By Ralph Benton
We were a day off the aqua de muerte when we saw the bodies. Two of them, in purple and green. The reclaimers guild. Probably Czech migrants from the human churn, before the sky caught fire. The third member of their team, a guy with a scruffy beard, stood and watched us, but didn’t say a word. Their fourth, a tiny woman, cried out for help as she knelt by the bodies in the rust-red dirt.
Me and Jess dismounted and approached. I watched their hands and she watched their faces. Doug scanned the plains, while Shawn searched the low scrub hills. We’d been bound to the spice farms forever, worked the fields together for years. This was our second race, and we knew each other’s ways. The Ghost Peppers.
“Please,” the woman begged, “please, help us.” She looked horrible, gaunt, her hands streaked with blood. The caked dust on her face was cut with the tracks of many tears. The two reclaimers on the ground, in the shade of one of the few trees for miles around, looked worse.
One was obviously dead, face down, drenched in his own blood from the savage deep, ragged wounds that gouged his back. That he rode a bike with wounds like that for any distance was nothing short of superhuman, a feat to match anything that would happen during this race. The other guy, with a young, fair face, lay on his back. His eyes were open. One pupil was a pinprick, while the other eye was solid red. His breath came in an irregular, shallow pant. Blood oozed from his ears.
“Please,” the woman said again. “We were in the mountains last night, when the – what do you call them? The BannedCans?”
“CanBans,” I corrected absently. The cannibal bandits of the Gros Ventre wilderness are beyond savage, some of the worst in the Splinterlands. “You tried to outrun them?”
“Yes,” she answered, fresh tears in her eyes. “We pedaled so hard. But Pavel, they got him with the barbs. He stopped to rip them out of himself, can you imagine?”
I winced. Picture a bola, with microrazor wire braided into the ropes, and the balls thick with fishhooks. From the looks of Pavel’s back and thigh it looked to me like he had ripped at least three of the balls from his flesh. After that he was a dead man riding. But he probably saved his friends, when the CanBans stopped to gobble the tasty gobbets he left behind.
“Pavel kept going, he never cried out. Jan and Filip helped him along… all night… This is only the second leg of the race!” Her sobs choked her. “But Jan, he was acting strangely, he couldn’t keep water down, his eyes, he couldn’t focus. Filip,” she said, indicating the man who simply stood and stared a thousand-yard stare, “he helped Pavel, to ride, and I told Jan which direction to ride. We got this far, but Pavel… Pavel finally couldn’t go any farther. And Jan, he needs help, please.”
So that was it. Took her long enough to get to the point.
Jess snorted. She was small, but she could be hell, and damn she’s tough. “What, you think we’re going to carry him?” She rolled her eyes and turned to me. “C’mon, we’ve got miles to ride.” She cast a keen glance up the hillside. “No telling if the CanBans have settled this shithole. Let’s get out of here.” She strode back to her bike, talking to Doug and Shawn and shaking her head.
The Czech girl made a desperate little animal noise. I looked into her deep black eyes, eyes so black a man could spend a lifetime exploring them. As I opened my mouth to answer her my shock collar shifted and reopened a scab on my neck. Behind me waited the only friends I’d got.
“Sorry.” I turned away. She let out a shuddering sob, and I stopped. “Salvage what you can. Extra tubes, spare parts, food, water bottles. Whatever you can carry. Don’t wait here. We were one of the last teams to start, and we might be the last ones on this leg.”
In my head I heard the yells and shrieks of teams desperately paddling the steaming, acid waters of the Snake River. The skin on their rafts wasn’t thick enough. But we had paid seven gees of the yellow, almost all we had, and our raft brought us through the canyon. Leg one of the Race for Life, finished, the better for us, the worse for a lot of others. Then we got on our bikes, and ended up here.
“This is a dangerous spot,” called Doug. “Leave the wounded, he’s dead already. You two stay together, and get to Lander. That’s the designated transition point for this race, and according to Rule Three you can form up a new team with other stragglers. You still have a chance!” He saddled up and rode away, with Jess and Shawn close behind. I certainly wasn’t going to be left behind. I reached into my pack and tossed her a bottle of Goo. Strawberry, my least favorite, good.
I watched the girl, holding the Goo, crying silently. I wondered what a real strawberry tastes like. Then I put that out of my head. Don’t think, just ride.
I never saw her again. I asked in Lander, but no one knew anything. Could have been the Dust Lords, could have been the sun. Out here in the plains good RadGel is the difference between life and death. After they flayed the sky everyone’s tan got a little too red.
