The Goddess of the Highway
Erica L. Satifka
Harper Jones knocks back the better part of his bottle of amphetamines with one hand and presses his other palm on the dashboard display. He looks at the clock.
Sixteen hours, four minutes, seven seconds.
He's tired and wired all at once. His shoulders ache with the tension brought on by the bennies, and his teeth have worn down to nubs. He can hear them grind even through the soothing tones of the in-cab entertainment system, which is currently broadcasting soft piano paired with roundish blue-green shapes.
Sixteen hours, eight minutes, forty-nine seconds.
Harp fixes his gaze on the stretch of highway before him. All the signs are in both languages, the language of now and the language of the time before. "Gotta follow the red signs," he mutters to himself. "Red, red, red." If he doesn't repeat it he'll forget. His plates aren't good enough to keep the information in by themselves.
Sixteen hours, ten minutes, one second.
Always keeping one eye on the road, Harp taps five more of the pills – red, like the signs he must follow – into his mangled hand and slides them down his throat like they were candy. His chest lurches. Hot liquid jets into his mouth and he realizes he has nearly bit his tongue through.
Sixteen hours, fourteen minutes, twenty-one seconds.
Harp's body lurches, making it nearly impossible to keep his four-fingered left hand on the steering console. As he seizes and bucks, the highway begins to rise up, nearly level with his gaze. Her hips puff out. Her breasts pop from her chest one by one. She is the color of fresh asphalt, and in her hair are nestled all the signs of the road like a crown of rose petals. She is the Goddess of the Highway, and as this is a west-bound trip, Harp's remaining fingers are safe.
He licks his lips. They are so dry. "Goddess."
She opens her mouth and unrolls her tongue, painted with a yellow stripe. Harp drives forward, always forward, the autonomic system of the truck kicking in and following the Goddess's road surface markings. My child, what is it you most desire?
Though Harp is dangerously dehydrated from the speed, his eyes water regardless. His beautiful Goddess. The first time he saw her it was an accident, and unfortunately an east-bound trip. He woke up with his pointer finger in his lap, the inside of the cab bathed in blood. But the next time he saw her...
Our time grows short. What is your greatest wish?
Her voice. It reminds Harp of one of the Silver-plated women who read the Channel Only evening news in monosyllabic words over a mix of strings and various triangle shapes.
He's nearly into her now, the truck approaching her plump lips at what would be criminal speed, if there was anyone around to care. His window is closing. Still keeping one hand on the dashboard, he holds out his four-fingered right paw to receive his wish.
Harp pulls off into a truck shelter and gently unwraps his gift from the Goddess of the Highway. Pastrami on rye, extra pickles. Just the way he likes it.
He bites in, mouth watering.
Somewhere in the wilds of what used to be Arkansas, a barefoot woman with an orange Mohawk thumbs a ride. With her other hand she holds a plastic bag containing her boots. The plates at her temples are a solid, unnatural black, marking her as an Iron. Except they're not really Iron, and neither is she.
"Hey!" she yells at the approaching vehicle. With so many lower-caste people around, there's a lot fewer cars on the road than there used to be. She waves her hands. "Hey!"
Her name is Pamela Jane Stanton, but she calls herself Spike. Spike as in pain. Spike like the pattern visible in a Plastic's electro-encephalogram when they get just the right kind of mental stimulation. It just sounds cool to her.
She cups her hands around her mouth, lined in green lip-gloss. "Fuck you!"
The mud splashes her from head to toe. But at least her boots are dry.
"Bastard," she spits, hocking up a mouthful of grit. She scans her surroundings. The signs on the road, both the real ones and the low-caste ones, say it's five miles to Little Rock, so she slings the plastic bag over her shoulder and starts walking.
When she hits the diner, it's dark. The mud has set, congealing into a crusty outer layer that she can almost peel off by hand. The Bronze waitress sneers. Her earrings complement the plates.
Spike fishes in her pocket and pulls out four NuCoins, flat chips with only one denomination. She looks at the menu, where a picture of pancakes is juxtaposed next to a picture of four NuCoins. "Gimme that," she says, keeping her voice brutish and Iron-flat. Irons are grunt workers, all muscle and sinew.
The waitress nods Spike toward the bathroom, where she strips off her clothes and dunks them in the toilet. Brown muck comes off in clumps. She washes her face in the sink and picks the chunks of dried mud out of her Mohawk.
Spike checks the plates. Still covered with black Sharpie. It's not indelible, but it's close. Phew.
She puts on her sopping clothes and dry boots and goes back out to the dining area. Her pancakes are waiting for her, and both the waitress and the cook glare at her as she eats. She lingers on her meal, letting the fork graze her cheeks. Irons have poor motor control.
Across the dining-room floor, a family – also Iron, like her but for real – orders their food with grunts and gestures. The father points to the screen. The Bronze waitress dutifully puts on Channel Only (tagline: "it's the only thing that's on!"). An explosion of colors and soft tones fills the diner, and the low-caste quartet descends into passive silence. Spike tries to act like them, like the color of her plates demands she act.
Just get into it, she tells herself.
After the neurobombs fell, it all came down to your plate. From Gold to cheap Plastic the corporations made them, plates for the humans driven to stupidity by the white mist that covered the planet on a hazy June day only ten years ago. That is to say, every human, and some animals.
The plates beneath Spike's Sharpied temples aren't Gold. They're Platinum.
"Turn it up," she drawls through a mouth of pancakes. Does this look right? Does she look too stupid for Iron? From the look on the cook's face (Steel, she sees, from the blue-gray knobs above his ears), Spike figures she should dial it back a bit.
She looks down. One of the Iron family's children is at her knee. "I like television too."
"Yeah," Spike says. "It's nice."
"I like the colors."
Spike refocuses her gaze on Channel Only. Two triangles pierce the edge of a floating pink bubble. Scandalous.
The Bronze waitress takes her pancakes away. Spike wrings her still-damp clothes out on the table and lights on out of there.
As Harp polishes off the last of the gift, there's a commotion out near the long-abandoned shelter. Harp peeks out of his window.
"Move, beasts!" A man in a sleek suit leads a parade of disheveled people from a minibus parked near the shelter's edge.
Harp squints. The man's temples flash Silver. Boss man.
"I don't have all day," the man continues, hands on his hips. They move faster. Some of the people set up a card table and lay a tablecloth across it. Others rummage in the bus and return carrying small bundles. It takes them a long time to do this, because as far as Harp can see, they're unplated. Their temples are crusted over with a ring of brown scabs.
The boss man leans back in a picnic chair and snaps his fingers at a man wearing a hole-riddled tank top. The man slides sunglasses onto the boss man's face.
Harp scrunches down in his seat. He's been warned about this kind of thing by his own boss men. Only trust me and Chuck, said Greg, his East Coast boss man. Chuck was the West Coast boss man. Don't talk to any other Silvers. And how did you lose your pinky finger, Harp? Jesus.
Harp stays on the floor of the truck, tucked underneath the console, until he notices the sun shift. He looks out. The unplated people are dining on scraps, while the outlaw boss man pages through a magazine picturing a Gold Harp doesn't recognize.
It's the President, dummy, he tells himself. "Oh yeah."
The boss man's head turns in Harp's direction. He points to a rag-clad woman. "Look in that truck. I think there might be a person in it." She staggers forward, mouth agape.
"No no no no," Harp mutters under his breath. He repositions himself in the driver's seat, but he's momentarily unable to remember how to turn on the control panel. The damn speed's worn off.
