Page 1


Chapter One First, second, neutral, park Points are double after dark Black river, metal shark Crunch... Dead‌ Ha!

Three good men were dead‌ Their charred and broken bodies hung from the hulk of smoking wreckage that had been their vehicle--or lay strewn upon the glassflecked pave that shimmered beneath the searing light and nuclear heat of a cruel white sun. Lifeless retinas began to fry as they stare sightless, unprotected, at that unforgiving orb. A column of black smoke roiled from the wreckage into the windless sky; a fleeting epitaph seen for miles and miles, then washed away in the tides of the cooling evening: Three good men are dead on the road today. *

*

*

He could see it almost as soon as he left the tunnel. His spidery little unit broke into the blistering sunlight at high speed, zipping between the


western towers and out onto the Hiway. As his eyes adjusted from the dark of the city to the brilliance of the afternoon, he spied the billowing smoke on the horizon, its source hidden somewhere beyond the vanishing point. Within the cramped cockpit of the scout car, Roadkill made a cursory check of the gauges on his instrument panel: velocity at eighty-percent of maximum, hull temperature leveling out at the high end of its safe zone, environmental control functioning within limits; everything looked fine. Grasping the yoke with one hand and manipulating console controls with the other, he began to shave inertia to the collective coil--a process that used a vehicle’s momentum to slowly wind a high-tension coil beneath the motor with negligible loss of speed or fuel efficiency. In a tight spot this reservoir of surplus energy could be the difference between life and death. He was traveling one hundred and sixty miles-per-hour as he passed the Outer Perimeter. By the time he found the elusive optimal balance between his ship’s systems, the dragon-toothed concrete barrier was disappearing in his rearview. Opening a comm. channel, he informed Hiway-Ops of his status, position, and estimated time to target. Then he closed the channel and settled in for a twenty-minute ride. The Hiway was a long stretch of pavement topping a high earthen dike that sloped down on either side, twenty feet to the desert floor. It was one of many highways cries-crossing the desolate Jagland, connecting such remote outposts as Mogg and Waypoint to each other and to the greater cities of the more hospitable climes. No one knew how long the dikes had been there. The ancient, crumbling roads on top had been resurfaced with tarmac; but even this was now old and pitted, kept barely serviceable by halfhearted periodic maintenance. Why they had been built was no mystery; the seaside colonies of the West had long been an attractive lure to the commerce of the East. Transports full of migrants and their goods sought passage from the tired lands of their ancestors to the fresh temptation of the western shore. Most circumvented the desert by a circuitous route far to the North--it was time-consuming and expensive, but relatively safe. The intrepid few, however, preferred risking the treacherous dikes of the Jagland in a straight shot across the barren waste, hoping to be first to reach the prime land and hungry markets of the coast. Upon such hopes the outpost cities were founded. These enclosed bastions of life and technology stood like concrete and steel oases amid a bleached desolation. Each one provided wayfarers with a place to rest awhile from their travels--cool, dark taverns and brothels in which to spend their money and stations where precious fuel could be bought, albeit at a stiff price.


Another promise of the outposts was safety of passage--a promise that was easier to make than to keep. Each city policed its respective sections of highway with regular patrols, even providing escorts for the wealthier patrons passing through. But peril lay behind every rock in the Jag--so it was said. Bandits roamed the dikes, few but fierce, preying upon anyone so foolish or brave as to cross the desert alone, outgunned. They struck quickly and left little behind. Often a traveler left point A, never to arrive at point B. Weeks later his personal belongings would begin turning up in the shops and alleyways of the cities. His missingman file would be pulled and updated: death by misadventure. Even other cities could be a threat to commerce. If one city was getting more traffic through in safety than its neighbors, trade administrators from the offended outposts would meet in secrecy; alliances would be formed and soon the passage would see a sharp decline in the number of patrons making it to their destination. But the greatest hazard by far was the Jagland itself. Relentless and unmerciful, the extreme environment of the desert ranged from scorching by day to bone-cold at night. A man caught unprotected in the heat of the morning would have the life evaporated from him by midday; his carcass reduced within weeks to its basic chemical compounds. The Jagland tolerated little error, and the only life in it was artificially sustained, either in an enclosed city or the sealed confines of a vehicle. Except for the Cats. *

*

*

Furtive eyes watched the Hiway. They looked for movement among the wreckage; there was none. They searched the road, first one way and then another, for any sign of an approaching vehicle; there was none. Whispers were traded as, one by one, shapes began to steal from the shadows of the rocks, picking their way down the stone crag that stood just off the dike. They flitted from hiding place to hiding place, oily fur gleaming in the afternoon sun. Their thick cloth headdresses could not belie the protrusive, pointed ears beneath. With feline grace they stalked up the side of the dike. Each assumed a defensive crouch at the top, and quickly spread out to establish a perimeter around the wreck. The largest of the group holstered a pistol-like weapon. He held up a paw, bringing the other Cats to a halt, then walked around to inspect each corpse. Satisfying himself that they were dead, he lowered his paw and started poking about the wreck. The others joined him, and with precision and purpose they began to pick the site clean of useful items. They rifled the bodies, giggling at photographs in the dead men’s wallets. Dexterous paws dismantled consoles and weaponry, piling it on the side of the road.


A sudden hiss brought them all up with a start. As though they were one, they turned to look in the direction that the sentry was excitedly pointing. Far off, a lone craft could be seen moving rapidly toward them from the East. The leader growled out a warning. Cat people began to scurry, picking up armfuls of plunder and dashing back down the side of the dike. In moments, all but the leader had disappeared into the shadows of the crag. He stood watching, the desert wind billowing his long checkered headdress, until the vehicle was less than a mile away. Only when he heard it start to decelerate did he vault himself over the side and vanish into the barren wilderness. *

*

*

Roadkill slowed his car. The setting sun was in his eyes, almost blinding him even through his photoshield visor...yet he thought he had seen movement among the wreckage ahead. Could there be survivors? If so, they would be in dire need of medical attention; the wreck was already over an hour old. An injured man in the afternoon sun--he put the thought out of his mind…he had seen many times what the Jag could do. He stopped his unit twenty yards from the smoldering hulk and surveyed the scene with the practiced eye of an experienced recon-troop. It was a three-man assault chariot, completely destroyed. From where he sat he could see all three bodies...there were no survivors. “Hiway-Ops...” He spoke into his headset mic: “Hiway-Ops, this is Scout Three...” For a moment there was only static, then: “Ops up…whatcha got?” “Oi, Marko. I’m at the target,” Roadkill replied, surveying the scene. “It’s one of our chariots...roasted. No survivors.” He could taste the bile rising in his throat. “I’m gonna get out and see if I can ID these guys...I’ll get back to you.” “Roger that, Road,” Marko’s voice crackled. “I’ll be listening for you, so don’t be too long...and Road?” “Yeah?” “Check six, man.” Roadkill popped the canopy of the scout and reluctantly climbed from the cool cockpit into the grueling heat outside, immediately drenching him in sweat. The air stank of burnt flesh and motor oil. He strode cautiously toward the remains of the chariot and its crew, his boots crunching broken glass with every step. It was hard to look at the bodies; death never got easier to stomach--not when it was someone you knew lying there. He instantly recognized the first man as Brauno--a kind and gentle man, and an excellent road pilot. He would be missed. The second was Brauno’s gunner, Saliva. The last, however, was beyond


recognition; Ops would have to check the crew log to find out who that poor soul was. “What a waste of men and machine,” Roadkill muttered as he began to inspect the wrecked vehicle. Judging from the damage to the undercarriage, it had hit a large mine. Peering into the shattered cockpit, his eyes suddenly widened: The throttle controls and ECS panel were missing. He looked around the outside of the vehicle and realized most of the external weaponry was gone too. Someone had very recently stripped this car, and the culprit probably wasn’t far away. Roadkill turned to dash back to his scout...and froze in his tracks. The eyes hovering behind the raised pistol were large, with elliptic pupils. They were not the wild, darting eyes of a savage, but calculating and sober. They stared out from a flapping white and black checkered headdress, eyeing Roadkill with grim intent. The Cat cracked a wry smile. “Happy greetings, monkey-man!” he said. Roadkill had never been this close to a living MowMow before. He had seen many dead ones--had killed them. That was how he got his name. Seven MowMow silhouettes on the side panel of his scout attested to his propensity for running them down on the highway. Excluded from the elite order of the fighter jocks--the HiwayStars--due to their lack of lineage, the Scouts and other bourgeois pilots engaged in their own sort of private war; a war against the Cat people. MowMow were extremely difficult to surprise on the Hiway. Roadkill’s preferred (and quite successful) tactic was to sneak up on mine-laying Cats by shutting down his engine and running silently off the collective coil; they rarely knew what hit them. The trick was nailing the Cat without hitting the mine. He would then tie the MowMow--dead or alive--to the back of his unit and drag its carcass back to Mogg. A confirmed kill was worth promotion points and a few drinks back at the bar. He would tow the body into the Operations Pit wearing the smug, cynical grin that had become his trademark--the other pilots called it his Roadkill smile--and have his maintenance handler add another silhouette to his side panel. He wasn’t smiling now, but the MowMow was. Roadkill had been caught with his proverbial pants down and they both knew it. He slowly put his hands in the air, wondering what to do next. The MowMow spoke: “I am Thrarc, and this…” He bowed grandiosely toward the carnage in the road. “…this, I did!” He laughed a dry, hissing laugh. “Could have beed you, ape!” The Scout cursed himself inwardly. Marko had told him to watch his back, but Roadkill was notoriously cocky, often ignoring the advice of others even when it was good. How could anything move so quickly and quietly? The Cat had appeared out of nowhere. The MowMow gestured with its pistol, and followed Roadkill over to the scout car. He pointed to the kills painted on the side panel. “Ooh,


seben!” he remarked. “Not bad for a no-tail. You keep at it, maybe you get better.” Reaching around behind his back, Thrarc unslung a small, round shield with an iron spike protruding from its center. He presented it to Roadkill: Etched upon its surface could be seen the figures of thirteen stick-men. “I leave some room on there for you,” he said with a cackle. The Cat reslung his shield and, turning, began to walk toward the side of the road. In that instant Roadkill’s hand shot toward his holster, only to find it empty. He looked at it, dumbfounded, then at the MowMow. Thrarc looked back over his shoulder and smiled a sharp-toothed smile; he held Roadkill’s pistol aloft in one paw. Wails of laughter came from the nearby crag, and Roadkill’s face flushed with discomfiture. At the edge of the dike, Thrarc stopped. He seemed to survey the scene one last time, then winked a big, glassy eye at Roadkill. “See you on the road, funny-man!” he said, then slipped over the side and was gone. Roadkill was livid as he jumped into his unit. The seat was blisteringhot, and he winced at the pain. In frustration he almost drove off the side of the dike trying to turn his ship around. He punched the accelerator, octopads chirping on the tarmac, and raced back toward Mogg. He had been caught off guard by a Cat and robbed of his issued weapon. This was going to be fun to explain. Not.


Chapter Two “He did what?” Crasch exclaimed. “Ha! Damn, I wish oida seen that!” The eyes of the long-haired road pilot were alight with humor, contrasting with the gloom of the tavern. “I knew you would understand, Crasch,” Roadkill said sarcastically, swirling his ale around in his glass. He turned away from his companion and stared at the mirror behind the bar, his thoughts his own. “What did Letric-Eye have to say?” asked Crasch, taking a more serious tone. He knew this was not a good time to push his friend; the young Scout had a lot on the line at the moment. “The Eye isn’t speaking to me right now,” replied Roadkill, coming slowly out of his reflections. “He put me in non-mission-capable status and threw me out of his office. That was yesterday. I haven’t heard anything from him since, but I have a feeling there’s some paperwork being done on me somewhere.” Crasch signaled for another round. “Do you think you’ll be reassigned?” he asked. “I think...I think I’ll be reassigned,” Roadkill nodded, almost choking on the words. Reassignment meant being taken off the Hiway, and exemplary service on the Hiway was the only way for a bourgeois pilot to be commissioned to the HiwayStars. Roadkill had worked long and hard toward that goal. To have it taken away now by a filthy Cat was more than he could bear. He would most likely be posted to dull, uneventful picket and escort duties on the non-hazardous Eastern Road. With no chance to show his mettle he would pine away, becoming nothing more than a bored, frustrated middle-class road rat with a pension: a thought that galled him to distraction. The two Scouts finished their drinks in silence, and Roadkill got up to leave. He tossed some money on the bar to cover the drinks, but Crasch snatched it up and stuffed it back into his friend’s hand. “I’m buying tonight, Road,” he said. “Maybe I’ll pop by later and kill some time with you, okay?” Roadkill nodded and walked out of the smoky commonroom. Crasch stayed behind and had another ale. A pang of sadness washed over him. Seven years his elder, Crasch had been a mentor of sorts to the fiery young pilot fresh out of Road School. Roadkill had joined the Scouts at the age of twenty with high hopes of making the HiwayStars--and the drive to do it. Now at twenty-three, he had proven himself brave and resourceful--but also rash at times, which got him into trouble. Crasch had bailed him out on more than one occasion. This time, however, Roadkill had strung himself up. Nothing Crasch or any of the other veteran Scouts could say would alleviate their


superior’s anger. Letric-Eye was a fair man, protective as a father to those beneath him. But the tall, strong leader of the Scouts tolerated no disgrace to his organization--and disgrace is exactly what Roadkill brought back with him from the desert that day: An experienced HiwayScout had been disarmed on the road by an inferior savage from the Jag! Word traveled quickly in an enclosed city; even now cries of “Meow!” and “Here, kitty kitty!” could be heard in the Pit as technicians and pilots alike joked at the expense of the HiwayScouts. The HiwayStars, on the other hand, found very little humor in it at all. Their safety on the road relied heavily on reconnaissance from the Scouts, and this incident only served to make them feel more vulnerable on the Hiway. Motorbreth, their captain, just shook his head in disgust when he heard about it. “Yeah, Road,” Crasch sighed to himself, shaking his long brown mane, “you got yourself into this one; I sure hope you can get yourself out.” He gulped the last swallow of ale and plunked his glass down on the bar. Wiping his mouth with the side of his hand, he tipped the bartender and stumbled off toward the Operations Pit. *

*

*

The Pit was alive with activity. The high steel walls of the cavernous chamber reverberated with the whine of pneumatic wrenches and the hum of power-on equipment. Technicians in gray coveralls bustled about the multitude of parked units, attaching fuel hoses and power cables to their couplings and inspecting the vehicles for road-damage. Every few moments a scout or an interceptor would whir into the bay from one of the huge portals that gaped in the walls to the south, east, and west and then taxi to its assigned parking area. A hot, tired pilot would climb out, exchange a few words with his maintenance handler, then stride off across the bay toward the control island. Crasch entered the Pit through one of the many secondary passages that let in from various parts of the city. He picked his way through the sea of hoses, men and machinery and made his way over to his scout. It was up on jacks, and sparks skittered beneath it as a grease-covered handler applied an arc-welder to its undercarriage. He looked up from his work. “Oi, Crasch!” he cried, doffing his welder’s goggles. “Wot d’yew dew to this thoing out there, ah? Yer frame’s cracked six inches abaft the cee-gee! Wot! Don’ you bother using roads anymoor?” “Sure I do, Roj,” he responded, “whenever I find ‘em.” They both laughed. “How’s Road’s ride?” Crasch pointed to the scout parked next to his.


“A soight butter’n yors!” Roj exclaimed. "Must care for ‘is Scoot, unloik most road rats in 'ere.” He gave Crasch a broad wink and, replacing his goggles, turned his attention back to welding. Crasch walked over to Roadkill’s vehicle and knelt by the side panel. Someone had painted pistols in the hands of each of the seven MowMow silhouettes. “Roj! Get rid of this crap, will you!” he said angrily, and stalked off. *

*

*

The next morning at roll call, Crasch was pleased to see Roadkill back at work. Maybe things had cooled down, and this whole episode could be forgotten. He listened intently as Letric-Eye called out assignments: “Divot and Flintlock, alternating picket on the Old Road down to George’s Gorge…Samson, recon the Hiway out to the Strip and back…Crasch, you’ll be eyeballing a four-ship of warcats headed to Waypoint. Spend the night there and come back tomorrow.” All of these orders were met with groans of dissatisfaction. Scout pilots never liked their assignments because there were no good assignments; driving back and forth along a desolate stretch of road for twelve hours a day was undesirable, no matter what road it was. However, the alternative was to be a technician, and driving a vehicle was a lot better than working on one. Letric-Eye continued. “Reaper, your vehicle is down for maintenance; have a nice day off.” Now there was a happy Scout. “Roadkill...” Everyone was listening now. “East Road escort duty. Gentlemen, let’s go!” Roadkill and Crasch walked together from the control island to their cars, carrying their helmets and survival bags. They stopped between the two vehicles, and Crasch noted with relief that Roj had painted new markings on the side of Roadkill’s car. “Well,” Roadkill piped, trying to be optimistic, “I guess that’s that for now. I’ll just have to make the best of it, I suppose.” He stowed his gear behind the seat of his scout. “Listen, Road,” Crasch offered. “Give it a few days, and then me and some of the other guys will talk to the Eye. If you keep your nose clean out there, somebody else is bound to screw up and take your place in no time. Hey, I’ll do whatever I can to see to it!” He smiled sardonically inside his helmet. “Thanks, Crasch. I know.” They shook hands. “Be careful out there,” Roadkill added, “Waypoint is a long drive.” “I know, buddy. That’s why I’m taking four fighters with me!” Crasch laughed as they both climbed into their units. “See you tomorrow!” He powered up his scout and, snapping a salute to his friend, drove across the bay toward the western tunnel.


*

*

*

Roadkill spent the day escorting sundry vehicles back and forth along the hundred and seventy miles of Eastern Road that lay between Mogg and the pick-up station. Pilgrims coming, pilgrims going. It was tedious and boring work that tended to quickly get under a pilot’s skin. Most of the traffic was headed for Mogg; some, however, veered onto the Causeway where it joined the Eastern Road, about fifty miles from the city, and traveled northwest to Garrison. It wasn’t really his job to escort traffic whose destination was Mogg’s chief economic rival, but Roadkill saw no point in being fussy about it. They all just wanted to get across the Jagland alive. It was late afternoon. Roadkill had just seen a three-ship of light transports safely into the Pit and was preparing to head out on his last run of the day when Letric-Eye came over and leaned his balding head and muscular torso into the open cockpit. With great effort Roadkill looked him in the eyes. Instead of the hardness and chastisement he expected, he was amazed to find they held understanding and forgiveness. “I’m sorry about all of it, Eye,” Roadkill said softly. “He just came out of nowhere!” “I know, I know,” the captain of the Scouts assured him. “They didn’t used to be so bold, but those damn Cats are getting to be a real headache!” He put his hand on Roadkill’s shoulder. “I’m gonna have you work Eastern again tomorrow, then you’ll be transferred to the South Road. In a few weeks this will be behind us--I’ll get you back on the Hiway.” Roadkill’s eyes lit up at that. “You’ve got a lot going for you, Road. You’ll be a HiwayStar yet.” Roadkill’s countenance lightened visibly. “I...uh…y’know I really appreciate that, Eye,” he stammered, scarcely believing his ears. He drove back out onto the highway in much better spirits. *

*

*

The next morning, Roadkill was on the highway early. The sun, just rising over the lip of the world, was bright in his eyes but the photoshield visor of his helmet kept the extreme glare bearable. Oncoming traffic was unusually light for this time of day, but Roadkill barely noticed; he was too busy reveling in the knowledge that today was his last day on the Eastern Road. Additionally, the Eye had informed him that he would be on the South roads for less than a week. Then it was back to the Hiway! While the sun was still low in the cloudless sky, he passed the point where the Causeway joined the Eastern Road. Now there was no traffic at


all, and this fact suddenly registered with Roadkill, interrupting his daydream. Something wasn’t right. He checked his rearview screen; it was blank. His scout seemed to be the only vehicle on the road. He tried opening a comm channel, but to no avail; he was already outside Mogg’s radio range. Scanning the frequencies for radio traffic showed him that the airways were as devoid of activity as the highway. Well, he thought, I’ll find out what’s going on when I get to the pick-up station. As Roadkill turned his attention back to the road, he saw an object coming toward him. It was some kind of vehicle running at high speed. Maybe the driver would know what happened. Roadkill began to decelerate; the other vehicle, however, showed no sign of slowing down. It grew larger as it approached, spewing a cloud of dust behind it that blotted out the sun. Its lines became more distinct as it barreled down the highway, seemingly oblivious to the little scout idling on the road ahead of it. Roadkill tried the radio again, but could get no response from the other driver on any of the common channels. Now he could see it clearly, and he gasped in horror as he realized the machine hurtling along the dike at almost two-hundred miles per hour was a Juggernaut, one of the gigantic land-yachts of the Eastern kings. Seldom seen in the barren reaches of the Jagland, these three-hundred ton behemoths were the terrible playthings of the reclusive high-nobility of the Eastlands. Driving the highways of the world at the whim and fancy of their overlords, the Juggernaut pilots were heartless and unmerciful, mowing down anything or anyone unfortunate enough to be in their path. Usually, the king’s chancellor was considerate enough to send word ahead to the Juggernaut’s next destination so that the city could prepare a proper reception, keeping its residents safely out of harm’s way. But there had been no word sent to Mogg that a king would be visiting. Surely, as the Eastern Road’s only escort pilot, Roadkill would have been notified. The only other logical conclusion was that the Juggernaut was headed for Garrison, in which case their city administrators were in violation of the Highway Commerce and Traffic Agreement. Failure to inform another city that shared a trade corridor about operations that might endanger its traffic was a serious breach of treaty protocol. Roadkill had to act fast! Wrenching the yoke around, he gunned his unit and headed back the way he had come. The Juggernaut was moving much faster than his scout, but Roadkill only needed to make it to the junction ahead; the Juggernaut would steer onto the Causeway while he continued on toward Mogg. Later, he would file a report of the treaty violation with Hiway-Ops. The Garrison administrators would have to answer for it at the next hearing of the Council. Keeping a close eye on his rearview screen, which was rapidly being filled by the thundering Juggernaut, Roadkill continued to adjust his


controls for maximum acceleration. The huge machine was still gaining on his tiny unit, but with each passing moment its rate of closure was diminishing. Repeated attempts at radio contact proved futile. The Jug pilot either could not hear him or did not care to respond. From what Roadkill had heard about these pilots, the latter was most likely the case. They were coming up on the intersection now. Roadkill still had enough of a lead on the giant to make it safely beyond the Causeway. Zooming past the highway’s entrance, he opened a small port on the side of his canopy and, sticking his arm through, cocked a defiant fist at the Juggernaut behind him. “Ha! Maybe next time, loser!” he shouted. Then he looked at his rearview...and screamed inside his helmet! The monitor was a portrait of mechanized death: The Juggernaut had also rolled past the Causeway entrance; it was right behind him now, and still gaining. Looking back and upward, he could see the face of the pilot-the bastard was laughing! “Gods help me!” Roadkill pleaded. He was beginning to panic now. The Juggernaut was a meteor that could not be stopped until it reached its destination, and no dime-a-dozen road rat was cause enough to alter the itinerary of an eastern king. The occupants of the ship would barely notice a dull thump as Roadkill’s scout was crushed under the titanic wheels of the charging monster. His foot was pressed hard against the accelerator, and he gripped the yoke with white-knuckled hands. Still the Juggernaut gained. An idea suddenly came into Roadkill’s mind. With trembling hands he actuated the collective coil; the extra power it held would boost his speed by a few percent. The Juggernaut was less than ten feet behind him now, and the sound of it filled his world--‘like being inside a tornado,’ he would later say-- its ominous shadow blanketing his little scout in darkness. It was hardly gaining on him now: only an inch at a time. “Good!” he thought. “Now...more power! I need more power!” He concentrated, trying to recall everything Crasch had ever told him about getting out of hairy situations (and they didn’t get much hairier than this!) when it suddenly came to him. “ECS!” he shrieked. Of course! He had already diverted power from all of the unnecessary systems to his engines; the only one still drawing power away was the most necessary one: environmental control. Without it, the cockpit would quickly become a furnace; the hundred-and-sixty degree heat of the blazing sun would be magnified through the plexiform canopy. He wouldn’t last long. He didn’t have to. Even now the city loomed into view, the dark opening of the eastern tunnel beckoning him. If he could only maintain his distance from the hurtling Juggernaut.... With a flick of his wrist he switched off the ECS control, and immediately felt the scout surge forward with the increased gain. The coolness of the interior was gone in seconds, replaced by a stifling


swelter. Breathing became difficult, so he pulled off his battered white helmet, damning regulations to hell. A layer of sweat began to build inside Roadkill’s gray and black highwaysuit. Even beneath its thick layers of leather and nylon he could feel the sun’s lashing rays. But the Juggernaut was no longer gaining. Risking a minute amount of power to his radio, Roadkill opened a comm channel. “Hiway-Ops, this is Scout Three! Do you copy?” He was only a few miles from the city now. Receiving no reply, he repeated his broadcast. Then: “Ay-up, Scout Three. Mogg Ops...” “Marko! Shut up and listen!” Roadkill interrupted. “I have a Juggernaut inbound at high speed...maybe a mile out. Clear the Pit right now!” “Umm...copy, Roadkill. Stand by for verifi...” “Stand by my ass! CLEAR THE PIT!!” Roadkill screamed into the mic. Just then another voice came over the channel, calm, collected; it was Letric-Eye. “Road, are you sure it’s a Jug? We don’t show anything like that coming in today.” “Sir! With all due respect, anyone blocking the eastern tunnel thirty seconds from now is going to die!” He emphasized the last three words. Then he switched off the radio and braced himself in his seat. He was entering the tunnel now, and the cockpit of his scout immediately began to cool. Right behind him was the Juggernaut; the whine of its engines reverberated off the walls, mingling with the wail of alarm klaxons sounding in the city. Without warning, the Juggernaut’s brakes fired in a deafening explosion of air that echoed throughout Mogg’s lower levels. The titanic vehicle fell quickly behind Roadkill’s scout as it bled away its Herculean momentum. Roadkill flew into the Pit and was greatly relieved to see that it had been hastily cleared of men and equipment. He slammed on his own brakes, jerking hard on the yoke. His scout slid around to the right and screeched to a halt beside the control island, safely out of the Juggernaut’s path. The Juggernaut rolled slowly out of the tunnel, coming to a graceful stop in the middle of the Pit. Roadkill popped his canopy and leaped out of the driver’s seat in a rage. Before he could get close to the Juggernaut, which was noisily shutting down its systems, numerous arms grabbed him and held him back. “Go easy, son.” It was Letric-Eye’s voice in his ear. “You can’t just go and jump a king of the East!” There was laughter around him. “But I can sure kick his pilot’s ass!” retorted Roadkill, trying to break loose. More laughter. “Road,” the Eye said, his voice quiet yet commanding. “Take it easy. You did great, guy! We never received word that this thing was coming. I guess their messenger got waylaid on the road. If you hadn’t radioed, he


would have flattened half the fleet! You’re out of the doghouse. Don’t crawl back in it.” Letric-Eye could calm anybody down, including the fiery young Scout. Roadkill ceased his struggle, and the multitude of arms released him. Letric-Eye grasped his shoulder in a firm yet gentle grip, and motioned him toward the debriefing chamber. Across the bay, the side door of the Juggernaut opened with a hiss, and a gangway was ushered out and connected. From the vehicle stepped the stately eastern king, followed by his entourage. Roadkill halted, watching intently as they disembarked. Then he saw him: The pilot of the Juggernaut stepped out of the hatchway and waved at the gathering crowd of onlookers. He spied Roadkill and, smiling, gave him a thumbs up. Roadkill shot him the finger. “Son of a bitch,” he said under his breath, then stormed off toward the control island.


Chapter Three A persistent knocking startled Roadkill out of some deep, halfremembered dream involving beautiful women and cheese. He sat up quickly, grimacing as a fresh hangover crushed his brain against the top of his skull. He remembered now: He and Crasch had been celebrating something--drinking Billy Blackouts and doing bam at the Terrace bar-then it all went hazy. The knocker kept knocking. It was becoming gradually apparent to the dazed road pilot that whoever it was would not stop until answered. Roadkill looked for a blunt object to kill the intruder with, but found nothing. Pulling on a shabby housecoat, he staggered to the door, wondering where he would hide a body anyway--maybe it would be that Juggernaut pilot! Then he wouldn’t have to hide the body at all; he would put it on display as a warning to others... Thump, thump, thump! “Enough, already!” yelled Roadkill, and immediately regretted it. His vision tunneled, and his temples throbbed with an excruciating rhythm. He grasped the handle, taking a moment to steady himself, then opened the door. The men were dressed in black...Roadkill shook his head to clear his blurry vision...The man was dressed in black. He was elderly, perhaps in his sixties, with thinning gray hair and stark, aquiline features. His dark eyes were mere slits resting atop high cheekbones, and he carried his slender frame with a demeanor that suggested nobility; yet his expression held no disdain toward the disheveled pilot or his squalid quarters. “I regret to have awakened you,” the man said in a deep voice. “Please allow me to introduce myself: I am Graegor, Chancellor to his Majesty, King Vordigal.” “Unh?” grunted Roadkill, his brow furrowed in consternation. “King Vordigal,” Graegor repeated. “His Juggernaut followed you into the city yesterday. May I come in?” he asked, looking about. “Huh? Oh, sure!” Roadkill was stunned. As a rule, the bourgeois classes were seldom allowed to visit the upper levels of the city, and the nobility showed little interest in the lower levels--much less ask to enter their living quarters. He was not at all sure how to act. “Can I...get you something?” he finally asked clumsily. “That won’t be necessary, thank you,” Graegor responded, sitting on the edge of the unmade bed. “I am here, at his Majesty’s behest, to invite you to a reception being given in his honor by the City Governor this evening. It would seem that King Vordigal was quite impressed with your narrow escape, as was I! Not many get away like that--and no one has


ever intentionally run in front of a Juggernaut. Out of curiosity, why didn’t you just pull off the dike? Why risk your life to beat us into the city?” “Because I knew I would,” Roadkill lied. Graegor stayed awhile, questioning Roadkill at length about the Jagland and telling him of distant lands the Scout had never seen. Roadkill was surprised to find the aging chancellor humorous and delightfully personable. He had a free sort of charm that transcended the classes: Here was a person who could be at home with king and pauper alike. Roadkill decided he liked this man. At last Graegor got up to leave. “I have enjoyed speaking with you,” he said, “and look forward to seeing you at the reception.” “Thank you,” Roadkill replied, shaking his hand. “It will be an honor; I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve never seen the Governor’s palace.” He showed the chancellor to the door. “Splendid! Oh, and by the way,” Graegor smiled, “you may bring a friend.” Then he left. Roadkill shut the door and tried to collect himself. Few commoners were ever invited to upper level functions, and a reception for a king of the East was bound to be an especially opulent affair. A mirror hanging over the sink cast an unimpressive reflection of the bleary-eyed pilot. His spiky black hair was a matted, chaotic mess. Brown, bloodshot eyes contrasted with the dark circles of fatigue etched beneath. “Egad!” Roadkill huffed, running a hand through his sweat-soaked hair--then turned away from the grim portrait. He opened his closet and stared dejectedly at its contents. For the first time in his life, Roadkill did not have a thing to wear. *

*

*

“My buddy!” Crasch almost sang with delight as they rode the secure elevator to the highest level of the city: the Governor’s palace. “Anybody I know would have killed for this, and who does he pick? Me!” “Of course I pecked you,” Roadkill laughed, “you’re me best chum.” “Damn stroight!” Crasch cockneyed. It had been a thrilling experience to check in at the elevator security desk and find that they were ‘expected’. The duo could not banish the silly grins from their faces for most of the ride up. Each eyeballed the other’s new suit. Finding appropriate attire had promised to be a challenge, but Graegor had taken care of that. An appointment with the city’s most exclusive haberdasher had been scheduled, and the two pilots were soon decked out in fine eveningwear with no questions asked and no payment due. Roadkill thought Crasch looked dashing; barrel chest and muscular arms filling out his tailored ensemble like a gods out of


legend. While his own suit fit his medium frame snugly, he was certain he was not as formidably handsome as his road-hardened friend. The elevator stopped at some of the higher levels to take on more passengers: Aristocrats and their ladies who uttered not a word. But when one young woman cast a sidelong glance at Crasch’s long dark hair, the scout winked at her. Then the elevator slowed to its final stop; Roadkill and Crasch held their breath as the doors slid open. The scene that unfolded before their unbelieving eyes was one of decadent splendor. The huge, circular room in which they found themselves was lavish in every respect--from the plush carpet (carpet was all but unheard of on the lower levels) to the walls of glass that looked out upon the starry desert night. Soft music filled the air, and everywhere people talked and danced and laughed. An enormous buffet was laid out along the northern curve of the room that even included extremely rare dairy products from the far East, but the Scouts’ eyes were riveted on something else: “Crasch,” Roadkill gasped, “look at the bar!” “That’s not a bar,” Crasch whispered in awe. “That’s the Temple of the Liquor Godss.” He approached the magnificent, marble affair with trepidation. On tiered glass shelves behind it were hundreds of crystal flasks containing every fermented beverage he had ever heard of, and then some. A beautiful blond barmaid with sleepy blue eyes and full, red lips looked up as they approached. Smiling angelically, she asked if she could help them. “Hi!” they said in unison--then scowled at each other. In this game, however, Roadkill was more than outmatched. Crasch was the ruggedly attractive lady-killer, and the less striking Roadkill typically settled for whatever fell through the cracks. Resignedly, he ordered a Billy Blackout, then turned his eyes elsewhere around the crowded room. A few HiwayStars could be seen milling about. Although many were not of noble lineage themselves, the HiwayStars were the darlings of the city and accorded status equal to that of a knight. So this is how they spend their evenings, he thought. Just then, a waving hand attracted his attention: it was Graegor summoning him over to a small cluster of people. “Hey, Crasch, I’ll be right back,” he said and walked off. “Huh? Oh…‘kay Road,” said Crasch, barely taking notice as he stroked the hand of the comely barmaid. “So, Jolie is it? Tell me, Jolie, do you know how to make a screaming viking...?” As Roadkill approached the group, they all turned at once toward him. He was instantly intimidated. Here stood more nobility than he had ever seen at one time: King Vordigal, Graegor, Governor Blunderbuss, and Motorbreth of the HiwayStars--and they were all looking straight at him. The pilot of the Juggernaut was there too, and Roadkill was struggling to find something fitting to say when, to his great relief, Graegor spoke up.


“Highness, may I present to you the HiwayScout you asked me to invite to the reception: Roadkill.” “Ah, yes. The speedy one,” the king said haughtily. “You almost lived up to your name, my friend!” This drew obligatory laughs from the others. “Tell me, were you worried? Did you ever think you might not make it?” “The entire ride, m’lord,” answered Roadkill, remembering to be on his best behavior. “It’s quite a machine you have there.” “Yes, yes, quite a machine indeed. Have you met her pilot? Juno!” The King turned to the handsome Juggernaut pilot. “Here is the bug that you couldn’t squash! Mister Roadkill, meet Juno--the finest driver of the heavy metal in the known world.” “A pleasure to meet you,” said Juno, flashing a smile of straight, white teeth. “The pleasure is mine, sir,” Roadkill responded, wishing he could think of something clever to say. However, in the excitement of this rare atmosphere, Roadkill’s pent up anger toward the Jug pilot began to lose its potency. Sometimes out on the road, he realized, it really was just a game. “I hope you harbor no hard feelings, chap,” Juno said, extending a hand toward him. “It was nothing personal; and besides, you beat me fairly, and have earned my respect. I thought for sure I had you!” Roadkill grinned. Respect was something he had not had in a while. Coming from a pilot of Juno’s caliber, and in front of the most prominent citizens of Mogg, these words were as good as gold. He saw the Mayor nod in agreement, and even Motorbreth smiled. Thank’ee godss, he thought. Just then some more guests arrived, and Roadkill’s moment of glory was over. The king and his party turned their attention to the newcomers, but Juno remained speaking to Roadkill. “How long have you been a Scout?” he asked, motioning him toward a nearby table. “Not long,” Roadkill responded. “Just under two years. I’m hoping to get commissioned to the HiwayStars, but that’s getting tougher to do.” “Yes, I met your Motorbreth. Seems to be a good man. He told me you had ambitions. I saw a lot of potential in you on the road yesterday, and told him so. I hope it may have done some good.” “Thanks,” said Roadkill. “I need all the help I can get around here.” Then Crasch sauntered up with the lovely Jolie on his arm. He threw his other arm around Roadkill, and with volatile breath said to Juno, “I love this guy! Don’t you love this guy?” He paused for a moment to let his gastrointestinal system re-adjust. “Hooo! Road, buddy! Me and my new friend Jenny here....” “Jolie,” the girl corrected him.


“Jolie...are going for a little walk.” Then in a whispered aside that everyone heard: “Don’t wait up for me, ho...hokay?” The intoxicated pilot winked mischievously and, assisted by his beautiful charge, wove his way across the room to the elevator. “I guess she knew how to make a Screaming Viking,” Roadkill said. The two pilots talked most of the evening. Roadkill was surprised to find Juno a good listener. Apparently, he had been to so many of these functions that he now found the social rhetoric boring. Instead, he preferred to seek out kindred spirits who shared his love of the road. They talked of speed and power, wheels and motors; they traded anecdotes of life on the highway. It was growing late when at last they looked up to find most of the guests had gone home. Service crews were beginning to clean up the room, and Governor Blunderbuss was standing by the elevator saying elaborate good-byes to the departing nobility. “So, what is it like?” asked Roadkill. “Driving a Juggernaut, I mean.” Juno cocked an eyebrow. “Would you like to go see it?” “Man, I thought you’d never ask,” admitted the young Scout. “Let’s go this way and avoid all the pageantry,” said Juno. They walked over to a side corridor that led to the service elevator. They rode down to the ground level and, working their way through a maze of access passages, came into the Pit. The Juggernaut looked sinister, its black metal bulkheads gleaming in the halogen light of the bay. Too large to fit in any of Mogg’s hangars, the gargantuan machine still occupied the center of the Pit. Hoses and cables connected it to the control island, replenishing its lifeblood of fuel and power. As they walked past its rear octopad wheel, Roadkill could only gape in disbelief: It was five men high, and fitted with eight of the heaviest tread-pads he had ever seen. He shuddered at the thought of what those wheels would have done to him if he had faltered on the Eastern Road. Juno led him up the gangway, waving him past the armed sentinels that stood at the vehicle’s hatch. As they stepped through, Roadkill could feel the cool air still being pumped by the ship’s ECS. Pure luxury, he thought. The narrow passages were dimly lit, and as they walked by open doorways he caught only vague glimpses of plush suites and chambers. But Juno passed these by, bringing Roadkill straight to the heart and soul of the Juggernaut: the bridge. Nothing Roadkill had ever seen could compare to the magnificent array of technology that opened before his eyes. Banks of controls lined the walls of the dark cabin, their status lights blinking with a surreal electronic rhythm. The command chair occupied the front center of the cockpit and was surrounded by a display panel alive with gauges and indicators. Behind it, on either side, were the weapons control consoles for the ship’s multiple recessed slug-throwers; further back, along the


walls, were the nav/comm and engineering stations. The bridge of the Juggernaut was, in reality, a command center for the largest mobile battle-platform in existence. Roadkill moved through the cockpit in wonder, gingerly touching panels and actuators. Juno, beaming with pride, motioned Roadkill to take the command chair. The Scout was hesitant at first, intimidated by the ship’s malevolence and feeling more than a little trepidation at the concept of one man controlling so much destructive machinery. Nevertheless, he quickly abandoned his fear and slid into the cool leather seat. At once he found himself in the grip of the Juggernaut’s intoxicating allure; there could be no feeling like that of guiding this beast across Gods’s world. Roadkill held the drive-by-wire yoke in his sweating hands, and imagined the sun-baked Hiway rolling by beneath the front windshield. For the moment, he had become Commander Roadkill, Juggernaut pilot, blazing across the Jagland, mowing down every vehicle that dared come against him...then he remembered himself, and was once again a young Scout pilot sitting in a chair too big for him to fill. Juno smiled with understanding. He had been there. He once had dreams and ambitions, too. Now that they had been realized, however, the taste was not so sweet. In a life of favor and status, Juno found himself missing the unsung pleasures of simpler things. In his heart of hearts, while Roadkill sat reveling in delusions of grandeur, Juno secretly envied the HiwayScout. When Roadkill was on the highway, he could be alone with his machine; no royal advisors telling him where to go, how to drive--just him against the road. Now that was the life! But, alas, Juno had no say in his destiny anymore. He would be a Juggernaut pilot until he was too old to drive; then he would be put out to pasture and forgotten. Juno was living a life that was full of every opportunity but one: the chance to become a hero, to achieve immortality on the highways. Only the lone wolves of the road ever earned that distinction: men like young Roadkill. When they parted company that evening, Roadkill felt as though the man who had earlier tried to kill him for sport was now his friend. The visit of King Vordigal to Mogg would be one of the happiest events in the Scout’s life; he had been reinstated into the good graces of his city’s nobility and his unit, and he had met the Juggernaut pilot, Juno. The sun was rising over the edge of the world when he finally stumbled into his quarters. He took off his expensive new clothes, hung them ceremoniously in his closet, then cast himself upon his bed. “What a night,” he said, yawning, and was asleep inside a minute, dreaming of women and cheese.


