Part XV

The woman looked at her -- at Tammy. No, it really wasn't looking at. It was looking through. Tammy tried to look back, but that was a thing of long hours watching and waiting and observing. Finally, the woman lowered her weapon. "So you are the one They are after." The woman seemed to come to a decision while trying not to look up at something in the sky. "Better get inside before They finish retasking a satelight." With that she backed up and disappeared within the cavern of the RV. It was almost like she couldn't turn around.

Tammy blinked.

Painter was there leveraging as much as muscling Tiny up with Tiny's arm across Painter's shoulders. Tiny's legs looked like they were made of jello as the muscles still twiched from the shock. He almost had to half drag Tiny to Maria, depositing him in a manner that caused the suspension to sway. Painter managed to catch up to her as she stepped into the doorway and pause to let her eyes adjust to the darkness, but wasn't able to slip before her as she stepped in.

There was a table and benches in a hole formed by a closet on one side and a platform on the other. The platform was a maze of wires and electronics layered on metal shelves rigged on rollers and held in place by old bits of electrical cord. The insulation on the cords was dried and cracked where it hadn't flaked off. Stepping in she could make out the stove and cabinets to her left, each one with spring-loaded knobs at the bottom to keep the doors from flying up when the RV rattles down the road. As she moved towards the back, she could feel the suspension rock as the door on the right revealed a rather cramped toilet and shower and an after-thought cream plastic bowl that served as a sink. Further back was a bench on each side stacked with more racked electronics whose glow faintly illuminated the woman as she went about adjusting, checking, and typing from a rust-pocked chromed chair on large casters that didn't look original. Tufts of green duct tape were curling up and off the edges of the seat and back to reveal the yellow-ochre foam beneath.

The woman kept pushing long bunches of black hair clumped together with sweat and bits of mud and grass long dried. Her skin was the bronze-under-pink of a fading sunburn up to where a short sleeve shirt covered which was lower than the midriff-cut tank top she was wearing. She turned and Tammy saw that it was adhered to her back where the sweat-spot in the middle of her shoulders. Her parachute pants were still loose, but appeared moist inside. Tammy was feeling a little heated herself as she could feel the waves of heated air being blown across the electronics from a rather ineffective air conditioner.

The woman almost took her attention off of what she was doing. "Looked long enough?"

Tammy realized she'd been staring so she slid next to where Painter had parked himself at the table-et trying not to look at too much. Painter was sitting board-strait with his head tilted back and his eyes closed behind dark sunglasses with the hint of a silvering about them. The warmth was making her tired so she leaned back a bit. Painter raised an eyelid enough to see her head resting on his arm as she fell fast asleep.

"Ghosts ghosts all around and not a one to eat." It was a strange, hissing voice wrapped in an audio fuzzified rainbow of red heat and orange warmth and yellow fire and green life and blue cool and purple death that swirled about and ticked her with sensation in the raw black emptyness about her. Breathing in, she could taste her father slapping on aftershave before picking her up and letting her try while standing on the counter next to the sink. With the exhale, the taste of the memory stayed with her and she tasted through her father's eyes down at helself turning this way and that in the cute pink and white summer dress. Inhale again and there was her sleeping soundly with a gentle hand brushing aside the long strangs of hair and the warmth of lips grazing her cheek. Exhale to noting that the sky was ever so clear and a number of stars that had no real meaning at the solid end to the sensation of falling.

There was a murmering somewhere that approached headlong in the misty detachment before slamming into flesh. She jerked hard, feeling a spasm of dizzying pain jerk-reflex her head forward. Off in the near distance she could just make out Painter let out a, "Oohhh..." After a moment, in the nearer distance was a woman, "I guess we don't have to wake her up."

She no longer felt the pain or the ice on the back of her head. There was only a wet numbness dripping down off an eraser-red water bottle which she squeegied with a free hand and splashed onto her face. For a moment she wondered why Painter was sitting on the wall before she was able to orient herself. They were still on the bench with Painter on the inside. She was laying down with her head resting on Painter's leg. Her hair was wet, probably where the water bottle had dripped down her face and onto Painter's oilskin trench, which, despite the heat, he still wore. There was an icky-stickiness down her back and across her breasts where her shirt sweat-clung to her.

