Not Even Light, Chapter 6, Part 3 of 3

Bors turned suddenly and strode off. In a few seconds, we saw the top of his head disappear as he descended the path to his cave. Dyani turned to Dunc and me and said, “We don’t have a whole day ahead of us to find shelter before sundown, so we’d better get moving fast.” He motioned us to start along ahead of him.

Dunc stepped up to take the lead, I followed along about six meters behind, and Dyani and Stashi brought up the rear. As we trudged through the woods, I thought about the crow Bors had killed. It sure as hell hadn’t been its lucky day, no, but what about the other two? Could be it’s pure chance that rules the workings of the world, and it only looks like everything that happens is a result of everything that has already happened. Could be that fewer things happen for a reason than you might think. This was one of those “knotty problems” like the kind Teacher and I enjoyed talking about after classes. But it was too much for me alone to unravel, and if I expected us to reach a hole-up, I knew I’d better leave off the deep thoughts and do my part of getting us there. I gave myself a good shake and opened my eyes and ears to the woods once again.

We jog-walked the Brucie and Old 6 the rest of the day without running into any more trouble and reached a mapped safe spot not too far below the Old 6-10 fork about an hour before nightfall. We set up camp, laid out some game snares, and then ate and divided up the watch. Dunc sheepishly volunteered for first watch, and Dyani and I agreed that I’d go next and then he’d watch till dawn. A near-full moon coasted just above the eastern treetops across the roadway, so we’d be able to mark off rough thirds of the night by its progress through the clear sky. Dyani and I settled in for some sleep while Dunc set himself up on top of a small hummock a couple dozen steps away from our camp. I knew I should rest up so I’d be alert for my watch and for trekking long and hard the next day, but I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind began to play around, mixing and remixing the letters of Bors the cobot. After lots of nonsense like chest robot, the combination robot s-o-b popped out of the mix. Yes, Bors was a robot son of a bitch. I’d soon had enough of word games, and after counting crickets for a while, I gave up the idea of sleep and pished Dyani quiet-like so as not to wake him if he were asleep and piss him off.

“S’matter? What’s wrong?” he grumped.

“Can’t sleep’s all,” I answered.

“Well, try harder and don’t make it my problem too,” he said.

“You ever try to sleep? It doesn’t work. Besides, I won’t be able to sleep till I get some answers.”

“Answers? Answers about what?”

I started to tick off questions on my fingers. “For starters, how long do Dunc and I have before those nanobots in us go off? And are there lots of Meeks roaming around here? And is that cobot really going to let us go? Just what the hell are we looking for? And how–“

Dyani interrupted, “All right, if it’ll shut ya up. About the nanobots, I don’t know how long you’ve got any more’n I know how long I’ve got, and then–“

“What? You’re spiked?”

“You really think I’d partner up with Bors because I like the idea? I was just passing through on my way back west when I crossed paths with him and got snagged. Is he gonna let us go? Dunno. You’ll find out, I guess. We all will.”

“Does he spike everybody he uses?”

“No. He doesn’t have to. There’s scum who’ll work for a cobot because they want to.”

“I figured you for that,” I said. “Thought you were a rover from ‘round here that got the boot. D’ya help Bors, you know, with killing and looting? All that stuff he’s got in that cave–“

“No. He uses me for scouting around. Keeping an eye on the trails. What made you think I was a rover?”

“What about the cuts then?” I said, pointing to his cheek.

“They’re not cuts. They’re inked in. It’s my clan mark.”

“Clan mark?”

“I’m native. Well, mostly, anyway. It’s what my tribe does. This a new idea for you?”

“Yep. There’s natives near White Cedars we trade with, and they don’t have marks like that. How come you do?”

“Since they started to reband and mix together, some of the new tribes like mine divided up into clans again. Not everybody has marks, but my clan does. We find and follow paths, and our mark stands for the three paths–one that threads together the moments of someone’s life, one that the tribe walks together, and one that leads to revelations.”

“Revelations? Of what?” I asked.

“Anything new,” Dyani answered. “Before I ran into Bors I was scouting for new trade partners in this area, but a revelation could be a new idea or a new way of doing something, too. The third path can run through your mind as well as through the woods. Anyway, that’s enough about me now. You asked about Meeks.”

I had a lot of questions about Dyani himself, but I saw he was getting impatient, and I didn’t want to push him, so I said, “Have you run across any of those nutters around here?”

“Not many right around here. But stories I hear say they’re out taking converts and looking for something big, too–maybe the same thing Bors is after. I try to keep a real good distance between them and me.”

Who didn’t, I thought. Who’d want to be broken and turned into one of them? “Bors said you’d tell us where we’re headed. So where are we going and what’re we supposed to be looking for?”

“Time for that tomorrow,” Dyani replied. “Get some sleep. You’re gonna need your rest.” He turned his back to me, and I lay back down. My brain started to race again, but the strains of the past day must have caught up with me all at once because I dropped off into a sudden and dreamless sleep.

Next thing I knew, Dyani was poking me hard in the chest. “Wake up, Travis. I already took your watch. You were dead asleep, and I figured you needed to be.” He returned to his bedroll without saying anything more. I willed myself into wakefulness and fetched my gun. Stepping over Dunc’s curled up sleeping figure, I made my way to the hummock and settled in for the rest of the night.

A warm, gusty breeze tossed the dark crowns of the trees, and the moonlight shining through the fluttering leaves speckled the tree trunks and woods floor with slivers of pale light. An owl mumbled to itself way off deep in the woods, its hoo-hooing carried along on top of the steady cricket chant. It was all very enchanting, and under other circumstances I might have enjoyed letting myself go and melding with the beauty of the night. But you need an empty mind to do that, and mine was brimming with disagreeable, self-pitying thoughts of how poorly used I was. I’d been enslaved by a cobot to serve its purposes and couldn’t escape without dooming myself. My dreams of venturing through the woods to some wonderful destiny had been snatched away, and I was near to wishing I’d never left the farm.

Toward dawn the faint sounds of feet padding through leaf litter interrupted my thoughts, and I glanced over to see Dyani walking quietly through the woods. I wasn’t afraid that he’d be interested in doing Dunc and me harm, for, unless he was lying about being spiked himself, our futures had been tied together but tight, and we’d all succeed or die together. He moved off some six meters, looked around, and started to undo his pants. All right, then, I thought. He’s just out for a leak. I was about to turn away when I saw him squat, and then I heard the sound of pissing. Curious that, I thought. He stood, pulled up his pants, and returned to camp. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve sometimes been jolted into sudden comprehension when a bunch of little particulars add up. The slight build. The voice pitched higher than I’d expected. Squatting to piss. I realized there was a damn good chance Dyani was no boy or man. All the time I’d been thinking “he” and “him” I’d been dead wrong. I resolved to bring this matter up with Dunc before we struck out along the road after morning chow. For now, though, I was finally able to put away my poor-me thoughts to think about this new twist.


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