Jack smiled as one of the smudges on the horizon resolved itself into a recognizable dome shape. It wasn't much to see - just a lump in the distance that was rounder and smoother than the others, something that could only be distinguished from the rest of the rocky hills around it because it was too perfectly shaped to be natural. It was the same color as everything else around it: dun and brown and brick-red, the colors of sand and rock dust. Still, Jack was glad to see it. Seeing it meant that he was close to a hot bath, a good meal, a soft bed, and water that didn't taste like warm metal. It was as close to home as he would ever get.
He put on some speed, and his cycle leapt forward as if it, too, was looking forward to reaching the safety of a colony. It probably would have been, if it had a mind to do it with. Jack had been driving for several days with little rest. He hadn't slept in nearly twenty-four hours, and his gas tank was nearly empty. Once he reached the colony, he could refuel his machine as well as himself, and get the whole thing tuned up for the next run. The thought of his cycle having an opinion made him shake his head; he really needed to get off the road and get some sleep.
Within fifteen minutes, he had covered the last stretch of dusty ground and had reached one of the colony's air locks, a ten-by-ten foot metal door. There was a keypad with a slot in it tucked into a niche next to the door, protected from the blasting sands by a metal cover, and he opened it and fed his credential card to it. A moment later, it spat the card out again and flashed a green light at him, and the doors whooshed open.
The first airlock chamber was nothing much to look at, but then, it didn't need to be. It was merely an empty metal room, bare save for a few one-way tinted windows through which the security staff could confirm that Jack had not brought any vagabonds or monsters with him when he came in, and that he was who his ID said he was and not a highwayman who had stolen his card. The confirmation took only seconds, and then the next set of doors opened so that Jack could wheel his way into the reception hall. A guard stood near the door, smiling.
"Good to see you again, Jack," he said.
"It will be even better to be here once I've dropped this lot off," said Jack. He parked his cycle and began unloading the saddlebags. The guards watched, interested, but no one dared to offer him a hand. His job was a sacred trust, and no one would touch the things he carried until he'd deposited them in the proper mail boxes to be delivered.
Many years ago, things had been different. The world had been lush and green, and people had lived without fear outside the protective domes of the colonies. Then the first spiritstorm had hit, and everything changed. The storms had brought the monsters, and with the monsters and the storms came the droughts. Most of humanity had died in those first chaotic days, but the survivors had built shelters, and the shelters had attracted refugees and had expanded to make room for them, and out of those shelters the colonies had emerged. Now the last vestiges of humanity lived underneath protective domes, where the sun was only a projection on the ceiling and plants grew only in carefully cultivated plots or separate agricultural domes. Outside the colonies, there was only dust and rock, and only the monsters could survive.
But humanity was adaptable. Life went on, and the colonies gradually developed trade agreements and alliances with other colonies. Even if they hadn't, humans were naturally gregarious creatures, and liked to hear from people in distant parts from time to time. The problem was that most routes of communication had broken down. A limited degree of radio broadcasting was still possible, but if you wanted private communication, there was nothing for it but to write a letter and get someone to deliver it.
Enter the couriers: brave, hardy, and possibly unbalanced souls who dared to race across the ravaged land on high-speed delivery cycles, carrying gifts, letters, and verbal messages to whomever they were hired to deliver things to. A good, reliable courier who could make deliveries on time and be trusted not to read your sensitive documents was worth his weight in gold, and Jack was considered the all-around best. When you gave him a letter, you knew it would be delivered, and it would get there sooner than it would with anyone else. Jack was justifiably proud of his skill. In this world, the heroes were the soundhouse keepers, the tanker drivers, the Death's Angels, and the couriers.
Once he had emptied his shipping compartments of everything they carried, he handed his cycle over to the waiting attendants. They would wheel it away to a garage somewhere; it would be returned to him tomorrow, fully fueled, oiled, tuned, and polished. With that taken care of, he had no more worries but to enjoy himself as much as he could before he left the city.
A final door slid open in front of him, and he stepped out onto a narrow street. It had to be narrow; space was always at a premium in the colonies, and buildings were pushed as close together as possible to make room for everything that needed to fit in the dome. There were no cycles inside the city; everyone got around on foot or on the kind of wheeled devices that relied only on the passenger's muscles to make them move. There was no room for grass here, but every window had a small plant box hanging beneath it, growing flowers and herbs that helped to both allay the sense of being walled in and to freshen the air. Still, Jack couldn't help but feel cramped. One of the reasons he had become a courier was that even if he had to dodge monsters and spiritstorms, at least he could go out into the open once in a while.
He followed a familiar path, walking swiftly through crowds of people who parted ahead of him and gave him wondering looks as he passed by. Why not? The arrival of a courier was always good news, and his exploits had made him moderately famous. When he arrived at the colony's wayhouse, the receptionist greeted him with a glad smile.
