I STARED DOWN at the gleam of a half moon on the shiny black plasmeld strap. I was trying to remember why it was important.
The rollcart hummed along the dark track paralleling the monorail, bumping over ruts I couldn’t see as the tall wheat tossed and bowed to brush me in a rising wind. I gritted my teeth as the next rut jounced my bandaged leg, propped on the driver’s console. But I couldn’t lower the drive speed or I’d never make it home.
It seemed like I’d clutched the rod forever, following the narrow ribbon of the rail through field after field. They all looked the same. The only break in the hypnotic vista of wheat and rail came when I had to swing wide around a sleeping farm or village, or detour to a tower to steal a recharge for the rollcart. The night pulsed endlessly to the hot throb in my leg.
I had to be close. I’d traveled all last night and most of the day, except for a break holed up by a tower when I couldn’t put off sleep any longer. I had to be close to home. I kept telling myself that, willing myself to stay awake.
I nodded, then jerked up my head and focused again on the black strap. The cybers. The pardil. David.
David . . . If only he’ll read the note Ruth left, telling him to lie low, to be careful. But Ruth is dead.
I shook my head and blinked again. No, but without my IDisc I couldn’t ride the monorail, so that was why I’d taken the rollcart from Marda’s farm. Yes, that was it.
David would be all right. Marda had grudgingly assured me the wound hadn’t been as bad as it had looked, after she’d sewn and bandaged him up and the men had destroyed “Ruth’s demonic device” they’d found at the tower. The old disgusted look had transformed Joshua’s features when I couldn’t explain what I’d been doing with the instrument. After I’d stealthily dumped Marda’s sleep elixir into the chamber pot, I’d heard her and Joshua discuss reporting me for the Healing.
Escaping in panic through the sleeping house to the machine shed, I’d been stopped by Thomas.
“You always run from trouble, Ruth? You get David hurt like that and then just leave?” His voice was quiet and measured, the lantern casting seamed shadows over his angular face.
I was cornered. I didn’t want to know what weighed heavier in the scales, concern for David and the other potential victims of the Poindros cybers, or my own desperate instinct to get free. I shrugged in elaborate indifference. “Oh, the kid will be okay. If he wasn’t out there pestering me, he wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
“What were you doing? Why’d that contraption make Sheba go so wild?”
Good. They believed the activator was mine. “You wouldn’t understand.”
His mouth tightened. “I guess Joshua’s right about you. You think you’re too good for us, don’t you? Like you deserve special Rules? Well, we may be simple farmers, but we know right from wrong. You ought to be Healed.”
“Oh, no. I’m getting the hell off this miserable dirt ball, and I’m not taking any detours for Healing. And you’d all better keep quiet, or the cybers are going to find out about your darling David. Then he’ll be shunned for sure. You don’t want that, do you? You don’t want him to be like me?” My voice managed to sound indifferent.
He looked startled, then tightened his jaw until muscles jumped in his face. “You are sick. All right. Go. Your family’s well rid of you.”
I could still hear his voice as I bumped through the night, feverishly gripping the cybers’ collar as if it were a pardon. The stalks hissed and whispered, “Sick! Sick!” I believed them. I couldn’t remember why it was so important to get off the planet. I couldn’t think. I could only grip tighter on the plasmeld strap, so tight I could feel a tingling like the tremor running through me, like voices whispering in the wind, telling me to turn myself in, to take the Steps of Healing.
But the wind stole my words and shredded them in the night. It whipped into me, roared through me, and my mind was flailed like the dark stalks of wheat. Crazy, shouting voices stormed through my head. I threw up my hands to press them from my head, to stop them, kill them. “No!”
The wind tugged the collar from my loosened fingers and whirled it away into the night. I blinked. The shouting babble of voices was gone.
But I was thrown backward against my seat as the rollcart lurched sideways into the wheat, the stick swinging free. I blinked again, my mind snapping back into feverish focus, but it was too late. A strong gust caught the rollcart as it teetered in a too-tight turn and overbalanced. I grabbed the tilting side, scrambling, falling. I leaped free just as it crashed over into the raging stalks.
I landed heavily, pain shooting through my leg, lancing upward as I tumbled onto my back. I tried to stand, but the wind tore at my skirts and knocked me back down. Stinging dust, broken stalks, and my hat were swept against and past me on a hot blast of wind.
I blinked and pulled myself forward to cling to the side of the overturned rollcart. The wind. I should have realized before. The heat storms had finally hit. The dark wheat rippled and tossed wildly, furrowed by the whirling gusts as the restraining lines hummed shrilly.
