The staff meeting that took place the morning after Gemini’s brother’s discovery was packed for a change. Dinah found herself squeezed in between Gemini and one of the disposal specialists, a man named Simaal.
“I’m sure you’re all interested to know where we stand with regard to last night’s emergency dispatch,” Commander Romy announced over the chatter, quieting the room effectively. “As of 0500, we can confirm the destruction of the source itself. As of 0730, our scouts started tracking all animals that went within twenty feet of the source. It was confirmed that a solitary lion, four gray foxes, and a nest of termites were infected and had to be destroyed. We have a message out to the stations to keep special watch for any carrion birds that might exhibit suspicious behaviors. Please familiarize yourselves with this sketch,” Romy said as he held up a sheet of paper. “It shows the vehicle suspected of being involved in this seeding attempt.” He passed the paper to Captain Abilil. “With this clear attempt to set up shop in our territory, we are instituting special measures, including doubled patrols and noncombatant escorts. Abi, make sure news gets out to the civilian families outside the city.”
Romy’s aide de camp nodded.
“Gemi, how can we help you out with supply?” Commander Romy asked.
“For starters, it would help if I could leave the city,” said Gemini.
“Not going to happen,” the commander replied without hesitation. “What investigation we’ve been able to complete regarding your incident points to you as the targeted asset. Until we find out who’s behind it, you’re staying here. That being the case, how can we help you carry out your duties?”
Gemini sighed. “Fine, I have three shipments that need to go out today. Stations Six, Nine, and Ten. Tomorrow it’s Twelve, Two, Three, and Five.”
“Map out your routes,” Romy said, “and we’ll send them out with the patrols.”
“You can’t just dump the crates,” Gemi objected. “There’s a system.”
“Station staff can handle it.”
“At most of the stops,” said Gemi, “but Ten doesn’t have their replacement receiver yet. I’ve been handling everything since Dima left.”
Romy nodded. “We’ll send your assistant on that route. She knows what to do, presumably.”
Gemini turned her head sharply, but Dinah was ready. “I can handle it, boss.” She grinned at the sassy grimace that Gemini gave her. Gemini hated being called ‘boss.’
In the end, Dinah found herself helping to load a midsize truck with resin crates packed with supplies. Gemini was at her elbow, explaining for the third time what needed to be done. “And don’t forget to file a copy of the invoice with the commander’s assistant,” Dinah said mockingly. “I know, you told me twice already. Anybody would think you don’t believe in me, boss.”
Gemini flicked the tip of Dinah’s nose. “No sass from you, young miss.”
“We’ll be there to help.” Specialist Kamran hefted the last crate into the back of the truck and slammed the tailgate shut. “Don’t you worry, Gemi.”
“I don’t distrust either of you. It’s only that…” Gemini sighed.
“It’s only that you hate to be left out of anything,” Specialist Kamran laughed. “I know you of old, Gemini Kahn. Just let us handle matters this time. It isn’t life or death if something ends up on the wrong shelf, you know.”
“I do know, and I never said it was, Saamsa Kamran, so don’t put words in my mouth.”
“There wouldn’t be room for them,” he shot back, grinning, “since you have so many of your own already filling it up.”
“How long have you two known each other?” Dinah asked.
“Through our families, forever,” replied Kamran. “We were schoolmates, these twins and I. Gemi was my first kiss.”
“Before you retreated in fear and trembling,” Gemini laughed.
“That’s the truth. I didn’t know how much of a bully you could be, not until later.”
“I don’t want a man I can bully,” was Gemi’s retort.
Their repartee was interrupted by Dee Kahn and two more scouts. “If we’re going to set out, we should go soon,” said Gemini’s brother.
“Why are you going?” Gemini asked sharply.
“A request from Station Eleven,” he answered in a mild voice. “Arbitration.”
“That should be the station commander’s responsibility, not the chaplain’s.”
“The station commander is one party in the dispute,” Dee explained. “The other party is Station Twelve’s aide de camp. They want an objective mediator.”