"Mr. Atlas, it's good to see you again," she said. "Your usual room?"
"Of course," he said. "And have a meal sent up."
"Right away, sir," she said. "Is there anything else we can get for you?"
"A change of clothes," he said automatically. "And make sure the bath has extra soap. I'm carrying half the desert on me."
She smiled, amused. "I'll see to it."
He started for his room. The receptionist didn't bother to ask him to pay her, but then, no one ever did. It was one of the perks of being a courier - he didn't get paid directly for his services, but anything he wanted was his for the asking. He could never ask for anything he couldn't take with him, anyway. He was required by law to stay in the colony of his most recent delivery for a minimum of thirty-six hours, and could remain for free at the wayhouse for up to a week before they would throw him out. He never stayed that long. An exhausted courier was an accident waiting to happen, but a lazy one was of no use to anybody.
By the time he reached his room, the staff had already been and gone, leaving behind a change of clothes in his size, a set of sleepwear, and a fresh bar of soap. The room was as luxurious as anyone could have wanted, but he paid little attention to anything but stripping out of his filthy clothes and getting into the shower to scour himself under the hottest water he could stand. He had used up half the bar of soap by the time he was finally convinced that he was clean. He toweled himself off briskly and changed into the soft pajamas the house had loaned him. The staff had been by again, and had left a bowl of soup and a chunk of warm bread with honey, along with a steaming pot of tea. That was fine by him; he was too tired for an elaborate meal. He ate everything that was in front of him, set the dishes aside, and dropped onto his bed without bothering even to pull the blankets over himself.
He was asleep almost as soon as he hit the pillow.
Morning came, but Jack slept through it. It was just past midday when he cracked his eyes open and prepared to face the world again. Someone had pulled his curtains closed for him - or maybe they had been that way when he'd gotten there and he hadn't noticed or cared, but he was thankful for it now. This was his resting time, and he was damned well going to make the most of it.
There was a cord dangling from the ceiling next to his bed, within comfortable arm's reach, so he pulled it. It summoned a young woman, who had apparently possessed the foresight to bring a tray with her.
"We thought you might want breakfast," she said.
"That is exactly what I want," he told her.
"Just let us know if there's anything else we can get for you," she said, as she placed the tray in front of him. It had legs that folded down, so he could eat from the comfort of his bed. Perfect.
Jack ignored the woman in favor of the food. They had sent him up a stack of griddle cakes drenched with honey and crushed berries, plus some poached eggs and sausages and a pile of fried potatoes. It was a small fortune in food, but a welcome one, and after a week or so in the field with only road rations to eat, he felt entitled to it. The road rations were scientifically designed to be lightweight and easy to carry but nutritionally dense, and would resist spoiling for practically ever as long as they stayed inside their packaging. What they weren't was particularly satisfying to eat.
While he ate, he considered his options. Today was his break from work, but that didn't mean he could afford to waste it. He would have to go into the city and replenish his supplies. He needed at least one fresh set of clothes, to replace the articles he'd lost when he'd gotten too close to a spiritstorm, and he needed food and water. He would look around the market and see if the survivalist people had come up with any clever new gizmos that would keep him alive a little more reliably in the outside world. Once he was restocked, he could think about enjoying himself, as much as he could while locked inside a city. Probably he would end up at the tavern, playing cards with the locals. He was as good at cards as he was at driving, and the nice thing about being a courier was that he didn't hang around long to enough to get a reputation that would make people avoid him.
He was still mulling over those pleasant thoughts when someone stepped through his door. He glared. Staff members were not supposed to come into his room without knocking.
But it wasn't a house staff member. It appeared to be a messenger, a young man in a gray uniform. He looked at Jack in the manner of someone who really didn't want to be there.
"Well?" said Jack. "Spit it out or go away."
"The mayor would like to see you, sir," he said.
"Can it wait till I'm done with breakfast?"
"He said to have you there as soon as possible," the messenger replied.
"Well, it's not possible for me to get there while I'm eating," said Jack. "He can wait until I'm good and ready."
"I can find my own way there," said Jack, in a tone he hoped would put an end to the discussion. It did; the messenger hurried away.
Feeling contrary, Jack took his time finishing his breakfast, and then took his time changing into his day clothes. Who did anyone, even the mayor, think he was, dragging Jack around on his day off? If he wanted a delivery, he could either wait until Jack was off his mandatory rest period or he could find someone else to do it. So what did he think he needed to drag him out of bed for? Jack was hardly in a good mood by the time he left his room and started up the street towards City Hall.
