It had stopped snowing sometime the evening before, and Lane’s movements were stiff with cold, frost pinching inside his nose as he breathed out a plume of steam into the air.
He shoved the snow cake off his car with an ineffectually narrow long-handled brush. He tried not to move more than necessary, not to let his skin touch the inside of his clothes more than the shivering was already doing.
The glow of the new snowfall lit the darkness in a rural area absent of streetlights and absorbed sound as it radiated light.
Having excavated the Equivica, he unplugged the engine warmer and got in. The seat crackled as he sat, and his hands, already cold from the accidental snow falling on them, were reluctant to grab the wheel. He pulled his hands back into his coat sleeves while the car warmed, and he tried not to breathe fog on the windshield by breathing against his collar. It was a practical car, he’d thought when he bought it, a bit boxy for the current aerodynamic obsessiveness, but Saabs tended to run that way, the less sporty models in any case.
He glanced at the clock.
"Good morning, Dr. Gardelen. You’re in early," the night time security would say to him, having only left seven hours before as he came stomping in to the lab, passing all the requisite security tests that adorned any secret project of that level.
Should he tell the man he couldn’t sleep or that he had work to do? Both were true, though insomnia was what had him in the car now, adjusting the radio to maybe catch some news. Maybe he should evade the question and ask him about his family, ask for any new stills of the man’s kids.
Such were the small needles of his trade.
He might have the lab to himself for once, with a space long enough to check on the clients, find his office and make out the orders for laes. He’d have to write out the charts, and the deceased report on the girl that had gone under yesterday afternoon, setting his partner Raen in a viscous mood the rest of the day.
Laura. That had been her name, though she had been accustomed to her streetname for enough years that she had thought of herself as Dove instead. That had made his work harder, making her remember Laura.
Then Raen would come in about seven, chatting and setting a cup of kaf on his desk, anxious to get started.
Lane disengaged the emergency break and it creaked slightly as the cables underneath complained.
He chased a small sliding iceberg off the windshield with the wipers.
The headlights spread out across the snow and he knew where the driveway was well enough that he didn’t have to wait for a plow to clear it to make it out without driving over something he couldn’t see.
The car sidled toward the ditch a bit as he turned onto the road and he tapped the gas quickly to test the slickness of the road. His tires spun and he let off. At least he was up to beat any traffic commuting between Salem and Portland and could take his time.
The news station was edging in and out, the evergreens on the side of the road insulated in fat snowsuits and looking soft and ghostly and secretive. There was talk of pass closures and he turned the radio off, preferring now to listen to the muffled hiss of tires breaking new snow.
The air inside the Saab finally started to creep from just above freezing to something verging on comfortable and he stretched his fingers on the wheel. He pulled his shoulders back, thinking about work as the flakes began to spiral down again.
The facility was in a tucked away part of the national forest lands not too far from his cabin, about twenty good weather minutes of hidden Tir roads from highway 5, off an exit rarely taken. Now, he suspected it would take a hour, maybe, to get to it, judging from the current speed, and he wished it was an option for him to stay home, but he couldn’t leave at least two of his clients alone for even a day in the mental states they were in.
He considered their various situations as he drove, the wipers occasionally swishing clear some patch of melting snow, and he planned his day with their squeaks in the background. He had one less since Laura’s death. When the client had family, or friends, or some sort of strong connection it made his work more difficult. She had been a difficult case made worse by Raen’s experimental methods.
He spent a while retracing her case, considering what he could have done better, while he drove the slick road to the lab. There was only one snowed-in set of tracks this early, on this road where little traffic wandered by accident. The gate would be ahead soon, his concentration having made the drive seem shorter, the twists and curves of the road familiar from repetition.
There was a movement in the trees and he twitched and tapped at the brakes, expecting a deer to jump into the lights as he rounded the bend.
He leaned forward and squinted through the falling flakes. It was a car, drifting around the corner running lights extinguished. The vehicle was light, blending in with the background like a ghost looking for a haunting, not a deer seeking suicide.
The lights flipped on, one light dimmer than the other and the car jerked from one side to the other, moving too fast to stop.
The car was now fatally angled so that one front corner was pointing its way to the Equivica, the wheels locked in a skid.
The car wasn’t stopping, Lane realized, and neither could he.
He resisted stomping on the brakes, shifted down and jerked the wheel in an effort of make a controlled slide of his own, knowing the trees not to be as soft as they appeared, and also not wanting to take the other car head on.
