Dania drove onward, westward, across the vast Republic of Texas. She was heading toward
Hollywood. Why not? She'd always wanted to go there, ever since she was little, and people
always told her she had so much talent. She'd gotten sidetracked, that was all. Sidetracked
by history. A small part of her nagged that she should not have left her companion behind,
but he'd got scary last night, staggering around like he was drunk though he couldn't have
been; he never touched her liquor because he preferred beer, in long-necked bottles. He
wasn't the songy sweet cowboy of their campfire nights, who had almost, but not quite, succeeded
in seducing her.
Now she sure was glad that she'd resisted. A certain rage had emerged in him that reminded her a lot of her kid's daddy. She'd sworn to herself that she'd never put up with that kind of asinine behavior again. How many years ago? Seventy-five? One corner of her mouth quirked in a grin. Well, she'd sure made that stick.
Her wind-snarled hair whipped out behind her. She hoped that the sunscreen was working. Back in Crescent City, which seemed like a distant dream, sunscreen, but something not even as primitive as that, something better, had come out of the showers and protected them from skin cancer. Even if you got it, the damage could be repaired; it just took more energy. But these sunglasses
She had unfortunately gotten hold of some sunglasses at the flea market that seemed to have come from Tennessee, for whenever she wore them they called up the particulars of her divorce case and marched them down the right side of her lenses. Such helpful, kind sunglasses, smart sunglasses, sunglasses that recognized her DNA. She guessed they were cop sunglasses, or, more likely, lawyer sunglasses. Divorce lawyer sunglasses. If she could figure out how to run them she could at least have someone else's divorce information scrolling faintly across her upper vision. Or if only she'd gotten some kind of physicist glasses, not that she could understand that stuff again, or even children's storytelling glasses, she would have been happy, but no, she had to rattle through that anonymous jumble set out on the folding table of the dark-faced man in the straw hat and pick out these for the utterly Dania-type reason that she liked the way they looked; she liked the way that green dot flashed excitedly in the top corner of the right lens when she touched them. Excited to find a victim, she knew that now. She'd even paid extra, because, as the man pointed out, they seemed to be made just for her.
The road was self-repairing and utterly smooth. There wasn't much to driving out here, but Dania was getting kind of dry. She needed some soda pop. Some beer. She needed some cigarettes too. It had been a long, long time since she'd had cigarettes. Something about driving out here brought out the need in her.
Maps were no preparation for the size of Texas, not that they had one; Cowboy insisted that they only needed to go west. They had passed an unguarded checkpoint at the border near Texarkana. Texans had tried to keep nanotechnology out but how could they? She and Cowboy had read with interest a list of contraband.
Her glasses, certainly, and the car for another and everything inside it. Probably them, too. NATURAL HUMANS ONLY, read the list, and NATURAL ANIMALS too. Texas had tried to be a natural sort of place, but things got past them in the end.
Unfortunately, she hadn't seen any of the drive-thru stores that had so willingly scanned the Sun-O-Rama in Arkansas and given them whatever they wanted in return. Probably some kind of chain that Texas didn't allow.
Her foot on the energy pedal let up a little. There was something up ahead. BEER CIGARETTES BATTERIES the faded sign read. Well, now she was getting somewhere.
She pulled onto the eroded concrete pad and sighed. The doors and windows were nailed shut with boards. CONTAMINATED was painted in dripping letters across what looked like the main door. NO ENTRY BY ORDER OF BUG RANGERS. 2 BACON OR SAUSAGE, 3 EGGS, JUICE & COFFEE ALL DAY EVERY DAY $3.29 TEX-DOLLARS ONLY!
Two huge trucks and a smaller metal trailer were to one side of the main building, wracked by time and looted by vandals, who had carted off everything removable.
Dania got out of the car and stretched. Her long skirt blew around her legs, and she doubted that she would ever get a comb through her hair again, it looked such a sight in the darkened glass of the window. She ought to have braided it but she had been too irritated to think straight when she left. She remembered that she'd thrown the palomino kit on the ground, the one that Cowboy whined took up too much space, with a particularly satisfying rush of snottiness.
It was hot, and there wasn't a soul around. She had only passed three vehicles going east all day, and had seen no one else heading west.
The plains were treeless and the hot wind brought a steady smell of slow-baked grass, sweet and crisp, and she experienced a distant memory she really ought not have. It was like that, she'd found. She could enjoy these memories, the memories of others who had found this land so beautiful, even though Dania herself had never made it this far west in her quest for Hollywood.
This feeling was all that was left of somebody's memory. Some cattle rancher, some trucker, some traveling saleswoman. Just the pure pleasure of this vast flat land, and how brilliant it all was in the sun with the grass rippling tall then short where the wind pressed it down.
The hills they'd been in were finally flattening out. She could still see them, low rises to the east where she'd been that morning. Radio Cowboy was probably still tromping along back there.