The City Hall was the largest building in the city, occupying the exact center of the colony so that it could stand as tall as possible. In fact, if you counted the broadcast tower, it went straight up to the roof and beyond. Otherwise, it wasn't substantially different from the buildings around it: dusty brown and blocky, with plant boxes in the windows. Jack wasn't fooled. Inside that building, everything that was important to the colony and its well-being was managed, from agriculture to news broadcasts. The leaders of the colonies were called "mayors" in an understated way; within the walls of their domains, they held nearly absolute power. Jack marched up the front steps and let himself in.
Someone must have been waiting for him, because as soon as he entered, a well-dressed young man pounced on him.
"Mr. Atlas, the mayor has been waiting for you," he said.
"I don't understand why he thinks I should be here in the first place," Jack grumbled.
"I'm sure Mayor Goodwin will explain everything when you see him," said the man, leading Jack towards an elevator.
Explain? Jack wondered. Does that mean no one else knows? This is fishy...
Eventually they reached the mayor's office. It was a fine room, elegant without being overblown, functional but attractive. It matched the man who worked in it. Mayor Goodwin was a striking man, tall and graceful, with hair that had gone prematurely silver. Instead of trying to hide it, he grew it out, letting it fall gently down his back like a royal mantle. Just now, he was sitting behind his desk with his hands folded in front of him. Jack hoped his expression didn't show his distaste. He did not like this immaculately clean man who looked as though he had never stepped outside the safety of this climate-controlled dome, and possibly had never gone out of his office.
"What do you want?" Jack demanded.
"I think that should be obvious," said Goodwin calmly. "I need to hire a courier."
"If you want to hire me, you're going to have to wait," Jack replied. "I'm on break."
"There is no one else in this city to hire," said Goodwin, "and the message needs to go out as soon as possible."
"I still have two days left," said Jack. "I can't leave before then. You know the law as well as anyone."
"I am willing to grant you a dispensation," said Goodwin. "I will, of course, compensate you for the inconvenience."
Jack started to say that he wasn't going to break the law just for Goodwin's convenience, and then reconsidered. 'Compensation' sounded like money, and that was generally a good thing to have. His position entitled him to all the things he needed, but he planned to live to see retirement, and then he was going to want some savings.
"Where do you want this to go?" he asked.
"Only as far as the Momentum colony," said Goodwin. "I'm sure it won't take you long."
Jack calculated. Momentum was the colony closest to this one. At top speed, he had made it there in as little as three days. In his current unrested state, he didn't want to push himself quite that hard, but he could still easily get there in less than a week. Then he could rest up there and take the return trip at his leisure.
"Hm," he said. "Exactly how much compensation are we talking, here?"
Goodwin raised an eyebrow. "What would you consider reasonable? Perhaps we can negotiate."
Jack weighed his options before naming a respectable sum, a little more than he felt a mission like this was worth, even taking into account the fact that Goodwin was asking him to break the law and risk losing his courier's license. If Goodwin didn't like it, then he could wait until Jack was ready to leave the colony on his own terms. If Goodwin did accept it, then it would make a tidy nest egg someday.
"Done," said Goodwin without hesitation. "But only on the condition that you bring me proof of delivery. You'll get your pay as soon as you return to me."
"Deal," said Jack.
They shook on it. Then Goodwin reached into a drawer in his desk and took out a message capsule, the kind that only the most important documents were delivered in. They were made in such a way that the only way to read the message inside was to break them apart, making it instantly obvious if someone had tampered with them. Jack took the message and tucked it into a pocket.
"Deliver that directly to the mayor in Momentum," said Goodwin. "Then return with his reply."
"You don't have to tell me how to do my job," said Jack. "Anyway, unless you have anything else to say, I'm leaving."
Goodwin waved a hand, which Jack took as a dismissal, so he turned on his heel and marched off.
He didn't leave straightaway, though. If he was going to break the rules by skipping his rest period, he was at least going to make sure he was safe in every other way possible. It was late afternoon when he checked out of the colony, but he was traveling with fresh supplies of everything, and with his ride tuned to like-new condition.
Stepping outside the airlock felt like a blow; the wasteland had been baking under the sun most of the day, and the heat was breathtaking. He ignored it and drove relentlessly out into the empty world.
He might not have liked the job, but he was determined to get it done as quickly as possible. He drove until nightfall at the fastest speed he could manage. The areas around a colony were usually fairly smooth, since they had to be crossed more regularly by travelers. The further out he went, the worse the paths would be, as anything that might have ever resembled a road broke down, crumbled by monsters or spiritstorms or simply by winds and the shifting of the earth. After driving for some hours, Jack looked out at the dark world and wondered if he felt like making camp. He had pulled all-nighters before, but usually he'd had more rest time than this.
"I'm not killing myself for Mayor Goodwin," he muttered, and started scanning the horizon for a place to pull over.