For a moment he thought they might make it, as the driver finally released the brakes, almost straightened out as they passed each other. The fishtailing car twitched and the Equivica clipped the rear corner, sending the other car spinning and himself into a slight rise of a bank.
There was silence in the way that only snow could facilitate: insulative and calm. The windshield was gray white from a spray that had leapt up with the impact, and Lane forgot the windshield wipers, could see his hands gripping the wheel tight in the glowing green of the dashboard, found next his teeth clenched and then the shallowness of breath that he hadn’t quite held.
He didn’t feel the cold anymore, and had to make a conscious effort to look around but all the views were blocked with snow and dark.
He pulled at the handle and shoved at the door, finally getting it to creak open, the maplight turning on when the door opened was disconcerting in its brilliance.
The car shuddered as he took his foot of clutch. He hadn’t realized it was still running and in his disorientation he stared at the "check engine" light for a moment.
Outside, a snow covered mound warped around the base of a tree that had dumped its snow shell upon impact, covering the stranger car. The lights still glowered in a cross-eyed way at the tree they’d folded around, one still dimmer than the other.
He made his way to the mound, little chunks of snow slipping into his shoes, chilling the skin. As he got near, the door closest to him cracked the snow at the seams and then was kicked open by the occupants.
A bundle of gray leapt out.
"Get down!" the figure said, adrenaline cracking the deepness of the shout. "Get on your knees!"
Lane slipped backwards in surprise, submerged in snow, and stared up at a man with a gun.
"Lemme see your hands!"
He raised them slowly, chunks of snow dropping off them.
The other door opened and another person in gray stepped out, crunched through the snow toward them, glancing back and forth between the two of them.
"I’m going to check him," the second figure announced. He was masculine as well, though the voice was smoother, if still a little roughened from the wreck.
The first nodded and stepped a bit closer with the second there, put the gun to Lane’s forehead. The barrel was cold in a way the snow couldn’t compete with, and the man’s hands were steady and large, with a sprinkling of dark hair on the knuckles. Lane stared at the man’s face, trying to discern thought from the features and see a path through his psyche, but nothing came as the seconded patted him down.
"The car’s done for, Silo," the man said as calmly if he were announcing that he was going to shovel snow as he extracted items from Lane’s jacket. He tried to remember what he’d put in there.
The man flipped through some pieces of paper, cred stick, ID, and a wallet, though it would be difficult to read by the glow of the snowlight.
"No weapons," he announced, pocketing the items. "I’ll check his car. Maybe we can use it."
The other man left and the squeaking swish of boots on snow shadowed him to the Equivica.
They waited, Lane’s arms getting tired and Silo’s not even shivering.
He had cybernetics, Lane was sure. Cybereyes at least: he’d stared down enough of them. There were more synthetics in him, he was not sure what, but there was a wrongness to him that spoke loudly enough.
The Equivica started. He heard the tires spin. It must not have been as bad as he thought. He should have kept driving. Maybe security would be by, but they weren’t quite close enough to the lab for that, and no one drove down this road by chance.
The door opened and shut again, the engine still running.
Quicker footsteps returned.
Silo’s glance flickered up, came right back to him.
"What’s wrong, Pete?"
Lane felt his heart squeeze.
He knew the names, he realized suddenly. Peter Rush. John Silo. Laura’s teammates, names not dragged out even under duress by the Peace Force, but names he’d extracted with spells during his work on her.
They were looking for her.
Rush had his gun out as well when he came into sight. He was more subtle about it than Silo had been, but any guns waved in Lane’s direction was more than he was comfortable with.
"It this magic license yours?" he asked, lips pressed into a straight line.
The license that was supposed to be in his wallet that he’d forgotten in the glove compartment.
"Yes," Lane said, finding it difficult to speak, knowing more about both Rush and Silo than he wanted to. Silo, who had no problem killing and Rush who was Laura’s long time love.
"He’s a mage?" Silo demanded, pressing the gun tighter.
Lane closed his eyes.
"Apparently," he answered.
"He’s dead," Silo said.
"No. He’s our safety."
"Are you insane?"
"It’ll be worse if we kill him and then get caught."
"I dunno, Pete."
"We’ll toast our car, take his. It’s running and doesn’t seem damaged."
Silo was silent, though only because of a quick gesture from Rush that Lane saw only out of his peripheral vision.
"You going to try a manabolt or anything?" Rush said.
