Nyx blew out of Punjai and hit the radio a couple of times with her palm, but all she got was misty blue static.
It was going to be a long ride.
She spent the night in the bakkie after making good time, about halfway to Mushtallah. She kept as far off the road as she dared and was up before dawn and back on the road, out past Mushtallah and the central cities. She landed another night on the road, then climbed over the low mountains that divided the coast from the interior.
As she came up over the other side, the terrain began to change. Sandy scrub gave way to rocky soil. The desert bled away and turned into long-needled pine trees, then tall oak hybrids with leaves the size of Nyx’s head, low ferns with thorns, tangles of wild roses, snake maples, amber ticklers, patches of low-spring wildflowers.
Nyx found it all pretty claustrophobic. The trees were so big they blocked the big sky, the sun. She couldn’t see beyond the turns of the road. That made her nervous. She started checking her mirrors more often.
She came out of the mountains and onto the rolling veldt of red-tipped wheat, the broad pastureland that kept the big, hairy, shoulder-high omnivores they called pigs. Farmsteads dotted the landscape. Swarms of locusts, red flies, and ladybirds mobbed the fields, tailored to devour the less friendly bugs and fungi that ruined the staples.
Nyx found a motel that night at a crossroads. She parked her bakkie out front alongside flatbeds and rickshaws and a cart hitched to the front end of a converted bakkie.
She splurged on good food and a bath. The only upside to coming out to the coast was all the water. Sweet, sweet, water. All the water you could soak in.
Nyx lingered in the bath, rubbing at old wounds that had started biting and aching again. It got colder on the coast, and the cold would only make the aching worse.
She missed the desert.
When she crawled into bed, her sheets weren’t full of sand. The floor was made of wood, and swept clean.
She couldn’t sleep.
Nyx grabbed her pillow and moved to the floor, spent long hours staring at the roaches scuttling along the ceiling. A couple took flight, landed on her head, her arms. She flicked them away.
There was a call box downstairs, but she had no one to call. If she called Kine, it was likely her sister would tell her not to come. If she called the Keg, she could make small talk with Taite or Anneke about defense, but she’d be repeating herself, and they’d see through it.
Nyx got up and went to the bar.
The motel had an “honor” bar, the kind with liquor bottles affixed to the wall upside down and a little book to record how many shots you’d pulled so they could bill you for it later.
Nyx took out her dagger and pried a bottle of whiskey from the wall and went out and sat on the front porch. The sky was big, and the stars were the clearest she’d seen since she was a kid. She drank, leaned back in the chair, and tried reading the constellations. Tej had been good at that.
A noise from the parking lot drew her attention. She went still. The night was clear, but the big bloody moons were at the far end of their orbit, meaning they looked about as big as her thumbnail in the night sky. A year from now, they would look about three times the size of the sun.
But that didn’t help her out much now.
The figure was dawdling next to Nyx’s bakkie. She’d parked close to the motel so she could keep an eye on it. The figure crouched for a long while, then rose and moved off. As Nyx watched, the figure shrank, dwindled. She heard a sneeze, and then a white bird was flapping off toward the road.
Nyx swore. She took a last pull from the bottle, returned it to the bar, and held out the rest of the night in her room with the door bolted. She slept in front of it.
The next morning, an inspection of the bakkie turned up an ignition burst and a cut brake line. It looked like Rasheeda had tried to cut open the main hose connecting the pedal mechanisms to the engine as well, but only nicked it. Some dead beetles and organic fluid had pooled beneath the bakkie.
Nyx disarmed the ignition burst. She opened up the trunk and took out one of the toolkits. She patched the leak, replaced the brake hose, and got back onto the road.
This time, she kept an eye on the road behind her the whole way.
She stopped at a dusty station just past a couple of farmsteads at the foot of the coastal hills and filled up on bug juice.
The woman who popped open her tank was a soft, fleshy, coastal type with big dark eyes and a plump mouth.
“You come in from the desert?” she asked.
Nyx wondered where else there was to come in from. As the woman pumped the feed into the tank, Nyx gazed out at the road. She saw a bakkie crawling along around a bend in the road, coming in from the direction of the motel. Following her?