“Why are Chione and Bakari arguing?” Gemini asked.
“I’ll find out when I meet with them. If we ever do set out,” he added with that thinly veiled sarcasm that always made Dinah nervous.
“Isn’t there anyone else who can do it?” Gemini didn’t wait for an answer. “Then, Dinah, you have to go with him. If they start to get too agitated, take him into the hallway until they calm down.”
Dinah expected Gemini’s brother to protest this idea, but he remained silent as he gazed at her. “All right,” she said. “You are absurdly sensitive.” She climbed into the back seat of the truck after Specialist Kamran. Dee Kahn climbed in after her, sandwiching her in the middle.
From the front seat, the driver said, “I don’t know if we’ve met before, Miss Aldine. I’m Musa, and he’s Arman. We scout for disposal company C. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dinah murmured.
Station Ten was a half-hour drive due west of Oasis. The men in the truck spent the first several minutes talking about how bad Gemini was with inactivity and restriction. “I thought we might have to fend her off when the time came to set out,” Arman the scout admitted, laughing.
“Gemi is a delight to the eyes,” Specialist Kamran said, “and good cheer to the heart, but I tell you, she would wear a man out faster than twenty other women combined. I hope you don’t think I’m speaking amiss, Dee.”
“Not at all,” Gemini’s brother said.
“Dee knows better than any of us,” said Musa, “don’t you, boy? Been trying to keep her to the trodden paths all your life.”
“Failing, more often than not,” her brother said. He seemed more relaxed with these three men than Dinah had seen him before. “She does as she pleases. I can only remind her of what’s good and right, and trust she’ll choose that path for herself.” He leaned his elbows on his knees so that his head jutted forward.
Dinah suddenly found she could relax her posture. She wondered if he had sensed her discomfort, blocked in so closely between him and Kamran as she was. She gazed for a few moments at the back of his close-cropped dark head and wondered what was going on inside it.
Arman turned out to be a skilled singer and a poet, as well as a scout. He sang for them verses he had composed himself, while their vehicle rumbled over the desert highway. Dinah listened in rapt admiration. His voice could be piercingly clear one moment and gently crooning the next. His songs were more like stories than mere lyrics: sorrowful stories, thrilling stories, comical stories.
When they pulled up to the warehouse gate at Station Ten, Dinah exclaimed, “I’m almost sorry we’ve stopped. You’re so very talented.”
Arman laughed. “My family for generations back has been storytellers, scholars, singers, poets, and I’m the least skilled of them all.”
“You hold your own well enough,” said Dee Kahn suddenly.
Arman glanced at him over the seat back. “Do you think so?”
“You sing to the soul, something not everyone can do.” That was all Gemini’s brother said. Then he climbed out of the truck and went around the back to open up the tailgate.
Dinah scooted out after him. She was the only one who had done this job before, so she left the men to start unpacking the supplies while she hurried through the morning heat toward the gate. No one was there to greet her at first, so she entered the security code into the lock and started to lift the heavy steel gate. It was already scorching to touch, even through the layer of sleeve that she used to protect her hands.
Another hand gripped the bottom edge of the gate beside her. Specialist Kamran was balancing a crate against his right hip as he helped Dinah push the gate upwards with his left hand. “Ey-ya!” he called into the shade of the warehouse, “anyone there?”
No reply came. Dinah and her assistants unloaded all the crates and put all of their contents away before anyone from the station appeared. Then, it was just one of the maintenance staff, an elderly woman who said, “Who’s there? What do you want?”
“Gemi sent us,” Dinah hastened to explain. She sensed the woman’s unusual tension and was careful to explain about Gemini’s restrictions and the scouts’ presence on the delivery run.
“Ah, yes, I remember you now. You’re little Gemi’s helper from the capital, aren’t you?” The elderly woman took a closer look at the men. She exclaimed, “Little Dee, I hardly noticed you there. We worried when we heard you had an encounter. Are you well?”
