Lexi got on the road early, buzzing along comfortably in her borrowed Mercedes SLK. Malice was curled on the passenger seat, happy with the seat heater. Lexi hadn’t checked out of the hotel, but got a funny feeling she wouldn’t be back, not tonight at least. There were places to go and things to see, and they were rather far away. She had a bottle of orange juice, a six-pack of pecan spinwheels (they were called “Daylites” in Ile du Soleil) and that irritating song about having a brand-new pair of rollerskates was stuck in her head.
Twenty miles south of Arram was the city of Celestia, which seemed to consist mostly of outlet stores, the maid of honor to any successful tourist trap town. Lexi was already suited and booted up like the world’s perkiest riot grrrl (she also had a feeling she’d be getting dirty) so she didn’t need clothes, but she stopped anyway. One Sharper Image catalog store later, she had a hand-held GPS tracker. The satellite mapper would come in handy if she was going to follow Ren’s map. He hadn’t actually written the coordinates down (knowing him, they were in there somewhere) but it would keep her from getting irrevocably lost in the bigger-than-it-seemed salt desert once she left the road.
As for the directions themselves, she knew she was headed back toward Hamilton, which according to the GPS was 362 miles from her if she drove in a perfectly straight line. That straight line ended in ocean, however; she had to detour north to get to the land bridge linking this island to the next. In short, there were lots of miles to be eaten.
“Land bridge” wasn’t quite the best term for it, but that was what it was commonly called. Some enterprising civil engineers had decided in the Sixties that the best way to connect the three islands that made up Ile du Soleil was with massive rail and road bridges rather than ferries. Since the islands were exposed tips of the collapsed caldera of some huge, ancient volcano, it was possible to sink tremendous bridge pilings across the twenty miles or so separating the northernmost island from the center one, and across the thirty-five plus that divided the central from the south-east. It wasn’t convenient, mind you, but it was possible, and during the Sixties and Seventies that was exactly what they’d done. The thin triple ribbon of freeway sat on stumpy concrete mushrooms about eighty feet above the surface of the water and looked fragile against the vast expanse of ocean. It had survived six hurricanes without failing, however. High seas had swept cars off once or twice, and that had to be one hell of a final ride, but the land bridges were otherwise sturdy.
Lexi’s SLK tackled the land bridge happily–to the car it was just a long, smooth, straight stretch of road, not one of the world’s engineering marvels–and there was next to no traffic. She ran up to one-thirty before the engine’s governor kicked in and spoiled the fun.
After the bridge, a couple hundred miles passed like a ribbon of cities and sights. Lexi was familiar with the unfolding of a road trip. In Florenz, she stopped under a bridge to put the SLK’s top down. A bit farther on, she saw a couple in tattered clothes standing by the side of the road with a dozen suitcases with them. They held a cardboard sign that said, “Gov’t took our car. Headed to Marjori.” Lexi would’ve picked them up, but the SLK only had two seats.
Reeze, the next town on the freeway named L7, was about the size of a trailer park. There was a pro-Green billboard–it featured a smiling, affluent couple with a crushed Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud on one side of them and an apparently new Honda Civic on the other and read, “Doing Our Part!”–and as Lexi was sneering at it six tarted-up economy cars buzzed past, blowing noise from their oversized exhaust pipes. She let the SLK chase them, then overtake them, and for ten miles they all played tag. The game broke up when they passed a police BMW by the side of the road, but the sedan didn’t give chase.
In Amina, Lexi saw a ridge not far off the freeway, with a torturous-looking switchbacky road winding through it. She ached to go and play on it, but didn’t have time. Next was Fountainhead, with a new, elevated six-lane freeway that, if one looked closely, flew right over the top of a slum city so bleak it could have been Beirut or South Africa. The freeway barriers were painted three different shades of blue, just like Ile du Soleil’s flag.