She turned her face away, but noted the movement of the car in the station windows. The car slowed as it passed the station, then sped up again. Nyx saw three figures. She slumped in her seat, wondered if they’d open fire.
But the bakkie sped on. She looked after it.
“Friends of yours?” the attendant asked. She capped the tank.
“I hope not,” Nyx said. She leaned over, opened her pack and rolled a couple of bursts onto the passenger seat. Just in case.
She paid the woman and got back onto the road.
Three kilometers on, she saw the bakkie parked at the side of the road.
She switched pedals, kicked the bakkie a little faster. The other bakkie turned out onto the road after her.
Nyx didn’t know the country well, and unlike the cities, the place was all wide-open, no cover. About all the cover she had were the hills, and some woods, if she could find them. She switched pedals again, reached for the clutch. She hadn’t had to use the clutch in a long time. She wondered if it still worked.
The dark bakkie kept just within her rearview mirror view. They knew they’d been seen. Either they didn’t know where she was going and wanted to pin her there, or they were waiting for a good turn in the road to take her out.
She sped up. They sped up.
She watched the image of the dark car grow bigger in the mirror.
She fucked with the clutch. It made a nasty grinding sound.
“Come on, you fucker,” she said.
She switched pedals. The bakkie shuddered. The speedometer climbed. She saw a turnoff on her left that went up into the hills. Nyx did a neat break, twisted the wheel, and hit the speed as she came out of the turn.
The bakkie screamed under her. She caught the smell of burning bugs, death on the road. She glanced back and saw smoke and dead beetles roiling out from the exhaust. The way was narrow and twisted, and as she climbed, the grasslands turned to a forest of oak hybrids. She took the turns too fast.
Nyx kept checking the mirror. She spent a moment too long looking and nearly lost herself on a narrow turn. She’d seen the other bakkie.
They were still behind her.
She kept a sharp eye out for turns off the main road. She didn’t want gravel tracks or logging roads. The bakkie would get stuck, and she’d be for shit.
The black bakkie was right behind her. She could just see their faces now. The big woman in the driver’s seat was definitely Dahab. Not a doubt in her mind. Dahab had a new team with her, not bel dames, from the look of them.
Nyx twisted around another curve. Raine had taught her to drive when she was nineteen. It wasn’t a skill magicians taught to boxers. Raine had gone to boxing gyms for years to recruit young blood from the front. She’d started out like all of his crew – as a driver.
Nyx heard a shot, and ducked. Checked the mirror again. The woman riding shotgun with Dahab was doing what people riding shotgun did.
Nyx dared not take her hands off the wheel. Even if she could clip off a couple shots with her pistol, the odds of her hitting anything in that bakkie were slim.
She hit a crossroads. Right was back up into the hills. Left was down into the coastal valley. Down meant she would have to put a lot of faith in her repair of the breakline.
She veered left and barreled down the hill. She disengaged the clutch.
Heard another shot.
Something exploded against her back window.
That wasn’t good. Organics. A fever burst? Or something worse?
She grabbed at one of the bursts on the seat next to her and lobbed it out the window. Heard a satisfying pop as it exploded on the road.
The bakkie squeezed around another narrow turn. The cover of the woods was thinning out. She saw a house set back away from the road. If she couldn’t lose them, she had to fight them.
Nyx ignored the house and kept on down the road.
She came down a long stretch and turned. The road abruptly changed from pavement to gravel. Logging road.
The bakkie skidded on the sudden raw stretch. Nyx hit the far left and far right pedals, and all four wheels twisted sharply, got her some traction.
She looked back. Missed a turn. She spun the wheel and tried to recover, but she was trying to recover on a graveled road.
The car slid clean off the road.
For a long, hopeful moment, she thought she’d be all right. But as she braked and twisted the wheel, she saw she wasn’t going to avoid the big tree in front of her.
The bakkie smashed into the hybrid oak with a loud crunch. Bugs exploded from the hood. A rain of leaves dropped onto the windshield. Nyx’s torso thumped into the steering wheel, knocked the breath from her.
The sound of hissing beetles filled her ears.
Adrenaline flooded her body. She pushed at the door, couldn’t find the handle for some reason. She leaned over and reach for one of the bursts on the floor.
The barrel of a very big gun pointed in at her through the passenger side window.
“Don’t fucking move,” Dahab said.