“Well as can be, Aunt Thuya. Where is everyone?”
“Keeping to the inner stockade, unless they must go out for duties. Strange happenings around here have the commander spooked. You better come talk to him.” She made sure they pulled their truck inside the warehouse and locked up before she brought them through another secure entrance, up a corridor with windows set high in the walls, and through yet another secure entrance.
They met with the station commander in a room covered in maps and diagrams. “Miss Aldine,” Commander Meridea greeted her. He offered his hand to Gemini’s brother. “Chaplain.” He received the three scouts’ salutes. “At ease.”
“What caused all this alarm, Commander?” Dinah asked. “Is it about last night’s discovery?”
“That was bad enough,” Meridea replied, “but wasn’t in our jurisdiction. No, we’ve had new threats during the night from an unknown force. Broken windows, a small incendiary thrown into one of the outer labs, graffiti on the back gate, signs of an attempted break-in at the civilian dorms. Nothing very dangerous on its own, nothing successful, but having so many incidents in just one night was enough to alarm our researchers. Some of them have young children,” he added gloomily. “Harassment, that’s all, trying to drive us out.”
“Are there any clues as to who is responsible, sir?” Musa asked.
“They didn’t leave a statement or a signature. Not this time. We reckon they’re testing our resolve. What brings all of you out this way?”
“Supply, sir,” said Specialist Kamran. “Gemi Kahn is under precautionary restrictions, so Commander Romy sent us as her assistant’s escort.” He gave Dinah a prompting, encouraging glance.
Dinah stepped forward to explain what Gemini had told her to explain: things that had been requested but were out of stock, things that were specially earmarked for particular researchers. She handed over the invoice to Commander Meridea’s assistant, Lieutenant Commander Luxan. “And that’s everything,” she finished.
“Thank you, Miss Aldine,” the commander said. “You should return to base quickly now. Who knows what those wretches might try next.”
“Understood, sir,” Specialist Kamran said, “but we have another stop, out at Station Eleven. Chaplain request,” he explained.
Commander Meridea shook his head. “I don’t like it. Eleven is isolated as things stand, and now with this latest fuss between them and Twelve, I don’t think they’re doing their duties as they ought. Undisciplined.” He shook his head again emphatically. “I’ll send word ahead so that they’ll be on the alert for you, to get you inside as quickly as possible.”
“Yes, sir.” Specialist Kamran saluted.
They returned to the warehouse to find three of the station guards waiting to let them out and lock up after them. Musa drove again. Arman said, above the rumble of the truck, “Commander Meridea spooks easily, but even so…”
“Keep your eyes open,” Musa agreed. “I don’t like it either.”
Dinah gazed ahead through the windshield. This area was much rockier than the desert around Oasis, to the extent that the highway was often overshadowed by jutting boulders. She felt the increasing tension of the scouts. It told her why they no longer chatted or sang. This was a dangerous place.
“The old ones say,” Gemini’s brother suddenly said, “there was a volcano here long ago. It erupted with such violence that these boulders were thrown like a boy throws a pebble.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Musa replied. “It must have been terrifying to witness.”
“And after the eruption, the volcano was no more,” Arman said, “leaving only this maze of stone as proof of its existence.”
“Fifty square miles of boulders, all jumbled together,” Saamsa Kamran mused in a tone of admiration. “A nightmare to patrol. That’s why they keep Uncle Modasseri out here.”
“And why he chooses his own scouts,” Musa added. “He won’t have just anyone.”
Dinah studied the ominous scenery with more interest. The highway twisted amongst the boulders, showing glimpses of gaps between them that were almost caverns— where, Dinah realized with discomfort, almost anything could be hiding. She was relieved when they came to a sunny clearing between outcroppings.
Dee Kahn shouted, in a harsh voice unlike his own, “Contact forward!”
