(Part 5 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Norwyn Rosset squinted into the painfully bright desert sky. “I wonder where they all ended up?”
He stood in the road for a long moment, trying to recall exactly where the contrails from the two planes that crossed paths overhead every morning would have met. But the skies weren’t so friendly anymore. Ever since the big meltdown, people couldn’t afford to fly for pleasure. They didn’t visit distant relatives, either. The one local TV station’s farewell newscast noted that the end of business travel had sealed the fate of the two remaining passenger airlines. Soon after that, the ancient air cargo planes that lumbered low over Lingman every morning had vanished, and with them, Norwyn’s lifeline to what used to be called the American Dream. It had been weeks since he’d seen a plane in the sky, and he could only imagine where they’d all been mothballed.
A hunger-induced flash of lightheadedness, and he was momentarily wandering the littered concourse of an abandoned airport. He slumped, shook off the stupor, and wept at the hopelessness of his predicament: as short of breath now as he was of food.
The desert’s hot breath felt good on his face. Norwyn had been holed up in his increasingly squalid apartment since the dollar collapsed, wallowing in depression and living off whatever packaged goods remained in the homes and stores of his own private ghost town. He’d spent the morning wandering the streets in a cranky harangue, trying to annoy himself out of the nightmare.
Yeah. That worked well. Not.
“So maybe…” he yelled at the sun-drenched emptiness, “maybe we can just rewind the whole thing. Go back to the opening credits and do it differently. Not get sucked into all that seductive crap about living a few steps ahead of the bill collectors. Something.”
Or maybe, he thought darkly, whatever had sunk the economy, and his fortunes with it, would be miraculously cured, bringing back the people and businesses that had deserted the town, along with the vanished job he’d been tricked into moving here for. But the nightmare didn’t end, the economy wasn’t revived, and finding something to eat was rapidly slouching from difficult to impossible.
Norwyn had run out of town. If there were any cupboards left to raid, he couldn’t remember which they were. So he stood in the crumbling roadway, looking into the dusty distance, and prayed for the courage to take his own life.
He’d been depressed before. Heck, he’d been formally diagnosed and medicated for it. God knows he’d had plenty of reason to be. Having your life’s work trashed by some upstart with half the brains god gave a bucket of chum wasn’t exactly conducive to giving your all to the firm, no matter how fancy they dressed up your so-called ‘promotion’. Hell, he never should have accepted their offer in the first place. Better to be the captain of your own dinghy than third-string deck hand on the foremost megayacht in the world.
But he was kidding himself, and he knew it. At this point, he wasn’t too sure of where his own memories ended, and the hallucinations began. Without meds, he was a walking psych ward.
He’d run out of town, and he’d run out of life. So why was he still breathing?
Dispirited, Norwyn made a small circle on the hot pavement, and started back towards town. He shuffled listlessly along the centerline, trying to recall an old song. Just as he was coming up on the off-brand gas station that marked the edge of the town center, his reverie was broken by a distant buzz from behind him. He turned to see what it was, and sighted an odd-looking bicycle coming down the road, ridden by someone wearing khakis and a beat-up helmet.
The rider raised an arm in a broad overhead wave, and flipped off the motor a few dozen feet before coasting to a stop in front of him. She unclipped her helmet and slipped it off, revealing a wind-burned face and tied-back brown hair. Norwyn guessed her to be about 40.
“Hi,” she said. “Sign back there says this is Lingman?”
“Yeah. Or it was before all the people split. I kind of got stranded here when the bottom fell through. I’m Norwyn, by the way, Norwyn Rosset. And you…?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Elspeth… Ellie to my friends.”
“Ellie,” he repeated, gawking at her bike. “Listen, can you… can you take a passenger on that thing? I’d really like to get out of this place.”
“Don’t know. I only just built it, and I haven’t tried anything like that.”
“You built it?”
“Sure. Used to be a mechanical engineer.”
He bent for a closer look. “What’s it run on? The vultures that fled this burg didn’t leave any gas behind when they cleared out. I’ve checked.”
“It’s a miniature double-action steamer. All I need is a cup of water and a few chunks of charcoal for a day’s ride.”
“And you’re… what? Sightseeing?”
She laughed. “In a way. After I heard that Los Angeles declared itself sovereign and started printing its own money, I figured there might be some other–.”
“Wait. What? LA’s printing money?”
“Believe it or not, yeah.” She unbuckled the bike’s saddlebag. “Hold on, I’ve got a few Angels here.”
“Seriously. They call their money Angels?”
She nodded, and handed him a twenty.
“You’re kidding! Orson Wells?”
“Look closer. He’s identified there as Charles Foster Kane. They figured it was fictional money, so they went with characters, rather than the actors that played them.”
A dust devil snatched the other bill she was holding and lofted it high overhead. Norwyn turned to watch it spiral over the gas station. “We could wait for it to come down.”
“Don’t bother. Can’t use it here, anyway.”
“So, what’s an Angel worth?”
“I got that five-spot up there for patching a gas line for a guy making his own cooking gas. That’s where I got the charcoal for my bike. Angels aren’t backed by gold or anything, so they’re really only worth what someone’s willing to trade them for. Speaking of which, what do you do, or used to do?”
