Chapter 14

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Chapter 14

Everynne led the others through the gates on the way to Dronon. After making love to Gallen last night, it seemed that everything was ruined. Both Veriasse and Maggie knew of the tryst, and somehow it had all turned into a fiasco. Now, as she drove, she thought that perhaps it would all end. Perhaps today she would die, and thus put to death her guilt.

The vibration of the airbike mirrored her shaking. Her nerves were frayed, jangled, and she found that her teeth chattered even though it was warm.

She drove the thousand kilometers through Cyannesse at top speed, hit the gate and roared through Bregnel into the early afternoon. Veriasse cried out in shock when he saw the devastation, and all of them drove through the place in horror.

In the daylight, everything was gray and foul. Blackened human bones rotted in the streets, and dronon war cities squatted all across the countryside like dead beetles. Everynne counted twenty of them in the distance.

The air was so foul, that Gallen stopped beside a bubbling lake, got a pair of oxygen exchangers from his pack. He gave one to Everynne.

Veriasse gazed out over the countryside. His eyes were glazed with tears. "Look at all the hive cities. The dronon were building a vast military presence here."

"It looks as if the people of Bregnel decided to wipe them out at any cost," Everynne said.

Veriasse shook his head sadly. "I feared this was coming. The battle to free Bregnel was not going well. They could not have loosed the Terror more than two or three days ago. If they had only waited, perhaps this could have been avoided."

"Let's go," Everynne said. "Let's get to Dronon today." She gunned her thrusters, sped away.

Everynne let her mantle switch through open radio frequen-cies, trying to catch a clue as to what had happened. She locked onto only one dim channel, far away, probably a transmission beamed from satellite. It broadcast the warning, "Resistance fighters have loosed a Terror. Please take appropriate measures."

The only appropriate measures were to take flight and leave the planet.

Everynne looked out over the wastes in horror, thinking, If we go to war against the dronon, this is what it will be like. Terrors loosed upon hundreds of worlds. Fleets of starships bombarding planets with viral weapons.

Veriasse and Gallen drove side by side, sharing an oxygen exchanger from breath to breath. An afternoon wind kicked up, raising black clouds of ash that swept over the plains. Everynne hurried down the road, passed three skeletons that were half standing, half kneeling, fused together as if they had held each other for comfort in that last moment just as the burning wall of fire swept over them and the invasive nanoware burrowed through to their bones.

Everynne knew that as long as she lived, the images she saw on Bregnel would haunt her.

They broke through the next gate to Wechaus, headed down a snowy trail in the mountains. It was early morning here. They had not gone a hundred meters when they rounded a corner, spotted bloody paw prints in the snow, and Gallen shouted, "Halt!" raising a hand.

He idled his airbike, sat looking at the prints: a bear had rolled on the ground, leaving behind marks of blood and mud, compacting the snow except in one small circle. Within that circle was one firm red print with two scratch marks beneath it.

"Bear tracks," Gallen said. "Orick's here! He left a message."

"Orick?" Veriasse asked. "But I didn't show them how to get to Wechaus."

"Maggie's a smart girl," Gallen said. "And you spent enough time looking at routes on your map that she could figure it out." He pointed at the paw print. "The marks are a code. Back home, when I guard clients, Orick walks up ahead. No one ever bothers a bear, and he can smell an ambush better than any human. He leaves a print by the roadside if the path ahead is clear, but he leaves scratch marks under it if I'm to take warning. One scratch means something has him spooked. Two scratch marks means he is certain that an ambush waits ahead."

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