From Chapter Nineteen: It’s Great to be Fine
Orion Gideon was still recovering his land legs after a handful of flights down from Arrowroot, British Columbia. At least the transport Eider took no more than a half hour to reach the landing site out of Engelus. They dropped him off five miles west of the city’s barbed wire and high wall perimeters, safe as he was ever going to get. The lieutenant of the Engelus Patrol Unit named Wallace Dieko insisted on accompanying Orion in the Eider, explaining that a San Diego P.I. had come to Engelus looking for him.
At the landing site, Orion was supplied with his guitar case carrying only two of his handguns and harmonica to make room for water bottles and some clothes. Everything else he left behind at the permutation clinic.
When asking the EPU lieutenant why he had bothered helping him, Dieko had been vague on the answer. “Your father swung by yesterday, told me to keep an eye on you because of something the Chancellor got you all wrapped up in.”
“I mean your real one,” Dieko had said. “Not your adoptive… what’s-his-name? Samuel Gideon?”
“Wait! Where are you going?” Orion shouted over the propellers of the Eider as it lifted back into the air.
Wallace Dieko hung out the sliding door, only giving Orion a brief salute before he was gone. His mouth had moved, but Orion didn’t hear the words.
Before he had the chance to get any real answers, he was left on his own in the Mojave. He had been walking along the dusty highway with a guitar case hung over his shoulder for days after the Chancellor’s assassination.
At night, he slept in the dirt, shivering and huddled by a campfire for warmth. He drank bottles of water as he baked in the glare of the Mojave sun during the day. Even in January it flicked between sixty to seventy degrees.
A coyote had been stalking his camp when he attempted a few hours of sleep. He would make fire with some shrubs, using steel and a flintlock that Dieko must have left him in his guitar case. Afterwards, he would listen to the coyote’s howl, lulling to sleep by the crackling of his campfire. Wherever the animal was, he didn’t mind. He could live like this for months. Sleeping in the desert dirt bothered him less once he got used to waking up with a headache and kinks in every muscle.
Orion Gideon was brought here for a reason, he realized. He just needed a sign.
Curled up by the fire for the fifth night since he had left Engelus, he wondered what this sign could be. He also thought about Wallace Dieko, who had arranged for Orion’s escape. He drifted to a partial sleep with the howling of coyotes and desert winds.
Not even the wild beasts visited him anymore. He was hungry, so hungry. He could always hunt and eat one of those animals stalking him, but he was also tired. The temperature had dropped to the lowest of forty degrees, and there was still no sign.
He woke up at twilight to the sound of an engine. Orion peeked over the cliff side where he camped, his fire a pile of ash now. The precipice overlooked a dirt road where the same truck drove to and from for the past two days, but Orion kept missing it. The dry terrain was different from the icy tundra of British Columbia or Alaska he was so used to. It also lacked much plants and cover, though provided a thirty-foot high ground to survey the low country road. He watched the orange heat waves rise from the dust, wrapping the passing truck in puffs of sand when it came by early that morning.
When the truck had come and gone, Orion grabbed his guitar case and climbed down to the dirt road where he bid his time. He could have read a book, but he didn’t have one. He could whittle, but he was short on a stick and just had one knife, and a cactus needle was just too messy.
An hour later, engine sounds roused Orion’s attention. He swayed, sick after running out of his last bottled water last night. This truck driving by would be his last hope before he would die of dehydration. As the truck came closer down the dirt road, Orion lifted a tired hand and stuck his thumb out.
The truck did not stop. In fact, a sandy cloud gathered in its wake as it sped by. Orion recoiled, his hands over his face as he hacked and coughed, spitting dust.
Somewhere in that blinding cloud, he heard breaks slam to a halt. Tires whined and metal crunched.
Sprinting through the sandy fog, Orion came to the rickety old truck in the shallow ditch of the road. A road sign had flown; facedown in the dirt where a blood trail disappeared into the scattering dust cloud. Orion sunk to the ground, finding mats of brown fur clotted in a red mess. He exhaled through his nose, and went after the truck. Whoever sat behind the wheel didn’t seem to be moving. From the looks of it, there weren’t any others beside the driver inside.
“Hey!” Orion called out, circling around to the passenger’s side. “Are you okay in there? Can you… Oh. Shit.”
As the dust cleared over the road, pieces of coyote were scattered across the pavement. There was a foot, and other chunks. Where was the rest of it?
At least the truck was in one piece. Only a tire from the passenger’s side was flat; judging by the surface damage on the front, the driver had slammed into that road sign while attempting to avoid a jaywalking coyote. Orion turned, hearing a groan coming from the truck.
Her flaxen hair reflected in the sun glaring through the broken windshield. Gray blue eyes opened, focusing on Orion’s face as he peered through the side door. When he tried to open it, she waved him off with her hand. He yanked the door open, anyway. “Are you hurt bad?” Orion felt stupid for asking.
“N-no, m’fine. What ‘bout…?” Her head drooped over her shoulder, her eyes scanning for whatever she had hit.
“No worries, it was just a coyote.”
“Just a coyote… Fuck.” The woman echoed, and laughed. She didn’t sound as bad as she looked. Orion noted her obvious southern twang. “Thought I’d hit you…”
Was she going to stop for him, or was this just a stroke of bad luck on both their parts? Orion had no room to feel grateful anymore. “Hey, I… should be able to help if you’re badly hurt.”
