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Stargazer

She's okay, Dave, Taka said to her dead husband.She's a bit scary at firstCrys would take one look at her and run out of the room. Definitely not much of a people person.

But she's fine, Dave, really. And if you can't be here with me, at least she pulls her own weight.

Miri drove down old I-95 through the ramshackle remains of a town called Freeport; it had died with the departure of the fish and the tourists, long before ssehemoth had made everything so definitive. South of town they pulled onto a side road that ended at a secluded cove. Taka was relieved to see that the scraggly woodlands above the high-tide line were still mostly green. She cheered them on.

"Why here, exactly?" Laurie wondered as they debarked.

"Electric eel." Taka unlocked the charge cap on the side of the vehicle and took the socket in one hand. The cable unspooled behind her as she headed down slope. Cobble slipped and clattered beneath her feet.

Laurie paced her to the water's edge. "What?"

"On the bottom somewhere." Kneeling, Taka fished the hailer out of her windbreaker and slipped it into the water. "Hopefully the little bastard still comes when you call him."

A small eruption of bubbles, twenty meters offshore. A moment later the eel surfaced in their wake and squirmed towards them, orange and serpentine. It beached itself at Taka's feet, a giant fluorescent sperm with a tail trailing off into the depths. It even had fangs: a two-pronged metal mouth disfiguring the surface of the bulb.

She plugged the cable into it. The bulb hummed.

"They stashed these things here and there," she explained, "so we're not completely dependent on the lifters."

Laurie eyed the calm water in the cove. " Ballard stack?"

"CAESAR reactor."

"You're kidding."

Taka shook her head. "Self-contained, self-maintained, disposable. Basically just a big block with a couple of radiator fins. Drop it into any open body of water and it's good to go. It doesn't even have any controlsit automatically matches voltage to whatever the line draws."

Laurie whistled.

Taka scooped up a flat stone and skipped it across the water. "So when's Ken going to show up?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"On whether he got into Portland." And then, after a curious hesitation: "And whether he ditched us back at Penobscot."

"He didn't," Ken said.

They turned. He was standing behind them.

"Hi." Laurie's face didn't change, but some subtle tension seemed to ebb from her body. "How'd it go?"

He shook his head.

It was almost as if the past two weeks hadn't happened. Ken reappeared, as ominous and indecipherable as ever: and just like that, Laurie faded away. It was a subtle transitionsome slight hardening of the way she held herself, a small flattening of affectbut to Taka, the change was as clear as a slap in the face. The woman she had come to know as an ally and even a friend submerged before her eyes. In its place stood that humanoid cipher who had first confronted her on the slopes of a guttering wasteland, fourteen days before.

Ken and Laurie conversed a little ways down the beach while Miri recharged. Taka couldn't hear what they said, but doubtless Ken was reporting on his Portland expedition. Debriefing, Taka thought, watching them. For Ken, that word seemed to fit. And the trip had not gone well, judging by the body language and the look on his face.

Then again, he alwayslooks like that, she reminded herself. She tried to imagine what it might take to wipe away that chronic deadpan expression and replace it with something approaching a real emotion. Maybe you'd have to threaten his life. Maybe a fart in an elevator would do it.

They headed back into town once Miri was sated. Lubin crouched in the space between the bucket seats, the women on either side. Taka got the sense of gigabytes passing between the other two, although they spoke perhaps a half-dozen words each.

Freeport was another regular stop on the trap line; Taka pulled up at a parking lot off Main and Howard, beside the gashed facade of a defunct clothing store called (she always smiled at it) The Gap. The town as a whole, like most of them, was long dead. Individual cells still lingered on in the rotting corpus, though, and some were already waiting when Miri arrived. Taka blared Stravinsky for a few minutes anyway, to spread the word. Others appeared over time, emerging from the shells of buildings and the leaky hulls of old fishing boats kept afloat in some insane hope that the witch might be afraid of water.

She and Laurie got to work. Ken stayed out of sight near the back of the cab; shadows and the dynamic tinting of Miri's windows rendered him all but invisible from the outside. Taka asked about Portland over an assembly-line of broken arms and rotting flesh. Laurie shrugged, pleasant but distant: "He could've got in all right. Just not without getting noticed."

