When Marina finished the latest chapter on the Enlighten, she felt as if she'd awakened from a deep sleep. She had been so engrossed in it that she'd forgotten about everything else. She remembered once more where she was and where she was going.
She looked up at the snow-covered window. "He let her go. I can't believe he let her go."
"Who?" Sato asked.
Marina jumped slightly, taking half a second to remember that she wasn't alone. Shaking off the embarrassment, she answered his question. "My great-grandfather. He went to ask my great-grandmother to come home, and he just let her walk away. I mean," Marina paused, holding the electronic pad up again to re-read the last few words. "I mean, he loved her. Couldn't she see that?"
"Well," Sato began, trying to feel for the right words. "It was a richer time then. People took things for granted because they could. Maybe she…she just didn't feel like she needed that in her life. But things turned out for them in the end, right? You're proof of that."
Marina didn't answer. A few minutes later, Sato brought the cruiser to a stop and turned off the engine.
Marina frowned. "Why did we stop here?"
Sato scowled, as if he had to explain something simple to a child. "Two miles up the highway is a checkpoint. There's no way we can get through there. We're going to have to walk the rest of the way. That agent we dropped off has probably gotten to that callbox by now, which means they're going to be looking for us soon. We'll be harder to detect on foot."
Marina looked at him in disbelief. "Walk? Do you know how far that could be-"
"No, but it would help if you did," Sato interrupted, his irritation right on the surface. "You're the one who needed to come here – well, here we are. But the problem, my dear, is that 'here' is 3 million square miles. So you're going to need to figure out where in that area we need to be."
Marina glared at Sato. She didn't like his tone. After all, he'd practically invited himself on her trip, pretty much taking it over. She didn't beg him for his help; she'd given him a way out several times before they'd gotten there, in fact.
"If we need to walk, then we'll walk," she said through gritted teeth. "I know we need to go north. So let's go north. Can you handle that?"
Sato held out his hand towards the bleak frozen landscape in a mock display of chivalry. "After you, my lady."
Seer took a long, luxurious sip of his merlot, letting it roll around his mouth before swallowing. "Mmm," he reveled. "Good year."
"Last year, you mean," his host, Keiran Blade, corrected. "What you're drinking, Sanders, is one of the final products of all vinification. No vines left. No vines, no wine."
Seer looked at his glass uneasily and put it down on the small glass entertaining table. He hadn't come to talk about this, and now he desperately looked around the elegantly appointed room for something that would distract his attention.
Blade had achieved the level of wealth and power Seer had longed for his entire life. Nothing of value got past him this far up the east coast. No one crossed him and lived. But, if you played by his rules, he could make all your dreams come true. That much about him was known to everyone who played the game.
What wasn't widely known was that Keiran Blade had been born Kristina Bozman in the early twenty second century. Always having lush but androgynous features, Blade easily made the change to a man – because he quickly found that in a post-apocalyptic world, one of the few advantages women had were their bodies. Feminism essentially went out the door when resources were scarce. If he wanted to be taken seriously, he needed to be Keiran, not Kristina.
Blade's blue eyes burned like a cold flame in his sleek, dark head as he smoked a clove cigarette. "So tell me about this special item you have for me."
Without thinking, Seer leaned forward in excitement to recount what he'd seen. "I couldn't believe it when I saw her. She looks like nothing but a little girl, but what she can do…ohhh…you have to see it."
Blade rolled his eyes and put out his cigarette in his crystal ashtray. "You've wasted my time. I don't lack for anything, least of which is company."
"No, no! Not that. She can heal herself. I saw it."
Blade was about to walk away until he heard this. Instantly he sat down and barked at his servants to leave them. When they were gone, he leaned toward Seer, almost menacingly. "What does she look like?"
"Blond hair, clear blue eyes. Petite. Batshit crazy."
The rich man smiled, and if Seer didn't know for sure this man was such a hardcase, he would have sworn a tear had come to his eye. "She's been found. It's been nearly thirty years, and she's found." He now looked Seer up and down in an unabashedly cruel way. "I've been looking for her for my entire adult life, using countless resources, and the best trackers money can buy. And a no-name, illiterate fisherman in his rusty trawl brings her in. I guess this just proves that the universe has one sick sense of humor."