“It’s a tough race, future citizen,” Shawn said when I caught up.
“It always is, future citizen,” said Jess. We bumped fists all around, and pedaled east.
Two days and two legs later we were in Lander. Well, not Lander proper, of course, most of the old town had been burned, looted, and then burned again in the great prairie fire ten years ago. Baron Bullion (not his given name, I would venture to guess) had built an outpost on the low hills west of town between Squaw and Baldwin creeks.
We sat in the sheds, exhausted, waiting for our porridge ration, listening to random bits of stories from the race. Some teams had been completely wiped out.
The Cyanosis bunch got caught on the road by a tanker convoy coming out of El Segundo, the last refinery on the continent. True to their license, the Go Juice Angels killed everyone they saw in their path. Gasoline had become more precious than life. Citizenship, a close second.
The sound of deep drumming, getting closer, broke up story time.
“Harken to the Baron’s Reader!” a voice rang out. The crowd of dirty, beaten, bloody racers turned to the call.
“What now?” sighed Doug. The Council always liked to spring a surprise or two during the race, and it was never for the good.
An absolutely massive white Clydesdale hove into view, pulling an old farm wagon. In the middle of the wagon rested a patched, stained La-Z-Boy recliner. Sitting in the recliner, on a leopard print pillow, sat a dwarf, black as night, with legs like twigs and a voice like thunder.
The Baron, you had to admit, does have style.
“Attention racers!” the dwarf bellowed. “Due to an infestation of twizzlers, the pedal leg through the Mouldy Hills has been canceled.” We waited. The Reader’s gaze swept back and forth over the crowd, as panicked muttering grew. They wouldn’t leave us out here without a new leg of the race, with no way to finish. They couldn’t just cancel it.
Could they? A desperate horror grew inside me. We barely made the quals for this race, and in another four years the kids would blow us away. This was our last shot.
After a long moment which the Reader seemed to thoroughly enjoy, he resumed his recitation.
“The Council has graciously substituted the ride with a trek.” He looked around the shed at the dozens of tired, sun-burned faces. A wicked little smirk crossed his surprisingly handsome and noble face. “Through the Hot Flats.”
He motioned for silence while he sipped from a glass of honest-to-God ice water. The bastard.
“Good luck, racers,” he said in a quieter voice. “The Baron has iodine for sale, ten gees of the yellow a dose.” He twitched the reins, and the horse lumbered away. A raven perched on the beasts’s rump, snatching out tufts of hair for her nest.
A small group of racers followed the Reader, no doubt hoping to get inside info or some other edge. No chance, not in Lander.
“So, we have Sticky Red to thank for this,” said Shawn. “She was the one who took over Vegas, right? Then sent her crews into the test range to look for anything interesting?”
That was her. And when the Glomatics busted open those old nuke tunnels and shafts, the things that crawled and slithered and oozed out changed the ecology of the West more than any ill-wind that blew in from the Plasticific. From what I heard, if you managed to escape the twizzlers and the gila-bats, the munching spores finished you off.
Jess and Doug licked their bowls for the last smudges of porridge. This was the only free meal we got, and we had to carry everything else. Making the most of it made sense, but I just couldn’t bring myself to lick the bowl. Too much like licking the Baron’s… bullion, I suppose.
I thought about getting a HandiWipe, but the line was long and I was tired. Four days of dodging reavers, CanBans, and of course the occasional fellow racer bent on getting an edge up. Like yesterday.
The day after meeting the reclaimers (Doug kept laughing about “canceled Czechs”) we were riding canyon single track along a muddy stream south of Independence Mountain. I barely registered the sound of pebbles skittering down the slope before what turned out to be one of the Cloud Peak Cowboys dropped on Doug from the hilltop, using his bike like a bomb. Metal crunched on stone as they tumbled into the stream. Risky move, that, launching yourself into the air to get the drop on a fellow racer. Worse for him, the pinhead didn’t know that Doug was a master ground fighter.
Me and Shawn immediately circled up, knowing that the next asshole must be close. I called a warning to Jess, coming up last, but an arrow whipped through the branches of a creosote bush and sunk deep in her calf. Goddamn Cowboys.
To no one’s surprise Jess didn’t scream or panic, but slid to a halt on her good side, rolled out from under her bike, and low-crawled behind a pile of boulders. I saw her tying off the wound. She was hurt bad, no doubt, but just then Shawn got a bead on the shooter and motioned me forward.
