“Mr Ingsvern,” the girl said.
The bristly-moustached man was filling his pitcher with the black aens, which flowed thickly from a stone tap. The viscous black liquid had begun to overflow the pitcher. It dripped in large slow drops to the parched ground. For a moment, the man, perhaps about fifty-five years of age, had frozen, eyes glazed. As he heard his name he shook himself and straightened upwards.
“Sorry. These days I keep losing it more and more.”
“Next time you’ll zone out during a Duskers attack.”
“I’m more than enough for a few Duskers.”
“What if there’re more?”
The man grunted. His arms were strong and muscled, but there was already a tinge of white to his hair. Jen climbed back into the back seat of their reaver. She watched as the man poured the aens down through a pipe into the main fuel tank, coughing as he did so.
She looked at the reaver. It was a beautiful thing, a light armoured vehicle with massive ridged rubber wheels more than a metre in diameter. The engine growled angrily, roughly sputtering, as the man climbed back into the seat. Matthew Ingsvern caught the young girl eyeing the machine and smiled.
“In my time there were many,” he said, as they began to speed along past the lonesome rocks on the plain. “Now there are few. I’m sure you must remember, in your youth.”
The girl nodded silently.
“They made this in the early days when the Settlers first abandoned us. You know the story, I’m sure. For fucking generations we’ve been stuck on this hellhole we call Curr. Now your generation will be, too. Trust me, there’s not much that’ll change,” he said, beginning to laugh. He glanced up at the sky, at the moon; a faint, ringed gas planet that sat faraway in the pale grey sky.
The girl was only half-listening to the old man’s rambles. She knew the story, yes. She followed his gaze.
She looked at the sky but not towards the moon. Instead she looked at the sun, an evil thing that cursed the existence of every single being on the planet Curr. As they rode at terrible, unrelenting speed over the unobstructed plains she could almost see the sun in the sky inching towards them. Now it was at a forty-five degree angle, straight ahead of them. She knew the planet revolved slowly. So slowly that at a good speed they could go at almost double the speed of the planet’s revolution; so they gained distance on the sun, which would move towards them and above them, rather than sinking towards the horizon.
In that way they traveled. They began at afternoon, and they stopped when the sun reached early morning behind them. All the time running west.
“My grandpappy was one of them,” the old man was still saying. “Settlers, I mean. The first few. They knew something about the universe them, some way to speak beyond the stars. But something went wrong. Poof!” He took his fingers off the wheel and exploded them apart. As he did so, he dribbled at the mouth a little. “Some shit fucking happened, some kind of war. Nothing heard from federation planet in decades. Colony falls into chaos. People killing people. The lucky few grabbed what good gear they could find from the Settlers.”
“That’s where he found my reaver,” Matthew said, patting the steering wheel. “Passed it on to me through my pappy. Gonna keep it safe, maybe figure out how it works, yet.”
Jen looked at her grimy face in the side view mirror. She was surprised there even was one; in another place it would have been chopped off and melted down for the valuable glass it carried. She realised she needed somewhere to rest soon. It had been days since she last left her camp to look for this man.
They travelled from afternoon to morning, then rested and slept from morning to afternoon; a cycle that repeated endlessly. Curr’s night was unlivable. Temperatures dropped to near absolute zero. Jen shivered, remembering her mother’s stories. It was why they spent every waking moment running towards the sun.
Jen knew it was now or never.
“Mr Ingsvern,” she said. “Tell me what you know about the rolling city.”
She looked towards the horizon so she could not see his face, but she knew his expression had changed; his knuckles grew white on the wheel.
“What about it?” She heard him say, trying to sound uninterested.
“I’m looking for it.”
“Looking for it? Little girl, you believe in myths that nobody knows to be true.”
“I know it exists,” she said urgently.
He was silent.
“Rolling skyscrapers,” she whispered. “Glass buildings on metal wheels, travelling on steam and aens. Towers that crawl with artificial legs. The myths are true, I know it.”
“Nobody knows it exists.”
“My mother used to tell me about it,” Jen continued, not giving in.
The man was silent once again. But as Jen opened her mouth to speak he interrupted furiously: “Nothing exists in this wilderness, what makes you think that civilisation has a chance? Look around you. Everything has to move. There are no fixed locations, only latitudes. The land is barren, blasted. No real sense of time, nothing. If you think there’s a chance that a city can build itself up out of nowhere like that, all the while moving, you’re either insane or you know something I don’t.”
“Even the damn trees have to move,” he added, angrily. Jen thought of the grey trees, strange indigenous flora that travelled rapidly through crawling with their roots. Somehow their roots had evolved some form of rudimentary muscle; though they moved less quickly than men they did not need to sleep, forever moving towards the horizon and burning the sun’s energy. Even now they still argued whether it was a true plant or a primitive animal.
Jen understood the older people’s apprehension towards such things but did not care much for it. They were closer to Earth, heard more of its stories, grew up dreaming of returning to a place where trees and city skylines stood still, where they did not need to run. To Jen, however, this was her life, her home. It did not matter whether the trees ran or not. She was only glad they were edible, although they tasted less than ideal.
The story went that life on Curr evolved above the freshwater oceans. A strong east wind once blew, so airborne micro-organisms could hitch a ride; some were better at outrunning the night, so they survived; others froze. Those that lived began the entire tree of life – a tree of perpetual motion, since the very beginning.
Jen thought about this as she said: “Even the trees could do it. Why can’t we build a city?”
“I’ve lived fifty long years and ain’t seen no city!” The old man said, loudly. “Try changing my damn mind!”