No surprise there. A scorched zone surrounded Portland's landside perimeter, a flat, sensor-riddled expanse across which Taka couldn't imagine anyone crossing undetected. An enervated, membranous skin guarded the seaward approaches. You couldn't just sneak into the placeinto any clave, for that matterand Ken evidently lacked the resources to break in by force.

Every now and then Taka would glance absently at the windshield as she moved among her patients. Sometimes she caught sight of two faint, glimmering pinpoints looking back, motionless and unblinking behind the dark reflections.

She didn't know what he might be doing in there. She didn't ask.

It was as if night were a black film laid over the world, and the stars mere pinpricks through which daylight passed.

"There," Ken said, pointing.

Fine needles, three or four of them. Their tips etched the film high in the west, left faint scratches across Bootes. They faded in seconds; Taka would never have seen them on her own.

"You're sure we're safe," she said.

He was a silhouette, black on black against the stars to her left. "They're past us already," he told her. Which was not the same thing.

"There go the intercepts," Laurie said behind them. Brief novae flared near Herculesnot contrails, but the ignition of antimissile salvos dropped from orbit. They'd be below the horizon by the time they hit atmosphere.

It was after midnight. They were standing on a rocky hill south of Freeport. Almost everything was stars and sky; the insignificant circle of earth below the horizon was black and featureless. They'd come here following the beeping of Ken's handpad, linked to a periscope floating somewhere in the ocean behind them. Evidently their submarine Phocoena, Laurie had called it was a stargazer.

Taka could see why. The Milky Way was so beautiful it hurt.

"Maybe this is it," she murmured. It was unlikely, she knew; this was only the second attack since they'd put their plan into motion, and how far could the word have spread by now?

And yet, three attacks in as many weeks. At that rate, they had to get lucky before too long

"Don't count on it," Ken said.

She glanced at him, and glanced away. Not so long ago this man had stood at her back, one hand clamped easily on her neck, instructing Laurie in the disassembly of weapons systems that Taka could barely even name. He had been pleasant enough, then and since, because Taka had cooperated. He had been polite because she'd never stood in his way.

But Ken was on a mission, and Taka's little experiment in grass-roots salvation didn't seem to factor into it. He was playing along with her for some indecipherable reason of his own; there was no guarantee that tomorrow, or the next day, he wouldn't run out of patience and go back to his original game plan. Taka didn't know what that was, although she gathered it had something to do with helping Ken and Laurie's waterlogged kindred; she had learned not to waste time pressing either of them for details. It had involved getting into the Portland clave, which evidently Ken had not been able to do on his own.

It had also involved hijacking Taka's MI, which he had.

Now she was alone with two empty-eyed ciphers in the dead of night and the middle of nowhere. Beneath the intermittent camaraderie, the humanitarian pitching-in, and all the best-laid plans, one fact remained unassailable: she was a prisoner. She'd been a prisoner for weeks.

How could I have forgotten that? she wondered, and answered her own question: because they hadn't hurt heryet. They hadn't threatened herlately.Neither of her captors seemed to indulge in violence for its own sake; hereabouts that was the very pinnacle of civilized behavior. She had simply forgotten to feel endangered.

Which was pretty stupid, when you got right down to it. After the failure at Portland, there was every chance that Lubin would revert to Plan A and take her vehicle. Laurie might or might not go along with thatTaka hoped that some bond remained beneath that cool reinstated facadebut that might not make much difference either way.

And there was no telling what either of them would do if Taka tried to get in their way. Or if they ran out of more efficient alternatives. At the very best, she could be stranded in the middle of the wildlandsan immunized angel with clipped wings, and no Miri to back her up the next time some red-eyed man came looking for salvation.

"I'm getting a signal from Montreal," Ken said. "Encrypted. I'm guessing it's a scramble."

"Lifters?" Laurie suggested. Ken grunted an affirmative.

Taka cleared her throat. "I'll be back in a sec. I have to take a wicked pee."

"I'll come with you," Laurie said immediately.

"Don't be silly." Taka waved downhill into the darkness, where the peak they occupied emerged from threadbare woodlands. "It's only a few meters. I can find my way."

Two starlit silhouettes turned and regarded her without a word. Taka swallowed and took a step downhill.

Ken and Laurie didn't move.