Painter was keeping his eyes shut -- well, trying anyway.

She tried to sit up against a wave of dizziness but only succeded in flopping back into Painter's lap. He seemed to jump that little bit. The second time went slower as he helped her roll up into a sitting position. "Here. Drink." She opened an eye to see a straw that she drank a hefty sip of something faintly salty and fairly bitter.


"Yea. Real, old-fashioned lemonaid."

She was still too dry to swallow. "Yech."

"Maybe, but you're dried out and there's no power-drinks about here." Tammy forced herself to drink the entire glass.

"What happened?"

"Bopped your head against the wall," the woman was laying back in the other bench, but Tammy was sure she had a hand on a pistol in a parachute-pocket. "Knocked yourself out."

Tammy raised a hand to the back of her head. A rather cold-numbed bump was still there. "So who are you anyway?" Tammy offered a hand.

The woman let a slow breath in and out her nose. "Jessie." She managed to shake it.

"Tammy. What's the scoop?" It was a phrase she heard watching black-and-white detective movies at three in the morning on the classic movie channel.

"Checked my sensor logs," Painter closed his mouth as he'd been cut off, "and something went on out there, but I wasn't able to get a good measurement of it. I know where there is gear that makes this," Jessie emphasized with a swift kick, "seem like Stonehenge. That van has some wiz ECCM so you ride with me. I can keep a good bead on you then. Lover-boy here insists on riding along, so I got him too."

Jessie was driving down what felt like back-roads, occasionally stopping under overpasses or clusters of trees. Once she drove along the beach, a feat that seemed possible for her due to practice, and stoped beneath the concrete and steel of a suspension bridge. Tammy had lost track of where they were long ago. She thought it was still August, though it could be September. It had been warm out... low, mid 20's... and fairly humid. The land was dry-green rolling hills which she figured meant they were in the south or mid-west... if they were still in the Old US.

She still grined at the pinkness that had flowed across Painter's face.

Rolling her head to look under the table from the other bench seat she could see he still wore the dark, oilskin trenchcoat. "How can you wear a coat in this weather?"

"Hmm? Oh, the trench." She could tell he had been thinking while watching everywhere they were travelling. "It isn't that insulating -- more like a windbreaker. Cold weather and I add a liner."

"Still gotta be hot in that."

He probably nodded. "Yea, but I ignore it."

"How do you ignore heat like this?"

"Practice." He was almost smiling. "You just imagine it's not so hot and after a while it isn't."

She was rather doubtful. "You're kidding..."

The RV was slowing again. "Nope." Painter turned about. "No cover this time?"

Jessie yelled back. "Got an idiot light on the rear brakes. Check it out, merc?" To Tammy it really didn't sound like a question, but it wouldn't have mattered for Painter.

"Yea, be back in a sec." Painter slid himself over on the bench and slid out the narrowest opening in the door. Tam could still feel the cooler air outside brush in with the sound of a train's horn not too far off. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the momentary coolness blocked by the closed door.

She was halfway through the yawn when the tires squeeled.

Tammy felt herself flip and roll off the bench as the tires finally grabbed at the road and the RV lurched ahead. She landed on the floor on her side before she felt the metal pole of the table jam into the small of her back. The entire contents of the RV bounced as it went over what felt like railroad tracks, an action which jammed her into the pole once again, this time with the vinyl side of a seat cushion on top of her. Loud horns were too close for her comfort. The horn blasted past just before the windsheet of something really big moving very fast shoved the back end over. One corner of the RV dropped for a moment, bouncing the entire RV once again. She'd slid down with the movement of the back end and bounced once more into the pole, this time into her shoulder. Somewhere Tammy heard Jessie curse at a ditch while Tammy tried to extract an arm fron under her to grab at her shoulder.

Tammy managed to slide from underneath the table while clutching at her... right shoulder. She didn't feel much pain yet wasn't sure everything was OK with it. "You okay Painter," she heard herself say.

Jessie's voice came from the front where Tammy heard something metalic click. "We had to leave him behind." Tammy bewilderly looked up into another barrel. "I had to get you away from Them."

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