The woman pops up in the window, smiling with all her teeth. "Hi!"
"Hello," Harp says.
"You want to come out of there." She says it like a command, not a request. "Come out."
Harp places his hands over his Plastic plates reflexively. "Nuh uh."
"We got good stuff."
"I got good stuff. My cargo." Oh shit, I told her about the cargo.
There's a crash at his back, and Harp turns around to see another of the servants behind him. A star-shaped hole yawns in the window and a rock sits on the passenger seat like a little fat toad. The Silver boss man has left his chair and is patting the second person on the head. "Good girls. I can take it from here." He reaches a hand through the hole and unlatches the door.
"You stay away from me." Harp holds out a three-fingered hand, which the boss man looks at with interest.
"It's been rough out there for you, hasn't it?"
"No." Harp has finally figured out how to turn the car on, but he can't do it until this man is gone. He can't ride the Silver stranger all the way to California! "I wouldn't say that."
"Your hands, man! Look at your damn hands."
Harp looks at his hands. He doesn't see anything wrong with them. "Gotta pay the price."
"Highwaymen, eh?" He leans forward. "You're scared. I can tell."
Harp can't hide it. "Yes."
"My people aren't scared. They live free. Free as birds."
Smile. "Yes, it is."
Harp pulls his hand back and puts it over his plates again. "I am the truck driver. I am the conveyor of important cargo across the land. I do an important job."
"There are no important jobs anymore, buddy. No important anything. Whole world's gone to shit. Your thoughts, muddled as they are, are what's making you feel so mixed up inside. I can fix you."
Harp's brow crinkles. "Go slower."
The Silver sighs. "When people don't have plates," he says, pointing to his own shiny temples, "people are happy. Happy, happy people."
"Happy people. Happy Harp."
"Yes, happy Harp. Happy, happy Harp."
Harp considers. It's true that he's been getting pretty tired of running this route, back and forth, with nothing for entertainment except his in-cab outlet to Channel Only and occasional visits from the Goddess. But how can he leave? He knows that at a point in the not-too-distant past, his life was different. He had more thoughts, but somehow he wasn't so mixed up about them. Maybe this man is right. "Slaves," he says, the unfamiliar word bubbling to the surface, then just as easily forgotten.
The boss man gestures to the two women, still stationed on the sides of Harp's cab. "Girls, a little help."
The one with the big teeth gently knocks on Harp's window, and he unthinkingly unlocks it for her. She takes his hand, not flinching at the odd grip, and leads him toward the minibus. It's painted all kinds of colors, just like Channel Only.
"Hi," she says, grinning.
The bus is dark. Each of the seats has a small blanket draped over it. Harp wonders who the driver is. It has to be the Silver.
"What's it like?" he says. "Being free?"
She just blinks at him like he hasn't said anything at all.
The boss man enters, a small satchel in his hand. "My freedom pack," he says, opening it to reveal tools as silver and shiny as the plates in his head.
"Is it sterile?"
"Such a big word for a Plastic. Must be all those smart pills you have in your truck. You won't need those anymore." He flaps his hands. "Free as a bird, remember? Not a care in the world."
Harp looks from the boss man back to the girl and gulps. This is exactly what Greg and Chuck warned him about, to the letter. But this man is a Silver. He's smarter than Harp is. Could this be the right thing to do? "Maybe it is," he answers to himself.
"Talking to yourself," the boss man says. "Oh, those plates have to come out, Harp. They're malfunctioning on you."
"Breaking, son. Broken." He pulls out a sharp stick like Chuck's stylus and another implement Harp recognizes as a clamp. "Now, get down on the floor. Go limp. I'm not gonna lie, this will hurt."
"Hurt," Harp whispers. He recalls a memory of the last time he'd traveled east, when the Goddess had taken his second pinky. Blood had splashed all over the cab, blocking his vision of Channel Only. He'd nearly passed out from the pain. Only the knowledge that his cargo, which was very important, needed to be in Washington by sunrise had kept him from veering the truck off course.
He'd kept one hand on the panel. Always one hand on the panel.
At the side of his head is the smell of singeing plastic.
"No!" Harp yells, knocking the Silver's tools away with his forearm. They clatter on the floorboards of the old bus. The girl behind him makes a high keening sound. It hurts Harp's ears.
"You're not making this very easy for me," says the Silver with a frown.
"One hand on the panel! One hand on the panel!" He balls up his fist, smaller than it used to be but no less strong, and socks the boss man square in the jaw. The boss man reels back, his face red as the route Harp has dedicated his life to following.
"I'm very disappointed," the Silver says. He gestures to the unplated people, but before their damaged systems can react Harp leaps over the bus seats and rockets out of the bus itself, knocking them down as he makes his way to the truck. His truck. His one and only.
The Silver is fast, but Harp is faster. He swings himself into the cab, slamming both doors shut and smacking the locks. The Silver pummels the unbroken window with all his might, but he can't even crack it.
"You're giving up, boy. Freedom is slipping away from you with every moment!" He pauses to point at Harp's plates. "Harp wants to be happy, doesn't he?"
"Harp is happy." Harp has the Goddess. And he just had that really good sandwich. He throws one hand on the control panel and the system lights up. Ready to go.
The boss man jiggles the handle of the cab. His eyes go wide. "Stop the truck! My sleeve's caught!"
But Harp can't stop the truck, not once it's already moving.
The smear of red behind the truck's wheels follows Harp all the way into Arkansas.
Spike smashes the pillow against her ears and moans. Turn it down, assholes, she thinks, though she dares not say a word.
She'd found the smarthouse at dawn, planted on the outskirts of Little Rock. The old-style signs had mostly blown down, so she'd followed the colors. Red, like apples or blood. And of course, an Iron only shows up at a smarthouse for one reason, which is why Spike is wired to the gills on this pleasant summer morning.
She feels a tap on her shoulder and whirls around to confront it. "Who are you?" says a strung-out Bronze, her eyes all buggy and bloodshot.
"Alice," Spike says.
"Isn't this fun? I mean, my mind feels so expansive, you know? Like I could do anything." The Bronze stretches her arms wide. "It's like for just a few hours all the bullshit melts away and you see things for what they really are. I should go read a book." But the woman doesn't go anywhere, just keeps beaming at Spike.
Spike doesn't feel the same. She's only had a single dose, not the gargantuan ones required to overcome the neurobomb effect on the human brain. As a Platinum, there's not much fog to cut through in the first place. She nods rapidly, trying to replicate the other woman's manic intensity. "Yeah. It's really... rad, you know? It's so rad to be able to think."
The smarthouse's walls are lined with books and films from bygone eras, organized in a bizarre system Spike can't figure out. Most of the tweakers aren't looking at any of it, though. Because while the megadoses of speed do clear away some of the crap the neurobombs left, they also make people twitchy. Very twitchy.
"Fuckers!" yells a Steel who only moments before had been frantically pacing in front of the wall-screen television. "All of you are fuckers." He rummages through his pockets for a few moments, but it's no use. They frisk for weapons at the door.
"Hey man, chill out," says another person just as wired as the angry Steel. "We're all friends here."
"You are not my friends. I have nobody. I have nothing." The Steel stops pacing and runs his hands through his hair wildly, exposing his plates. "I mean, have you ever thought about the mist, people? Really thought about it? Where did it come from?"
"Aliens," says someone.
"Terrorists," says another someone.
"The elite of society, in an attempt to solidify their power by making intelligence something that can be bought and sold on the open market," says Spike. All eyes turn to her and she twitches a few times for good measure.