Norwyn frowned, and looked away. It was his job that had got him here, had trapped him in this godforsaken hellhole in the first place.
“Not a happy memory?” she said gently. “Look, I don’t really have anywhere in particular to go, so if there’s something I can do to help…?”
“Like I said, I need to get out of this place. Can you take me or not?”
“We could try, but there’s no way we can take anything with us. I mean, I’m not so sure it’ll even push the both of us. And if something breaks, I don’t have spare parts to fix it. We could get stranded in the middle of nowhere.”
He chuffed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m already stranded. How far is home?”
“I don’t have one, really. At the moment, though, my gear is about three hours from here. Well, three hours with just me on the bike. I don’t know how long it might take with the two of us. But we wouldn’t get very far on the supplies I’ve got left. We’ll need water and something to boil it with.”
After a light-fingered trip into town, they mounted the bike – Beth standing the pedals, and Norwyn riding the seat – and set off back the way she’d come. The road was flat and straight for a long stretch, and they chatted amiably about what they’d done before the economy tanked. He asked about life in LA, and she admitted that all she knew was through word of mouth, so it wasn’t very reliable.
About an hour out, they reached a long incline, which slowed the miniature steam engine down to a crawl. But before they’d crested the hill, something snapped, a cloud of steam erupted, and Beth yelped. She raised her right leg, lost her balance and tumbled leftwards from the bike. Norwyn tried to grab the handles, but lost his balance and slid across the right shoulder into the scrub.
Beth was laying on her back at the edge of the pavement, her legs raised while she inched her pants towards her knees.
He stomped over, and stood over her, glaring angrily. “I thought you said you were a mechanical engineer.”
She winced, gingerly touching the red scald mark on her right inner thigh.
“Give me a break, huh? That hurt.”
Norwyn glanced back at the bike. “You said you’d save me, that you’d get me back to civilization, or at least somewhere with people. All it looks like now is that we’re both gonna starve out here. I should never have come with you.”
“Calm down. If you can walk, you’ll be okay. Just keep following the road.”
“Walk?” He was livid. “If I could walk that far, do you think I’d still be scrounging for scraps in a ghost town?”
“Well, we’re not riding any further, that’s for damn sure. I’ll need to limp that thing back to my gear in order to patch it up. You saw what happened. It won’t hold pressure. And in my condition, I’m not going to be pushing any pedals for a while.”
He stood over her, breathing heavily. The sun had nearly set, he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, the meds had long since flushed from his system, and he was rapidly developing a splitting migraine. He fixed her with an icy glare. “The hell with you then.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked as he turned and walked back to her bike.
“Following your advice. But I’m not walking.”
“Good,” she said. “Help me up. You pedal, I’ll ride.”
“I don’t think you understand. I’m leaving. I’m taking your bike and going to whatever town I find down that road. Alone.”
She studied him briefly. “You might not like what you find, Mr. Rosset.”
“Oh,” he said, righting the bike. “And why might that be?”
“Because things have changed. While you were sucking the carcass of that town back there, a new way of living sprouted. And it’s all wrapped up in those LA Angels I showed you. The new economy is based on doing things for others, on building value for the common good. That’s what backs the new money. And if you can’t understand a simple thing like returning a favor, I don’t think you’re going to last very long in that new world.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Rosset righted the bike, and dislodged the steam engine from its mounting with a sharp blow from his heel. He sneered at Ellie briefly, and then took off. Several minutes later, after coasting down the other side of the hill, he reached behind him and dug around in the saddlebag to see what else was there.
He pulled out a small bag of dried fruit, and stuffed one in his mouth — anything to keep his stomach happy. The song he’d been struggling with earlier finally returned to him, and he pedaled on, humming the theme from an old movie.
The sky was beginning to darken, so he stopped to poke around in her bag. There might be something useful for when he reached that town she’d mentioned. There was a hand-written note — a list of names, including his.
“Son of a bitch,” he breathed. “She wasn’t out sightseeing. She’d come looking for me. But why?”
And then he found it: an old picture. His. It was clipped to a news story about the soured deal that had lost him his plum job, the incident that had landed him in Lingman in the first place.
He stood beside the bike, lost in thought. He glanced back towards Lingman, and the hill where he’d stranded Ellie, and then ahead, to whatever fate she was bringing him to.
“No,” he told himself. “She wasn’t planning on taking me anywhere. She said that engine of hers was only good for one person. But then…?”
He reached into the bag and pulled everything out, scattering debris across the pavement, until he reached the bottom. There was just one thing left in her bag, and it told him everything he needed to know about why she’d come. It was a gun, the sort of ‘Saturday night special’ the government had long outlawed, the kind that Los Angeles was famous for.
She’d come to kill him.
He pulled the pistol out and stared at it. The means. She’d brought him the means to do what he’d been struggling with for days now. He’d been praying for the courage to take his life, but hadn’t thought much about the means. Now that he had it, though, he was more of a mind to use it on someone else.
Except that now, there wasn’t much of a point. With the economy dead, what was there to be gained?
“Well,” he told the darkening sky, “I guess this is as good a place as any.”
But on closer examination, he realized there was still a problem. She had the ammo.
Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack