Part XIV

They'd been driving... and driving... and driving... and driving...

Painter and Whitehot were steaching their legs a bit while Tiny procured some stuffers, "munchies" her father had called them. It seemed strange to be thinking of him and it seemed strange that thinking of him would be strange. Then again, he always said that he did his best thinking on "the throne." He once kidded that way why her mother was so smart -- she stayed in the restroom so long.

She found herself thinking back across her life to the point that lead her here. Childhood and teenage years... what another strange thing... was she still a child? She wasn't sure. Yet her mind kept skipping to earlier.

She'd awoke to gently rising and falling. Eventually she realized that the rocking motion was Painter breathing in and out and in and out with even rippling strokes. For a long while she just lay on him listening to the thump-swishing of his heartbeat and feeling the unencumbered motion of the muscles crossroaded with hardened scars. Eventually his breathing shifted slightly.

"You awake?"

His voice was gravelly with morning dryness. "Yea."

There was a comfortable wait she just enjoyed. "Why don't you get all these scars removed?"

His swallowed to moisten his throat, but his voice held the weariness of first-thing-in-the-morning. "They're memories -- each one."

"Memories of what?"

"Here... up." He helped her eased up to her elbows. "This one," he traced, "was a knife fight where I didn't take an oportunity. This one is where I forgot to check my vest and took a round. This cluster is from a step back into a stripmine-pit. They are all memories." He hadn't begun to identify them all.

"Why keep them?"

"They come with the job."

She slapped him and grinned with him. "No, seriously."

His smile faded. "All this is stuff I might have been able to prevent -- probably not all of it, but a good many things. It's a dangerous thing, life, and we court death by burning the candle at both ends. Surviving tempers us. The scars remind me to not get too cocky. In the grand scheme we're all disposable."

She was sure she didn't like that term. "Disposable?" There was an emptyness about it.

"Yea. But only in the grand scheme. I won't count the number of people I can't replace." For a moment he looked tired... very tired... and older than she cared to imagine.

She'd shifted to slide next to him, unconsiously letting one leg slide between both of his. With his white-on-white skin it wasn't hard to make out the pink.

"Umm... it's late already I better check on those two. Probably wondering why we aren't up yet." He snagged a blanket from the top and managed to wrap it aound him without exposing... much...

They were driving and driving and driving and she was on a sugar-buzz from air-puffed immitation-chocolate sugar and something called Twinkies. Tiny inhaled the goo-filled cakes by beating on it for a bit then gnawing on the outside. "Dez tough bu' dey good." Inedible was more like it. Or was that indistructable?

Tiny and Whitehot had setup the table in back while Maria was on autopilot with Whitehot's car just behind on it's own auto-follow. In the meantime they were working on another game of euchre. This one was for the entire bag of soy-pretzels -- litteraly.

Every once in a while Painter would excuse himself to get new instructions from Whitehot's mail. They were very specific, yet increadibly vague at the same time. Occasionally a replacement set of instructions would arrive before they had begun the last ones. Sometimes they were to use the first, sometimes the second, sometimes the tenth. They parked under bridges and had to drive along a spillover. They made calls at pay phones and ordered a screaming me-me in a high-class bar. All the balasts of the florescent lights in Maria had to be taken out. For part of the trip over the desert they had to ride with the heat on during which time they could only drink from rain-water they'd bought from a grizzly old man who seemed to have asked all his questions long ago. The old man sold incadescant bulbs that fit into florescent sockets.

It became two days of instructions that looped them across creation.

Back to where they started.

On the plus side, she was up a bag-and-a-half of pretzles and four salt packets.

It was a dusty beige RV parked, but not blocked, off the side of the road enough to keep passing "smokies" (another of her father's euphamisms) from taking too much of an interest, but close enough to keep it on firm ground. She could see the places where the tires had worn down the weeds and packed the soil. The windows were heavily tinted but had a rather odd green tint to them. If she looked the right way she was sure she could see a brighter area in there where someone... a woman?... was sitting in what looked like mid air. Painter slowed Maria down to a crawl as they approached and maneuvered into the weeds. She could have swore there was a click from in back, but decided it had to be they nicked whatever a rather nasty looking rat was hauling towards the treeline. Maria's creeping came to a hault and there they sat. They were to wait. She was sick of waiting.

So she got out.

There was a light breeze which rustled leaves beyond the RV. Intermixed in that was the murmering of a refrigerator which kicked on as she was walking towards the door. Painter was calling out to her and she thought Tiny, but they hadn't moved away from the vehicles. It suprised her a bit as she fully expected them to have hauled her into some "safe" corner for "her own protection" by this point. Instead she was infront of the door which she managed to give what she hoped was a rather friendly knock. There was a rather uncomfortable tingling in her arm before Tiny whirled her about away from the RV. Painter was there to back her away. She managed a good elbow jab to break his grip when the kazot sound of electricity hit Tiny knocking. She didn't think anything could throw such a solid mass as Tiny back that far. She'd blocked everything out but Tiny before she heard someone off to her right.

"You move pretty fast, but don't think you can out-run this."

From kneeling beside a smoking Tiny, she slowly turned to see the door to the RV open. In the shadows behind the door she could see a barrel as large as her fist swung down at her. Next to the weapon was a featureless form... the woman... who felt pissed. "Everybody easy now. Before I decide to frag your ass right here you care to tell me how you did that?"

It took Tammy a moment to realize the voice, which felt synthesized, was talking to her. She couldn't think of anything special. "Do what? Walk?"

Her response didn't seem to be the right one by any streach of the immagination. "Knock on my door." No threat needed to be said.

Painter spoke up from the side. "The SOTA system. Actually, that's what we're hoping you could answer. Crazy Eddie said you could help."

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