the single most hotly pursued little item on the face of the planet today, and here I am hauling you off to the Sprawl in Rudy’s kidstuff war wagon, no fucking idea what I’m going to do with you now… Or who it was zapped the mall…

Run it through, he told himself, as they swung down into the valley, run it through again, eventually something’ll click. Mitchell had contacted Hosaka, said he was coming over Hosaka hired Conroy and assembled a medical crew to check Mitchell for kinks. Conroy had put the teams together, working with Turner’s agent. Turner’s agent was a voice in Geneva. A telephone number. Hosaka had sent Allison in to vet him in Mexico, then Conroy had pulled him out Webber, just before the shit hit the fan, had said that she was Conroy’s plant at the site… Someone had jumped them, as the girl was coming in, flares and automatic weapons. That felt like Maas, to him, it was the sort of move he’d expect, the sort of thing his hired muscle was there to deal with Then the white sky… He thought about what Rudy had said about a railgun… Who? And the mess in the girl’s head, the things Rudy had turned up on his tomograph and his NMR imager. She said her father had never planned on coming out himself.

“No company,” she said, to the window.

“How’s that?”

“You don’t have a company, do you? I mean, you work for whoever hires you.”

“That’s right.”

“Don’t you get scared?”

“Sure, but not because of that.

“We’ve always had the company. My father said I’d be all right, that I was just going to another company…”

“You’ll be fine. He was right. I just have to find out what’s going on. Then I’ll get you where you need to go “To Japan?”

“Wherever.”

“Have you been there?”

“Sure.”

“Would I like it?”

“Why not?”

Then she lapsed into silence again, and Turner concentrated on the road.

“It makes me dream,” she said as he leaned forward to turn on the headlights, her voice barely audible above the turbine.”

“What does?” He pretended to be lost in his driving, careful not to glance her way.

“The thing in my head. Usually it’s only when I’m asleep.”

“Yeah?” Remembering the whites of her eyes in Rudy’s bedroom, the shuddering, the rush of words in a language he didn’t know.

“Sometimes when I’m awake. It’s like I’m jacked into a deck, only I’m free of the grid, flying, and I’m not alone there. The other night I dreamed about a boy, and he’d reached out, picked up something, and it was hurting him, and he couldn’t see that he was free, that he only needed to let go. So I told him. And for just a second, I could see where he was, and that wasn’t like a dream at all, just this ugly little room with a stained carpet, and I could tell he needed a shower, and feel how the insides of his shoes were sticky, because he wasn’t wearing socks… That’s not like the dreams…”

“No?”

“No. The dreams are all big, big things, and I’m big too, moving, with the others.”

Turner let his breath out as the hover whined up the concrete ramp to the Interstate, suddenly aware that he’d been holding it. “What others?”

“The bright ones.” Another silence. “Not people…”

“You spend much time in cyberspace, Angie? I mean jacked in, with a deck?”

“No. Just school stuff. My father said it wasn’t good for me.”

“He say anything about those dreams?”

“Only that they were getting realer. But I never told him about the others.

“You want to tell me? Maybe it’ll help me understand, figure out what we need to do…”

“Some of them tell me things Stories. Once, there was nothing there, nothing moving on its own, just data and people shuffling it around Then something happened, and it knew itself. There’s a whole other story, about that, a girl with mirrors over her eyes and a man who was scared to care about anything. Something the man did helped the whole thing know itself… And after that, it sort of split off into different parts of itself, and I think the parts are the others, the bright ones. But it’s hard to tell, because they don’t tell it with words, exactly…”

Turner felt the skin on his neck prickle. Something coming back to him, up out of the drowned undertow of Mitchell’s dossier Hot burning shame in a hallway, dirty cream paint peeling, Cambridge, the graduate dorms… “Where were you born, Angie?”

“England. Then my father got into Maas, we moved. To Geneva.”

Somewhere in Virginia he eased the hovercraft over onto the gravel shoulder and out into an overgrown pasture, dust from the dry summer swirling out behind them as he swung them left and into a stand of pine. The turbine died as they settled into the apron bag.