"Nah," says the angry man. "It was totally aliens." As he continues pontificating about the aliens' exact height and social structure, Spike plucks a book from the shelves around them and pretends to read.
It's a strange thing being a more-than-clearheaded person in a world where the vast majority of people – yes, even the Silvers and Golds – are affected by the mist in some way.
The mist we made, Spike thinks, recalling her Platinum girlhood in the gated enclave of Alexandria, Virginia. It's our fault.
Spike's memories of the coming of the mist are filtered through the lens of the mist itself. She hadn't been able to read. She'd barely been able to speak. One day she'd woken up and her mind was just... gone.
When you're in the mist, you're always happy. It's Christmas and your birthday every single moment.
Her father hadn't been around when the neurobombs hit. He'd been off on business. Little Pamela Jane didn't think anything of it. Father was often away.
Only later did she put together the pieces. Her father and his friends were very important; even a seven-year-old could figure that out. And although Father had the same Platinum plates screwed into his head that Pamela, her sisters, and Mommy did, there hadn't been a long period of recovery for him.
Post-mist, he was busier than ever, developing a plate theft protection system for Silvers and Golds, a sort of hat. His friends, similarly, had jobs related to the plate business. Or, as polite people called it, the field of "reconstructive neuro-prosthetics."
That's when she started to suspect that Father and his friends had started it, on the East Coast at least. That's why she left. That's why she's here, watching two male tweakers fuck loudly and with great vigor in the front room of the smarthouse.
She doesn't know what she's doing. She doesn't know where she's going. Spike only knows that she can't remain in that sterile Platinum enclave while people suffer. She's heard vague tales of children being born unaffected by mist, the coming generation. Maybe she'll meet some of them. Maybe there's somebody out there working to reverse this disaster.
Or maybe I'm just fooling myself, Spike thinks.
Time to move on. Spike gathers up her things, of which there are never very many, and pushes past the smarthouse's bouncer to the woods beyond.
About ten minutes after Harp's truck peels away from the shelter, his seat starts to rattle and shake. His display shrieks at him, and he tentatively takes one of his hands off the panel and covers an ear with it.
I wish this wasn't happening, he thinks, before he remembers that he'd already used his wish on that sandwich. He won't have another wish for miles and miles, and the truck is already guiding itself into the breakdown lane.
It stops with a sad little fart. Harp waits ten minutes and then removes his hand from the dashboard display.
"Stay in the vehicle," he says to himself, repeating lines ingrained into him during his training days. "Do not leave the vehicle, Harp, understand? Someone will be by to get you. We're not going to just leave you out on the road, buddy." He smiles and lets himself doze off.
When his consciousness returns, he's still in the cab. He's hungry and bored. Reacting to his boredom, the truck starts up its transmission of Channel Only, flooding Harp's starving neurons with a cornucopia of colors, shapes, and sounds that even a plateless loser could appreciate. Pretty, pretty.
One of the screens affixed to the inside of the windows refuses to turn on. It's the one the Silver's woman had broken. Harp focuses on the colors emanating from the other screens, and tries not to think of coyotes or highwaymen.
No highwaymen are gonna take my cargo, he thinks. His breath comes faster as he thinks of the danger he's in out here, even though he's trying to focus on the Channel's relaxing cacophony.
Outside, a branch snaps. Harp sits up straight. "Who's out there?"
"Greg? Chuck?" He's getting really hungry. Harp paws through the first-aid kit, the insurance papers in the glove compartment, the sandwich wrappings strewn on the floor. He picks up the last item and starts to lick the paper. He chews it, adventurously.
A shadow moves in the darkness, black on black.
"Station off," Harp says. Channel Only dwindles into silence. He peeks out of the cracked window. "You better stay away!"
"Calm down," says a girl's voice.
Harp's breath catches as he sees the girl, with her orange hair sticking up everywhere and her Iron plates. Iron beats Plastic, just barely. He starts to cry, big heaving sobs that drip onto his chest.
"Hey, hey," she says, her voice suddenly soft. "I'm not gonna hurt you." She holds up her hands, like that would prove anything. Chuck says that highwaymen always try to make you trust them before they murder you.
"You're gonna kill me. And then I can't deliver the cargo." He swipes a hand across his face. "It's important."
"I'm trying to get across the country. Can you give me a lift?"
Harp shakes his head in confusion.
"It's dark. It's not safe. I'm a good person. I will not hurt you. Please let me inside your truck." She blinks frantically, which meant something in the old world, but not in the new one.
"Never let anyone in the truck," he says, quoting. "Never ever."
The girl disappears and Harp's breathing returns to normal. That was easy. Maybe a little too easy, but he won't worry about it. Much. He calls the channel back up, though its anxiolytic effect is dulled with only the one operational screen.
Happy Harp, he thinks, popping a pill. Safe Harp.
Beneath his feet the engine roars to life like a waking lion.
Harp startles from his half-trance and prepares to slam his hand on the display. Red, red, red, all the way to California. But then the girl highwayman is back, and she's pissed.
"I fixed your truck."
"Fixed?" Only Greg and Chuck know how to fix the truck.
She holds up a muddy object and shrugs. "Shoe in the tailpipe." She shrugs and throws it away. "I am not dangerous. You should let me in your truck. I'm a nice person."
Harp swallows. He's not supposed to let anyone in the truck. But this girl did help him somehow, made it so he can continue his delivery of the precious cargo.
He ponders and cogitates, straining his Plastic plates to the sheer limit of their capacity. He squints his eyes shut. What should he do? What should he think? When he opens them, the girl is sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
"Drive," she says, not unkindly.
One hand on the panel.
Spike greedily wolfs down the chicken nuggets and fries that the trucker bought for her at the automated service station, but she's a delicate flower compared to him. He's chomped down three hot dogs and guzzled a quart of diet soda, and shows no sign of slowing down. Even though the truck is stopped, he keeps one of his three-fingered hands on the control panel, like a talisman.
Finally there comes a point when the trucker's maw isn't full of food. "What's your name?"
"Harper. Harp. Happy Harp." She shakes his hand. It's like shaking hands with a bird. Not much to hold on to.
"I'm Spike." She balls up her wrappers and places them neatly on her seat. "Where are you going?"
"Yeah, but what city?"
He shrugs. The truck must be on auto-pilot, the driver only there as a fail-safe. Like most things, anymore.
"I need to go to California. Can you drive me to California? Me, in the truck, with you?"
Harp looks at her out of the corner of one of his mist-glazed eyes. "I'm not supposed to."
"I can help you keep the cargo safe. I'm a good person, Harp."
He has another of his interminable thinks, while Spike flattens her hawk into a bob. Finally he heaves a breath and traces a spiral on the display. "Happy Harp." The truck rumbles to life beneath them.
They ride in silence until the truck crosses the Oklahoma state line, when Harp takes his free hand and expertly opens a vial full of red bennies.
Maybe we can talk like equals for a little while, she thinks, hopefully.
He swallows five of them dry and offers her the vial. Spike takes one just to be polite. "You have to stay awake, right?"
"Awake and alert."
"Don't you get bored?" In the hours they've been traveling, Spike has only seen three cars, also automated. Not too many Silvers and Golds live in this part of the country.
"I do things to amuse myself," Harp says, shrugging. He puts the vial back in his shirt pocket.
He glares at her. "It's none of your business."
Spike holds up her hands. "Sorry, sorry." The highway signs pass by in a blur. "Where do you sleep?"
"Don't sleep much. But when I do, it's in the truck." He pauses. "You can also sleep in the truck."