Dinah looked forward to see a truck much bigger than theirs bearing down on them head-on. Then she was pushed down so that her head hit her knees. Two hands held her there, Kamran’s and Dee’s, until the crash and screech of colliding metal filled the vehicle. The safety belt gouged into Dinah’s body as the truck abruptly reversed and flipped sideways. All was chaos and noise for several seconds. The truck came to a halt upside-down amid clouds of dust that sifted in through shattered windows along the right-hand side.
“Miss Aldine?” Kamran’s pained voice spoke. “Are you hurt?”
Dinah had to fight to catch her breath and regain her wits. She considered the question. “I… I don’t think so,” she ventured doubtfully.
“Musa? Armon?” he called out. “Dee?”
There was no answer from any of them.
Frightened anew, Dinah grabbed at the dangling arm of Gemini’s brother. She fumbled with the voluminous sleeve of his robe before she found his hand and grabbed that. To her relief, the hand gripped hers in response, and Dee Kahn groaned softly.
“Dee, can you get out of your belt?” Kamran demanded. “Be careful, Miss Aldine,” he added when Dinah’s free hand flew to her own safety belt. “Let me get down first, and I’ll help you.” He braced himself against the ceiling of the upended truck with one hand and unfastened himself with the other. Once he landed in a more or less orderly fashion on the ceiling, he grimaced.
“You’re hurt,” Dinah said quickly.
“Ankle,” he replied. “Nothing serious, but it’ll slow me down. Here.” He reached up to support her while she unfastened her own belt and slowed her descent. “If you’ll help me with Dee, Miss Aldine…”
Together they released Dee Kahn so that he fell onto their laps. Kamran took a brief look at him. “A knock on the head,” he diagnosed. “It looks bad, but head wounds always bleed like they’re worse than they are. Pull his hood up to shade his eyes.” Since the windows on that side were all broken out, Kamran had Dinah help him drag Gemini’s brother out of the ruins of the truck.
When they were out, Dinah glanced back. “What about…?” She caught Kamran’s eye and shuddered at the surge of grief and anger that flowed from the man. It didn’t show outwardly as he shook his head, but she didn’t dare to look back again.
Dee Kahn was slowly coming back around. He muttered something that Dinah couldn’t catch.
“I know,” Kamran said. “Just do what you can to clear your head.”
“What did he—?”
But Dinah didn’t have time even to finish her question before a shadow fell across her and a sharp voice said, “Get up, slow and easy.”
Dinah twisted around to find several men pointing large guns at them. She twisted back toward Kamran. He wasn’t surprised; he had expected this. Dinah obeyed the warning in his gaze. She said nothing as she slowly, stiffly rose to her feet and straightened her desert robe around her.
Kamran did likewise. He clearly couldn’t put any weight on his left foot, yet he showed to Dinah’s sympathy only a strong resolve. To the gunmen, he said, “Our friend was hurt. Can we help him?”
The apparent leader just twitched his gun in a gesture Dinah assumed was meant as permission.
She stooped down at Dee Kahn’s right and helped Kamran lift him to his feet. At the gunmen’s direction, they half-carried Gemini’s brother between them to a waiting truck and were shoved into the back. There was no privacy, since three of the gunmen got in the back with them. When Kamran tried to speak to Dinah again, one of them kicked him in the lower back. Kamran didn’t try to speak again. He put an arm around Dee Kahn’s back and propped him up as the truck went jolting into motion.
Dinah felt cold in the stuffy dimness. She couldn’t sense anything from their kidnappers but boredom and irritability. The irritability was keen and close to the surface, so that Dinah didn’t dare look straight at them for fear of provoking one of them. They held their guns loosely, always pointed in Kamran’s general direction. Dinah looked at the scout for any hint of a plan. All she could sense from him, however, was that same grim resolve.
The road became rough. Dinah couldn’t stop herself from being bounced around like a rubber ball. At one point, she was thrown against Dee Kahn’s open side, so she grabbed on and used the two men to anchor herself. When her hands closed around Dee’s lean upper arm, Dinah knew she wasn’t imagining the reassuring pressure that trapped her right hand against his side.
