"Are we there yet?"
Nicole looked over at Marty, puzzlement on her face. "No. We've only just set out. It's still three wheels and a half away."
Marty shook his head. Right. All-World culture gap. "Never mind..."
Only then did Nicole giggle behind one hand.
"Wait - are you playing me?"
"'Tis hard to resist," Nicole said primly, then ducked out of reach. "Stop, thee! My Pa may still see!"
That was a threat that made Marty step back. He looked at the road ahead. It wound down from the cabin, past the barn on the left and the front vegetable plot on the right; up ahead, there was the pond's hill, beyond which was the pond itself, and then the Van Wyk land ended (the line was marked by a 'fence' of large white stones) and their road merged with the road, the one that stretched across the lonely miles (or wheels, if you would) between Hagen's Hill and the next town, a mysterious (to Marty) place called Chrome Town
Today, they were bound for Hagen's Hill. "For," as Nicole had said, "'tis past time thee saw more of the Barony than our little piece of it."
The road rose and fell with the land, which was hillier the farther they went. Along the way, they passed three more farms, one farmer, six goats, twelve cows (huge shaggy beasts called kyloes) and thirty reindeer. These last were roaming along the road in a silent procession, without any human around.
"They know their way," Nicole said, answering Marty's question before he could ask it.
The two stopped to watch the reindeer amble along, unconcerned with any silly human business. Marty noticed that at least one in three of the reindeer had some kind of freak-show quality - extra legs, missing eyes, or the like. "Muties," Nicole said sadly. "But such are fading, at least."
"I thought things were getting worse..."
"Oh, aye," Nicole agreed with a sigh. "But not all things. There was a war, or worse, long ago. Muties, beast or man, are the fruit of it, but they're fading."
Marty nodded. Mutant people?
"Let's speak of better things," Nicole said before Marty could dwell on that much.
"No problem with me," Marty told her. He couldn't think of anything, though, and they walked another few minutes in companionable silence. And then Marty stopped dead in his tracks and wondered if this was what going insane was like.
Up ahead, set a little way back from the road, but not far enough to obscure his sight of it, was a Wal-Mart. A crumbling, barren Wal-Mart, sure, but definitely a Wal-Mart. The sign still stood in front of it, tilted and faded, but unmistakeable. The parking lot was gone wild, but only a few trees grew out of the broken asphalt. One plastic roofed shopping cart corral was still more or less intact. The carts were gone, probably centuries ago.
"Marty? What is it?" Nicole asked, looking from Marty to the ruined Wal-Mart and back. "Tis just the Mart."
"But - just - it's from Earth!" Marty blurted out as he continued to stare, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, at the abandoned interloper from America.
Nicole shook her head. "Nay, 'tis from the Old Ones, them that brought the Great Fire upon All-World. There's nought there now, just empty shelves and such rusting away."
"But..." Marty stared some more, eyes a little glazed now. Is this the future? Earth's future? But no - the stars were different, completely different. If it was Earth, and they'd changed that much, no Wal-Mart would be left. Especially after a world war, maybe a nuclear war. So what then? How could they have Wal-Mart?
"Would thee go inside?" Nicole asked, a trifle nervously. "'Tis said to be haunted," she added, hands clasped together.
Marty shook his head after a second or three. "No. No, it's okay. Never liked the place that much..." When the hell did I get so jaded? It's a freakin' Wal-Mart...
Nicole hastened past the relic Wal-Mart, sticking to the other side of the road, which was widening a little now. Here and there, chipped, uneven stones lay under the snow instead of just pressed-down dirt. How long had they been there? Not long compared to when the Wal-Mart had made its last sale, but long enough, Marty figured.
He hurried to catch up with Nicole. "So... are we there yet?"