"Thank you, Harp. I really appreciate that," Spike says, though she was hoping his company would have put him up in a motel. "So I guess you trust me now, huh?"
Harp grunts. "There's only one person I trust."
"No." He gestures toward the black road stretching before them. "Her."
Spike squints out at the unfurling road. What have I gotten myself into?
Harp plucks a potato chip from the wrapper that sits between them, gripping it with his thumb and ring finger. He keeps the other hand firmly bolted to the display. Spike's been to her father's factories; she knows how it works. Most machines are automated and don't really require human operators. But even Plastics need something to do.
"What happened to your hands? Did it happen Before?" She doesn't have to clarify Before.
He frowns at her, his eyes drifting from the road, not that it matters whether he watches it or not. "No such thing as a free lunch."
Spike's confused, despite her Platinum status. "You traded your fingers for food?"
Harp sighs. "It happens when I go east. Every sixteen hours, fourteen minutes..." He thinks for a little while. "And thirty-one seconds."
Spike keeps her voice flat. "Who does it?"
He shrugs. "Her," he says again, gesturing toward the ribbon of highway.
"But," Harp says, grinning, "she grants wishes when you go in the other direction. It's not so bad."
"Harp, don't take this the wrong way, but you might want to lay off the bennies for a while."
"I knew I shouldn't have told you," he says. "I knew you wouldn't understand."
"Well, maybe I'll get to see her," Spike says.
He doesn't register her sarcasm. "Only thirteen hours, two minutes, and forty-six seconds to go." Harp grins. "I can't wait!"
Pretty good math skills for a Plastic, Spike thinks. Must be the pills.
They enter the Panhandle at speeds approaching eighty miles an hour. With nobody around, they could do two hundred if the truck was built for it. The speed draining from her system, Spike's head slumps against the broken window. She notices that Harp is nodding off too, his hand wedged in such a way that it won't slip off the console.
If she dreams, she doesn't remember.
She wakes to heat radiating through the broken window, and fans her plates to cool them. "Can we stop for some food? I'm hungry again."
He doesn't want to, she can tell. He wants to see his made-up road genie or whatever it is. But he relents, flicking his fingers against the panel to turn it into a nearby semi-automated diner.
Leading the way, Spike pushes through the double doors to see a Plastic operator dully pecking out orders on a console very similar to the one in Harp's truck. She doesn't speak to Spike, perhaps doesn't speak at all. Even Harp isn't this far gone.
Spike orders pancakes again. She likes pancakes a lot. She sits down across from Harp, who watches his stilled vehicle anxiously. "So, what's in the truck?"
"Very important cargo."
"Yeah, but what kind?"
"The important kind."
She thinks. As most people Bronze and below have basic farming and manufacturing skills, the majority of what gets shipped coast to coast are luxuries, goods sold between and among Silvers and Golds, pumped out by Platinum factories. Like her father's little hats. "Maybe we should find out what's in the truck, Harp," she says, using the firm tone that's worked its magic on him before.
He shakes his head. "No way, lady."
"We should. How will you know the cargo is safe if you don't check it? You have to keep the cargo safe."
Harp's face melts, and she knows she has him.
The first rule is to keep your hand on the panel. The second rule is to follow the colors Greg and Chuck tell you to. The third rule is not to go into the back of the truck. Not for anything, Greg had said, and Chuck agreed.
"You're only Iron," Harp says. "You're not very important. Only important people are allowed to look in the back of the truck."
"So you're not important?"
"No," he says, pointing to the side of his head. "I'm not and neither are you."
The girl makes Harp feel weird and sad and he doesn't even know why. She's so smart for an Iron. Able to make him do things he knows he shouldn't do, like bring other people into the cab with him (rule four!). What was he thinking?
You don't think, Harp. That's the problem.
Harp remembers things sometimes, especially after he takes his pills. He knows the world used to be different. That once he saw the world not through a pane of frosted glass but with the clear-sharp intensity of someone like Greg or Chuck.
Harp's got a vision of a man that looks like him, wearing a suit. That not-quite-Harp has all of his fingers. He wasn't always the best at everything, but he wasn't the worst either. He doesn't remember driving a truck.
But that's what you do now, son, says a voice from his past. We've put too much money into those plates for you to back out now.
When he sees that not-quite-Harp, he starts to hate driving, almost enough to take his hand off the panel. Sometimes three other people, a woman and two small girls, appear in his mind's eye right before he sees the Goddess in all her glory, so wired up on stimulants that his teeth are about to rattle right out of their sockets. They were Important People to Harp.
Now there's just Chuck and Greg. They're the Important People.
We don't condone drug use on the job, but if you're running behind schedule, here's where you can get what you need.
He snaps back into his gauze-draped reality.
"Let's go see what's in that truck."
"Whatever you say." He flutters his napkin down onto his barely-touched tuna fish sandwich and goes out to the truck.
They haven't given him a key, but that won't stop the girl. She rummages in her patch-covered bag and pulls out a rusted, wicked-looking tool. All of a sudden, a stray thought flows into his mind like a voice from the deeps. He pulls on her arm. "Sensors."
"Are you saying there are sensors on this truck?"
Harp rubs his head, trying to remember. "Could be."
"Only one way to find out." The girl wrests herself out of Harp's grip and puts the tool around the truck's lock, bearing down on it with all her might.
A few minutes pass as she grunts and heaves at the tool, straining at the lock. Harp wonders if he should help her, but he doesn't step forward. This was her idea, not his.
Finally the lock shatters, and the girl tumbles into the gravel at their feet. She swears loudly, but there is no sound of alarm from the truck itself. He can't bring himself to look inside.
"Come on!" She yanks the doors open.
Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit. "Shit!" Chuck and Greg are going to kill him. He's broken two out of the four rules. What are they going to do? Are they gonna take his plates away? Is he gonna be just like those brainless people owned by the Silver boss man, doomed to a life solely lived within the mist?
It's too much. Harp sinks to the earth, closing his eyes, placing his hands over his ears.
"Harp!" says the girl. His mind clouds over with hate. "Harp, come and look at this!"
"No. Just... just put it back, whatever you got, and let's put the lock back on. I'll drop you off in the next city." He feels a pair of hands on his shoulders. He opens his eyes to find Spike's hazel ones glittering back at him.
"It's plates, Harp. Iron plates."
"Yes, like mine," she replies stiffly.
"Like I said, very important cargo."
"I can switch them out, Harp. Switch out your Plastic plates with these. An upgrade! It'll take half an hour, max." She holds up the bag. "I have tools for this kind of thing."
Harp briefly wonders how this crazy Iron managed to get tools normally only available to bosses, until the thought flits away from him like a hummingbird. "Then I'd be smart like you."
"Yes. The mist would have less control over you. We'd be able to plan better."
"Plan? We had a plan? I thought you wanted me to take you to California."
Spike drops her bag into the gravel and takes his hands in hers. They're soft. Not like an Iron factory worker's hands at all. "Harp, I need you to listen to what I'm saying and try to concentrate. I'm not an Iron. I'm a Platinum."
His mouth drops open.
"This is very important, so listen. My people made the mist."
"Aliens made the mist."
"I can't prove it," she says, continuing like she hasn't heard him, "but I can see the evidence. My family got our plates right away. We didn't have to wait. Later, when I saw the news reports, saw how the system was being set up, I realized that it only benefited one group: us."
"You?" Harp shakes his head. "Nah."
