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chapter twelve
Part Five

The call me “Sir” as they rifle through and fumble around my caravan in search of threats they will never find, and couldn't begin to recognize. With nothing else I can do while they go through their motions I use this opportunity to passively observe them.

There is something about this Squad of Network Troops I haven't seen in the others that have stopped me, these people have a sense of urgency about them. Their junior members are vigilantly looking for outside threats, as though I'm the bait on an ambush. The leader is impatient, she wants her team to do a good job, but you can tell that she's on a clock.

But despite these exterior factors this Squad of Network Troops is thorough and professional, in many ways much more so than our own.

In the end it doesn't matter, even had I retained incriminating equipment the compartments on my caravan were specifically designed to mask their contents from Network scanners, so in short order they clear me and move on, leaving me to proceed while placating me with time-worn apologies for the delay, as though I were paid by the hour or even had a time piece.

When I resume my ride it is with my own sense of urgency, not from these Troops but because of others, in fact in some way I ride in fear now. Ever since my encounter with the last courier I have realized our strategy against the Network has failed, or more accurately been supplanted by the competing efforts of the New Soviet.

I explained this in my sixty-word message to Aoyoon, but my superiors want me to continue on this fool's errand. It would only be a matter of time before I am found out and neutralized or imprisoned in this strange place, either way forever separated from my homeland. That very thought has me on edge.

Although the Network has no file on me, our intelligence confirmed that, I've had open contact with the New Soviet many times. They've come in toward the end of many of my previous missions and often scuttled or capitalized on my hard work. In fact, it is likely that I've dealt with the very agents they've sent in-ground now.

So I've decided to by-pass the latest cache of weapons and ignore the leads for nearby sales. Instead I push south as fast as I can. My superiors won't be pleased but my exit strategy involves a small town on the border of East America and the Commons. Here I will to ditch my gear, sell my mounts and find a package that will provide me a new legend, complete with clothes, Info-Card and the funds to return home.

It is still many weeks away. We should've set a few drops at some of the towns near the eastern border so that I wouldn't have been more than ten days away from departure. Lack of foresight I suppose, in the meantime I will be on edge, like a fugitive who knows the law is in hot pursuit.

* * *

As the wagon sways on the uneven ground and the proud Arabians march over the grasslands, taking a nibble here and there, I am stunned by the differences and similarities between here and my homeland. If I squint I could fool myself into seeing these fields of wild grass as the desert sands in the bits of Sahara that remain.

But it isn't sand, and it isn't my homeland. The colours are off, brown where there should be beige, green where there should be gold, the sky is the wrong shade of blue, and the lakes are black like oil and still like glass. This whole land is like my childhood with the colours altered.

But nothing compares to the wild beasts. I have never seen such abundance and variety of fauna in my whole lifetime as I have on this one journey, and I know I would see much more were I to leave this track and ventured deeper into the badlands. It is a wondrous and natural place, but all of it is foreign to me.

* * *

I estimated that I was fifteen days from my goal when disaster struck. The morning had been cool but by noon an extreme inversion in temperature had taken place. Quickly the sky grew dark and I knew a storm was coming.

There is an odd phenomenon in these parts, something I'd never experienced before coming to this land. The rain turns to ice and then sticks in larger and larger ice balls before falling from the sky. The word for it is hail and although I'd heard the word, usually in reference to gun fire, I'd never experienced the natural phenomenon. Frankly it's scarier than the bullets because there seems to be no place to turn for sanctuary.

As what looked like a Great Plains Hail storm began to brew that day the horses grew very restless and twitchy, at first I thought they were picking up my own tensions, but when the dark sky took on a green tinge I knew something else was up. A hail storm was coming. Immediately I began to look for refuge.

The thing about following old Interstate highways is that sometimes you come across reasonably intact remains from overpasses. Most of the time they've collapsed and completely block your way, which forces you to beat a path around them, but on rare occasions they're stable enough to provide shelter. I was hoping to spot one of these now.

Three kilometers ahead was one. While it had collapsed, it looked like the break was clean enough to provide room underneath for myself and the horses, which were starting to panic. I pushed the mounts for it, hoping to have enough time to wind across the uneven terrain and secure everything before the worst of it.

The pelting began soon after, we weren't even half way, and the hail stones began increasing in size by the minute. The wind had shifted sharply as we approached our new destination, which startled me because now we were pushing into a forceful wind, the power of which I hadn't seen since being caught in a sandstorm on the Sahara as a child.