When the truck stopped again, the rear hatch lifted to blind them with desert sun. Dinah could see neither who was dragging her forward, nor where she was being led. Her eyes hadn’t adjusted yet when she was led into a comparatively dim room and shoved into a corner. Dee Kahn came staggering after her, knocking her down and landing on her. His breath came ragged and shallow. Dinah let him rest for a few minutes against her shoulder, but he wasn’t recovering.
While she held him up, she took in her new surroundings. It was a dingy and plain office, by the looks of things. The floors were tile, the walls looked like some sort of white plastic paneling, like her mother had had installed in the barn bathroom to make it easier to hose clean. The far end of the room had a row of file cabinets and a desk, where a man sat working. At the near end, in the corner opposite Dinah, Specialist Kamran was being handcuffed to a steel ring bolted to the floor.
The man working at the desk set down his pencil. From that distance, Dinah saw only a weedy, balding, bespectacled little man, the very type of an office clerk or a professional scholar. He rubbed a hand over his mouse-brown hair, what there was of it. “No more?”
“Two down in the crash,” one of the gunmen said.
“Couldn’t be helped, I suppose. You didn’t harm the women?”
“One hurt in the crash,” said the other, “not our fault.”
“Go out now. You’re a liability at this point. I’ll call you when I want you.”
After the last gunman retreated, the weedy little man turned to Dinah. “I knew you must be from your capital city the moment I saw that marvelous red hair,” he remarked. “I knew you had soul sense when you avoided that last ambush so neatly. It was fortunate for me that you two always travel together. I’ve wanted to introduce myself for months… but you’re so difficult to meet.”
Dinah found her mouth was too dry for speech. She stared at the little man in confusion.
“Yes, you, young woman. And your friend, of course. Quite unique, really, finding two of you in the same place. Quite the stroke of good luck.” He reached up and took a peculiar object down from a hook in the opposite corner. “Did you notice this? The design is centuries old, yet I’ve never found an improvement on it.”
Dinah stared at the long leather strip. It looked like a wide belt, set with tiny knobs of iron and splinters of bone. There was a buckle of sorts at one end, but a handle at the other end.
“I suppose you’ve never seen its like before,” the man said with a smile. Looming over her as he did, he gave off an overwhelming, nauseating sense of evil. His smile became positively delighted. “That’s a fine reaction. Such righteous disgust! Excellent. Your friend there is practically ready to vomit too. We’re making an excellent start.” He pivoted, crossed the distance to Kamran’s side, and brought the strap down across Kamran’s back with a meaty thump.
Specialist Kamran made no sound, even when the weedy man dragged back on the strap so that its embedded bone fragments tore through the back of his uniform. Blood welled up in lines through the shredded fabric.
Dinah shuddered. “What do you want?” Her voice came out choked and weak.
“I want your reactions,” their captor replied. “It doesn’t matter if you scream or swear, or if you stay silent like your friend. I have soul sense too. I can feel your fear… your repulsion… your confusion…” At every pause, he brought the strap down across Kamran’s back again. “It’s all one to me. The only thing I find unsatisfactory…” With his free hand, he seized Kamran’s short hair to raise the scout’s face upwards. “Is a fool like this one, too stupid or too fanatical to know fear.”
Kamran’s mouth barely moved, but his words emerged clearly: “Though insulted, though beaten, yet he persevered in his righteous work, that we who were bound in darkest hells of our own making should be set free.”
Their captor let Kamran’s head sink back down. “Pathetic.” He brought the strap down on Kamran’s back again and again, until the blood streamed and pooled on the white tiles. Spatters and spurts of blood clung to the walls and flew through the air, falling on Dinah like occasional raindrops.