"I’m not that kind of mage," Lane said.
"What’s that mean?" Rush asked, nervous about unknowns.
"Research. I’m not a combat mage. I do research."
"If you try anything one of us will get you, guaranteed."
Lane believed it and nodded.
They both escorted him to the Equivica, weapons still out in hands stung with the cold, their shapes ghostly and fading into the darkened white backdrop in their gray suits.
Silo went to see to the torching of their own vehicle, while he and Rush went over to the Equivica.
He’d never ridden in the backseat of his own car before, he realized as he clambered in under gunpoint.
Rush got in on the passenger’s side, kept the gun on him. His eyes squinted a little as the car behind them went up in flames with a whoosh. Lane saw the reflection of it on the windshield and a glow bathed the upholstery with a warm tint.
Lane didn’t turn around to look. That large of a fire would bring security, surely.
"Do you have any elementals we need to worry about?" Rush asked him, chewing on a fingernail.
"No," Lane said, noticing for the first time a slight swelling on Rush’s forehead. It didn’t look serious, but the man could have hit his head and gotten a mild concussion.
Silo opened the door, letting in a gust of cooler air and took the driver’s seat, shoved it back.
"Let’s go before someone else shows up," Silo muttered.
Rush nodded as Silo turned the car around .
The snow started to descend again, thick flakes of white that obscured view.
Silo almost missed his turn with the snow obscuring the view.
"You don’t have a GPS?" Rush said to him. He’d relaxed with the gun a little, remaining turned partially toward him from the front seat, still ready, but splitting his attention between the car’s driver and owner.
"I don’t need one."
"I thought all the fancy cars came with them."
Lane shrugged, stared at the snow out the windshield which at the even marginal speed that Silo was pushing the car was making the flakes look like stars zooming by at light speed.
"Right. Right?" Silo asked.
Rush chewed on his lip. "Left, I think."
"None of this looks familiar."
Rush looked at Lane.
"Where are you trying to go?"
"Away from highway five."
"I’d recommend you take five, since it’ll be plowed fastest."
"Which way to five then?"
Silo took a right.
Rush tried the radio.
The reception was snow and the white noise of it chilled the air a little more.
He sighed and looked through Lane’s wallet again, one handed, tabbing through the scraps of papers in there, taking pieces out and angling them toward the glow of the dash.
Lane knew he kept nothing sensitive in there, but tried to think what he did keep.
"What’s this?" Rush asked, peering at it.
"Tax ID card."
"For some occupations you have to have rank."
"That’s just great!" Silo said dramatically, thumping the wheel with both hands.
"Just drive, chum," Rush said absently to Silo. "What’s is your occupation?"
"I remember that part."
"What’s your occupation, Peter?"
"Peter?" Rush asked startled. Panicked almost.
"Your associate called you ‘Pete’. That’s generally short for ‘Peter’. I don’t think we’re close enough to with each other to refer to you as the more familiar ‘Pete’, so, not knowing your last name, it seemed ‘Peter’ was more appropriate and polite. See? Logic, not magic."
"I’m going to pull over and shoot him right now!"
Rush rolled his eyes. "Just drive, will ya?" he said to Silo and gave Lane a warning look.
"Sorry. Just trying to lighten the mood," Lane said. "Was I right?"
Rush pulled something else out of the wallet and looked at it for a while.
"Who’s this?" He held up the holo.
"My wife," Lane replied.
Rush studied his face and then the picture again, an unconscious self mocking expression on his face.
It didn’t take a psychiatrist to guess he was thinking of Laura.
Lane remembered Laura, collapsed on the lab’s table, with her fatal nosebleed dripping from the edge. The sound of the drips had been deafening in the electricity of Raen’s frozen ire.
She had called Peter "Petey" and had liked the way his skin felt. He had found that, among other things, while worked with her thoughts.
"She doesn’t look like an elf. I’m surprised there isn’t some sort of law against that."
"She died before I moved to the Tir," Lane said.
"I’m sorry," he said with a trace of sincerity.
"It was a long time ago. Are you married?"
He shook his head.
All his money went to his mother in the hospice, Lane knew.
Laura had used her half of their funds to pay the bills.
"Why?" he asked, suspicious.
"Yeah. I’ve got one of those."
"Can I ask what you are doing out here?"
"Lost!" Silo said, "And not even a fuel station to ask for directions because you don’t have a stupid GPS!"
"If you turn around you can still get back to highway five." And run into security, Lane hoped.
