She considered herself a patient person, but she could only study the flattened rowboat for so long. The aluminum had been etched with an acid and she could see the images clearly where the creator had masked off fantastic scenes depicting creatures of myth. One particular oriental style dragon fascinated her with its polished scales finely etched and reflecting the light from a million stars under its surface. The effects was a look back into places where dreams came from. It made her nervous.
"Heaven is so far that it can never be reached. Hell is just around the corner."
Mass had spoke in his place across from her, behind Folds.
She shook her head to try to clear the dazed clouds that welled within it. "What?"
"Something I was told a long time ago. Something seemed appropriate about it. Do you know why you are here?" Toneless, but the softness was there.
A simple question -- one she was too happy to answer. "I was told to come."
"We asked you... it was not necessary to demand."
"It didn't seem like a question to me." She simultaneously shrugged and swung an arm over the back of the wire chair as she crossed her legs. The other arm came up so that she could flick a strand of hair out of her eyes with a sense of bravado she didn't feel. This meeting had a different feel. She realized that the previous had been business and the talk had been that way. This was different. While it was also business, this was something else. This was personal.
"Did you visit the Great Wall when you were in China?"
The particular feeling of a lurch hit her. Her arm nearly dropped over the back of the arm of the chair into her lap. "Well, yea, of course... wait how did you..."
"The Wall was still whole then, was it not."
She grabbed one of the supports. The rusted metal flaked off layers of cheap chrome into her hand, but the bar was still solid. The effect was comforting. "Yea, but..."
"It stretched for as far as you could see and, if you stood close to it, it seemed like it went up forever. If you stepped back from it, you could see that it did not." If Mass had arms he would have them in the air like some street preacher she saw on the evening news.
"Sure, any wall is like that, but..."
"We have run into a wall."
The voice was Folds, she was sure of it. If it had been mechanical, she would have understood. If it had been synthetic, she could have comprehended. If it had been anything but what it sounded like, her mind would not have halted.
Whatever it was, it was raw human.
Folds waited for her, knowing the effect of the essential pureness would have, and then continued. "We have looked into the matter Mister Tiny has inquired about. There is a wall to the data required, a wall too wide to go around and too tall to see over. It appears to go up forever. We cannot get far enough from it."
She felt her mind should be doing something. It was there in her head, stuck in a way that made that reminded her of that antiquated school VCR on pause, the snowy lines skewing the image on the screen diagonally. Somewhere within her kicked over, jump starting her head in the process. If Folds had a face she was sure it had raised an eyebrow.
"Why tell me? I'm the cargo, remember."
Something resembling a chuckle came from Mass. "We could tell one of your protectors, yes. We merely wanted to see you."
She knew what algae under tenth grade biology felt like. "Me? What is special about me?"
"Indeed." Fold's sounds almost put her back into that place of non-thinking. She considered that she might be able to get used to that.
"Your father is well."
Mass's statement did put her back into non-thinking. A small nip quickly brought her back as a ratted gray cat attracted her attention. The matted long-haired ball of fur hopped into her lap where it settled down, content under her careful strokes of the hand that had been behind the chair.
The statement was comforting while it made no sense to her. Somehow, it was too big, too high a wall before her. She focused on the purring mess rolling over in her lap, careful not to snag on rats as she scratched its... her ears. The wall was still there, but not directly thinking about it made her less uneasy.
Shadows from the gomi-house across the street moved to cover him before Mass continued. "Your father has been appraised of the situation in-so-far as we are willing to tell him. The message, condensed, conveyed that you are safe."
Somewhere about her stomach didn't like that statement. "Am I?"
It had been a limo, or what was left of one, that brought Mass, Folds, and herself back to Maria. The roof had been cut off, allowing full view of the public. She vaguely was aware of Mass apologizing to her while mentioning something about the price of power.
Whitehot was the first to see them. He started arguing with Harold about her arrival. Painter looked relieved and upset at the same time, but turned tail at the site of the cat in her lap. Tiny let fly his toothy grin when they arrived. She was getting used to that.
Mass and Folds stayed put while Tiny and Whitehot came over to discuss matters. There was some initial pointing at her. "Ya'll righ' Tammy?"
Folds turned enough to give a sidelong look. The human/inhumanness snapped her into the world about her. "What were you before the shadows."
That satisfied them.
They stayed one more day while preparations were made. Whitehot made some preliminary "runs" within the slab-box of a deck he had. She asked him about it once, wondering if it was like the cyberspace interface units they had used in school. He had lectured her on the differences, why his was superior, what modifications he had made and when he had made them. Once he started getting into the giant drill that had attacked him and how he had fended it off with the beam of a penlight she had decided that it would be best an excellent time to feed the cat sleeping at her feet.
