Part XXI

He wandered through the fields with his metal detector, stepping to the side on occasion, plucking a few flowers with carefully sharpened sheers. Taping the display, looked carefully before plucking a leaf from a dandylion .46 meters away. A vine archway appeared before him. He stepped through.

The little line of drool had drenched Whitehot's canvas sneaker until Tiny had moved it over and placed a rag down so a puddle wouldn't form. Jessie had setup an IV of some homemade concoction that caused her eyebrows to flitter as she stared at the tinfoil-wrapped LCD screen. Painter was fairly sure she wasn't blinking. Tammy lay on the cot, still passed out. The old man was buckled and duct taped to the front seat at Jessie's insistance. Painter had delved into his world of torque and turrets, occasionally letting Maria travel as he got a couple of z's. Tiny checked out the world the old fashioned way -- with low-light thermographic image magnificated cybernetic eyes.

"How's he doing?"

"Z'ok. Muz be geetin' cloze."

"You holding up?"

Tiny did the approximation of a shrug. "Zikker tha' a dog."

Painter handed a plain silver tinfoil package to Tiny. "Get some nutrients in you. We should be able to get to safety soon."

Tiny looked at the package of compressed, dehydrated, super-concentrate nutra-soy derivative with a weariness born of repetition. Opening the mini-'fridge, he pulled out a container of chocolate syrup and poured it over the unwrapped brick in his hand.

Whitehot could feel her riding tandem, that woman's ghost a wisp behind him as he cruised along in his suped-up moped with the stylized decal of the cyborg brontasaurus on the side. Guards ignored him as the plaid-striped suit he wore kept anyone from looking at him. The cubical jungle was behind him with all the gnome minions and their little bits of black-market pay-data his puppy with the cold vaccum nose collected. At the moment he was happy to let the pup do his job 'cause he was really interested in the coffee maker.

She floated behind him, watching as he passed sentry ICE, his locate program moving him along and his sleeze program fooled the automated defenses. Somewhere he had a custom program running a locate and copy for information that could be valuable.

The locate brought him to the main server. She could see all the data flowing through this node and how he tapped into the data streams. Little bits were picked off, copied and routed his way.

For someone that could still be one of Them, he was pretty good.

Painter could see far up the road to where it went over the top of the hill far above. He could feel the extra weight shifted to the back axil knowing that Maria had already compensated for the inbalance. The two of them hauled the motley crew up the steep incline towards the only people actually up and working at this hour, two garbage men dilegently taking sips of coffee while maneuvering the trash from the curbside to the back of the truck. The truck's engine spouted a cloud of black as it crawled up the road a ways and then stoped. Maria pulled over a bit to pass and slowed to avoid the men at work. Once past, Painter had her pull to the curb where he got out and carefully placed an oragami frog folded from a gum wrapper on top of the trash. He got back in Maria and they drove away.

Whitehot was jacked in, oblivious to the meat-world as he passed through virtual nodes. Tammy still slept in oblivion on the cot with the sheet wrapped about her. Jessie, exhausted, had passed out with her computer on her chest, the glow illuminating her shoulder. Tiny had leaned back the seat and vibrated with a low rumble. Painter sat upright in his seat with a little line of drool being the only indication of his sleep. The stranger was curled up in a ball snoozing with a twitch in his leg. Maria kept sensor-watch from beneath the bridge, occasionally sending a tube up to the surface to cycle the air. It kept time, waiting for the moment which it would emerge from their watery waystation and meet the pirates.

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