Part IV

The colors blurred until they blended to a molted brown.

'The color of shit,' he thought right before he swerved hard right, left, duck low, hold on and fly. Not even a thud as he landed, kicking up a dusty cloud of black dirt and blacker leaves. There was the smell of raw earth, but he was gone, the low whining of the engine revving up to speed getting lost in the air being pushed from his path. He rode tight and low in the close corridors with a trail of branches leaking sap in his wake.

His eyes were closed.

It wasn't Edge. Some of it was talent. A little of it was skill.

A lot of it was luck.

He slowed down as he neared camp. Eyes open, he navigated through the trees on his bike. The wine of the electric motor echoed back to him in the close spaces. Full moonlight filtered down through the leaves; it might as well have been day.

He left the bike out, parking her near Maria. Oilskin draped over her to fend off the dew. Exhausted though not tired, he lay down within his bedroll. Painter edged himself a little closer to the dying fire and closed eyes that could not weep.


Highways. Long, strait, flat, endless highways. And rain -- buckets and buckets of water dripping and blocking the sky in sheets, but ever present. Painter just drove in a flat-eyed stare. Tiny was draped out in the rear bench seat vibrating the van with deep, nasal drones. Painter put a couple of tracer rounds into him. Tiny decided riding with Whitehot would be a safer idea.

Tammy looked back and grimaced. "Where did he get such a hideous car?"

Painter looked mortified. "I built it for him."

"You... built... that."

He tilted his head to the side and nodded. "From the paper up."

She wasn't sure she believed him. "Paper? You used paper?"

He nearly laughed. "Ideas have a tendency to hit when you aren't thinking of them. I've got a stack of napkins with doodles on them back there."

"But what would posses you to make something so..."

Her smile was contagious. "Boxy, rust riddled... ugly?"

"Uh, yea."

"No street punk worth his salt would take a look at stealing her. The rust is a mix that you spray on. The headlights look that way so they can flip down for the mechanical air-horns. The dual exhaust can vector water when she is performing underwater operations. She can pull 200 klicks in forward and reverse on a strait-away. Gyroscopes and weight distribution allow her to
corner at over 100. The armored panels were angled for optimal transmission and reception with satellites and Maria. How's that for a hunk of junk?"

"You did that?"

He put on a corny accent. "A, yep."

"By yourself?"

"The physical stuff, yea. Whitehot did the autopilot and some of the satellite interface."

She rested her arms on balled-up knees and rested her head on top, looking at him from the side. "You called him by his name."

"Yea, but don't tell him that."

"You tease him with that."

"Well, you have to understand that Whitehot, well, deckers really, tend to get lost in that box. I try to keep him communicating with the rest of us. Hey, I'm gonna take a nap. There is a spare bag behind the bike."

The Ridge offered a view of The Valley. Trees formed a canopy of crayon green that wasn't there. The rocks formed a pastel browned garden that also wasn't there. Deep, thick bluish snow bounced the midnight moon about forming a sculpture of light... and that wasn't there either. He was up on the ridge with Maria sighting down through the helmet. The array fed tactical into a corner of his vision and piped the updating map into his head.

With global position information, it didn't take long to locate them. They were being cautious. Their clothing shifted patterns to match the terrain, leaving a gentle blur at the edges when they ran. He shifted the image to thermal and lost them. The suits were doing their job well. He ran image through a filter containing detailed information on the heights and weights of the unit. Cartoonish versions overlaid onto the image.

He pulled back the magnification. The toonish characters moved along a yellow dashed line. "Que pasa?" What is going on.

He scanned forward of their position. "Nada." Nothing.

"Silencio." Silence.

They were nervous. He didn't blame them for that. They hadn't had time to do proper background checks. They were confident. He didn't blame them for that. They had new gear from their... customer. They had been briefly trained, but the stuff was so easy to use...

'It's an easy job.' He mentioned this to himself again. 'Just go in, us the equipment to its fullest potential, get out, give an evaluation. Simple.'

The earth fell from beneath him.


'Screaming. Someone is screaming.' It seemed an odd thought to him. He decided to check himself. 'Oh, it's me.' He stopped. The screaming did not. He switched his vision to low-light. Tammy was there. "What the hel..." He switch low-light off.