She had wandered a bit, getting the feel of the layout within the Gomi streets. Everywhere it was the same -- men, women, children going about their daily lives, living, playing, working, dying. Their bodies were thin -- thin from lack of nutrition and thin from lack of water. Oddly, they were a strong lean as proven by the sheer strength she witnessed as she stopped to watch a new home constructed. Yet, whatever they were, they were happy.
Tiny has overturned an oil barrel to use as a makeshift chair near where she had placed a bit of breakfast for later in the day. He had scrounged an old bookcase which served him as a table. On the table was a soft cloth on which was the disassembled parts of what she considered a "big gun" -- a phrase that she had already discovered that both Tiny and Painter found amusing.
"What you got there?" She cautiously stepped over a mucky rivulet floating feces.
Tiny peered at the surface of the barrel. "Valkery model azault rifle. Cuzt'em gripz, rechoil compenzation, and targheting link. What ya got?"
Tammy pulled the ceramic bowl she had purchased out. The sitting cat stood, circled, and sat down with tail twitching. "Her? She just has been hangin' around me, ya know." Tiny nodded absentmindedly while caressing oil onto parts before him. She watched him a moment. "What is next. Are we staying here?"
"Naw. We needz info. Me friendz got a lead fer uz."
The cat had its eyes closed and turned so she would itch another spot. "Who?"
"Goez by Steamboat Steroids. `Nother guy lik' Whitehot. I hear he tak'z old parts and makez stuff that rockz cutting edge."
"How is he going to help us?"
"He'z a big corp cowboy. Corp'z not promoting `im an' he'z gettin' old fer a cowboy. He'z the guy who paid the local boyz on you or knowz who might `v. Money came from that direct'n."
She gave Tiny a careful look. "He'd be under contract not to discuss anything not to mention that it was a bit illegal. What, he's just going to tell us?"
Tiny smirked. A couple of teeth flipped out from behind his lips. "Naw. We'z doin' his ass a fav'r."
She dripped sarcasm. "And that is?"
Tiny pointed an assembled assault rifle past her and let of a round. The doll's head snapped back as the round went cleanly through an eye. "We'z gonna kill `im."
They landed in the middle of nowhere. On the map was listed a large salt flats covered by a bold, black "UTAH" which didn't seem to cover anything despite its size. The area, Painter had explained, was mostly ghost towns and desert. The few pockets of civilization survived through the leaching efforts of city councils on a single corporation that needed a center physically out of the way from the world.
And they were heading for one of them.
She had tried to worm out of all three what they were going to do, but had gotten jargon flak. She tried bitching about that and just got shrugs and, 'You really don't want to know.' Painter's advice was, "Just go with the flow. Life's a bit more interesting when there are suprizes." Having tried to get information from Tiny, she decided that was good advice.
Still, it was pissing her off.
The cargo plane was huge and rattled of the engines. Painter had this wild look and Whitehot had an even wilder one. Painter patted "her" in a way that brought up bile. Whitehot did, complaining that it was too fleshy. If it wasn't for the harness Tiny had locked him into, he would have been chasing Harold about the plane. She was able to navigate switching seats next to him. Grabbing his arm, she began to stroke his hand while a making soft "shhh." In a couple of minutes, Whitehot was dead asleep.
The rack of seats bounced a bit when Tiny crashed down next to her. Painter got on the intercom and told Tiny to quit moving about. Tiny grumbled something less polite then felt Whitehot's pulse over her. "He'z out." The tone was flat with disbelef.
She had to practically yell over the engines. "What's up with him?"
Tiny shook his head. "That'z hiz biz."
She turned on Tiny and was pulled back by the harness. "You don't know?"
"But you're his friend."
Tiny nodded. "Yea, we'z chummy."
"What kind of friggin' bastard are you? He'z your friend and you aren't the least curious."
Tiny slammed one hand down on the seat between them. The thud drowned the engines as yellowish dust flew up from the impact. His eyes locked onto hers with the fierce intensity drowning in rage. "I'z tellin' ya thiz once. Lotza people gotz pazts. Runnerz `specially. Some thin'z we juzt don' talk about an' really don' wanna remem'er. Ya lizenin'!" She could almost nod. "Runnerz got no pazt. Runnerz got no future. We'z livin' in t'e now. Frag the pazt. Notin' but pain anyway." Tiny hurled his bulk into the cockpit. The plane lurched again.
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