Through the night and all the next day, the little truck angled northwest across New Hope. As night settled in again, the western countryside rolled by in darkness. It absorbed the truck’s headlights, leaving a meager swath to navigate Old Highway 2.
Mara held the map closer to the dashboard lights. “It looks like…” She measured with her finger. “… ten klicks to Collier.”
Francisco drove with one arm propped out his open window. The warm, night air already smelled of river.
“We’ll take a break, get fuel,” he said.
Mara touched her finger again to the map where the Asa River cut a blue border between New Hope and New Minsk.
“Lydia told me Callinda is full of references to Earth,” she said.
“I read that,” Francisco told her. “Something about how each of the Fifteen named the geography in their regions. It’s so odd.” His smile gleamed in the dim. “My Line, the Mendoza Line, came from a place on Earth called Spain. I grew up in a village named Spain.”
“Lydia wept when she first saw a Callindan map. She pointed out her brothers and sisters in the New Hope towns. The Asa River is named for her mother.”
Mara giggled. “But when she saw the New Minsk map, she laughed and laughed. She said Feodor Petrovich had a wicked sense of humor. She said Collier was the name of his goat.”
“Goat?” Francisco laughed. “So, then, the Prime Minister…”
Mara’s giggles continued. “Oh, you should have seen his face when we told him. His noble name, passed down for generations, first in the Petrovich Line, then in the Cabot’s… Willa nearly choked.”
She stroked the map again with her finger, giggles subsiding. When she raised her head, she said softly, “Look. We’re almost there.”
Ahead, the lights of Collier glittered.
Francisco pulled the truck around to the dark side of the filling station. “I’ll get fuel and newspapers while you’re in the bathroom. Then, I’ll pull up here to get you. Don’t come out into the light.”
Mara nodded, accustomed to their routine, but knew Francisco had to repeat it for his own peace of mind. She eased out of the truck, rotating her shoulder. Pain and stiffness gripped her neck and back. She needed to be more diligent about her exercises.
Tires squealed. Mara turned in time to see a black sedan flying across the station lot. Francisco froze next to the truck, fuel nozzle in hand. As the car sped toward him, gun barrels jutted from the darkened windows. He dove behind the pumps, sparks shooting across the truck where he had stood. She heard his pistol fire, saw the car’s windshield shatter. It slammed into a pump and a jet of fuel spewed over it. Francisco’s gun fired again, and the car exploded in flames.
The concussion lifted Mara off her feet and slammed her to the pavement. She clawed at her bag as a second pump exploded. Running now, the Mourning Dove in her fist, she screamed for Francisco.
The station attendant burst from the building. He saw her and yelled, gesturing wildly. Mara couldn’t hear him over the sickening belch of the next pump tearing apart. Metal rained around her. The super-hot air tasted like oil.
She found Francisco on the edge of the paved lot, thrown there by the blast. As she bent over him, the last pump went, taking the truck with it. The explosion stuttered, fueled by the munitions in the trunk, then bloomed huge. Mara screamed, thrown over Francisco as the heat storm engulfed them. Something big hit the pavement near her head and bounced off, leaving a smoking pit. Smaller fragments bit her back and legs. The world was on fire. Under her, Francisco groaned.
“Up!” she shouted at him, struggling to suck air into her lungs. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the attendant running back into the shop. “Up! Now!”
Scrabbling through the fiery debris, she found his gun and shoved it in her bag. She found his shoes. Francisco rolled onto his elbow. In the distance, emergency sirens wailed. Mara grabbed an arm and yanked him to his feet.
“Go!” she yelled, pushing him.
“Majesty…” the word slopped out of his mouth.
Mara got him moving. They staggered to the back of the lot, tripped as the pavement changed to grass. They went down hard, but this time Francisco pulled himself up. She steered him through stacks of bald tires and past the rusted corpse of a van. They stumbled down a weedy ditch and onto a parking lot. Behind them the sirens hooted and yodeled. Flames leaped above the roof of the shop.
She propped Francisco against the only car in the fire-lit lot. “Are you hurt?” She struggled to put his shoes back on. He didn’t seem to know how to pick up his feet. “Francisco!”
“Can’t… What?” he managed, shaking his head to clear it.
“The attendant saw us. We have to go before someone comes looking.” She stood up, pulled on the doors of the car. They were locked. “We have to go now. Can you get into this car? Can you get it started?”
Francisco turned as if to consider the problem and slid to the ground.
“Okay.” Mara’s hands shook as she caught him and hauled him back to his feet. She willed her voice calm. “It’s okay, come on.”
She threw his arm over her shoulder, grabbed him by the belt, and maneuvered him away from the car. They cut a drunken path across the parking lot, away from the orange light, away from the screaming sirens, and back into the night.
“Check the darks.”
Francisco looked up at Mara. In the ghostly light of the old inn’s parking lot, she could see that his face was blistering. Charred holes dotted the front of his undershirt. She squatted in front of him and peered into his bloodshot eyes.