The air was hot, burning me from the inside out. It was the fiery breath of a giant, metal-plated monster with the face of a console and blazing amber eyes lowering its jaws to snap me up. I could only cling to the side-bar of the rollcart as it tugged at me, cling as it tried to drag me into the whirling black confusion. The hissing whisper of the wheat had turned to a rhythmic roar, a deafening shout, and now it was only a senseless scream of violence, the voice of the demons of war calling for me.
Wheat gleamed in a copper-pink dawn, tossing gently against mylar lines. My hands were clamped to the side-bar, my arms cramped.
I staggered to my feet, groping around the side of the cart to see crushed stalks, leaves, and what looked like the broken pieces of a chair packed with the dirt against its tilted bed. I looked around in confusion, squinting as the rising sun glared off the spinning arms of a tower with one of its sails fluttering in ragged tatters. I blinked, finally recognizing the slope of the hills running into a dip and the distant gleam of silos. Home.
Home. Home. It was a chant timed to the burning throb that flowed from the stiff, blazing region of my injured leg. My mind had room for only the one thought. Home.
It was a dry, feverish, thirsty chant, but it pulled me along the strung lines, through the scratchy stems, onto a dirt track running toward the tattered sail and the silos beyond it. The tower was getting bigger, high above me now. Maybe I could rest if I could only get to it.
But it kept going in and out of focus, flowing away from me. The wheat stalks gleamed amber in the sun, whispering. It was something important. Maybe if I just stood and listened, swaying with them, turning my face to the sun, I could stay here forever—
It was the rollcart, above me, falling on me in the wind storm. I threw my arms up and staggered back.
“Ruth, honey, what in blazes are you doing here? What happened? You all right, child? Ruth!” It was Sam’s face, going in and out of focus.
“Sam! The camera . . . Sam, the pictures don’t make sense!”
“Honey, you’re burning up! What in blazes . . . ?” Hands holding me up. “Jason!” A loud bellow.
Far away, down a copper tunnel, two figures, miniatures carved in gold. A man and a pardil, both tawny, loping with long, fluid strides through the waving wheat, running down the copper tunnel toward me.
They were almost on me. The pardil leaped forward, tawny fur and sun glinting on amber eyes.
“No! Sheba, no!” I screamed, but it was too late. It was on me, the sharp claws reaching out for me, amber eyes burning.
“Ruth!” It was Jason’s hand on my arm, his gold-flecked eyes melting into bright amber as he bent over me. “Ruth, you’re all right!” There was a crazy relief and joy spreading over his face, but it didn’t matter that nothing made sense, because he was holding me and I was smiling into his warm eyes.
“Here, Jason, let’s get her into the cart bed.” Sam took hold of my legs as they lifted me, and I winced. “By the Founder! Look at this leg. No wonder! Child, what happened?”
I smiled. “I’m dead, Sam.” The copper tunnel closed around me, and I dropped through it into darkness.
I drifted through liquid clear light, slowly rising. I opened my eyes and floated to the surface of sunlight pooled on my thin coverlet. A warm breeze fluttered white curtains.
Helen sat in the old nursery rocker, a pile of mending on her lap, but her hands lying for once idle. Her face was turned to the window, gaze far away, the morning light mercilessly drawing lines of worry and exhaustion. She stared blankly. I’d never seen a look like that on her face.
I managed to croak, “Mother.” There was a foul taste in my mouth.
She turned to me. I must have dreamed that empty despair in her eyes. They were warm now, full of morning light. “Ruth! That’s more like it. We were worried, until the fever broke. But the infection’s draining from your leg now.” She rose and placed a cool hand on my forehead.
“Late?” I squinted at the window. There was something I should remember, but everything was tinged in a pink haze.
“My dear, you’ve been sleeping for nearly two days. What happened, Ruth? Why did you walk so far from the railcar? We haven’t gotten any reply from Marda’s console. Was there some sort of accident?”
I blinked. “Can’t remember.” I blinked again, but she kept sliding away into that pink sea. “Wind. Amber eyes . . . Sheba!”
“Hush, dear. Drink some more, it will help. Here.” She held the glass to my lips, and the tang of the pale pink liquid dissolved the scratchy dust in my throat.
“Ahhh.” I closed my eyes. “Love you, Mother. Really do.” Tears rolled out from under my eyelids.
“Sleep, now.” Soft lips brushing my forehead. The rocker swished gently. “I know, sweetheart. I love you, too.” She sang a quiet lullaby as the pink waves drifted over me.
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