I offered myself to the shooter. He got off a shaft in my direction, but my eyes are sharp and I’m nasty quick. It was enough of a feint for Shawn, who can spring through scree fields like a mountain goat, to get above the bastard. He dropped a nice big rock right on his stupid hat.
I heard that hollow melon sound and knew I could drop back to see how Doug was doing. Sure enough he had his knee on the back of the Cowboy’s neck, mashing his mouth into the brown sludge of the rocky channel. The kid was still thrashing, but weakening fast.
“Let him up,” I called. “Let’s see what they’ve got cooking here.”
Doug looked reluctant, but grabbed a handful of wet, greasy hair and hauled him out of the creek. The Cowboy started to fight, but with a deceptively easy flip Doug had him face down on the trail with a knife at the base of his skull. He had the tip wedged under the kid’s shock collar.
“What’s the story, pard’?” I lowered myself onto a tuft of cheat grass. It felt good to sit on something besides a bike saddle.
“The hell with you,” the Cowboy sputtered, his mouth still full of mud and gravel.
“Tut, tut,” I said, in my best ‘let’s all be reasonable’ tone. “You could still get out of this alive, if you don’t act like a total asshole.” I pulled out my own knife and picked at my nails. “Where’s the rest of yer posse?”
I looked over to the sound of boots on rock and saw Shawn coming down the slope. He slid his finger across his throat. I jerked my head, indicating Jess. Shawn dropped the Cowboy swag he had picked through and went over to help her.
“Or are you the last one?” I asked. “Now that Robin Hood up there needs a million aspirin.”
“Taz?” the kid said, suddenly unsure. He really was just a kid, tall, nice teeth, barely a wrinkle on his face. How long since I looked like that? Best not to think about it.
“Was that his name?” said Doug, and gave the kid a sharp jab with the knife. “Well, Taz put an arrow into one of my best friends! He deserved whatever he got.”
“What’s your name, kid?” I asked, trying to salvage some intel out of this crappy situation.
“Bobby,” he said. I realized he was on the edge of losing it, and crying for his mother.
“Bobby,” I said, “that’s good, good name. So, Bobby, any of the other Cowboys out there, waiting for us?”
He was silent for a second, as if weighing his chances. Then the air went out of him. “No,” he said, “it was just me and Taz. Wolves got Bosco and Itchy Tom two nights ago.”
“Why ambush us?” I asked, all pained practicality. “Why not just keep going to Lander and re-form with a new team there?”
“Taz’s bike,” said my new best friend Bobby. “He tumbled a-ways back, snapped some spokes, broke his shifter. Couldn’t be fixed. We needed fresh wheels. You came along, and look, you got four good bikes!”
Shawn came over, supporting Jess. They had got the shaft out, which must have hurt like hell, and she was limping bad. Pedaling would be non-stop pain, but I knew Jess could take it, if anyone could.
She sat on a rock with a sigh and a groan. “Shawn told me he crowned the asshole who stuck me with a granite tiara. Good!”
“Let him up,” I told Doug. The kid’s spirit was gone, and you could feel the mood shifting to that camaraderie that comes after a fight.
“Tell you what we’re gonna do, Bobby. Here’s what we’re gonna do. Anything we don’t want from your stash, you can keep, including your bike. Seem fair?”
Jess laughed, then grimaced in pain. We’d have to tie her good foot to the pedal, so she could pull on the upstroke, until her bad leg could take more push. I knew she could do it. Jess was our field boss, and once busted me from grader to picker. Smiled when she told me. She’s tough as boiled leather and cold iron.
“Sure, sure, sounds good, I guess,” said Bobby. Then he took his shot. “Can I ride with you?”
I swear Jess actually growled before she spoke. “No. Fucking. Way.” The venom in her voice told Bobby there was no need to argue. His head dropped. He got it.
We all stood, except Bobby, of course, and distributed the Cowboys’ gear. We left him a headlamp, a pump, a good quart of water, and some Goo. Not much, but he could make it to Lander if he was careful. And lucky.
“If we see you too close behind us,” Doug said, as he straddled his bike and adjusted his googles and head wrappings, “I’ll kill you.” He spoke with the quiet simplicity of a man who knew his business and what he was about.
I worked with Jess getting her leg and foot in a good position on the bike.
“You going to be OK?” I asked quietly.