Seer willed himself not to break eye contact with him. He wasn't going to show any shame for being who he was. Yes, he was a fisherman, running his grandfather's business and not his own. His grandfather wasn't filthy rich like this pillock Seer was dealing with, but he was a good, strong man, and out of all the people in the entire world, this Claire Bennett, this amazing creature, came to Idar Sanders for help. It was the first time Seer felt a glimmer of guilt for what he'd done.
When Seer refused to back down, Blade gave what he would consider a gracious chuckle and said, "You will, of course, be well compensated for your find. Do you know who Claire Bennett is?"
"I know enough."
"Hm. Well, whatever you know, you don't know the half of it. Claire Bennett and her husband were quite the 'rock stars' in their day. It's a shame what happened to them."
"What did happen to them?" Seer was genuinely interested, having heard from two people now about Claire Bennett's personal tragedy.
"I don't know the whole story, but there's always been an urban legend that her husband killed himself – had himself ground into a powder – and tricked Claire Bennett into drinking him. Utter nonsense, of course. In any case, they were both quite powerful at one time. If this girl is the lost icon, I've got some great plans for her." Blade gave a sad chuckle. "I might as well enjoy her gifts while I can."
"What do you mean, 'while you can'?"
Blade flicked his shining eyes to meet Seer's bafflement. "Really? You can't be that ignorant. The world is an ice-encrusted carcass. The world's foremost scientists have no way to warm the planet. In 2126, there were 3 billion people on the planet. Now there's about 1 million left, and I'm being generous. It's only a matter of time, Sanders."
Seer felt ill. He'd never actually considered that the earth was dying. He knew it wouldn't last, obviously, but he just assumed that it nothing major would happen until after he was dead.
If his grandfather were here, he'd say it was the folly of the young people, who had never seen – or could barely remember - what the world used to be like before the storms inexplicably hit all the major countries of the world: how warm and green it used to be. How the oceans moved and caught the rays of the sun, so it shined like a thousand diamonds.
Young people didn't realize that the world was dying, because they just got used to it being that way. Older people like Seer's grandfather realized it, and something else: there was malice to the crisis, there was a hatred and an anger to the storms. It felt wrathful, like something out of the bible.
People felt it as they watched the brutal blizzards ravage cities and bury everything in snow and ice. This was no naturally occurring phenomena, despite a lack of scientific proof. There appeared to be a pattern to how certain places in the world were hit and others were mostly spared. Canada, for example, became drastically colder but remained mostly intact, while its southern sister-nation the United States was virtually decimated, leaving only about 10% of the county habitable.
Fortunately for Seer, his mood automatically lightened when Blade's messenger arrived at that moment to announce that a large red crate had arrived, stamped with a Port of Florida seal.
"Excellent!" Blade bellowed, slapping Seer on the back as if he were his dearest friend. "Come, let's take a look!"
Seer could feel his heart racing as Blade's men fiddled with the locking clamps on the crate. He began to imagine again the large house he'd buy in the Caribbean, the gorgeous men he'd fill with it. So what if men like Keiran Blade thought everything was ending? They obviously weren't smart enough to put their resources into self-preservation. Everything could go to hell around him, but Seer would be fine, he knew. He was sure there was nothing , absolutely nothing, that couldn't be bought – even more time.
Blade insisted on being the first to peer into the crate once the clamps were removed. Seer watched the rich man's back as he peered in. Seer expected some sort of utterance of triumph from Keiran, but there was nothing. It was silence. Blade straightened himself, his back still turned, then motioned one of his men over and quietly told him something.
The man nodded, then, without warning, he lunged at Seer and punched him in the gut.
Seer fell backwards onto the ground, the wind literally knocked out of him. "What the hell…what was that for?" he gasped.
"Pick this two-faced motherfucker off the ground and show him what that was for!" Blade roared at his minions, his back still turned.
Seer was picked up bodily off of the spot and carried to the crate, where they practically shoved his head into the metal and wood enclosure.
He gasped when he looked in, then fought the two men off long enough so he could turn his head and retch in horror.
