“Tell me again,” Corter said.
“Wasted breath.” Eres tossed it over her shoulder as she kept powering forward. Moving too fast, Corter thought. He had been sure she would wear herself out before they ever reached the little building, but she hadn’t slowed once, forcing Corter and Mack to keep up. He caught up to her at the line where dirt met pavement and grabbed her arm, forcing her to look at him.
“Tell me again,” Corter repeated.
“I saw his face. He smiled, just before we were dragged through. And…and it makes sense. How else would they have known we were coming? They were waiting for us, Corter. Because he’s in on it. Hell, he could be the mastermind of this whole conspiracy, and we never saw it.”
Corter stared at her, looking for the moment when she would crack. Laugh because she was making a terrible joke, or just realize what she was saying was insane. But it didn’t come. He looked to Mack, knowing he would have the same watery feeling about this.
Mack’s face was clouded with rage, the lines in his forehead deep and his teeth clenching.
“She’s right,” he said. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. We were careful. That…that…BUCKLEFUCK.”
The way Mack stomped toward the little building could make you think he’d seen Doved through the window. Corter knew he wasn’t in there. Doved was back on Number 0, laughing at them, and completing whatever plan he had. If they both believed, it was hard for Corter not to. Doved had betrayed them, got them caught and exiled. He wasn’t in that little building. Lots of stuff for Mack to break was. Mack flung the door open, cracking the glass, and with a roar marched inside and began knocking stuff off the shelves. A couple of people ran out, yelling, falling over themselves to get to a transport. Not a dead planet. And the people here…they just looked like people. Ran like people. Screamed like people.
“Eres, is any of this starting to feel hinky to you?”
Eres gave him a flat look, and Corter gestured at the world.
“Hinkier than it should, I mean. In training, how far out did they say we could safely go?”
“Nine hundred and ninety-eight are completely safe,” she answered automatically, her words peppered with crashes from the little building. “The next three to four hundred numbers can be travelled to only with proper training and preparation. After that…”
“Completely uninhabitable,” Corter finished. “So fundamentally different from ours we’d die within seconds from incompatibility.”
The crashes from inside stopped and turned to screams and grunts from Mack as he tried to pry something off the wall.
“And yet, here we are,” Eres said.
“More than that, here they are,” Corter said, gesturing to the one person who had stayed behind. He must have owned the building the way he gawked at Mack and the damage he was creating. “People live on this number. Human from the look of it. A little primitive, maybe, but human.”
“The actual planet is a wasteland.”
Corter shook his head. “Maybe it’s not. Maybe they just don’t have terraforming on this number. Do you remember little school geography? Before they made the western jungle-”
“It was a desert,” Eres finished. “They lied. They’ve lied to all of us. This number is different, but it’s not that different. It’s not killer different. Humans live on it, for fuck’s sake.”
“I think,” he stopped and swallowed. Once he said it out loud, there was no taking it back. “Whatever it was we were chasing? I think it goes much higher than we originally thought. Eres, if they lied about this…I think it goes all the way to the top.”
She didn’t scold him. She didn’t even look angry at his admittedly small act of sedition. She just looked tired.
“Do you think Doved knew?” he asked, angry at how hopeful he sounded.
Eres shook her head. “You didn’t see his face. He thought he was killing us. We need to get back.”
Corter felt whatever tenuous grip he had on his sanity loosen and tried very hard to keep the screeching edge of hysteria out of his voice.
“And how are we supposed to do that? I don’t have a RIP. Do you? Or do you think they just sell them somewhere? Probably don’t even know what an Eisen Tear is, let alone a RIP.”
The door to the little building blew open again, bouncing against the wall. Neither of them had even realized that the smashing sounds from Mack had died off a couple minutes earlier. He walked to them calmly, wearing a bright yellow pair of sunglasses. In one hand was a see through cup filled with something thick and bright green. In the other was a flimsy cardboard square. He sucked on the straw, drinking whatever the bright green liquid was, and handed the cardboard square to Corter.
“Your reader must be broken. If we’re really so far out, how do they have Main Constabulary?”
Eres and Corter gave each other a glance before looking back at the cardboard square. The picture was, indeed, of the Main Constabulary. But words at the bottom of the picture – in English, no less – called it something else.
“Greetings from Fabulous Las Vegas!”