Between Reychelle and Stark Lexi hit a nasty snarl of midday traffic. She left the top down, although the sun was warm on her head, and turned up Big Rude Jake, a CD that Cygnet had given her just before she’d left Michigan. She was learning all of the words, and danced in her seat while she waited for traffic to clear. She didn’t see what slowed everything down, but it seemed like there were a lot of makkies about, whatever that meant.
Perlin was perched right smack in the middle of a salt desert. It wasn’t much bigger than Reeze, and she saw a three-wheeled sail car ghosting across the salt just outside of town. It made her smile so much she stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, this one a lone Hispanic man who spoke with a British accent and said he was on his way to the next town, Bread. It was pronounced, “breed,” and it was a tangle of freeways coming together; R9, which ran perpendicular to L7, as well as G33, F11, and L131, which ran in all different directions, sometimes simultaneously. Lexi dropped off the hitcher (Gil, his name was, and he was a plasterer by trade), navigated the concrete jungle, and sped onward toward Lecroy, and the second land bridge.
Another fantastic blast across the water, and Lexi was back in Hamilton. She scanned the bowl of hills around the city, imagining she could see the Green party’s house and Carino Rhoades in it, but of course she couldn’t.
It was nearly four, so Lexi found another Bigg’s for dinner. There were two or three hours of daylight left; plenty of time to consider the map, such as it was. Ren had written rallycar-style directions, with directions and distances listed in terms of degree and time, rather than the simple “right then fifty yards” sort of instructions. No problem. She could follow those almost without thinking. Lexi dawdled over a grilled cheese sandwich, some tasty silver-dollar sized potato pancakes and a milkshake and memorized the pace notes, since there wouldn’t be anyone to read them to her. Ren didn’t say if there was a road or not. Considering that it was all salt desert and big rocks, there might not be.
There had never been any question in her mind about going to see what Ren’s present was, but Lexi finally allowed herself a moment to reconsider why Dobie had given it to her in the first place. Obviously, his ploy to use it as leverage to keep her from going to the Road Associates meeting hadn’t worked, but she didn’t believe for a moment that he had discounted its strategic value and was suddenly turning altruist on her. So he’d given the briefcase to her because he expected to get something out of her in exchange. The six-million-dollar question was, what did he expect? There were possibilities to be rolled around, and Lexi rolled them. She knew that one of the things he found confusing about her was that all of the money and power he had were irrelevant–she wasn’t trying to use him, and that didn’t compute. She doubted he was capable of understanding that, or of reciprocity.
Sex was pretty high on the list, of course. She had been teasing him, but if what had happened with Rocky was any indicator it was probably a good thing that she hadn’t gotten beyond the heavy flirtation, and good that Dobie hadn’t pressed the issue. The freakout bothered her. Lexi looked inside her mind, trying to decide if that was out of her system, or if it would happen again. There wasn’t an answer. Push the button again, and see what happens, was the only response her subconscious would give.
She hadn’t even decided if she was going to fuck Dobie or not yet. One moment she was sure it was in the cards; the next, it was out of the question. Part of her was going insane with horny–it had been ten months, after all–and part of her didn’t care if she never had sex again.
Lexi swirled her milkshake with her spoon. There was, of course, the possibility that Dobie wasn’t even interested in having sex with her. It was remote, judging by the way he looked at her, but maybe that was the case. The next possibility was Road Associates membership. Now that she was one of them (it still felt weird, in a good way) she could nominate him, if she wanted to. But she wouldn’t, and if that was what he wanted–and if he got the guts to ask–she’d tell him so. The Road Associates was a special thing, a group you fell into, not one you could quid pro quo your way into. Dobie knew this, but seemed bent on proving he could buy himself anything.
Maybe even her? Now she was back at the sex thing again.
Lexi frowned, and went on rolling her thoughts. Maybe Dobie just wanted to find out what Ren’s directions led to. There was almost certainly treasure of some kind at the end. Lexi doubted that anyone but her could have followed them, not even another rallyist. The code words she and Ren used were too personalized. Then again, if Dobie wanted to find the place that badly, he’d have insisted on coming along with her, wouldn’t he?