Inside the crate lay the body of his lover, the Port of Florida officer Michel. He'd been stripped nude and his skin had a sickening ash color to it. His eyes were still open, in an expression of absolute horror and agony. He probably suffered right up to his last breath.
"Oh ga-awd! Oh ga-awd!" Seer screamed, now leaning against the men who held him as his legs couldn't hold him up.
"Get your shit together, man!" Blade snapped as his men turned Seer around to see their boss.
"I-I don't know what happened! She was in there, I paid that man lying in there myself to have her brought here! Someone got to him…oh gawd…" Seer blubbered.
Blade rolled his eyes and pointed to one of his men. "Amistad, get a fully armored cruiser and provisions together. You're leaving in an hour."
"What are you talking about?" Seer asked as the two men released him.
The rich man smiled. "I'm giving you all you need to find Claire Bennett's body and bring her back to me. Someone has my property, and I want it returned."
"But I…I don't know where to look."
Keiran Blade laid a comforting hand on Seer's shoulder. "You will, don't worry. Your life depends on it, my friend."
Releasing the terrified fisherman from his hold, Blade calmly walked back to the crate. Peering in thoughtfully, he put out a tentative finger and touched the cheek of the dead man. Instantly the body turned to ash.
"Hmm," he mused. "Someone does excellent work."
The snow was getting deeper as they walked. No longer piles, or hills, the frozen snow now formed impenetrable walls that seemed to mock Marina as she legs struggled to carry her through. The snow had even stopped by that time of day, but the stray flakes still swirled through the air, sticking to warm flesh and making it difficult to see.
She thought she knew the cold. She believed that she'd become hardened to it, to its quick, slippery, penetrating nature, having lived in it for years. But the coldness in this country – the country that she'd been born in and her ancestors had been born in – it was different from anywhere else. It felt different somehow. Fierce, and malicious.
There was no sound around her; it was like walking in nothingness. But she knew Sato was there, that he was struggling with his steps through the intractable snow and that he was cold too. And that gave her a small sense of comfort. There was a grey form lying across the white shelf of snow, floating, drifting sadly. Then soon came another grey ghost, following the other, slightly larger, doing the same sad slow dance. It took Marina a few seconds to realize she was looking at hers and Sato's shadows on the snow. He was following her, relying on her to know where they were going.
Marina's legs were moving; of that she was fairly sure. But it still felt like she was standing still, as mile after mile looked exactly the same. America was a place lacking hope.
Marina missed Claire, more than she thought it was possible. There were days when she wanted nothing more than to be rid of the mad woman-child she'd been saddled with. But now, suffering in this frozen, abandoned desert, there was nothing she wanted more than her.
Marina's mind cried out to the old woman: Claire. Why did you bring me here? Why did you leave me to suffer? I took care of you all these years. Why couldn't you be good to me too?
Then there was a sharp blow, as if Marina had been hit in the back of the head. She was blinded for a moment, paralyzed as well. And then she could see. She was with Claire, seeing her struggle through the snow just like she was, the snow sticking to her small, deceptively frail-looking body. But she was seeing through her eyes too.
It took Marina a moment to realize she wasn't cold. She wasn't cold, because it was summertime in Claire's mind.
A bead of sweat formed on her perfect peach forehead, formed from the heat generated by the blazing June sun and the seemingly endless lines of computers in the clean white lab. It trickled from her yellow hairline, moving down, down…threatening to drop onto the precipice of her nose.
A hand swept by and caught the bead, fingers pinching the salty water together, rubbing it into the ridges of his fingers until it evaporated.
Claire didn't flinch; he didn't make her flinch anymore. Overall she was glad about this, but there was a part of her that bizarrely missed it. It wasn't because she liked being afraid of him. It was because her retracting to him meant that she believed in his power, that there were limitless possibilities to what he could do and be.
Now she knew him, knew his fears and weaknesses. She knew there were limitations to his power, and she knew that he could be hurt.
"I have to do it, Babe," he said. "I won't risk anyone else's life."
"You can't!" she told him. "They don't know for sure if the machine works!"
Another man in a labcoat came up to them. "The machine is ready. Are you going, General Bennett?"
"No," Gabriel answered for her. "I am."
Then there was the machine looming over them, tall and black and gleaming. The massive doors slid open like the hungry jaws on some ferocious beast, waiting to take warm, live flesh inside of it.
