The walk was quiet. Dark. The rest of the pickers were curling back toward the rotting suburbs, hoping to find a way to Topeka. They startled a raccoon sitting atop an old smart fridge lying down across the trail, the black screen shattered and showing the starry sky. Whatever house it had been dragged out of was hidden in the trees.
At the edge of the dead forest, a truck was waiting. An old van, electric, a big wrap-around cabin plastered over with logos of companies that had withered up and died around the same time as the trees it was parked under.
Most of the stickers had thick neat lines, and the colors, though faded, had once been bold and bright, from an era of marketing and advertising that had exploded out of the g-nets fifty years ago.
Inside was a small dark woman with pitch black freckles and tight, curly hair. Her large nose and tiny mouth reminded Moe of an illustration he had seen of some extinct fish he could not recall.
“Hey, Cassandra.” Moe had taken his look from “wanted man” to “casual acquaintance” since he’d cleared the treeline.
Cassandra was in a jumpsuit of thin khaki cloth, no numbers or patches, sleeves rolled up.
Inside, everything was stained, botanical green, orange, and gold and brown.
“Where are my Cherokee Purples?” She asked. She was reading an ancient magazine, the pages dog eared, the glossy cover faded. “I've got one thousand dollars to your avatar of choice, but you don’t have shit, it seems.”
“Five cases. One hundred pounds. Reinforced, padded, packed, moisture wicked. Cool not cold. Two minutes from here.”
Cassandra looked past Muhammad, to Jesús then looked at the bug-spattered windshield with equal interest. Moe coughed politely to try and cover up the distant noise of sirens.
“Something bad?” She asked.
“Technicalities. Termination.” Jesús said, pulling an old school mini-sd card from a stack. It was wrapped in a rubber band with ‘$1k’ written in sharpie on it.
“Can we sell them somewhere that’s not Kansas?” He asked.
“Fuck it.” Cassandra said, unlocking the door.
They put the tomatoes in the back cooler and fake corporate licenses in place, and by the time they passed the center of town, they could see bright blue lights marking distant roadblocks.
In the dead town square there was a brightly lit cathedral, the only thing not shuttered and dessicated, cones of white light cast onto stone walls being cleaned, scrubbed of acid rain by round robots that climbed above white suited technicians, looking at little blue screens. Row after row of stained glass flickered and glinted in the odd light, and Moe wondered what that dustbowl town had once been.
“I don’t know what kind of church it was.” Jesús said before Moe could ask him. The cones of light started to fade, like the roadblocks and guard towers.
They rolled on through the rotting exoburb, old meaningless signs and collapsing facades falling onto grassy sidewalks. Cassandra drove slowly, meandering around potholes and braking for dirt trenches that had never been filled.
After one last edifice, a metal canopy with flickering lights and broken solar panels where a couple of car chargers and ethanol pumps remained functioning, the road became smooth again, the sun-baked black asphalt mixed with ground glass, creating a glittering path as Cassandra kept her eyes open for darting deer or pigs.
“Good job with the roadblocks.” Jesús said, and after that the electric van was quiet, shocks squeaking a bit on the uneven spots, and nobody spoke until a pair of headlights appeared in the big side mirror, causing Cassandra to swear.
Two cars on the road at night was rare, and tonight - a bad sign.
“Shit, they’re coming up fast.” She said, keeping the van going fifty-five. They grit their teeth. Blue lights in the country night, a nightmare passed down from their grandparent’s grandparents.
But the car - a 40s model with ragged blue fiberglass and rattling composite graphite - zoomed past them without a glance. None of them were particularly good with cars, but the 2040s had seen a brief, weird moment with windshields vanished behind HUDs, leaving cars that looked like a knight’s visor, with just a tiny slit in the front.
The side window was down, though, and Moe thought he recognized the bald black head of one of Doctor Exenoes two man entourage. He was definitely giving them the finger.
“Yeah, well, fuck you too, buddy.” Cassandra sighed. The single red tailight drew a line into the darkness as the car accelerated away, the ethanol engine pinging and humming for a while.
Moe returned to looking out the window, even though he had no idea what he was looking at. He assumed it was tomato fields, and he imagined them, stretching out in semi-circles around deep dug swales, the photo-cloth stretched high to protect them from the incinerating Kansas sky at noon.
He drifted off, the vision of tomato fields swimming in his head with snatches of Doctor Exenoes and Bad Fingers, half-memories of pigbots knocking down doors, of the makeshift exterior of, C-Reddy’s, rising over the collapsing suburb.