Chapter Four The South Road was always slow. Hardly any traffic ever flowed north from George’s Gorge or Bottomly, and the two forts were little more than rest stops on the way to the southeastern cities. With their vehicles in a tandem formation, Flintlock was leading Roadkill down the long stretch of the dike. At the junction they would part ways: Roadkill taking the Old Highway while Flintlock continued on to Bottomly. Each had been assigned to a picket patrol, roaming the highways looking for marauding bandits or anything out of the ordinary. It would be easy duty for the few days Roadkill had to wait before he was put back on the Hiway. Inside the cockpit of Roadkill’s scout, the ECS was blasting frigid air from its vents. The allotment of fuel allocated by Hiway-Ops was seldom enough to allow anything but a trickle of cold into the cabin--just enough to offset the murderous heat of the Jagland. But Roadkill could splurge because he had an angle: The owner of the Gorge was a bam freak. While the mild hallucinogen was legal in the liberal Free Cities, it was outlawed almost everywhere else. And George was more than generous with his fuel when the Scout brought him a regular supply of the powdery substance. Roadkill did not mind doing a little himself now and then, but George lived on the stuff. Come to think of it, so did Crasch. “I hear you enjoyed yourselves,” Flintlock’s voice came through the headset. “Oh yeah!” Roadkill growled. “That’s the way to live! I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again at the Terrace Bar, although I’m pretty sure Crasch had an even better time than I did. I haven’t seen him since the party.” “Me either...must have been good!” Flintlock laughed. “Glad to hear you’ll be back on the Hiway. That was a raw deal with that Cat.” “Hey, thanks for reminding me!” Roadkill spouted sardonically. The two Scouts continued their banter as their units raced down the highway. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, and its light reflected brilliantly from their metallic craft. The eyes that watched them from a distance easily picked them out. “Well, here’s where I get off,” said Roadkill. “Enjoy the rest of your picket, Flint!” “Yeah, right! See you, Road.” Roadkill’s unit broke off and headed down the older section of dike that cut across the desert to the southwest. Now that he was out of sight of his comrade he pulled off his helmet (an act forbidden by regulation), laid it in his lap, and let the air-conditioning blow through his sweatsoaked brown hair. There were some advantages to driving this road after all, he decided.


It was a little under two hours at cruising speed from the junction to the Gorge. Roadkill passed the time in silence, scanning the terrain for anything of interest. Midway through the ride, at a place where the Old Highway jinked to the south, Roadkill espied an ancient, decrepit dike far off to the west, across the desert. The wrecked piece of highway was well known, but largely ignored; it was far beyond repair, and meandered aimlessly into the mountains--exactly where no one wanted to go. If anyone had ever explored the Lost Road, he had not returned to tell of it. And so it remained a mystery of the Jag. Roadkill squinted. He thought he had seen a glint of sun on steel out on the eroded rampart, but it flashed only once and did not reappear. Shrugging his shoulders, he wrote it off as an illusion brought on by the sun. The Jagland heat was well known to play tricks on the eyes of the overly watchful. He forgot about it and drove on. *

*

*

The few citizens of George’s Gorge were sitting in the sunken lounge, gazing out the ground-level windows that looked on the Old Highway. There had been no business all day, and it threatened to be yet another in a long series of tedious afternoons. The fuel pumps stood like silent sentinels under the sheet metal awning as a hanging liquor sign clattered in the light breeze coming off the mountains. The concrete dragon’steeth of the fort’s protective barrier pointed accusingly toward the malevolent star that scorched them day after day. George was edgy, pacing with impatient irritation like a caged beastie. It was obvious to his companions that the chubby, balding little man was waiting for something. What he was waiting for was obvious to them also, and their suspicions were vindicated when George suddenly stiffened and hurried to the window. The others turned to see a lone scout car closing in on the fort from the north. “At last!” George exclaimed, and hurried to the door that led to the underground garage. Roadkill passed under the iron grillwork of the fort’s north entrance and pulled straight into the dark opening that gaped beneath the low main building. Once inside, he stopped his vehicle to let his eyes adjust to the darkness of the subterranean chamber. Almost instantly he heard a rapping on his canopy. “Keep your pants on, George, you freak!” Roadkill called out. He knew who it was even though he could not yet see in the pitch-blackness. Who else could it be? “How about a little light, huh?” “Oh, sure!” came a voice. A moment later, illumination flooded the garage from overhead. The diminutive owner of the Gorge came trundling over to Roadkill like some greedy goblin out of the hills. His eyes were wide and his face hopeful. Roadkill played it out.


“What did you bring me, Scout?” George asked, fidgeting with his hands. “Huh?” replied Roadkill naively. “Whatever do you mean, George?” It may have been cruel, but he somewhat enjoyed seeing the greasy little man squirm. “Oh, come on, man! Don’t be like this! You know what I mean. Why do you always do this to me, Roadkill?” “Because you always let me, Geo! Now have one of your boys top off my tank and clean my canopy.” “Top off your tank?!” George cried. “That’s a lot of gas!” “And this,” Roadkill pulled a black vial ceremoniously from the pocket of his highway suit, “is a lot of bam.” He tossed it to the man, who eagerly unscrewed the cap and peered inside. “Yeah!” he gasped in astonishment. “You got it, my friend...you got it.” Inside the main building, it was a much happier and more at-ease George who pranced into the lounge. “Gather ‘round my friends! Today’s excitement is brought to you courtesy of our friend from Mogg!” he said, displaying the vial for his companions to see. They gathered around him expectantly as he dumped a small pile of its contents out on a tabletop. “Stop crowding or you won’t get anything!” he snarled. Meanwhile, Roadkill walked into a back pantry and helped himself to a hearty meal. A little leverage is a good thing, he thought, as he washed down his second sandwich with a cold brew. He propped his feet up on an overturned bucket and started stuffing whole pickled eggs into his mouth. “Here! Road!” George hollered from the lounge. “Don’t you be eating all of my eggs, now! Them’s hard to come by!” “I won’p!” Roadkill mumbled around the egg in his mouth. He wiped his hands on an apron hanging beside him on the kitchen wall and stretched out on a low worktable for a quick nap. The cool air and hypnotic drone of the fort’s powerful air conditioner lulled him to sleep as though he were by the seaside.... *

*

*

Strangely enough, it was the silence that woke him. The air conditioner had ceased its humming, and the voices of George and company were silent. Roadkill shook the sleep from his head and rose to his feet. Cautiously, he maneuvered across the kitchen to the door that let into the lounge, and peered through its round window. He could see no one. Pushing the door slowly open, his eyes beheld a hideous sight that explained the uncanny silence of George and his friends: They lay bound


hand and foot on the carpeted floor, their throats slit--silenced forever. Pools of sticky blood surrounded each, already drying in the growing heat of the lounge. Roadkill didn’t know whether to scream or throw up, or both. Death was a part of the road that one had to accept, but he had seen more than his share lately. Looking around, he saw that the till had been pried open and emptied of money--also some bottles of liquor were missing from the shelves behind the bar. He sat down with his head in his hands, stunned by the grim spectacle before him. What could have happened? It almost seemed as though the patrons of the lounge had given in without a struggle. There was no overturned furniture to indicate a fight, and no loud noises had awakened the sleeping HiwayScout. They were just lying there with their lives spilled out on the floor, faces twisted in the agony of demise. Now it was becoming unbearably hot in the lounge. Roadkill tried the climate control console, but found that all the power in the fort was shut down. He would have to get out quickly. As he headed for the door to the underground garage, he was startled by the sound of squealing octopads coming from outside. He turned just in time to see a yellow vehicle--it looked like a dirtrunner--race past the window on its way toward the northern gate. Roadkill dashed for the garage, grabbing his helmet and gloves from the table by the door. He sprinted to his car and quickly inspected it for tampering; more than one pilot had been done in by simple sabotage. Finding nothing amiss, he vaulted into the driver’s seat and powered up his systems. Forty-five seconds later, Roadkill’s scout was screaming up the ramp and out into the blazing afternoon sun. He set off in pursuit of the fleeing vehicle, vowing not to let the murderer get away. George might have some enemies, he thought to himself, but he also had friends-- and Roadkill was one of them. Behind him, the little cluster of buildings that had been a favorite stop on the highway for the last thirty years suddenly burst into flames with a loud report that followed him up the Old Highway. He clenched his teeth in anger. Somebody would pay.... *

*

*

The two men crouched in the afternoon shadow of a maintenance shed and watched the little scout shoot from the garage entrance, race out the gate, and speed northward. One, a tall man with graying hair, picked up a portable hand-set radio and spoke into it: “You’ve got a Scout about a mile behind you, Herm. We’re going to torch this place, and then we’ll follow.” “Roger that,” came the reply, sounding hollow and tinny. “We’ll see you there. Out.”


Then both men began to pour fuel from jerry-cans onto the ground around the island of fuel pumps just outside the main building. When they had both emptied their cans, the second--a bent fellow--struck a flare and threw it into a pool of gas. The pool burst into flames, which then began creeping toward the nearest pump. “Quickly!” the elder shouted. Both men dashed for their vehicle that had been hidden in back of the main building, eager to escape the unbearable heat. They climbed into the cockpit of the dirtrunner and sealed the canopy. “Now get us out of here before the whole place blows!” he panted. The compact off-road vehicle lurched forward and sped from the compound just as the underground fuel tanks ignited. The car was picked up by the blast wave, and slammed back down. The hunchbacked driver almost lost control of the vehicle, and gave a holler as he nearly bit through his tongue. “Don’t wreck us!” snapped the other. “This is the break we’ve been hoping for! What good fortune that a HiwayScout would be lurking in there!” The hunchback flashed a bloody-toothed smile. *

*

*

Roadkill was at full velocity, rocketing along the dike. He could just make out the dirtrunner on the highway ahead, also moving at high speed. Whether or not its occupants were aware of him, Roadkill had no way of knowing. They would know he was there soon enough; once he was within range he would send them a greeting. His little scout may have been lightly armed, but he would make good use of its single slugthrower. He armed the weapon and calibrated its sights. Just a little longer and George would be avenged. It had to be a bandit--that much was obvious. Only the dregs of the road were capable of such a heinous act against a beloved institution like George’s Gorge. But for them to strike with such cold-hearted cruelty and malice was a step in a new and unnerving direction. If they were only out to rob George, why did they kill him and his friends in cold blood? George was not a fighter, and most likely would have gladly given a day’s take to save his own hide. Now the dirtrunner seemed to be slowing, and was coming into range. They must have seen me, Roadkill thought, as he fingered the fire button on his ship’s control yoke. Suddenly, the vehicle ahead darted to the side and disappeared over the edge of the dike. He was leaving the road! The dirtrunner had innate off-road capabilities, and could probably outdistance the more roadworthy scout over naked desert, but Roadkill was not giving up that


easily. Besides, where could they go? The only thing out there was the Lost Road. As Roadkill pulled up to the point where the dirtrunner had set off perpendicular to the Old Highway, he saw that the other was indeed running along the base of the dilapidated dike, heading west toward the mountains. He paused to consider the circumstances: Cold-blooded murderers were getting away, their victim had been a friend of sorts, and Roadkill had a full tank of fuel. A HiwayStar would not give up so easily, and neither would he. Roadkill gunned his scout over the edge, and careened down the riprapped side of the dike. He gave a grunt as his unit hit the desert floor, kicking up sprays of fine sand about him. Then he blazed out across the desert in pursuit of the fleeing dirtrunner. *

*

*

The Cat panted in the meager shade afforded by the cleft in the rock outcropping. He craned his neck to blink at the glaring sun. In a few more hours the cool evening would descend upon the barren hillside. Then he would be able to move on. Thrarc was far from home. Only days ago, he had been leading a fist of twenty brave MowMow warriors on a scavotage mission: waylaying lone vehicles in remote areas of the desert and stripping them of useful equipment to take back to his village. Now he was alone. A hostile tribe of his own kind had in turn ambushed his party. “Pah!� he spat in disgust. How would the MowMow race ever wrest control of the Jagland from the encroaching humans if they killed each other off in petty clan wars and pointless feuds? His own people, the Maur, were among the largest of the mountain tribes, yet each day their number dwindled. If this continued, one day the last MowMow would kill his last enemy, and their race would be no more. Then the ape-men-the humans--would cover the Jag with their filthy presence. Thrarc shuddered at the thought as he lay his head back down and closed his eyes. He would sleep the last hot hours away, and quickly cover many miles under the sweet darkness of the night. The sound of racing motors startled Thrarc from sleep. He sprang to his feet in an instant, wide-awake and fully alert. Peering over the lip of the outcropping, he could just make out two...no, three shiny vehicles bouncing along the bottom of the ruined dike, headed his way. Startled, Thrarc wondered how they could have known where he was. His eyes darted about, picking out small spots of shade further up the hillside that he could use to make his escape. Suddenly, the lead vehicle braked hard and slid about. Now it faced the second car, which came to a halt a hundred yards from it. The last


vehicle in the procession slowed, and seemed to be stealthily trying to take up a position close behind the second. That’s when Thrarc discovered that he was not the target of these interlopers at all. Below him, a drama was unfolding that he quickly realized was a standoff of some sort. The first and last vehicles had trapped the second between them, and were now waiting for it to take some kind of action. All three sat motionless in the brilliant afternoon sun. “So,” Thrarc said to himself, “the humans also fight among themselves! I must have a closer look!” Donning his checkered headdress, he crept from the shadows and picked his way down the hill. *

*

*

Roadkill had been had, and he knew it. Not until the dirtrunner he was chasing spun around to face him down did he even bother to look in his rearview. It had not occurred to him that he might be walking into a trap, but that is exactly what had happened. Now he was caught between two armed vehicles, with nowhere to turn. To one side was the open plain of the Jagland, but while the area immediately beside the dike had been smoothed out during its construction, the plain was strewn with a treacherous jumble of jagged rocks and sudden gullies; his scout would not make it a hundred yards in that wilderness. On the other side were the crumbling remains of the dike, rising like a battered sea wall from an endless ocean of sand. While he had the lead dirtrunner locked dead in his sights, he had no doubt that his own craft occupied the sights of both bandits. Each of the three vehicles was armed similarly, so the odds in an all out gun-battle did not weigh heavily in his favor. His only options were to fight it out or run. Whatever these bandits wanted, Roadkill was fairly confident that it was not to negotiate. He had to choose... ...And he did. He pressed the firing button and shot a stream of molten slugs at high velocity into the dirtrunner in front of him. The projectiles tore into the sheet-metal body and shattered part of the canopy of the unit, throwing up a cloud of smoke and glass. Both bandits immediately returned fire, and Roadkill could actually feel more than hear the multiple rounds slam into the front and rear of his scout. Damage warning sensors were screaming in alarm, but he ignored them, continuing to fire. If he could take out one enemy he would stand a chance. The bandits also kept up their deadly hail. Tracers blazed along their trajectory, screaming through the dry desert air. Slugs pounded against Roadkill’s plexiform canopy. It was designed to withstand a few solid hits, but the savage onslaught from the lead dirtrunner proved too much;


it shattered, then exploded into fragments. Only the Scout’s photoshield visor kept him from being blinded by flying shrapnel. Roadkill was beginning to reflect that this was not going very well, when a red-hot slug suddenly struck him in the shoulder like a sledgehammer. He lurched in his seat and cried out in pain, clawing frantically at the smoking wound. Hunched over in his seat, he gasped for breath as consciousness slipped silently away. It was over, and he had lost. The occupants of the dirtrunners waited for a few minutes to make certain that the Scout was truly incapacitated, then climbed from their vehicles and made their way cautiously over to Roadkill’s unit. The lead pair covered the cockpit with shouldered assault guns, while the others came up from behind. The gray-haired man poked at the limp body of the HiwayScout with the nose of a pistol. He reached into the cockpit to check the carotid artery at the side of Roadkill’s neck for a pulse. “He’s alive, but unconscious!” he said to the hunchback. “You and Herm drag him to the top of the dike and leave him there. We’ll see if this scout can be driven back or not.” The hunchback and another man pulled Roadkill from the car and carried him up the rocky slope of the dike. The heat was murderous on top, and both men were ready to pass out from exhaustion when they finally dropped the body in the middle of the weathered road. They did not pause to catch their breath, but hurried back down the dike. The exposed portions of their skin were starting to burn, and their mouths had gone completely dry. The scout still proved to be road-worthy, much to the gray-haired man’s delight. Next, they drew lots to see who would pilot it back to the Old Highway. With its shattered canopy, the scout car’s ECS would be hard pressed to ward off the merciless heat of the afternoon; if any of its systems should fail on the drive back, the pilot would probably not survive. The dirtrunner that Roadkill had fired upon, however, did not fare as well. His direct hits to the canopy blasted it to smithereens and also destroyed a good portion of the control console. It was not operable and would therefore be left behind. The remaining three men would have to squeeze into the cramped cockpit of the other dirtrunner. The hunchback lost the draw, and all four men piled into their respective vehicles. With a roar of engines, and kicking sand high into the air, the two cars raced back the way they had come.


Chapter Five When Roadkill awoke, the sky was full of stars and a cool breeze blew across his cheek. He lay still, trying to recall where he was and how he got there. It quickly came back to him: He had been shot by the bandits he was chasing--or were they chasing him? Then everything went black. As if in answer to the memory, his wounded shoulder began to throb painfully, forcing him to grunt through clenched teeth. He tried sitting up, but found it too agonizing. Resignedly, he lay back down and tried to sort things out in his head: Why was he out here? How would he get back? Were the HiwayScouts looking for him? He wondered if he should build a signal fire--then abandoned the idea, realizing that it might attract the wrong kind of attention. His mood turned sullen and he began to despair. “That’s enough of that!” he quickly chastised himself. Biting against the grueling pain, he rolled on his side and forced himself to a sitting position, his back against a rocky ledge. Taking a moment to recover from the exertion, he reached up to massage his aching shoulder and found that the wound had already been bandaged with a strip of cloth. He came immediately alert, nervously scanning the surrounding terrain for any sign of bandits lurking nearby. He saw nothing, but someone had treated his wound while he had been unconscious--and until he knew who that someone was and what his intentions were, he wasn’t taking any chances. He could see by the light of the gibbous moon dominating the eastern sky that he was still in the area of his showdown with the bandits. He pulled himself shakily to his feet and leaned against the ledge. Peering over, he could dimly see the shadowy dike of the Lost Road, but no vehicle was visible anywhere nearby. Then he squinted....Yes, there was! He could just see it in the darkness beside the dike: One of the bandit’s dirtrunners had been left behind. He thought it was the one he had been pursuing, but he could not be certain. Now things looked a little more hopeful. If it had been truly abandoned, and he could repair whatever damage had convinced the bandits to leave it behind, he might be able to drive the dirtrunner back to Mogg. With his spirits lifting, he cautiously wended his way down the rocky hillside toward the desert floor. *

*

*

When news of the destruction of George’s Gorge reached Mogg, it was met with sadness and anger. The fort on the Old Highway was a favorite


haunt of anyone with a vehicle who wanted to get away from the city for a while--and a sought-after beacon of civilization to road-weary travelers coming up from the South. While the wise and the road-smart immediately smelled a bandit rat behind the attack, the majority of the populace fixed the blame squarely on the MowMow. Other than the occasional carcass dragged in by Scouts or other rambunctious pilots, most of the citizenry had never actually seen one of the legendary Cat people. As a result, they were attributed with every abominable atrocity conceivable by a shut-in society. The HiwayStars took the public outcries for vengeance against the MowMow with a grain of salt, sending out a few token search-anddestroy parties to appease them. But when it was learned that a Scout patrolling the Old Highway had not reported in, both agencies began to scour the southern dikes in earnest. Sorties of Scouts and chariots ranged up and down the highways, searching for clues and rooting out every possible hiding place of the bandits. Crasch insisted on being assigned to the search patrols, but even his efforts were of no avail. Not a trace was found of bandit, Cat, or missing Scout. The search continued for a couple of days, and every meager lead was followed to its dead end. But the fire of public fury was dying and the ordeal quickly becoming old news. At last, the inevitable was concluded and the hunt called off. An announcement was made, and word quickly spread throughout the city: The missing HiwayScout, Roadkill, was presumed killed in action. At the service held in his memory, Roadkill’s colleagues gathered in silence. Only Crasch did not attend. He was still out driving the Old Highway, convinced that his friend yet lived. A weather-beaten helmet engraved with the HiwayScout’s name was hung in the Pantheon--the memorial chamber commemorating pilots lost on the road. Letric-Eye presided over the gathering and marked Roadkill’s passing with a few words: “Ash to ash...” *

*

*

“Ashes! Dammit!” muttered Roadkill, peering into the shattered cockpit of the dirtrunner. He had been too thorough in his assault against it; his slugs had shredded the controls and ignited a fire in the cabin. It was clear that this car could not be made road-worthy again without a team of maintenance handlers and a lot of spare parts. He tried the mangled radio, but couldn’t even get a squawk. Frustrated, Roadkill turned away. He had only a few hours of darkness left before the intolerable heat of the day descended on him like a


murderous blanket. He might try sleeping in the shadows of the rocks during the day and walking back along the dike by night, but with no water to replenish himself he doubted that he would last one day. Despair began to take hold of him again, and he slumped against the side of the car. Suddenly, laughter rang out from the hillside, bringing Roadkill up with a start. He scanned the rocky slope intently until his eyes came to rest on a lone figure reclining on a large boulder. It was dark, but Roadkill could make out the checkered pattern of the cloth adorning its head. He began to seethe with recognition. Reaching for his pistol, he was not at all surprised to find it missing. “Ha ha ha! It’s the funny-man!” the voice called out. Leaping lithely from the rock, the shape moved toward him with unexpected swiftness. Roadkill crouched in a defensive stance, prepared to take on the approaching creature. He had been taught a variety of self-defense measures at Road School and proved himself fairly proficient in the practice arenas of Mogg. As the figure came closer, Roadkill could see the characteristic features of a MowMow: lean torso, triangular ears, monkey-like tail--and it became painfully obvious that this was, indeed, the same gray Cat who had brought him so much grief on the Hiway that terrible day. Roadkill shook his head in disbelief. The Cat capered up to him, waving its pistol haphazardly. “Hi! Hello!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t life a delicious circle?” *

*

*

It was late at night when Crasch pulled into the Pit. He had been on the road for fourteen hours straight, and lines of weariness were etched in his face as he climbed from his scout. Roj walked over from the control island to greet him. “Crasch, you’re back! I was starting to get concerned about you,” he said, helping the tired road pilot from his vehicle. “Did you find anything?” “Nah, not a damn thing...I just don’t know,” Crasch shook his head mournfully. “If I could find wreckage or a body or something, I could accept it and let it go. But he just disappeared, Roj. He’s just gone.” They walked in silence toward the control island, their footsteps echoing across the cavernous bay. Only when they stepped through the portal that led to Debriefing did Roj break the news to Crasch: “They’ve called off the search, lad. They’re writing him off to misadventure, and the Eye is putting you back on the Waypoint run tomorrow.” “What!” cried Crasch. “He can’t do that! Road’s out there, and I gotta find him. Roj, listen, I need your help. I’m gonna go grab a quick power-


nap. I need my ride ready to go back out in three hours. You got that? Three hours!” “Uh, sure Crasch. I...” But the Scout was already gone, hurrying through the deserted passages of the city. He would stop at Debrief later. Right now he needed some sleep, and a few other things. *

*

*

Roadkill sat across from his antagonist in the shadows of the cleft. He grudgingly ate the hard scraps of meat Thrarc had given him, but showed no aversion to gulping down the meager ration of water. It was rapidly getting hot as the sun climbed into the morning sky, and even in the shade Roadkill felt immensely dehydrated. “Why am I so weak?” he asked the Cat. “My wound was cauterized by the slug; I don’t think I lost very much blood. How long was I on top of the dike?” “Oh, just a little while on the dike,” Thrarc replied wistfully, “But two days sleeping in the shade.” “What?” Roadkill was incredulous. “That can’t be!” He tried to convince himself that the Cat was lying, but his undernourished body told him it was the truth. “Why did you take me down from the dike?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it have been in your best interests to let me die up there?” “There is no honor in letting an enemy die, only in killing him. Besides, ape, you make me laugh. Ha! You have small luck on the road! Even your own kind wants you to be dead!” The Cat rocked with mirth. “Yeah, tell me about it!” snarled Roadkill. “But those weren’t my own kind, they were Bandits--enemies of my people. And what about you? What happened to your buddies? I remember them laughing at me on the Hiway. Where are they now?” Thrarc stopped laughing as a pained look flashed across his face, and was quickly buried. “Dead,” he explained. “All dead now. Killed by Rok. We are both far from our homes, you and I.” Then he went silent, and Roadkill did not question him for awhile. The heat of the afternoon was unbearable, and Roadkill had great difficulty sleeping. The frugal sips of water allowed by the Cat could not replenish the liquid his body lost from perspiring, and he felt himself growing weaker as the hours passed. He marveled at the MowMow, who seldom drank any water himself, yet seemed to suffer no ill effects from the heat. “Aren’t you burning up under all that fur?” he finally asked. “Hot, yes. But not like you,” answered Thrarc. “Human skins leak, let water fall out. Stupid. But MowMow oil their fur, keep sun out and water in. Smart. You want oil for your leaky skin?”


“No, I would suffocate; human skin needs to breathe. I’m not gonna last out here, Thrarc,” Roadkill leveled with him. “It would be best to just kill me now and get it over with.” Thrarc smiled. “You will last,” he said. “Thrarc will keep you alive; take you back to Maur.” “I don’t want to go to Maur. I want to go home.” “And me also! Listen to me, ape-man. This land we are in is not my land, it is the home of the Rok MowMow. Strange ones, they do not speak with other tribes, and kill any they find on their lands. They do not love Maur, and they hate monkey-face humans, understand?” Thrarc moved so that his face was close to Roadkill’s. “You cannot make it through the desert without Thrarc, and Thrarc cannot make it past the Rok by hisself. If they catcher us they will put Thrarc’s head on a pole, and you they will eat! Human is a dekilacy to them, you know.” “So what do we do?” Roadkill asked pointedly. “We make a bargain!” Thrarc exclaimed. “Thrarc will trust monkeyman, and the monk will trust Thrarc. In the mountains it is cool; many places to hide from the sun. Food and water are also there. That is the way we must go. But the Rok will not want to let us; they will hunt us like little bunnies. We must each watch the back of the other, and we must move quicklier than the Rok. If we make it back to homeland of the Maur alive, Thrarc takes the funny-man to the long road that leads to his home. What a bargain, huh? “Yeah,” Roadkill responded suspiciously, “what a bargain. How am I supposed to watch your back? I have no weapon once again. What am I supposed to do, throw rocks?” Thrarc hissed a laugh. Then, much to Roadkill’s surprise, he reached into his belt and drew the HiwayScout’s pistol. Thrarc handed it to the him, and Roadkill snatched it up. A quick glance showed that it was loaded. Was this Cat joking? It clicked menacingly as he armed it, but the MowMow warrior did not flinch or draw back. “Do we make a bargain?” he asked, extending an empty paw toward the Scout. For a moment Roadkill hesitated. He could kill the Cat now and risk a trek by night back along the Lost Road. With Thrarc’s scant supply of provisions, he just might make it. But now, for some inexplicable reason, the thought of murdering the MowMow left a bad taste in his mouth. Secure in the knowledge that he would at some point come to regret this alliance, Roadkill acquiesced, grasping the MowMow’s hairy paw in agreement. “Yay, monkey-man!” Thrarc whooped, then froze as Roadkill brought the pistol to bear directly between the Cat’s eyes. Thrarc gulped visibly. “Let’s get something straight!” Roadkill growled, peering down the barrel at the five-foot feline. “If you call me monkey-man one more time, I’ll splatter your brains across the Jag. My name is Roadkill!”


“…yay, Roadkill,” Thrarc whispered. *

*

*

Crasch slowed his scout as he drew even with the remains of the Lost Road. It had been searched twenty miles out into the desert, but any tracks that might have been made alongside it were quickly covered over by the furnace-like winds of the Jagland, so the search parties had gone no further. “Well,” Crasch yawned, “it’s the only stone that hasn’t been turned.” He popped another of the go-pills he had gotten from a girl he knew at the Terrace bar, then rumbled down the side of the dike. Driving along the length of the Lost Road, the Scout swept his head back and forth in hopes of discovering some clue the others had missed. There had to be something. He was far out into the forbidding desert, and about to turn around, finally abandoning hope that his friend was still alive, when he saw something up ahead. It looked like a vehicle of some sort parked beside the dike. His heart began pounding in his chest. It had to be Roadkill! He stepped on the accelerator. Crasch’s excitement turned to disappointment as he drove up to the car. It was not Roadkill’s scout, as he had hoped, but a wrecked yellow dirtrunner--the off-road vehicles so prevalent among the bandits of the Jagland. He pulled up alongside it and looked into the cockpit. The console was shot up pretty badly. No wonder it had been left here. Climbing from his vehicle, Crasch risked the late afternoon sun to get a closer look at the scene. Stooping to the ground, he found a spent slug casing half buried in sand. Upon closer examination he recognized it as being from the foundries of his own city. A battle had taken place here between bandits and someone from Mogg--it had to be Roadkill! He growled in anger at his helplessness and stood in the burning rays as though trying to decide something. Then he stalked back to his own craft. Reaching behind the seat, he pulled out a heavy pack and lugged it over to the dirtrunner. He deposited it in the cockpit of the battered twoseater. Glancing around one last time, he jumped into his scout and sped back the way he had come. *

*

*

“Sshhhhh!” Thrarc hissed. “Your pandits are back!” Roadkill retreated further into the cleft, hands splayed against the rock wall behind him. This was bad news. The bandits had obviously come back to reclaim their vehicle, or make sure he was dead, or both. Once they realized he was no longer up on the dike, they would search


the area until they found him and could do him in for good: dead men tell no tales. “What are they doing?” Roadkill whispered to Thrarc. “Looking around...looking for something.” The gray Cat craned his neck further around the edge of the outcropping. “Found something, he has! I wonder if he knows we are here? That would be bogis. Uh oh, he’s thinking about something...I dint know apes could do that!” He winked at a frowning Roadkill. “What’s this?” he gasped. “What’s this? He put something in the broken car--a big bag! And now he is leaving. Bye, pandit!” “Oh, shut up!” Roadkill snapped. He jumped up to see the departing bandit and his eyes suddenly widened in horror. The vehicle speeding away from them was not a bandit dirtrunner, but a scout. “You...you idiot!” he gasped. “That’s not a bandit! That’s one of mine!” Despite Thrarc’s protests, he jumped on top of the boulder and waved his arms frantically. The scout, however, showed no sign of slowing and eventually disappeared from view. A rumbling eruption began to build deep within Roadkill’s chest. “Uh, oh...” said Thrarc, wincing. “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!! You...you...Yaaaah!” Roadkill screamed as he stomped about on top of the rock, holding his fists against the sides of his head. Thrarc backed up a safe distance from the frothing lunatic that raged before him. A look of distant insanity came over Roadkill’s eyes, and he drew his pistol, pointing it at the Cat for the second time today. “You knew it! You knew it was one of mine, and you didn’t tell me! You...you...” “Easy, magilla!” Thrarc said, backing away from the approaching madman. “I’ll magilla you, you son of a bitch!” Roadkill spat as he grabbed Thrarc by the scruff of the neck and threw him down. He jumped on top of him, coaxing a hearty ‘Oomph!’ from his smaller adversary. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded. “Why?” “I dint know...I promise!” the MowMow pleaded, panting. “You all look alike to me. How was I opposed to know?” Roadkill glared menacingly at the Cat for a moment, then with a scorching oath he let him up. “Damn! I’ll bet that was Crasch. I could be on my way home now!” “What would you have done with me, you and your friend?” asked Thrarc, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’d have skinned you on the spot, fleabag!” “That is what I fingured,” said the Cat sardonically, then added under his breath: “Ape.” The two scowled at each other throughout the last hours of daylight. Then, as the blue sky turned to a twilight maroon, they made ready to


depart. They chose a westward tack that would climb into the foothills of the mountains, avoiding the crumbling dike that would leave them exposed to watchful eyes. Each took a mouthful of water and a bite of jerky. As he stood chewing, a thought suddenly occurred to Roadkill: “Did you say he put a bag in the car?” “Oh, yes!” Thrarc’s eyes widened. “A big, black one with handle straps!” The pair raced down the hill, hurrying over to the dirtrunner. Inside on the seat was a reinforced backpack that Roadkill recognized to be a HiwayStar issue survival kit. He unfastened the snaps on its flap and opened it up. It contained the usual assortment: bottles of water, three days’ worth of food rations, flares, spare pistol ammunition, salt tablets, and a worthless desert survival manual (nobody knew how to survive in the Jagland except the Cats). It also held a few non-standard items: a small vial of bam and a note addressed to Roadkill which said:

Road, I don’t know if you’ll ever get this, but I’ve put it together just in case you do. Mogg has given up the hunt, and this might be the last time I can search, so you’re on your own now. I pray I see you again. Stay safe, and mind that tan (ha ha)! Your best friend, Crasch Roadkill sighed as he read the note. He missed his friend and he missed his city. So they wouldn’t be looking for him anymore. Well, it looked like he would need this Cat after all. Even with three days of food and water, he couldn’t make it to the Old Highway in less than five. And then there was no guarantee he would be picked up by a passing vehicle. Now that George’s Gorge was gone, traffic would be down to a trickle at most. There was no choice but to go with Thrarc, and hope for the best. He sat down again on the hillside and ate his first real meal in days. Since he had to climb mountains, he would require more to make the journey than strips of flesh and a mouthful of water. He sat eating while Thrarc watched him curiously, asking about every morsel Roadkill put in his mouth. Finally, growing weary of explaining his meal to the inquisitive feline, he threw him part of a chocolate bar. Thrarc eyed it, sniffed it, and then licked it. His eyes lit up and he hastily devoured the entire piece.


“Mmmm!” he purred between chomps, smacking his chocolatesmeared lips together. “Whatchoo call it?” “I call it mine, so don’t expect any more of it,” Roadkill grumbled. Finishing his meal he packed up the survival kit, but stashed the vial of bam in his pocket. Shouldering the pack, he started off into the dusk. “It’s chocolate,” he called back to the Cat. “Choklit!” said Thrarc, savoring the word, and followed him.


Chapter Six “You try to poison me!” Thrarc coughed between retches, hunching over a puddle of dark-brown bile. “How was I ‘posed to know chocolate would make you sick?” asked Roadkill, his lack of sympathy apparent. “Ohhh,” the Cat moaned, “I feel very bad to my stomach. Need to rest a bit.” He sat down on a rock with his head between his knees. “No! No rest!” Roadkill was adamant. “I’m not going to spend another day in this damned desert. We have to reach the mountains by dawn and find somewhere cool to hole up.” Thrarc made a sour face at the Scout. Then, wiping his mouth with the back of his paw, he steeled himself and resumed trudging up the steep slope. “Good kitty!” laughed Roadkill, following him. As the night wore on, Thrarc began to feel better, and they made good time. One by one the foothills fell behind them, and the mountains loomed ever nearer. Roadkill was not accustomed to so much walking and climbing, and it soon began to show. Frequently, Thrarc had to pause to let him catch up. “If we want to make it to cool mountains, we must go faster!” he would sneer at the panting Scout, but he never let him fall far behind. The moon had gone down when at last Thrarc allowed a brief rest. Roadkill was thankful for the respite, and gulped water from one of his bottles. Thrarc took a sip of his own supply as he scanned the mountains directly in front of them. “In an hour we will be safe from the sun. I look for a cave to hide us, then we sleep.” The idea sounded good to Roadkill, who was still weak from his ordeal with the bandits. If he made it through all of this alive he promised himself he would never stray from the road again. The Jagland was too unforgiving, and human flesh too frail. As they sat, Roadkill began to wonder about his curious companion. The MowMow were smaller than men in stature, averaging four to five feet in height, and slender of build for the most part; but the muscles they had were lithe and wiry, full of leathery strength. Their fur varied in color from one to the other as much as their domesticated cousins of long ago. It was strange: Roadkill never viewed them as more than animals when he was mowing them down on the Hiway--furry nuisances to be eradicated without a second thought. But now, face to face with one and depending on it -- on him -- for survival, the Scout began to marvel at the similarities between himself and the odd character he was traveling with: loyalty, sense of humor, loneliness. All of these were traits that he would have thought unique to humans.


Suddenly Thrarc, who had been standing on a huge rock to get a better look at the surrounding terrain, jumped quickly down and hissed a warning at Roadkill. He drew his weapon, and the HiwayScout followed suit. “What is it?” Roadkill asked, looking about nervously. Thrarc crept over to the side of the boulder and looked around it. “Rok!” he whispered, shuffling back over to his companion. “Big trouble, banana-man!” he said. “Many Rok...fibe or six, I think. Been watchering us for some time, waiting for a good place to jump us. We must get to the mountains before sunup, or they let us roast out here. No shade to hide from the day.” He risked a glance up over the rock. “They are moving in. Time to fight, Human!” The two stood back to back and awaited the advancing Cats. They did not have to wait long, as pointy-eared heads began to pop up from behind rocks and boulders. Roadkill did not hesitate. He fired off two rounds at a mottled orange creature that was trying to get a bead on him. The first shot struck the rock it crouched behind, sending splintered chips up into its face. The second blasted its ear apart. The others echoed the MowMow’s howl of pain in rage. Thrarc started letting loose now. He took down one with a slug through its neck and sent the others fleeing with his wild ricochets. “Must get behind the rocks, Man!” he warned as they were given a moment’s respite. They both scrambled for the cover of a nearby outcropping. “There’s more than five or six of ‘em, Thrarc! I make a dozen at least.” “Sorry,” Thrarc apologized, “I’m not so good with numbers. But most of them do not have guns...only spears and hatchets.” He reloaded his weapon, then cast a hasty glance over the top of the outcropping. “I don’t see them now. We should maybe make a run for it; get to the mountains before they come back.” “Okay,” said Roadkill, “let’s go!” With that, they both dashed from their hiding place, heading for the towering peaks ahead. The Rok were not far away, and every now and then Roadkill caught a glimpse of dirty abyssinian fur as it flashed between the rocks to either side; they were being followed closely. Roadkill was panting heavily when at last they reached the foot of the nearest mountain. Winding gullies twisted between jagged crags and stony ridges, making their way into the heart of the range. “Come,” Thrarc hissed, pointing to a steep ravine. “In here we can defend ourselfs from the Rok! They can only come from one way.” Roadkill followed him into the canyon. The sun was breaking over the eastern horizon, and the coolness of the night was dissipating quickly. Climbing into the shadows of the mountains, the pair put the burning


plains of the Jagland behind them. But Roadkill could go no further; air wheezed in and out of his lungs, and his wounded shoulder throbbed achingly. His legs trembled beneath him as his strength ebbed. “Thrarc!” he called up the canyon to the Cat. “We have to make a stand here. I can’t go on without rest.” He seated himself on a rock and tried to catch his breath. Thrarc hissed disgustedly, then came back down to the weary Scout. “All right,” he said, “we fight them here.” He searched the area for adequate cover and found a split in the side of the canyon. “You hide in there,” he pointed, “and I will be behind this rock. When I signal, we both fire, hokay?” “Yeah, okay,” Roadkill replied, unslinging his pack. He squeezed into the narrow cleft and readied his weapon. “Psst!” Thrarc whispered almost immediately. Roadkill turned to see him pointing down the ravine. He could see the shapes of Rok warriors creeping stealthily toward them. They were hard to count as they disappeared and reappeared among the rocks, but he thought there were at least eight. Thrarc was right: For the most part they carried spears and axes, but two of them--one missing an ear--had pistols. These two seemed to be in charge and ordered the others up the crevasse. “Be ready,” Thrarc hissed. The foremost of the approaching Rok were almost upon them now, picking their way up the stony gulch just as Thrarc popped up from his hiding place. “Now!” he yelled to Roadkill, and both opened fire. Before the surprised Rok could dive for cover, Thrarc had ventilated two furry torsos and Roadkill blasted away the side of a tabby head. Shouts of alarm rang out, echoing maniacally from the canyon walls, and the panicstricken Cats disappeared into the rocks. “Good shooting, Thrarc!” Roadkill cried out. “You’re pretty good with that thing! Now if we can just get rid of the other five!” “Feel free to help out any time you like, Road-man!” Thrarc smiled at him. Cries of pain and sorrow could be heard coming up the canyon from the dismayed Cats below. These soon turned into growls of anger, however, and the Rok began to move once again. Now they went silently and did not show themselves from their cover; they would not underestimate their quarry again. The quiet broken only by the sound of the wind plying up the gorge made Roadkill nervous; even Thrarc was no longer smiling. Time and time again Roadkill would poke his head out of the fissure but saw no movement among the rocks. He was about to ask Thrarc what he thought they were doing, when he spied a mottled gray MowMow crouching just on the other side of Thrarc’s rock. Before he could shout a warning the Cat sprang over it and landed fully on the surprised Maur, knocking the gun from his paw.


