The cyborg had a headache.
It wasn’t the high mountain air. His body knew to compensate for the missing oxygen. Nor was he dehydrated, nor would it have mattered if he were. His body knew how to compensate for that, too. For its age, and the abuse it had suffered, his body remained resilient, efficient, capable, strong.
It was his brain that was going to shit. Hence the headache. Like needles in the backs of his eyes. It was really fucking up his enjoyment of the view.
Peaks stretched north and south, shoulder to rough, massive shoulder, glaciered still, the highest ones — they wouldn’t be, further south — great scudding masses of cloud among and above them to add depth and grandeur. From behind them the sun, orange gold, lit the great sere leeward plain below.
It was the kind of view to make a man believe in God. If his gmorg second brain would quit punching the insides of his skull for five minutes, that is.
The kid eyed him uncertainly.
“I’m enjoying the view,” said the cyborg. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
The kid shrugged, his eyes no less bugged out in wonder and terror than they had been since the two of them passed the checkpoint out of Cascadia. He was so out of his depth it was a miracle he could put one foot in front of the other. Wasn’t his fault, but Pynchon — the platform the cyborg’s wet-drive last ran was named Dick Pynchon — was starting to wonder if it had been a good idea to bring him along after all.
Not that he had much of a choice. He was overdue for an overhaul, his wet-drive too wonky to travel solo. He needed a partner to keep him straight, and Chi — hard c, rhymes with ‘eye’ — was the best he’d been able to come up with since he lost the last one.
Kid wasn’t exactly dead weight. But you could fill a couple of warehouses with all the stuff he didn’t know. Like how to appreciate the little things in life — a breath of clean air, a picturesque view — when you’ve just learned there’s a price on your head.
“Alright. Good try, kid. Let’s get moving.”
Cousin Sammy’s Truck Stop, RV Park, Firework Stand, Cafe, Lounge, and Trading Post stood near the foothills’ bottom, before the trees gave out, sprawled in the crotch of the old highway’s east- and westbound lanes, not far from a cluster of green alpine lakes. ‘Welcome to Libertaria, Land of the Free’ proclaimed a small bullet-pocked billboard outside. ‘Where every day is the Fourth of July!’
A string of firecrackers went off, as if to prove the point. It spooked the kid, who dropped to a crouch. He looked around wildly, eyes bugged out even bigger than usual. There was laughter, somewhere out of sight.
Dick Pynchon sighed and hauled the kid to his feet.
“Come on,” he said. “Just stay with me and don’t make eye contact with anyone. Don’t touch anything, or say anything, or, you know what? Just wait out here and try not to get lost. I’m going to go inside and buy us some gear and see if I can find a ride heading south.”
The kid just looked at him.
The kid nodded.
Inside was the cafe, all rustic tables and taxidermy and old rusty farm implements on the walls, punctuated with tin signs making jokes about fishing and outhouses and guns pried from cold, dead hands. It smelled like burnt coffee and fry grease and cigarette smoke: a thin pall hung in the air near the ceiling, catching the light. It was midafternoon, after lunch but before dinner. The place was about half full of people who looked like they all knew each other.
Past the cafe was the trading post, a jumble of coolers and shelves that was part flea market, part convenience store, part surplus outlet, and part grocery. Boxes of ammunition were stacked between flats of sardines and improbably colored yo-yos in a box with the words ‘Do NOT Light Up!!!’ in silver glitter-pen ink. There were mud boots and fleece caps, oversize heavy jackets halfway between hunting and military gear, a wooden bin full of produce with the word ORGANIC seared into the dusty grain, the carrots and potatoes and mushrooms and greens so fresh there was still dirt on them. From one rafter, on metal hooks, hung a row of dry-cured haunches, deer from the look of them. The one by the kitchen was carved like Spanish ham.
“You need help finding anything, mister?” asked the girl behind the counter. She was a year or two older than the kid, easily twice his undersize frame, freckled and ponytailed and not entirely insincere in her helpful expression. In her hand was an old paperback, from a spindle on the counter next to the register.
“Need some travel gear,” he said. “Couple of bivy rolls, extra blankets, mess kits. Like that.”
“And multipacks to carry it all in, too, huh?” She set her book down on the counter. A spy thriller, judging by the cover. The stool creaked as she shifted her weight to her feet. “Let’s get you set up then.”
Pynchon heard the whiz-pop of bottle rockets outside.