I rushed off the mounts, who were agitated enough that I feared they'd bolt before I could get them inside. It was a moment that I wish I'd had blinders; flaps for their eyes that would've helped calm them down.

How any animal could be dumb enough to calm after losing their vision when the wind was beating around them like this was beyond me but I knew that sort of thing would work. In a flash of clear thought I removed my jacket and wrapped it around the first mount's head before unbuckling her from the caravan.

It helped a bit, but only marginally. Without checking what was already under the fallen overpass, a stupid mistake in hindsight for I could've been leading myself and the horses into a bear's den or worse, I guided the first horse through the largest part of the opening and then, after my eyes adjusted to the stark darkness, secured her reins to a column near the entrance.

Then, with my jacket in hand, I approached the more nervous, second mount, a harder struggle because this one had seen where its sister had gone and had seen me return alone. It must've concluded some terrible fate had befallen its twin.

By this point also the wind was whipping with such vigor that I could barely see through the rush of dust and debris being thrust about violently. The rushing past my ears was like being near a jet exhaust and the howling had elevated to a shriek. I felt that I would surely be vacuumed away from the very Earth were I to let go of the mount.

With nearly no way to see I struggled to guide the massively powerful beast toward the shelter of the overpass, a Herculean task made easier only as we crossed into the relative calm of the space under the concrete.

Shortly I had both mounts secured beneath the man-made rock and just in time. I stood at the right angle that was the opening, amidst the grown up weeds my mounts were now chewing on and watched as a hundred thousand fists beat down upon my caravan, clearly denting the wood and I'm sure in some cases the iron struts of my seat.

Then, as quickly as it had come upon us there was a brief calm, a stillness that shifted once again just before the wrenching sounds of nature's wrath drove into the ground and the rushing wind returned.

At first I'd thought the eye of the storm had passed us but as the sound of the fury grew deep and resonate and the wind sucked at the far end of the collapsed overpass, I found myself drawn to the opening down that way.

The mounts had given up their tender enjoyment of the sweet grass that had grown under here and were tugging and fighting their reins with such an intensity that I worried they might pull the pillar loose and bring down the remains of the overpass upon us.

Then I stopped cold. Through the tiny window formed between the grass and concrete at this I saw the wrath of God himself. Like something from a childhood fable, a massive spiral of dust and wind beat upon the Earth, gouging a scar into her like a drill. And it was bearing directly for us.

The wind began to rush through the underpass space like a vortex, blinding me and as I turned and saw the panic of the two horses I feared these poor Arabians, who had done nothing but service me in my pursuits, were about to pay for my transgressions as my God arrived to deliver his punishment upon me.

I looked at the shelter as best I could in the dim light with the rushing, dirty wind and determined where the cleaved plate of concrete would come down if it gave way. Closer up the ramp was a space, not very large, of unbroken concrete, a tight space I scrambled for in the vain hopes I could escape my God's punishment.

As I did this, one of the mounts broke its reins and bolted from the shelter, preferring to take his chances instead with the open spaces in a blind panic. The other continued to tug but was too confused to figured out how to repeat the actions of the first and instead struggled to clamour up the side of the ramp seeking the same refuse I'd found.

Had I been of clearer mind I would've tried to secure her to a pillar deeper under the cover but fear had done me in. I cowered in the small space under a long abandoned highway overpass as the rage and fury of the Almighty beat around me. As I curled tighter into my fetal position I dredged what I could from the childhood lessons of my faith out of the small of my mind and prayed.

When the stormed passed, later that day or the next morning, I can't tell you which, I came to, still lodged in my space, still curled and still alive. The mount was free from the pillar, she had chewed through the reins, and was standing outside of the opening chewing the grass.

Beside her was nothing. The caravan, my cart, a one and a half tonne vehicle of wood and metal was gone. No where in sight.

I climbed up the outside of the overpass to gain perspective and saw the deep gouge in the ground of the funnel that had passed earlier, a small trail of debris in its wake, some of which I later identified as from my cart and nothing that hadn't been here for centuries as far as the eye could see.

I do not know what happened to my caravan, or its goods. I do not know what happened to the first horse, whether he is safe and free or if the tornado got him.

I took my remaining mount and carried on from there. South as best I could determine from my training. Hoping to live off the land as I made my way to the pick up point, just outside the Commons, that would provide me my ticket home.

Instead I arrived here, and found paradise.

* * *

“And who are you now?” Came the voice of the youngster, Alisha, the one who had led him into this village.

“My name is Maqbool Ishmael,” said MaQ to the assembled, “and I am home.”

* * *