Gant lived on a quiet little side street amid the bustle and noise of the town. His new motorcycle's light sliced through the gathering darkness just after sunset. He dismounted wearily and quickly wrapped a chain around the bike. He'd paid a high price and didn't want anybody stealing it. His bowed back straightened immediately when the children rushed out to meet him.
They surrounded him in a happy, cheering, squeaking little ring and hobbled his legs as he walked carefully to the door. The big man chuckled loudly and roared his joy as he pulled one of the noisier girls from about his leg and lifted her up into the sky. She giggled and squealed.
Soon the mass of humanity wobbled its way into the door, which was set in a building built atop an older structure and under a newer in an oppressive, ugly hodgepodge. They left the motorcycle behind.
The bike waited with infinite patience in the darkness. Its motor clicked as it cooled, but that sound grew less frequent in the waning light until silence and lonely darkness completely enfolded it.
"Hellooo?" A child's musical voice said from the night.
"I know you can hear us," a silky, refined female voice added. Two figures emerged from the darkness but remained indistinct against the shadows.
After an interval, the motorcycle answered. "You're talking to me?"
"There's nobody else here."
"That's my line."
The two figures approached. One was a tall female, the other shorter and childlike. The tall one said, "Little vehicle, may we ask, which one are you?"
"Oh!" The smaller figure abruptly tensed, and drew back shyly behind the taller.
The tall woman curtsied to the chained motorcycle. "Hermes, I am certain you would not know us. We're minor local figures and not of your magnitude."
Her odd eyes flashed scarlet as she removed her chapeau, revealing be-furred canine ears. The shorter figure bore the curved black horns of a ram and hid behind the woman's long bushy tail.
"Haauuu...." the goat-child murmured meekly.
"A pleasure to meet you both, I'm sure," Hermes answered.
"May we be of service to you? I couldn't help but notice that you're chained...." the woman offered.
"Oh, I'm fine. But I've been separated from my rider. It's a big nuisance. She was coming along so well."
"Aha!" the wolf-woman said. "Yes, I've seen her. She had your smell all over her, begging your pardon."
"Just so." She nodded. "That's why we set out to find you."
"Upset, but otherwise perfectly well."
"Ah! I'm glad to hear it. Kino's smart, so I'm sure she'll find me soon."
The woman nodded, looking a little disappointed. "Is there anything more we might do for you?"
"I'm very grateful for the news," Hermes answered. "If you'd watch over her, just to ensure she does find her way to me, I'd appreciate that."
She immediately brightened, her furry ears perking straight up. "Certainly. Leave it to us."
"We'll be very sneaky," the child added.
"Thank you very much."
"We'll go see to it. Come along, little one." She took the child's hand and turned to leave, her magnificent tail swishing with a final flourish.
"Uhm... uhm... It was nice meeting you," the child with the ram's horns said with her gentle, melodical voice.
"And you," Hermes answered.
And with this exchange of pleasantries, the unusual pair vanished into the shadows, leaving Hermes to the darkness and the silence.
"We're not going anywhere?" Hermes squawked.
Her name was Kino. Just Kino. She'd left any other name behind with her family, and for exceedingly good reasons. She usually wore a khaki canvas trench coat and dark gray leathers. She was often mistaken for a boy, and that suited Kino just fine.
As Kino was a seasoned traveler she was accustomed to taking all sorts of things for granted, for she'd seen people who lived in gleaming domes and people who lived in mud huts. She'd be quick to tell anyone who asked that technology did not mean moral or social elevation. She'd encountered many horrid perversions of technology and she'd spent rich, fulfilling months living among seeming primitives.
But as she took so much for granted, she'd never inquired too deeply about her traveling companion. Hermes was a silver and chrome Brough Superior motorbike. Hermes talked, and she'd never asked how or why. Long past time to fix that, Kino thought.
"You saw what happened, Hermes." Kino said. "I spun the stick and it pointed right at me."