She felt a very, very slight pang of guilt. She remembered how he had rescued her in Crescent City and kept the pirates from killing her. She remembered his nifty show tune pistols.
There was something else she was trying to remember. Something about Houston.
Hell. It was too hard to remember.
"The bug police!" she said scornfully, and strode over to the door, which was boarded up. It would need to be pried open. The large front windows were covered with thick iron bars.
Something banged, somewhere. She strode around the phalanx of looted trucks to the west side of the building and stopped just before she would have tumbled into a huge gully. It was about twenty feet deep and looked like it stretched a quarter mile away.
At the back of the place she found a metal door, scoured clean of paint by the wind and the sun, swinging open and banging shut. She went inside.
Yeah, bugs. No kidding!
She had stepped back in time. It was seventy years ago, and everything was perfect. As perfect as it had been for that short time when nanotech worked as they had been told it would, never mind the plagues of thought, the terrorism, the vanishings, the fear. Here was stuff: perfect, beautiful stuff. She realized that the loaves of bread in plastic wrappers, the soda dispenser, the rack holding pre-sealed movie blobs, and the floors and walls themselves were maintained by a program that would never give up. It used solar energy and the stuff that it sucked out of the ever-growing crevasse outside. Since people so rarely came here it probably hadn't been necessary to replenish much in quite a long time.
Thin lines of sunlight coming in between the boards on the windows draped smooth perfect orange counters. Rows of crinkle-wrapped snacks were stacked in wire holders. She stepped closer and examined a package of Cheeze Crackers. One might expect a corner of the package to be gnawed by small teeth, and the package empty, but all of these wrappers were apparently as hard as steel, and were only openable by people with two hands, one of which wielded a knife. Critterproof.
She walked toward the counter, behind which were bushels of cigarettes.
She was not afraid of anything, since there was nothing to fear out here save snakes, but when a beam of light thickened and grew into an oblong shape, kind of like a gigantic roly-poly easily as large as her, Dania's heart began to thud.
Despite all the strangenesses she'd seen since she was transported down the Mississippi River on a boat filled with and piloted by raving madpeople, and then all the technological changes and ages she'd whipped through since, this blob of light for some reason took the cake and revved up the fearmeter she thought she'd lost long ago.
She did not know why she believed it was sentient. She did not know why she felt as if it were observing not only each hair and freckle but each act of her life, each thought, as if it could see through time.
She realized that she had ceased to breathe, and forced her lungs to expand. Air passed through her narrowed throat in a kind of croak.
This thing was between her and the cigarettes.
She took a few steps forward, but the thing didn't budge, didn't float away or vanish like a trick of vision might.
"Um, excuse me," she said, in a kind of gasp. "I would like to get hold of those cigarettes, back there."
The thing pressed itself away from the cigarettes. Dania about fell to the floor. It listened! It understood! It even understood English!
"Well damn," she said, putting her hands on her hips and looking at it. "Who are you? What are you doing here? What you want with me?"
A low hum filled the air. There was an almost imperceptible vibration of the things around her. She recalled that the Lone Elephant in Crescent City had trumpeted its yearning messages in sound that could not be heard by humans.
"Can't hear that," she said. "Needs to be pitched higher. I can hear sounds between thirty and four thousand hertz. I can see in the electromagnetic spectrum from a wavelength of about four hundred nanometers to, um, maybe seven hundred fifty." She wasn't sure where these ideas and numbers were coming from. She was astonished and pleased. Apparently she had not lost all of her older self. It had just been folded away inside somehow.
Or maybe this
had something to do with her restoration. The air smelled like ozone. She was at least ten degrees smarter, or at least smart enough to feel dumb.
The light seemed to be changing from white to blue, and its sound was now a low moan like the wind might make.
Then it vanished.
She had a clear path to the cigarettes.
"Um, guess that wasn't such a good idea," she said, but the thing was clearly gone. She no longer felt observed.
Beneath the counter was a stash of bags. She filled one with cigarettes. Then she walked around the store and filled more bags with bread, cheese, beef jerky, licorice, candy bars, and Reddy-Fill bags of soda, soymilk, and juice. And beer. She moved quickly and looked around when she was done, wondering if there were more things she would need.
She drove the Carlyle to the back door and loaded up until the little car was almost overflowing with stuff, and settled into the driver's seat.
She had to decide which way to head.
She had to admit that the light-thing had spooked her just a mite. Not enough to need companionship; there was hardly enough spook power in creation for that. But she thought of Radio Cowboy Shorty hiking along that rough road, maybe stopping at a spring and trying to figure out how to grow the palomino, and she just had to turn back the way she'd come.
Maybe he'd learned his lesson.
Maybe he'd know something about the light that spoke like an elephant.
With the elephant, another small chunk of Crescent City came back.
Despite that, Hollywood called. She peeled onto the highway heading west, popped open a warm beer and took a foamy swig.
[ Part 1 ] [ Part 2 ]