Eventually he spied a rock formation in the distance and altered his course a little to veer towards it. It wasn't a very big formation, but it was enough that he could set up his campsite in a cleft near its base and feel reasonably secure. He pitched his tent - actually a lightproof folding screen - and set up everything he needed inside. There was a little heater that gave out warmth and light, his bedroll, a bit of food, and his radio. He turned it on.
At first, there was only static. That was understandable. Once upon a time, there had been actual radio stations that each had their own unique channels that they didn't have to share with anyone else. Spiritstorms had made such things impossible, as the interference they caused made certain radio bands sporadically unavailable. Now there were, instead, the soundhouses. Just as sailors on the ocean had been guided by lighthouses, the couriers and tankers relied on the soundhouses. They were spaced out across the wilderness, far removed from any of the colonies, broadcasting on whatever wavelength worked this week. They delivered the news, reported on bad weather and spiritstorms, and most importantly, they provided a sense of companionship to people who spent most of their lives alone in an empty wilderness.
Jack twiddled the knob until he found a clear signal that was playing something he approved of, and he settled in to eat his dinner. He didn't have much enthusiasm for it. He had just started this trip, and already he was tired of road rations.
Eventually the music cut off, and an energetic voice announced, "Hi, everybody! This is Carly the Keeper, coming to you live! Here's the weather report. I've got reports here of a spiritstorm brewing between the cities of Ragnorok and Chevalier. If you're traveling that way, please look for shelter as soon as possible. In other weather, rain storms are moving in from north of Arcadia. Drive safe out there, okay, folks?
"And now, for your edification, I bring you tonight's debate. Our subject for today: are spirit monsters sentient? Representing the pro-sentience position is Professor Ren‚ LeBlanc..."
The esteemed professor wasn't actually there, of course. These "debates" were manufactured out of clips from public lectures or read from the pages of books and magazines. Still, it was one of the things that set Carly apart from her peers. She was, in fact, his favorite Keeper. Part of the reason was that something in the most primitive parts of his brain that found a woman's voice soothing when he was all alone in the empty wasteland, and she was the only female Keeper he knew of who did a normal broadcast. The scattering of others that he'd heard seemed to specialize primarily in providing a source of suggestive talk to lonely men. Jack had tried listening to them for a while, but it only left him frustrated and feeling more isolated than ever.
So now he listened to Carly. She drew in listeners by offering a little of everything. She covered all the staples - news, weather, music - but also did her own unique things, like broadcasting these debates. Often she would give out her own opinions on whatever the subject at hand was, or simply ask her listeners questions for them to mull over for themselves. She also broadcasted a fictional series about the adventures of a brave and resourceful courier known as Flame. Jack suspected she wrote them herself, because no one else ever had the next installment before she did. Jack always tuned in when he could; the stories were always suspenseful and thought provoking. Last time, Flame had been left in the hands of a deranged Death's Angel, who had been driven over the edge after retrieving the mangled body of his dead best friend. Flame's purpose in engaging the Death's Angel in debate was mainly to talk him out of killing both of them, but it raised some real concerns about the ethics of the job. That was the kind of thing that mattered, when you knew you stood a good chance of ending up on a Death's Angel's cart someday yourself.
Eventually, he finished his dinner and lay down on his sleeping mat, but he didn't close his eyes. Perhaps it was because he'd slept so late that morning, but even though he was tired from a long day of driving, he didn't feel sleepy. Inevitably, his thoughts wandered to the contents of the sealed capsule. What could be so time-sensitive, he wondered, that it had to be delivered right away, even if it meant bending the law? The last he'd heard, Domino was a peaceful colony. Wars were a thing of the past when you literally couldn't get more than a few people at a time from one outpost to another, and he thought he would have noticed if there had been a drought or famine going on. If there had been an epidemic, they wouldn't have even let him out of the colony. Anyway, all of that was a public matter he could have sent it over the radio and had the news out much faster. This had to be something private a death in the family, perhaps? Would even a mayor bend the law for a personal matter?
Jack resettled himself on his mat, trying to shake off these confusing thoughts. He was getting nowhere with this, and it was keeping him awake. Whatever was in the capsule, it was none of his business. He would deliver it to Momentum, hand it over, and forget about it, just as he had with every other message he'd ever delivered. There was no reason why he should think of this one any differently. Maybe Goodwin was up to no good that didn't mean Jack needed to get involved. He could collect his payment, leave, and refuse to go back to Domino ever again, if he wanted to. As a matter of fact, he decided, that was exactly what he'd do. Whatever these people were up to, they could just leave him out of it.
He forced all his fruitless thoughts out of his mind, letting himself concentrate instead on the soothing sound of the radio. He drifted off with the sound of the Keeper's voice in his ear.
To Be Continued