A flash of light woke him up, a deep thud in the distance, like heavy machinery moving fast into the dirt.
“What the fuck was THAT?” Cassandra shouted, as the flash, off the road, far ahead, grew into a blinding fireball. It illuminated dead brown ground, an old broken farm.
“Whoa.” Jesús said, sitting up between them. “You know what that looked like, right?”
“An explosion.” Moe said, as the light dimmed to a glowing fire in the distance, casting deep shadows off skeletal trees.
“Think it was an old frack site? Meth lab?” Cassandra asked, slowing down.
“Maybe a lab. I know it wasn’t an oil rig. Me and Moe were in Oklahoma in ‘80, when it burned up.”
“It’s not an oil rig or an ethanol tank. It…” Moe stumbled over his words like he often did when he didn’t want to say what he was about to say.
“It looked like a drone bomb.” Jesús said.
Moe had only ever seen drone bombs in the familiar footage of dusty places, the CGI crosshairs and the sudden black burst of smoke and dirt and shattered cars or homes. His father had caught him watching Drone Wars on a wireless once, when he was 12. He’d been forced to go pick cans for a week. Since then he only saw it when someone else had it on, which was still enough to recognize the source of the low fire spreading across the parched dead farm.
A red flare lit the roadside, illuminating a smashed fence, tire tracks through the dirt, over the top of a brush-covered swale. There were three figures gathered around it.
“Hey, that’s Doc X. Stop the car!” Jesús yelled, slapping the back of Cassandra’s seat.
“I will fucking taze you!” Cassandra shouted at him, tapping the brakes lightly. She looked to Moe for a sign.
“Pull over, Cass.” Moe said. “It’s… someone we know.” He lied.
“They worth it?”
“Yes.” Jesús and Muhammad said at once.
The two men from C-Reddy’s had already moved into defensive positions as Cassandra slowed the electric van.
The two were between the van and Doctor Exenoes, and one kept his eys on a slab of blue light that reminded Moe of one of Jesús’ smartphones.
The other scanned the van slowly, constantly. A gun bigger than any Moe or Jesus had ever seen was at his hip. They were still wearing the navy blue jumpsuits, which blended into the night sky and their dark skin.
Doctor Maria Exenoes was still in her scarves and robes, but her hair was out, tiny streaks of white like static electricity curling through it.
“You two?” The first man asked, stepping toward the van. Muhammad saw the big gun and motioned to Jesús to keep his pistol out of sight. Behind him, Cassandra charged the taser.
“Solomon. These people were nice enough to stop and see if I needed a ride.” Maria said, her voice loud on the prairie. “I do need a ride. And you two have something to deal with.” She looked at the van as the man - who had to be Solomon’s brother - took his eyes off his slab and grasped a crumpled bit of metal off the ground, hefting it up like it was a dead animal.
“I’m going to Austin.” Maria said.
“So are we.” Cassandra replied as Jesús looked at his gun. Behind the door, Muhammad was gripping a crowbar with sweating knuckles.
“Call me on the Austin phone tomorrow night.” She said to the two. Solomon started to say something, but the other man put a hand on his shoulder. Jesús recognized it as the hand that had shoved Bad Fingers to the floor with a flick of the wrist.
“Nobody’s looking for these three.” Maria said, hefting a black duffel and walking to the car. “The electric van will be hard to spot. Whoever this is thinks we’re dead.”
Cassandra still hadn’t opened the door. ”And I’m sure they could use the money.” Maria said.
“I’m gonna ask her about the box.” Jesús said, slipping his gun into the bag again.
“Don’t do that…” Moe whimpered.
“Ride’s not free.” Cassandra said, because everything about Doctor Exenoes screamed ‘money to burn.’
“When I was a little girl, we had a saying. ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Doctor Maria Exenoes, as curious as she was to Jesús and Muhammad, was certainly spouting a familiar line.
“Gideon, put that in the van, we’ll get it checked out in Austin. Now move. Soon there will be blue lights on the horizon.”
The two men stepped back into the brush, waiting on something that Doctor X was not about to elaborate on.
“What are you three out here doing, anyway?”
“Seeing what’s left of America.” Cassandra said in about the exact same tone she’d used when she’d accepted the two into her van.
Doctor X rolled her eyes and shooed Jesús out of his seat.
“Then this piece of shit better be a time machine.”