“I guess every day really is the Fourth of July around here.”
Chi didn’t know what to do with himself. So he found a tree a little ways off from the bustle around the building and the collection of trucks that looked like houses parked haphazardly in the field next to it and sat himself down in its shade, hoping no one would notice him.
For a while, so it seemed, no one did. Long enough Chi thought he might start to relax.
The first barrage sent him scrambling behind the tree’s trunk, panicked and patting himself up and down, looking for bruises and blood. The next barrage blew past to either side, a few even hit the trunk. Whizzzzz — pop! At least a dozen each time. Like tiny gunshots.
Chi heard laughter from the other side. A whole pack’s worth. His blood froze. He knew what it was to be hunted.
“Come on out, boy! We ain’t going to hurt you!”
“You sure look familiar,” the girl said, handing Pynchon another mess kit. He stuffed it into one of the multipacks. A few more odds and ends and they’d be good. Maybe he’d sit and have a drink after, see if he could rustle up a ride south.
“Can’t think why. I’ve never been here before.”
“You ain’t famous, are you? You look like you could be famous.”
“Just got one of those faces, I guess.”
The girl smiled.
“I feel like I should get a selfie, just in case.”
“I don’t photograph well.”
They met back across the counter. Pynchon laid his purchases down next to the spindle of used paperbacks.
“Ha! I knew it!”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me that ain’t you.” The girl handed him a tattered paperback. Another spy thriller, from the look of it.
There was his name, Dick Pynchon, blazoned across the top. It was called Independent Operator: True Stories from the Edge. He turned it over, looked at the author photo.
The cyborg did not recognize the place, nor recall the occasion. But it was recognizably him in the photo.
He smiled and shook his head.
“That ain’t me. I barely know how to read, much less write a whole book.”
“Maybe y’all’re twins. Separated at birth, destined to find each other, have adventures or something.”
“Sounds like you’re the one should be writing books.” The girl blushed. “Y’all take Fed Creds?”
“No, sir, we do not.”
“Thought they were supposed to be good anywhere in the lower forty-eight.”
“This here’s Libertaria.”
“So it is. Cascadian?” If they didn’t take mossbacks, he was fucked.
The girl had a pretty smile.
“Cascadian works just fine.”
She handed him the machine.
“There’s a small conversion fee, of course. No taxes, though.”
Dick Pynchon smiled.
“God bless Libertaria.”
Chi climbed the tree. He couldn’t think what else to do. If he ran, he might lose his companion, the man who could guide him to Aurora.
He couldn’t risk that.
The pack surrounded the base of the tree. Ten of them, Chi thought, though they moved around so much it was hard to keep count. Some were younger than he was. Some might be older. Almost all of them were bigger. All of them were paler.
“Be danged, we’ve treed him!”
“I reckon so.”
“Never seen one up close before. Where’s his fangs?”
“He don’t scare me!”
“Give me that lighter. I’m gonna send one right up his ass!”
The bottle rocket hit Chi, popped near his ear. The shock almost loosed his grip.
“Come one down, boy. We ain’t going to hurt you.”
“Yeah. We’re just messing around.”
Chi hoped his guide would come back soon, before the pack grew bored toying with him.
“Here’s your boilermaker. Make the whiskey right here.”
“Tastes like it. Thanks.”
Across the room, the girl from the store counter was over talking to an older woman — her mother or aunt, Pynchon guessed, and the person in charge — and glancing his way. She had the book in her hand. The old woman looked over at him, then said something back to the girl. She shook her head.
“Looks like someone took a shine to you,” the barwoman said. She looked him up and down. Liked what she saw. “Can’t say’s I blame her.”
“Kind of you to say. Don’t suppose you could help me out?”
“If it’s what I’m hoping you’re asking…”
“I’m looking to go south.”
“And I’m looking to let you. Too bad that ain’t what you’re asking. I’ll ask the boys, though.”
“That’d be great.”
“You got money, right? Gas ain’t cheap.”
“But it’s tax free.” She laughed. “Yeah, I can pay.”
“Well, I guess we’ll see whose lucky day today is.”
Pynchon raised his glass in salute.
“I hope it’s mine.”
Another customer came in, a ranch hand looking fellow like the rest of the crowd. The barwoman brought him a beer, took the sidearm he set down and slid across the bar, and locked it in a drawer with a key from a zipstring attached to her belt loop.