Roadkill raised his weapon to fire when a dark blur suddenly appeared in front of him, spoiling his aim. A jet-black warrior hefted a spear to thrust it at Roadkill, so the Scout shot him instead. A surprised look of mortality filled the Cat’s elliptic eyes as he sank silently to the ground. Roadkill stepped from the fissure, over the dying body, and looked for Thrarc. His companion was in a bad way: Two of the Rok were wrestling with him, one trying to hold him down while the other tried to hit him with an ax. Roadkill charged, yelling furiously. He could not shoot for fear of hitting Thrarc, so he grabbed the first Cat he came across-- it was another tabby. For all their wiry swiftness, MowMows were no match physically for a human. Roadkill grabbed him by the throat and slammed his head hard into a rock. The life went instantly out of the Cat’s eyes and his carcass fell limply from Roadkill’s hands. Thrarc had his remaining adversary pinned to the ground now, and was attempting to brain him with his own ax. Roadkill moved to assist him when a shot rang out, and a burning fire seemed to envelop the back of his head. He stumbled forward and dove for cover. Something warm and wet was dripping down his neck, and when he touched the area his hand came back red with blood. Roadkill almost swooned at the sight, but did not feel he had been badly wounded. He gathered himself up just as a white abyssinian bounded into view, wielding a pistol. But instead of the dead human he expected, the Cat was amazed to find a very-muchalive and extremely angry HiwayScout glaring from behind a menacinglooking handgun. The MowMow barely had time to squawk before his throat exploded out the back of his neck. He went down clutching at the gushing wound. Roadkill turned just in time to see Thrarc bring the hatchet down into his enemy’s face. The Rok flailed a bit, then gurgled and lay still. The panting Maur rose and looked worriedly at Roadkill. “Do we...get them all...Roadkill?” A shot glanced from a boulder near them, and they both instinctively ducked. “No,” said Roadkill, “I think there’s one left.” They both began to giggle. Roadkill was the first to rise up and look down the canyon. About a hundred yards away, an orange Cat was hastily retreating. Thrarc stood up beside him. “It’s One-Ear...I don’t think he likes you berry much.” They both started laughing again and could not stop for some time. *

*

*

They slept the day away, taking turns keeping watch. The cave Thrarc had found was high up on a mountainside, and commanded a view of the land all around. He had led them out of the canyon, knowing full well that the One-Eared Rok would soon return with reinforcements. They


may have outfoxed the natives of this land for now, but it would not happen again. The Rok would come upon them in great numbers as they struggled up the gorge, and there would be no escape. High on the mountain, however, no one could climb up to them without being seen-and the cave could be defended indefinitely. The Rok could besiege them until their meager food supply ran out, but during the hours of daylight even the heat-savvy Cats would have to retreat to some shelter and await the cool evening. Thrarc was watching now, while Roadkill slept fitfully in the back of the cave. He had a slight fever brought on by the wound to his head, but the slug had only grazed him and it looked much worse than it was. Thrarc had attended to it, and was amazed at how much fluid leaked out of a human when it had the chance. But once the bleeding had stopped and the wound had been cleaned up, he knew the Scout would be ready to move on when the night descended. Nevertheless, he let Roadkill sleep through his watch and another after that. It was the middle of the afternoon when he finally woke him. “Dammit! What did you let me sleep so long for?” complained the groggy Scout. Thrarc just gave a martyr’s smile, then went to the back of the cave, curled up, and went to sleep. Roadkill lay at the entrance to the cave, peering over the lip at the maze of cracks and crevasses below. Hot winds groaned through the valleys between the mountains, singing mournfully of a lifeless land. The day was dying out on the plain, and Roadkill was happy to see the sun fall off the edge of the world. It was no friend of his. Movement in the corner of his eye caught the HiwayScout’s attention: Far below in the canyon they had earlier quitted, tiny shapes moved furtively. Dozens of MowMow scoured its floor while scores of others probed the lower slopes of the mountain. It was an all-out manhunt...and Cat-hunt, he mused. They reached the place where the battle had taken place in the morning. There was a sudden flurry of frenzied activity as they discovered their dead. “They must really be pissed,” Roadkill said softly. He decided he had better wake up Thrarc. “Oh yes,” Thrarc nodded, “they are...what did you say...pissed? We have killed almost an entire fist of Rok warriors. Already I am avenged, for they killed the fist I commandered.” “So what you’re saying is that you and I together are mightier than a whole fist of Maur, right?” Roadkill sneered. “Ha! Very funny, gorilla!” “What did I tell you about calling me things like that?” snapped the Scout, poking a threatening finger at Thrarc’s triangular nose. Thrarc stuck out his sandpapery tongue, then turned his attention back to the Rok below.


“They are looking for our trail,” Thrarc announced. “They would not find mine, but clumsy men leave trails that a baby could follow.” “Look who’s talking, mister chocolate-vomit! If it wasn’t for you they would never have found us in the first place!” “Shhhh!” warned the Maur. “See! They come!” It was true. To Roadkill’s horror the Rok were pointing excitedly up the mountain at their hiding place; even now some were scrambling toward the cave. “This is bad!” said Thrarc, looking worriedly at his companion. “Okay, well, we needed to get moving anyway,” Roadkill told him. “Nothing like a little incentive. How about this: We climb higher up the peak and make our way around to the other side of it. Then we’ll descend and be on the opposite side from those goons.” “But what’s to keep the ones climbing up from throwing rocks down on our heads when they reach the other side also?” asked Thrarc. “We’ll deal with that when we come to it!” Roadkill snapped in annoyance. “Now come on!” They grabbed their possessions and scrambled from the cave. The Rok below spotted them immediately, and their furious shouts carried up the mountainside. One or two shots ricocheted nearby, but they were too ill-aimed to be a threat. The two struck out for a point higher up the peak, and their pursuers followed some distance behind. Suddenly an idea came to Thrarc: “Hey! What’s to keep us from throwing rocks down on them?” He looked at the Scout inquiringly. “Yeah!” cried Roadkill, and began looking about for a boulder to hurl. There were more than a few to choose from, and he and Thrarc set about launching a magnificent barrage. The rocks bounced down the face of the peak and triggered small avalanches here and there. The pair had to laugh out loud at the sight of the Cats scrambling to get out of the way of the boulders that hurtled down the mountain. One tried to duck under a bouncing rock and was hit squarely in the face, sending him cartwheeling down past his friends. His broken body came to rest far down the slope, and the crowd of MowMow that gathered around it shook their fists in anger at the invaders above. “Good shot!” Roadkill shouted, and resumed picking his way around the top of the mountain. The going was treacherous, and many times it seemed as if they would have to go back and find another way. But Thrarc was extremely adept at climbing, having spent his whole life in the mountains, and could often find a foothold where none seemed to exist. With his aid, Roadkill was able to safely negotiate the dizzying eyries of the jagged peak. It did not take them long to reach the other side of the mountain. “Wow!” Roadkill exclaimed, looking down the steep face. “That’s gonna be a heck of a climb!” “Wow!” echoed Thrarc. “By the time we get down, they will come around and pelt us with stones also.” He paced around, examining the


descent. It consisted mainly of soaring inclines and sheer cliffs, but a little way down and off to one side the slope was less precipitous than elsewhere. “There,” Thrarc announced, pointing the way down. “That is the way. You follow me.” Roadkill was more than happy to oblige. He was coming to trust the Cat’s judgment in matters of mountain climbing and desert survival. The sun had gone down, and twilight was waning. The moon cast some illumination upon the range, but everything was growing vague and shadowy. Only Thrarc was unimpaired by the darkness. “Keep in mind,” Roadkill reminded him, “my kind don’t see too well in the dark.” “Oh yes, must remember!” Thrarc agreed. “How sad to be blind in the beautiful night. Glad I am Maur, and not a silly man.” “Yeah, me too.” When they had climbed a quarter of the way down the mountain, they came to the place toward which Thrarc had been heading; it was the beginning of the gentler slope. On close examination they found it to be composed more of rubble and debris than of the larger, jagged rocks. Thrarc seemed to be pleased with that, and it was obvious to Roadkill that the Cat was working up an idea in his head. The loud crack of a boulder splintering nearby startled them both. Although he could not see them, shouts from above told Roadkill that the Rok had reached this side of the mountain and were setting about to repay them for their earlier barrage. Now he and Thrarc were the sitting ducks. “Well, now what?” he asked impatiently. Another stone went whizzing past. “Thrarc is so smart!” the Cat said with eyes gleaming. He pulled the shield from his back, and with a sharp kick broke off the spike from its middle. Then he tossed the disk on the ground at the edge of the slope. “We will be down in no time now!” he said, smiling. Roadkill was aghast. “You want to slide down on that thing! Are you crazy? We’ll both be killed!” “Well, where do you want to die,” Thrarc retorted sharply, “up here or down there?” Another crack of stone--this time so close that splinters pelted his face and arm--decided for him. Without a second thought Roadkill plopped down on the disc, and Thrarc climbed into his lap. “If I die, I’m going to kill you,” he swore. “See you on the other side then, friend,” Thrarc replied, and leaning forward sent them over the edge. Roadkill’s senses were immediately flooded: the wind screaming in his ears--or was it Thrarc?--the smell of cat hair in his nostrils; the shadows enveloping him as they plunged into the valley. Adrenaline surged through his body and terror flowed


unabated. The disk was going so fast. Too fast! They skittered down the side of the mountain, bouncing and swerving with the inconsistencies of the slope, jerking with each bump they soared over. This was lunacy, Roadkill thought. Surely they were going to die. Thrarc looked back at him, and he could tell by the abject terror in the wide feline eyes that the Cat no longer had control of the situation--if, indeed, he ever did. With a bone-wrenching shock the disk struck a stony ridge jutting up from the softer debris. Man, Cat, and disk went their separate ways. Roadkill watched Thrarc go spinning past and disappear into the void below. The ground was in the sky, and the stars wove an insane web about him. He bounced once, twice, and began to reflect that this would be a great time for everything to go black. He was not disappointed.


Chapter Seben Roadkill was hanging in impenetrable darkness. As he slowly surfaced into consciousness he felt the bite of cold iron links around his aching wrists. The only sounds were the intermittent clink of the chains and his own labored breathing. How long he had been there, suspended in a dank frigid void, he had no way of knowing. He felt hungry and thirsty, and he hurt all over; but time seemed nothing more than a myth as he lapsed in and out of the waking world. Sometimes he thought he heard faint echoes of voices somewhere far below, but when he called out there was no reply. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the voices returned, and Roadkill could hear a commotion below. With a jerk and a rattle his chains began to move and he felt himself descending. He was greatly relieved that something...anything...was happening. Then he stopped with a jolt. The voices drifting up to him were raised in heated debate; apparently an altercation was taking place between his captors. Some time passed before he began to move again, but now it was with terrifying speed. The air rushed past him, and he knew that he was plummeting through the darkness toward whatever lay below. He struck the ground incredibly hard and cried out as he felt his leg snap beneath him. His cheek hit cold flagstones, and he lay in darkness silently mouthing his agony, unable to draw breath into his lungs as coil upon coil of chain piled on top of him. Shouting and laughter ensued, barely permeating Roadkill’s frenzied thoughts. A light was struck and a huge circular chamber revealed, its high ceiling lost in the shadows above. Within, a dozen or so Cats were gathered, most of them clustered around him. A few, however, were engaged in a fiery discussion with another that leaned languidly against a great lever sticking up from the floor. With much hissing and growling they gestured threateningly to the orange Cat, but he paid them little heed. Instead, he glared menacingly at the inert form of the HiwayScout lying in the center of the room. It was One-Ear. Rough arms grabbed Roadkill and pulled him to his feet. He could not walk on his own, so four MowMow assisted him, practically dragging their chained prisoner through a dark, twisting maze of passages. Before long they reached a musty hallway lined along either side with heavy steel doors. A manx guard opened one of these with a key from his belt, then removed the fetters from Roadkill’s wrists. He was dumped unceremoniously into the chamber beyond, and the door pulled closed behind him. It locked with a snick. He lay there, tears welling in his eyes, biting back the pain of his broken leg. He reached down to feel it--it was wet with blood and a


splintered bone protruded from his shin. Roadkill almost passed out at the contact, so he turned his attention elsewhere. The room was dimly lit by shafts of daylight that slanted down through slits in the ceiling. In the feeble illumination he could see that he was in a stone-walled chamber, about ten feet square, with no furnishings of any kind. Only a huddled shape in the corner broke up the emptiness. “You look berry bad, Road-man,” a voice croaked. “Thrarc!” Roadkill cried, lifting up on his elbows. “Am I glad to see you!” And he was. Never in his life had he felt so alone as he did while hanging in that stygian darkness. Now he was overjoyed to hear a familiar voice, even if it was that of his MowMow nemesis. “Of course, who would not be?” the Cat joked, shambling over. As Thrarc passed through the shafts of light, Roadkill saw his face and gave a gasp: It was bruised and misshapen; one eye was swollen shut. Thrarc laughed at the Scout’s surprise. “Got me pretty good, huh? Looks like they got you, too. Let Thrarc look at your leg.” He helped Roadkill into the light and closely examined his fracture. “Ooh, you gots big bones!” he stated. “But this is not so bad. Matter of fact...” Without warning he pushed the broken end of the bone back through the gaping wound and shoved it into place. Roadkill’s scream shattered the silence of the subterranean world, then fell away to a maniacal gibbering. “What’s the matter with you?!” he gasped as soon as he was able to speak. “Are you crazy? You’re trying to kill me!” Tears of pain streamed from his eyes, and his clenched fists beat against the stone floor. “Oh hush, pansy!” Thrarc scolded him. “Bone will mend now, not stick out of your leg. Must find something to tie against it, though. I would ask our keepers, but I do not think they wish to be helpful.” “What happened to you, Thrarc?” Roadkill asked as the pain slowly subsided. “Oh, it was One-Ear…the orange one; he found me at the bottom of the mountain. When we Crasched I hit my head on a rock and slept for a long time. Then he came just as I waked up--put me back to sleep with his club, he did. Next, I wake up here, and no food or water is brought to me for days. Cracky! My nog hurts!” He gingerly touched the bumps on his forehead. The two of them sat in silence and nursed their pain. Roadkill tried in vain to find part of his body that did not hurt, and while patting his bruised ribs, he felt a lump in the pocket of his highway-suit. “Aha! Crasch, you wonderful specimen of humanity, you!” he laughed. Thrarc sat up and stared at his companion who, he was certain, was going mad. But the pilot was not mad; from his pocket he pulled a little black vial. “What is that?” asked Thrarc.


“Bam!” replied the Scout, his face gleaming with joy. He unscrewed the top of the container and dumped a small pile of powdery substance into his palm. “Well, what the farc is bam?” demanded the Maur, peering intently at him. “It’s an end to pain and boredom for a little while,” smiled Roadkill, “and you, my lumpy friend, may have some!” He pinched the powder between his fingers and sprinkled it on his tongue, then poured out some more and proffered it to the Cat. “I don’t know,” said Thrarc, eyeing it suspiciously. “What if it is not good for MowMow?” “Trust me,” Roadkill replied. “I trusted you about choklit, and I was sorry.” “Well, this isn’t chocolate. Now c’mere!” Roadkill commanded, and pinched out a large amount. “Just a little,” warned the Cat. “No, you have to do a lot or it won’t work,” he lied, sprinkling a generous amount on Thrarc’s outstretched tongue. The MowMow grimaced and smacked his chops. “Taste berry bad!” “Yeah, but now the fun begins!” Roadkill leaned back against the wall and smiled. Almost immediately the pain began to deaden throughout his body, for which he was thankful. Then little by little the stark walls of the cell took on brighter hues, and color began to break up the monotonous grays of confinement. Roadkill giggled at Thrarc, who was sitting motionless with his mouth hanging open, a look of wonder playing in his rapidly dilating eyes. “Oh, my!” the Cat exclaimed. “This is very strange, hee!” Thrarc got to his feet and moved closer to the cell door. Reaching out, he touched it with his paw. “Roadkill, why does the door move like that?” he questioned, then gasped. “Oh! My arm...it should not be so long!” “Ha, ha! Sit down, Thrarc,” laughed Roadkill. “Enjoy yourself.” Thrarc did just that, and the two of them sat in silence for a long while, sharing a two-hour ride through sensory dementia. By the time the effects of the bam wore off they both felt greatly spent, and settled in to get some sleep. “Roadkill?” queried the Cat, stretching out on the cold stone floor. “What?” “Bam is good.” The beaten and bloodied pair laughed long before finally falling into the sweet release of sleep. *

*

*


A sound at the door woke them. It had just closed, and soft footsteps receded down the hallway. Roadkill stirred, then caught a glimpse of something lying just inside the cell. “What’s that?” he asked Thrarc, who was already moving to investigate. “It is eat and drink,” the Cat answered, “and ropes and sticks for your leg.” He picked up the tray of food and brought it over to Roadkill. Sitting together in the darkness, they shared their first meal in days. No light came through the slits in the ceiling now, but Roadkill’s eyes were becoming accustomed to the gloom. The meal consisted of stale, hard bread and some kind of meat. He didn’t ask Thrarc what it was, but ate it gratefully. The dirty water they drank from greasy tin cups was more palatable than the finest brandy had ever been. After they finished eating, Thrarc set about splinting Roadkill’s injured leg. He cleaned the wound with some of his own water, then bandaged it expertly with a strip of cloth from his now tattered headdress. Although the leg was purply and swollen, the gash was closing and the broken bone seemed to be in place. “I thinks you will be hokay,” Thrarc assured him as he tied off the splint. “Yeah, thanks Thrarc. It doesn’t hurt as bad as it did yesterday...I wonder what day it is, anyway?” “It is no day,” the Cat informed him. “It is night, now. The fourth night since we left the broken highway.” Roadkill did some figuring in his head. “I’ve been gone six days then-it seems like forever. Gods, I want to go home.” “Me too, Roadster,” Thrarc chimed, his voice suddenly taking on an optimistic tone, “and we will! Listen to me--these are Rok who hold us: ot-nay oo-tay ight-bray, if you know what I means.” Roadkill didn’t. “They are not so smart,” the Cat explained. “That is why they hate all other tribes: because other MowMow are much smartier than them, and they don’t understand tekmology like the Maur do. Maur are greatest of all MowMow. I will excape, you betcha! And take you with me.” Although Roadkill was somewhat skeptical, the Cat’s enthusiasm was contagious. He began to believe that his MowMow friend might really be able to get them out. Then he remembered his leg, and hope failed within him. Thrarc saw his face turn downcast, then remembered the leg also. “Well,” he reassured him, “we just has to work that into the plan!” “And exactly what is the plan?” asked the mournful Scout. “Don’t have one yet,” Thrarc responded honestly, “but I will...I will.” A sound at the door brought them both around. A thin, metal plate halfway up it was drawn aside, and a pair of MowMow eyes looked in at them. The watcher spoke no words at first, simply staring at each prisoner in turn. Then a menacing voice came through the slot. “I’m not


finished with the two of you!” it hissed. “You may be safe for a while, but Cranc will taste your blood before all is done!” “One-Ear!” Roadkill called out. “How’s it goin,’ buddy?” The Rok spat, and his yellow eyes glared malevolently at the HiwayScout. Just then, quick as a whip, Thrarc darted to the door and reached through the narrow opening, grabbing Cranc by the neck. “You’ll taste no blood but your own, rat!” the Maur growled, pulling the orange Cat up against the door. “Thrarc will wear your skin for a hat and let his children suck your bones if you are not careful!” He shoved Cranc hard against the far wall of the hallway. The humiliated Rok gave a howl of rage and stormed off. “Ooh, I’ve never seen you so feisty, Thrarc!” Roadkill piped. “Good thing we didn’t want to make friends with him.” “He is dung!” Thrarc retorted. “Before we excape, I will finish him. He fights without honor, and deserves to die.” “Well, our first priority is to escape,” Roadkill reminded him. “I won’t get far with this leg even if we do manage to get out of here. Our best chance would be for you to get back to your people and send word to mine. They will come for me.” Thrarc shook his head and laughed. “You will be dinner on a Rok table long before that, Man. Besides, Maur do not leave their friends behind. I will get you out of here, even if I must carry you to my village.” Roadkill chuckled. The Cat’s determination was encouraging, if unbalanced. Suddenly there was a fumbling at the lock, and the door to their cell swung noiselessly open. Seven Rok guards entered the chamber cautiously, armed with sharp knives and spears. The leader, a stocky himalayan with blue eyes, brandished a pistol. “You, help him up,” he commanded Thrarc, motioning toward the crippled Scout. Thrarc complied, and pulled Roadkill to his feet. Two Cats came around and fastened manacles on their wrists. “Now, march!” the leader barked. “And no tricks or you die right here, understand?” Thrarc nodded. The troop left the cell and made its way slowly down the hall. As they walked, Roadkill took note of the architecture of the Rok dwelling. He had never heard of the MowMow building any kind of structures, but here were halls of fitted stone with vaulted ceilings and carven pillars. “Thrarc, did they build all this?” he whispered. “No,” Thrarc replied softly, “this was once a city of men. MowMow do not build with stone, only...Ouch!” The sharp point of a spear poked into the Maur’s back. “No talking!” snapped the leader. “Prisoners must not speak!” The group moved on in silence until they entered a vast rotunda with an immense circular column occupying the middle like a tower. It


climbed to the high ceiling, and its surface was dotted with a multitude of portals, windows, and balconies. They were brought before one such balcony that hung thirty feet up the side of the edifice. “Prisoners, kneel!” the leader ordered, and the guards behind Thrarc and Roadkill forced them to their knees. Roadkill gave a cry of anguish as he went down on his broken leg. Thrarc moved to help, but the guards leveled spears at him. He snarled but held his place. “It’s okay, Thrarc,” Roadkill panted. “I’m all right.” Now the guards bowed also, and the himalayan’s voice echoed throughout the chamber. “Faro Panleuk!” he announced. “I bring you the prisoners: a MowMow of the Maur tribe...and a Human.” He said the latter with obvious disdain. “The charges brought against them are invasion and murder. They mercilessly attacked a fist of our brave warriors as we tried to make speech with them. Even now the widows of the dead wail in the Hall of Souls.” The portly, round face of an obese persian Cat appeared on the balcony and looked down at the group. “Very well, you may rise,” it said, waving a paw unconcernedly. Two of the MowMow guards helped Roadkill to his feet. “We ask for justice,” the himalayan continued, “and for your wisdom in this matter. Shall we not execute these spies, as they rightly deserve?” The other guards murmured their agreement. Then the Faro raised his hand, and a hush fell over the room. “I am aware of their crimes, battle-lord Pelto, and they certainly will be punished for their monstrous transgressions. But we must always keep the best interests of the Rok foremost in our minds. A unique opportunity has been afforded us, and I deem it unwise to let it slip from our claws. I am coming down,” he said, disappearing into the tower. The MowMow Cats who were guarding Roadkill and Thrarc began to babble excitedly among themselves. Apparently it was a rare occasion for the Faro of the Rok to leave his citadel. “I wonder what’s going on,” Roadkill whispered to Thrarc. “I do not know,” the Cat replied, “but I hope it is better than execution!” The Faro of the Rok emerged through an archway at the bottom of the tower. He was immensely fat and supported on either side by cowering retainers. He came to stand before them, and the troops stood rigidly at attention, their intimidation obvious. “Bring the prisoners to the Chamber of Artifacts,” he commanded, and the procession followed him across the floor of the cavernous hall. Roadkill looked about him now. As they neared the far wall, he was amazed to see what appeared to be the remains of ancient power-on equipment. It suddenly dawned on him that this must have once been the vehicle operations pit of a lost city of men. He could not guess how


long it had been vacant of humanity, nor how long ago the Rok had taken up residence. But he was certain that at one time this had been a bustling mecca of civilization like his own Mogg. The Faro led them to a large portal. He gestured impatiently as two guards hurriedly pulled the pitted steel doors aside. A musty smell of long hibernation emanated from the opening. “Bring light for the human,” Panluek directed, and a torch was quickly found and lit. Roadkill and Thrarc were nudged into the chamber. The torchlight flickered insanely on the walls, revealing the shadowy forms of covered equipment. A large object occupied the center of the room, draped with a huge tarp. With a nod from Panleuk, the covering was pulled back. Roadkill’s jaw dropped. “Oh, cracky!” exclaimed Thrarc. “Do you know what this is then, Human?” the Faro of the Rok inquired. “Yes...yes I do,” Roadkill stammered. He could not believe his eyes: Before him sat a forgotten legacy, the likes of which had not been seen on the road in over a hundred years. Its beautifully contoured hull gleamed in the fitful light, still pristine for all its ancientness. Formidable weaponry bristled from its dorsal and lateral hardpoints: heavy slugthrowers, mine droppers, a turret housing twin armor-busting cannons. It was an awesome spectacle, and a feat of engineering without equal in these declining latter days of civilization. “It’s a hellion,” he answered at last, “a machine of war built by my ancestors. It is very old.” “Can you make it work again, Human?” Panleuk asked. “Me? Hell no. I only drive them...well, ones like it. I’ve never worked on any, though; we have maintenance handlers for that.” At this the Faro’s face grew grim. “I can fix it!” erupted a voice. It was Thrarc. Everyone turned to look at him. “I can fix it,” he repeated. “Maur can fix all machines. This one is old, but it can be made to work again. Promise our freedom and I will fix it for you. Then Panleuk can make war with Man on the highways.” He winked sidelong at Roadkill. “I am Faro of the Rok!” Panleuk bellowed pompously. “I do not deal with murderers of my people, and my quarrel is not with Man; he is far away and troubles me little. Rather, the interloping audacity of other tribes is what drives my people to war. But suffice it to say, should you make the machine work again it will bode well for you when I decide your fate. You have an opportunity to prove your sincerity and good will toward the Rok. “Give the Maur whatever he needs to accomplish this task,” he commanded his minions, “and summon me when it is done. I have spoken!” He turned to leave, but paused as he passed Roadkill. “When


he is finished, you will teach me how to ride it,� he stated, then lurched off with his fawning retinue in tow. Thrarc and Roadkill were smiling inside as the Rok guards led them back to their cell. When the door closed behind them, they went immediately to work. There was much planning to do: the Faro of the Rok had just handed them their ticket to freedom, and they intended to use it.


Chapter Eight The days passed single-file in monotonous procession as Roadkill paced the dimensions of his cramped prison. His leg was healing nicely, and he was gradually regaining use of it. He saw Thrarc only at night now; the captors came for him early and brought him back late. Most of the Cat’s time was spent working on the hellion, and Roadkill was left mostly to himself. At least the treatment of the prisoners had improved. Meals came on a regular basis now, and were more fit for consumption. The guards did not harass either of them anymore; still, there were times Cranc would come by and stare balefully at the Scout through the slit in the door, never saying a word. As best as Roadkill could reckon, it had been over a month since they were taken captive. Thrarc was making considerable headway with the vehicle. Most of the seals were rotted away, he had reported, but on the whole it was in surprisingly good condition. In fact, he had even intentionally slowed his progress in order to allow more time for the Scout’s leg to heal. One night Thrarc was let back in his cell late, waking Roadkill from a light sleep. Sitting down in a corner, the Maur waited for the guard’s footsteps to recede before speaking. “Roadkill, the machine is almost fixed,” he whispered. “Another day, maybe two...but I have foundered a problem: In the whole city there is no juice to make it go! The guards say not even a cupful. I do not think we will be able to drive away from here. We will have to walk, and your leg must be well first.” Roadkill’s brow creased in thought. The hellion was too much of a Godssend for their plans to be thwarted by such a minor detail. There had to be fuel somewhere. This was once a major city; surely there were storage tanks someplace that might yet hold a remnant of the combustible liquid. Then it occurred to him that any fuel still around would be over a hundred years old and in such a broken-down state that it would probably foul the sensitive powerplant of the hellion. The two of them sat in frustrated silence, discarding ideas as fast as they popped into their heads. They hadn’t considered the fact that there might not be a source of fuel available, and the impact of this new knowledge sent them both into a despondent funk. Resignedly, they drifted off to sleep and let the quiet hours of the night pass over the world above. From the middle of a nightmare the answer came: Roadkill had been dreaming about dying beneath the sun upon the Lost Road--and there it was. He shot wide awake and began chuckling quietly. Why hadn’t he thought of it before?


“What? What is it?” asked Thrarc groggily, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I know where to get the gas!” “Where?” demanded the Maur. “Ha! Go back to sleep. I’ll tell you in the morning,” Roadkill teased. He rolled over and, much to Thrarc’s irritation, was happily sawing logs within a minute. *

*

*

In the morning the guards came for Thrarc as usual. This time Roadkill rose and addressed them: “I must speak with the Faro! It is very important. It’s about the machine.” “Tell me, and I will tell it to him,” one of the guards offered. “No,” Roadkill replied, shaking his head. “I can only speak of it to Panleuk.” “We shall see about that,” the guard replied, smirking, as they led Thrarc away. Soon after, another of the MowMow came along with a tray of food. He cracked open the door and shoved it into the cell, then stood watching Roadkill intently through the slit. It was not the same guard that usually fed him, and at first the Scout thought it might be Cranc coming to leer at him some more. But this Cat was a striped rex with short, curly hair and powerfully defined features. His eyes held no malice, but a spark of curiosity lit his countenance. “Stopped by to see the monkey in the cage, eh?” Roadkill sneered. The brown MowMow cracked a smile. “In a sense,” he said. “A long time I have been gone, and now I return to find a human in my city. Very odd. Very strange. I find it hard to believe you haven’t been eaten yet.” “The night is young,” Roadkill conceded with a shrug. “Your Faro has found my friend and I to be of some use for the time being, but we may wind up on the menu yet.” “Ah, yes!” the Rok said, stroking his bold chin thoughtfully. “You refer to his obsession with the artifact. I should have known. This is an intriguing bit of news indeed. And have you succeeded? Does his infernal machine work?” Now his round, gray eyes were wide with interest. “Well, yes and no,” replied the Scout warily. He was far from trusting any of his Rok captors, but something about this particular MowMow was compelling. He decided to take a chance: “We are closer to being finished than anyone realizes,” he divulged with a gleam in his eye, “but Panleuk is not going to be able to take his little joyride. The hellion requires fuel, and there is none.”


The rex digested this information thoughtfully. He seemed to be weighing some matter in his mind. “It is too bad,” he said at last. “The vehicle is all that keeps you and the Maur alive. When Panleuk realizes that his dream cannot be, he will vent his wrath upon you both. So very sad.” He turned to leave. “Wait!” Roadkill cried out. He knew that the guard who took Thrarc would probably never relay his message to the Faro. This strange Cat might be his only hope. “I know where to get fuel. Tell Panleuk I will take him there.” The Cat cocked an eyebrow as he turned back. “Where?” he inquired. “I can only tell Panleuk,” Roadkill insisted. “Human, do you wish to live? Panleuk will kill you, fuel or no. As long as he is Faro of the Rok you will not leave this place alive. Many of my people lust for the taste of your flesh and blood, and he will not deny them. He himself partakes of this practice which I and some others abhor. Only Glang can save you and give back your freedom. Do you wish to live? Tell me where to find this fuel!” Roadkill could sense the ulterior motives playing behind the MowMow’s glowing eyes. Whoever this rex was, he had little love for his Faro, and secret designs filled his head. This Glang might make as great an ally as he would an enemy. Throwing caution to the wind, Roadkill decided to gamble on a wild card: “Not far from here in the desert,” he told him, “by the side of the Lost Road. There one of the vehicles that attacked me still sits. It must have at least a half a tank of fuel, more than enough to get us...” Roadkill’s mouth suddenly snapped shut. He realized too late that he had said more than he should have. “Enough to get you what?” the rex probed. “Enough to get you and your Maur companion back to the highways? Back to the cities of men?” Now his voice lowered to a hissing whisper. “I care not about you or your road machine. Good riddance to you both, I say. I desire only to lift my people from this dark age Panleuk has mired us in. His devotion to borrowed heritage and stolen tradition imprisons us in perpetual barbarism, while the other tribes advance toward a zenith we will never know. They laugh at the Rok, and we meet their guns and knives with rocks and sticks!” The Cat’s fists trembled with carefully tempered rage as he paced back and forth at the cell door. “Curse him to his own darkness!” he snarled. “He will be the death of us all. No! He will not...not while Glang lives. “Human, listen to me. If you do what I say, you will live and I will help you escape. I will get you your audience with Panleuk, but do not tell him where this vehicle lies; tell him only that you can find it if you search. I will take care of the rest.” Roadkill nodded his assent.


“And don’t betray me, Human,” Glang warned, “or I will join Panleuk at his feast after all.” *

*

*

The Faro’s chambers were palatial by spartan feline standards, strewn with plush rugs and luxurious divans. Panleuk himself reclined lethargically on a huge cushion, sloppily eating wedges of some strange fruit. His ubiquitous ministers hovered silently about him like hummingbirds, catering to his every need. A squad of Rok soldiers led Roadkill to a spot in the center of the greatroom. Each took up station not four feet away from their charge, keeping their spears leveled at him. “Kneel!” one of them commanded, and Roadkill obliged with the well-rehearsed procedure. The fat Faro, slurping drops of nectar from his chin, motioned for him to rise. “Thrarc tells me we have a problem,” Panleuk gurgled, “one that I hope can be remedied.” He raised his bushy eyebrows at the Scout, awaiting his response. “Um...” Roadkill began nervously, “maybe not as big a problem as it would seem. You see, the hellion requires a very sensitive fuel mixture in order to run, which I do not believe is available....” “You are right,” the Faro interrupted. “I found no use for the foul liquid you refer to, and had it drained from the storage tanks long ago. Better that they should be used to hold water.” “Certainly,” continued the Scout. “By now it would have degraded beyond use anyway. But that may not matter. I believe I can locate some of this fuel nearby--enough to run the hellion.” “Tell me where it is and I will have it retrieved,” Panleuk insisted. “I do not know the exact place, but I can find it. Send me with twenty of your warriors, each bearing a vessel to carry back the fuel. We will return in three days. I could not possibly escape a whole fist of Rok warriors, and you still hold my friend.” Panleuk paused to consider the Scout’s offer. “Summon Glang,” he ordered one of his cringing vassals. “We will see what he thinks of this human’s plan. If he agrees to take you, you may go.” Roadkill sighed inwardly with relief as he realized Glang must have indeed been at work behind the scenes. Perhaps he could be trusted after all. The Faro did not speak to Roadkill anymore, seeming to turn his attention back to the sloppy fruit, and the Scout was left standing; but every so often he caught a glimpse of the obese persian watching him from the corner of his eye. Before long Glang entered the chamber. He did not spare as much as a glance toward Roadkill, but went straight-away and knelt obligingly


before the Faro. His dusty leather war-harness creaked with every movement. “My liege,” he said without looking up. “Battle-lord Glang, it is good to have you back from the fences,” said the Faro. “It is good to be back, lord. My honor is to serve you on the field of battle, but ever my heart lies within these city walls. How may I be of service to you?” “Have you seen our human?” Panleuk gestured toward Roadkill with a flabby paw. “He and his Maur companion were captured in the foothills after attacking a fist led by battle-lord Cranc.” Glang looked at Roadkill with feigned disgust--or was it? Roadkill wondered. The Cat walked circles around him, eyeing him up and down. “So this is what all the fuss is about, these humans? I am not impressed. Even for all their size they are frail, pathetic creatures. This one wouldn’t last one day alone in the desert. Lucky he had a MowMow with him to keep him alive.” Now he stood face to face with the Scout, glaring at him. “You don’t belong in the desert! Why do humans wish to be where they are not welcome? We do not want you here. The Jagland does not want you here. Why don’t you go back to your shade-trees and swimmingponds far away?” “Man belongs wherever he wishes--get used to it,” replied Roadkill stoutly. Without warning Glang struck him across the cheek with his paw, leaving deep scratches. Roadkill was startled, not expecting an attack from what he thought was an ally. Had he made a mistake? Was Glang double-crossing him? He looked hard into the rex’s eyes. Just beyond a thin veneer of rage the Cat’s eyes held a narrow look of dire urgency, seeming almost to plead with him. So, it was an act after all. Biting back his own anger, Roadkill made as if to swing a punch at Glang, then visibly restrained himself as the guards brandished their spears menacingly. “Bastard!” he muttered. “Such insolence does not belong in the Faro’s chambers,” Glang warned him. “The next time you speak so, Human, I will cut out your tongue.” “Enough!” Panleuk barked. “We need this human, Glang, so do not cut him to pieces just yet. Hear this now: The artifact has been repaired. Even now it stands ready, but it lacks the fuel it requires. This human says he knows where to get some, a night’s march and a half-night. You, Glang, will take a fist of your bravest and escort him. Bring the fuel back to me quickly, and if he shows any sign of betrayal kill him without hesitation. I have spoken.” “It shall be done as you say, lord,” Glang promised.


Panleuk dismissed them all with a wave. Glang headed directly from the chamber, but as he passed Roadkill he spared him a quick sidelong look. He twitched his eyebrow twice, then stalked out. So far so good, Roadkill thought, wiping blood from his cheek. Then a spear point goaded him from behind, and his guards took him back to his cell. *

*

*

“I have heard of him,” Thrarc said. “His name is whispered around the battle fires in the North of this place, and all tribes fear him. My people, we laugh at the Rok, but we do not laugh at Glang. I would not wish to fight him.” “You?” Roadkill was quite surprised. “I thought you would fight anybody!” “Glang is not anybody. He is strongest. He is fiercest. But he fights with honor, unlike most Rok. If you have a gun and Glang has a stick, prob'ly Glang will hit you with his stick, then shoot you with your gun. I wonder why he would want to help us.” “I could be wrong,” Roadkill ventured, “but I think he has eyes for the throne. He does not seem to like Panleuk; thinks he is holding the Rok back. I believe it would be in our best interests to help him any way we can.” Thrarc paced the cell, deep in thought, obviously troubled by this new turn of events. “If you are right, we must help him so that he will help us to excape. But I fear for my tribe, Roadkill. Panleuk is no fighter. He has no head for battle or conquest. But Glang...ah, now there is a warrior! If he becomes Faro of the Rok, then he will be a great threat to all other tribes. I think not of myself--I loves a good battle. But for my mate and my son I worries. If the Maur were defeated in war I do not think the Rok would have mercy on them. It is a hard choice...” “Well, it’s a choice we have to make. I think Glang will become Faro whether we help him or not. Panleuk’s days are numbered. You cannot help your people from here, but if we ex...escape we can deal with Glang when the time comes.” Thrarc’s eyes lit up. “You would help me? My people? That is very nice from a human who said he would splatter my brains across the Jagland,” he cackled. “Yeah, well...yeah,” answered Roadkill lamely. “Anyway, tomorrow I head out with Glang to get the fuel. We should be back in a few days. Try not to get into trouble while I’m gone, okay?” “Hokay, and you stay away from trouble, too. You will not have Thrarc to baby-sit you now.”