Spinning the stick was an old custom of theirs. Sometimes in their travels there was simply no way to know which way to go. One day, rather than bicker any longer, Kino just spun a stick around and let it choose their heading.
Hermes' voice woke Kino up before dawn, as usual. Kino got out of her sleeping bag, straightened her clothes, tended to morning ablutions and to some simple calisthenics to get her blood pumping. She'd actually reached to her belt to practice her quick draw when she remembered her weapons were gone. That woke her up fully, and the memories of recent events settled about her like a weight.
Gotta buy guns -- another item on my to-do list.
She'd spun the stick, and it pointed right back at her. That was as certain an omen as she could ask for.
"Well, we can't go back the way we came, if that's what you mean." Hermes said patiently. "All that's back there is that little seaside village, barely more than a deh-pot. And just the ocean past that."
"It's pronounced 'deh-poe'," Kino corrected. She set about starting a small campfire to boil water for some coffee. "And you're right."
They'd landed from a ship yesterday and traveled away from the village for an hour until the sun set. Hermes had spent long weeks trapped in the hold of the Moirae while Kino slaved in the galley to pay their way.
"You'd think after all this time, you'd want to ride me." Hermes sounded a little affronted. "You know, we haven't gone riding regularly in months."
"Also true," And in consideration for Hermes' feelings Kino said, "Hermes, riding you away from that ship was one of the most satisfying moments in my life. I'll never forget it. When I thought I'd never see you again my heart broke."
"Oh," Hermes said. He put a lot of feeling into that simple syllable too, for his companion was rarely so candid. "I'm glad we didn't lose each other, Kino."
"Anyway, so much has happened and we didn't get the chance to see each other on the ship, so I want to follow the stick's advice and just sit and talk."
"We talk all the time on the road," Hermes protested.
"It's not just you I need to talk to." Kino had finished preparing her coffee, so she put out the fire and sat back against a tree facing her bike, crossed her legs and made herself comfortable.
"I need to get my own head on straight. I've been through so much recently, I just want – nothing! – to happen today. The weather's nice, this is a pretty campsite, and I want to take it easy, share some stories and think things through. And I want to celebrate our reunion by giving you my undivided attention for a day." Kino raised her cup to Hermes.
"Well, when you put it that way..." Hermes said warmly.
"Tell me what happened to you after we were separated?"
"Those raiders snared you in that net," Hermes began.
Kino nodded. The Warriors of Koth Shem. She fought to keep a pained expression off her face. Her self control had been slipping badly of late. Another good reason to spend a day sitting quietly and meditating.
"I got locked onto one of their bikes. They had to pry us apart with a crowbar. You can still see the scratches all over." Hermes' voice revealed his mildly affronted dignity.
Kino nodded. "I know every ding and dint on you like I know every mole and scar on me. While I'm thinking about it -- racing around on that mountain road was incredible fun!"
"It was, right up until my fork got busted and they hit you with that net. So let's not do that again anytime soon."
"Agreed. Anyway, they pried you loose..."
"And piled me into a truck, and next thing I knew I was being sold off in that town you found me in. You met Mr. Gant. He had a nice family and we delivered packages all day."
"I wish I was better at telling stories."
"You didn't feel anything?"
"Oooh!" Hermes caught on; she wanted the same candor. "I was worried about you, Kino. Those raiders did not look like nice people at all, and those tribal folk called them slavers. And since I had no idea where I was, I seriously doubted you'd ever find me again even if you escaped. It was awful but I thought that was the end for us."
"I thought it was too," Kino answered. Good, good. Your voice sounded even and your face's neutral. This is good practice. Get your poker face back.
"So I was very happy to see you again. I wasn't that surprised, though. You're clever. And you hugged me, didn't you?"
"I did, and I meant it. You may be mechanical but you're my best friend. I'm sorry I've never taken the time to say that before."
"Then I'm glad we stopped for a day."
"I need to talk about what happened to me."
"Please!" Hermes said.