"The plates are a way to keep people in their places, calcify the social classes. Even if we didn't create the mist, we certainly capitalized on it. My people could have made Platinum plates for everyone on Earth, Harp. It's not real platinum. It's artificial scarcity, a system designed to keep certain people in power and the masses under control!"
Harp narrows his eyes. "I don't understand a word you just said."
"You'll understand slightly more with these new plates in your brain."
Harp shakes his head. He dips into his pocket and pulls out some bennies. "I gotta think about this."
"Well, then I guess we just wait forever. Because you're never going to get it. Not unless you let me give you an upgrade."
You're in too deep, son, says the voice of Chuck in his head, or maybe it's Greg. I don't see how you're going to get out of this one.
"Somehow," Harp says.
The girl rolls her eyes.
About the only thing you can do, says Chuck, or Greg, is give us the girl. You know she's bad news. She's interfered with some very important cargo here.
He looks over at Spike. He can't disagree.
The Goddess will be very angry with you.
Harp's blood runs cold. He hadn't been thinking of the Goddess of the Highway, not until the phantom voices brought her to mind. Her asphalt skin, her crown of signs, her ability to make all your dreams come true...
Harp takes Spike by the shoulders. He knows she's a Platinum – no Iron talks like that! – but he can't be gentle with her just now. He's too angry, and too scared.
"No!" she says, squirming in his seven-fingered grip. "Let me go!"
Hoisting her into the back of the truck, he slams the doors shut. The lock lies broken at his feet, so he takes a random tool from her bag and shoves it through the slots where the lock had been, bending it down on both sides to keep the Platinum inside. Safe. Her fists beat on the inside of the truck like tiny hammer blows.
"Quiet down." She does. "That's better."
Not much longer to go, he thinks. Not to California, or to the Goddess. Things will be a lot clearer when he sees the Goddess. He climbs into the truck.
Seven hours, fifty-two minutes, zero seconds.
Seven hours, twenty-five minutes, eleven seconds.
Seven hours, six minutes, thirty-four seconds.
The highway unrolls beneath his blood-speckled wheels.
So this is what the whole mess came to. Spike stuck in the back of a truck, her tools lost, and a speed-addled Plastic maniac driving her into her arms of Golds. They'll know what she is immediately.
She picks up one of the sets of Iron plates bound in shrink-wrap and hurls it against the inside of the truck like a Frisbee. The echo is deafening.
"You moron," she says, and she doesn't know if she's saying it to Harp or to herself.
Spike wonders, not for the first time, if her own plates are defective. She'd headed west with not much of a plan, only a vague notion that somewhere, anywhere out there was someone who could... fix things?
This can't be fixed, she thought. Whatever mutagens or pathogens or nanobots the Platinums had released into the air were even beyond her comprehension. She hadn't been a bright child, and she was a lousy Platinum at best, her smarts more in her plates than in her mind.
But wasn't that true for some of the others? The rich and the elite had always had their share of bumblers. She knew this from reading books that only the upper castes now had the ability to decipher. And there'd been more than enough intelligent souls among the working classes before the mist. It was almost as if potential had nothing to do with class at all, or even biology, like it was an essence available to everyone with only the external trappings of environment to impede it.
Not anymore, though. Now it was about the plates. It would always be about the plates.
She doesn't have her bag of tools, but she still has a Swiss Army knife tucked inside her thick, heavy boots. She slips it out and cuts a strip of fabric from her ragged jeans. She finds a hole near the bottom of the truck's door and threads it through, like a tiny flag. It's daylight, and if anyone sees it, maybe they'll alert the authorities.
No use. There's nobody out here but Plastics, she thinks, before telling herself to shut the hell up. Crying won't do me any good. Am I crying? She raises her hand to her face. Shit.
Spike makes a nest of packing materials on the floor of the truck and places her head upon one of the hundreds of identical boxes. She thinks it will take her forever to fall asleep in the shifting semi, but she's out within minutes.
Wake up, my child. It's a woman's voice, very low and very loud. It rings in Spike's head like a gong, and she knows that it's not a delayed drug reaction or an extreme case of wishful thinking. There is important work to be done.
Spike sits up. No light pierces the minute holes in the back of the truck. Must be night. "Who are you?"
I am the one who protects this stretch of road. I monitor all comings and goings. I care about you.
Spike crosses her arms. "Prove it. Show yourself."
Suddenly, the pitch-black darkness of the truck begins to swirl and change, taking on contours of curved hip and strong limbs. There is still nothing there – there is no light, anywhere – but Spike can see something moving in the space before her, something that seems much larger than the truck's dimensions should allow. There is a feeling of unfurling, and the rough texture of asphalt grazes Spike's cheeks.
You are in great danger.
"Don't I know it."
The man in the front is not your enemy. He is my friend. I have many friends here. You could be a friend to me.
"I'm the enemy," Spike says. "I'm a Platinum."
The damage in the air will not last forever. It can be ameliorated. Even now, the children brought forth by your generation are less susceptible to its harm.
"I knew it!" Spike says, her heart lifting. "But what do we do now? What do we do until all the junk clears out of the air?"
You must protect my friend. Only by working together can you hope to break at least some of the effects of the damage.
"Can you be more specific?"
The black-on-black swirl of motion intensifies, becoming a captive tornado. This thing is definitely too big to fit in the back of the truck. There is a house that sits near a dead city on a lake. Seek shelter there. You will find others like you, ones waiting for the slow return of the natural order.
"What lake? What city?"
The figure or storm or whatever it is has no reply. It envelopes Spike in tendrils of scratchy roughness. Be well, my new friend.
"We're not friends," Spike says. She watches as the being dissipates into the stale air of the truck. "I'm a Platinum."
When Harp crosses the old Utah state line, lights flash at him from all sides. A siren blares from the speaker behind him, interrupting the calming transmission of Channel Only. He splays his fingers over the speaker to muffle the noise.
It doesn't do a damn thing.
Inspection station! the speaker yells. Route recalibration! Harper scans his externalized brain to remember what this warning means, then finally catches on.
"Oh, inspection station," he mutters as he pulls up the map with a flick of his wrist.
The truck is self-driving, but Harp still has to monitor its safe passage along the new route to the inspection station. He watches as the path switches from the angry red signposts to the happy purple ones. As if sensing his tension, Channel Only begins to play. Harp feels sick.
"Cancel that," he says. He needs all his mental strength to concentrate. This is very important.
He knows this inspection station, has been through it before on one of his many trips west. Greg had told him it was necessary to scan for explosive or biological materials, signs that the very important cargo might be compromised by the rebels. "There are a lot of rebels, Harp. Not everyone is happy that the Golds and the Silvers keep the world safe."
He'd just stared, blank-faced. Why would people rebel? People can't possibly do things for themselves, at least After.
Great stretches of rocky desert give way to an expanse of mountains. Harp follows the purple signs north, and calls back Channel Only. He's safe now.
A safe Harp is a happy Harp, he thinks, though an odd tightness remains lodged in his chest.
The truck, knowing what to do and how to do it, continues to glide down the smooth highway to a distant city beyond. The shallow lake reeks of brine. He plugs his nose with his hand that isn't pressed to the panel.
The truck slows under him as it recognizes its destination and locks into place. A helpful Bronze worker jimmies the back door open, while the Silver station worker whose name he can never remember strides over with a clipboard.
Harp slicks back his hair, exits the truck, and prepares to meet the Silver. He wants the Silver to be proud of him. And then he remembers the girl. Had he really locked her in there? Has she escaped? He starts to sweat.
The Silver uncaps a pen and poises it over the clipboard. "Basic check."