Chapter Nine Thrarc sat alone in the cell humming softly to himself. Roadkill had left in the cool of the early evening with Glang and a fist of bristling MowMow warriors. Now it was the Maur’s turn to bide his time in the silence of the black dungeon. He did not like it. No one to talk to, no one to laugh with. “Even miss the Road-man,” he murmured, then sighed. “Tick-tock, tick-tock, wish I had a clock. Only three days and nights. Maybe I’ll sleep...maybe sleep.” He counted his wiggling toes. “Four...but Roadkill has fibe. I wonder for what?” He pondered the insignificant mystery until it bored him, which did not take long. Then he tried whistling but couldn’t. So instead he stretched out on the floor and took the first of many naps. It wasn’t until the beginning of the third day that anything extraordinary happened at all. Thrarc was beginning to get a bit loopy, and had taken to holding conversations with himself to pass the time. He was in the midst of a loud debate on the origin of storms--and was pretty sure he was beginning to see things his way--when a sound at the cell door startled him. “Roadkill?” he inquired. “Are you back so soon?” There was no answer. With a click the door swung silently open, and Thrarc was now certain that it was not the Scout returning from his journey. As the opening widened, he blinked at the figures standing before him. Flanked by two scimitar-wielding guards stood Cranc, smiling a smile that made the Maur’s blood suddenly run cold. The OneEared Cat laughed a hissing laugh. “Can kitty come out to play?” *

*

*

“If you try anything you shouldn’t, I really will kill you. Y’understan, human?” The earnestness in Glang’s face was enough to make Roadkill believe he meant it. The pair had paused on a rocky shelf to rest before continuing their descent down the mountainside. “What am I going to try, Glang? I have no food, no water. I wouldn’t last an hour in the daylight. You said so yourself. And I won’t leave Thrarc behind, anyways.” “Oh yes, I cannot forget your loyalty to your Maur friend,” the Rok battle-lord spat sarcastically. “Humans are well known for their benevolence!” He laughed. “Surely you do not expect me to believe you would pass up an opportunity to escape just because of a Cat! I know your kind better than that. You delight in killing us without reason, as I would delight in killing you under other circumstances. But you are to play a part in my plans, and neither MowMow nor Human will interfere


with them.” The striped rex walked to the edge of the shelf and looked out across the land. Beyond the foothills sprawled the empty desert plain, basking under the stars like the dry, stretched hide of some behemoth from the depths of the sea. “Just what are your plans?” asked Roadkill, sitting down on the rock to remove his boots. “You know all you need to for the time being,” Glang responded. “You just do as I tell you, and things will go well for you.” “Uh-huh. So how do you expect to get Panleuk out of the pic...” Like a flash of lightning Glang was upon Roadkill, a gleaming steel knife against his throat. “Watch your mouth, Human! Another word and I’ll cut off your head and throw it down the mountainside!” Then he released him and sheathed his blade. Bending close to Roadkill’s face, the battle-lord glared menacingly into his eyes. “Most of these are my troops,” he hissed, gesturing to the warriors milling about the rocks below, “but not all. Panleuk made sure some of his own spies came with us to watch you...and me. If they find out what I have in mind, I will have to kill them all out here. Then Panleuk will know, and I will not succeed. Y’understan?” Roadkill stared back stoically, unblinking. He glanced at the troops below. None were watching the two up on the shelf. Then he made sure Glang’s knife was in its sheath. Without a hint of warning his hand shot out and locked around the Cat’s neck. Glang reacted almost instantly, but it was not fast enough. As his paw reached for his knife, Roadkill grabbed the Cat’s wrist and rolled him over. Glang was pinned beneath the larger human. The rex struggled vainly to free himself. His eyes were wide with surprise and anger, and he sputtered choked curses. Roadkill bent down and brought his face close to Glang’s. “You underestimate me,” he whispered, “and that’s a big mistake. You may be strong among your kind, Glang, but you are a weakling among mine. It’s obvious you have never dealt with a man before, or you would never have let us be alone together. Now you listen! You want something from me, and I want something from you. I don’t care who sits on the throne, you or Panleuk. To hell with both of you! But I want my friend, and I want the hellion. I’m going to get them with or without you, but I think both our plans will be much easier to carry out with each other’s help. Now you had better let me in on exactly what you want from me. I don’t mind play-acting in front of your buddies here, but I am not your slave, and I am only your prisoner because I choose to be for now. So knock off the infidel crap!” Looking up to see if he had been spotted, Roadkill half expected Rok warriors to be bounding up the mountainside in defense of their fallen battle-lord, but as yet none had seen them. He turned back to Glang. “Now do we have an understanding, or what?”


“I believe we do,” croaked the Cat, nodding. “Good!” said Roadkill, and let him up. *

*

*

The sun was rising sharp and hot when the company finally halted to make camp. They marched throughout most of the night, and had come as far as the foothills of the barren peaks. On a flat, rocky plateau Glang’s men began to dig shallow ditches in the hard earth. “I suggest you start digging too, Man, if you do not want the sun to drink you dry,” Glang said. “Beneath the ground you will sleep. Out here there is no shade...no shelter. Now you will learn to live in the Jagland as the Rok do. Maybe save your life one day.” The Cat smiled and handed him a small, folding spade. Roadkill began to chop at the baked loam just beneath a layer of white sand with the pick-end of the tool. It was very slow going; the earth seemed to have been fired in a kiln and the shovel clanged jarringly with each strike. The sweat from his brow evaporated in the morning heat before it could trickle down his face. Every minute that passed drained away strength. By the time he had dug deep enough to accommodate his bulk, the rest of the MowMow were already covering themselves with tarps and pulling five or six inches of dirt on top of them. Only a small breathing space was left open from which Cat eyes peered out to watch the prone human struggle with his own covering. Snickering, feline laughter hissed around him, and finally Glang had to crawl from beneath his shelter to help the awkward Scout. Only when Roadkill was snugly tucked into the earth did Glang slither back under his own covering. Then all was silent. As the day passed across the sky above, Roadkill tried fitfully to sleep. Beneath the weight of the desert sand, movement was limited. From time to time a wave of claustrophobia washed over him, and only by reminding himself that just a few inches separated him from the surface could he keep from bursting in panic from his shelter into the gaze of the murderous sun. “Now that I have been buried in a grave, I will try harder to avoid it!” he mused. After a while his thoughts began to wander erratically, and he drifted into a dim, gray sleep.... ...The lions were coming for him. He could hear them beyond the dunes; growling, roaring. Sometimes one would stand on the crest of a motionless wave of sand, silhouetted in the moonlight, and he knew it was looking for him, listening. Now they were moving closer, their deepthroated growls heavy in his ears. Lie still. Play dead. They don’t eat dead meat. Or was that bears? I don’t know...play dead. Hot breath was rolling down his neck. Growling...


Roadkill awoke. The growls had become a constant roar now, and the hot breath was blowing sand into his eyes and teeth. He pursed his lips tightly and shielded his face with his hand. Outside the little peephole, the world was a dark, swirling mass. “A storm!” he cried out. And what a storm! He had seen bad ones; had driven through a few from which he almost didn’t make it back--when he could not see the front of his scout car. But this was worse. Even under his protective layer of sand he could feel the violent winds beating against the ground. He had to pull the opening of his tarp closed to ward off the torrents of sand that lashed against his face, threatening to suffocate him. A touch on his shoulder brought him up with a start. “Roadkill! Get up! We must move on or we will be buried!” It was Glang. He poked his furry head under the Scout’s tarp. “Bad storm blowing.” “So I’d noticed,” Roadkill replied sarcastically. “Come! No time to gabby. We must get moving before we are all swept under. Jagland is not forgiving when she catches you off your guard.” Roadkill climbed from his makeshift tomb into the whirling maelstrom. Pulling the tarp out from under the sand, he rolled it into a ball and tucked it under his arm. He ducked against the winds that blasted his face, and set off after the vague, shadowy forms of Rok warriors gliding down the face of the plateau. Glang stayed with him, picking out the surest paths and leading him unfalteringly to the south. They trudged along for almost two hours, all but blinded by the unceasing sandstorm. Moaning filled their ears as the whole land cried out like a slave under the lash. Roadkill was weakening fast. He called out against the wind to Glang, who stopped and turned around. The battle-lord waited for the Scout to catch up. “Glang! I don’t know how much further I can go! I feel so heavy...” “Yes, yes,” the Cat replied. “Make excuses later! Now, must keep going!” He whistled loudly and in an instant two Rok warriors came bounding out of the haze. “Help him!” Glang commanded them. Each warrior took him by an arm and assisted him as best they could. Then Glang sped away and disappeared into the tossing sea of sand. It seemed as if they had marched on forever through the raging storm, forcing their way foot by foot. Eventually Glang returned and growled out unintelligible orders to the Cats at Roadkill’s side, and they departed hastily. The battle-lord helped him along now. The Scout was frustrated at his inability to cope with the relentless desert’s assault, but his strength was gone. On his own he wouldn’t have made it another hundred yards. “Glang, I think we’re gonna die out here!” he hollered over the roaring wind. “Not today, Human,” the Cat replied. “Just ahead is a place where we will be safe. Keep walking.”


“You’re not going to bury me again, are you? I hate being treated like cat shit.” Glang laughed. “No. Not this time. I think this will be more to your liking.” The pair pressed on for another twenty minutes when suddenly the rampart of the Lost Road loomed before them like a ghost-ship coming out of a fog. A huge, crumbling rent gaped in the side of the dike, and toward it the column of Cats walked, hunched over like bent monks. The cleft led inward, narrow and high-walled, ending in a cul-de-sac at the heart of the dike. Once the party was between the walls, the roaring winds diminished considerably, giving them the first peace they had known in hours. The Cats halted their march once they were at the back of the cleft and immediately began searching for something. “Over here, lord!” shouted one of the warriors, pointing to a pile of fallen rock. “The wall has collapsed again, but it will not take long to dig out.” He and the others began clearing away stones and boulders from the wall. Glang motioned Roadkill to lend a hand, then went to work himself. Within minutes the rocks were cleared away, revealing a small black opening. One by one they crawled inside. The passage was narrow and dark; Roadkill had to hunch down to keep from scraping his head against the ceiling, but soon it opened into a spacious chamber beneath the dike. Very little daylight filtered through the passage, and the MowMow looked like vague apparitions as they moved about the room. Glang entered last, growling commands to his troops that began to re-establish the camp they had so hastily quit. Roadkill found a corner and was spreading out his sleeping-tarp when Glang joined him. “Much better, eh? Now sleep for a while in safety,” the Cat grinned. “Yeah,” replied Roadkill. “Why didn’t we come here in the first place? The dirtrunner is parked beside the dike as it is. Shouldn’t we have been following it all along?” “The dike is a dangerous place to travel. This is the haven of banditmen. Mostly we avoid them, and they us. But from time to time we war upon each other. Best if we do not run into any now.” “So this is where they hide out,” Roadkill said softly. “We’ve often wondered. They fight my people too, waylaying travelers on the other roads, but when we hunt for them they just disappear. Now I know where they go. Are there many other chambers like this?” “Oh, many!” Glang answered. “Back there is an opening to a tunnel,” he said as he gestured toward the pitch dark recess at the back of the room, “that runs beneath the dike for miles and miles. Most dikes have them. In our city we have many books of men left behind by its ancient inhabitants. We learn your language and your writing from them. Also we found manuscripts that tell of the building of the dikes. Thousands of


men worked for thousands of nights to build their highways across the Jagland. The tunnels and chambers gave the workers shelter from the heat of the day, and a means to move supplies and men back and forth during construction. When the dikes were completed, most of the tunnel entrances were blocked up to keep intruders from sneaking into the cities.” “What happened to the men who built your city, Glang?” Roadkill inquired. “Where did they go?” “I do not know, nor does any of my kind. If the ancient men wrote any book about where they went, it has yet to be found. They suddenly stopped writing, then just disappeared. The Rok have lived there a hundred years, and the city was long deserted when we found it. Maybe they moved from the mountains to build the city you come from...or maybe died in the desert. Who knows? Not Glang.” The battle-lord laid out his own sleeping-tarp next to Roadkill’s and stretched himself upon it. “What about your own history?” he asked. “Have you no record of the men from my city among your books?” Roadkill thought about it for a moment. “We don’t have many books where I come from...don’t really see much need for them. Most of the people I know can’t read very well anyway. I learned as part of my Scout training, but I have never read a whole book. Seems like a lot of work if you ask me.” Glang laughed at that. “A lot of work?! Ha! Don’t you seek knowledge? Don’t you want to know things you never knew?” The Cat shook his head in disbelief. “How can it be that Man has cast aside the only thing he ever did that was worthwhile. Books bring knowledge, and knowledge is power.” “Well, if the Rok are so knowledgeable,” spat the Scout, “why are they so far behind the other MowMow tribes?” “Panleuk!” hissed Glang, his eyes suddenly alight with anger. Then he fell silent and spoke no more. Roadkill lay for awhile listening to the roaring winds outside. They showed no sign of dying out, and if anything, had grown in intensity. He was suddenly very glad to be in a dark chamber with Cats all around him. He felt curiously safe. Nestled beneath this strange blanket of alien comfort, he passed beyond the wall of sleep and drank deeply from the well of dreams.


Chapter Ten The paw over Roadkill’s mouth woke him abruptly. He struggled beneath the arms that pinned him until he saw Glang’s face hovering before him in the dim light. The Cat was motioning him to be silent. Then the arms released him and Glang took his paw from the Scout’s mouth. “Someone coming,” he whispered. “Do not make a sound.” From the dark passage at the back of the room a faint bobbing light was emanating, followed by harsh shouts and laughter. With amazing swiftness the Rok warriors melted into the deeper shadows of the chamber, and suddenly Roadkill felt vulnerable and alone. The voices were distinctly human. Who else but men would shatter a pristine silence with such unnecessary loudness? He could not make out what they were saying, but the voices did not sound friendly. Hard, cruel men were stomping through the passage, and in moments would emerge into the chamber and discover him. He slid back against the wall, as far into the shadows as he could, and waited. The beam of a flashlight danced on the floor in the middle of the chamber and a rough voice said: “This is it!” Just then men began to spill out of the passageway. Ten of them. Bandits. They did not see Roadkill right away, but gathered together and began to unpack their backpacks and shoulder bags. “Jeku! Check outside and make sure we’re clear!” commanded the same voice, and one of their number peeled away from the group, disappearing through the opening that led outside. Their leader was a gruff, husky man. He stood a head taller than his cohorts and towered over them like a granite pillar. “We’ll stay here until sundown,” he said. “Then we’ll hafta get crackin’. I want to be done before morning!” The men began bustling about, making camp. Roadkill did not dare move, unable to believe they had not yet seen him. There was no sign of the Cats, but the Scout knew that all twenty of them lay in wait behind the piles of stone and debris and in the darkness of the rafters above. Suddenly, the bandit leader broke off from the rest of the group and moved in Roadkill’s direction. He threw his dufflebag roughly to the ground not five feet away and began to rummage through it. Then he looked up and their eyes met. “What the!...” the bandit exclaimed. He gave another loud shout and leaped backward, fumbling for his pistol. “Whoa! Get over here, guys!” Roadkill could do nothing but sit and stare at the forest of gun barrels that suddenly rose before him, each aimed squarely at his head. Behind them was a sea of scowls: angry men seething at the intruder who had suddenly appeared in the midst of their covert operation. Suddenly, one ugly face lurched closer, eyeing him intently. The hunch-backed form


gasped and gestured wildly to the leader. “It’s him!” he cried. “It’s the Scout we killed a couple months ago!” “Well, you did a hell of a job, you idiot!” the leader spat, then redirected his attention toward Roadkill. “Who are you?” he snapped at the Scout. “What’s your name? Why are you spying on us? Oh, never mind...kill him!” Roadkill’s heart leaped into his mouth as eight fingers began to tighten on eight triggers. He closed his eyes and waited for the impact of death, wondering how long it would hurt, when a low growl lifted from the shadows behind the group. “What the...” the leader gasped, and they were his last words as a living man. A Rok spear flew from the darkness, piercing him through the heart. A shocked look filled his eyes as he fell backward, death taking him before he hit the ground; his countless crimes were suddenly and quietly avenged. Then came pandemonium. Shots rang out as the remaining bandits fired haphazardly into the shadows, panicked by the death of their leader. They forgot about the Scout in the mayhem, and desired only to save their own skins from an unseen menace. One by one they fell to bullet, spear and ax. Dark shapes broke off from the body of shadow behind the debris piles, took life, then crept back into hiding. Roadkill could only watch in horror as they died. They were his enemy, but they were men...men being murdered by Cats. Part of him wanted to jump up and join them against the MowMow, while another part of him rejoiced at every demise. One bandit flew backward and landed with his head in Roadkill’s lap, the dead face staring up at him with one eye; the other had been shot out, and dark red blood pumped from the socket. He pushed the body aside and backed away from the grim spectacle. By the time he looked up again, it was over. Glang stood before him drenched in blood that was not his own. “Well, Man! Wasn’t that fun?” the Rok panted. All around, the cries of the dying filled the room. One by one they were silenced as Rok warriors went around slashing the throats of any bandits that still lived. “I hope you are not too disturbed. They were going to kill you, you know.” “I...I know,” Roadkill stammered. “It was just very hard to watch.” “The bent one recognized you. Did you know them?” “No,” replied the Scout. “I chased some bandits about a week ago. That’s how I wound up in the desert where Thrarc found me. They left me to die, but they did not count on a MowMow helping a human. I wonder what they were doing back out here. How far does this tunnel lead?” Glang walked over to the tunnel entrance. “We do not know. A long, long way. Maybe all the way to the intersection with the other road. Bandits use these tunnels more than we do, so it is not safe for us to


explore them. But many hidden openings line the dikes, and these we use to escape from the sun and from Man when we must.” Just then, a Rok warrior scampered into the room from the opening that led outside. “Lord!” he cried, then halted before Glang at the position of attention. “One of the humans went outside just before we attacked. He has run off into the storm and disappeared. Shall I send a detachment out after him?” “No, no!” Glang waved off the report as though it were a pesky insect. “Let him go. He will not last a day in Jagland without help, and we are about to strike camp anyway. Let him run to his death.” The muscular rex began to growl out orders to his warriors, who hastily stripped the bodies of the bandits--taking guns, ammunition, and anything deemed worthwhile. Then they began packing their own belongings, preparing to resume their trek into the desert. Roadkill grudgingly rolled up his sleeping tarp. The adrenaline rush of battle was quickly wearing off, and he felt like he hadn’t gotten any sleep at all. Now he had another full night of trudging to look forward to. The Cats, on the other hand, looked chipper and refreshed. They capered about the room, joking with each other as they made ready. Glang, who was standing near the entrance to the chamber, saw the annoyed look on the Scout’s face and laughed. “What is the matter, Roadkill?” “I feel like hell!” he responded. “So why do they all look like they’re out on a spring walk?” “Ha ha! Because to them, this is a...spring walk. They do not sleep like you do, for hours and hours. Just little bits here and there, sometimes even as we’re walking. Other times we rest and stretch and think. I highly recommend it.” “Nah! I need my nine hours or I’m no good to anybody,” Roadkill said sourly. “Well, you will have to do with the four you have had. Now, we must go.” With a wave of his paw Glang signaled his fist of Rok warriors to move out. One by one the Cats filed through the narrow opening and started out into the coming night. Roadkill waited his turn; then, with a sigh, joined the procession. Outside, the storm had died down with the onset of the evening. A few bright stars were shining through the deepening crimson atmosphere. It was still hot outside, but cooling quickly. Soon the chill of the Jagland night would come upon them. “We still have many miles to go before we reach the car,” came Glang’s voice from behind him. “Walk with me and tell me about this city of men you come from.” With a grunt Roadkill shouldered the pack of provisions he had been given to carry, and the two set off along the side of the dike, following the others as they disappeared into the night.


*

*

*

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” “Huh?” Crasch grunted, looking up from the pile of bam on the table top in front of him. “I said, don’t you think you’ve had about enough.” It was Jolie. She came and sat down next to him, putting an arm around his burly shoulder. It was late, and the Terrace Bar held few other customers. Crasch had been there all evening after coming off a long Strip patrol, drinking and ingesting hallucinogens. “Yeah, I guess I have,” he said, looking at her with glazed and bleary eyes. “How do you feel?” Crasch laughed. “Like shit. Let’s go.” They rose from the table, and Jolie helped the bedraggled Scout stumble from the bar. She had been doing that a lot lately. Since losing his friend, Crasch had been eating himself up inside. Hard driving, little sleep and overindulgence were weighing heavily upon him as the days passed. For the first few weeks he had taken his scout back onto the highway each day after finishing his assigned patrols, searching tirelessly for Roadkill. But when Letric-Eye found out about this, the leader of the HiwayScouts put an immediate halt to it. Feeling helpless and bereaved, the long-haired road pilot’s only outlet now was a total numbing of the senses whenever he found the time, which was happening a lot more often lately. Outside the bar, the Terrace atrium was dimly lit. The pair went to the railing and gazed over the side for a while. Jolie stood beside him, rubbing the back of his neck with her ivory hand. “You can’t keep doing this, Crasch. You’re a mess.” “Yeah, I know, I know.” “Why don’t you come back with me to my place?” she said with a glint and a smile. “I bet I could take the edge off.” Crasch smiled back as best he could. She was pretty. Her long, golden hair falling across her shoulders. Her blue eyes flared from behind her dark pupils like the eclipse of a burning star. And she had been very good to him, putting up with his lunacy of the last month. Why shouldn’t he go home with her? He wanted to. Gods knew he wanted to. But something held him back. Not anything about her; she was perfect. No, the problem was within himself. The invisible chain that bound him weighed heavily on his soul. “I just need to be alone for awhile,” he said, stroking the side of her beautiful face with a callused hand. The hurt that flooded into her eyes


was as clear as the break of day, and Crasch was sorry. Sorry to ever hurt something so precious. “Okay, Crasch. You just call me if you need me.” Then she walked off, quickly disappearing into a side passage that led to the lower levels of town. He watched her go, wanting to call out to her, to ask her not to leave. But he did not speak. Instead, he turned back to the railing and looked over the edge again. Far below, a few shapes moved on the lower street-dark people going about their dark business. “What were you doing out there, Road?” he called out. “What in the hell were you doing?” Below, the denizens of the city spared a brief glance upward at what they deemed to be a roustabout on a drunken binge, then went on their way. It must have been an hour or more that he stood overlooking the lower levels of Mogg. His questions were not answered, and comfort did not come. Reaching into his pocket he brought out his vial of bam. He held the jet-black case up in the dim light. No comfort in there either, he thought. Then he held the vial out over the railing...and let it go. Seven stories it fell, shattering with a barely audible impact against the pavement of the street below. Crasch faintly heard the stream of curses that came up to him from a passerby who had almost been hit. He suddenly felt better. “Rest in peace, Roadkill,” he said softly to the empty night. “I love ya, bud.” With those words he let his best friend go at last and, turning from the yawning chasm of the atrium, walked off into the night and went on with his life. *

*

*

“There it is!” Roadkill cried out. He pointed to a yellow vehicle shimmering in the light of the waning moon alongside the dike, some three hundred yards ahead. “That’s it!” They had been marching for five hours without rest, and Roadkill was thrilled to have finally reached their destination. He was tired and his legs hurt. Glang’s warriors spread out into a wide crescent, flanking the dirtrunner on either side as they moved toward it. The battle-lord was not one to be lured into a trap, and took every precaution to insure it never happened to him. When they were within about fifty yards, Glang signaled the entire fist to halt. “I will go forward with the Human,” he said to one of his lieutenants. “If anything goes wrong, kill him at all costs. Even if it means my own life.” “It will be as you say, lord,” the tabby responded, giving Roadkill a black look.


Glang motioned the Scout forward, and the two of them walked together toward the abandoned vehicle. No words were spoken as they went. Whatever Glang had in mind was a mystery to Roadkill. He still was not sure he trusted this rex. The Rok warrior had a mind of his own, and plans that he revealed to no one. Perhaps, once Glang had the fuel, he would no longer need Roadkill. Maybe this was where the young Scout checked out. He would soon know. “Wait here,” Glang said suddenly, stopping Roadkill when they were still twenty feet away from the dirtrunner. The Cat strode over to the bullet-ridden wreck and looked it over suspiciously. He peered into the shattered cockpit, then leaned inside for a moment. “How do you know if it has fuel?” he hollered. “The fuel gauge was probably damaged in the fight,” Roadkill replied, walking over to him. “So we’ll just have to see what comes out of the fuel-drain.” Glang walked to the back of the dirtrunner and began checking the undercarriage. Roadkill took a moment to look over the car’s control panel. Almost every gauge and indicator had been damaged, including the fuel gauge. He was about to pull his head out of the cockpit when something caught his eye: The tip of a gun barrel was barely sticking out from beneath the driver’s seat. Roadkill reached down and pulled the weapon out. It was a Mogg-issue Slug-Pumper pistol, with a fully loaded thirty-round clip. The Scout thought for a moment. Had Crasch left this also, but somehow Roadkill missed it when he retrieved the survival pack? A Slug-Pumper was not a weapon used by the HiwayScouts or the HiwayStars. It was a gun that could be bought in the back alleys of the lower levels. Then something dawned on him. He laid the gun on the seat of the car and turned to Glang, who was fiddling with a ruptured side-panel. “Are you trying to test me, Glang?” he asked. The Rok battle-lord’s feigned look of surprise was quickly replaced by a smile. “No. To enable you.” He stopped what he was doing and walked over to the Scout. “I need you to do something for me, something that must be done, but I cannot do.” “Here it comes,” said Roadkill, rolling his eyes. Glang laughed. “Oh, it won’t be so bad. You want to escape with your friend, don’t you? You want the machine, don’t you? Both of these things I will promise you. But you must do something for me, first.” “Well, I’m not surprised,” Roadkill said sarcastically. “I knew this game of charades had to be for something. So, what is it, Glang? What could you possibly want from me?” “You must murder Panleuk.” *

*

*


It took just over two hours for Glang’s warriors to fill their polyurethane fluid-bags with the fuel from the dirtrunner. Even Roadkill was surprised at the amount the vehicle still held. The bandits must have had a full tank when they attacked George’s Gorge, and they couldn’t have burned more than a quarter of a tank during the chase into the desert. Each Rok, including Glang, carried a one-gallon bag slung over his shoulder. Because of his size, the Cats made Roadkill carry two. He didn’t mind. Fuel was life in the Jagland. The more you had, the better your chance to survive whatever situation you were in. Beyond its regular uses, the precious liquid could also be traded for goods and services almost anyplace in the known world, and because of its relative scarcity it was always in high demand. Shouldering his burdens, Roadkill patted the Slug-Pumper that he had secured in an inside pocket of his highway-suit and fell in with the rest of Glang’s fist as they began their homeward march. Since finding that his story of the fuel was true, the Rok’s trust in the Scout had grown. As a result, security about him had grown less strict. Now, some of Glang’s warriors took turns walking beside him and asking him about Mogg and the HiwayStars. He found them to be friendly, although some looked at him with a bit more hunger in their eyes than others. During the quieter moments, when no words passed between the company, Roadkill reflected on the plans that Glang had revealed to him. The battle-lord, indeed, had designs for the throne. His tolerance of Panleuk and his backward ways had finally reached its limits. The obese persian had exploited the luxuries of the throne without regard for the well-being of his people for far too long, and now it had to change. Glang was going to see that it did. While he could not remove Panleuk himself (since doing so would be treason in the highest degree, and completely unforgivable by the Rok), an enemy of the people could dispose of him without raising any sort of suspicion that Glang was involved. That’s where Roadkill and Thrarc came in. As a precondition for Glang’s assistance in their escape, they must kill the Faro in such a way that no blame could come to rest on Glang or his men. Then, with Panleuk out of the way and having no successor, the mightiest battle-lord of the Rok would be next in line for the throne. Glang would become Faro at last, and his people would see the dawning of a new age. An age as yet unrealized. An age that would see the Rok rise above the other MowMow tribes in technology and in culture. This was Glang’s dream, and it was Roadkill’s ticket out of the lost city of the Rok. At daybreak, the fist stopped and set up camp again. They were back in the foothills, but this time they found a deep lee in the side of a stony crag that sheltered them from the unforgiving sun. This suited Roadkill just fine, as his first experience at sleeping under the sand did not leave


him with a favorable impression of the tactic, and he would rather not do it again if it could be avoided. They slept the day away, the HiwayScout tossing fitfully in the uncomfortable heat. At dusk they awoke and prepared a meal. MowMow commons were something else Roadkill would not miss. The meager rations of mysterious meat, stale bread and lukewarm water were not much for a full-grown man to survive. And the two meals a day that the Cats ate seemed agonizingly far apart to the always-hungry Roadkill. At last they set off on the final leg of their journey. Surprisingly, Roadkill was eager to get back to his cool cell and adequate provender...and Thrarc’s company. He found himself missing the Maur’s gritty wit and dysfunctional dialect, and wondered what the Cat was doing to entertain himself in the Scout’s absence. Well, soon they would be done with Glang’s plot. The hellion and freedom would be theirs, and then...and then. What then? What would become of Roadkill and Thrarc? Neither would be accepted in the other’s culture, so they would have to part at last. Funny...that seemed rather sad to Roadkill. He was fond of Thrarc in some strange way. The Cat had saved him from the Jagland and helped him through the trials of the last two months. He owed him at least a debt of gratitude, if not his life. How could he ever repay something like that to an enemy of his own people? Putting the perplexing dilemma aside for the time being, he steeled himself for the rigorous climb back into the mountains. Ahead, the jagged peaks loomed black and forbidding. The moon was a sliver of silvery light hanging in the taciturn sky. He shivered in the cold and pulled his sleeping tarp about him. Not much farther now. The Cats picked their way unerringly through the gorges and gullies, filing into the heart of the range. As the coming morning began to tinge the eastern sky a soft dark blue, the troop at last came in sight of the Lost City’s huge entrance tunnel. Like a black mouth yawning in the face of a cliff it gaped, welcoming them home from their journey. Even Glang looked relieved. A murmur of happiness rippled through the fist as they topped the last ridge and started toward the tunnel, and Roadkill joined them with his own sigh of relief. This may not have been his home, but it sure felt like it right now. Glang, who had been leading the fist, fell to the back and joined Roadkill. “It is time to resume our little charade, Man,” he said. “Yeah, I know. Let’s get this done and move on to bigger and better things, shall we?” Glang just smiled, and the two said no more as they entered the shadows of the Lost City.


Chapter Eleben Thrarc was tired of getting beaten up. Cranc and his henchmen had worked him over pretty well, being careful not to break any bones lest they incur Panleuk’s wrath--but inflicting a myriad of lesser injuries. They had pummeled him with heavy sticks that left painful welts across his arms, legs and back. His face was once again a misshapen collection of bumps and swellings. He limped slowly through the corridors as his punishers led him back to his cell. Why Cranc had taken him to a secluded chamber to inflict his tortures was no mystery to Thrarc. The mottled orange Cat was acting against orders out of pure revenge and had to keep his activities a secret. But it would not continue much longer. Thrarc had looked into the eyes of the one-eared Rok that was beating him and saw murder. Cranc lusted to kill the Maur, and even his fear of Panleuk would not deter him for long. One of them was going to die, and Thrarc decided then and there that it was going to be Cranc. As the party entered the intersection of a larger tunnel, they stumbled into a group of Panleuk’s retainers hurrying on some frivolous errand for their Faro. Upon seeing Cranc with the Maur prisoner, each raised an eyebrow in curiosity. One of them stopped. “Where are you going with the Faro’s guest?” he asked, eyeing Cranc suspiciously. It was no secret that the ill-tempered battle-lord held tremendous animosity toward the two prisoners due to the near-total destruction of the fist that he commanded. Since then, he had been placed on an administrative duty that galled him to no end. “Taking him to clean up his self-inflicted wounds,” Cranc told them. “He hopes to gain favor with the Faro by saying he is mistreated.” The retainer looked Thrarc up and down, grimacing in disgust. “Selfinflicted, eh? I find that more than a little difficult to believe, Cranc. I fear I must inform the Faro as to his condition...and about our little meeting here today. Good day, battle-lord Cranc.” Cranc and his men stood silently as the retainers moved off down the corridor. Although they spoke no words, Thrarc saw the knowing looks that were exchanged between them; he would never make it back to his cell. Cranc was going to be avenged before Panleuk could do anything to stop him. Thrarc knew he had to do something now, or die in some secret place, never to be found. “Wait!” he hollered to the ministers as they were about to round a distant corner. Cranc started at Thrarc’s words, and his face screwed up in sudden fury. Down the corridor the retainers looked at them curiously, conferred among themselves a moment, then started back up the hall. Cranc’s displeasure at this unexpected interruption was quite evident. He shot a threatening look at Thrarc, but the Maur no longer cared. He


waited until the retinue had drawn nigh, then did the only thing he could think of to save his skin. “Cranc!” he spouted between swollen lips. “I challenge you...I challenge you to the death! Here! Now!” His chances of defeating the Rok battle-lord in his present condition were not good, but at least he would have a paw in his own fate. Better to die in valiant battle than to be helplessly murdered in some forgotten chamber in the heart of a black mountain. Faro’s retainers looked first at Thrarc, then at Cranc. The One-Eared Rok was wide-eyed with surprise. This was not part of his plan at all. He did not want to face the Maur one on one. He wanted to kill him while he had the upper hand, at his leisure. Now Thrarc was forcing his hand. A challenge among the MowMow--all MowMow--was a sacred thing. One could walk away from such a challenge, but only with shame and humiliation. Needless to say, a battle-lord could not decline a challenge and expect to remain a battle-lord. Even Cranc’s own henchmen looked at him questioningly. Surely their brave commander would not balk at a duel to the death with this mangy Maur. Why, he could barely stand on his own, much less defend himself in a fight. Cranc, however, was not so sure. He too saw something when he looked into Thrarc’s eyes as he beat him. It was not murder. Nor was it fear. It was absolute defiance and resolve. It did not waver as the sticks came smacking down on his wracked body. It was locked behind his eyes as though written in granite: If you don’t kill me, I will kill you. Somewhere deep within himself, Cranc was frightened of Thrarc. “Very well,” he said at last. “I accept your challenge. We will meet in the arena of battle in one hour.” “One hour!” the lead retainer spouted. “That does not even leave him time to rest, much less to be healed of the damage you have done him. You must give him more time!” Thrarc said nothing. “No! He made the challenge. It is my right to name the time and place. The arena in one hour. Now, you take him. If you are so concerned with an enemy of the Rok, let him be your problem!” With that, Cranc and his followers stormed off down the passageway. *

*

*

“He is correct. If the Maur made the challenge, then Cranc has the right to choose the time and place that the duel will occur.” The Faro reclined languidly on a sofa, nibbling some tidbit or other. “But, your eminence!” the retainer pleaded. “Surely you can see that the Maur is in no condition to fight. He cannot defend himself against a well-rested, healthy Rok battle-lord.”


“That’s his problem then, isn’t it?” By this the Faro meant the discussion was closed, and the retainer knew it. He shrugged helplessly at Thrarc, and bowed out of Panleuk’s presence. Thrarc stood alone now, tottering in the middle of the Faro’s chamber. “Well, well,” Panleuk guffawed. “Gotten ourselves into a bit of a cinch now, have we? Honestly Maur, what were you thinking? He will kill you, you know.” “He will try,” Thrarc corrected him. “Oh ho! The brave little lion! Do you think you can defeat him? He’s not a battle-lord because of his ugliness. He is a fighter! He lives to kill...to kill you and your people.” The fat persian lifted up on one chubby arm and looked directly at Thrarc. “And kill you he will. Mark my words. If he doesn’t, he knows I will kill him for disobeying my orders. Thank you for the fine job you did on the machine, Thrarc. Your skills will be missed. Sorely missed. But then that’s life, isn’t it?” With that, he waved his dismissal, and a pair of guards moved in to take Thrarc out of the tower to the arena below. *

*

*

“What’s all the shouting?” asked Roadkill. As they entered the tunnel, a furious din had arisen to greet them. Something of great importance was happening inside the city. Cries, shouts and jeers echoed off the tunnel walls, multiplied immensely in the ears of the travelers. “I do not know,” Glang answered, a curious expression playing across his face. “There is no celebration that I am aware of. Something has happened while we were gone. It sounds as though half the city is gathered in the arena.” At that moment, one of Glang’s men who had not accompanied them on the journey came rushing out to meet his lord. “Battle-lord Glang! You must come quickly! It is the Maur....He has challenged battle-lord Cranc!” Roadkill and Glang looked at each other with great surprise, then both broke into a run toward the arena. Glang was right: It seemed as though half the city had indeed turned out in what was once the operations pit of the Lost City. Hordes of Cats of all shapes and sizes crowded around the commotion that took place in the center, just beneath the Faro’s tower. From his balcony, Panleuk watched the spectacle with feigned disinterest. The newly arrived fist of Rok warriors pushed its way through the crowd, creating an opening through which Glang and Roadkill approached the center of the throng. It was true. Thrarc and Cranc stood at the center, facing each other in defensive crouches, paws upraised. A low growl issued from Cranc’s throat, but Thrarc was silent. They were circling about when Roadkill made it to the edge of the ring. Glang stopped him from going inside the circle.


“Do not attempt to disturb what is happening, or Panleuk will have you killed instantly,” the rex whispered. “The challenge is sacred. Thrarc knows this.” All Roadkill could do was stand by helplessly and watch the drama unfold. Thrarc looked bad...really bad. Whatever had happened here over the last three days, it had not been good for the Maur. Certainly Cranc was behind it, but now it was out of even Glang’s hands. There was only the outcome to be decided. Suddenly the circling Cats joined in violent contact. Their bodies whirled in a frenzied dance, and razor-sharp claws struck at each other’s hides, leaving bleeding gashes in their fur. Both howled now, in pain and in fury. They backed away from each other for a moment, then came at each other again with renewed rage. It was an ugly, violent exhibition; both Cats coming away with more and more wounds. Thrarc was weakening fast. The additional wounds and loss of blood were rapidly draining his ability to fight. He crouched, swaying after each confrontation, and wiped the blood and sweat from his eyes. He cast one worried sidelong glance at Roadkill and smiled a weak smile. Cranc saw this and knew that the victory would be his. The young Scout burned with rage. If only he could get into the ring, he would tear the One-Eared Rok, limb from limb. But that would get both Thrarc and him killed instantly, so he could do nothing but stand there, seething. Suddenly, Glang whispered in his ear again. “Cranc has always fought without honor. He is a stain on my people, and should be wiped away. In his boot, he conceals a knife. If the fight goes badly he will palm it and use it to kill his enemy. No honor. But if he brings a weapon into the duel, and his enemy gets hold of it and kills him with it, there is no dishonor upon the enemy for he did not bring it into the ring. Use this knowledge however you will.” Roadkill wasted no time. “Thrarc!” he called out. The ailing feline looked his way again. In one quick motion the Scout reached down with one hand and tapped his ankle. At first, Thrarc looked at him with confusion. Then he looked at Cranc--at his ankle. A dim light of understanding began to glow in the Maur’s face. He straightened up and eyed his enemy in a new light now. The brief look of thanks he shot at Roadkill told the Scout that he understood. Cranc did not perceive the communication that had just taken place, so confident was he in his victory. Winning this challenge by a Maur in the name of the Rok would assuage any anger Panleuk might hold over his disobedience. He would be reinstated to his position of honor in the field, and be avenged at the same time. This was going to be a glorious day. Thrarc took the offensive this time. Before receiving the information Roadkill had just conveyed to him, he could barely manage to fend off


Cranc’s frenzied attacks. Now he had a distinct purpose in mind. As he closed with his enemy, he feinted a stumble to the left, then darted to the right. Catching Cranc off guard, he grappled him from the side and spun him to the ground. As they went down in a tornado of hair and claws, Thrarc swiftly reached down and felt the bulge of the knife in Cranc’s boot. By the time the surprised Rok realized what happened, Thrarc had pulled the knife from its sheath and grasped it firmly in his paw. He grabbed Cranc by the face around the back of his head and, like lightning, thrust the blade up under his chin, pushing it hard into the orange Cat’s brain. Cranc’s eyes went wide with shock. His jaw was pinned against the top half of his skull, and blood began to spew through his clenched teeth. Thrarc rolled away from his vanquished foe and lay panting on the floor. His head was spinning; he felt sick and weak. He dimly heard a roar go up from the crowd of onlookers and wondered if they were rushing over to kill him for murdering their battle-lord. Countless hands were upon him now, and he felt himself lifted up. He remembered looking into a set of strange, uncatlike eyes, then falling into a deep and welcome sleep. *

*

*

Thrarc awoke with sunlight beaming into his eyes. Had he overslept? He would have to tell Digjam to hurry and get his pouch ready for the day’s patrol. How strange. He had never overslept before. Sarc would be angry with him because he was setting such a poor example for his fist. Then the pain and memory came flooding back in. He was not at home. He was dead...or at least he felt like it. He dimly remembered a fight to the finish with a very angry orange Cat with only one ear. Where was Roadkill?! “Easy, easy!” a calm voice commanded him. “I’m right here, buddy. Don’t try to sit up; you’ll only make things worse.” It was Roadkill. “Oooh,” the Cat moaned. “How are you feeling?” asked Roadkill. “Ouch,” Thrarc replied. “Yeah, that’s kinda what I figured. You sure do get beat up a lot!” “I’ve never been unconscience so many times in my whole life,” the Maur remarked. Then, after a moment of silence: “I killed him, didn’t I?” “Big time. Nobody could believe it, though. They didn’t know whether to cheer or howl or both. Some of them wanted to kill you then and there, but most thought you fought honorably. They kept the irate ones from having their way.” “Cranc needed to die. He sucked.”


“That’s what Glang said, too,” Roadkill laughed. “He’s the one who told me about the knife in Cranc’s boot. I don’t think things would have gone too well if he hadn’t.” “I know they wouldn’t have gone too well! I was about to throw it in and go down fighting. I was happy to see you, though. Thank you.” Thrarc lay with his eyes closed and let Roadkill dab his facial wounds with a wet cloth. He suddenly realized he was not on the floor of his cell as he expected, but on a comfortable bed. And there was more sunlight coming into this room than in their underground prison. Indeed, a soft breeze played across his whiskers. He opened his eyes again and looked around. He was reclining on a comfortable bed in a bright room with a window that looked out on a beautiful blue evening sky. Cotton-white clouds billowed about the neighboring peaks, casting shadows upon their faces. Roadkill was with him, ministering to his battered body. He hurt all over, but all things considered, the MowMow felt pretty good. “Where are we, Road-man?” Thrarc asked. This surely did not seem to be the dank city that had held them for the last two months. “Still in the Rok stronghold,” Roadkill told him. “But not so much prisoners now. Between my bringing back fuel for the hellion, and you defeating Cranc honorably, I think they are beginning to trust us a little more now. We still can’t leave the city. Glang said Panleuk will never let us do that. But we are allowed to walk about without guards. We just have to make sure someone knows where we are at all times. I asked permission to find quarters that were a little more cheerful. These rooms are higher up on the cliff face. They have windows that overlook the entrance to the city. Windows and beds and everything! Luxury, eh?” The Cat cackled at his human friend. “Yes, yes! Couldn’t axe for more. How did everything go on your journey? Did you play well with your new friends?” he snickered. “Oh, just fine. Glang filled me in on his plans a little more. We play a bigger part than I originally thought. I still don’t know all the details, but it appears we must take fatso out of the game to make some room on the throne.” Thrarc’s eyebrows raised at this revelation. “Kill Panleuk? We will be killed ourselfs if we do that! Not that I am afraid to die...you know.” “Oh, of course not!” Roadkill patronized him. “You are Thrarc!” The HiwayScout grunted and beat his chest like a mountain gorilla. This made the Cat laugh until it hurt. “But we have an angle,” Roadkill went on. “Glang says he will help us escape with the hellion. We have come up with a plan between us, and I think it just might work. You lie back and get better. Next week Panleuk wants to take his little joyride. I’m gonna need your help for that.” “Oh, you can count on me, you betcha!”