Kino and Hermes sat alone on a hilltop surrounded by trees and she told her story, about Koth Shem and Chai-dan, about the strange mixture of respect and resentment dame Corina inspired in her. Kino didn't merely summarize events; she talked about the changes they had wrought upon her.
"So was it worth it? Would you do it again?" The sunlight glinted off Hermes' chrome and headlight, a familiar and infinitely comforting sight for his rider.
"Oh, don't ask me that, Hermes! The thought of going through something like that again...."
"You look different. It'll take some getting used to."
Kino laughed. She'd been treated more like a beast of burden than a human. Unfamiliar new small muscles rippled under tight skin. Her normally shaggy hair had been cropped short, though it had grown back nicely aboard the Moirae.
"I won't feel like myself until I replace my weapons." Kino's face sagged a little. "At least I still have my souvenirs -- my photos and Sakara's seeds and Kana's feather. Little valueless perfect things... completely irreplaceable!"
"You look different. Do you feel different?"
Kino nodded. "I have a lot more energy than before. I don't seem to get tired at all. And my whole body feels strange to me. My skin's rubbing against itself in new places. I feel... heavy. I have a washboard too; that's new. You like it?"
"You look mean and rough now. If I didn't know you I'd be scared of you."
Kino grunted an agreement.
"So it did you some good?"
"That's really reaching for the proverbial silver lining. Master taught me all I need to survive."
"But you got caught anyway."
"I made a sacrifice, Hermes. If the tribe hadn't been there, you and I would never have gotten near enough to get caught."
"Is it okay for me to say I felt really proud of you that day?"
Kino smiled. "Thanks for saying it."
"But was it worth it?" Hermes repeated.
"I survived, and I didn't expect to. And I got you back. In the same situation I'd do that again. So... yes. It was worth it. Ever since that weird place, Guri," and Kino's ashen gray eyes misted as they always did whenever she thought about that precious, vanishing land, "I just couldn't bear to be so isolated and remote anymore. Looking back on it, I was turning into a hermit."
"Kino, people have started religions over less than what we saw. I'd worry about you if it didn't affect you. So that's why you settled down, right?"
Kino nodded. "It was only a passing thing."
"Everything is. Even travelling."
"Hermes," Kino said a little sharply. "I promise: this time tomorrow we'll be humming along like always."
"I'm glad you bounce back, Kino. You've had a rough time. But tell me the truth. You are getting a little tired of traveling, aren't you? The newness has faded and it seems like more and more we're seeing the same old places. Like that place with the ivy."
"Ugh! Don't remind me. Sometimes the bad places are the most interesting... but not that one."
"Yeah," Kino finally admitted. "It is getting a little old, but not enough for me to want to do something else."
"That's okay," Hermes said, and she could hear he meant it. "Just tell me when you're done traveling."
"Then what happens?"
"Then we reach our destination."
"Now you're being cryptic." Kino's eyes narrowed. "I thought we were gonna be honest with each other."
"I mean it. My purpose is to take people where they need to go. What else is a motorbike for?"
"Which brings us to your promise back in the hold. You agreed to tell me your story. You dropped little hints about being 'reforged' and having lots of other riders."
"Kino, I'd need a lot more than a day to tell my story. Besides, you wouldn't believe me anyway."
"I've seen talking machines before, but you're not just some automaton. Are you an artificial intelligence?"
"No, though I'm often confused for one, just like you're confused with a boy. Neither of us is quite what we seem."
"What are you, Hermes?"
"You're supposed to be 'getting your head back on straight' and this won't help at all. You're sure you want to talk about it?"
"C'mon Hermes, you're teasing me now. Spill it already."
Kino cocked an eyebrow in disapproval.
"Told you'" Hermes said.
Oh wait... he doesn't mean...!
"The Hermes? The deity? Messenger of the gods? The guy with the helmet and wings on his feet?"
"That's a pretty silly likeness, huh?"
Kino laid back and chewed on this idea for a while.
"Huh! So if you're a god—"
"I don't do tricks; don't ask." And the disgust in his voice made Kino giggle.