“Yeah,” she said. “At least, I better be, right?” Sweat already beaded her forehead.
“We’ll get through this,” I said. “We always do.”
“Thanks,” she said, and pushed off down the trail.
I don’t know how she did it, but she pedaled for another eleven hours straight. Toughest thing I’ve ever seen. She sweated and gasped so much we gave her extra water. I knew she was in rough shape, because she took it.
Now we were in Lander, licking bowls, and talking race strategy. Shawn had gone around and taken a subtle census.
“At least two-thirds of the racers are missing, gone who knows where,” he told us. “We’re the only team that made it through intact.” We bumped fists at that. “But a few other teams will re-form for sure.”
“Fresh teammates don’t always get along,” I said. “And you know Rule Two: ‘To qualify as a finisher, a team must finish with all members alive and mobile.’ There’ll be dropouts tonight.”
Jess grabbed the back of Doug’s collar and pulled it close, so she could read the faded words, the words that kept all of us in the Splinterlands hopeful. “Any team to finish the race will be made full citizens of Coloradopolis.”
And that’s all there is, for us. We sat in silence. I don’t know what the others thought, but I was imagining having my shock collar removed. The thin leather ‘padding’ on mine had long since disintegrated, and the scabs, scars, abscesses, and callouses on my neck were a constant reminder of my servitude. Sometimes I gagged at the stink of myself.
I hated, with a purity like nothing else in my life, laboring as one of the collared masses under the yoke of the Boulder Council, gazing down at us from their mountain aerie. But the Hot Flats… that was close to a death sentence. Jess and I exchanged a despairing look.
Shawn and Doug went to the other side of the sheds, looking for more porridge. Fifteen minutes later they came back with empty bowls. A fool’s errand, trying to get more porridge from the race masters. But they did have the specialty of the house, shots of vodka and chili sauce called an Enchilodka.
We touched glasses. “Future citizens!” we cried, and gagged it down. Probably some of our peppers in the mix. But the burn felt good, and it gave us a small distraction from an ugly, looming truth.
We huddled over our table. Nobody spoke, so I started. “This trek over the Hot Flats could be deadly. Does anyone have warm weather gear?” They shook their heads. Not that I had anything. No one plans on having to trek through a radioactive wasteland, not even during the Wyoming 500.
“How the hell are we supposed to cross the Hot Flats without any rad gear?” asked Shawn. “It’s a hundred miles of sand and rock.”
“Well, it is ‘flat’,” said Jess. “If we go fast enough…” But she trailed off, and I knew she was thinking about her leg. If the last twenty miles to Lander wasn’t downhill she wouldn’t have made it. The smell coming from her leg was getting worse. The collar felt eternal on my neck.
“No rad gear, eh racers?” said a moist voice at my back. We all turned to look at a tall, filthy, gaunt man with a scraggly beard and nastier hair. He stood, propped on a crutch. His left leg ended where his knee would have been.
“Who are you?” asked Doug. “And what the fuck business is it of yours?”
“Oh yes,” said the gimp. “So tough, so brave, skin so exposed.” He grinned, so we could see his five teeth. “I’m Skivvy. I can’t race, no I can’t, not after the twizzler stung my toe.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of his missing foot.
“But the race organizers always provide a replacement leg,” said Doug.
“Oh yes,” said Skivvy, with a wet, hacking chuckle, “so funny, so brave. When you vomit up your stomach, yes, you will be laughing, so much.” He could see the look of boredom and irritation on our faces, so he hurriedly reached deep into his stained, patched cloak. He pulled out several bright, silvery packets.
RadSkin. In sealed packages. I licked my lips, and forgot the weight around my neck.
“How many you got?” I asked, my voice as dry as the desert we had crossed.
“Four,” said Skivvy. “Enough for a team. They last you long enough to cross the Flats.”
He was right. RadSkin is a film that you wrap all over yourself. Sweat and friction will eventually wear it out, as will rad exposure, but he was right. It would get us across the Flats.
“Price?” asked Shawn. His voice was as dry as mine. Citizenship, so far away just minutes ago, was suddenly very, very close.
“My boy, Fat Rick, he rides with you. Be a citizen.” A young man, not fat at all, not even very tall, stepped from behind Skivvy. He looked lean and strong, but his eyes were too close together. Perhaps in compensation, the right one looked off in a different direction.
“We’ve already got our four,” said Jess. She was too loud, and her voice shook.