Chapter Twelve Over the next few days Thrarc recovered immensely. His constitution proved hardy enough to have him back on his feet so quickly Roadkill could only shake his head in amazement. A human would have been bedridden for a month with such grievous wounds. But here they were, less than a week later, walking about and exploring the Lost City of the Rok. They were still considered an enemy by the city’s inhabitants. Since they would never be permitted to leave, however, they posed no real threat to the Rok’s security as they wandered about the dark halls and echoing chambers of the citadel. One of their most wondrous discoveries was a secret garden deep beneath the mountain. The pair stumbled upon it one morning as they walked off their breakfast. They had been scouting out some of the more remote secondary passages when they suddenly found themselves in a vast cavern bristling with stalactites. Stale water dripped from the ceiling into stagnant pools. All about them were copses and hedges of various and colorful fungi, some glowing with an indescribable luminescence. Here and there the miniature forests were punctuated by strange, sunless plants with broad leaves, thriving in the damp darkness of the underworld. Roadkill could only gape in amazement. He had seen plants before, but they were imported from the East to decorate the lounges and conservatories of the upper class. They required a tremendous amount of care and coddling to survive even in the enclosures of Mogg. But never had he dreamed of flora in such abundance, growing in a wild state as these were. Thrarc raised an eyebrow in interest but was not so taken aback. “Very nice collection Panleuk has, yes,” he admitted, “but we also have gardens in my home. None so big, but many smaller ones. All MowMow love plants, though only in shelter will they grow. You must come and see the gardens of my home, Roadie.” “Believe me, my furry friend, if we get out of here alive I’ll come to your home and make you breakfast in bed.” “Yay! What a bargain!” the Cat chirped. Suddenly, a scampering in the foliage brought them up with a start. They both jumped into comical defensive crouches. “What the hell was that?” Roadkill demanded “I don’t know,” returned Thrarc. “I don’t live around here.” “Do you have road rats in these mountains?” Roadkill whispered as he tried to catch a glimpse of the unseen creature that was now moving off toward the far recesses of the cave.


“Yes, of course. We sometimes eat them for dinner...when we can’t get human.” Thrarc smiled wickedly at Roadkill. The Scout snarled at him and they both laughed at each other’s silly-looking poses. “How brave we are,” Roadkill said. Thrarc beat his chest. *

*

*

Panleuk’s royal guard came for the duo early in the morning. The sun was just coming up over the horizon as they were led out to the pitted, crumbling tarmac expanse just outside the city’s entrance. Apparently Panleuk, in his zeal to finally test his infernal machine, had ordered his minions to roll the hellion from its berth at the back of the arena out into the open, for it already sat there shining in the new day’s sun. Cats scurried to and fro about the vehicle, looking busy before their Faro, but all seemed afraid to touch it. What if something should accidentally break beneath their paw? Better to let the two interlopers dare Panleuk’s wrath. They seemed to know what they were doing anyway. Roadkill was amazed at the drastic change in climate between the higher elevations of the mountains and the desert floor below. It could not have been much more than a hundred degrees here, even in full sunlight. That was almost unfathomable to the desert-bred HiwayScout, who had never ventured into the daylight without some sort of protection. A human being could actually survive up here. Thrarc was led straightaway to the hellion to begin his last minute checks, while Roadkill was taken to stand before Panleuk. “Well then,” the fat Faro said, a twinge of nervousness barely discernible in his voice, “we come to it at last. Do you believe this thing will work, Human?” “There is only one way to find out,” Roadkill replied. “Thrarc and I will take it for a test drive a short way down the highway. Then we will return. You will take Thrarc’s place in the copilot’s seat, and our driving lesson will begin.” “No!” Panleuk interrupted. “I will accompany you on the test drive also. Your Maur friend will remain behind under guard. I do not trust you so much yet, Human. You would not return; we both know that.” The Scout cursed inwardly. This changed everything. It was supposed to be so simple: He and Thrarc would test-drive the car, making sure everything functioned nominally, then pull back around to the awaiting Faro. Roadkill would shoot him from the cockpit, and the pair would race off down the highway to freedom. Glang could not be held to blame for his master’s death and would rightfully and legitimately assume the vacant throne, with everybody happy. But no. Panleuk was not going to


let it be that easy. He should have known the ruler of the Rok would not be so accommodating. “But your Highness,” he pleaded, addressing the Faro with a title for the first time, “I’ve got to have access to Thrarc’s engineering expertise if I’m gonna diagnose any problems that come up out there. Besides,” he went on, “where would we go? We couldn’t get very far, that’s for sure! The highway is completely impassable for a vehicle of this size.” This was not exactly true. Glang had scouted the Lost Road well over the years and, while it was too broken and treacherous east of the mountains heading back toward George’s Gorge, the passage west was feasible. Although they may have to leave the dike in some places, driving alongside it instead, Glang believed it was a pretty clear shot all the way to the Strip. From there Roadkill could travel to Waypoint to take on a full load of fuel, then back along the Hiway to his own city of Mogg. “Diagnoses can wait,” Panleuk said adamantly, “I cannot. Are we ready?!” he shouted out to the Cats around the vehicle. One of them broke away from the rest, running to bow before his lord. “We have filled it with the fuel from the bags, my liege,” he said, “and the Maur says it is as ready as it will ever be.” “Very well, then,” Panleuk said, turning to Roadkill, “shall we go?” Roadkill acquiesced, and he walked with the Faro and his retinue to the awaiting hellion. As they approached, the horde of curious Rok backed away, making room for their Faro to approach the machine. It was immaculately clean, and Roadkill was taken aback to see his reflection in the canopy glass. Instead of the clean-shaven young HiwayScout he had once been, here was a scruffy bearded, unrulylooking road pirate if ever he had seen one. He rather liked it. “Put on that helmet,” he instructed Panleuk. “Your place will be in the back seat.” The Faro looked warily at the rear seat of the tandem cockpit. While he donned his headgear, complaining all the while that it mashed his ears against his head, Roadkill walked around back to where Thrarc was checking fluid levels. “Thrarc,” he whispered, “things are not going according to plan. He wants to go along for the test ride. They’re keeping you under guard.” The Maur cocked an eyebrow but did not seem distressed by this turn of events. “Hokay, Road-man,” he shrugged, “you go and get out of here. Kill his fat ass. Thrarc will excape some other way.” “No. We’re both going to get out of here. I just haven’t figured out how, yet. Hang tight and follow my lead.” “Hokay, Man.” Panleuk was already squeezing his flabby bulk into the cramped, narrow back seat of the hellion as Roadkill donned his own helmet and


leaped into the open cockpit. He strapped himself in and actuated the fuel starter--a smaller engine that would get the hellion’s two main powerplants up and running. The high whine of the fuel starter was soon buried beneath the lower rumble of the motors coming to life. The twinengine hellion was something of an enigma to Roadkill. A behemoth of the dim past, it was the last vehicle known to sport two separate powerplants, more modern craft having only one due to fuel concerns. So much power in one unit made it the fastest, most reliable machine of its time, as well as in modern days. Even the notorious warcats of Mogg would not be able to compete with this ghost of the highway. “You all strapped in back there?” he spoke into his headset mic, testing the ship’s comlink. “Yes, yes!” Panleuk barked impatiently as he struggled with the safety harness. “Let’s get on with it!” Thrarc was running around the hellion uncoupling hoses and lines from the power- on equipment that had charged the ancient machine’s batteries and kick-started it back to life. He spared Roadkill one brief glance, urging him to make good his escape while he had the opportunity, then moved to the front of the vehicle to direct him out to the western stretch of the Lost Road. Inside, the musty smell of an ECS system long unused was beginning to permeate the cabin. Panleuk whined about it like a baby, thinking it was some conspiracy to poison him. If you only knew, thought Roadkill. He adjusted the vent settings to allow fresh air from outside to mingle with the craft’s recycled atmosphere. Then the HiwayScout throttled up the engines and released the brakes. With a lurch, the heavy vehicle began to roll. Slowly at first, then with rapidly building speed, it whirred across the ill-kept concourse and out to the crumbling highway. Checking instruments and indicators as they went, the Scout was pleased to find everything working as it should. Thrarc really knew his stuff. When he said he could fix the machine, Roadkill was certain he was bluffing the Faro in order to gain them more time to plan an escape. But here it was, humming down a forgotten road as though it hadn’t sat unused for even a day. Outside the canopy the craggy sides of the mountains began to pass by faster and faster, now a gray blur. He thrilled with excitement at the power beneath his hands, but Panleuk shrank down into his seat, unsure that he liked this so much after all. Although Roadkill did not dare take the hellion over one hundred miles per hour on its first drive in over as many years, it seemed to the uninitiated Cat that they were moving at light speed. Looking back, the Scout could barely contain his laughter at the sight of the paunchy persian cowering in the copilot’s chair, looking like he would rather be anyplace else. Roadkill slowed the vehicle to bring it around and head back to the city. Quickly eyeing the terrain ahead, it


looked to him like the Lost Road was still useable for some miles before it became so broken that they would have to detour around it. As they rolled back up the highway toward the awaiting Rok, Roadkill was startled by a sudden and unexpected smell inside the cockpit. At first he was worried that some seal or other was burning out and that the hellion’s powerplants would be in need of major repairs. But then recognition dawned on him and his face screwed up in a grimace of disdain. If he previously had any reservations about killing the fat, disgusting Faro of the Rok, he held them no longer. Panleuk had farted. *

*

*

Thrarc stood watching the hellion disappear down the highway. He was pleased with himself at the work he had done. Although the engine seemed a bit fitful to him, and would certainly require some more fine tuning, it wasn’t bad for having sat over a century in the cold darkness. Too bad he would not likely have a chance to tinker with it again. Already he was trying to come up with a plan to escape. Roadkill was as good as free. He and Panleuk would not be coming back, Thrarc was certain. And he did not expect the young Scout to return. After all, he was a prisoner in the midst of a race that was not his own, some of whom would like to know how he tasted. Could he be blamed for absconding with the road machine? Thrarc did not think so. “Our plan does not seem to be going as...planned, eh?” It was Glang speaking softly at his side. While the others were milling about, waiting for the return of their lord, the shorthaired rex had worked his way over to the Maur without attracting any undue attention. “Your part of the bargain will be carried out,” Thrarc stated. “Roadkill will do what he must do.” “Let us hope so.” Suddenly a murmur arose from the crowd of onlookers, growing into excited babbling. Paws were gesturing down the road where a small speck was rapidly growing larger. Thrarc was perplexed. Why was he coming back? Surely he must have known he was as good as free. Even Glang cocked an eyebrow in wonder at this human who had kept his word. The vehicle began to decelerate while it was still some way off, then powered down and rolled to a silent stop before the onlookers. The canopy popped open. Roadkill and Panleuk both rose from their seats, the latter obviously relieved that the ride was over. The fat persian moved to exit the vehicle (which he was no longer sure he cared for) when Roadkill grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and forced the barrel


of a pistol into his mouth. The Faro’s eyes went wide with shock. For a moment nobody moved. Then a shout went up among the Rok, and they began to crowd around the vehicle. “Wait!” Roadkill shouted. “Come any closer and I’ll blast his head all over these mountains!” The Rok hesitated. Only Glang stepped forward, and Thrarc made sure to stick close behind him. “What do you think you are doing, Human?” asked Glang, his hands spread wide in treaty. “Is this how you repay the Faro’s kindness in letting you live? Do not be a fool! Put down the gun and let my liege go. I will see that no harm comes to you.” Roadkill could barely see the mirth in Glang’s eyes, but it was there. The other MowMow were seething with rage at their helplessness. Here was their sovereign lord, held captive before his own legions by a human. But Glang saw only an empty throne waiting to be taken. “Release the Maur to me,” Roadkill demanded. “We will leave in the car, and I will set your Faro free. Otherwise, I kill him and anyone else I can before you take me.” He shoved the gun farther down Panleuk’s throat, forcing him to gag. The chubby Cat stood there limply, eyes wide with terror, making no effort to escape in his fear of death. Glang paused as though to ponder his circumstances, then called a few of the other battle-lords into a subdued council. After murmuring among themselves for a few minutes, Glang turned again to face Roadkill and Panleuk. “It appears we have no choice but to accept your terms. You can have your Maur companion, and the machine for all I care. Just return my king to me unharmed. Do I have your word?” he asked. Roadkill simply laughed. From behind, Thrarc was pushed out into the clearing as though the Rok couldn’t wait to be rid of him. He strode over to the hellion. Roadkill motioned him to take the pistol and cover Panleuk with it. The Faro hissed and sputtered fretfully, but seemed relieved to have the barrel taken out of his throat. “Climb down!” Roadkill ordered him. “And if you try running away, Thrarc’ll put a nice hole in the back of your skull, understand?” Panleuk nodded his assent and scrambled his bulky frame the best he could down the side of the fuselage. Roadkill followed him, then hunted around the pavement for one of the tie-down straps that had held storage coverings over the engine intakes. Selecting one of the longer ones, he fastened one end to the back of the hellion. Fashioning a noose with the other end, he commanded Panleuk to step into it, then fastened it about his furry ankle. “Just to make sure you don’t run off and order an attack until I’m powered up and ready to roll,” Roadkill assured him. The Cat just glared, a deep and intense hatred burning in his elliptic eyes. “Get in, Thrarc!”


Thrarc obeyed his command and climbed into the back seat of the hellion, still keeping the pistol trained on Panleuk. Roadkill, meanwhile, began powering the vehicle’s systems back up. They were still warm from the test drive, so it was only a few moments before ready lights began to wink on all over the control console. As the whine of the engines built to a roar, the Scout signaled Thrarc to ignore Panleuk and strap himself in. As soon as the gun was no longer aimed at him, the Faro of the Rok began to pull at the noose around his ankle in panic. Hordes of Cats rushed the hellion, trying to save their king and recapture the prisoners. Thrarc pulled the canopy closed just in time. Without another word, Roadkill punched the accelerator against its stop and the ancient roadmachine broke from the crowd, scattering Rok bodies as it went. It screamed across the tarmac, and Panleuk could only watch in horror as the slack in the tie-strap was quickly taken up. The last the Rok ever saw of their Faro was his carcass being dragged down the highway in front of their city at almost two hundred miles per hour.


Chapter Thirteen “Oh, Road-man! I don’t think I like this!” “Give me a break,” Roadkill chided, glancing back at the worried Maur. “What’s with you Cats? Haven’t you ever ridden in a vehicle before? You sound just like him!” He jerked a thumb toward the grisly cargo they were towing. Thrarc looked back at the remains of Panleuk skittering back and forth across the shattered highway, then swallowed hard and hunched even farther down in his seat. He took off the helmet Roadkill had ordered him to put on--it hurt his ears--then watched in wonder as the landscape raced past his window. He had never gone so fast in his life, though he had often wished he could. Now he was not so sure he cared for it. It made him feel sick inside, and he was certain they were going too fast for such a decrepit road anyway. But rather than antagonize the driver with his complaints, he sat silently watching Roadkill manipulate controls and actuators from the front seat. The hellion thundered down the remains of the Lost Road. Wide cracks in the ancient pavement and shards of rock fallen from the clifffaces above littered the surface with hazards that had to be avoided or negotiated. This high in the mountains the highway was not built on an elevated dike, but constructed on rocky shelves or through winding gullies. While they made good speed for the first straight level miles of the journey, they soon had to slow down as the way became more difficult to navigate. Now Roadkill was decelerating to a crawl. The Lost Road suddenly looped in a tight turn around a sharp crag before descending into a ravine. Big rocks littered the radius of the turn, and looked too difficult even for the formidable hellion to pass. Roadkill braked the vehicle to a full halt and let the engines whine down to standby. “Gonna have to get out here,” he called back to his friend, “and move some of these rocks out of the way.” “Thank goodness!” Thrarc replied and was crawling from the cockpit almost before the canopy opened fully. Roadkill just shook his head and laughed. It was hot outside, but not unbearable as it would have been on the Jagland plains at this time of day. The hellion’s ECS system seemed to be functioning well, although the real test would not begin until they reached the desert floor. Then it would be taxed to its limits keeping the interior cool, and if it failed they would have to abandon the vehicle and strike out on foot at night. For now, however, everything was working just fine.


Thrarc immediately sat down at the side of the road, thankful not to be moving for a little while, while Roadkill went to the back of the hellion. He cut the strap that tied Panleuk to the car, then walked over to the gruesome bundle of blood, bones and fur that had once been Faro of the Rok. Thrarc rose and joined him. “You look real good, Panleuk!” the Scout said aloud. “Lost some weight, I thinks,” Thrarc chortled alongside him, helping to pull the body by the strap to the side of the road. Together they pushed the persian carcass over the edge and watched it bounce down into a steep ravine, breaking apart as it fell. Thrarc’s eulogy was succinct: “Rest in pieces, fat-ass!” It did not take the pair long, working together, to clear the road of some of the bigger stones. With less than a half-hour delay they were on their way again, descending toward the western plains of the Jag. Although the going was slow and the trail precipitous, Thrarc’s white knuckles gradually began to relax as he became more accustomed to travel in the road-machine. Instead of hunkering down in the seat like a frightened kitten, he looked around more at the surrounding terrain and poked about the cabin with child-like curiosity. He discovered that by reclining the back seat, a narrow passage was opened through which he could pull himself up into the cannon turret. The surroundings were immensely preferable to the cramped, limited compartment of the back seat. His paws ran across the weaponry console with relish, and he wanted to fire the fine guns that bristled about the ship. “Roadkill!” he called through the tunnel opening. “Should I test-fire the cannons?” “Put your helmet back on and talk through the mic!” the Scout shouted back in annoyance. Resignedly, Thrarc gave a disgusted sigh, pulled on the uncomfortable headgear, and plugged in a line from the comm console. “Do you hear me now?... Testing...testing.” A crackle in the Maur’s headset preceded Roadkill’s reply: “I hear you. Now quit goofing around back there. I’m trying to drive this thing, you know.” “Oh, sounds great! This is a neat thing,” the Cat cackled excitedly. “I was axing you if we should test-fire the cannons.” “No! Are you crazy?” The Scout was incredulous. “Do you know what kind of recoil Armor-Busters have? Pop those things off and you’ll send us bouncing right over the side of one of these cliffs. They’re only safe for straight-and-level driving.” “Hokay, Road-man!” Roadkill could only shake his head. What had he gotten himself into with this Cat from the mountains? Thrarc had to be, beyond any doubt, the strangest individual he had ever met in his life. He even made Crasch


seem tame in comparison. Insatiable curiosity, boundless spirit, and that twisted feline sense of humor combined to make him at once endearing and intolerable. He could save your life one minute, and the next you were ready to wring his scrawny neck. How would he ever tell the guys back at the Pit that he had befriended a MowMow? That would be a tough one. And there that thought died, for suddenly the hellion crested the last foothill and came finally out onto the open desert floor west of the mountains. They had escaped the Lost City of the Rok once and for all-thanks to the pesky Cat that was, even now, poking around the turret like an errant child. Roadkill didn’t care what the other pilots said back at Mogg. Thrarc was his friend and always would be. The Lost Road was passable most of the way across the desert to the Strip. Although now completely ignored, the ancient road had been built well; it stood up stoically under the harsh rigors of the Jagland ages. Lashing sands and wrenching storms had not yet beaten down its ramparts, but the scars of timeless battles were evident and deep. In some places whole sections had crumbled down to the ground, leaving wide crevasses that Roadkill had to drive deftly around. But providence was with them: Not once did they have to leave their vehicle as they reached the plains. The temperatures were soaring now with the Jagland sun riding high above the afternoon, and the ship’s ECS system was hard-pressed to keep the cabin cool. Climate control was something new to Thrarc; he thought it a positively grand idea and told Roadkill so a number of times. Only when they were within thirty miles of the Strip did their luck seem to run out. Without warning the dike of the Lost Road came to an abrupt end. There before them stretched the bare skeletal remains of the highway’s foundation, its mass seemingly swept away as though by a tremendous flood. For as far as the eye could see, the Lost Road truly was lost. “Damn it!” Roadkill exploded, bringing the hellion to a stop for the second time that day. “They took it!” “What do you mean ‘took it’?” Thrarc asked. “How can you take a whole highway?” “They must have cannibalized it over the years to keep the other roads in repair. Rather than quarry new stone and gravel, they just came here and took what they needed. Damn! Thrarc, see if there’s a monocular range-finder clamped to the side-wall of the turret.” “A what?” “Monocular! It’s...like...tube-shaped. I don’t know! You look through it!” Roadkill was running out of patience. He felt as though they were so close--probably only an hour away from the Strip at the rate they had


been traveling--and now this! He sat fuming, listening to Thrarc rustle around in the back. “Found it!” the Cat suddenly exclaimed. He slid down into the back seat and popped up behind Roadkill like a jack-in-the-box, proffering a small telescopic device in his outstretched paw. “Good!” Roadkill smiled. “That’s it. Thanks, Thrarc.” He held the monocular up to his eye and scanned the terrain ahead. Although the device was designed as a range finder for long distance shelling during sieges and such, in a pinch it made a fine telescope. Far off in the distance he could see that the Lost Road resumed after being torn apart for about six miles. Even farther off he could just make out the long line of the Strip stretching across the horizon. This gave him a renewed burst of hope. The Strip led to the Hiway, and the Hiway led home. “Hold on, Thrarc!” was the only warning the Cat had received before the hellion lurched suddenly, plunging over the side of the dike, and bounced down to the desert floor below. “Auck!” Thrarc squawked as he was jostled around the back seat like a bundle of groceries. Once he righted himself and looked out the window, he saw that Roadkill was piloting them alongside the remains of the Lost Road. While the refined hellion protested at being driven under such barbaric conditions, its twin powerplants and heavy octopad wheels proved up to the challenge of negotiating the shifting sands and razor rocks of the Jag. It took only a half an hour before they were barreling back up onto the far end of the dike and streaking toward the Strip. *

*

*

The heavy transport braked to a halt beneath the burning sun. Its driver cursed under his breath at the unnecessary delay. Checking his rear-view screen, he watched the five bandit dirtrunners pull up and surround his vehicle. Under normal circumstances he would have been frightened at this point; being overtaken by bandits on a desolate stretch of road like the Strip meant certain death to any driver of an inadequately armed commerce truck like his. Bandits did not waste time leaving survivors out here. Both he and his vehicle would disappear into the desert, never to be seen again. But not this time. The lead bandit vehicle pulled directly alongside the driver’s cabin, and a helmeted head could be dimly seen peering through the canopy, inspecting the massive thirteen-ton transport. The truck driver calmly pulled a strange medallion from beneath his shirt and held it up to the window. The bandit spotted this, and seemed to curse himself for a moment. Then he whipped a curt salute to the trucker and all five vehicles sped off up the Strip, leaving the transport in peace and safety.


The trucker tucked the medallion back under his shirt and shook his head. This was the weirdest job he ever had, but he had to admit it was also the safest. Even bandits left you alone. Hell! Bandits never left anybody alone. Whatever was going on, he didn’t care. He just wanted to soak it for all it was worth while he could. Firing loudly, the brakes released and the transport rolled sluggishly forward, slowly building up speed again. With any luck, the driver thought, he would still make Waypoint on time and be rid of this accursed cargo. He would collect his money and spend a night in drunken revelry before heading back south to do it all over again. He hoped he wasn’t pressing his luck. *

*

*

“Now that was really strange,” Roadkill decided as he peered through the monocular, squinting with his other eye. “What is it, Road-man?” Thrarc asked for the fourth time since Roadkill had stopped the hellion a few miles shy of the intersection with the Strip. He had pulled out the seeing device again and had been looking through it for the last five minutes without saying a word. “What the farc do you see?!” Now Thrarc was getting impatient. “That was completely wrong,” Roadkill said, confused. “A transport overtaken by bandits...five of them...and they let it go? Bandits never let anything go unless they’re outgunned, and that truck did not have them outgunned. A scout could beat one of those things.” He closed the telescoping monocular and contemplated these portents awhile before engaging the hellion’s powerplants again and rolling forward toward the Strip. “Maybe,” Thrarc attempted, “he didn’t have anything the pandits wanted. Maybe he only had junk or something.” “No, no,” the Scout discounted. “It was marked like a food carrier. Bandits always want food. That’s how they stay alive, by hijacking food transports. That sucker was ripe for the picking...and they let it go. Something weird is going on. I’m gonna lay back a bit to make sure we don’t run into those bandits. But if that truck is going to Waypoint, I’m going to find out what the deal is.” “Waypoint? I don’t want to go to Waypoint!” Thrarc objected, but Roadkill seemingly did not hear him as they turned onto the Strip at last. The difference in the two roads was immense. Where the Lost Road was jagged and unkempt, the Strip was smooth and well maintained. Even Thrarc remarked at the sudden silence and calm that overcame the hellion. Only the faint whine of the engines and the thrumming of the octopads penetrated the cool cabin, and the Maur found himself falling off into a very peaceful, comfortable sleep.


When he awoke, he heard Roadkill’s voice in his ears. The Scout was talking to someone else over the radio: “...of arrival thirteen minutes, over.” “Copy that, Spirit Zero-Three. What is your point of origin and manifest?” a strange new voice crackled in the Cat’s ears. “Point South, Waypoint Ops. No cargo, just me and my copilot. Gonna stay the night, then head on, over.” “Roger that, Spirit. You can take bay niner-niner on the east concourse. Check in at Ops before you leave. Waypoint out.” Roadkill closed the channel, then glanced back at Thrarc. “Ah! The little princess has awoken! I thought you were going to sleep forever back there, lazy lout,” he laughed. “Ha ha,” croaked Thrarc, grimacing as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Where are we?” “Just outside of Waypoint,” Roadkill replied. “I followed the transport in. He’s about five minutes ahead of us.” “I don’t want to go to Waypoint!” Thrarc reiterated. “That is a city of men. They will kill me!” “Oh, Gods! Quit your whining. No they won’t,” the Scout assured him. “I’ve got it all figured out. They’re never even gonna know you’re here. We’ll just stay tonight, then I’ll drop you off on the Hiway tomorrow near your home.” Thrarc was not comforted. “I don’t like this idea of yours berry much. I think Thrarc will wind up dead with his skin used for a rug.” “No you won’t! Have a little faith, will ya? Sheesh!” Shortly the hellion was passing through the entrance tunnel that led to the Waypoint Operations Pit. Thrarc was taken aback by the sheer enormity of the enclosed fortress-city. He had seen the cities of men from a distance (they were too well defended to get very close), but never dreamed he would one day be passing through the very gates of one. One moment the behemoth loomed ahead like a concrete and steel monster waiting to engulf them--the next they were inside racing through a black tunnel with dim guide-lights flashing past their window. Then they rolled into the gaping Ops Pit and Thrarc’s jaw dropped. It was gargantuan-far bigger than the rotunda of the Lost City--and well lit. Within, myriad road-machines came and went: lumbering transports, tiny Scouts, fighters, chariots; vehicles of every imaginable kind. The Maur felt small and overwhelmed. He shrunk down into the seat and wondered nervously at the kind of fate that would befall him here. Roadkill maneuvered the hellion down a side passage and brought it to a smooth halt within a narrow berth marked ninety-nine. The engine’s whine died away to nothing as he shut down the ship’s systems one by one. Then there was a strange silence punctuated only by the distant sounds of the city’s busy Operations Pit.


“Well,” Roadkill said with tremendous relief. “We’re here.” “Where’s here? I don’t feel any safer than I did in the city of the Rok!” Thrarc whined. “Well you are safer here. You’re gonna have to sleep in the hellion, but no one will mess with you. I’ll go sell the last of the bam to pay for the berth and a room for the night. Then I’ll bring you back something to eat. I’m leaving the gun with you, so you can keep a watch. Don’t worry though. I’ll be back in a while.” With that, the HiwayScout leaped from the cockpit, waved to Thrarc, then closed the canopy and walked off down the concourse. First on his agenda was to sell his bam. He knew a guy named Denehy who would surely pay top-dollar for it, but for some reason he did not want to be immediately recognized. His beard and mustache would get him around incognito for awhile, and he decided to stay that way until he had a better idea of what was going on. Instead, a quick trip to the backstreets would probably find him a buyer with no questions asked. Next, he would track down that transport. He had remembered the ID markings, and didn’t think he would have any trouble finding it berthed in the commerce concourse. Suddenly pangs of hunger began to call, and it occurred to him that neither Thrarc nor he had eaten anything all day. He would also have to get some food. Food! After months of Rok cuisine, the thought of eating something from a human kitchen set his mouth watering uncontrollably. As his mind pored over the endless choices he would have at the many renowned eateries of Waypoint, he thought of Thrarc. What would a MowMow want to eat? Well, it didn’t matter; he would eat whatever Roadkill brought him back, and that was that. Walking from the quiet eastern concourse onto the main streets of the city, the battered HiwayScout felt the joy virtually gush from him as he returned to civilization. He nodded to almost everyone he passed, smiling incessantly. And the ladies! How could he have forgotten? They looked so radiant as they paraded down the evening walkways, browsing through the shops and galleries. The Scout suddenly became conscious of his shoddy, bedraggled appearance and hastened through the streets toward the darker back alleys--he had business to attend to. It did not take long to find a buyer for his bam. The squirrely little fellow did not offer much, but Roadkill took it as it would more than cover the cost of a night’s lodging for him and his vehicle. That was all he cared about. This time tomorrow he would be back in his own city of Mogg, drinking with Crasch--not to mention he would have at least two months’ pay waiting for him. A mischievous smirk played across his face at the thought of the damage he and his best friend could do with that kind of money. Gods, it would be good to see Crasch again. Smiling inside, he headed straightaway for a little eatery he knew called Blathan’s--


inexpensive, but very good. There he bought enough food for Thrarc and him to gorge themselves. The aromas of roasted meats and fresh-baked bread wafting from the sack filled his nostrils like an olfactory siren’s song. He quickened his pace and hurried back down the eastern concourse to the waiting hellion. Thrarc was sleeping again, and shot up with a start at the rapping on the canopy. He fumbled for the gun Roadkill had left him, then grasped it in both hands, pointing it in the direction the sound had come from. “Take it easy, spaz!” came a muffled voice from outside. “It’s me!” “Roadkill?” Thrarc inquired. “Is that you? Very good way to get your monkey-head blown off, sneaking up on me like that!” The canopy mechanism whined to life, raising the plexiform cover to reveal the smiling Scout leaning against the fuselage, holding a large white sack. The smells that came from it made the Maur’s eyes pop open wide, and he gazed longingly at it. “Ooh, Road-man! What did you bring?” “Food, my friend. The finest in Waypoint.” With that the Scout vaulted himself into the driver’s seat and the pair shared a feast that seemed to them fit for Eastern Kings. Thrarc did not turn up his nose at a single morsel, devouring everything Roadkill gave him with relish and delight. When it was all gone, the Cat leaned back, licking his paws languidly. “That was wonderful!” he sighed. “I did not know humans made food that tasted so good. Why didn’t you ever tell me?” “I’d forgotten myself, what with all the rats and berries you Cats have been feeding me lately. Now you know what real food tastes like.” “Yes, yes,” Thrarc agreed. “And don’t forget you promised to serve me breakfast in my bed.” Roadkill laughed. “Yeah, I remember.” Then he collected the waste from the meal and stuffed it back into the sack. “Listen, Thrarc. I gotta go find that transport, and then get myself a room for the night. You gonna be okay out here?” “Yes, just fine,” the Cat assured him. “Now I feel full and brave. Go look for your truck. Thrarc will be right here, sleeping. And be more careful next time you come knocking so I don’t shoot you, hokay?” “Okay, see you in the morning.” With that, Roadkill climbed from the vehicle and walked off into the perpetual night. The commerce concourse was not far away, and in less than five minutes he was walking past rows of transports parked in shadowy berths. It would have taken him some time to locate a specific vehicle by checking each parked truck for its ID markings, but that proved unnecessary. He found the one he was looking for almost immediately. It wasn’t lodged in a berth yet but was still in the process of downloading. Keeping to the shadows, Roadkill approached it from behind. Men with power-loaders were removing the cargo from the


transport, but instead of transferring it to a brokerage warehouse as should have been done, they were loading it straight onto another food transport sitting beside it. That in itself was unorthodox and in blatant disregard of trade and commerce regulations. However, what most aroused the Scout’s curiosity was the fact that the cargo was neatly packed in stress-boxes; only the most fragile cargoes needed such extraordinary precautions taken to ensure their safety. Stress-boxes were used for goods that could be easily destroyed by the jostling of highway travel. Certainly food would not require measures such as these. And then there was still the question of the bandits: Why did they leave this particular truck alone, rather than hijack it and take the goods for themselves as was their usual practice? Something was up here, and Roadkill wanted to find out what it was. And he would--tomorrow. Heading back to the inner city, he stopped only long enough to buy a used highway-suit at a second hand retailer (his was so torn and dirty it was attracting undue attention), then on to a hostelry for a good night’s sleep. Once in his small room he showered, but decided not to shave-not yet. Then he cast himself upon the bed and fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.


Chapter Fourteen Roadkill was waiting when the mysterious transport driver came to his truck early the next morning. He had arisen before the sun, heading out into the quiet, deserted streets long before the hustle and bustle of the new day began. Well fed and rested, he was feeling twice the man he did the night before. It was amazing what a decent meal and a night in a real bed could do for a guy. Arriving at the now parked transport, he slipped into the shadows and settled in to wait. He should have checked in on Thrarc first, he knew, but he was afraid he might miss the driver. So instead he trusted in providence to keep his Maur friend safe and out of trouble for now. He did not have to wait long. From the dim recesses of the long concourse came a lone figure striding purposefully toward him. It stopped before the transport and pointed a small remote toward the cab. With a hiss the driver’s door lifted open and the stranger climbed in. Roadkill was right behind him. “Hello, friend!” he called out, startling the trucker so that he hit his head on the door above him. “What the...” the driver spouted, whirling around. “What do you want?” he demanded, peering at the intruder in the gloom. “Who are you?” “No cause for alarm,” Roadkill assured him, raising both hands to show he was unarmed. “Just another traveler who wants to ask you a question or two.” “Well, I don’t answer questions,” snapped the trucker, groping for something in the cabin of his transport while never taking his eyes from the HiwayScout. “Now shove off before I call security!” “How do you know I’m not security?” Roadkill asked with a deadly serious expression. At that the driver hesitated. He stopped groping for whatever he was trying to find and turned to face Roadkill squarely. “All right, what do you want? And let’s make it quick! I’ve got places to be.” “I’m sure you have,” Roadkill conceded, “but I don’t care about where you’re going. I just want to know where you came from, and what you’re hauling. That’s all.” “Ha! Since when does Waypoint security care about commerce shipping? You ain’t police!” He turned back into his cab, this time finding what he was looking for. When he turned toward Roadkill again he was holding a black pistol and pointed it at the Scout’s chest. “Now why don’t you just clear out of here, and stay out of things that aren’t your concern, eh, boy?” Roadkill backed up a few paces, not wanting the edgy driver to feel too threatened. “Hey, no point in getting hostile,” he reasoned. “I just


saw you get pulled over by a squad of bandit dirtrunners, and wondered why they would let you go without taking anything. Seemed kinda funny to me, that’s all.” Upon hearing this, the driver’s countenance lit with anger. No one should have seen his encounter with the bandits. No one was supposed to know that there had been an agreement made to get these particular shipments through in safety. If word got back that the secrecy of his mission had been compromised, he just might find himself out of a job-or worse! “Look, pal,” he said after a moment. “If I was you, I would just mind my own business and not get caught up in something too big for me, understand? You go around asking questions where you ain’t welcome, you just might get a little bit hurt. Now I gotta go. And if I was you I’d make sure I wasn’t anywhere near this truck when it’s rolling....Who knows what might happen?” “Yeah, I get your point,” said Roadkill sardonically, backing further away from the transport as its engines fired. He stood watching as the driver pulled the door shut and eased the truck out of its berth, but he was very careful not to be anywhere near the wheels. He believed that the driver had meant what he said. Roadkill walked up and down the concourse for awhile after the transport left, looking for the other vehicle that the cargo had been loaded into, but it was not to be found--it had probably left last night as soon as it was loaded. Driving at night was extremely dangerous; navigation lights made highly visible beacons that could be seen from afar and would attract bandits and MowMow alike. Most pilots would not risk anything more than a short sprint after dark, saving the hard driving for the light of day when you could see the road and your enemy coming at you. Whatever that cargo was, someone considered it extremely important to go to such lengths. Finally, he gave up the search and headed for the eastern concourse. Thrarc was sound asleep when Roadkill arrived at the hellion. The Cat barked in alarm as the HiwayScout pounded on the canopy and peered in, smiling. “Wakey, wakey, little kitty cat!” he chimed. “Ach!” Thrarc sputtered. “You are always waking me up from beautiful sleep.” “I thought you’d be happy to see me,” Roadkill said in feigned abashment. “I brought you something to eat for breakfast.” He dangled another sack of food before the rumpled Cat. “Oh, all is forgiven, then!” Thrarc smiled, snatching the bag from his hand. Roadkill climbed into the hellion while the Maur devoured the greasy provender.


“You’re gonna have to put your helmet on until we’re clear of the city. I don’t want anybody seeing you back there,” said Roadkill as he powered up the craft and pulled on his own helmet and gloves. “Aarrrggh!” Thrarc spat disgustedly. “I hates that thing! It hurts my ears. Why do humans wear such silly things on their heads?” “To keep our silly heads from being smashed like melons.” “Oh.” The hellion pulled from the berth and whirred down the concourse toward the Ops Pit. Traffic was still light, so they did not have to wait long to pull up to the fuel station. Roadkill paid the attendant what money he had left from the sale of his bam; it was not enough for a full tank, but he would make it to Mogg with fuel to spare. While the hellion was being fueled, Roadkill motioned Thrarc to remain still and quiet, then he got out and walked over to the attendant. “So, uh...Muney,” he said, looking at the bleary-eyed attendant’s nametag, “you been working all night?” “Yep-damn-straight,” Muney replied, sniffing. “Be off in a few, though. That’s quite a ‘chine you got there,” he said pointing to the dusty hellion. “Yeah, it’s a bit unique, thanks,” Roadkill went on conversationally. “She’s old, but she packs a punch. Hey, out of curiosity, did a transport leave out of here late last night?” Muney looked at him stupidly for a moment, then shrugged and said: “I dunno, maybe.” “Oh,” Roadkill made a show of being very disappointed. “I see. Well, I was just trying to find out for my bam connect. He wanted to know.” At the mention of the hallucinogenic the attendant’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Wull, why would he want to know about a food transport?” he asked. The HiwayScout picked up on the dropped bit of information. “I don’t know,” he replied. “You know how connects are...fingers into everything. Well, if you could even give me a destination, I’d make it worth your while when I come back.” “Doesn’t do me much good now, does it?” Muney remarked with a hint of sarcasm. “No, it doesn’t,” Roadkill replied frankly. “But it will do you a lot of good when I come back through in a few days.” Muney took his meaning right away, and seemed to contemplate for a moment. “Hey, what’s the big secret?” he said at last. “So a food transport left here for Garrison last night. Big deal. When did you say you were coming back through, sport?” “In a few days. I’ll be sure to find you. Who knows? You may be able to help me again some time.” “Maybe,” the attendant agreed.