Not taking his eyes off of the machine, he began to walk toward it. Claire held his arm back. "There has to be another way. Just-just give me some time. We'll find another way."
Gabriel looked at the behemoth standing before them, then back at Claire. "There is no more time, Babe. Only the time this machine can give us." He took her in his arms. "I left something for Roselyn. Make sure she gets it."
Claire frowned. "What-"
He ran his fingers over the curves of her face, as if trying to remember her. "You'll understand soon. I promise."
"We need to get started, General!" one of the doctors called to them, clearly embarrassed to be watching the scene before him.
Before she could answer him, she felt Gabriel's warm, familiar mouth capture hers. He pushed her to him, his fingers reaching beneath her the shirt of her uniform to press into her flesh. She felt something flowing into her, burning and sharp, like electricity. Claire tried to pull away from him, but he was too strong. He was giving her something, and it was changing her. It was filling her mind, stretching it almost. She felt like she was going to burn, to explode into a million pieces…
And then it was bitterly cold again. And dark. It was a struggle to open her eyes.
"Marina!" There was that sound again, of a voice calling her name.
She was stuffed into something. It was soft, but unyielding. She couldn't move, couldn't even lift her head. More sound came to her, the distant sound of cruisers and shouting voices.
As her eyes finally began to focus, she saw the cloudy night sky above her and a wall of snow in her periphery. She was lying face up on the ground. Just as she managed to pry her arm free from her powdery prison, a hand grabbed hers and brutally pulled at her, raising her from the snow.
Marina could just barely make out Sato's frustrated and panicked face in the dim moonlight. "They've found us," he told her simply. "Come on!"
Marina and Sato ran, but the shin-high snow taunted them at every frantic stride they made. They buckled at its height and weight, using their hands now too to try to push the heavy piles away from them. Several hundred yards away, they could hear the feds cutting smoothly through the snow, closing in on them at a frightening pace.
Even in the panic of being caught, even as she felt the lights of the cruisers begin to shine on their backs, Marina's thoughts still turned to the vision she'd just had. Had it been real? Had that truly happened to Claire at one time? How did Marina manage to see her great-grandmother's memories? And that man – the tall dark man with the fierce love in his eyes who'd argued with Claire – had that been her great-grandfather? What was happening to her?
A shrill, whistling sort of noise, followed by a deep thud, raised Marina out of her thoughts. Dragging her feet desperately through the snow, she called out to Sato, "They're getting close." She squinted upwards, to a chain of rock formations. "If we can get to those caves, we might be okay."
Sato didn't answer her. Slowly coming to a stop, she turned and looked behind her. He wasn't there. Limping a few feet back, she peered into a mound a snow that had been flattened down and realized it was Sato. He'd been shot with something and now lay as still as if he were dead.
"Sato!" Marina cried out hoarsely, barely able to speak from fatigue and the cold. Even though she knew their attackers were just yards away, and her strength was about to fail her, she had to try to keep going. With her remaining strength she drove her hands into the bed of snow and grasped her companion under the arms, knees trembling as she fought to raise him from the snow.
Marina had finally gotten him vertical and out of the snowbed, but now had to struggle to stay upright herself as the unconscious man's dead weight threatened to bring her down. She dragged Sato's body with her as she stumbled the next few feet. She knew they were shouting to her on their speakers, knew they had the lights shining blindingly bright in her face, knew they had all their guns trained on her, but she wasn't going to stop. Not until she couldn't walk anymore.
Marina turned her head just slightly to see Sato's strangely calm, sleeping face sag against her neck. "Sato, please," she begged. "Please wake up. I need you!" she felt her chest begin to spasm uncontrollably and her eyes being to get wet – a strange feeling she hadn't had in years. "I don't know what to do."
Finally, after this admittance, one of the snipers from the U.S. government took perfect aim at her and fired a dart into her neck, bringing her futile escape to an end.
It was a slow motion fall. She was falling, flying backwards into the snow, bringing Sato down with her. The last thing she could feel was the cold of the snow on her back and the warmth of his body on her chest. Her eyelids brought themselves down like curtains falling on the end of a show, and then there was blackness, only blackness.