Harp sneezes, and he watches a shadow of disgust flicker over the Silver's face. She doesn't like him much. "It's very important cargo."
"It always is," the Silver says with a look that Harp can't quite interpret.
The Bronze breaks the rod. Harp expects to hear either a scream from the girl, or a scream from the Bronze as she explodes from the hatch and pounds his brain in. She's very dangerous, he thinks. She could kill someone.
The Bronze appears at the edge of Harp's vision. He jerks a thumb backwards. "Boss, there's a girl back here."
The Silver frowns. She looks over at Harp. "Did you know about this? No, you don't know anything." She points to the Bronze. "Bring her over here."
He wrangles the squirming woman over to Harp and the Silver. She kicks up dirt and swings at the air. "Fuckers!"
Spike, Harp thinks. That was her name. He snaps his fingers, causing the Silver to glance at him, though her attention quickly returns to the girl.
"Iron," the Silver says, though with another one of those unidentifiable lilts to her voice. "Take her to my office."
The girl Spike spits an aimless loogie into the middle distance.
"Should we tell Chuck?" the Bronze asks. He yanks her behind him, heading toward a distant cottage.
"No. You don't tell Chuck anything. I'll deal with this." The Silver returns her focus to Harp. "Got in at a refilling station, I imagine. It's a dangerous world, boy."
"I'm not a boy."
She pats his head. "It's not your fault. You're a Plastic. I keep trying to tell them that they need at least Steel for these runs, but Steels don't always listen. At least we caught her. We've kept the cargo safe. Right, kid?"
"Safe," Harp repeats.
The Silver squints at him. "Are you sure you didn't see anything?"
He answers her question with another. "What are you going to do to her?"
"You don't have to worry about that."
But I am worried, he wants to say. I can't help it. "Where do I go now?"
"Follow the red. You know how to follow the red, right?"
He does. But that doesn't mean he wants to leave Spike here, all walled up in a Silver's office, maybe in trouble. Could Silvers even punish Platinums? I should ask Chuck when I see him, Harp thinks.
"What was that?" the Silver says, and he realizes he's spoken aloud.
"Oops. I meant to say, I'll be on my way then."
"Good, Harper. I'm glad you stopped here. Thanks to you the cargo is safe."
It wasn't Harp who kept it safe. It was the truck. But he doesn't answer. He looks toward the tiny house. He thinks about Spike. He thinks about following the path of red all the way to California, again and again, forever.
He sighs and climbs back into the cab.
Please don't hurt her. Please.
Spike steals a look at herself in the mirror and winces. Leonora had commanded her to dress in a frilly, lacy gown made of chiffon or something like that. Just like a Silver, she thinks. Always reaching above their station.
Platinums never wear fancy clothes. They know what they are.
She touches the sides of her head, the true color of her plates now exposed to the light. Leonora saw through her immediately, of course. Silvers are too mist-affected to run things for real, but they're smart enough to know what the score is.
Spike looks down at the ground, to the band around her ankle. It chirps audibly every couple of seconds, just often enough to drive her crazy. She flops down on the bed, feeling satisfaction when the dress rips slightly.
"Good morning!" trills Leonora the inspection stop manager as she breezes into Spike's cell. Spike shoots dagger eyes at her. "I hope you slept well."
"Do you know who my father is?"
"He must not care where you are, if you're here," she replies, not changing tone.
Spike sighs. It's time to give in, let the other Platinums save her ass. This was a stupid plan from the start, mostly because there was no plan. Just blind rebellion. "Are you going to ransom me? We have money."
"It's not usually a good idea to brag about your family's money when you think you're going to be ransomed."
"I don't care if they lose it all," she says, shrugging.
Leonora grins. Spike doesn't like the looks of that grin. "I have something much more important in mind for you, Miss Platinum."
Leonora steps out of the room. Spike wonders what the Silver means by this. Is she going to swap plates with Spike? Or just steal them outright? Or sell Spike as a sex slave to bored Golds looking for a thrill?
Spike remembers that she is in a state once called Utah. Barely any Plastics travel through this wasted land, let alone Golds. Not a good business plan, not even for a Silver.
Leonora returns with a child gripping each of her hands. Spike sneers at the kids all dressed up in their fancy Silver clothes. "You're going to teach my children."
"I hate kids."
She continues. "Bethany and Elliott are taking their plate placement exams next week. I want them to score well."
"They're already Silvers, lady." Plate type passes down from parent to child, except in extraordinary cases. Which is why Spike herself got Platinum plates despite being a fucking moron.
"I want them to be more than Silvers." Leonora releases the children. "Look at me. I thought when I was assigned to Silver it would mean a good job for me, perhaps a great one. And now I'm managing a truck inspection station in Utah."
Spike shrugs. "Well, you're the manager, anyway. That's something."
"I've read the statistics. Two percent of people are slated for plate reassignment every year, and most of those are children with exceptional capabilities."
Spike studies the children. They don't seem to have exceptional capabilities, but they don't not have them either. "So you think I can help them cheat the test."
"I think you can teach them how to pass the test."
"Did you ever think they might be happy as Silvers?"
The woman shakes her head. "Maybe that kind of complacency works for Plastics and Platinums, but not for my people."
The middle managers of the world are always the most dangerous, she remembered her dad saying once. "I'm trying to tell you, I don’t know what I'm doing. Just because I have these plates, it doesn't make me a genius. I'm actually kind of an idiot, you know? My parents are Platinums, the real deal. I just got lucky."
"I don’t believe you. A Platinum is a Platinum."
What is the mist, again? A substance of unknown etiology that clouded cognitive processes and slowed down conscious thought. The Platinum plates don't boost human intelligence, they just restore it. This woman believes Spike is some kind of superhuman. The truth is she's anything but. "I can't promise anything. Honestly, you'd be better off buying Gold plates on the black market."
"My children are not putting some shoddy gilded knock-off into their brains."
"I can find you good ones." Leonora's gaze doesn't waver. "Fine. I'll teach your stupid kids."
At the very least it would buy her some time.
Happy Harp. Harp is happy. Harp is a good person. Happy. Good. Right.
Harp's hands tremble where they press against the display. He always follows the red when he's going east to west, but it doesn't mean as much as it used to. Because she isn't here.
Spike or the Goddess? Or both? He can't figure it out.
It has been fifteen hours, twelve minutes, and no seconds since he asked the Goddess for a tasty sandwich and she delivered it into his mangled paws. He'd almost lost track of time. He's barely even taken any speed. He chokes back a few pills and they tumble raw and chalky down his throat.
For a brief moment, he envies the plateless. Those peaceful people, living in the eternal now, unable to even imagine the future or their place in the world. Harp's problem is that he knows too much.
Then take the plates out. Throw them away.
But if he does that, he can't follow the red. He can't see the Goddess. He can't help Spike or even know who she is.
He drives on.
Twenty-five minutes until his rendezvous with the highway deity, he stops at a diner. The ham sandwich is almost as good as the one the Goddess gave him, maybe a little drier. He ponders what he should ask for.
Should he ask for new plates? No, that would be greedy. He doesn't want to be greedy in front of the Goddess of the Highway.
Should he ask for Spike to be freed? But these are Harp's wishes, and he doesn't think that she'll want them to be given away to others.
"Anything else, darlin'?" asks the Bronze waitress.
"Yes. I need to think of a wish. A good one."
The waitress nods. "I wish things were different."
"I'm thinking of a wish for myself, though."
She takes his NuCoin and his empty plate.