With that Roadkill jumped back into the hellion and fired up the engines once again. Muney had just finished fueling up the tanks and detaching the hoses from the ancient machine. “Well, Thrarc,” Roadkill said, “I’ve been finding out some things about that transport from yesterday.” “Oh, that’s great,” Thrarc responded indifferently. “Whatever it was hauling, it wasn’t food. It was packed too carefully for that. And they made a middle-of-the-night switch to another truck. That one left at night for Garrison, and nobody wants to talk about it at all. Seems a bit strange. That first transport could have continued on to Garrison itself in just a little more than it took to get to Waypoint. Why the detour and the switch?” “I stopped trying to guess why silly humans do the things they do a long time ago--when I met you, Road-man,” Thrarc said, then cackled at his own sense of humor. “Nice,” Roadkill growled. “Well, I guess it really isn’t any of my concern. But I think I will mention it to Letric-Eye when I get home.” Home. The word sang like music through his frontal lobe. He had almost forgotten how much he missed his own city, but the visit to Waypoint had brought it all back to him. The people, the food, the nightlife. When he got home tonight, he decided, he was going to party! In almost no time the hellion was screaming from Waypoint’s eastern tunnel entrance, racing along the Hiway toward Mogg. With an adequate supply of fuel Roadkill decided to push the vehicle a bit and see what its twin powerplants could really do. At almost three hundred miles-perhour he backed off the throttles and gasped in amazement. Thrarc was beside himself in the back seat, clamoring for the Scout to slow down. “Gods! This thing’s a beast!” Roadkill spouted. He tempered the engines, bringing the hellion to a leisurely one-hundred-seventy mile-per-hour cruise. On either side of the Hiway the mountains loomed near. Here they were higher and steeper than the mountains of the Rok, basking radiantly in the morning sun. Thrarc perked up at the sight of them. “That is my home!” he shouted through the cabin. Roadkill had given up trying to make him keep his helmet on. The Cat whined and complained that it hurt his ears until the Scout thought he would toss him bodily from the car. Now the excited Maur climbed up into the turret and stared at the approaching range. The pass that led through the mountains was a notoriously dangerous stretch of road due to frequent attacks by MowMow, and now Roadkill was surprised to discover that it was Thrarc’s people--the Maur--who were responsible. The mountain pass was within their territory. “You know, you and your kind have killed quite a few of my friends out here, Thrarc,” Roadkill informed him.


“You know,” Thrarc replied matter-of-factly, “you yourself have killed some of mine. We know your cars. We look at their numbers. Scout Number Three has killed four of my tribe. Bovril, Tac...um, Bezor...I don’t remember the last one--he was from a small clan.” Roadkill was stunned. “Don’t look so surprised,” Thrarc went on. “It is the way of the Jagland. We have accepted it. For each Maur killed we take one human life. Seems pretty fair, eh?” The young Scout didn’t know what to say. He knew Thrarc was right; four of the Cats he had run down were, indeed, near the mountain pass. Another was on the Causeway halfway to Garrison, and two more on the Old Highway south of Mogg. It had never occurred to him that they were sentient beings with lives and families--just pesky road-nuisances to be eradicated for the good of his own kind. As he drove, Thrarc went on to tell him about the Maur he had murdered as though he were reading an article in the Sunday paper. “Bovril was my friend. He was good. He himself killed two men from your city in one week. How he could make us laugh around the fires. Sad to see him go. Then there was Tac; he was slow. I always knew he would not last-- when they told me Scout Number Three had got him, I was not very surprised. Old Bezor had a very large family, many children. They were young to be made fatherless, but we take good care of our own. His two oldest sons swore that when they came of age they would have vengeance on Scout Three, but we sat them down and explained things to them. They understand now.” Roadkill felt sick to his stomach. This was not what he wanted to hear. He did not want to know about the Cats he had killed. Didn’t want to know about their families. He suddenly wished he had never known Thrarc, either. When he got back to Mogg, life would have to go on: Humans would still war upon the Cats, and Cats upon Humans. More of his friends would likely die, and someday Thrarc too would probably be killed and his carcass dragged into the Operations Pit. He did not want to think about that. Didn’t want to know. So he drove on in silence. Soon the mountain pass came into view. It climbed upward, winding very little as it passed through the range. Roadkill slowed the hellion to eighty miles-per-hour so as to safely negotiate the gentle curves of the Hiway. Thrarc’s excitement grew with each mile until finally he could no longer contain himself. “Here! Here!” he cried out. “This is my home! Please let me out.” Roadkill brought the vehicle to a halt. The engines whined down to an idle while the generators perked up to bear the load of the ECS system. “Here?” he asked incredulously. All around the peaks were sheer and forbidding. The Scout could not see how anyone, Cat or Human, could live in such cruel and heartless surroundings.


“Up there,” he answered, pointing into the mountains just south of the Hiway. “That is the home of the Maur. There is no more beautiful place in the world.” “Well, I don’t know about that. Mogg is sounding pretty good to me right now.” Thrarc’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re not going to come with me? You must! I want you to meet my family--my wife and little Digjam. What about my breakfast in my bed?” he pleaded. “I brought you a sandwich in the hellion this morning. That will have to do. Really, Thrarc,” he tried to reason with the forlorn Maur, “I want to get to my home as much as you want to get to yours. You’ve got to understand.” The Cat contemplated that for a moment, then surrendered. “Of course you are right, Roadkill. If you asked me to come to your home now, I would not be able to. But I have enjoyed traveling with you, and wish it did not have to end.” Roadkill smiled. “I know, my friend. It has been quite an adventure to say the least,” he said, proffering his hand to the MowMow. Thrarc took it in his paw. “I hope I will see you again, Human.” “Me too,” Roadkill admitted as he actuated the canopy mechanism. The heat of the morning rolled into the cockpit like a burning wave. Both man and Cat gasped as the searing air filled their lungs. Thrarc climbed quickly from the hellion and turned to face the Scout one last time. “Be careful, Road-man,” he said earnestly. “I will, and you stay away from the road. I don’t want any Scouts coming back with your silhouette painted on the side of their car.” “That will never happen,” Thrarc laughed, then turned and disappeared over the side of the road. Roadkill closed the canopy and sighed with relief as the ship’s ECS quickly brought the temperature inside back down to a tolerable level. Staring out the dirty plexiform canopy, he caught a glimpse once or twice of feline fur as Thrarc climbed up into the rocks of the mountains. Then he was gone. *

*

*

“Identify yourself! Repeat: Identify yourself or you will be fired upon,” Crasch spat into his headset mic, but still the strange vehicle would not respond. It had come roaring down the mountain pass like a demon from the abyss. Stark features and alien lines marked the craft as something from another time and place. Crasch recognized it as one of the legendary hellions, but that type of vehicle had not been seen on the highways in over a hundred years. Bristling with intimidating weaponry,


the ship had blown past a posted sentry point and the sentinels had given chase. Halfway between Mogg and the mountains, Crasch, who had been heading west on a Hiway patrol, joined in the pursuit. “That does it!” the long-haired Scout decided. “Divot, I’m moving in to firing position. Make sure those cannons don’t bear on me!” “Roger that, Crasch,” Divot’s voice crackled. “If you notice I’m gone, that means that turret’s swinging around.” “Funny!” With a swift jerk of the control yoke, Crasch brought his scout car in line behind the hellion. “What a monster!” he thought as he armed his weapon. He did not think his single slug-thrower would be able to do much against the armor plating of the ghost-ship, but maybe it would let the pilot know they were serious. A quick pull on the trigger sent a line of blazing tracers arcing toward the unidentified craft. The shots glanced harmlessly from its rear plates. “Damn!” Crasch cursed and readied his gun to fire again. Maybe a hit on the wheels would shake him up a little more, but he never got to take the shot. Suddenly the hellion leaped forward with a burst of speed that the smaller single-engine Scouts could not compete with. By the time he wiped the sweat and hair from his eyes, the intruder was dwindling on up the highway, out of range of Crasch’s small gun. The stream of curses that spewed from the other two pilots’ headsets indicated their lead pilot’s displeasure at losing the target. “Easy, Crasch,” Divot calmed him. “He’s headed straight toward Mogg. They’ll pick him up on the way.” “Yeah, yeah, but did you see that thing move?” “Did I ever,” Flintlock came in from the side. “Haven’t heard of much that could go like that. Dual engines! Did you see those?” “That’s a lot of power for one fighter,” Crasch agreed. “I’m just glad he didn’t open fire with all that weaponry,” chirped Divot. “Well, let’s get in radio range of Mogg so we can let them know.” With that, Crasch and his wingmen punched the accelerators wide open. Far ahead they could just make out the speck of the hellion cruising in the distance. It was no longer extending its lead, but instead had slowed to the top speed of the scout cars. This infuriated Crasch to no end. The driver was toying with them--staying just out of the range of their weapons. Whoever this bastard was, he would soon get his, Crasch promised himself. They were almost within radio range of Hiway Ops. When the intruder got to Mogg, he would be met by warcats and assault chariots. No amount of speed or firepower would save him from the onslaught those vehicles could deliver. No way. “Hiway Ops, this is Scout seven....” he spoke into his mic.


At first the response was broken and garbled, but moments later Crasch entered radio range and Marko’s voice came through clearly: “...I say go ahead, Scout seven.” “Marko, we got an unidentified inbound traveling at one nine zero miles-per-hour. Heavily armed and will not respond to communications. Request a welcoming committee of warcats and chariots.” “Uh...wish I could help you there, Crasch,” Marko responded apologetically. “Everything’s out right now. Mostly on the Causeway. Just have a couple of Scouts and support trucks here.” “Shit!” Crasch spat. He’s got us outgunned, Marko. If we can’t stop him he’ll roll right into the city.” “Will advise the western mansards to bring their turrets to bear...” “Oh, Marko, those tower guns can’t hit shit! You know that!” “Well, what do you want me to do, Crasch,” Marko asked pointedly, “come down and throw rocks at it?” “Thanks a lot!” Crasch hollered in exasperation, then pulled the plug on his comm-set. He would just have to find a way to deal with this intruder himself. The hellion did not slow down as it entered the western tunnel of Mogg. The western mansards fired off a few token volleys but did not come anywhere near the mark. They were meant for defense against inplace siege vehicles that might deliver standoff ordnance from a distance. A vehicle moving at high speed was next to impossible for them to target. Crasch and his wingmen did not slow, either, but roared into the city at full speed, hot on the heels of their quarry. Only when they entered the Pit did all four vehicles brake hard, the hellion spinning around to face its pursuers. Crasch, Divot and Flintlock came to a halt just yards in front of the mysterious machine. All activity in the Operations Pit had ceased. Marko called down and had the floor cleared, and all around the huge chamber security forces leveled guns at the interloping craft. Crasch and his wingmen locked onto the hellion with their slug-throwers as well. For what seemed an eternity, nobody moved. Crasch could dimly see the form of the pilot’s head and shoulders within the ship. Then the canopy of the hellion popped open and lifted, bringing everyone in the Pit up with a start. It rose to reveal a lone pilot at the controls--no copilot, no gunner. Crasch beat his fist on his control console. The hellion couldn’t have brought its cannon to bear; there was no one in the turret. He looked hard at the stranger. Suddenly he jumped up in his seat, bumping his head on his own slowly opening canopy. “Hold your fire!” he yelled emphatically across the Pit. “Hold your fire!” The security forces ringing all four vehicles looked at him incredulously. Had he gone mad? Crasch started laughing. Beneath its helmet the bearded, yet strangely familiar face of the unknown pilot was smiling a Roadkill smile.


Chapter Fifteen Crasch could hardly believe his eyes, but there he was: Roadkill, sitting in the cockpit of this strange vehicle from the past, grinning like an idiot. The handsome roadpilot dashed over to the hellion amid the amazed stares of the citizenry of Mogg; they still did not realize what was going on. “Road!” he cried out, grabbing his friend’s head in both hands. “What…? How…?” He did not even know what to ask. “Hey, Crasch,” Roadkill replied, rising from his seat. “I got your note.” The burly Scout suddenly grabbed him in a great bearhug, pulling him bodily from the cockpit, and stood hugging him on the floor of the Operations Pit. “Where have you been?” Crasch finally asked. “I thought for sure you were dead. I...I wouldn’t let go for a while, but then when you didn’t come back...” “I know,” Roadkill assured him, “I thought I was dead, too. And I would have been if it wasn’t for a friend I made along the way.” “Well, let’s go get you something to eat and drink, then you can tell me all about it. And where did you get this machine? Man, you blew right by us, you bastard! I actually shot at you, y’know!” Crasch was so excited that his thoughts spewed from his mouth in rapid succession, unchecked. “The first place he’s going is to the infirmary!” It was Letric-Eye. From the Control Island, he had seen the hellion pull into the Operations Pit, pursued by his HiwayScouts. He was as surprised as anyone that young Roadkill had returned miraculously from the dead, although he showed it less. Placing a hand on the missing Scout’s shoulder, he directed him toward the city’s hospital complex. “Then he needs to be thoroughly debriefed. Afterwards, you can take him out and corrupt him to your heart’s content, Crasch.” Undaunted, Crasch followed the pair to the infirmary, laughing silently to himself the entire time. The physician that examined Roadkill was surprised at his good condition after having been stranded in the Jag for almost three months. His wounded shoulder had healed nicely--the slug passing through without doing much damage to bone or muscle--and Thrarc had splinted his broken leg expertly; the doctor did not think it would trouble him much in the future. In fact, other than a slight case of malnutrition, there was no reason Roadkill could not return to work in a few days. He was basically fit for duty, and the physician pronounced him so.


“Very good,” said Letric-Eye, seeming pleased with the news. From there they went straightaway to the debriefing chamber. Few words were spoken between them as they walked. Letric-Eye did mention that he was very happy that Roadkill was alive, and that it would be good to have him back on the force. Roadkill nodded silently in return. Crasch still followed. When they reached Debrief, the commander of the HiwayScouts motioned both Roadkill and Crasch to be seated in the comfortable, padded chairs that lined the walls of the chamber. He closed both entry doors, locking them, then leaned against a desk, facing Roadkill. “Well,” he began, “you must have quite a story. I’m dying to hear it, as I can tell Crasch is.” Crasch nodded vigorously. “Why don’t you start from the morning you disappeared.” Roadkill had to think back. Lord, it seemed like a thousand years ago. He told of his patrol out to the Gorge, and about finding George and his friends dead after awakening from a nap after his lunch. Both listeners’ countenances lit with anger as he spoke of the chase and ambush by the Bandits. “We’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later, Eye!” Crasch burst in, but Letric-Eye silenced him with an upraised finger. Roadkill went on: He spoke of being shot, then blacking out, then waking up alone in the desert. “That’s when I met Thrarc,” he grinned brightly. “Who’s Thrarc?” both men asked in unison. Roadkill hesitated. “Thrarc...is the MowMow that saved my life,” he said at last. Crasch’s jaw almost hit the floor, and Letric-Eye stared at him in stunned disbelief. “A Cat saved your life?” he asked incredulously. This was unthinkable. Cats and men had been enemies for as long as either could remember, and never had there been an instance of one race helping a member of the other at any time. “Yes he did, and more than once,” Roadkill stated, “and I in turn saved his.” Now the questions started to fly, and the young Scout had to explain many things over and over again before Letric-Eye would be satisfied. He was particularly interested in where the MowMow lived. While he had no qualms about revealing the location of the Lost City of the Rok, Roadkill found himself loathe to speak of Thrarc’s home near the Hiway Pass. He remained vague about the Maur, focusing rather on the Rok and their city. He told them about the trip to the dirtrunner to acquire the fuel for the hellion. Both Scouts were amazed at the tale of that ancient vehicle sitting for more than a century in a MowMow stronghold, but cheered as Roadkill related how he had stolen it, killing their Faro in the process. How Crasch laughed when he described the fat Cat being dragged off in front of his stunned minions. Letric-Eye listened to the entire story with interest, but when Roadkill described the encounter between the food transport and the Bandits, he sat up and listened even more intently. A


growing look of suspicion played across his countenance as he heard how Roadkill tracked the transport down at Waypoint, and about the mysterious cargo that was covertly switched to another transport and hurried off to Garrison. Both he and Crasch exchanged knowing glances. “Something’s going on in Garrison, all right,” the Eye stated. “And it looks like Waypoint is helping them with whatever it is. They’ve been acting funny up there the last couple of months. Now I know they’re up to something. We started to suspect when they broke off almost all communications with us,” he said in answer to Roadkill’s questioning stare. “They’ve always been a bit isolationist, so we just wrote it off to xenophobia. But then they stopped sending representation to the Trade and Commerce Council, voting by proxy on any issue that came up. That’s when we really started to wonder. Now you tell me secret shipments are being made, with impractical detours and middle-of-thenight switches...this doesn’t sound good. They’ve got something going, and I doubt it will be in Mogg’s best interests. “Crasch, I’m going to need you to start patrolling the Strip from here on out. Keep an eye out for food transports headed to Waypoint. Get their numbers, and take note of how long it takes them to come around again.” Crasch nodded obediently. “I’m gonna talk to Motorbreth about this, and see if he’ll put together a night-raid squad. If we could pull over one of these transports making the run from Waypoint to Garrison, we just might solve the mystery.” Then turning back to Roadkill, he bade him to continue. “Well, after that you know pretty much what happened. I made Thrarc get out of the car near the mountains, then continued on home. I know I shouldn’t have run the picket, and I’m sorry about that, but after being gone so long I just wanted to get home--and give you guys a little spark under your butts.” Now Letric-Eye laughed. “That you did! And it’ll be overlooked this time in the spirit of your timely return from the land of the dead. However, in the future please try to use a more conventional means of returning to us.” “I will,” Roadkill promised. “Will there be anything else, sir?” Letric-Eye could tell that both he and Crasch were champing at the bit to get to the Terrace Bar, and he did not want to hinder them. But something else needed to be dealt with. “There’s just one more thing, Road. That machine you brought back--you know that it has to revert to city ownership, don’t you?” Roadkill’s eyes went wide with disbelief. “What do you mean? The salvage laws say that it’s mine! I found it on my own while stranded in the desert. Nobody from Mogg was out there to help me.” “But you are a HiwayScout, Road,” the Eye explained, trying to calm him. “Anything you find out there while under active status belongs to


the organization, hence to the city.” It was the law, and he would not be able to act against it. He knew that Roadkill deserved to gain ownership of the machine, but what was the commander of the Scouts to do? Now it was Crasch’s turn to step in. “Wait a minute, Eye!” he snapped. “The city of Mogg and the HiwayScouts pronounced him dead shortly after he was missing. It sounds to me like he didn’t take possession of the hellion until more than two months later. If his status was killed-inaction, then it was not active, and therefore the salvage reversion law does not apply.” The Eye was taken aback. He had overlooked the fact that Roadkill had been considered lost very early on, and pronounced dead by public (and legal) decree. At the time of his acquiring the hellion, he was not actually a HiwayScout at all. In fact, until some remanding paperwork was taken care of, he wasn’t even a HiwayScout right now. Well, that could all be amended later. But Crasch was right: The hellion belonged to Roadkill fair and square, and anyone who contested it would have the commander of the HiwayScouts to deal with; Letric-Eye took care of his own. “You’re right,” he admitted, “the hellion is yours, Roadkill. I’ll make sure it’s all done legal and proper. Dismissed.” Roadkill smiled his thanks, then turned to leave. Crasch followed behind, but just as he was about to walk out the door the Eye called to him: “Crasch, when you have time later on, please take Roadkill’s helmet down from the Pantheon.” Crasch smiled broadly. “Be glad to.” *

*

*

The Terrace Bar erupted into cheers and shouts when Roadkill walked in, accompanied by Crasch. All of the HiwayScouts who were not presently out on the roads had come to welcome back the ghost of their long lost compatriot. Other friends and well wishers had shown up as well, offering congratulations and drinks on them, which both Scouts gratefully accepted. Crasch was gloating blatantly, being the last to have given up hope on the missing Scout. Time and again he boasted of how he had left the survival pack which had seen his best friend through the Jagland wilderness. Roadkill regaled the crowds by recounting how he had hollered as Crasch sped off, just missing him by moments. “I could have been here, drinking with you all that very night!” he joked. Everybody laughed (including a somewhat humbled Crasch) and patted him on the back. The Billy Blackouts kept coming, and eventually someone broke out some bam. The party continued through the evening--and well into the morning. When at last the duo bid farewell to the hard-core revelers that were still in the bar, the sun was but an hour away from rising over the lip of the earth. The pair staggered back to


their apartments, one level below the shops of the Terrace, and bid each other a long and pathetic goodnight. They had enjoyed each other’s company immensely and hated to say good-bye after being apart for so long. At last Roadkill waved his blithering friend off and shut himself into his cramped living quarters. He was home at last. His tiny apartment never looked so inviting, so luxurious. His own bed, his own clothes, a shower--each seemed like a gift from Gods. It was a clean-shaven and much refreshed Roadkill who emerged from the steaming water. He slipped into a comfortable, loose-fitting robe, and crawled beneath the covers. He was too tired even to be hungry. Burying his face deep in his pillow, he was out within minutes, and did not awaken until late the next day. *

*

*

Roadkill was happy to be back at work. It took a few days for LetricEye to get him reinstated. Because he had been declared dead, it was undecided whether or not he would receive pay for the time he was missing. But Governor Blunderbuss agreed with the majority of the city concerning the fate of the hellion: Roadkill found it, Roadkill got to keep it. Simple as that. Now it sat in an unused storage bay until the Scout could afford to have it gone over with a fine-toothed comb by the maintenance handlers. Everyone was amazed at its pristine condition after such a long hibernation. Motorbreth and some of the HiwayStars came by to see it, huffing and whistling at its elegance. They unanimously agreed that here was a vehicle from a grander time, when Man’s technology was at its peak rather than declining. But there it would sit for a while at least. Roadkill had to go back to patrolling the roads as a HiwayScout. His riotous adventure was over, and the mundane routine of life in an enclosed outpost city set back in with a vengeance. After work each day he would meet Crasch as he came back from his own sweeps; the pair would retire to the Terrace level to drink and watch the ladies walk by. Crasch, however, seemed to be calling it a night earlier than usual these days. He had been spending a lot of time with Jolie--the pair seemed to have something special going-and Roadkill found himself alone more often than not. Normally this wouldn’t have bothered him, but his beloved Mogg was beginning to feel like a cage. He started visiting the city’s diminutive library, reading about faraway places to the east and west. And he read about the ocean. How he would love to see a sight like that: an expanse of water so vast that it made the Jagland seem insignificant in comparison. He decided that one day he would have to visit the sea. Patrols were as routine as ever: escorting commerce and pilgrim traffic, watching for marauding bandits. But the Scout did not keep much


of a weather eye out for MowMow anymore. Once or twice he encountered a lone Cat loitering about the Hiway, intent on making some trouble or other. But he revved his engines while still a long way off, giving the Cat ample warning that he was coming. The mischievous feline would invariably dash down the side of the dike and disappear into the surrounding terrain. Furthermore, when Letric-Eye presented him with a new scout car, he was displeased to find that Roj had already painted his previous MowMow kills on the side panel, as well as adding an extra one for the execution of Panleuk. He politely asked Roj to remove the markings, and the wizened maintenance handler, though visibly puzzled, complied. More than a month had passed since Roadkill’s unexpected return from the Jagland. He was no longer the center of attention, and few free drinks found their way to him at the Terrace Bar anymore. He seldom saw Crasch anywhere but on the road now, and the lack of close companionship began to depress him. There just wasn’t anyone to laugh with anymore; no one to share things with. He got into his scout each morning, drove all day, then drank at the bar until it was time to go to sleep. Sometimes he would go to visit his hellion in the storage bay. He would sit in the cockpit, remembering the feel of its vibrating motors as they propelled him down the Lost Road, with Thrarc in the back cracking his godsawful jokes, and Panleuk dragging behind. He missed Thrarc. Then one day Roadkill’s world began to change. Word had come down to Letric-Eye, and he in turn passed it on to his Scouts: Garrison was definitely up to something; something not good. Motorbreth had taken the Eye’s advice, sending out a night-raid party, and they had pulled over one of the food transports departing Waypoint for Garrison. The driver flashed them a strange medallion, then seemed quite shocked to discover that it was not bandits that were pulling him over. Although he would reveal little when questioned, one of Motorbreth’s men had stealthily taken a stress-box from the transport and stashed it in his vehicle. Analysis of its contents back in Mogg determined the gray puttylike substance to be high-grade thermoblast--an extremely volatile incendiary explosive that was rare, expensive, and quite illegal. Why the city of Garrison would be stockpiling such contraband was a mystery to the HiwayStars, so they kept the secret under wraps until they could learn more. However, the Stars and the Scouts were told to watch for any unusual activities by the BlackGuard Roadforce, Garrison’s equivalent of the HiwayStars. The pilots of Mogg watched, but no illicit behavior was ever noted. *

*

*


It was a hot October morning. Roadkill was out on his second patrol of the Hiway, just nearing the point before the mountains where the road takes a sudden bend to the southwest. An unexpected crackle came over his headset. He was coming into range of some kind of radio traffic. He listened intently for a moment, then sighed with relief as he realized it was only the banter of a couple of HiwayStars from Mogg. They were just ahead in the mountain pass, heading back to the city. Then one of them spoke: “I got something here,” he said. There was a pause, punctuated by the hiss of dead air. “Got two just ahead, laying mines or something.” Two what? Roadkill wondered. “Go to collective, Jarvis,” the voice continued, “and we’ll see if we can get ’em.” “Roger that,” the other returned, and Roadkill could hear their engines whining down through his headset as they engaged their silent collective coils. What did they see? Roadkill wanted to cry out to them, but knew that would be breaking wartime communications protocol. All he could do was continue driving until he got there himself. Pushing the accelerator against its stop, he coaxed all the speed he could from the little single-engine scout. He was about to round the bend that he believed the HiwayStars were behind, when a voice burst through his headset: “I got ‘em! I got both them sons of bitches!” Roadkill was stunned. The laughter of the other two roadpilots rang in his burning ears. It was a hideous sound. He had laughed like that many times before, but now it sickened him. As he rounded the corner, the two approaching warcats shot past him on either side, just missing him. “What the f...!” one of the HiwayStars cried out. “Who the hell was that? I almost hit him!” Roadkill ignored the shouting, intent on scanning the road just ahead. Then he saw what he had secretly dreaded in his heart. Two MowMow carcasses lay strewn upon the road. The dark Hiway was streaked with bright red blood, glistening in the burning sunlight. He braked hard, skidding to a halt alongside the bodies. He had his canopy open in seconds, and leaped from his vehicle without observing any of the extravehicular procedures he had been taught to keep his body cool in the unbearable heat of the Jag. He didn’t care about that right now. The first Cat he came to was undeniably dead; its body had broken apart on impact, spewing entrails as it rolled across the road. Roadkill turned his head away in disgust. He was almost afraid to look at the other one, but he knew he had to see. He knelt beside the unmoving body, not even cognizant of the two warcats that had turned around and were even now pulling up just a few yards away. His heart broke and tears streamed down his face as he rolled over the familiar-looking Cat and looked into its eyes. It was Thrarc. “Hello Road-man,” the Maur gasped in a barely audible voice. “So nice to see you again.” His eyes fluttered spastically, and blood trickled from


his mouth. The Cat’s body was broken and twisted. He bled from numerous wounds and scrapes he had gotten while sliding across the road. He did not move at all, but lay looking up at the HiwayScout, a thin veneer of courage poorly hiding the fear in his eyes. Thrarc knew he was dying, but did not want to. “Oh godss, Thrarc,” Roadkill whispered. “What did you get yourself into this time? Can’t I leave you alone for a minute without having to come and rescue you?” He rocked the dying Cat gently in his arms, trying desperately to find words of comfort. “Roadkill?” a voice cut into him like a thousand knives. It was one of the HiwayStars. “Is that you, Roadkill? What the hell are you doing, trying to get us all killed? We almost hit you back there! Didn’t you monitor us on the comm? You should have let us know you were closing...” The Scout ignored the intrusion, continuing to rock his friend. The Cat was trying to speak to him, but all that came was a sickening gurgle. He coughed up a mouthful of blood, and Roadkill turned his head gently to the side, letting it drain out so that he would not choke. “Roadkill!” The HiwayStar’s voice was more adamant this time. “Put the damn Cat down and tell me what the hell is going on!” Roadkill recognized him now as Berringer, one of Motorbreth’s lieutenants. “Why’d you have to do this?” The Scout turned on him with hatred blazing in his eyes. “You didn’t have to do this.” The HiwayStars backed off a few feet at the sight. Jarvis slowly made for his warcat, reaching for the comm mic and trying to find some nearby radio traffic that would relay a message back to Mogg. They had seen more than one roadpilot lose it in the desert. Sometimes the strain was just too much, and they had to be put away somewhere for a while. “What are you talking about?” Berringer demanded. “It’s a damn Cat! It’s nothing. Put it down so I can finish the job...That’s an order, son!” Enough was enough. Placing Thrarc carefully down on the hot tarmac, Roadkill stood and turned to face the HiwayStar. Without blinking an eye he drew his service pistol from its holster and pointed it squarely between the surprised Berringer’s eyes. “I suggest you get back in your ride and get out of here,” he said calmly. “I mean it, man. I’ll blow your head off and not even think about it.” Berringer didn’t take much convincing. The earnestness in Roadkill’s eyes seemed to dispel any doubts the HiwayStar might have had about the seriousness of the situation. He slowly backed away and climbed into his vehicle, motioning Jarvis to do the same. Both pilots fired up their engines, and just before Berringer’s canopy closed, he called out: “You’ll regret this, Roadkill. I promise you!” Then the two warcats pulled away and disappeared up the Hiway.


Turning quickly back to the battered Maur, Roadkill lifted him gingerly from the road bed. He cradled the small body in his arms, trying to keep this furry bundle of fractured bones together. Not quite knowing what else to do, he cried out, his voice echoing from the mountainside. No help came, so he started trudging up the slope. The blazing sun seemed like it was cooking him alive. It burned his hands and the back of his neck. His only hope was to find a shady cleft somewhere up the face of the mountain, someplace where they could ride out the murderous heat of the day. A fissure gaping halfway up the slope would afford some protection, so he made for it, carrying his burden as though it were a priceless, fragile parcel. Once in the shade of the ravine, the temperature dropped considerably--and just in time. Roadkill felt spent. The unforgiving Jagland sun had sucked the strength from his body with every step. Now he just wanted to lie down and die with his friend. He felt sick to his stomach, and a nagging thirst began to grow in his parched throat. Finding a soft patch of sand, he laid Thrarc down, wanting his last hour on earth to be as comfortable as possible. Then he fell down beside him, panting in the diminishing shadows. How long he lay there he could not tell. It seemed as if he had closed his eyes for only a moment when a quiet sound in the back of his mind, like a pebble dropped into a still pond, brought him about with a start. He sat up quickly, looking around, then gasped. Completely unprepared for the sight that greeted him, Roadkill was uncertain whether to be elated or terrified. All around, from behind every rock it seemed, dozens of darting, elliptic eyes stared down at him. Thrarc’s quiet, grating voice whispered: “Yay, Road-man....�


Chapter Sixteen Unsure whether he was a guest or a prisoner, Roadkill went peaceably along with the group of MowMow that led him high into the unknown mountains. He was certain that these were Thrarc’s own people, the Maur, due to the reverence with which they bore his broken body. They had fashioned a litter, and carried him adroitly over the rocks and gullies of the mountains. His feline friend seemed to pass periodically in and out of consciousness, sometimes speaking quietly to his litter bearers, sometimes lying still as though in death. Roadkill was allowed to walk on his own, but many Maur warriors armed with guns stayed near him, their faces grim and passionless as stone. They marched on for hours, keeping to the cooler shadows as the afternoon sun rode high across the sky. When they finally reached their destination, the day was growing old and the shadows of the mountains long. They topped a rise, then descended into a narrow valley nestled in the lee of two adjoining mountains. The smoke of cooking fires was rising up into the pale sky, and here and there other MowMow bustled about the valley floor, pausing only a moment to gaze at the troupe returning from the Hiway before going back to their work. Into the Maur village they filed. Roadkill stared, amazed, at the myriad openings in the valley walls through which MowMow were going to and fro. The entire valley must have been riddled with a network of caves, he thought. Many Maur women and children came out to meet the party, wailing in anguish at the sight of Thrarc’s wracked frame upon the litter. The warriors carrying Thrarc hustled him through one of the cavelike entrances. Roadkill, on the other hand, was marched past the cooking fires to some sort of hut on the far side of the village. His guards motioned him to sit down just outside the structure, then took up positions around him--far enough away that he would not feel intimidated, yet close enough to keep a watchful eye on him. No words had been spoken to him the entire time. Now he could only sit and wait, wondering what these Cats might do. Maybe they thought he had run Thrarc over himself, and were planning to kill him. Great. It was in the middle of such thoughts that a strange-looking Maur came hobbling up to him. He was a black and white tabby, old and bent, with a patch over one eye. He made his way stiffly over to the Scout on a single crutch, looking him up and down curiously. “Ho there!” he hailed. “Number Three! How nice to finally have you as a guest among us. Your reputation is nefarious here in the hills. You are something of an enema to us.”


“I hope you mean enigma,” Roadkill chuckled, trying not to sound condescending. The Maur’s grasp of the fundamentals of language left something to be desired. “Yes,” the elderly Cat cackled, sitting down next to Roadkill, “Yes of course. How silly of me. Please allow me to make myself known to you. I am rigimint-commander Eax. I was most excited to hear that you would be joining us. Yes, yes.” The comfort his words brought to Roadkill was rather dubious. He still did not know what the Maur’s disposition was toward him, or what they intended to do with him. “Will Thrarc live?” he asked. Eax tilted his head sideways in uncertainty. “We do not know,” he said earnestly. “He is badly hurt. We will have to wait and see...yes, wait and see. It will be most sad if he does not. He is greatly loved here, and not only by his fambly. Faro Sarc has looked upon him as a son ever since his father died, when he was but a little one. Thrarc is a great battle-lord. Great, he is.” The one-eyed Maur went on regaling him with Thrarc’s exploits over the years, and Roadkill was surprised at all the feats his friend had to his credit. The funny little Cat had fought in numerous battles against other tribes of MowMow that the Scout had never suspected. He learned that the highway activities of the Maur were not limited to the tiny stretch of the Hiway that cut through the mountains. They also harassed the forces of both Garrison and Waypoint up and down the Strip. These Cats really got around. They spoke together for some time before another Maur warrior approached them. “Commander Eax,” he said, “Faro Sarc will see the human now.” At that, Eax rose nimbly and directed Roadkill toward the hut behind them. “In there,” he said. “Sarc wishes to speak with you. I warn you to be respectful to him, for he is overseer of all the Maur. But he is fair and good.” He extended a paw to Roadkill, who took it uncertainly. “It was...fun...to speak with you like this, Number Three.” With that, Eax left him. Intrepidly, Roadkill approached the hut. It was constructed of strange branches and reeds, which struck him as very odd since he wasn’t aware of anything that grew in the wilds of the Jagland. As he sat speaking to Eax, other Maur had passed silently by, eyeing him curiously. But now vast numbers of them began to surround the hut a short distance off, muttering to each other as he entered the structure. Inside it was dark, and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. When they did, he saw that the small room was occupied solely by two of the largest MowMow warriors he had ever seen, and a wooden throne upon which sat a wizened and grizzled Maur leaning on some sort of staff. The old Cat beamed at him as he came to stand before the throne, an ageless gleam in his otherwise ancient eyes. The guards did not even twitch. “Uh...hello,” Roadkill stammered, frightened and uncertain.


“Number Threeee,” the Faro of the Maur grated. “What a pleasure it is to meet you at last. Thrarc has told us so much about you, much that I found difficult to believe. But here you are! My Scouts come to me and tell me that there is a human wandering in the hills carrying the body of one of my fallen battle-lords. ‘Is it Thrarc?’ I asks them. ‘Yes, lord,’ they say. Then I am no longer wondering who the human is. It can only be Number Three. “You may not know it, but you are something of a hero here. Thrarc has told us of your adventures together--how you fought the Rok at his side, and how you told him of the knife in Cranc’s boot. Among the Maur you are thought of as a warrior! Oh, do not look so fearful. No harm will come to you while you are among us. We do not kill without reason, not even men. Yes, I know you have killed four of my own people...I knew all of them very well. But that is the way of it in the Jagland, is it not? I am sure we have done the same to some of your friends also, yes? So all is fair. I have called you here only to thank you for your mercy toward Thrarc. He is very valuable to me, to my people, and you have returned him to us although you could very well have let him die. It is an honorable thing you have done. “Now then, what shall we do with you? I am certain you would wish to be returned to your own kind. We can arrange to have you taken to the road, and from there you can likely get a ride from a passing vehicle. Would this be satisfactory?” The old Cat looked at him inquiringly from beneath bushy, white eyebrows. “Actually...,” Roadkill answered nervously, his hands fidgeting at his sides, “...I don’t think they will have me back. I disobeyed a direct order by letting Thrarc live, so now my enlistment has probably been terminated. If I return to Mogg, I don’t know what I’ll do. I will no longer be a HiwayScout, and I doubt that I will be trusted to any position in the city. I don’t think I can go back right now....” His face turned despondent as he came to realize that this was the truth. There was no place in Mogg for someone who could not follow orders on the highway. No place at all. Sarc digested this for a few moments. Finally he asked, “Why, then, did you do this thing? You should have obeyed and let Thrarc die. We would have understood; it is the way of the Jagland. Now you have no home to return to. But do not misunderstand me! I am grateful that you made the decision you did. That is why I have made this decision: If you are no longer accepted in your home, you will be accepted here. See that he is given adequate quarters and something to eat and drink,” the Faro commanded one of his guards, who hastened away to do his lord’s bidding. Turning back to Roadkill, he said, “Go and rest and be filled. I would speak to you again later.” With that he dismissed him, and the Scout was led from the hut.


Eax was waiting just outside. He seemed very happy with the turn of events. “You are to be quartered near me,” he smiled, “in one of the upper rooms overlooking the valley. Very nice, yes. I will take you there.” He hobbled along on his crutch beside the Scout, taking Roadkill’s arm with his free hand. Together they walked through one of the cave entrances. Roadkill was amazed to discover that they were not natural formations, but roughhewn constructions. Passages branched off the main hall in all directions and darkened galleries looked down from above. Eax led him into one of these passages. They climbed two flights of uneven stairs, then proceeded down a short hallway. The doorway before which they halted was covered only by a thick woven curtain, as were all the doors in the village. Eax pulled it aside and directed Roadkill within. The room was small by human standards and furnished sparingly but had a window looking down on the cooking fires of the Maur, just as Eax had promised. “You rest now, and food will be brought to you soon,” the old Cat told him. “I will be just down the hall--the room on the end--if you need anything...or wish just to talk. At my age that’s all there is left to do! Ha ha!” With that, Eax left him alone. “My gods,” Roadkill muttered to himself, “I’m living with Cats again.” He sat down on the collection of cushions and pillows that made up his new bed and removed his boots. His feet were sore from the long uphill climb, and he massaged them for awhile. Then he stood up and walked over to the window. Looking out across the valley, he saw the final rays of the sunset spraying out from behind the mountains. Below him, the Maur women were busy at the fires, making supper for their men. It was not difficult to tell them apart, the women seeming even more feline than the men. He wondered about MowMow relationships: What were they like? Were they monogamous? Did they love each other, or mate out of instinct? Maybe he would ask Eax these things later. As he stood there, a cool breeze suddenly wafted through the window. At first he basked in it, letting it kiss his arms and face. Then he started in amazement. The only cool breeze he had ever felt had come from an artificial air-conditioning system. The Jagland only delivered scorching winds across its bleak surface. But up here in the mountains the temperature was a good deal lower. And now there actually was a cool breeze, created wholly by nature, blowing into his room. Dumbfounded, he stood drinking it in until it died away. Then the sun dipped below the horizon of the earth and its rays were cut off until morning. A noise outside his doorway brought him swiftly about. The curtain rustled a little, and the Scout suddenly knew he had been betrayed. Sarc’s speech was all a ruse! Now they were here to execute him for his crimes against their people. But no MowMow henchmen came in, and no other noise was heard. Stealthily Roadkill crept to the doorway, then


quickly pulled the curtain aside. No one waited for him on the other side, but on the floor was a tray of food and a goblet of clear water. He stepped into the hall and looked down the corridor...and laughed. The tiniest Cat he had ever seen was running away down the passage. It looked back over its shoulder one time, its little gray face drenched in fear, then disappeared down the stairway. Roadkill laughed some more, shaking his head. He took the tray and goblet into his room, setting them on a small wooden table. Then he went back to the window just in time to see the diminutive Maur come scampering from the entrance to the main hall. It never slowed down as it ran past the cooking fires and darted into another cave entrance across the narrow valley. What a funny little guy, Roadkill thought. Then he fell to the meal that the kitten had left for him, grimacing in disgust as he ate. It was road rat. *

*

*

Roadkill spent the next day wandering about the village and surrounding mountainsides. He was given free reign to come and go as he pleased. He was something of an oddity to the Maur who gawked at him as he passed by. But nobody troubled him, and he was left mostly to his own devices. Eax joined Roadkill for part of the day, answering many of the Scout’s questions and asking as many of his own. The village was called Maur, he learned, named after its people as were all MowMow villages and cities. Maur was one of the larger enclaves, though nowhere as big as Rok. It was the Maur’s grasp of technology that kept them ahead of most other tribes. They could maintain and repair the devices they stole from men, and many other tribes sought them out for their knowledge of weapons and artifacts. His questions about MowMow relationships were also answered. The Cats were monogamous (except for the Faro who maintained a sizable seraglio) and were very family-oriented, much like humans. When asked about mating, Eax laughed hard. “We mate because it is fun and feels very, very good! Why else?” Roadkill had to laugh along with him; it was a rather ignorant question after all. The MowMow lived and loved and died just like the humans, and Roadkill wondered how such animosity had grown between two species that barely knew each other. “That is why!” Eax explained, “Because we don’t know each other. You are the first human I have spoken to, though I have killed many. I did not know them, and I did not want to know them. The Jagland was ours for centuries. Then the men started to come, and we said: ‘There is much room here, let them come.’ But when they saw us, they wanted to kill us. They offered bounties for our hides and hung our heads outside their cities. Then we said: ‘It is war.’ And so it has been. I do not hate your kind...but I will kill them as long as they kill mine. It is the way of things.”