After this had gone on for what felt like hours, after Dinah was too numb to flinch from the falling droplets of blood, their captor carefully hung the strap back on its hook in the corner. “This won’t do,” he said. “I suppose you barely know this man. Is that so?” He looked to Dinah and waited for her faint nod. “It would have been better if he was a childhood friend, a lover, something to you.” He reached up for another tool hanging on the wall. It was a long, slender spike, almost like a large knitting needle but tapered from the crossbar at its top. He bent down and casually rammed this tool into the base of Kamran’s head.
Kamran jerked and stilled, all in one motion.
Mouth agape, Dinah stared without comprehension for several moments.
“Have you never seen a man killed before?” Their captor yanked the spike free and wiped it clean with a handkerchief. “I was six years old when I first saw a man killed, shot dead at the bottom of our garden. My grandfather shot him for trying to enter our house. Then he shot the woman with him. I wish to this day he hadn’t shot her,” the man said wistfully. “She was filled with such horror, such fear, and I sensed only a moment of it. I hadn’t known until then the marvels of the suffering soul. Are you even listening to me?”
Dinah was still staring at Kamran. “Why… did you… kill him?”
“I told you why. He wouldn’t do. I’ve discovered that the suffering of strangers can touch a soul only so far and no farther. But take someone precious to you… like that friend whom you’ve cradled in your arms all this time, and everything changes.” Out of the blue, he was there, standing over Dinah, dragging Gemini’s brother from her grasp.
Dinah could see nothing in that moment but Gemini’s face and the fear in it when she had heard of her brother’s encounter with the Decay. Then Dinah was on her feet, hitting at their captor with both hands, prying at his grip on Dee’s robe.
“There, there,” the man said, “what a fuss! Here, come over here. You’re distraught. I don’t want to hurt you. Just have a seat.” He dropped Dee and pulled Dinah, still struggling, over to the coarse wooden desk. He pushed her into the chair behind the desk and held her by the shoulders until she stilled. “Your friend is that precious to you? There, there. I’m not hurting her. Just be calm.”
Dinah couldn’t help responding to the calm, consolating tone in his voice. She bowed her head and drew a shaky breath.
“Let’s talk about something else for now,” he continued. “Let me see your hands.” He took hold of her hands in his and turned them over, examining the palms. “You can learn much about a person just from their hands. You do a little manual labor, but not much, ” he commented. “See the roughening just here, and again here. Not much writing, I’d wager.”
Dazed, Dinah barely listened to his speech on palmistry. She still sensed a repugnant level of evil from him, and it made his current friendly tone all the more bewildering. She was mesmerized enough that she simply watched as he laid her hands down on the desk under the lamp’s glow. He traced the line between the bones of her index and middle finger, talking now about the anatomy of the hand. It made no sense to her, until suddenly he impaled her hand to the desk with a knife, just where he had been tracing between the bones.
His tone never changed. “Do stay here, out of mischief, and don’t interrupt again.”
Through the searing pain, Dinah gasped, “You’re crazy…”
“That possibility exists,” said the man, “but it has never troubled me. Better to be intelligently mad than stupidly naive, my dear.” He strolled back toward Dee, and Dinah could only watch helplessly. When he dragged Dee to his feet and pulled back the robe’s hood, the man said, “What sort of trickery is this? This isn’t your friend. How disappointing.” He looked hard from Dee to Dinah. “On the other hand, perhaps it’s better this way. This man, whoever he is, will do much better than the other one, and I still have something to look forward to.” He drew a pair of handcuffs from a pouch at his belt, handcuffed Dee, and pulled him across to the opposite corner.
Dinah only glimpsed how their captor stepped over Specialist Kamran’s body, not even bothering to move his first victim aside. She was fighting to pull the knife free of the table. The hand was no longer her hand; it was less than a stage prop. She only knew that she had to get free before that madman killed Gemi’s brother. But the knife was driven deep, to the hilt. It held firm against her struggles, and the madman was hanging Gemi’s brother by the wrists, by the handcuffs, from a hook in the ceiling. He was saying something about beauty, about beautiful panic filling the room, panic that came ever so close to madness— and then he took up the strap again.
