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Techlands Unlikely Future

The Storm

It was not exactly raining or snowing or sleeting: all of those terms imply vertical movement, and the actual weather consisted largely of slush moving horizontally. The 4-by-4 moved slower and slower as its headlights and searchlight revealed less and less that was not flying slush and its wheels began to spin and grip erratically in the gluey mud ruts that passed for a highway.

When the metal detector pinged, they stopped in the lee of some low ruins that might have been built — and destroyed — any time in the past 5000 years. One of the three gunmen riding in the back scraped the accumulated slush from the searchlight while the most junior one jumped down into the ankle-deep slime to clear the headlights and the ice that was building at the ends of the windshield wiper arcs. He sloshed closer to the short stretch of wall that was visible in the lights, squinting through goggles that were coated in wind-driven ice almost faster than he could wipe them clean, then cursed and returned to the truck.

The passenger side window opened a crack and a creaky voice demanded, "well?" in Istanbuli Turkish.

"The damned wall is full of rebar, sir", the gunman answered as he tried to scrape some of the mud from his boots. "That's what set off the scanner." His accent spoke of a home well to the east of the City.

The passenger's reply turned into a yelp and a sputtering cough as a sudden gust drove some of the flying slush into the cab. "Is there any sign at all that anyone came this way?" he asked finally.

"No, sir. No sign of a vehicle. And a man on foot couldn't reach anywhere useful along this road." He waved vaguely along the way they had been going.

"Very well. The other teams must have missed him. What a nuisance. Let's get this truck turned around, and get back to the inn before this storm gets any worse."

Stopping had been a bad idea: the truck's wheels had sunk deep into the slushy mud. All three gunmen jumped down to try to push it out, but managed only to become well-spattered with mud from the spinning wheels. Finally, the driver-side door of the truck opened and the driver got out, wincing as the icy wind struck him, while the passenger slid over into the driver's seat. With all three gunmen and the driver pushing and the passenger handling the clutch and brakes, they eventually managed to get the truck turned around, but it took several tries and a great deal of cursing to do it.

Visibility had deteriorated during the brief halt, so the truck retreated even more slowly than it had arrived.

On the windward side of the ruin, tucked into a corner that almost offered protection from the wind, a boy and a small mule lay huddled together under some blankets and a tarp. The wind blew away most of the sound of the engine and voices, but the pair listened tensely to the fragments of sound that reached them as the truck arrived, paused, and then eventually went away. The mule's long ears remained pricked and alert long after the boy could hear nothing but the wind.

The mule was shivering when he finally tucked his head back under the tarp. The boy slid a hand into ones of the packs that helped to barricade them against the storm, pulled out a handful of dried apricots and offered them to the mule. Then he nibbled on a couple himself.

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Copyright © Elyse M. Grasso 2006