Pynchon sat in a quiet corner, sipping and waiting. At some point, someone would come up to him and make a proposition.
It didn’t take long.
“This you?” He wore a red ball cap and brand new canvas work pants. In his hand was the copy of Independent Operator from the Trading Post.
Red Cap did not look unfriendly. Nor did his three friends watching from the bar. One waved when Pynchon looked. Behind the counter, by the kitchen, the girl watched.
The look on her face told him he was in trouble.
He smiled. “Like I told the young lady. That isn’t me.”
“Looks like you.”
Pynchon shrugged. The man’s smile changed.
“Here. I got a better picture.”
He unfolded a sheet that smelled like fresh printer ink, handed it to Pynchon. His picture, name, and description. Wanted Dead or Alive. The reward had a lot of zeroes at the end.
The kid was on there, too. No name, but they had his picture.
Red Cap’s friends were still smiling, but they didn’t look so friendly anymore. Everyone else in the place either openly watched or studiously ignored what was happening. Red Cap set the book down.
“So, Mr. Dick Pynchon. You going to come easy, or you going to make it hard? Me and the fellas, well, we decided we didn’t have no preference.”
“Come on down, boy!”
“Yeah! Come down!”
“We’re just messing around. We ain’t going to hurt you!”
“We just want to see your fangs and tail!”
One of them threw a rock. It caromed off a branch, went wide. But the act opened a gate. Chi saw it happen. The others dug in the dirt for rocks to throw, too.
Chi let go of the trunk and fell. He touched a few branches on the way down, landed on the biggest one’s back and kicked off him into a somersault between two others. He was running as soon as he got his feet under him. Behind him the pack roused itself to give chase.
Pynchon’s wet-drive tried to kick in to combat mode. He could barely see past the dataspace overlay for all the error warnings and red flags. Worse, he couldn’t turn the damned thing off.
His headache came back, worse than before. Bad enough it made tears come out of his eyes.
“Are you… crying?” Red Cap was caught between baffled and offended.
It was that moment the kid crashed through the door.
He came in wide-eyed and hollering, the pack of kids on his heels splitting off at the door as if it would burn them to cross it. Chi jumped the first table, landed on a second in a defensive crouch, his feet planted in a pair of late lunches no longer being enjoyed by an elderly couple in baggy, brand-new plaid and denim. A slim vase with a single wildflower stood quivering between Chi’s legs, unharmed.
Everyone gaped at him.
Everyone except Pynchon. Eyes blurred with tears, wet-drive still blaring, he socked Red Cap in the nose and barreled straight at the bar. Red Cap’s friends scrambled out of the way as Pynchon leapt over the counter and landed with a crash against a shelf full of glasses. He grabbed the key off the barwoman’s waist, ripped the belt loop getting it off. Before anyone could stop him he’d opened the gun drawer.
He emptied the first one into the ceiling, pointed the second in a wide arc at the crowd. Everyone had the sense to put their hands up and step back. Everyone except Red Cap, who was sitting on his ass, holding his bloody nose.
Pynchon turned to Chi, still frozen half-crouched on the tabletop.
“Good timing, kid. Go grab those kits and let’s get out of here. Grab that book, too. I want to read it.”
He turned back to the crowd. Smiled reassurance at the shop counter girl.
“Sorry about that, everyone. Now. Here’s what happens next…”
They took everyone’s keys, and the keys to the gun-check drawer. Pynchon took sidearms, cash, and cash cards from Red Cap and his three friends. Made Red Cap drive them away in his pickup. It was a quad-cab, roomy enough Chi could lay full out in the backseat, with four-wheel drive and a full tank of gas.
Pynchon made Red Cap drive them ten miles down the road, them ordered him to pull over and get out of the truck.
“You going to kill me?” he asked. He sounded scared, but kept his dignity.
Pynchon let him dangle, just to fuck with him.
“Some friendly advice. Next time, cut the deal to drive us, then take us somewhere you have control of the situation. Today could have been your lucky day. Instead, this happened.”
He tossed the bag with all the keys in it at Red Cap’s feet. Then he punched the gas and left Red Cap choking on dust.
“What now?” the kid asked from the backseat. Outside the sky was gone pink, the land dim with shadow. The cyborg turned on the headlights, settled his bruised and aching body deeper into the driver’s seat. His wet-drive had stopped trying to run combat mode, but he still had a headache.
“We go south.”
For coffee, books, and whiskey.
Help a brother out?