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"You don't. For that matter, how do you know I'm not just a voice in your head? You heard me the first time after a very upsetting moment. Maybe you went nuts back then."
"Rejected," Kino said with a smirk. "I'm not that nuts. And other people hear you too."
"Anyway, that's my answer and I'm sticking with it."
"Okay, so either my bike's delusional or I am, or...." Kino threw up her hands helplessly. "Alright. I've seen enough weird stuff by now to accept that."
"That's good. Makes things easier. So there're always questions now."
"I'm not the first person you've told this to?"
"Not even close."
"Shintai," Kino muttered.
"Something I read about. In certain faiths a god's spirit can live inside an inanimate object."
"Consider me duly impressed, Kino."
"Naturally the patron god of travelers chooses a motorbike. So why me? Why the interest in me? If you are Hermes, you arranged getting found in that junkheap next to my house."
"That was a happy accident, but there're always plenty of happy accidents, like that minor goddess you met back in Chai-dan?"
"You didn't realize...? Kino, she was about to enter your life for the same reasons I did: you're ready to go on a journey—"
"Wait... that strange woman in the apple cart? Who was she? Demeter?"
"No, but that's a good guess. Anyway, that's not the important question."
"What's important is why... entities like you are entering my life." Kino considered. "There's nothing special about me... is there?"
"How to explain... aha! Kino, are you finished with your coffee?"
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Then you should wash your cup and put it away," Hermes proclaimed proudly.
Kino blinked. "Okay, what am I missing here?"
"Are you done traveling?"
"That's fine. Then let's enjoy the trip together until you've had enough. Don't worry if you're doing it right and don't stop. You're a traveler; that's your job. If I stopped doing my job... why, the whole world would stop working!"
"I see... I think."
"Kino, I'm glad you've learned to let yourself care about people again. But you still keep a certain distance from the people you meet, especially the ones who wanna tie you down. We are, as you say, just passing through. But most travelers like us, Kino, like to travel in groups. I was curious if you'd like life on that big ship. But that's not for you, is it?"
"No, for all sorts of reasons."
"Yup. You don't fit on a big ship; a canoe's best for you, or a motorcycle. That's why I'm here. While you have a lot of good qualities you're just not a people person. Some people don't belong in big vehicles and that's fine."
Kino nodded and accepted the assessment. "And you, Hermes, you are certifiably devious. All these years you played the naif and let me go right on assuming you were a robot, like those mechanical dolls we encountered. You're telling me the truth now because...?"
"You finally asked? Kidding! Because I know what you did to get me back. And I took steps to see you'd succeed because I missed you too. It looks like we belong together."
"Looks like," Kino smiled. "So what happens when I'm done? What's the 'destination?'"
"Want me to show you? It's a lot easier."
Kino sat up and nodded.
Then, at that moment, on that hilltop, Thoth-Hermes-Krishna Trismegistus revealed himself to his charioteer in all his thousand wondrous forms.
It's only a passing thing.
"Good morning, Kino".
Hermes' voice sang out to wake Kino up before dawn, as usual. Kino got out of her sleeping bag, straightened her clothes, tended to morning ablutions and to some simple calisthenics to get her blood pumping. She'd actually reached to her belt to practice her quick draw when she remembered her weapons were gone.
"Well, we better go earn some money. No way I'm traipsing about unarmed any longer than I must."
Kino started packing up the camp, but she stopped and looked confused.
"I don't remember unpacking so much. This is like what I do when we've been camping for a while."
After a moment, Kino shrugged and finished packing her things.
"Where are we going, Kino?"
Kino smiled, picked up a stick and spun it. It pointed off to the east. For a second she hesitated.
"Kino, you sure you're alright?"
"I just feel like... a little deja vu? Maybe I need to have some coffee or something."
"Sounds like you were dreaming. I think you've had enough coffee for a while. Let's get going."
So Kino smiled, mounted Hermes and pointed his front wheel toward the east.
"That's what travelers are s'posed to do," she said as she kick-started the engine.