Skivvy gave a nasty smile, like he was glad Jess had been the one to speak. “She,” he said, talking to me, pointing at Jess, “comes with me. I need a new wife. Old one,” he said, as a thin line of bubbly spittle dripped from the corner of his mouth, “run off.”
A chill silence fell. Jess looked from me to Shawn to Doug, her eyes wild, scared, and furious.
I lifted my leg, put my boot at the base of Jess’s spine, and shoved her off the bench into the dirt at Skivvy’s foot. He gave another drooly laugh.
Shawn looked sick, and opened his mouth.
“Not a word from you,” I snapped. “You know we won’t make it with her. Too slow, no rad protection, think about it! You could be a citizen! No more collar, no more field work, no more having your children taken from you!”
Doug shook his head, arguing with himself. Then he reached out and took one of the RadSkins. So did Shawn. I took the last two, and handed one to Fat Rick.
“We leave at dusk,” I told Fat Rick. “Don’t be late.”
Jess sat in the dirt. She paid the boy no mind, but kept her eyes on me. Shock and disbelief churned together and came out as pure rage.
“Make sure we never see each other again, citizen, because I will rip out your throat, eat your flesh, and drink your blood.” She bared her teeth. “I’ll see you in hell.”
I shivered when I finally looked in her eyes.
Fat Rick’s voice was thin and oddly high-pitched. “When I’m a citizen, you an’ pa’ll both belong to me,” he said, looking at Jess. “But he’ll still be my pa. You’ll just be property.” He grinned at this promise of future delights.
Skivvy grabbed Jess by the collar, hauled her to her feet, and dragged her out of the shed. “Lucky girl,” I heard him saying, with a last gurgly chuckle, “we’ll take my flivverbot back to Casper.”
I had to break that hard silence. “Maybe it won’t be that bad for her. I bet she’s never been in a flivverbot.”
No one answered my hollow words. I walked to the race marshal’s tent to file the re-form claim.
The race masters released the teams at different times, in different places. I think it amused them to pit us against only ourselves. Good luck, they were telling us, You fucking losers.
Four hours past sunset we trotted northeast, single file, heading into one of the hottest spots on the continent. Thick storm clouds gathered, and a gusty wind stoked puffs of fine brown dust.
The rain so soon to come would rot the RadSkins. We had to keep moving, moving as fast as we could. We topped a mesa. I tasted metal on the wind.
It was going to be a very long night.
“Time,” I said. “Let’s prep.”
We stripped down, our bellies and legs shockingly white in the lightning strikes that split the sky. Thunder cracked loud enough to rattle pebbles. We wrapped each other in the precious RadSkins. Two of us each wrapped another, to make sure that no flesh lay outside the protection of the clear film. Only our eyes, nose and mouth were left uncovered, and those were inside our standard filter hoods.
I was the last to be wrapped. Good, because that meant my ‘Skin had the least exposure time. Bad, because the rain started, and drops heavy and hot got wrapped up with me.
We cleared our atmofilters and descended the steep and now slippery slope into the wastes of the Hot Flats. We had maybe ten hours before the radiation would eat through the protection we had paid in blood for. Seventy miles to go. The rain came down harder.
Water clogged my atmofilter until it felt like I was choking, but I took the precious time to stop and clear it. Jess’s last words came back to me, and I managed a strangled laugh. Not only was I in a radioactive hell, I thought, but I’m drowning.
After just a few hours of running I could feel seams opening around my feet, elbows, back, and knees. I prayed to any gods left in the blasted firmament to keep the RadSkin tight around my balls. I wanted to have kids someday, once I was a citizen. Real kids, not the things that get birthed, reared, and sent to the pens with just enough soylent to keep them moving through the fields at harvest.
Fat Rick tugged on my shoulder. Shawn and Doug were a hundred yards behind. A bolt of lightning showed Shawn holding Doug in his lap like some apocalyptic Pieta. Me and Rick ran back.
“Get him up!” I shouted, my voice muffled by the rain-soaked filter. “He has to run!”
“It’s his filter!” yelled Shawn, his voice equally distorted. “He passed out instead of clearing it!”
Doug’s filter was a soggy, gooey mess. I pulled off his pack and rummaged. He didn’t have a spare.
“Goddamn you!” I shouted at his prone form. “No extra filter! Fool! Fool!”
The urge to leave him was nearly overwhelming, but Rule Two and the weight of my collar kept me thinking.
