Dak Vandemar hated guard duty. The camp was in the most remote region they could find – that was the whole point. Hardpan desert with only scraggly weeds stretched on for hundred of miles. Guard duty really seemed pointless. Even if he did see someone, what were they going to do?
They were exposed, yet concealed simply by the vast expanse of wasteland. The Grime Lands were behind them, to the east. He wasn’t terribly sad to go. He had a bit of Grime in his blood, though what that meant was a mystery for the ages. His mom claimed that the Grime Lands had been a mighty nation that was destroyed in a war with the Arizradna, but if that were the case, then it must have been a long time ago, as the Arizradna hadn’t had a foreign war in recorded history.
He was Narcian a few generations back. Why his great-grandpa had decided to come out to the Worst Place in the World was another one of those mysteries. That, and who he was on lookout to look out for.
Sar said she had seen an airship a week back – one of those exploration vessels. If they had seen the camp, they hadn’t shown much interest. For now, Dak just stood at his post, his rifle’s strap cutting into his shoulder.
There were about thirty of them. The camp was like a little village of tents. Dak had never expected to miss the old mud-clay huts they had been staying in before, but at least they were low enough into the ground that it kept the heat away.
Boss Man never told them where or when they would be picking up stakes and moving on. If they went much farther west, though, they’d be getting close to the Nightlands.
The sun was getting low, near the horizon. Soon the sky would begin to turn that bright brilliant red, and there wasn’t much he could do after that than look for lights out in the desert.
He picked up a foot to shake his leg and keep it from falling asleep. He had a bit of greasy sausage and a couple crackers on him, which he now took from their packaging. It probably would have tasted better if he hadn’t been living off the stuff for months. The sausage in particular was problematic, as he was sure it was pretty much half cholesterol – and not the good kind. It wasn’t as if he was getting much exercise either. There was nowhere to walk, and it wasn’t as if Boss Man had set up a gym.
If possible he’d leave off at Harisha if they got that far west – the Nightlands were vast, but relatively easy to travel. He was getting a decent amount for this work, but it wasn’t something he was interested in doing longterm. There were too many questions. Law wasn’t something most cared about in the Grime Lands, but the concept was not entirely alien. Still, the threat of the law was far less of a worry than the threat of something bad happening, which is more likely if you’re doing shady work.
Still, it could be a lot worse. The people at the camp weren’t cold the way you often found when doing rough work. And Boss Man was reasonable. He never lost his temper. And honestly, he had a good look to him. He had wild sand-blonde hair and a perpetual stubble-beard. He had a scar that ran from his forehead to his jaw, skipping over his eye, and he tended to wear a long brown duster. He somehow embodied the notion of a revolutionary, despite the fact that there was no government or authority in the Grime Lands to revolt against.
And as far as Dak could tell, they weren’t fighting a war. He had a rifle, yes, but he hadn’t heard a shot since he had signed on. Hell, that was better than back home.
“You seeing this?” yelled Sar. She was paired up with him again this evening. The two had become friends over the course of their employment. She was a bit older, and Dak got the impression she had lived a harder life, but she didn’t seem bitter about it.
“A couple miles out, northwest-ish. Looks like a car.”
Now he did see it. It was strange, though. There must have been something wrong, because there was a bit of smoke coming up from the car – very light and faint, but still visible. The car was coming toward the camp.
“Calling it in,” said Dak. He thumbed his radio and spoke into it. “We’ve got a car coming, boss man.”
“What color?” came the voice on the other end.
Dak squinted. “Red, maybe. Might be in trouble. Got some smoke coming out of it.”
“Black smoke or white smoke?”
“White, I guess.”
“Ok. I’m coming out.”
A minute later, Boss Man was up at the northwest end of the camp. His duster billowed in the wind, as if Boss Man had somehow planned it that way. Dak often forgot that Boss Man was actually shorter than him. Not short, just shorter than Dak.
The car came closer – it was a big one with high ground clearance and a springy suspension, so it bounced over the little shrubs and cracks in the hardpan. There was an odd shape to it – kind of boxy, with a huge nose. There was a rumbling sound coming from it, and that smoke – still somewhat faint, but visible, coughed out of the back.
Finally it reached the camp and came to a stop. A man with deep, dark blue skin and wearing what looked from the outside like completely obsidian-opaque sunglasses stepped out. He stretched his legs and cracked his back.
“Chaffi,” said Boss Man. “What is it?
“Give me a minute. I’ve been driving for five hours,” said the djinni.
“All right. You need anything to eat?”
“Not urgently. I took some gaf with me in the car. It’s a bit of a mess in there, to be honest. What’s the trust level here?” Chaffi eyed Dak and Sar.
“They don’t know enough for us to worry.”
Boss Man put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s fine. Even if they knew what we were talking about I’d trust them. I hand-picked everyone at this camp.”
“There’s a lot of people in this camp.”
“And I trust every single one of them.”
Dak tried not to make a face, but he was a little surprised at Boss Man’s faith. Dak didn’t even know what the guy’s real name was, so he wasn’t sure what he had done to earn his trust.
“Well, I was at Kapla Furnace Village.”
“That’s where the Rukh tribe is centered, correct?”
“Yes, but never call them a tribe. They prefer family. ‘Tribe’ is below them, if you take my meaning.”
“Noted,” said Boss Man.
“The prodigal son came home. And he was not looking good.”
“The prodigal Rukh?”
“Came with a few humans in a worn-out electric car.”
“Do you know who they were?”
“Didn’t recognize any of them. Seemed academic. Multinational, young, rich clothes.”
“A Sardok woman, an Arizradna man, a Redlander woman and a Narcian man. Plus our boy, who looked like his fires were burning low.”
“Are we thinking a botched job by the other side?”
“He would be a high-priority target. It’s certainly possible.”
Boss Man nodded and looked away, deep in thought. “Last seen in Towatki, right?”
“I think so,” said Chaffi.
“Maybe something to do with the DFO. Not exactly subtle, but maybe that was the point.”
“You want me to head back there and keep an eye on him?”
“Yes. In fact, I’d like you to reach out.”
“Reach out? Surely you are joking.”
Boss Man smiled. “It’s a risk, obviously. But I never had any illusions that the House was fully unaware of our little operation here. I want to know what’s going on with these humans he’s with. Find out if any of them are House, if you can.”
“That’s not particularly easy.”
“It is if you know what to look for.” Boss Man here pulled a small object from his jacket. It looked something like a deck of cards that had been threaded through with some sort of rudimentary electronics.
Chaffi took the object, holding it away from him as if it might explode. “This is…”
“Extremely valuable. I’ve only been able to make three so far. It lights up green when you’re standing next to someone who’s still bound by the Link.”
Chaffi’s eyes grew wide. “How is this possible? No one has ever made anything like this in a thousand years.”
“I told you it was valuable. And I’m going to want it back when you’re done.”
Chaffi nodded. “Thank you for trusting me with it.”
“Just be careful. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”
Chaffi nodded. “Hey Boss Man, how come it’s lit up now?”
Boss Man smiled. “Because I haven’t been able to sever my Link yet.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)