Harp sighs and pushes himself away from the table. It's time to take off. He tosses back another handful of amphetamines and settles into the truck's cab.
Fifteen hours, fifty-one minutes, thirty-nine seconds. He follows the red.
Sixteen hours, nine minutes, two seconds. Tosses back a few last pills and checks the rearview mirror.
Sixteen hours, fourteen minutes, twenty-eight seconds. He draws a shuddering breath.
"I wish I was smart again," he says to no one. Then he makes a U-turn.
The morning after Spike was dragged to Leonora's house by the Bronze henchman, she flips through the textbooks for the plate placement exam. Trigonometry, linguistics, the periodic table, the sequence of events that preceded the fall of Rome. She doesn't remember any of this. Had she even taken the test? Or were the Platinum children exempt?
Bethany and Elliott are bright children. But they'll never be Platinum, or even Gold. She can almost see their plates chugging away as they struggle with the very highest-level questions.
"I have an idea," she says to Bethany.
"What is it, ma'am?"
"Don't call me that." She reaches behind Bethany's ear and withdraws a bobby pin. "I'm going to alter your plates, to make them more like mine."
Elliott claps his hands over his plates. "Mama says only doctors are allowed to touch them."
"I am a doctor. I have these plates. That means I can work on your plates."
Four little eyes go wide. They've learned a lot about plate hierarchy in their young lives. "I guess it would be okay," Bethany says, looking over at her brother.
He nods, warily.
Spike perches on the feather bed and beckons Bethany to her. She unscrews the girl's left plate and stares at the interior. Only a matter of one or two wires keeps this girl from becoming a subhuman Plastic. Only a few wires more keeps her from becoming me. She pokes at the wires experimentally, as Bethany patiently waits, her head in Spike's lap.
"I've just about got it," Spike lies. She crosses a few more wires and re-screws the plate back onto Bethany's temple. She stands the girl back up and gives her a weak smile. "How do you feel?"
Bethany blinks. Her mouth opens. Then she vomits a stream of blood straight into Spike's eyeballs.
Harp drives east, through the scrubby desert, toward the dead city beside the stinking lake. He guns the accelerator, causing the motor to squeal. "Don't be dead," he mutters under his breath. "Don't be dead."
The display flashes at him, a wild strobe that makes the back of his head ache. He fights through the pain, willing himself to remain on the opposite side of the red, then exiting onto the purple. The pain upon exiting is blinding. The fear is worse.
He finds the inspection station and parks the whining, clanging truck into it. The noises die when the engine does.
Harp needs to get out of here. He's going to go deaf if he remains. With only a twinge of anxiety, he lifts his hands from the display. He stumbles out onto the gravel-strewn road. In the distance is the tiny clapboard house where Spike had been taken.
He thinks. He feels more clear-headed than he has in years. His thoughts are light and fast. He knows the first thing he has to do: shut down the truck.
Harp finds a stick. He grips it as tight as he can and plants it into the dead center of the display. There are no sparks or smoke, only the beeps of a dying program.
Don't forget the tracker, he reminds himself. He plucks the tracking module from behind his seat and attempts to crush it in his fist. Failing that, he grinds it under his heel.
Now, it's on to the house. Harp's first inclination is to go barreling up there, screaming, not thinking about how easily he'll be spotted. So he's cagey. He darts from one bush or tree to the other, never allowing himself to be exposed for long. Even now they could be watching him from above, trying to figure out what he's done with the very important cargo.
Harp makes it to the cottage. The Silver is in the living room, immersed in a feed, and Harp spots movement on the second floor. Maybe Spike? It's his only lead. He discovers a trellis bolted to the front of the house and starts to climb, threading his half-hands through the rungs and pulling himself up slowly, slowly. It sways under his weight, but remains standing.
Peeking an eye over the windowsill, he sees Spike and two children. One of them is on the ground flopping like a fish. The other one is being restrained, a hand clapped over his tiny mouth. Spike herself is wearing a frilly dress, badly. He taps on the glass.
She catches his gaze and drops the child, who lands on the floor in a heap. "Harp?" she says, before zipping her own lip. Harp understands that the Silver is listening.
He motions for her to open the window. "I came back for you."
"But what about the red? Don't you have to follow it?"
She looks over her shoulder at the children, brow crinkling. The girl has gone still, though she is breathing. The boy dazedly pokes at his sister with a ruler. "I tried to change her plates. Make them better."
Harp knows what he has to do. He rolls into the bedroom, moving as quietly as he can so he doesn't rouse the Silver's attention. "Don't talk," he tells the boy, pointing his middle finger at him since the index finger is missing.
The little boy takes a step back.
"Tools?" he says, and she hands him the bobby pin. He unscrews the girl's left plate. The connections make sense to him somehow, total comprehension dawning over his mind like a rising sun.
This is what I did back then. Fixing things. It was good, honest work. I can do this, now that I'm smart again.
He twists and reconnects the wires into a different configuration, checking it against the untouched right plate. The girl's mouth opens and closes as he does this, like an infant's mouth. Finally, he sees that the two plates match. He screws them both back onto her temples and adjusts her into a sitting position.
"How do you feel?"
The girl opens her eyes. She touches her temples. Then she looks at his plates. "Mommy! Mommy! There's a Plastic in the house!"
Feet come running up the stairs, heavy and rhythmic.
"Shit, we gotta run!" Harp says. He takes Spike by the wrist.
The Silver bangs the door back against its hinges. "You!" She whirls around to look at Spike. "And you!"
"Bye-bye, Leonora." Spike slips the band from her ankle and hurls it at the Silver. "Nice knowing you."
They sprint down the path that sits aside the saline lake, sirens blaring behind them, the sound of drones in the far distance. They run in silence, ducking behind every bush and tree to shield themselves. Around them, always, is the reek of brine shrimp.
After twenty minutes or so, Harp feels his mind cloud over, his brain slow down. He grips Spike's hand and can tell that she knows what's happening.
"I'll get us the rest of the way."
"The rest of the way to where?"
"Just follow me," Spike says. "Pretend I'm the red."
He squeezes her hand, and nods.
The house beside the dead city on the lake. Certainly the Goddess wasn't talking about Leonora's house. There were no people there working together against the mist. Another lake? Another city? Spike has no idea where she's supposed to go, but she doesn't let Harp know that. It would freak him out. It would destroy him.
They press on.
She knows it's dangerous to be out here with her Platinum plates exposed. Aside from the risk of plate theft, there might be some enterprising people who would just kill her for the hell of it. Not that her people didn't deserve everything that was coming to them, even if she didn't individually merit any violent acts.
Maybe I do deserve it, she thinks. But she can't give herself up. She has to remain alive for Harp. To find that place the Goddess said they both belonged.
She keeps the lake always in sight out of the corner of one of her eyes, and Harp in the corner of the other one. "Doing okay?"
He just grunts, the pain of his regression already wearing on him. He didn't get a chance to tell her what it was like, being unaffected by the mist and then returning to his natural unnatural state, but she could read it all in his face.
"We'll stop in a few minutes. Just let me get my bearings." She stares out over the lake. Was that some sort of cloth tied to a tree near the coastline? She makes Harp stay where he is, and goes over to inspect it.
It is cloth. She unrolls it, revealing a pair of triangles intersecting a round sphere. It's the fucking Channel Only symbol, screenprinted onto a rag. She tosses it into the water with a sigh. "Nothing," she yells over her shoulder.
She doesn't know how to hunt, and doesn't want to eat anything that comes from the lake, which is probably full of mist residue. Platinums never ate seafood for that reason. So instead of having a meal, they sit next to each other on a decaying log and think about food.