"We’re not going to highway five!"
"The snow isn’t going to let up," Lane said, softly as the flakes landed.
"Drek! What a worthless fraggin’ trip, Pete!" Silo said, "The car’s trashed, we didn’t find Dove, not even a trace of her, and now we’re lost in Ehranland with Doom and Gloom the Daisy Eatin’ Forecaster for a play by play. Got any other advice, research monkey?"
Rush sighed. "Do you want me to drive?"
There was a stretch of silence interrupted by the groan of the windshield wipers. Rush was not offended. Silo was always saying that.
Laura had found it endearing, humorous.
"Where are you trying to go?" Lane ventured finally.
"I dunno! Pete? This was your plan! Where are we going?"
"Vancouver is to the north. You’re going east," Lane said.
"We’re not going through Portland," Rush explained.
"No permits to get you through the Portland wall?"
"Pity. The passes will be closed by now, and this car can’t force its way, if you even get that far. Eighty-four is the first road they shut down. You can get through the Portland gates on my plates, though."
"I have government plates. They will let you through with only a routine number of questions." It was a lie he told. Not about the government plates: that was true, but the rest. The Peace Force would catch them, arrest them, trying to cross the bridge over to Vancouver. He would be okay, security not compromised. They would not. Because due to the level of security he was involved in, Lane was restricted from leaving the country.
"What are you, a spook?"
Rush let the gun go limp and leaned his head back against the head rest, closing his eyes, every line on his face drawn with a tired marker.
"We’ll go through Portland, Silo."
"He’s right. The passes…look at that coming down out there. We should have waited."
"I know," his voice cracked.
The silence strained like an old rubber band as Silo slowed and stopped without too much skidding made another multipointed turn to keep from getting stuck in ditches where snow had made them magnets.
They drove back the way they came for a long while along down the road where their tracks were already filling with drift, Silo’s hands fisted on the wheel and Rush glaring angrily out of the windshield with eyes widened as if it could shake off the effects of the hypnotic snow swooshing past like a starfield at warp drive.
"Is Dove your girlfriend?" Lane ventured, knowing well that she was. Rush glanced back at Lane, guarded.
"Yeah," he finally admitted.
"Have you been together long?"
"We came to the Tir for sightseeing. She was arrested on a petty charge and we haven’t been able to find her since."
"What about the embassy?"
"No help there."
"So you’re here illegally."
Silo made a frustrated noise, like the kind geese made when they were angry. Rush’s eyes narrowed. "What’s it to you?"
"Just asking. You never know, I may be able to help you out. In the Tir the legal way is generally the most cumbersome, so one gathers allies where one can."
Rush bit his lip, glanced at Silo, who didn’t spare attention from the road. "Look…chum, to be honest, we got caught doing something illegal. We were crossing the border and the Peace Force chased us, got Dove because they played dirty and she got separated from us. I’m not even sure how we managed to get away, but we did. His eyes were bright with a handful of different emotions. "We’ve known each other for years. We practically grew up together. She’s my
life, do you understand me?"
Lane paused, letting him remember the still of his wife in his hand. "Yes," he said.
"She-" he stopped, pressed his lips into a thin line and looked away. "I guess it doesn’t really matter to you does it?"
"I can relate."
Lane considered a spell. Most of his were touch activated. Any of them would get him killed. He knew enough about Silo and Rush from Laura to know Silo would enforce his threats and Rush wouldn’t stop him. He didn’t really have any that would be useful to him. They were for the most part slow working worms of spells that worked best in layers. Small needles for invisible sewing.
His best chance was to wait for the border, let them be arrested, explain the situation to his superiors. It was easily proven. In the Tir anything was easily proven and the burden of truth lay with the defendant. Not that people like Rush and Silo got trials. They were just given all expense paid vacations at his lab.
Rush shook his head and turned back to Lane’s wallet.
"I dunno. I-"
Paper crackled as Rush unfolded and tilted the paper to the dash lights.
"What’s this?" Rush asked, turning his head to Lane, the green tracing his profile amplifying the expression of horror on his face. The wipers gave an unnatural squeal.
Lane sat and said nothing. He’d become skilled at a lack of reaction gained by long standing affiliation with a government that did most of its information gathering through tricks of the language and loaded questions.
"What?" Silo demanded, his attention divided between the road and his teammate.
"Am I reading this right? Is this a license for psychiatry?"