“Shhh!” Jen hissed.
The reaver slowed to a halt. Both man and girl saw a large white stone outcropping, fifty odd meters away. Both felt it; something was amiss.
“Can’t be Duskers,” the man muttered. “They come from behind.”
Jen grabbed her spear, a retractable version that extended with a satisfying click as she twisted it sideways. Matthew held a smooth ivory knife in one hand and a steel one in the other. Both tread carefully towards the stone outcropping, listening to the quiet crunch of their footsteps on the sand.
Something moved on the white stone. Jen squinted, confused.
In a lurching moment she realised that it was not a stone outcropping at all. At the same moment Matthew’s foot slipped with a deafening crunch into the sand; a shallow pit trap. “Fuck,” he shouted, off kilter. Bandits, Jen thought. A small protrusion on the stone outcropping that Jen took to be merely a part of the outcropping suddenly spat out a net aimed directly at Matthew: it was a net gun. It was an ambush.
The first net enveloped Matt and he fell struggling to the ground. Even as the net came towards them Jen had already hopped backwards several meters, spear held ahead of her; the second net missed her squarely.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a glint of steel from the man thrashing in the net and she knew he was going to cut himself out. He’ll handle, she thought, backing away even further.
Three bandits, rough, black-haired, wild-haired men came rushing from behind the stone outcropping which was of course just a plastic shelter made to seem like a natural rock. Jen counted them. She saw three short swords; nothing else.
They were about ten meters from Matthew. Jen thought quickly. They were going to kill him, unhesitatingly, painlessly, if she did not do something. She considered throwing her spear. But she might miss, and they would have another weapon against her later.
In one smooth movement she grabbed a pulse grenade from the weapons cache in the reaver, pulled out the pin, and hurled it directly at the three men converging on Matt. “Pulse grenade!” she yelled, just as Matthew stood up from the net. The little steel thing fell at his feet. The bandits scrambled to a stop, eyes wide.
Fucking throw yourself to the ground, please, the girl thought desperately at Matt. The bomb was non-lethal but packed a nasty punch; he might be out for for a couple of cycles. But even as she thought it she could see that he was beginning to freeze, already faraway, zoned out, staring blankly at the grenade.
The bandits threw themselves to the ground. There was muffled “thoomph” sound. Jen was upon them at once. She threw her spear at the tallest bandit; the sharp metal tip pierced right through his neck, splattering a good helping of blood across the sand.
The second bandit, less winded than the rest, was already beginning to get up. Jen, ever wary of his short sword, aimed a front kick right at his solar plexus; the impact made him choke and double up. Immediately she dived for the ivory knife Matt had dropped on the ground. The last bandit came at her with an obvious swing; she ducked, then returned with a upwards stab into his chin. It hit the mark, and the bandit toppled to the ground.
The second bandit got to his feet again, but Jen looked at him and brandished the ivory knife. He ran for his life.
Jen watched him ride away on a hellbike; typical for a bandit. They were little more than scrap metal bicycles, she thought pityingly. She turned to Matt, who had taken the full brunt of the blast. “Fucking idiot,” she said to him. “If you had just turned to look away it wouldn’t have been half as bad. And you could’ve helped with that scrabble.”
He was lying splayed, wide-eyed and catatonic. She bent to drag him the short distance towards the reaver, but a shiny glint caught her eye.
A small steel locket she hadn’t noticed before on his neck had fallen out onto the sand. The clasp had broken in the scuffle. The locket had fallen open, and there was a picture in the locket.
Her eyes widened.
Hours later when the old man came to, she stopped the reaver. It ground to a halt. She flashed the picture in front of his bleary eyes.
“You lied to me.”
“Damn you for throwing our last pulse grenade at me,” the man returned. Then he saw the picture. He narrowed his eyes. “Since when did I give you permission to touch my things?”
“Since I saved your life.” Jen said evenly. “Now tell me where the rolling city is.”
Matt looked at her, his moustache bristling slightly, indignantly. She held his gaze. Matthew saw his ivory knife in her hand and realised uncomfortably that he was unarmed.
Slowly his expression softened.
“I can’t tell you where it is,” he said tiredly. “Nobody can. Okay, it existed. But I didn’t lie to you. I was exiled from it, long ago. I don’t know whether it exists anymore. It could be a pile of dirt, for all I care.”
“But you know how to find it,” she pressed.
“How?” the man said, incredulously. “I have my guesses, but I can’t be sure.”
“A guess is all I need. Promise me, Mr Ingsvern. Promise me you’ll help me find it.”
“Why do you care so much anyway?”
Jen closed her eyes. “My mother is sick. Her only hope is for me to find the rolling city. There may be a cure for her, there.”
Matthew stared at her, as if trying to figure her out, sizing her up. There was a long pause.
“I’ll do it on condition you do three quarters of all the hunting,” he said resignedly. “I’m getting old. And well, I owe to you that I woke up alive. Quite surprised, too.”
Jen smiled. “Deal.”
Suddenly the man groaned loudly. “God, what am I doing? They’ll probably kill me on sight.” The reaver roared to life again.
Jen looked around at the landscape. The flat plains rolled endlessly to the horizon, though there were faraway mountains to the right, and to the left, she knew, was an ocean. The grey sky rarely had clouds, but there was a beautiful wispy one overhead just barely covering the ringed moon. In the distance, now and then, was a whispering of some animal or some other party, dust clouds in the wind.
“May the sun be behind us,” Jen said pleasantly, using the old blessing.
The old man nodded, thin-lipped.