"Ham sandwiches," Harp says, licking his lips.
"Blueberry ice cream."
"Fried chicken. With mashed potatoes."
"Roast beef in wine sauce." But their bellies still rumble, and Spike knows that even if they're not caught, they're toast. And not the edible kind.
They press on. And on.
When the sun is halfway down the sky, Spike finds the Channel Only logo chalked on a tree. Not chalked. Engraved. A lot of Channel Only fans out here in the hinterlands, she thinks.
Harp touches the carving. "What is it?"
"I don't know. We must have gone halfway around the lake by now." She ransacks her externalized memory for the rough circumference of the Great Salt Lake. "Maybe not."
Harp just gapes at it with his mouth open. She reminds herself that it's not his fault. It's hers.
They continue on. And on.
When dark nears they find a cabin. Weeds have overrun the front yard. They step over the mess, picking their way along the broken stones of the front walkway. Hesitantly, Spike swings opens the unlocked door and surveys the wreckage of the living room, long picked over by scavengers and animals. She sniffs the air, but doesn't find the telltale odor of rotting bodies. The original owners must have fled long ago, when their minds did.
She nudges him toward. "Come on, Harp." Dazed, he follows her inside.
Spike directs Harp to lie down on the threadbare couch while she prepares the bed for herself. She finds several guns in a hidden cache under the bed, but quickly conceals them again. She strips out of the ruined taffeta dress and lies down on her back, almost instantly falling into sleep. And that's when she sees it.
A tiny Channel Only logo, painted in red near the upper corner of the ceiling.
She punches sleep away with invisible fists and goes over to inspect the logo. There's a line of coordinates nearby, which she logs into her plate-memory. Only then does she let herself fall into the world of dreams.
The next day, she rouses Harp from his sleep – he sleeps deep, like a bear – and sets out for the coordinates logged in her memory. She doesn't know where they lead. But they're something.
"Where are we going?" Harp says, still groggy.
"I'm following the red," she replies.
"No red around here." He shakes his head. "Nothing around here."
Oh, there's something all right, she thinks.
She leads him away from the lake and the occasional siren she can still hear echoing over the flat, barren land. Toward the scrub. The ground is unbroken by human feet, and she wonders if there's anyone at the end of this string of directions. Some rogue group of Channel Only enthusiasts?
The mist is wearing off, the Goddess had told her.
Finally, they arrive at another cabin, nearly as dilapidated as the place where they spent the night. It makes Leonora's house look like a palace. Tentatively, Spike knocks on the door. "Hello?"
The door creaks open.
Harp rears back, but Spike grabs his forearm and drags him closer. "It's okay," she says, though she can't even convince herself. He goes passive – a feature of his plate – and trudges after her.
The inside of the house is filled with computers, floor to ceiling. Spike has never seen so much tech before, not even at her father's factories. At every console sits a woman or man with a determined expression on their face. Some are manipulating shapes into different places, while others tinker with audio cues. Nobody turns to greet them.
"Does someone want to tell me what's going on here?" Spike asks.
Harp doesn't say anything. He's drawn to the screens, mesmerized by them. He kneels in front of one of the consoles, nearly knocking the woman at the controls out of her seat.
The woman smiles and lets him sit down. She walks over to Spike, her expression frostier. "I see you've found us."
"Who are you?"
"The real Channel Only. The ones bringing everything down." She tosses her hair and Spike glimpses pure Platinum. "Welcome to the revolution."
Harp doesn't watch Channel Only anymore. They'd told him that was because it wasn't for him, that only people affected by the mist were susceptible to its underlying message. Still, he misses its soothing patterns and syncopated rhythms.
"How's the wiring going?" Spike asks. She looks a lot more like herself, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, her orange hair back in reverse icicles.
"Almost got it," Harp says as a spark jumps from one of his tools to the circuit board. "Maybe not." He'd shown no talent as a programmer, but Channel Only was in need of a good electrician. We need those even more than we need programmers, they'd said.
Spike groans as she lowers herself onto Harp's bench. The cabin had been only the tip of the iceberg, most of the headquarters buried deep underground. "Don't these fuckers know how to clean up after themselves?"
"We couldn't do what we do without a janitor to keep everything tidy."
"Oh, spare me the 'everyone has an important role here' line. I should just go back East. You don't need me here."
Harp ignores her. It's not the first time she's cried about her relative mediocrity. "We have a new pattern premiering tonight. Splicing it in at 8:07 EST."
Five years ago a splinter group of eight programmers broke away from the official state television channel when they discovered that certain combinations of shapes and sounds could influence human behavior, even in minds clouded by mist dust. The rogue Platinums recruited others from all six of the other plate castes, choosing people who had once been artists, or musicians, or writers. They replaced their plates with ones stolen from hospitals that served Platinums, or that were ripped from the temples of people that they'd assured Harp were really, really evil and deserved it.
Harp had been a Plastic. He remembered what it was like. Nobody deserved it.
Harp was told they were doing good work, and as he came out of the mist's neural fog, he saw it was true. This secret cabal spent their days developing "pulses" of programming to insert into normal broadcasts, subliminal messages that would influence the lower castes to rise up in revolution... and eventually find their way here.
"We have an outreach team at each of the gathering points," one of them had said. "When the people arrive, we'll be there for them."
Harp finishes up his work and fits the chassis back over the machinery. "All set." He wipes his hands on his pants.
Spike pouts at the clean walls of Harp's underground lair. "Do you really think we're doing anything?"
"It's a slow process, Pamela. We can't incite change too quickly. The Platinums will notice if half their workforce suddenly disappears."
"That's not my name," she says, scowling. "Maybe I can help from DC. Work within the system."
"There's no such thing as working within the system, Spike. We need you here." Harp knows that if Spike did try to leave, the guards at the front door will shoot her in the back. The splinter group can't risk some punk kid spilling their secrets.
"Don't you miss the Goddess?"
Harp's face reddens. "Don't make fun of me, girl." The Salt Lake technicians had explained it to him. The manifestation of the Goddess of the Highway was the result of amphetamine psychosis mixed with sleep deprivation mixed with a faulty wire somewhere in his Plastic plates. He'd fashioned the whole mythology through a sort of temporary madness. He'd chopped off his fingers himself. He'd boosted his own capabilities there at the end, his last wish. None of it had been her. "There's no Goddess of the Highway."
"Yes there is," says Spike with a smile he can't interpret.
Harp moves on to the next machine. "Besides, you don't want to go back there. Isn't this what you wanted? To bring down the system, make everyone a Platinum?"
"I'm too good for this," she mutters.
"What I mean is," she says, "I just didn't think it would take so long."
"It'll be over sooner than you think," he replies.
"Not soon enough," she says before flouncing out of the room.
When he knows nobody is watching, Harp kneels next to the terminals that line both sides of the room. He pictures her in his mind. The unreal woman with asphalt skin and signpost hair. And he prays.
As Harp's mind returned, so did his memories, images of a family living in the shadow of some mountain range. Lots of families were disrupted in the post-mist panic, not just his. Families scattered to different castes, different lives. We'll find them, the other operatives had said. If we can, we'll bring them here. Or they'll find us. In a fractured world, he knows it's the longest of shots.
Find them for me, Harp thinks to the being that doesn't exist.
He knows it's pointless. She was wishful thinking spun into a personal mythology to help him survive thousands of miles traveled along desolate highways across the gutted continent. She isn't real, and never was.
But hey, it's not going to hurt.