"You are reading correctly," he said calmly, reinforcing Rush’s success rather than the affirmation of what it was he held in his hands.
"You’re a shrink?"
Silo hit the brakes, barely, remembering the conditions, and tapped them instead. The car shivered in a fishtail, a sickening motion that unsettled Lane’s stomach like snow falling from a tree. Finally it slid to a stop.
In the silence, Silo stretched his hands on the wheel, tightened his fingers and turned with a rustle of fabric. Rush turned fully to him as well, breath streaming from his nose. Lane felt the skin around his eyes stretched wide and his mouth dry, full of cobwebs.
"Just what does the Tir government do with a psychiatrist that’s a mage?" Silo asked, his voice colder than the water in the Willamette.
"Research," Rush whispered.
"He’s dead, Pete," Silo growled in a low voice. "Let’s put a bullet in his head and drop him over the snowbank. They won’t find him for weeks."
It was Lane’s turn to quietly panic.
There was a silence that was tense, and cold in the same way that too much cold would prevent further snow from falling. In the quiet efficiency of the SAAB’s engine, he could hear his own heart slam in his chest. He could see Rush considering Silo’s advice seriously for first time that evening. "Get out of the car," Rush grated.
Lane hesitated to move, frozen by apprehension. Slowly his hand crept to the latch.
Rush got out, pointing his gun at Lane and once again Lane knew himself to be the enemy.
"What do you know about her!"
Lane raised his hands. He said nothing.
"Tell me!" Rush demanded, his voice cracking with a faint edge of panic.
Lane shook his head, unable to speak.
"Do you know something about her?"
"People that are swallowed by the Tir government don’t come out the other side."
"What is your job?"
Lane took a breath.
"And if you say ‘research’ one more time, I’m going to grease you right now, Nancy."
He was serious.
"I can’t," was all he could get out.
Rush’s face stilled. It was an expression Laura had not been familiar with, but its intent was clear enough to Lane.
Rush had the gun braced with one hand under the stock, one foot in front of the other. His arms shook.
The sound of the driver’s door came from far away, and Silo’s mass appeared in Lane’s peripheral; an apparition to witness his death.
"Do it, Pete," he said.
Lane stared Rush in the eyes, hoping that personal contact would have some weight, however small, on the balance in his favor.
Rush was focused on his face, not with the connection one made when seeing another person, but one that meant he was a target, a living version of a paper silhouette.
Laura’s version of Peter Rush did not allow for a man that killed unnecessarily. Perhaps his death was justified in Rush’s eyes: the closest thing to revenge Rush was likely to get. He might like it if Lane fell to his knees and pleaded with Rush not to kill him. Then Rush could stare down at him and feel some sort of power as pulled the spare grams that would trigger the firing pin.
Rush’s hands were so unsteady, Lane wondered where the bullet would hit, in the cheekbone, in the eye socket, maybe even the teeth. There was a chance he could survive. If the bullet didn’t kill him there would be shock that would work against him casting a healing spell, and hypothermia was a consideration as well.
He regretted not keeping to Raen’s habit of having an elemental at hand, but he’d never really found reason to carve time away from the report writing and hands-on work for summoning.
"Pete," Silo said. "Do it and let’s go."
Rush’s lips tightened again, one eye narrowing a little more than the other, a trail of melted snow trickling down his forehead, around his eye socket and along his nose.
"Let’s go," Rush said finally, lowering the gun and wiping at the water on his face. He backed away a couple of steps, motioned for Silo to follow and got in the car.
"Pete!" Silo said it like a curse, going back to the car himself. He opened the door and the small flood of maplight lit him from below, making a long shadow of his nose, and swollen pockets of skin for his eyes. "You want me to take care of him?"
A muffled reply resulted in Silo shooting him with a look and nothing more as he slid back into the Equivica.
When the border patrol stopped them, they would probably keep the car as evidence, if they still tried to cross the border with it. It was the last time he would see the car, but probably not the last time he would see Silo and Peter Rush, if that was the case. The next time, terms would be even less equal between them, because it was true that no one came out of the other side of the Tir government.
He stood, shivering, in the cold interval of morning between true night and daylight with the taillights of the Equivica dwindling in the winter air. He hoped the would try to make it through the Portland gates on his restrictive plates. Maybe they would come back to his hands under conditions which would give him a chance to help Rush find peace, whether Rush wanted it or not.
At least it had stopped snowing.
(c) 2000 Keska. Used with permission.