She stopped screaming. "Painter! What are you doing."

He sat up, hitting his head on the cot above him. "Falling out of the bunk by the looks of it." He pulled himself up on the cot to give a moment for her to cool off. "You.. ah... might want to put a shirt on." There was a little 'eep' and a flurry of activity. Things calmed down.

"You make a habit of falling out of bed?" Acusing.

He sighed. "Only when I dream."

"How often is that?" Angry. Attacking.

"Too often." The weight of the world.

The words carried something raw and disturbing. She had seen him hurt, but this carried uncensored pain.

"I... I'm sorry."

"Not your fault.  Some things can't be helped."

They were silent, listening to the quiet whine of the engine as Maria plodded along on auto-pilot.

"You saw?"



"Cyber-eyes. Replacements. Eyes of steel and stone. They got low-light."

It was silent again.

"How much?" Her voice was small.


The rain switched to snow early in the morning. The silent icy coldness continued to increase until the windshield became a barrier to the whiteness. He dropped "Bolero" into the player, the tones of which echoed off of the snow barricaded walls.

"Are we moving?"

"Cruizing along at a stately 45 klicks."  He seemed unhappy with that.

Her hand waved to the whitewash before them. "How can you drive in this?"

"Same way pilots fly in drek like this, only what Maria is packing would make military intelligence 'shit a brick.'" The pride oozed over his seat.

She size him up a moment then sized up the storm. "I wonder how the others are doing."

"We'z still here. How'z the rezeption?" The sound made her jump.

He rested his head back then cracked it from side to side. "Sounds good. You guys doin' good?"

"Staying warm and catchin some z's. How we doin' on time?"

Painter mentally checked over figures in his head. "Ahhh, we should make camp in a few hours. Weather satellite says the storm is going to last to morning. We can wait it out in a valley."

"You'z the rigger."

Tammy peered over at Painter. "Rigger?"

"He'z good with t'e vehicles an' anythin' doin' wit' 'em."

She looked up towards where she guessed a microphone might be. "That's all?"

"Naw, takz somethin' else. Takes Edge."

Night. Not like she could tell, being trapped in the white darkness all day ('or is it day now?'). They arrived in the shelter of the valley, but the snow was blowing everywhere and quickly covered them over in a dark white blanket. Painter had exhumed a bio-strip to alleviate the claustrophobic sense of closing in. It glowed blue by her.

She looked down to the floor at Painter. If it wasn't for the faint rising of his chest, she'd swear he was dead, laid out. He was white -- corpse white. She had never really seen him without his sunglasses. The eyes were closed, yet the relaxed facade could not hide the taughtness. She lay back and drifted off.

The ridge was perfect.

He had a view of everything. The magnification and Maria's sensor array provided intimate detail down to the drip of dew just hanging onto the underside of a rock.

He thought he could hear the mechanicalness of the decryption routines. "Los numberos." The numbers.

"Uno." One.

"Dos." Two.

"Tres." Three.

"Quatro." Four.

He stayed silent for a moment then called in. 'It's an easy job.' "Alpha." 'Ready.'

"Tres... Dos... Uno... Ahora!"

Pain. The searing kind, probably with blood. 'I ought to say something appropriate.'


A blanketed mess shrieked as it tumbled on-top of him. The struggling mass lashed out a socked appendage which landed square in the jaw. He reached out and pulled himself half out of the pile.

"Frig, Painter! Is there anywhere safe to sleep around here!" He rubbed his jaw thinking it best not to respond. "What is it you are having nightmares about anyway?"

He was faw away. "The Day."

He heard her rustle about. "What day?"

He looked up to see her getting to her knees before him. He shut his eyes and shook. "Ah... next town we get to, we're getting you something more than a shirt to wear to bed."

"So where are we goin'?" She'd been trying to ask the question for the last day. She was beginning to realize that they knew that she wanted to ask and were just waiting for her to be ready.

"Starry nights and broken dreams." He didn't seem to be there.


"It's a place that should be safe. There are people there we can trust."

Her feet were up on the dash. "This place have a name?"


She waited. "Well?"

"People call it Gomi. Those who live there call it home."

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