Dinah screamed. The room was a blur of pain and fear and an indecent exultation, and then there was a crash. Everything stilled and came clear. Dinah stood, panting and sobbing and gripping the remains of a chair. The rest of the chair lay in pieces on the floor, scattered over the madman’s back. Dinah released the pieces she held and went to Gemi’s brother.
He was dangling by his wrists, gazing at her in shock. Dinah checked his back, but he was all right, he hadn’t been hit by the strap yet. She leaned her head against his shoulder for just a few seconds and breathed.
“Miss Aldine… Dinah!” Dee Kahn’s voice startled her back to the moment. “There has to be a key… to these cuffs…”
Dinah jerked upright. “Key.” She remembered all in a rush that she didn’t know where she was, had no one on whom to rely, and someone might come at any moment to find out what had caused that crash. Gemi’s brother sounded weak and in pain. She had to get him away somehow.
She saw a small ring of keys hanging on the wall. She had to step over Kamran’s body to reach them. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry,” she whispered as she did. Her right hand wouldn’t grasp. It was all bloody, so she had to use her non-dominant hand to finagle the smallest key into the handcuff lock, stretching on her toes to reach that high. It was a relief to give the keys over to Gemini’s brother, as soon as he had one free hand, to let him unlock the other bracelet. Dinah took advantage of the moment to shut her eyes to the horrors of the room. She thought she should be crying, but nothing came.
Dee Kahn swayed dangerously when he no longer was being held upright by the handcuffs and hook. Dinah grabbed him around the chest to steady him. “We have to get out of here,” she said. Now that her eyes were open again, she gazed down at Saamsa Kamran. “I hate leaving him here like this.”
“It can’t be avoided, and he would be the first to tell you not to be sentimental about it. A body is just a body, in the end.” Dee Kahn glanced around. “We came in by that door… it leads to more of them. We don’t know where that door leads.” He gestured toward a door behind the desk. “But I don’t like what I sense from that direction.”
“We don’t have much choice,” Dinah remarked dully. “We can’t go out the other way. We can’t stay here.”
“Then we must guard each other,” her companion said.
They went together to the unknown door. Dee Kahn pushed it open a few inches. Encouraged by the silence and dimness of the room beyond, they went through together, Dinah still propping Dee upright. They entered a sort of preparation room. Three protective suits hung from hooks on the wall, with three respirator masks and three sets of rubber boots. Dee was trembling more and more with each step. He pulled down one of the respirators and put it on Dinah without warning, but she was too worn down to be startled. After he put on one of the other masks, he said, “We must go quickly. Don’t hesitate.”
They passed through a set of swinging doors into a brightly-lit factory, or so it appeared at first sight. They were on a metal gangway high above the factory floor, looking down into large, shallow vats. Each vat contained a viscous substance in a different color. One was almost ruby-colored. Dinah suffered a breathtaking stab of memory: the sight of Glory’s grandma, severed in half at the waist and plunged into a gelatinous mound exactly that color. Dinah renewed her grip around her companion.
“The lights—” Dee Kahn sounded like he might throw up. “Will keep it still. Hurry.”
They saw no human presence in the Decay factory all while they made their way around the upper perimeter. At the exit on the far end, Dee Kahn hesitated.
“Why are we stopping? You said don’t hesitate,” Dinah said.
But Gemi’s brother was digging amongst the folds of his robe. He pulled out a pouch, unzipped it with shaky hands, and removed from it a little vial and a box of matches. “Steady me,” he choked, “it’ll go faster.” First he unwound a thick string from around the neck of the vial. He struck a match and held it between his fingers as he dropped the box containing the rest of the matches back into the pouch. Then he lit the string with the match and dropped both vial and match over the gangway railing. “Quickly,” he urged.