Roadkill was not satisfied with that answer, but he knew it was the truth. Humans would always fight Cats, and Cats would always fight humans. Amen. Later in the afternoon he climbed high upon the mountain faces. So high up, in fact, that with the sun riding its southern solstice he was not very hot at all. He reveled in the day, as this was the first time in his life that he could roam freely under the sun, unprotected. Looking out across the eastern plain of the Jagland he imagined Mogg, tiny and far off, sweltering beneath the day. What a prison it now seemed. He had heard as a child of the rich coasts to the west, of their fertile lands and boundless shores; had once dreamed of visiting them, seeing the ocean. But those dreams faded as he grew older. Eventually his heart’s desire focused on the HiwayStars and nothing else. He knew he would probably never leave Mogg, and if he wanted to become something someday, there was only one thing to be. So when he was old enough, he enlisted into the HiwayScouts, hoping to earn a commission to the elite of the elite-the HiwayStars. The knights of the road were typically nobles, but more than a few had risen from the ranks of the bourgeoisie, gaining commissions through valiant action upon the highways. It was the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon someone of less than noble blood, and greatly coveted by any roadpilot. That wasn’t going to happen, however. He had disobeyed a direct order of a superior officer. His life as a HiwayScout, if not a roadpilot, was over. The only thing left for him back at Mogg was his hellion. Well, then,” he decided, “I’ll just have to go back and get it. Then I will go and see for myself if the oceans are real!” The thought of so much water in one place often fired his imagination. What would it be like? Would it frighten him? Did it swallow up men like the Jagland did? He would have to go and find out for himself. With that thought firmly in mind, he descended back down toward Maur with a new resolution in his heart. His dinner was waiting for him by the door of his room when he returned. There was no sign of the small Cat that had brought it the day before, but there was something extra on the tray: a small, crudely made dagger fashioned from a sharpened stick. It was obviously created by a child (as the substandard workmanship showed), but someone had put time and effort into it. Roadkill poked the point into his fingertip--it wasn’t even sharp enough to break the skin--then laid it upon the table and had his dinner. Afterward, he set the tray back outside the doorway and rested upon his cushions, dreaming of the sea. A furtive noise from the hall outside startled him awake. It was the soft scraping sound of the dinner tray being pulled gently across the stone floor. This time he did not hesitate, but raced to the doorway, yanking back the curtain. The little Cat bending over the tray squawked


with surprise and turned to run, but he was not fast enough. Roadkill’s hand shot out and grabbed him by the scrawny arm. “Who are you?” the Scout demanded, but the frightened creature wailed so pitifully that he let him go. As the Cat bolted helter-skelter down the passage, Roadkill called after him: “Did you make the knife? Come back!” But the little one was gone. Late that evening he had one other visitor. Eax came to see him as the embers of the cooking fires were burning low. The old warrior hobbled in, smiling a crooked smile, and asked Roadkill to join him. “There is something you need to see,” was the only explanation he would give. He led the Scout through many darkened passages, twisting and turning into the very heart of the mountain, or so it seemed. At last they came to a torch-lit chamber. A half-dozen other Cats were inside, surrounding a raised stone dais. They drew aside as Eax led his charge into the room. Upon the dais lay Thrarc, and Roadkill hastened to his side. He could not believe the Cat was still alive. The Maur looked very bad, wrapped in bandages and splints; his face puffy and misshapen once again. But he was conscious, and his eyes looked keenly about the room. “You get beat up more than anyone I’ve ever known,” said Roadkill softly. “Every time I leave you, this happens. What am I going to do about that?” Thrarc began to laugh, and it was obviously painful to him. “Hss hss hss! Very good. You are still here, Roadkill. You came to my city like you promised you would, and now where is my breakfast in my bed?” “Yeah, I’ll give you breakfast in bed, you bounder!” It did Roadkill’s heart wonders to see his friend alert and joking again. There was just no explaining the Cat’s constitution. His wounds should have been fatal...would have been to a man. But Thrarc had told him he would not be killed on the road, and it looked like he had been telling the truth. A questioning look toward Eax confirmed his hopes. “He will be in bed for some time,” the rigimint-commander nodded, “but he will live. Yes, yes.” “Ho! Of course I will live, sillies,” Thrarc admonished them. “Thrarc cannot be killed so easily.” He beat his chest weakly with one paw, eliciting a sickly cough. A female MowMow rushed to his side, pushing past Roadkill, and held his arm down. She gave all three of them stern looks in turn, and the other occupants of the room laughed, filing out one by one. Even Eax bade the injured Cat goodnight, and departed from the room. “I will be close by, when you are ready to return to your room,” he said to Roadkill as he was leaving. The Scout could only sit abashed, not sure of what he should do. Thrarc cackled at everyone’s reaction. “Do not be afraid, Road-man. This is my wife, Silc. She is gruff and wants me to get my rest, but she will not bite you. Ha ha!” The female Maur ignored her husband’s


comments, continuing to tend to him as though Roadkill were not there. “She is headstrong, and that is often for the good, but she knows who you are and what you have done for me, and she is grapeful. Aren’t you, my sweet?” Silc flashed a quick glance at the Scout, then went back to her work, but her eyes were no longer hard toward him. “Go now,” Thrarc told her, “and see to Digjam. I will be fine. I am with my good friend.” With that she departed from the chamber, but before she went she laid her paw momentarily on Roadkill’s back without looking at him. “She was saying ‘thank you’,” Thrarc explained in answer to Roadkill’s confused expression. “She does not speak. She was hurt long ago, when she was a child. Our city was attacked by the Bir tribe, and we were almost overrun, but we drove them off at last. I was very young then myself. Her fambly was killed in the attack, and her throat was cut. They thought she was dead, and so they left her. But she is a tuffy like me-she did not die! It was I who found her there, bleeding. She lived, but her voice would not work anymore. That is okay. I love her still the same. Some say it is a blessing. Ha!” Roadkill patted his friend on the arm. “She seems lovely,” he said. “And what about your son...Digjam? Where is he? I would like to meet him.” “Oh, I thought you had already. He has been bringing you food each night.” “That’s Digjam?” Roadkill asked incredulously. “That little nipper! He keeps running away, so I haven’t gotten to meet him at all. Runs like the wind, too.” “Ha! That’s him. Climbs in the mountains all day, just like his father did when he was small. He’ll be a great warrior some day, he will.” “I’ll say. He made me this, but I don’t know why.” Roadkill pulled the little wooden knife out of his pocket and displayed it before Thrarc. The Cat took it in one hand, turning it over and over in the torchlight. “Well, now that is something. It is the best he has made yet. I told him of our adventures together. When I spoke of Cranc and the bad things he had done to me, little Digjam cried. But when I tell him how you warned me of the knife in his boot, and how I killed him with his own blade, his tears stop and he tells me he loves the man named Roadkill. He has made you a blade for your own boot so you will not be killed. He made me one also.” Roadkill was genuinely touched by the little MowMow’s gesture. How odd, he thought, that the child of an enemy race would extend him such a gift. The more time he spent with Cats, the less he understood his people’s hatred toward them. This time, he decided, Man had made a mistake. Thrarc seemed to be growing tired, even though he obviously enjoyed the company of his friend. So Roadkill said good night to him and left


him in peace. Eax was waiting just outside the chamber to take him back to his own room. “Looking better, isn’t he?” Eax asked. “He still looks like shit,” Roadkill laughed, then: “No...he does look better. A lot better. I believe you, Eax. He will live to fight again, and I am glad.” He took Eax by the arm this time and helped the crippled Cat through the corridors of Maur.


Chapter Sebenteen Roadkill spent two weeks among the Maur, watching them go about their daily lives. He often took hikes into the surrounding mountains, marveling at every new discovery and drinking in the superb vistas to the east and west of the range. The Jagland looked immense from up there, but also impotent; it could not touch him high up on the peaks. The sun did not scorch him, and in the evening brisk winds wrapped themselves around him, whipping his brown hair across his face. As hard as he tried, he never could catch Digjam bringing his food or returning for his empty tray. He wanted to see the little Cat, to talk to him. But Thrarc’s only son was wary, coming and going with great stealth. He may have loved the human that had saved his father, but he was still extremely frightened of him. Therefore, the meeting did not take place until one day, while waiting for his lunch, Roadkill had an idea. He crept from his room and walked to the next room down the hall. His unanswered call told him that nobody was in the chamber at the time, so he pulled the curtain aside and looked in. It was empty all right; although furnished like his own room, there were no personal artifacts to be seen anywhere. It appeared that these quarters were unoccupied at the present time. So he slid inside and sat down against the wall by the curtained opening and waited. It was not long before he heard the stealthy padding of little Cat feet stealing up the passage. He did not peer from his hiding place until he knew the young footpad had passed by. Then he gingerly pulled the curtain aside and watched: Digjam was creeping along with Roadkill’s lunch tray in his paws. He went as warily as any Cat could, setting the tray down quietly before the Scout’s door. The Cat paused for a moment, as if trying to come to some decision, then cautiously pulled the drape aside, peeking into Roadkill’s room. Upon finding the human gone, the Cat was visibly relieved. He started back down the hall, eschewing his previous stealth. As soon as the unaware feline was even with the doorway that hid Roadkill, the Scout reached out and nabbed him. How Digjam wailed! But Roadkill did not let him go this time. He held on, trying to coax the panic-stricken Cat into silence. “Shhh!” he whispered. “Shhh! No, no! I’m not going to hurt you. Thank you for the knife...see?...I carry it in my boot all the time now. Shhh!” Digjam continued to cry out as Roadkill went on. “Now lis...Now listen! I have a gift for you in return....” Suddenly the little Cat stopped his caterwauling, although his eyes were still wide with terror. He stood shivering in the Scout’s grasp, but he was listening now. Roadkill wasted no time. Seizing the moment for all it was worth, he pulled from his belt a leather utility pouch. It was worn from long use, but it had a number of


latched side-pockets and practical-looking compartments. He handed it to Digjam, who stopped crying to look at it closely. Wonder filled the youth’s eyes as he turned the pouch over and over in his paws. “Th...Thank you, sir,” Digjam said in a wispy little voice that melted Roadkill’s heart. The Cat was still scared, but trying desperately to be brave. “Now, if I let you go, will you promise not to run away so I can talk to you?” asked Roadkill. The young Cat nodded, and the Scout released him. “I’m not gonna hurt you, little guy. You’re Thrarc’s son, and Thrarc is my friend. We fought the Rok together.” “I know,” replied Digjam, “My father said it to me. He said to me you are the greatest man, so I made you a knife so you will not be killed.” “And that knife is with me always, now,” said Roadkill pointing to his boot. Digjam saw it and smiled. “I am glad you will wear it. Thank you for this pouch; now I can put my treasures in it when I find them in the hills.” “Oh, do you hunt for treasure in the mountains? I love walking in your mountains, but I don’t know my way around. I bet you could show me some neat places up there, huh?” “Oh, yes!” the little Cat exclaimed, and Roadkill had to laugh out loud. Here was the tiniest MowMow Roadkill had ever seen. He couldn’t have been more than two and a half feet tall, and the spitting image of Thrarc. Good Lord help us all, Roadkill thought. The way Digjam capered about, spouting out all the secret hiding places and ancient secrets he had found up in the mountains, reminded Roadkill so much of the kitten’s father that it made his heart ache. “Well, why don’t you tell me more about it while I eat my lunch? Then we will climb in the mountains together--if it’s okay with your father and mother,” Roadkill offered. “Yay!” the Cat hollered. “By the way, I’m sorry I had to catch you like that,” the Scout apologized, “but I wanted to talk to you, and you kept running away.” “That’s okay, sir. That is the way of things sometimes.” *

*

*

“I hear you have met my son,” Thrarc said, leaning up to take a drink from the goblet his wife proffered to him. “I am glad. What did you think of him? He will make a fine warrior, yes?” “He’ll be just like his pop,” Roadkill answered. He smiled inwardly; his friend was looking so much better. His broken bones were healing quickly, and his wounds had been mended with the expert precision of a practiced surgeon. Roadkill visited him daily now, spending an hour or so laughing with his comrade. Then he would go climbing with Digjam.


The little Cat was a wonderful companion, taking him high in the rocks to see hidden glades of sturdy, scrub-like foliage (which amazed Roadkill, who had never seen anything grow under the Jagland sun), or leading him into caves and nooks that he swore up and down had once been the abode of mythical monsters. Roadkill played along, gasping in horror at the youngster’s wild descriptions of unimaginable beasts and goblins. It was the most fun he had had since traveling with Thrarc himself. And now his Maur friend was getting better. “What are you going to do, Road-man? Eax tells me you will not be welcomed back in your city. That makes me to be sad. Why don’t you stay here with us? You are a brave fighter, and stronger than any MowMow yet born. Even stronger than Glang! We could use you when the Rok begin to threaten us, which I know they soon will.” The Maur’s offer was sincere, Roadkill knew, and he almost considered it. He liked talking to Sarc and Eax, and spending time with little Digjam; but each day he grew more and more restless. He longed for something, but knew not what. “I’m going to go back anyway, Thrarc,” he said. “The hellion is still sitting there in storage. I’ll go get it and then...” His voice trailed away as he stared vacantly into the torchlight. “And then what?” inquired Thrarc. “And then I’m going to go and see the ocean!” the Scout proclaimed, suddenly coming to himself. He had made up his mind then and there. That is what he would do. The western shores were rumored to be alive with opportunity and adventure; plenty of food and water, and all the women you could feast your eyes on. With a vehicle like the hellion, he could hire himself out as a transport escort back and forth across the Jagland and make a small fortune. “What the farc is ocean?” Thrarc asked, cocking a bushy eyebrow. “The ocean,” Roadkill corrected him. “You don’t know what the ocean is? Gotta be kidding me! It’s a huge water, bigger than the Jagland, that meets the land to the west of here. It moves continuously, waving and Crasching about, and fish live in it.” Thrarc laughed out loud at this. “Ha! Don’t tell me you believe in ocean! How silly men are to think of such things. Bigger than the Jagland! Fishes! These sound like stories Digjam would make up. There cannot be so much water in all the world. Certainly not all in one place.” “You don’t believe me?” Roadkill cried. “Of course it’s real, you ninny! I know people who have seen it. They sail boats upon it, and capture the fishes that swim beneath. I have eaten fish that was brought through Mogg....It was delicious. Tell me I’m making it up, you jerk!” “I won’t believe it until I see it!” Thrarc retorted. “Well, then I guess you’ll just have to be an unbeliever. But I am going to see it myself, and I’m leaving tomorrow.”


“What?” Now Thrarc’s cynical countenance suddenly looked pained. “Why? Can’t you stay a little longer?” “No, friend,” he said, patting the Maur’s shoulder, “I need to go. I don’t belong here, and I don’t belong in Mogg anymore. So I need to find out where I do belong. I’ll come and say good-bye before I go, though. And I need to thank Sarc and Eax, and my little friend Digjam. “Wait,” Thrarc pleaded, “and I will make you a bargain. Stay one more week, then Thrarc will go with you to see your ocean.” “Ha! You can’t even get out of bed! No way will you be up to traveling in a week. Sorry, Thrarc.” At that, Thrarc threw his covers aside and sat up suddenly on the edge of his bed. Both Roadkill and Silc gasped in surprise. Silc rushed to him, trying to get him to lie back down, but he brushed her gently aside and waved her off. Much to the HiwayScout’s amazement, the ambitious Maur rose to his feet, holding the side of the dais to steady himself. Then he removed his hand, crossing his arms defiantly, and stood on his own. “I could go now,” he stated, “but in a week I will be much stronger. Do we have a bargain, Roadkill?” “Uh...sure...sure, Thrarc,” the Scout stammered, giving in to his friend’s undeniable spirit. “I guess I could hang around for another week.” “Then let it be so.” With that, Roadkill bade them both goodnight, and left Thrarc to rest. He didn’t quite know what to think. Once that Cat set his mind on something, very little held him back. If the Scout left without him, Thrarc would probably follow on foot. Roadkill laughed. He was glad that he’d have a chance to travel with Thrarc again. In high spirits for a change, he returned to his room and smiled himself to sleep. *

*

*

Thrarc did not lie. One week later he was much stronger, and seemed ready to undertake the journey that lay ahead. Try as Roadkill might, he could not talk the Cat out of accompanying him back to Mogg to pick up the hellion. “Why don’t you just wait here, heal up a bit more, and I’ll pick you up on the way back?” he reasoned, but to no avail. Roadkill had visited Thrarc’s home, and now Thrarc wanted to return the honor. He would not be dissuaded. The good-byes were the hardest. Sarc bestowed the title of battlelord upon Roadkill for his courage and honor, and gave his heartfelt thanks; Eax swore an undying friendship with the human, saluting him a number of times at their parting. But little Digjam cried, begging his father and his new best friend not to leave. Silc also cried, pleading


wordlessly with her mate not to go. “I’ll be back,” he promised her, “and I’ll bring you a fish to eat.” That brought her little comfort. In the end, the pair started off without escort of any kind, waving back to friends and family until they topped a rise and the village was lost from view. Walking together in the cool of the late evening, Thrarc determined that they would reach the Hiway well before sunup, giving him time to put on his disguise. He would be wrapped in many rags covering his head, hands, and feet so that he would not be recognized immediately as a MowMow. “I’ll tell them you’re my old mother!” Roadkill guffawed, but Thrarc was not amused. They reached their destination early in the morning, a foothill by the side of the road that offered more than a few shady overlooks from which they could watch the road while staying out of the fierce sunlight. They sat there as the morning broke over the horizon, blasting the desert with bright white light, and waited. Roadkill fully expected the usual morning rush of traffic that would have been waiting in Waypoint for the arrival of the dawn, but it did not come. This surprised him; they came every morning. It was like clockwork: Seven or eight transports and a host of other vehicles and escorts should have been streaming by in an hour-long parade, but nothing moved on the road. Eventually one unit did race by, but it was outgoing from Mogg--a warcat on a lone patrol. “Man, he was really moving,” said Roadkill. “I wonder what his hurry was. Something must be going on somewhere.” It was almost noon before a vehicle finally did come their way. A lone transport without escort was hurrying east along the Hiway, glinting in the late morning sun. Roadkill motioned to Thrarc, and they both scurried down the side of the mountain. Clambering up the side of the dike, the Scout began waving his arms frantically at the approaching truck. At first it did not seem as though the driver was even going to slow down, but as he got close enough to make out the HiwayScout’s easily recognizable uniform, he fired his brakes and eased the heavy vehicle to a halt. Roadkill and Thrarc ran up to the cab, and the driver opened a small side window. “What are you doing out here, Scout?!” he yelled over the whine of the engines. “This is a hell of a place to want to die!” “Bandits got us,” Roadkill explained. “Left us out here to die...My son is badly burned. Can you please take us to Mogg?” He tried to look as pathetic and pleading as possible. “Sure,” the driver agreed after thinking about it for a moment, “hop in.” Thrarc climbed in behind Roadkill and they were on their way at last. Taking a seat in the rear of the cab, Roadkill acted as though he was tending to his injured son, ignoring the driver for the most part. But the bored trucker was not one to let a long trip pass in silence. He badgered


the Scout about his predicament until Roadkill felt as though he must make up some kind of story to explain their appearance in such a remote part of the Jagland. He told him that he had been taking his son to live in Waypoint when two bandit dirtrunners attacked. Their incendiary ammunition ignited a fire in the rear seat where his son was sitting. Roadkill lied about how he had been forced to stop in order to pull his son from the burning car. That was when the bandits came upon them. They knocked him out and took his unit, leaving them both to die on the side of the road. “You’re lucky to be alive, mate, after getting stranded in the hills like that,” the trucker said. “Tell me about it, what with all the bandits and Cats about,” agreed Roadkill. “Cats my ass! Who cares about them anymore? I’m talking about the war, man.” At hearing this both Roadkill and Thrarc turned their heads in surprise, and listened with great interest. “I was lucky to even be able to get through. If it wasn’t for two warcats guarding the intersection back at the Strip, those damned BlackGuards wouldn’t have let me through. They’re stopping all traffic to Mogg that they can, but of course you would already know that.” “Not...necessarily,” answered Roadkill, “I’ve been out of touch for a few weeks. What war are you talking about, exactly?” “What war? Are you kidding? The war between Garrison and Mogg, of course! Where’ve you been? Garrison declared war on Mogg for disrupting shipment of some cargo. Now they’ve been battling it out on the Causeway and the Strip for the past week and a half. Bad for business, this. A lot of good people are getting killed over some stupid political bunch of nonsense garbage, if you ask me.” Roadkill and Thrarc looked at each other in amazement. This was news to both of them. No wonder there had been no traffic going into Mogg this morning! And that would also explain why that lone warcat was in such a hurry earlier: probably a reinforcement racing out to the battle-lines. “Well, what’s going on?” Roadkill demanded. “Who’s winning?” “Nobody’s winning! Both sides are taking heavy losses, although most of the fighting is on the Causeway. They’re just interdicting trade, for the most part, at the intersection of the Hiway and the Strip; a few skirmishes, nothing more. Causeway’s where all the real action is.” The pair digested this new information silently as the transport rumbled down the Hiway. As they neared Mogg, the driver initiated radio contact with Hiway Ops, informing them of his distance and estimated time of arrival. He was just about to inform the controller about his discovery of one of their Scouts on the road, when Roadkill tapped him on the shoulder.


“I’d prefer you didn’t let them know just yet,” he said, “I’ve got some people I’d like to surprise, y’know.” He gave the driver a wink and a nudge. “Oh, nonsense!” the hefty pilot insisted. “They’ll want to know about you. I’m sure it’s very important, what with the war and all. I’ll tell him not to spread it around too much.” Then he activated his mic again and began to relay the news to the Mogg controller. “Hiway Ops...I’ve got some good news for you. I...” The click of a pistol being armed just behind his head cut him short. Sweat began to trickle down his wrinkled forehead. “Don’t kill me,” he pleaded softly. “You can have whatever you want! I’ve got a wife and kids at home, and...” “Gee, that’s great,” said Roadkill sarcastically. “However, I don’t want anything from you but your silence. I said I don’t want them to know I’m coming, and I mean it. Now then, you just keep driving and when we get to the Pit, me and my boy here are gonna get out and you’ll never see us again, okay?” With that he pulled the gun away from the man’s head, much to the perspiring driver’s relief. “Sure thing, buddy,” he acquiesced. “Whatever you say. The last thing in the Jag I want is trouble. I’m just a lone trucker out here, see, and I’m just tryin’ to make a livin’ same as everbuddy else. I like you boys from Garrison just as much as...” “I’m not from Garrison! I’m from Mogg! I just don’t want them to know I’m coming yet. Can you understand that, friend?” “Oh, sure! Whatever you say, pal. I don’t care if you’re from the moon. You’ll get no trouble out of me, nosiree!” The driver went on like this for some time, until finally Roadkill grew tired of it and ordered him to shut his mouth. A short time later the outpost city of Mogg came into view, its coneshaped concrete and steel edifice rising resolutely from the barren sands. A gaping entrance yawned between the twin mansard towers that guarded it from western attack. They drove between the concrete monoliths and into the tunnel that led to the Operations Pit. It was not like coming home at all to Roadkill; his heart no longer dwelt here. But he did love this remote city, he had to admit. He had grown up here; his parents were killed on the Eastern Road when he was young, and he had been taken in by a bourgeois benefactor who brought him up and helped him to gain enlistment to the HiwayScouts. Then the man returned to his own childhood home in the East. Otherwise, the Scout had no family anywhere that he knew of; even friends were in short supply since Crasch had found someone better. He laughed to himself. Right now Thrarc was the closest thing he had to a best friend. “Drop us off just inside the entrance,” Roadkill commanded the driver, “then you can go on about your business as if nothing ever happened.” The trucker remained silent, but obeyed the Scout without hesitation. On


the edge of the bustling Operations Pit, Roadkill and Thrarc clambered from the cab of the transport and melted into the deeper shadows of a side passage. Pausing a moment to survey the activities in the Pit, Roadkill knew that the transport driver had not lied. The frenzied activity taking place in the cavernous chamber was indicative of some sort of operation. Battle-damaged warcats were being hurriedly repaired and put back on the road, zipping back out on to the east and west highways as soon as they were made ready. Tired pilots limped toward the debriefing chamber as their fresh replacements raced to their waiting vehicles. Maintenance handlers hollered back and forth across the Pit over the multifarious whines and clangs that echoed from the walls. There was definitely a war going on. The pair tried vainly to keep a low profile as they made their way to Roadkill’s quarters. Nevertheless many heads turned to see the Scout and his bedraggled little companion hurrying through the halls. Everyone knew of the HiwayScout who had lost it in the field, turning a gun on his comrades and racing off into the desert to die. He had abandoned his vehicle which had been recovered by the HiwayStars and headed off into the mountains where he must have certainly met with a well-deserved fate. But here he was! And who was now with him? This needed to be reported to the authorities right away! Roadkill knew that these were the thoughts running through the minds of the many passersby that gawked at them. All he could do was try to get to his quarters without incident. Later he would worry about the repercussions that were certain to follow. There had never been a formal declaration of war with the MowMow, so he did not think he would be charged with treason; dereliction of duty was a certainty, and conduct unbecoming a probability. Forfeiture of pay, discharge from the HiwayScouts without honor--this is what he had to look forward to. When after what seemed an eternity they finally reached Roadkill’s quarters, the Scout opened the door and let Thrarc scurry inside. “Now you stay in there and don’t answer the door,” he cautioned the Cat. “I’m going to go see if I can straighten out some of the mess I’m in. Then I’ll get the hellion into the Pit and come back for you.” “Hokay, Road-man,” Thrarc answered and began immediately to make himself at home. The Maur stretched his lithe frame upon the unmade bed and opened the drawer of a nightstand beside it. “Ooh, what’s this?” he asked, rifling through its contents. Roadkill just shook his head. He shut the door and turned to go, then gave a startled gasp at the hulking shape that loomed over him. “What the hell’s going on!” It was Crasch standing before him, blocking the way. “Crasch...Good to see you again, buddy.” Roadkill could not keep the guilt from flushing his features. What had Crasch seen? What did he


know? It looked like the shyte would start hitting the fan a little earlier than expected. “What in the HELL have you been doing, Road? Do you know what kind of trouble you’re in? The HiwayStars have orders to shoot you on sight if they see you!” Crasch was turning red in the face now, his arms gesticulating wildly. “And who was that?” He pointed at the door to Roadkill’s quarters. “That...uh...that was...somebody I guess you should meet,” Roadkill stuttered. What else could he do? If Crasch wouldn’t understand, then nobody would. He rapped lightly on the door, then opened it. With a stern countenance, Crasch glared at Roadkill, then leaned into the apartment to see who the mysterious fugitive could be. His jaw dropped open and he muttered wordlessly at the sight of the Cat who reclined languidly on the bed, snacking on a jar of nuts he held in the crook of his spindly arm. “Hello, Crasch-man!”


Chapter Eighteen “I don’t believe it,” was all Crasch could say for quite some time. He stood in the doorway in stunned disbelief, wagging his head back and forth like the village idiot. The very concept of bringing a living MowMow into Mogg was so ludicrous to him, he did not even know how to deal with it now that it had happened. Thrarc just continued to munch nuts and smile at the large Scout. At last Roadkill spoke up. “Crasch, this is Thrarc...the Cat I told you about.” “Well, I’d figured that much out, thank you!” Crasch spat back at him. “I just don’t know why in the hell you brought him here.” Looking both ways down the hall to make sure no one had seen or heard them, Crasch pushed Roadkill into the room and pulled the door closed behind him. “With all the trouble you’re in, you just had to compound it, didn’t you? When you screw up you just don’t want it to be half-assed. Well, brother, let me tell you...you really outdid yourself this time. I hope you don’t really like this...this...Thunc too much, ‘cause they’ll kill him if they see him.” “Thrarc!” Thrarc corrected him. “You shut up!” Crasch barked. “You don’t even talk to me, Cat! I don’t talk to Cats! Roadkill, what have you done?” He turned to his friend with eyes ablaze. “Crasch, listen,” Roadkill said calmly. “I had to bring him. I’m just here to explain things, then to get my hellion and go. I’ll be out of everybody’s hair and you all can go about your business like nothing ever happened. That’s all I’m trying to do.” “Then why did you bring a Cat here?!” “Because he’s going with me,” Roadkill said. This seemed to shock Crasch into silence. He stood blinking at his friend, obvious puzzlement playing across his face. He clearly did not comprehend. “Thrarc is my friend, Crasch. Can’t you guys understand that? He saved my life, and I saved his. He’s a good guy, man. You just don’t know him; don’t know his people. I do. I’ve lived with them. They’re just like us: They laugh, they fight, they love...no different.” “It’s you I don’t know anymore, Road,” Crasch told him mournfully. “You were my friend, and then you disappear in the desert and come back a Cat lover. It’s so confusing. You say you’re going to take this Cat with you...Where? Why? I don’t understand!” “We’re going west, to see the ocean...” “Ha! Ocean! That’s funny,” Thrarc interrupted. “There’s more to life than this desert,” Roadkill continued, “and we intend to go see what it is. I don’t belong in this city anymore, Crasch.


So I gotta go, and I’m taking my friend with me.” He jerked a thumb back toward the Cat who was now sitting on the edge of the bed, listening intently. Crasch threw his hands into the air in resignation, then shrugged and found a chair. He sat down heavily, never taking his eyes off Thrarc, whom he did not trust half as far as he could throw him (which was probably pretty far), and let out a long, frustrated sigh. Roadkill sat next to Thrarc on the bed and squarely faced his friend. No words passed for some time. Finally, it was Thrarc who broke the silence. “I understand how you feel, Crasch-man.” At this, Crasch raised his head and stared incredulously at the MowMow. “When I first meets Roadkill, I am thinking ‘these men really are nothing more than apes with no hair’. But then I am spending more time with him, and fighting by his side, and I say to myself ‘maybe all men are not bad’. I am confused like you are; I have fought men my whole life, so why do I like this one? I cannot explain. But men are here and Cats are here. They will fight or they will get along, and it will be so forever. I only know I gets along with Roadkill, and I like to fight by his side. I will go with him to see this ‘ocean’, though I do not believe it is real. I am sorry if you do not like me, because I do not dislike you. But that is the way of things...sometimes.” Crasch was dumbfounded. He never thought Cats could think, much less speak. But this Thrarc was not some primitive savage from the wilds, as he had at first believed. Now he was really confused! This scrawny feline from the mountains of the Jagland spoke more eloquently than most of the road rats he worked alongside. Could it be that these barbaric Cats he had hunted for so long were not so barbaric after all, but a thriving intelligent race wanting only to live in peace in a realm more than large enough to accommodate both races? “Oh, I don’t even want to be hearing this!” he cried out. “They’re gonna want to kill him, Road.” His demeanor was one of reasoning now instead of belligerence. “They’ll have to get past me first,” said Roadkill with a look of deadly earnestness in his eyes. “I’ve risked my life for him before, and I’ll do it again in a heartbeat. I wish you could understand.” For a moment Crasch was silent. Then he seemed to shrug something off and leaned forward in his chair, looking closely at Thrarc. “Well, buddy, I guess I do understand. It’s just hard for me to accept. But I’m your friend, and any friend of yours is a...is not necessarily an enemy of mine. Thrarc,” he said, sticking out a large, callused hand in treaty, “it’s an awkward pleasure to meet you.” Thrarc took his hand and shook it. He was about to speak when Roadkill shot a warning glance at him. “If you say ‘yay’, I’ll knock you out,” the Scout threatened.


“Hmmmmm,” was all Thrarc said in reply. *

*

*

Thrarc stayed in the room while Roadkill and Crasch met with LetricEye. It was not a get-together that either Scout was looking forward to. When they located him at the Control Island, Crasch went in first to prepare him for the incredibly large bomb that was about to be dropped. The Eye was incensed when Crasch finally stopped beating around the bush and told him that Roadkill had returned. “Where is he?!” he hollered. “I want to see him NOW!” That’s when Roadkill walked in. From there it was all downhill. Letric-Eye was livid, his face alternating through various shades of red and blue as he screamed at the errant Scout about honor, duty, responsibility, personal accountability--and such a host of other topics that Roadkill soon lost track of why the Eye was yelling at him. He wasn’t even asked to explain his actions. By the time he was finished, the Eye had stripped him of his rank, enlistment and all forthcoming pay and entitlements. He left the exScout with virtually nothing and furthermore informed him that he would be hard-pressed to keep him out of confinement. And as for Motorbreth--he would certainly demand execution. Of course, executions were not legal in the free cities, so the commander of the HiwayStars would have to be content with seeing Roadkill’s career come to an abrupt and inglorious end. Nevertheless, Letric-Eye was not finished with his lecture. “I had great hopes for you, son. I really thought you had what it takes to be a HiwayScout...hell, maybe even a HiwayStar. But you blew the shit out of that notion, didn’t you? Leaves his vehicle abandoned on the Hiway! And for what?...A stupid Cat! Damn it, Roadkill, what in the hell were you thinking?” The Eye went on like this for some time before he finally dismissed them smartly, then turned to walk off. That’s when Crasch decided he had better put all the cards out on the table. “Eye, there’s...uh...one other thing....” *

*

*

Thrarc was playing with the shower when the pair returned. His entire head was soaked from trying, without luck, to figure out the workings behind the strange mechanism that brought rain into the tiny enclosure. The fur around his mouth was smeared with toothpaste, which he had apparently taken to be some kind of candy in a tube and eaten half of it. “Wow,” came a voice, startling the Cat, “I’ve never seen him that mad before.” It was Roadkill.


“I can’t believe he didn’t pop a blood vessel in his brain right then and there. Did you see his eyes bug out when I told him about the Cat?” asked Crasch. The pair entered the apartment, then looked around nervously for Thrarc. “Cat, where are you?” “Here I am!” Thrarc called out, poking his head around the corner. Both men could not help bursting with laughter at the sight. “What have you been doing?” Roadkill inquired. “You’re making a mess of my place, man! Go get a towel and clean yourself up, for cryin’ out loud. We’ve got to get out of here, quick. Everybody wants your head--and mine--around here. Shit, Crasch. I don’t know what I’m going to do. He took every cent I had coming to me. Now I can’t even afford to fuel up the hellion.” “Don’t even worry about that, Road. I’ve got some cash stashed away...been saving it for a rainy day. I guess this is about as rainy as it gets! You’re welcome to it. It’ll get you by for a month or so--long enough to get some work somewhere.” “Thanks, Crasch,” Roadkill responded gratefully. In spite of all that had happened, it seemed the long-haired Scout was still his friend. Roadkill was glad. He had always loved Crasch, and never knew anyone he liked better. But now the burly pilot had someone new in his life, someone he spent most of his free time with: Jolie. Roadkill didn’t harbor any jealousy or misgivings about their relationship. In fact, he was glad for his friend. Crasch seemed to be much happier; he partied less and smiled more, and that was a good thing. Roadkill was simply thankful for his friendship with Crasch, and that he could count on him when things were really tough. “Well, now I have an idea!” Crasch quipped suddenly, a fiendish look in his eyes. “Since you’re gonna be leaving anyway, and you always like to do everything with such a bang....” *

*

*

The patrons of the Terrace Bar sat solemnly on their stools and chairs, drinking and ingesting bam as they did almost every day. The dark, smoky tavern was one of the most popular meeting places of the lower classes, and a second home to a majority of the bourgeois pilots when they weren’t out on the highway. The room buzzed with a conversational hum, punctuated now and then by shouts and laughter, as they exchanged news and anecdotes well into the evening. There was much to talk about: Garrison was at war with Mogg, assaulting the forces of the HiwayStars aggressively on the Causeway and the East Road; commerce had almost ground to a halt due to the hostilities, and both sides were having to tighten their belts somewhat. Rumor had it that Roadkill--the Scout who had ‘lost it’ on the Hiway--had been seen again in Mogg.


Otherwise, it was a day just like any other day, so the regulars of the Terrace Bar were not prepared for what was about to take place. The Cat entered the bar with a confident gait, sauntering up to the counter with an air of disinterest, and ordered a cold beer. All surrounding conversation fell away as the patrons, one by one, became aware of an alien presence in their midst. The bartender, having his back to the Cat, filled a frosty glass, then turned and plunked it down on the bar...and gave a startled gasp. “What the...” was all he could utter. All eyes were fixed upon the unspeakable apparition that had seemingly materialized from thin air. The Cat just looked around as though appraising the decor of the bar, and sipped his beer. “Good stuff,” he said, smacking his chops, and raised his glass to the onlookers in a mock toast. Peals of laughter rang out suddenly from the entryway to the bar. There stood Crasch and Roadkill doubled over with mirth, turning beetred and pointing at all the astonished faces. “Hoo hoo! You should see the looks on your mugs!” Crasch bawled, and to the amazement of the onlookers, both Scouts stumbled over to the bar, hopping onto the stools on either side of Thrarc. “Barkeep, I’ll have whatever the Cat’s having...Ha ha ha ha ha!” But only the trio seemed to be amused. “What in the hell’s going on, Crasch?” the bartender growled between clenched teeth. “If this is your idea of a joke...” “Joke?” the long-haired Scout interrupted. “This is no joke, Harry. This here is Thrap...” “Thrarc,” the Cat corrected him. “...Yeah, Thrarc. He’s a honest-to-gods MowMow, y’know.” At this announcement, most of the occupants of the establishment rose threateningly from their seats. Harry reached slowly under the counter, most likely for some hidden weapon, but Crasch and Roadkill glared so menacingly at him that he immediately changed his mind. “And he happens to be our friend,” Crasch added, scowling at the rest of the house. This gave most of the patrons pause to think; Crasch was tremendously respected in the Terrace Bar as well as being a notorious pugilist (never having lost a fist-fight in his life). Some patrons, however, slipped quietly from the bar and went straight-away to report this outrage to the authorities. “Crasch, don’t tell me you’ve become a Cat-lover like this traitor,” Harry said, pointing an accusing finger at Roadkill. “Look, man,” Roadkill snapped in defense, “you don’t know what happened out there. You sit here on your fat ass pouring drinks all day and night. You’ve never been out in the Jag! You don’t know shit!” “Easy, Road,” said Crasch, trying to soothe his young friend’s temper, then turned to the bartender. “Harry, a few hours ago I would have


completely agreed with you. I still don’t know if I like him, but he is not what I always thought the Cats were. He ain’t stupid...well, no stupider than most of the clowns sitting in here right now. And he did save Roadkill’s life more than once. You don’t just throw something like that aside, no matter who it is.” “I would like another, please,” Thrarc interjected, sliding his empty glass toward the barkeep who shot the Cat a sour glance but filled his glass anyway. “Also, I’ve done some checking,” Crasch continued, lying. “There’s no law against a MowMow coming into the city...they never thought to make one since none ever come here. But he is covered by the standing freecity laws which give any visitor to Mogg certain rights and protections....” Then turning to the rest of the crowd, he said aloud, “...which I know you will all be more than happy to observe!” Nobody wanted to disagree with him. Slowly, as time passed, the denizens of the Terrace Bar grew less uncomfortable with the Cat’s presence. The trio at the counter were laughing together so loudly and seemed to be having such a good time that curiosity began to get the better of the patrons. They left their tables, one by one, and moved closer to the mysterious MowMow visitor. Soon there was quite a crowd gathered around him, listening as he regaled them with his exploits with Roadkill in the Lost City of the Rok. Thrarc was very careful in choosing his words, always portraying the Rok as the common enemy, and he and Roadkill as inseparable allies. How the crowd howled at his description of Panleuk’s body bouncing along behind the hellion. Someone suggested that Roadkill needed another silhouette added to his scout car, but those around him frowned him down for making a remark in such poor taste. Thrarc’s storytelling was so compelling that, after telling of his fight to the death with Cranc, the bartender actually bought him a beer, and some of the others asked him questions about his stories and his people. Much to Roadkill’s relief, the now intoxicated Maur was still careful never to allude to the fact that his people were responsible for the death of numerous road pilots from Mogg. His answers led continuously away from the hostilities between the two peoples, focusing instead on their similarities. The Cat’s sense of humor was quite appealing to the crowd, and when authorities finally did arrive to check out a report of a Cat within their city, the patrons of the Terrace Bar assured them that their presence was not needed and ushered them off. “Well, Thrash,” Crasch drawled, “I think their kinda startin’ to take to you.” “That’s Thrap! Ah ha ha ha!” Thrarc corrected him, reeling drunkenly on his stool. “I likes them, too. They are maybe not so bad after all.”