“They look the same,” she said.
He tipped his head back against the warped siding of the inn, his legs splayed out on the pavement like a rag doll. “Not too bad, then,” he muttered. “Just this headache…”
Mara heard more cars pull in at the front of the building. She had remembered passing the inn on their way to the filling station and managed to backtrack through warehouses and vacant lots behind it. She had tried to hide them on the far side, but the small lot soon overflowed with cars. Someone would notice them eventually.
“I have to get a room before they’re all taken,” she said.
The initial burst of energy that had propelled her away from the fire with a man twice her size in tow had long drained away. Her legs trembled so much that she could hardly keep her feet. Every part of her body hurt, even her singed hair.
Francisco’s face struggled. “Be careful,” he finally said.
She hitched her bag, feeling the weight of the guns. Pulling out Francisco’s pistol, she met his eyes as she handed it to him, and then hurried around the corner of the building.
Cars and trucks jammed the small lot and trailed up the drive to the edge of Highway 2. Mara snaked through the crowd at the door. Inside, tired and angry people shouted over each other and at the harried innkeeper.
“I have no rooms!” the old man whined. “Not my fault the Guard shut down the highway!”
Mara pushed to the front. “Shut down the highway?”
Glasses perched askew on the old man’s nose. “Din’tcha see the fire?” His voice rose querulously. “They got the road blocked comin’ and a’goin’.”
A big man next to Mara cursed and pushed his greasy hat further down his head. “All’s Balls, Old Pop!” he growled. “I been drivin’ twenty-seven hours straight! I need me a nap a’fore I drop!”
“Can’t help it!” the old man bawled. “Sleep in yer truck. Sleep in the ditch fer all I care!”
Twisting his bulk, grumbling and cursing, the trucker pushed his way out of the lobby. Mara followed.
“Where you headed?” she asked him.
The man’s angry eyes glanced off her. He yanked his pants up under a prodigious gut. “Kiev,” he spat. “Got a load o’spring pears fer market t’morrow.”
“My man and I need a ride to Kiev,” she told him. “P’raps we can help each other.”
He stopped, scowled down at her. “How’s that?”
“We’ll drive. You sleep.”
The trucker squinted at her, sized her up and down, noted her pregnant belly. Mara planted her fists on her hips and scowled back.
“I don’t see no man,” he said.
She jerked her thumb toward the back of the inn. “He’s worse for drink. I thought to get a room so he could sleep it off, but that’s not t’come true.”
Mara crossed her arms and glared at the trucker. “I’ve had my fill of drunks and men with ideas for one night, so here’s the lay of it—I’ll drive you, and him, and your pears to Kiev.”
“Huh,” the man grunted.
He headed toward the back of the inn, squeezing between parked cars and waving angrily at anyone in his way. When they rounded the corner, Francisco slid his hand in his pocket, watching.
“You sobered up, yet?” she called to him.
Her Security First studied her, and then the man. A lop-sided grin slowly spread across his face.
“Whew!” the trucker complained. “He smells like a gas can.”
“Fight in the alley.” Mara scrubbed her face, the picture of disgust and world-weariness. “Step closer. You’ll smell more than gas off a’him.”
“No, thanks.” He eyed the grinning fool. “I’m not sleepin’ next to that stink. We’ll throw ‘im in back with the pears. If he can get up, that is.”
He turned and stomped back the way they had come. “Truck’s in front.”
After a few jerky trials, and the trucker’s constant swearing, Mara learned the tricky gear and clutch progression. They lurched east on Highway 2, away from Collier and the roadblock. Once she shifted into high gear, the motor evened out.
“Thas better,” the trucker said. His jowly face sagged with fatigue. “Take 2 ‘til you get to Asa River Road. Go north a bit ‘til you hit 17.”
He wedged his considerable flesh into the crevice between the bench seat and the door, the synthetic cushion crackling under him.
“Don’t kill me in my sleep,” he muttered, then started snoring.
Marapura twisted the rear view mirror. As they passed under the last of the highway lamps, she saw wooden crates rattling against the sides of the truck bed. A colorless tarp stretched over the top and, on that, she caught a glimpse of Francisco’s head, one ear, and the long muscle of his neck. From the way his head rocked with the rhythm of the truck, she guessed he was asleep, too.
Is it right to let him sleep? she fretted, gripping the oversized steering wheel. Don’t you keep people awake if they have a concussion? Is that’s what’s wrong with him?
Suddenly the stench of pears was too much. She cranked down her window and stuck her head out like a dog.
He’ll be okay, she told herself, feeling the truck’s vibration needle the clenched muscles of her back. The headlights splashed over the exit sign for Asa River Road. The prayer formed again in her mouth and left on the wings of her breath.
We’re all okay, she whispered, turning.
Dawn struggled through a black lid of thunder clouds over New Minsk. Marapura peered through the rain-streaked windshield, wipers slapping an ineffective rhythm. Gray highway merged with the grayer landscape, erasing the edge of the road and dividing lines. She slowed in self defense.