Another step. Another. Her foot came down on a rock; she wobbled momentarily.

Her captors turned back to their tactics and machinery. Taka moved carefully downhill. Starlight limned the bare outlines of obstacles in her path. A moon would have been nice, though; she tripped twice before the tree-line rose before her, a ragged black band engulfing the stars.

As it engulfed Taka herself, a few moments later.

She looked back up the hill through a black mesh of scrub and tree trunks; Ken and Laurie still stood at the top of the hill, motionless black cutouts against the sky. Taka couldn't tell whether they could see her, or even whether they were looking in her direction. She'd be plainly visible to them if she were standing in the open. Fortunately, not even their night-creature eyes could penetrate tree trunks.

She had a few minutes at most before they realized she was gone.

She moved as quickly as she could without raising a racket. Thankfully there wasn't much undergrowth; in better days the sunlight filtering through the canopy had been too sparse, and more recentlymore recently, sunlight was hardly the limiting factor. Taka felt her way blindly through a maze of vertical shafts and leaf litter and thin soil rotten with ssehemoth. Low branches clawed at her face. Gnarled old tree trunks resolved from the darkness barely a meter ahead; young spindly ones jumped out at her with even less warning.

A root caught her foot; she toppled, biting back a cry. One outstretched hand came down hard on a fallen branch. The sound it made, snapping, echoed like a gunshot. She lay twisted on the ground, nursing her scraped palm, straining to hear any sounds from up the slope.

Nothing.

She kept going. The slope was steeper now, more treacherous. The trees that sprang up in her path were only skeletons, dry and brittle and eager to betray her with the firecracker report of every snapped twig and broken branch. One of them caught her just below the knee; she pitched forward, hit the ground, and couldn't stop. She tumbled down the slope, rocks and treefall stabbing her in passing.

The ground disappeared. Suddenly she could almost see. A broad dim swathe of gray rushed towards her; she recognized it in the instant before it struck her, peeling skin from her forearm.

The road. It ran around this side of the hill like a hemline. Miri was parked somewhere along its length.

Taka got to her feet and looked around. She'd had no way to plot her course down the hill, no way of knowing exactly where on the road she'd landed. She guessed, and turned right, and ran.

The road was clear, thank God, its dim gravel albedo just enough to keep her oriented and on track. It unspooled gently around the shoulder of the hill, shattered stone crunching beneath her feet, and suddenly something glinted in the darkness ahead, something straight-edged and shiny under the stars

Oh thank God. Yes. Yes!

She yanked open the driver's-side door and piled inside, panting.

And hesitated.

What are you going to do, Tak? Run out on everything you've been trying to do for the past two weeks? Just drive away and let the witch take over, even though there may be a way to stop it? Sooner or later someone's going to strike gold, and this is where you've told them to bring it. What happens when they show up and you've run off with your tail between your legs?

Are you going to call for help? You think it would come before Ken and Laurie had their way with you, or just hopped into that submarine of theirs and disappeared back into the Mariana Trench? Do you think it would come at all, these days? And what about tipping off the enemy, Tak? What about whoever or whatever is trying to stopthe very thing you're trying to help along? Are you going to risk all that, just because of something two borderline personalities with funny eyes mightdo if you got them angry?

Taka shook her head. This was insane. She had a few precious moments before Ken and Laurie tracked her down. What she decided in that interval might decide the fate of New Englandof North America, even. She couldn't afford to be hasty, but there was no time.

I need time. I just need to get away for a while. I need to work this out. She reached out and thumbed the ignition pad.

Miri stayed dark.

She tried again. Nothing. Nothing but the memory of Ken lurking in this very cab, eyes aglitter, surrounded by all that circuitry he seemed to know so much about.

She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, he was staring in at her.

Ken opened her door. "Anything wrong?" he asked.

Taka sighed. Her abrasions oozed and stung in the silence.

Laurie opened the passenger door and climbed in. "Let's head back," she said, almost gently.

"Iwhy are"

"Go on," Ken said, gesturing at the dashboard.

Taka put her thumb on the pad. Miri hummed instantly to life.

She stepped out of the cab to let Lubin enter. Overhead, the heavens were crammed with stars.

Oh, David, she thought. How I wish you were here.


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