No, not necessarily. If there was anything down there worth having, she’d need his help to get it home. She didn’t have the resources (or the friends, in Ile du Soleil) to be particularly creative.
That was a consideration for another time though. She didn’t even know if there was anything at the end of Ren’s map. Lexi finished eating quickly, because it was time to find out. “Sacred cows to tip,” she said to herself as she paid for her food. There was a gumball machine by the door, and she bought herself three.
With Ren’s directions internalized, following them was as easy as getting back on L7 headed south, going about seven miles, then making a sudden dodge off the freeway and onto a gravel and salt service drive that opened up at the right mile marker. Lexi followed it away from the highway, watching her odometer until it was time to turn again. And again, an even smaller service drive was right there. Gravel pinged off the SLK’s underbelly, but the car didn’t protest. The road climbed up among the big, black rocks (they were hundreds of feet tall; it seemed strange to call them rocks but they weren’t exactly mountains either), and at that point Ren’s pace notes dropped from increments of yards. No problem; “40 mark chickenwing second 25 EdBegley third mark 100” told Lexi exactly where to turn, how fast to go, and what to expect. If it had been pitch black, she’d have been able to follow the pace notes without slowing down. With the benefit of daylight she could see exactly where Ren wanted her to go.
She threaded through the rocks. She only noticed she’d climbed perhaps two hundred feet when she saw L7, about three miles distant, through a gap in the rock.
Next was the only confusing part. Ren had written “Ollie,” which meant a ninety-degree right turn, and then “5 Dagobah third mark 175 end!” just like that, with an exclamation point. She knew that she had to go five yards, and the “third” meant that she should accelerate and shift into third gear as she finished the turn. That suggested that the road would be clear for at least a hundred seventy-five yards after “Dagobah,” but what did “Dagobah” mean? The swamp planet from Empire Strikes Back had never been one of their codewords. And it was the last instruction. Fifteen feet wasn’t much time to figure out what it was, either.
“I’m going to trust you, sweet,” she said. Lexi took the Ollie corner as fast as she could in second gear, slapped the pedal to the floor and bumped the shifter up into third–
–and the road disappeared. Lexi saw nothing but rock ahead of her. She curled her toes and let out a squeak of horror, expecting an airbag in the face.
No airbag, though. She felt the SLK’s weight all around her as it dropped down and the road opened up in front of her again. The wall of rock rushed over her head with a whufff that was thunderous thanks to the top being stowed, and she heard her own engine echoed back at her. The road wasn’t level; she had crested a little dip that was steep enough to block her view of what was ahead of her.
“Yee-hee-hee, it’s a goddamn tunnel!” she yelled. Lexi instinctively flicked the Mercedes’ lights on, and saw that she was on a slight downgrade. It wasn’t so much a tunnel as a very straight and narrow cave; the black rock walls were smooth, not hewn. Well, the whole place had been a salt sea once, maybe it was water-formed.
She geared quickly down as the end of the cave came up. It wasn’t a rock wall, however; the tunnel ended in a big pair of wooden doors. As she got closer she saw that there was an iron gate in front of them, thick enough to keep out any marauding horde of barbaric Europeans, take your pick. The gates were secured by a shipyard-sized chain, and a big lock. All of the metal was rust-colored.
Lexi stopped the car and got out. A tug on the chain told her that the rust was only on the surface, and the lock was as solid as it would ever be. The doors were solid, too.
Well, there hadn’t been a key in the briefcase. What now? Lexi peered into the very narrow crack between the doors, trying to see into the darkness beyond. She edged to one side to let some of the glow from the SLK’s headlights past her. No dice. She stuck her nose to the crack and took a deep breath…and smelled old cars.
Nothing smelled quite like old cars; a metallic mixture of oil, dry leather and people-smell. She wasn’t too terribly surprised. If Ren was involved, and it was for her, there had to be cars mixed up in it somehow. So there was an underground garage on the other side of the bars, and it was on the land that Ren had bought for her (for them, she supposed, since he probably hadn’t been planning on fucking dying) which meant they were hers.