In the rear view mirror, she could see the curve of Francisco’s soaked shirt as he huddled against the rain. Mara chewed her lip with worry. The trucker’s steady snore prodded her worry into irritation. She took a deep breath, wringing the steering wheel with both hands like an old wash rag.
How in the All of Creation did we get to this point? She blinked away angry tears. How could the world turn right-side-in like this?
She thought back to that horrible night in the Archive basement, sitting on a hard chair, a yellow circle of lamplight throwing T’Pol and Mendelsohn in shadow. She remembered Jonathan’s face, hard with sharp planes and angles, and how she could barely stand to look at him. Not with the words darting in and out, not with the ache of their lovemaking so fresh in her body.
It’s not his fault, she thought savagely. The seeds were already planted before Enterprise arrived.
The Queen knew she should think on this—who planted those seeds of chaos and why—but her mind had already betrayed her. It had stumbled onto Jonathan and followed him down a track she strictly avoided.
She saw him at Briank’s soccer match, arguing with Trip, his voice high and animated, his face full of good humor. She saw him on his haunches in the tall grass, playing with Rosie and Porthos, his laughter wide-open and surprised when the dogs knocked him over. She saw him in her bed, the lines of his back and buttocks as clear and perfect as a painting, the hair at the nape of his neck calling to her.
Where are you? she asked, reaching for that vulnerable feathering of hair. Are you still alive? Are you coming back?
A loud snort broke her daydream. She sniffed and swiped at her face as the trucker yawned and sat up. Smacking his lips, he checked his timepiece and looked out his window.
“Where are we?”
“About fifteen klicks south of Kiev.”
“Bad weather. We’re making fine time.” He looked at her. “You okay?”
“Gotta make water,” she said, climbing back into the tough, New Minsk dialect. She checked the mirror. “And I’m worried ‘bout my man. He’s soaked through.”
The trucker grunted. “Should be a Comfort Stop up ahead. He kin get a hot shower—ought to warm him up.”
Mara nodded. She could feel the man’s eyes on her.
“You live in Kiev?”
She shook her head. “North a’there.”
He grunted again. “You’re familiar somehow.”
Mara shrugged. “I got that kinda face. Everybody thinks they know me. You don’t have any spare clothes, do ya?” She jerked her head toward the truck’s bed. “He’s gonna need some.”
“Yeah.” The trucker gave her one last, squinty appraisal, then reached behind the seat to the tumble of clothes, food wrappers and crumpled cups. “I got somethin’ here he kin use.”
Mara bit back the urge to thank him. Too polite and too much for New Minsk. She just nodded and drove.
When they reached the Comfort Stop, Mara jerked the truck to a stop and threw open her door. “Can you get him?” she tossed over her shoulder. “I gotta…”
The trucker waved her off, and she shuffle-ran through the rain and wet grass into a squat building. When she emerged from the women’s side to the central lounge, the trucker stood at the counter, preparing a huge urn for a fresh batch of tea. She didn’t see Francisco.
“I pointed him toward the showers,” the big man said when she approached. He sucked his teeth. “Still none too steady on his feet. Sure he didn’t get a bad knock in that alley fight?”
“Mebbe.” Mara turned toward the shower room and heard water running. “I didn’t see it all.”
She heard the trucker rattle tea tins, then the urn started to hum.
“He ain’t drunk, he’s hurt,” the man said. “‘N’ yer scared near to death.”
Mara stared at him, her breath coming in shallow puffs. The big man scowled and reached for his wet, grease-stained hat.
“Boris Petrovich, Ma’am,” he said, gripping the hat in both hands. His head seemed too naked without it.
The Queen straightened, her mind spinning. Panic lit her guts like fireworks. She felt the weight of the Mourning Dove in her bag.
“I seen the news,” Petrovich continued. “Nobody knows where you are—don’t know if yer dead or alive. Looks to me, yer runnin’.” He lifted his chin toward the showers. “With a Guard, mebbe.”
He squinted at her. “That blow-up on Highway 2? That were about you, I’m thinkin’. And mebbe why that boy’s hurt. Means someone found you. Someone set to do you harm.”
Mara took a deep breath and let it out with the urge to either vomit or run. “You’re a smart man, Boris Petrovich. But, are you also a loyal man?”
Petrovich sucked his teeth. “Not to speak of,” he said, “but I know what’s right. This here… ” He waved his hat at her. “… ain’t right.”
Mara heard the water turn off in the shower room. She looked that way again, chewing the inside of her mouth raw.
“I got my nap,” Petrovich said. “Tea’ll be brewed in a few, ‘n’ I could use a cup. What say we start for the market in an hour? I’ll drop my pears, then we’ll see.”
Mara considered the big man. “Could he sit up front with us this time?”
The jowly face split into a lop-sided grin. “Yes, Ma’am.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Click here to read Chapter 18.