“We might as well eat now.” he said, reaching back for Sally’s canvas carryall.

Angie undid her harness and unzipped the black sweatshirt Under it, she wore something tight and white, a child’s smooth tanned flesh showing in the scoop neck above young breasts. She took the bag from him and began unwrapping the sandwiches Sally had made for him. “What’s wrong with your brother?” she asked, handing him half a sandwich.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, there’s something… He drinks all the time, Sally said. Is he unhappy?”

“I don’t know,” Turner said, hunching and twisting the aches out of his neck and shoulders. “I mean, he must be, but I don’t know exactly why. People get stuck, sometimes.”

“You mean when they don’t have companies to take care of them?” She bit into her sandwich.

He looked at her. “Are you putting me on?”

She nodded, her mouth full Swallowed “A little bit I know that a lot of people don’t work for Maas. Never have and never will You’re one, your brother’s another. But it was a real question. I kind of liked Rudy, you know? But he just seemed so -”

“Screwed up,” he finished for her, still holding his sandwich. “Stuck. What it is, I think there’s a jump some people have to make, sometimes, and if they don’t do it, then they’re stuck good. And Rudy never did it.”

“Like my father wanting to get me out of Maas? Is that a jump?”

“No. Some jumps you have to decide on for yourself.

Just figure there’s something better waiting for you somewhere…” He paused, feeling suddenly ridiculous, and bit into the sandwich.

“Is that what you thought?”

He nodded, wondering if it were true.

“So you left, and Rudy stayed -”

“He was smart Still is, and he’d rolled up a bunch of degrees, did it all on the line. Got a doctorate in biotechnology from Tulane when he was twenty, a bunch of other stuff. Never sent out any resumes, nothing. We’d have recruiters turn up from all over, and he’d bullshit them, pick fights… I think he thought he could make something on his own. Like those hoods on the dogs I think he’s got a couple of original patents there, but… Anyway, he stayed there. Got into dealing and doing hardware for people, and he was hot stuff in the county. And our mother got sick, she was sick for a long time, and I was away.

“Where were you?” She opened the thermos and the smell of coffee filled the cabin.

“As far away as I could get,” he said, startled by the anger in his voice.

She passed him the plastic mug, filled to the brim with hot black coffee.

“How about you? You said you never knew your mother.”

“I didn’t. They split when I was little. She wouldn’t come back in on the contract unless he agreed to cut her in on some kind of stock plan. That’s what he said anyway.”

“So what’s he like?” He sipped coffee, then passed it back.

She looked at him over the rim of the red plastic mug, her eyes ringed with Sally’s makeup. ‘You tell me,” she said. “Or else ask me in twenty years. I’m seventeen, how the hell am I supposed to know?”

He laughed. “You’re starting to feel a little better now?”

“I guess so. Considering the circumstances.”

And suddenly he was aware of her, in a way he hadn’t been before, and his hands went anxiously to the controls.

“Good. We still have a long way to go.”

They slept in the hovercraft that night, parked behind the rusting steel lattice that had once supported a drive-in theater screen in southern Pennsylvania, Turner’s parka spread on the armor-plate floorboards below the turbine’s long bulge. She’d sipped the last of the coffee, cold now, as she sat in the square hatch opening above the passenger seat, watching the lightning bugs pulse across a field of yellowed grass.

Somewhere in his dreams - still colored with random flashes from her father’s dossier - she rolled against him, her breasts soft and warm against his bare back through the thin fabric of her T-shirt, and then her arm came over him to stroke the flat muscles of his stomach, but he lay still, pretending to a deeper sleep, and soon found his way down into the darker passages of Mitchell’s biosoft, where strange things came to mingle with his own oldest fears and hurts. And woke at dawn to hear her singing softly to herself from her perch in the roof hatch.

“My daddy he’s a handsome devil

got a chain ‘bout nine miles long

And from every link

A heart does dangle

Of another maid

He’s loved and wronged.”


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