I cursed and unslung my pack. I dug deep and came up with my own spare filter. I handed it to Shawn. “Get him on his feet! We’re not even half-way! Do you have a spare?” Shawn nodded. “You?” I asked Fat Rick. He nodded as well.
I would have to be extra careful. Run with my hands over the intake. Thunder cracked, near enough to knock us over. A few minutes later, we were moving.
All night we ran. The rain let up somewhere between pain and exhaustion, but the poisoned clouds were so dark I couldn’t tell if dawn was near or not. My chest strained to pull air through the soggy filter. Every time I cleared the damn thing it came back a little worse for wear. Fat Rick and Shawn had changed theirs out already.
We topped a slight rise. Through the haze I could see the ridge that marks the eastern edge of the Hot Flats. A wind blew in our faces, strong enough to whip up splatters of radioactive mud. Much of the RadSkins were in tatters, and I could feel blisters rising where the wrap had worn away hours before.
It would be close. If we made it we’d need rad remediation. But as citizens, we’d be entitled to it. We redoubled our pace. Pulling in air felt like wearing a tight vest of needles.
There was light in the east, faint but real. The ridge was closer.
Shawn tripped on a stone, fell, and cried out. A jagged piece of metal jutting from the sand had gashed him from knee to hip. He rolled onto his back in agony, grabbing at his bloody leg. No arterial blood spray, but the flow was strong.
Fat Rick dropped to his knees, his body heaving with the exertion. Doug and I staggered to Shawn, and Doug ripped the med kit from Shawn’s belt. We all knew the drill, never use your own med kit on another man, that was Splinterlands 101. Doug pulled out the bindages. They were probably hot, after the trek through the night, but we had to do something. The bindages tightened on Shawn’s leg, and the flow slowed to something manageable. We hauled Shawn to his feet.
I grabbed Doug and Shawn’s collars to bring them in close. Fat Rick stuck his mask in. “Maybe a mile to go,” I slurred through the mush of my filter. “We’re close!” My vision was closing up. I was shutting down for lack of oxygen.
Another hundred yards, and an arrow ripped into Fat Rick’s chest. He shuffled and huffed to a halt, and dropped to his knees.
I saw his crazy eyes through his fogged mask.
“Wha?” he said, in a voice thick with blood and surprise. He collapsed, face first in the mud and sand. The arrow punched through his back. I could see the barbed head, dripping tendrils of flesh and RadSkin.
I plopped on my ass. So did Doug and Shawn. We were done. I was supposed to tell them something, something important. I couldn’t remember. We were close, but so done. No citizenship, no remediation. Just an ambush in the dark. I couldn’t think or see, but I reached out to my team, and they reached out to me.
At least I would die with some air in my lungs. I started to tear the mask from my face.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You’re not off the Flats yet.”
She came out from behind a slag mound, bow in hand, limping badly, but otherwise in good shape. She was fully masked and ‘Skinned. I remembered.
“Where the fuck,” I gasped, “have you been?”
She handed me a spare filter.
“You kicked me in the ass pretty hard,” she answered, in a cheerful, peppy voice. “I didn’t mind watching you earn your citizenship.”
Doug and Shawn looked at us. Their confusion showed clearly through the masks.
“Jess,” said Doug, “I’m so sorry, we should never have done that, we should’ve stayed in Lander, collared, but friends. I’m so sorry.”
Shawn nodded, but he couldn’t unclench his mouth against the pain in his leg.
“Not a problem!” said Jess. “We were going to let you in on it, but Skivvy came by too soon. When you two went looking for porridge we heard Skivvy talking to another team, but they were a family. We decided real quick on a plan. You guys get the RadSkins and make the trek. I deal with Skivvy, you deal with the prodigal son, I rejoin the team, and we waltz into Casper, winners of the race.”
I got my new filter in, and I have never tasted air so sweet. I stood up. Jess and I helped Doug up, and the three of us lifted Shawn. Between the four of us we had five, maybe six decent legs, and we hobbled and shuffled to the east.
“What about re-forming the team?” asked Doug. “Jess isn’t on the team anymore.”
“Oh, that,” I answered. “I stood in line at the marshal’s tent, but didn’t change anything. And Skivvy and Rick were too stupid to think about checking.”
“We’re going to make it,” gasped Shawn. “We’re going to be citizens.” We all thought about that for a while.
“What did Skivvy say when he realized you had double-crossed him?” asked Doug.
“Oh, he was hopping mad,” said Jess.
The Ghost Peppers walked into the rising sun.
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