As the afternoon wore on, Thrarc was running out of stories to tell, and the crowd began to dissipate. Soon Roadkill, Crasch and Thrarc were left to their own devices once again. When evening drew near, Crasch proposed that they take Thrarc out on the Vespertine. The shield plates would soon be lifted with the cooling night, and the citizens of Mogg would flock to the balconies to catch a glimpse of the world outside their enclosed city and feel the fresh air upon their skin. Thrarc liked the idea, so they went. The plates were being lifted just as they arrived. Crasch had picked one of the smaller, more remote balconies so that they would not be exposed to as many prying eyes. As the heavy shields lifted with a mechanical groan, the warmer desert air rushed in like a stifling wave. That would soon pass as the coming night quickly cooled the atmosphere, and the hot rush turned to a cool wind. Outside, the Jagland was beginning to grow dark. The sky was a deep maroon out over the western mountains, fading to black eastward across the sky. The stars were out in force, shining brilliantly in the void. “You gotta love the Jagland at night,” Crasch said wistfully. “It’s a murderer in the day, but it’s a lady after dark.” “Everything’s a lady to you, Crasch,” Roadkill chuckled. “Speaking of which, where is Jolie?” “Oh, I dunno...at home, I guess. I’ll go and see her later. Kinda strange; having someone like that changes so many things about your life. So much new happiness comes in that it has to wash some of your old happiness away.” Roadkill rolled his eyes. “Good Lord, he’s getting philosophical on me.” “No,” Thrarc interrupted, “he is right. That is the way of things. Any change brings good and bad with it. For all gain there must be loss. I am surprised that men know this, for they do not behave with much wisdom. They act on impulses and feelings, unlike the MowMow who weigh matters in their minds before reaching decisions--making sure that the good that comes is greater than the good that’s lost, and that the bad that comes is less than the bad that is lost. I almost think you have Maur blood in your veins, Crasch-man!” “Oh shit! That’s all I need to hear.” Crasch leaned out over the railing, laughing. Taking an ice cube from his drink, he dropped it from the railing and watched it slide down the sleek wall of the city. It melted before it reached the foundation layer a hundred feet below. Roadkill came to his side, looking over the edge at the wet streak the ice cube had left. “We’re going to leave in the morning,” he said. Thrarc, seemingly sensing Roadkill’s desire to have a few private moments to speak with his friend, had moved further down the balcony and was scanning the horizon to the west.


“Yeah, that’s what I figured,” Crasch replied plaintively. “You don’t have to go, you know. Now that some of the people have met Thrarc, they’ll almost certainly feel different about you giving up your career to save his life. That will force the Eye to re-evaluate letting you go. Maybe you can get back on with the Scouts. Maybe...” “Crasch...thanks, but I’m through here. It’s okay; I’m happy about it. I’ve always wanted to see what else is out there. You know I’ll come back through and see you from time to time, but I don’t think I could be happy here anymore. Really.” “Aww, man,” the big Scout growled. “This place ain’t going to be any fun without you around. Who am I gonna laugh with, huh? Flintlock and Divot? I don’t think so. Those guys bore me to tears. It’ll just be so empty around this damned city, that’s all.” Crasch turned away from Roadkill for a moment to gather himself, then faced him again. “Well,” he said, extending his hand, “I really hope you find what you’re looking for out there, Road. I really am proud of you. I think you did the right thing in all of this, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re a damn-sight better than any HiwayStar on the road today.” Roadkill flushed. “Thanks, Crasch,” he said, smiling, then took his large friend in a great hug. “I love you, man.” “Yeah, yeah. Get outta here.” Suddenly Thrarc yelped, and both men turned in surprise to see what was wrong with him. He was staring intently from the balcony, gazing west toward the mountains. “What’s wrong, Thrarc?” asked Roadkill, walking over to stand next to the Cat. “Out there, on the mountain,” Thrarc responded. “Do you see it? There, just where the road passes through.” He was pointing now, and Roadkill and Crasch followed his line of sight. Far off, high up on a mountain, a tiny light could be seen. “So?” Crasch snapped in annoyance. “It’s a light. Big deal. You don’t have to spaz out.” Thrarc ignored the comment. “Roadkill,” he said, and his voice was filled with earnest concern, “that is the watch-beacon of the Maur.” “I don’t understand. What does that mean?” asked Roadkill, shrugging his shoulders. Crasch just stood there with a look of confusion on his face. “When Maur warriors are out in the Jagland, far from home, the beacon tells them there is trouble and they must return at once. They are calling to me.” “What? Wait a minute, Thrarc! They could be recalling a fist of your warriors back in from the field. It may have nothing to do with you at all.” “Roadkill! They are calling me! I have to go back. Please take me back!”


Deep in the Cat’s eyes was a look of such dire urgency that Roadkill could only answer: “Sure, Thrarc. Sure, okay, we’ll take you back right now. Uh, Crasch?...” “I know, man,” said Crasch, who was beginning to realize that there must really be something wrong, and that it was very important to Thrarc that he get back to his village immediately. “I’ll go get you some cash, and I’ll meet you by your ride down in the Pit.” “Thanks, bud. I owe you.” With that, the trio headed off: Crasch to his quarters to get Roadkill some money, and Roadkill and Thrarc to the storage bay that held the hellion. They met in the Pit a short time later. Roadkill already had the attendant fueling up the vehicle, and once it was topped off Crasch paid him out. Thrarc was hunkered down in the back seat, trying to avoid being seen by any more humans. The reactions of the ones they had passed on the way down ranged from curiosity to panic. Some called out angrily at the pair, suggesting that neither of them belonged in Mogg, but they ignored the comments and hurried on their way. Now that Crasch was here they could leave, and as far as Thrarc was concerned they need never return. He had seen this city of men and decided he could live without it, although he thought the beer was grand. Roadkill climbed into the driver’s seat and strapped himself in. As he fired up the different systems, Crasch came over to the open cockpit. From his pocket he pulled a wad of money and stuffed it into Roadkill’s gloved hand. “This’ll see you through for a while,” he said. “Thanks again, Crasch. I...” he began, but Crasch stopped him with an upraised finger. The good-byes had been said. The burly Scout did not want to say anymore. He gripped Roadkill’s shoulder one time, hard. Then he backed away, stone-faced. The last thing Crasch remembered seeing as the hellion pulled away was the wide-eyed face of Thrarc peering at him from the window of the back seat, wearing an expression he could not quite decipher. A moment later, the vehicle was gone, whining down the western tunnel. Crasch let out a long, heavy sigh. He probably would not see his friend again, he reflected. It was true: The walls of the Pit echoed loneliness, and the confined city suddenly seemed to him like a dank, dark cave. “I gotta get out of this place,” he muttered, then walked off.


Chapter Nineteen Roadkill piloted the hellion down the Hiway at full velocity. Silence had reigned the entire trip; Thrarc was without words for the first time since they had met. The beacon on the mountain was still alight and burning brightly, growing more distinct as the mountains loomed nearer. It appeared as some sort of electrical apparatus, rather than the bonfire Roadkill had assumed it would be. “I didn’t know your people had electricity, Thrarc. I didn’t see anything like that while I was in your village.” “No,” Thrarc responded faintly, “we try to make it be a secret. Some things we build from what we salvage on the roads, but we do not want other tribes to know all we have. My sire built the light that you see. It is calling to me, I know.” “Well, we’ll be entering the pass in about fifteen minutes; then we’ll find out what this is all about. I’m sure it’s nothing...a mistake.” Roadkill tried to sound reassuring, although he didn’t even convince himself. “Maybe so. Maybe so.” Quickly the black mountains enveloped them; consumed them. Huge dark walls obliterated the desert plain from sight, and now only the stars above shone through the frightening void. Roadkill slowed the hellion and fired up his searchlights. The road stretched before them, a grim tapestry; its unchanging leagues rolled beneath the thrumming octopad wheels of the car. But even the high-power searchlight could not shatter the blackness to either side. Then a shadowy form darted across the Hiway in front of the hellion. It had passed too swiftly for him to be certain, but Roadkill was quite sure it was a MowMow. He called Thrarc’s attention to it, and the Cat pressed his face against the canopy. “It is them! Roadkill, please stop here,” he begged. Roadkill obliged, coming to a quick halt. He raised the canopy, and before he could even unstrap himself Thrarc had bailed out of the cockpit and was slinking across the dike like some ghoulish apparition. At the edge he stopped, looking out into the sea of darkness that loomed on the side of the road. Roadkill climbed from the hellion and walked softly over to his Maur friend. The Cat was standing motionless, poised as though he were about to leap over the edge. Then a low moan started deep within Thrarc’s throat. It ascended to a mournful, banshee-like wail that froze Roadkill’s blood in his veins. It trailed off into the night, echoing from the mountainside, then was swallowed up in the nocturnal silence. Nothing happened for a few long moments. Then an answering cry came, much like Thrarc’s but higher pitched. And another. From the darkness numerous shapes stole up the slope of the dike. As they came


into the ring of illumination cast by the hellion’s searchlight, Roadkill was relieved to recognize them as Maur from Thrarc’s village: a dozen or so, and Eax was with them. “Hello, Thrarc and Road-man!” he called out. “You came quickly. That is good.” Thrarc ran to him and grasped his arm in greeting. “What is it, Eax? What has happened? I saw the light from far away, and now I am here.” “There is something we must show you and the Road-man,” Eax answered vaguely. “Are Silc and Digjam safe?” Obviously this was the fear that had occupied Thrarc’s mind since he had seen the beacon on the mountain. “Oh, they are fine. They are fine. Come with us, please,” he said as he motioned them both down the side of the dike. “He is just over here.” Roadkill and Thrarc looked at each other questioningly. Then, shrugging, they followed Eax and the others into the shadows. A few yards off the road, another group of MowMow stood surrounding some dark bundle on the ground. Approaching cautiously, Roadkill was shocked to find that it was a man lying upon a litter. The old body was wracked and beaten, and dried blood caked the side of the gray head; but there was no mistaking the stark, aquiline features beneath the dirt and grime: It was Graegor, Chancellor to King Vordigal of the East. “We found him today,” Eax explained, “while patrolling the plains to the north. He was tied down with stakes to the desert floor, baking alive in the sun. Almost dead when we found him, he was. There was a time when I would have gladly left him to die,” he said, then looked at Roadkill, “but now I could not bring myself to do so. We carry him back to Maur and give him water and shelter. He was very afraid of us, I can tell you, but when one of us mentions your name he perks up. ‘Roadkill!’ he cries out. Then he keeps saying your name over and over. We go to Sarc to ask what should be done. He tells us to light the beacon and summon Thrarc back to us. He knows you will come with him. Sarc is very wise, after all.” Roadkill smiled at the aging Cat, then turned his attention to the ailing Graegor. Kneeling beside him, he gripped his hand, and the Chancellor’s rolling eyes suddenly locked on him in recognition. “Roadkill!” he whispered. “It’s true. I thought these Cats would kill me. But when I heard them speak your name I was confused. I remembered you from Mogg, such a good lad. And now you are here!” “I’m here,” Roadkill comforted him, “now you rest easy. Don’t strain yourself...” “No!” Graegor interrupted. “You must listen. They did this to me! They can’t be allowed to do what they wish to do....” A racking cough shook his slender frame. “Who did this? Who did this to you, Chancellor?”


“It was the King’s Juggernaut pilot, Juno,” Graegor gasped, “and the people of Garrison. I don’t know what kind of deal they made with him, but after we left your city, Juno diverted the Juggernaut to Garrison under some false pretense. Once we arrived, the king and I were arrested. They killed Vordigal horribly on the floor of their Operations Pit. Me, they locked away for a long time in a black cell beneath their accursed city. Then yesterday they took me far out into the desert. Juno laughed as they tied me to those stakes...told me what a fool I had been to follow the king like a dog for so long. I told him the loyalty of a dog was more honorable than the treachery of a jackal, and he hit me hard. That’s when he told me of his plan: While I would be left to die in the desert, forgotten by the world, he would be remembered for centuries as the champion of Garrison, and the force that shaped the Jagland for ages to come. He’s mad, Roadkill! He’s mad and suicidal. We drove him too hard, the king and I. Now...he is...insane.” “What are you talking about? What plan does he have...could he have?” But Graegor was fading on him. The old man’s life was slipping away quickly, and death was a certainty. Realizing this, Roadkill shook him and lightly slapped his face, as much as he hated to do it. “Tell me!” he demanded. “...It’s the Juggernaut. They loaded it with some kind of explosives...” “Thermoblast! They loaded it with thermoblast!” Now the secret shipments of the volatile explosive made perfect sense. Garrison had always been fiercely jealous of the trade it lost to Mogg. The Hiway was the most direct route across the Jagland; Mogg received the majority of the direct traffic, leaving Garrison to survive on what commerce traveled northwest to southeast: a good deal less. “Yes, thermoblast. That’s what he said it was. They are going to detonate it in the Operations Pit at Mogg...destroy the whole city....” “Good Gods!” It took a moment for the enormity of this information to sink into Roadkill’s brain. Thrarc, who had been listening intently to the entire conversation, now spoke up: “When were they to do this thing?” Graegor looked at the MowMow in confusion. Why was a Cat speaking to him? “At dawn,” he answered uncertainly. At this, Roadkill’s head snapped up. “Dawn! That’s only hours away! My Gods, they can’t be stopped....” “What do you mean ‘they can’t be stopped’?” snapped Thrarc. “Do you give up so easily? What is this Jugger-thing? You have weapons and vehicles...why won’t you be able to stop it?” “It’s a Juggernaut, Thrarc. Nothing we have can stop it. It’s huge...and well armed. It would mow down anything in its path. But I’ll have to go back and warn them, get them to start evacuating the city.”


He knew this gesture was futile. A city the size of Mogg held far too many people to get out by dawn in the few transports that would be available. Most of them would have to choose between being blown to smithereens, or dying out in the Jagland heat. Well, he would warn them, and he would die with them. He turned to leave when a cracking voice called out to him. It was Graegor. He motioned the young man closer as he was now almost too weak to speak. “...Roadkill...there is a way...” *

*

*

Crasch was suiting up for his morning patrol. As he tucked his hair up inside his helmet, Roj walked over and clapped him on the back. “She’s ready to roll, laddy,” he said, clicking his tongue. “Try not to bend her up too bad out there.” “I won’t, Roj. I’m just taking a patrol out to the Causeway...Garrison’s up to something for sure, but we don’t know what it is yet. Maybe we’ll find out today, eh?” “Maybe, son.” His scout was lined up next to those of Divot and Samson, who were climbing into their own rides. As Crasch climbed in and began to fasten his shoulder harness, a vehicle shot from the western tunnel into the Operations Pit. At first Crasch paid it no notice, but as it screeched to a halt he looked up in surprise. It was a scout car also. He tried for a moment to think who had been patrolling the Hiway this morning, then became perplexed. None of the Scouts were supposed to be on the Hiway--they had all been ordered to picket the Eastern Road and the Causeway. Who was this? The number on the side of the craft was 3, and this seemed to register as strange in Crasch’s mind. Who was Scout Three again? He thought for a moment, then remembered. It was Roadkill’s old car! He could not shout a warning in time. The canopy of the scout flopped open, and a helmeted driver smiled from within. He held an automatic slug-thrower, and aimed it at the row of Scouts and their pilots. Crasch ducked down into his cockpit just as the blast of fire raked his car. The intruder continued to spray the occupants of the Pit until he had emptied his weapon. Then he closed his canopy and spurred his vehicle down the eastern tunnel. The Pit was in complete chaos. People were down everywhere: pilots, support personnel, maintenance handlers. Looking around in astonishment, Crasch was stunned at the spectacle he beheld. At least a dozen people had been hit in the attack--they were strewn across the floor of the chamber. Next to him, Divot was gasping and holding his chest. Blood seeped between his fingers, and he stared at it with wide,


frightened eyes. Further down, Samson was dead. He had been hit twice in the face, and an unholy mixture of gray matter and crimson gore bubbled from his nostrils. Crasch retched. “Are you okay, lad?” It was Roj. He had been behind Crasch’s scout, unhooking the last coupling, when the attack occurred. “Good gods, what happened? Who was that?” “I...I’m not sure,” Crasch stuttered, “but I think that was Roadkill’s old ship. We thought the bandits might have taken it and repaired it. But why did they do...all this.” He looked around in disbelief. With each maimed body he saw, his anger grew. Everywhere people were scurrying about, tending to the wounded. Divot was going quickly, and Samson was gone--life and brains spilling out into his cockpit. All because of one fanatical bandit attacker. Without another word Crasch powered up his systems. Throughout the Pit, heads turned to see the one pilot who had gotten hold of himself and was setting out to do what a pilot from Mogg was supposed to do: avenge this merciless attack on his city. This brought them all about, and now other pilots were hurrying to their vehicles to follow him. HiwayStars, HiwayScouts, even support drivers were scrambling to get their craft on the road where they belonged. One by one the forces of Mogg darted from the Pit in hot pursuit of the killer scout. *

*

*

When Roadkill and Thrarc arrived back at Mogg, they were stunned by the sight that greeted them: Blood was spilled about the floor of the Pit; a medical staff was ministering to the last of the victims of the earlier assault; the bodies of the dead were being laid out temporarily by the control island. Among them Roadkill recognized Divot and Samson. As he pulled to a stop, security personnel surrounded his vehicle with upraised weapons. Roadkill lifted his hands in surrender, while Thrarc slumped down in his seat, trying not to be seen. Upon recognizing the former scout, the chief of security cleared him and told his men to stand down. They complied, but not without shooting Roadkill a number of dirty looks; after an attack like this, a Cat-loving ex-scout was not someone to be fully trusted. “Stay here, Thrarc,” Roadkill whispered back to his friend, then climbed out of the hellion and started off toward the control island. On the way he met Roj, who told him what had happened. “My scout car?” Roadkill was incredulous. “Yes, yours! But he’ll be sorry...every ship in Mogg is hot on his tail right now. They’ll catch him. You can bet on that!”


Looking around, Roadkill realized the lively maintenance handler was right. No military vehicles were left in the Pit at all. This confirmed Roadkill’s worst fears. “Where is the Eye? I’ve gotta talk to him.” “He’s up in the island, coordinating the chase.” Without another word, Roadkill dashed for the control island. Racing up the winding metal stairs that led to Pit Ops, he burst into the control room unannounced and unwelcome. Letric-Eye turned and immediately scowled when he realized who the interloper was. “Get the hell out of here, Roadkill! We don’t need you in our faces right now. We’ve got a lot going on...” “I know, dammit! You’ve got even more going on than you know about.” With that, he told the whole story exactly as Graegor had related it to him. He could see the lights coming on behind Letric-Eye’s eyes as he began to understand the mystery behind the shipments of thermoblast. When Roadkill had finished, the Eye just slumped down in his chair and put his head in his hands. “Then we’re finished,” he said resignedly. The others in the control room looked at him expectantly; surely it was not so. “No we’re not, Eye!” Roadkill chastised him. “Graegor said the Juggernaut could be stopped by a concentrated blast to the central gearbox of the forward wheel-truk. The whole truk will collapse, blowing the front wheels out from under the Jug. You just need to radio all vehicles and tell them where to concentrate their fire.” “Roadkill, I can’t radio anybody. All the vehicles that took off after that scout are out of radio range now. They aren’t gonna stop until that prick is dead and buried.” “Then I’ll follow after them! The hellion’s faster than anything you’ve got. I’ll get within radio range and let them know. That way, when they run into the Juggernaut, you’ll have most of Mogg’s forces right there, ready to take it out.” “Roadkill,” Letric-Eye sighed, then turned to him as a father to an errant child. “Don’t you get it? The Juggernaut isn’t going to come down the Causeway. That’s why they staged this attack: They wanted our forces to be east of Mogg. That Juggernaut is probably rolling down the Strip as we speak. The attack is going to come from the west.” “Oh shit! You must be right,” Roadkill conceded. “And we all fell for it. All of us. Isn’t anything out on the Hiway?” “Motorbreth is at the junction, leading a four-ship of warcats. Hell, he’s the one guy who won’t be caught with his pants down, as usual. But he won’t be able to stop this thing. For all we know they’ve run into it already. There might not be anything between that Jug and this city.” The pair stared silently at each other, thoughts racing. It was Roadkill who at last spoke. “Well, there is one thing between this city and that Juggernaut.”


*

*

*

Thrarc was startled by a sudden crowd of people that surrounded the hellion. He squawked, jumping up in his seat as they began to pull off panels as though searching for something. This was it, he thought. The lynch mob had prevailed. But it was not so. Roadkill was among them, conferring about something or other. Then he held up a finger and darted over to the canopy, raising it. “Thrarc, where on this car can we put an explosive package so that it can be armed and disarmed from the cockpit?” he asked. “Umm,” Thrarc said, thinking about it. “Oh, that’s an easy one!” “Where!” Roadkill demanded impatiently. “We don’t have much time!” “In the front,” the Cat answered crossly, pointing to the nose of the craft, “between the front guns. There’s a secondary ordnance cluster with arming switches in the back seat. Just take out the partitions and route the whole thing to one switch. Simple.” “Oh,” said Roadkill, nonplused. This Cat really did know the hellion. The technicians didn’t need any more prompting. They went straight to work, opening the nose panels and removing the cluster partitions. Another team brought a strange box carefully through the bay, presenting it to those who were working on the nose, then gladly vacated the area. “Roadkill, what is that?” Thrarc inquired. “It’s called thermoblast--a very powerful explosive...It’s what that transport I followed was carrying. This is the sample that Motorbreth confiscated from one of their shipments. We think it’s the only thing that will stop that Juggernaut from reaching Mogg. Is there some way you can run that arming switch to the front seat?” “Not very quickly, I am afraid. It is hokay...I will work the switch from here.” “Thrarc.” Roadkill leaned into the cockpit and put a hand on the Maur’s furry arm, “You can’t come with me this time. I’m not sure I’ll be coming back from this one. I don’t know how I’m going to deliver this charge to the right place, but if I don’t, a lot of people are going to die.” “I know that, Roadkill. But you need Thrarc along to detonate the thermo-stuff...and to take care of you.” “But Thrarc...” “We will speak no more of it. They are almost done, so hush up and get in!” Thrarc was right. The technicians had installed the charge and were backing away from the hellion. Only Letric-Eye stayed nearby, personally fueling up the vehicle and detaching power couplings. When he had finished, he came to the side of the car and extended his hand to


Roadkill. “Thanks for doing this, Road. We were lucky you showed up when you did. Just get within radio range of Motorbreth and tell him what you know. Let him do the work, and save the heroics for some other day, okay?” “Okay, Eye,” Roadkill agreed, and took his hand. Then the canopy closed and the hellion started across the bay, picking up speed as it rolled down the western tunnel. *

*

*

Juno loved this plan. He had helped create it, and he loved it. At last he was free from the control of that bastard Vordigal and his gray-haired lackey. Murdering them had been a pleasurable experience after years of kowtowing to their every whim and fancy. He would miss the Juggernaut, it was true. But if things worked out the way he had planned--and they would--he would soon be rich enough to buy his own Juggernaut. It had been a happy day when he met the emissary from Garrison. The official was visiting the kingdoms of the East, vying for trade contracts and promises that the wealthier commercial traffic would be routed through Garrison rather than Mogg. It was nothing new; they tried this every year, but to little avail--Mogg was quite simply the more efficient corridor of travel through the Jagland. This time, however, the emissary had an ulterior motive: He had been directed to enlist the aid of one of the heavy vehicle drivers--preferably a Juggernaut. When he happened upon Juno drowning his sorrows in a bar, his round-about offer caught the attention of the disgruntled pilot. Large amounts of cash up front bought Juno’s loyalty early on; the promise of a position of great power in the new Jagland empire was all it took to get the veteran Juggernaut driver to buy into the sinister plan lock, stock, and barrel. What did he care if one remote outpost got destroyed for the profit of another? Wasn’t that the way of things in the Jagland? Now the long-planned scheme was coming to its fruition. Of course there had been setbacks: the asinine transport driver who had been seen on the highway dealing with those damned bandits, for instance. Juno had objected to bringing the scourge of the roads in on something as fragile as this, but the safety of the shipments of thermoblast had to be guaranteed; without the compliance of the bandit lords, most of them probably wouldn’t have made it through. All in all, this plan was costing Garrison everything it had, but it would be well worth it! It was the ease with which Juno would carry out his part of the bargain that pleased him the most: He would have the honor of actually delivering the huge load of thermoblast to Mogg and detonating it. The interior of the Juggernaut was packed with more explosives than he had ever seen in one place in his life. The resulting holocaust would be phenomenal. He


would have to be certain that he jettisoned into the escape vehicle early enough so that he would not be killed in the explosion. That shouldn’t be a problem, he reflected. Once he was on the straight leg of the Hiway leading into Mogg, the Juggernaut would basically drive itself. Lateral deviation sensors would keep it from straying off the dike, while a radio detonator in the escape vehicle would trigger the bomb at Juno’s command--once it had reached Mogg’s Operations Pit. It was going to be so easy, so fulfilling, so much fun. Suddenly the Juggernaut pilot leaned forward in his seat. Something was ahead of him on the road. This was unexpected, and Juno hated when things happened unexpectedly. All of Mogg’s road force should have been on the East Road chasing the commandeered scout car--that had also been a part of the bandit’s agreement. But there they were: four HiwayStar warcats patrolling the Strip. Well, Juno chuckled to himself as he pushed the accelerator against its stop: Here were four bugs he could definitely squash! *

*

*

Motorbreth was not quite sure what to make of it: a Juggernaut barreling down the Strip at high speed. Of course, Juggernauts always barreled--but he was unsure where this one was coming from or going to. These suspicious days caused him to question any unusual activities on the highways. He slowed his warcat and spoke into his mic: “We have an inbound just ahead, and it’s big...One of those Jugs...Tyndall, Burek, drop off the sides of the dike and come up behind him. I’m gonna run before him and see if I can contact the pilot. Jarvis, you’re with me.” Each pilot obeyed his leader’s orders, two of them skittering down opposite sides of the dike, while Motorbreth and his wingman turned their vehicles around and began to drive in the same direction as the rapidly approaching Juggernaut. They accelerated to top speed, wanting to run just ahead of the huge road-machine, but the Jug was traveling at such a high velocity that it was difficult to maintain distance between them. Motorbreth attempted to establish communications with the hurtling beast, but for some time no reply was forthcoming. “Well, I’m not about to get crushed under those wheels,” he informed his wingmen. “We’re coming up on the junction now, so just turn off onto the Hiway and let him go on by. If he’s in that big of a hurry, I’m not going to try and stop him.” As the junction approached, Motorbreth and Jarvis were forced to slow down to make the sharp turn. To the HiwayStar’s relief, the Juggernaut slowed some, too. So, he would not race to run them down before they


left the Strip after all. How very sporting of him. Those Jug pilots were usually such bastards. “Uh, chief...” came a voice over Motorbreth’s headset. It was Burek. “He’s turning with you.” “What?” Motorbreth gasped. Looking in his rearview, he saw it was true: The Juggernaut was also turning onto the Hiway. Now things were getting a bit strange. Why would a Juggernaut be heading to Mogg during a time of war without the commander of the HiwayStars knowing about it? He tried once more to reach the pilot of the craft. This time he received a response. “Hello there, little Hiway troopers,” came a snide voice. “Out for a nice morning drive, are we?” “Attention Juggernaut pilot,” replied Motorbreth, refusing to be fazed by the Jug pilot’s condescending demeanor. “You are in violation of wartime protocol. I highly advise you to bring your vehicle to an immediate halt and prepare to be boarded.” “Ha ha, that’s pretty funny,” the pilot teased. “But I don’t think so...Not today, no. I’m afraid I’m going to have to bring your little vehicles to an immediate halt, starting with…say...that one!” A sudden burst of fire from the Juggernaut’s forward roto-cannon ripped into the back of Jarvis’ warcat. The HiwayStar let out a surprised yelp as his vehicle lurched forward from the concussion. Smoke streamed from the hull of the vehicle, and its speed began to drop. Is this guy some kind of an idiot, Motorbreth wondered? He’s firing on the road force of the city he’s trying to get to. “Jug pilot, cease your fire! I repeat, cease fire!” Another burst from the cannon was his only reply. “Chief, I’m losing it!” came Jarvis’ nervous voice across the net. Motorbreth looked back to see flames belching from the shattered warcat’s engines. Just behind him was the thundering Juggernaut, gaining rapidly on the slowing vehicle. “Get off the dike, Jarvis! Get off the dike!!” But it was too late. Motorbreth watched in horrified disbelief as it happened: The Juggernaut overtook the slower warcat, spinning it sideways as the titanic wheels came into contact with the rear of the car. Then those unstoppable wheels rolled over it. He could see Jarvis’ terrified face crying out, then the wheels came and the HiwayStar was crushed into a steel coffin less than three inches high. “You son of a bitch!!” Motorbreth screamed into his mic. Seething with anger, he armed his rear slug throwers. Centering the rearview’s aiming reticle on the front window of the Juggernaut, he let loose a hail of fire. Blazing tracers arced upwards, spattering against the windshield of the herculean behemoth. This had some effect, as the pilot was forced to duck and the Juggernaut swerved momentarily. Then the return fire


came, and Motorbreth could feel the impact of the slugs shuddering his warcat. To his horror, he felt a drop in his vehicle’s power. Looking in his rearview, he saw that the Juggernaut was right behind him now and still accelerating. “Enjoy this drive, HiwayStar,” came that mocking voice again, “because it’s your last.” *

*

*

The hellion was racing at full speed, almost three hundred miles-perhour, its octopads whirring in cycloid rhythm. Roadkill was nearing the mountain pass now; so far he hadn’t had any luck raising Motorbreth on his radio. Then a crackle came through his headset: A signal was beginning to come in. Only a word or two could be recognized, but it was definitely Motorbreth. “Motorbreth, do you copy?” Roadkill said into his mic, but no reply came. He tried again, but still no response. Then the signal came in, suddenly strong: “...you read, over! Somebody, please!” It was Motorbreth sounding more distressed than Roadkill had ever heard him. “Motorbreth, this is Roadkill. Do you copy?” “...kil.…..off the Hiway…...uggernaut inbound. Lost Jar......crushed. Haven’t heard from Tyndall...Burek...think rear cannon got them. I'm losing power...damn!” The sound of gunfire could be heard over the net. “...shyte!...lost lateral control...oh sh......lowing dow...oh gods...” Silence. Roadkill was dazed. He stared at the mountain pass ahead, dumbstruck. Motorbreth and his men were dead. Now nothing stood between Mogg and the coming Juggernaut but Roadkill and the hellion. “Roadkill,” said a voice in his ear, startling him. It was Thrarc. “I know we must stop this thing. I only want you to know that I am with you, and that you are not alone in this. I have had fun being your friend. Now if we must die together, that is hokay with me. It is an honorable way to die.” “I don’t want to die, Thrarc,” Roadkill said, almost whispering. “Nor me. But we must do what will bring the most good. That is the way of things.” The pair entered the mountain pass in silence. Roadkill slowed the hellion somewhat to negotiate the turns, but kept his speed as high as possible. As they passed the mountains of his home, Thrarc stared wistfully at them out the windows. They were beautiful. Thin clouds hung about the peaks like down wreaths; the morning sun dappled the slopes with light, sending the shadows scurrying into gullies and


crevices. If the Jagland was a harsh tyrant, the mountain range was a beautiful queen that would never be conquered. Then he looked ahead and saw it: Both of them gasped as the Juggernaut topped a rise just in front of them, looming like some mythical monster bent on destruction. Roadkill’s hands shook on the control yoke as he battled the burning fear that welled up within his breast. He wanted so much to just pull aside--let the Juggernaut pass while he continued west to the sea with his friend. What chance did he stand of stopping this thing? But Thrarc’s sudden, reassuring paw on his shoulder dashed such thoughts from his mind. It really was the only thing to do. The Juggernaut hurtled toward them, now almost completely filling their sight. They could see the pilot, Juno, as he suddenly noticed the vehicle in front of him. He mouthed some expletive, then smiled. Roadkill aimed his vehicle at the narrow space between the Juggernaut’s giant front wheels. “See you on the other side, friend,” he called back over the rising whine of approaching death.


Epilogue The explosion could be seen and felt from all three outpost cities--a tower of flame shooting upward to the sky like some monstrous pylon of elemental destruction. Scant clouds hovering about the peaks fled the holocaust in a rapidly widening circle. The enormity of the blast broke the mountainside, and sent two hundred mile-an-hour winds rolling across the plain on either side of the range. Windows in Mogg and Waypoint were rattled, and people cried out in the streets thinking doom at last had come upon their cities. Crasch let out a shout of alarm and skidded to a halt as the inferno was unleashed. After destroying the murderous bandit at the Causeway junction, he had raced back to Mogg, then out onto the Hiway to aid his friend against the Juggernaut. Now he stared wide-eyed in disbelief at the mountains shrouded in unholy fire. Nothing could have survived a blast of such magnitude. Nothing. The idling engine of his warcat droned like a dirge as he sat in the gathering gloom and cried. *

*

*

When the turmoil had begun to settle down and the shock of disaster was wearing off, each of the three cities started sending out reconnaissance patrols to investigate. It was soon discovered that the awesome force of the exploding Juggernaut had completely destroyed the mountain pass; it would never be rebuilt. Vehicles had been blown off the Hiway for thirty miles in each direction, and rescue efforts were being launched to look for survivors. There were so many unanswered questions that Governor Blunderbuss convened an emergency meeting of the Tri-City Administrators to try to shed some light on the matter. Naturally, the Garrison Administrators denied any knowledge or involvement whatsoever in the whole affair; but try as they might, they could not cover up the facts that were beginning to leak from a sieve of lies. The inhabitants of the city of Waypoint felt as though they had been betrayed by Garrison. Nothing of this criminal magnitude had ever been discussed at any of the secret meetings held by the two allies, and now Waypoint repented of assisting the perpetrator. They revealed to the council everything they knew of the plot to monopolize the trade routes. The body of Administrators exploded into a flurry of threats and accusations, and the talks broke down after only a few hours. The Administrators of Garrison, having reiterated that a state of war existed between the two cities, stormed from the council chambers.


Each outpost began to mobilize its remaining forces for the all-out onslaught that would inevitably take place. Mogg's maintenance handlers hurried to put every available vehicle on the road, cannibalizing the unrepairable to save those that could still be made road-worthy. Wishing to remain neutral--yet wanting to compensate in some way for the part they had played--the people of Waypoint sent token assistance to Mogg: some parts and supplies to rebuild the shattered HiwayStars, but not enough to be of much help. Greatly outnumbered by Garrison's superior BlackGuard Roadforce, the situation looked grim for Mogg. Then one day, shortly after the council broke up, as handlers and the few remaining pilots scurried about the Pit trying to reassemble what was left of their diminished fleet, a commotion began at the opening to the western tunnel. Security forces were running across the bay and down the large passage, shouting orders and arming their weapons. Crasch was nearby, helping Roj change out a faulty steering actuator on his warcat, when he noticed that something was amiss. He jumped to his feet, looking around. “Stay here, Roj,” he said. “I’m gonna go check this out.” He drew his pistol and hurried down the western tunnel. When he got to the end, he had to shield his eyes from the blinding glare. At first he could only make out Mogg’s security forces milling about the tunnel entrance. Then he saw them! Standing on the Hiway just outside the mansard towers, beneath the blazing sun, were some hundred MowMow warriors in full battle dress. “Great!” Crasch thought. “All we need now is another enemy on our hands!” But the Cat people made no threatening movements; they just stood there stoically as the human guards leveled weapons at them. It seemed as though they were waiting. Shortly, Governor Blunderbuss came puffing up the tunnel, surrounded by his bodyguards, and demanded to know what the devil was going on. The commander of the security forces explained what little he knew himself, while the Governor gaped in wonder at the contingent of Cats that endured the murderous sunlight. Near the front he noted ten of them carrying a large box, the contents of which could only be surmised. Summoning his courage, Blunderbuss stepped forward of the line of guards, almost into the sun, and called out: “What brings you here, friends from the desert?” At first there was no answer, and the forces of Mogg began to fidget nervously. But then, a single MowMow hobbled from the ranks of warriors and bowed low before the Governor. He was an old Cat, and his skin hung on his bones like rags; but there was wisdom in his face, and knowledge in his eyes. “Well met, city-man,” he said in a crackling voice.


“I am called Sarc, Faro of the Maur. I come to you with no anger in my heart, but only sickness. Sickness of dead Maur. Sickness of dead men. Sickness...” He trailed off, looking at the ground with forlorn eyes. Then he lifted his countenance and gestured to the box that the ten Cats held aloft. “Here,” he said, “is the brave man who was friend to Thrarc. A short time he was with us, yet he is the only one of your race we ever knew. Our son we buried in the mountains of his home; your son we return to you.” The ten cats advanced with the casket, laying it down at the feet of the nearest guards. “At ease, men!” the Governor called out. “Lower your weapons. These are not our enemies. Sarc, won't you bring your people into the city? Inside it is cool, and I promise no harm will come to you.” “Let it be as you say,” replied the Faro, and motioned his warriors into the tunnel. Crasch hurried over to Roadkill's casket and, with the help of five security troops, hefted it and carried it down the tunnel toward the heart of the city. When one of the pallbearers inquired whether this was the same HiwayScout that ran off with the Cat, Crasch snapped at him: “You watch your mouth! This was a HiwayStar.” It was a curious procession that emerged from the western tunnel into the Pit. Every head turned to stare at the regiment of Cat people. Except for Thrarc, no living MowMow had ever entered a Human city; but these were days of change, and the citizens of Mogg were now unsure as to who were their friends and who were their enemies. The MowMow were brought in and offered food and drink, which they accepted gratefully. The Cats marveled at the technology and accomplishment of the metropolis that surrounded them. In particular they eyed the roadvehicles; an innate love of machines and devices burned within their hearts, and they longed to tinker with the multitude of Scouts, chariots, and warcats parked nearby. Governor Blunderbuss then did a very unexpected thing: Taking a goblet of cool water, he proffered it to Sarc, who drank of it; then the Governor drank from it himself. With this simple gesture he struck the first blow against the wall of prejudice that had been built between the two races over the years, and instantly earned the respect of the MowMow Faro and his kind. Blunderbuss later came to be known as the pioneer of peace between Mogg and the MowMow, and little did he know how much it would prove to his benefit. Smiling, Sarc said: “City-man Blunderbuss, there is a matter of which you and I must speak.” “Very well,” the Governor responded, “let us talk, you and I.” And they walked off together. *

*

*


Crasch strapped himself into his new unit and powered up its systems. His MowMow maintenance handler uncoupled the hoses and cables that dangled from the ship, then gave him the all clear sign. Crasch returned a thumbs up, and the Cat saluted him in Maur fashion: paws together as though praying. He had to admit, these MowMow were mechanical geniuses. Once they had been turned loose on the machines, they ran circles around their human counterparts. Even units that Hiway-Ops had written off as unsalvageable were now idling in the Pit, waiting to take to the road in defense of Mogg. The MowMow proved to be innovative and resourceful, often fashioning a part from scratch when no replacement was available. They loved their work, and did it so well that many of the human handlers were free to fill the vacated slots of Scouts and support drivers. The New Alliance had been born out of the long hours of discussion between the Governor and the Faro, as was a new way of life. No longer would the people of Mogg wage war on the Cats. Instead, a pact of mutual benefit was struck between the two leaders who had now become fast friends. An agreement was reached that would solve many problems for human and MowMow alike, if only it could be implemented. Today that plan would succeed or fail. An armada of vehicles was assembled in the Pit, and the rumble of a hundred engines shook the city. Interceptors held the foremost positions, chafing at the bit to launch onto the highway in pursuit of the enemy. Next were the Warcats--the heavy fighters--followed by Chariot assault vehicles. The rear echelon was composed of light Scouts covering the flanks, and support rigs to minister to the main body of the fleet. Crasch waited impatiently in the cockpit of his sleek interceptor for the signal that would launch the entire fleet into war. He would be running forward interference for a four-ship of warcats led by Letric-Eye, now the commander of the HiwayStars. They were to turn onto the Causeway to meet the Garrison force which, they had just learned, was hurrying to finally crush the forces of Mogg. This would be the decisive battle. If Mogg won, it would herald a new dawn in the Jagland. By agreement, the city of Garrison would be turned over to the MowMow as a warprize for their assistance, and the Cats in turn would help reconstruct the Causeway so that it entered Mogg from the north instead of bypassing it forty miles to the east. Mogg and Garrison would then become a vital bottle-neck in the east/west trade routes, and both cities stood to profit immensely from the arrangement. If, however, the Black Guards of Garrison triumphed, it would spell certain death for both parties of the New Alliance. Cut off from the trade routes, Mogg would wither and die, becoming another Lost City in the desert while the MowMow would likely be hunted to extinction out of pure revenge for the part they had played.


At last the command came from Letric-Eye: “HiwayStars, let's go!� A cheer went up from Human and MowMow alike as the entire fleet began to roll: It was do or die now. With a whoop, Crasch stomped on the accelerator and rocketed down the eastern tunnel, well in front of the other interceptors. As he sped from the city, the last rays of a dying sun cast their fire across the desert plain. It was going to be a great war... ...He smiled a Roadkill smile.

ROADKILL  

Science fiction - Men battle a stealthy race of cat-people as well as each other on the treacherous highways cris-crossing a merciless 170-d...

Advertisement