Their haste had to be delayed while they checked that no one was on the other side of the exit. No people, but a waste dump scantily covered over with sand awaited them. They descended the compact metal stairs and made their way around the edge of the dump until they reached the rocky desert wilderness. Dee Kahn pulled off his respirator with a deep breath. “Where are we,” he pondered aloud. Then he removed Dinah’s mask and pulled her hood up over her head. “Better in the arms of the desert than back there. No!” he said sharply as Dinah started to relax her hold around his chest. “Don’t let go of my robe.”
“Your hand… it bled heavily. My robe is staunching the blood. If you let go, you’ll tear open the wound again. We can’t afford to leave a blood trail. Besides…” He reached up to tug his own hood lower over his eyes. “I need your help to look for something. My head hurts abominably. I can’t keep my eyes open all the time. I need to borrow your eyes.”
“All right,” Dinah said. “What am I looking for?”
“Insects. Birds. Animal tracks. Any of these will help me get my bearings. We might be beyond territorial borders.”
“All right,” she repeated.
They started a meandering journey around the massive boulders. Dee led when they were in the shade. In the intervals of sunlight, Dinah had to steer him. She kept looking around, not only for desert wildlife, but for any signs that she and Dee Kahn were being pursued. She thought once that she saw smoke high above the boulders behind them, and three times she heard what sounded like distant gunshots. It all seemed far removed from them. The desert was quiet, hot, and empty of life as far as Dinah could see.
Suddenly they came to the end of the boulder fields. Dee shaded his face behind his sleeve. “Due west,” he said softly. “Miss Aldine, is there anything visible on the horizon in that direction?”
She squinted. “It looks totally flat to me. Not even a shadow. Just heat waves and more heat waves.” Then she said, “A bee.”
“A bee? Where?”
Dinah pointed ahead and a little left. “It went that way.”
“Let’s follow it. There should be water near.”
Not long after beginning the pursuit, Dinah said, “You know the bee is faster than us, right?”
“It’s foraging. It stops often. See?”
“See what? The bee is gone.” Then Dinah saw. The ground in front of them dropped down into a crevice. At the bottom of the crevice, a cluster of succulents grew. She had to hurry to keep pace with Gemi’s brother.
“I know this place,” he said. “We’re out at the border.”
“How far to one of the stations?”
He took a few moments to calculate silently. “Station Eleven is that way, due east, a little more than ten miles. Station Twelve is that way, not quite fifteen miles. We’ll make for Station Twelve.”
“But it’s farther,” Dinah pointed out.
“Farther, but underground the whole way. Station Eleven is nearer, but we would have to come above ground for almost half that. We might be seen. No, we stay underground.”
Dinah groaned, but she couldn’t find it in herself to argue the point. Her every nerve seemed to throb with the pain in her hand. Her mouth was dry. Her eyes felt gritty under their heavy lids.
“Don’t complain,” said Dee Kahn automatically. His arm went around her shoulders in a reassuring gesture, though, as he led her down into the deeper shadows of the crevice, into the coolness of a desert tunnel. Underground, he seemed more surefooted and less dizzy. Soon he brought her to an old well. “Keep your hands as they are,” he warned her before he slid out of his robe, leaving Dinah with armfuls of empty robe. He took a pouch from his belt and started laying out first aid supplies on the ground next to the well. Then he lowered the bucket and brought it up brimming with cool water. He held the bucket for Dinah to drink from first, and then drank deeply himself. Setting the bucket aside, he said, “Let’s see to your hand now.”
At the first sight of her own swollen, bloody hand, Dinah passed out. She awoke to find her head resting on Dee Kahn’s knee and his robe spread over her. Her hand still throbbed, but it was bandaged neatly. “S-Sorry,” she stammered as she sat up, pushing the robe aside.
“Slowly,” Gemini’s brother warned. “Let’s not have you falling over again. Drink some more water.” He held out the bucket for her to drink as much as she wanted. “We have a long way to go. We’re not in the best shape for it, but there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Dinah sat back. She started to shake uncontrollably. “I… I don’t know why…” she started. To her dismay, she started to sob like a child.
“I know. I know,” he replied, and reached out to lay his hand on her head.