Chapter 17 (part 2 of 3)

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"I know," Gallen said. He squinted at the morning sun, pulled his robe tightly about him to keep out the cold. They rode their bikes downhill, hit the highway, and turned north.

They drove for twenty minutes in silence. A creepy sensation stole over Gallen, as if he were being watched. Once, the feeling was so powerful that when they entered a valley, he was forced to stop and gaze out over the white, empty hills. There were no trees, just small bushes and rocks to give shade. No birds sang from the bushes; nothing moved. Even the wind was still. Yet Gallen felt watched.

Veriasse stopped beside him. "Do you feel it, too?" he said. "My bones are trembling in anticipation."

"I haven't seen anything. Nothing has moved," Gallen answered.

Veriasse glanced slowly from side to side, only his fierce blue eyes moving. "That is what bothers me. Gallen, listen with your mantle. See if you can hear any radio conversations. Let it scan for military channels." Veriasse pulled off his gloves, raised his hands in the air as if he were surrendering.

Gallen closed his eyes, freed his senses. The thrusters on their airbikes sounded suddenly loud, but Gallen listened beyond that, began picking up radio frequencies. Images flashed through his mind from commercial holo broadcasts, music played from radio stations. Beyond that, he could pick up some chatter—pilots to the north seeking landing clearance in a city.

"Nothing," Gallen said at last.

Veriasse put his hands down, shook his head. "The same here. I smell nothing. Last time I was here, the dronon had a fairly strong presence on Wechaus. Don't you think it odd that you would hear no military calls at all?"

Gallen agreed. Yet there was nothing they could do but go forward. He hit the thrusters. The bike lifted and hummed down the highway, until at last in the distance he saw smoke rising from a small compound of buildings.

Veriasse pulled beside Gallen. "There's a good inn ahead. Let's stop and see if we can get some news."

As Gallen neared the inn, he could discern white limestone buildings around green pools of steaming water. There were many swimmers near the pools, shivering in the cool air, eager for the water. Gallen had not bathed in several days. He felt grimy, tired. It looked like a good place to stay.

They pulled up to the front, stopped their airbikes, looked through the windows. The dining room was nearly full, dozens of young couples eating breakfast, smiling, some of them laughing.

Gallen felt disconnected from them, found it somehow abhorrent that these people were laughing when he felt such profound pain. Orick was dead, and Gallen wanted the world to mourn with him.

Everynne and Veriasse got off their bikes, but Gallen just sat for a moment. There was an odd smell of smoke in the air, as if something had burned nearby.

Veriasse went to the door, and it slid open at his approach. A golden serving droid rushed to greet them, and Veriasse looked back at Gallen questioningly. "Are you coming?"

Gallen shook his head. "You eat. I'm not hungry. I'll keep watch out here." Gallen arched his back to loosen muscles tightened by too much driving.

Everynne said, "Are you sure? You'll feel better if you come inside where it's warm. Please, come in with me."

"I want to be alone," Gallen said.

Everynne squeezed his hand, went inside. He watched Everynne and Veriasse through the windows, saw them take a seat. A soft breeze stirred, and Gallen used his mantle, listened to the swimmers laughing at the pools. Yet there was something odd, a sound of whispering in the back parking lot. Gallen could not be certain. It might only have been reeds rattling in the wind, but he needed to stretch, get off the bike, so he climbed off and walked nonchalantly around the left side of the building.

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