“Kit’s in the glove box.” She nodded to the compartment right next to Orion. She started tending to her forehead while he opened the glove compartment, pulled out a cobalt box, and opened it over the passenger’s seat. “Gimme one of the red packets.”
The aforementioned red packets labeled a brand of strong pain medication, which Orion wondered if a woman with a potential concussion should be taking. He handed it to her, anyway. She took it, ripped open the top, and popped two white pills dry. Orion started to offer some water, then remembered he had drank it all — then remembered why he was here in the first place.
“Sorry if I made you crash your car,” he said.
“Think that’s on that bastard coyote.” She winced, pushing open the door at her side and slid out. Orion walked around the truck, meeting her at the front to view the damage he noticed earlier. Her hands came over her head. “Shit, they’re gonna kill me for this…”
“Is there somebody you can call?”
She shook her head. “No, I can take care of this.” Then she sent him a bewildered look, her hand still on her forehead. There was no blood that Orion could see, but she might be looking forward to a nasty goose egg soon. “Who the hell are you, anyways? And what’re you doin’ way out here?”
No way could he tell her the truth. “My car broke down a few miles down the road. One minute I was on my way to Vegas, the next…” Orion gestured like he was holding a wheel that spun out of control, before dropping his arms at his sides. “Well, the next I’m staring at a ditch.”
“And you just walked from there?”
Orion started to see the gap in his anecdote. They were nowhere near a city within fifty miles each way. “I did camp out here for a few days. Had some water with me and not much else.”
“Sounds like you’re shit luck. I might just leave you here.” She went to the backseat of her truck and extracted a spare tire. “D’you mind? This’ll probably take a while.”
“It wouldn’t if you had an extra set of hands.” He smiled. “I know my way around cars, too.”
“Aren’t you versatile? A man who destroys cars as he fixes ‘em. Here.” She flashed a grin, handing him the spare tire. “Unless you wanna just play a ditty, you can help. But you’ll probably forgo your hitchhiker’s rights if you decide to be musically inclined instead.”
Orion hesitated, setting his guitar case next to the truck bed before taking the tire from her. The woman then picked up a jack from the back of her truck. He went with her to the flat tire as she dropped to her knees, and began propping the car up with the jack.
“What brought’cha out here?” she asked, pulling lug nuts from the front passenger tire with a wrench.
For now, there wasn’t much for Orion to do but stand there with the spare tire. “Like I said, I was on my way to Vegas. Before my car broke down, that is.”
“You don’t say.” The lug nuts fell, one after another. “That’s funny. I just came back from Vegas, and I don’t think I saw any cars on the side of the road today.”
Shit. Orion didn’t think about that. The heat must have made him a little slow. “I… did some off-road sightseeing where I got hit. I walked a good twelve miles just to get here.”
“That can’t be legal. The off-roadin’ part. Most of the detours are closed this time of year for maintenance.”
Or all times of the year, Orion started to say, but kept his mouth shut. He was an Ignorant Tourist. She might be keeping her facts inconsistent for a reason, waiting for him to correct her on things that Ignorant Tourists wouldn’t know about.
Orion cocked his head. “You aren’t really going to throw the book at me while I’m trying to help, are you?”
“Guess not.” If she was suspicious, she masked it well. “Why are you headed this way? Vegas is ‘bout sixty miles in the other direction.”
Orion was beginning to get the gist that his bluff wasn’t going so well. Damn, he got rusty at this. “Are you serious?” He feigned disbelief. “Dammit, I thought that’s where I was going! My navigation skills are subpar at best, and it didn’t help that I lost my nexus when I crashed.” He chuckled nervously.
“Huh. That right?” She seemed to be only half-listening to him, catching the flat tire that fell out. “What’re you in town for?”
“Business can be boring. Sorry I can’t spin you a more interesting yarn.”
“I’m sure you could come up with somethin’ more imaginative.”
Assuming she suspected that that wasn’t the truth. Orion held the tire closer to his chest, looking out at the heat waves dancing over the cliff he had climbed from. “I always thought it was supposed to be warmer out here.”
“Oh yeah? Where were you before?”
“Arrowroot, British Columbia.” That much was the truth.
“You’re a long ways from home.”
“I’m visiting. Like I said, business,” Orion said. “Nice countryside in Arrowroot. Friendly locals.”
“Probably makes you wonder why you ever left for this pisspit, huh?” She took out the tire before he could answer. She turned to him with her hands out. “Give it.” It was an order, not a request.
Orion surrendered the spare part over to her. She put it back in place, secured it with a few lug nuts, and then got up to walk around the car. Orion followed her to the driver’s seat.
While nothing seemed out of the ordinary, her mannerisms suggested otherwise. Orion knew that she wasn’t going to turn her back to him anytime soon. That must have been why she leaned into her car. When he tried to get a better look, he saw that she had pulled out her keys from the ignition.
Orion stepped back when she turned to him, wrench in hand. He nearly reflexed.
She stared, deadpan. “What’s wrong? You seem a little jumpy.”
“You can’t blame me for being startled at a woman armed with a wrench.”
“Oh, this thing?” She laughed, flipping the wrench in her hand. Orion’s eyes were transfixed on it, as if expecting it to turn into something else. “Calm your tits; I wouldn’t do somethin’ like that with this ‘cause—”
When she laughed, Orion did as well. His breath cut short when he felt a high electric punch in the gut. He dropped his knees. He then caught a glimpse of a small keychain that she had as well.
No, it hadn’t been a keychain at all…
“—that’s what tasers are for!”