By now, the LCL sea had almost faded from view. My plugsuit's soles burrowed into the sand. Heat seeped through the material, whatever it was. Not burning, yet—just discomfort. It would burn soon. No matter. I'd boiled in LCL before.
And the sun still hadn't set. I stole another glance at the sky and wished that I hadn't. It took up most of the sky—a giant mass that seemed to have forgotten its shape, as tongues of fire stuck out from the circumference at odd intervals. Or maybe it only looked that way through the heat haze.
When I'd first awoken on the shore of Rei's sea, I'd run through every winter survival story that Kensuke had ever told me. Then the sun had come up, and for a brief moment I'd allowed myself to hope…until I saw the size of the thing. Out of the freezer and into the frying pan.
Irony's a bitch.
Asuka glanced back at the sea of LCL. We'd already passed its rim.
Not even a "sea" now, I thought. A lake.
I wiped sweat from my brow and realized that I couldn't afford to waste more water. The LCL had tasted foully. It must have been rotting for centuries by the time we'd washed up on shore. I rubbed the back of my neck. It felt warm to my touch, as if it was generating its own heat. So…sunburned.
"What year is it, do you think?" I said.
A glare. Asuka had crossed her arms over her chest despite the heat.
"How should I know?" she snapped.
Unspoken, a voice added: and why should it matter anymore?
We reached the base of another dune and started climbing. Asuka stumbled. I wondered if she'd still carried the wounds from our last battle when she'd reincorporated, but I didn't ask. She still wore the bandages. That was enough for now.
Asuka's voice jolted me from my usual orgy of self-pity. I felt a surge of adrenaline before I knew why, and then I realized its source: Her voice had an edge. See, most emotions I tend to overlook. Fear isn't one of them.
I squinted. Black figures stood at the top of the dune, and the sun hovered at their backs. They looked bulky, as if they were wearing cloaks.
"People, I think," I said.
"Get ready," she said. "We may need to defend ourselves."
Asuka's voice sounded hollow, though. Her arms swung limply at her sides, and her back remained bent. The sand slid under her feet, and she stumbled. I tried to pull her up, and heard a voice from the summit.
Two figures skidded down the dune—black silhouettes throwing up tan clouds. They stopped as soon as they reached us. The movement reminded me of expert skiers.
Each of them took one of Asuka's shoulders, and the bigger one motioned to me to grab Asuka's legs. I did. For the next minute, every muscle in my body screamed as we hauled her up the hill. I collapsed, panting. Asuka didn't move after we set her down; she just stared at the sky. Occasionally, she blinked.
"Thanks…" I said. "Sorry to be a nuisance, but—"
"Shut up, Third," Asuka muttered.
I could see the people clearly now. They stood in a circle around us. They were wearing cloaks—and goggles-and through gaps in the fabric, I made out khaki uniforms with buttons that ran down their right sides and red scarves that reminded me of the Boy Scouts.
One of them pushed through the ranks and knelt beside Asuka. When he pulled his goggles back, I saw the face of a boy our age. Black hair. Faintly Japanese-looking. He resembled Toji except for two things: longer hair, and the way he looked us up and down like potential targets.
I knew that look. Oh, yes.
"Thanks," I said again. "I hope—"
He stood up.
"Later," he said. "For now…Tabool?"
Another figure gave him a lazy salute. Both boys' hands lingered near their waists, and I noticed the daggers near their belts.
"Yeah?" Tabool said. "What?"
"Looks like we found them after all. Take them back to Lady Abelia and make your report."
"Yeah? And what'll you be doing while I'm hiking back to Hellywood?"
"Looking for more arrivals," the leader replied. "Now get going."
People grabbed us—one on each arm, and just firmly enough that we knew what would happen if we struggled. As they led us away, the leader put a hand on my shoulder. I looked back just as he replaced his goggles.
"I'm Nabuca, by the way," he said. "Welcome."
And then we began another long hike.