acceleration

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Like most of her friends, Clair had never experienced sustained acceleration outside controlled environments, such as fun-fair rides. When she travelled, she skipped the spaces between and simply went from point to point. Occasionally she sailed, but that was nothing compared to being on an electrobike designed for speed above all else. She closed her eyes tightly and hung on.

"Clair, you're hurting me."

"Don't you think we're going fast enough?"

"What? I haven't even opened her up all the way."

The bike accelerated again, moving gently with the irregularities of the road beneath its wheels. I picked up the sound of Clair's rapid breathing through her ear rings, which were transmitting to me in occasional bursts designed to look like lingering smart-road chatter. Some of the old highways were still active, although not this one.

By the time Clair opened her eyes, they had left Escalon far behind. The bike and its two passengers were rushing past empty scrub land, low and flat, dotted with trees and bushes. They were back on Route 120, cutting west across the county for a place named Adela, right on the edge of Oakdale. The old airport lay on the other side of town. The distance from Escalon was around fifteen kilometres.

"I want you to know," Clair said, "that I don't want to be here either, if that makes you feel any better."

"It doesn't, actually."

"Well, what do you want to do about it? Ditch me here and go off on your own?"

"I could," he said. "It's not too late. I could leave you and those crazies behind, find my own way. It's not like I owe any of you anything. Sure, they used to babysit me, but they blew up my home, they kept me prisoner, they . . . you . . . ."

"Killed your father?"

He didn't respond.

"You're looking at it the wrong way," she told him. I listened with interest.

"What?"

"Instead of asking why you should stick with them, ask what they want with you. With me."

"We're witnesses," he said. "We saw what they did."

"I think we are witnesses, but not of something they did. We've seen something they can use. We might not even be aware of it, but maybe that's why they're keeping us close. Otherwise, why bother? Why not let us go our separate ways and never see each other again?"

"You might be onto something there," he said. "But what makes you think you're any different from them? None of you care about anyone but yourself."

"And you're special how, exactly?" she snapped.

Jesse turned abruptly. A patch of light was growing ahead and to their right, and over Jesse's shoulder she could see how the road curved toward it. Adela swept by in a flash. Thirty seconds later they were juddering over a bridge. The river below was narrow and as black as oil.

Oakdale, although bigger than Escalon, looked pretty much the same. Jesse avoided clusters of well-lit structures near the d-mat station just as Ori had. They took a series of right-angle turns through the town, Clair becoming more proficient at leaning each time. They crossed a train line that still had its tracks. They passed a cemetery. Then they were heading west again along an empty road out of town, looking for the turn-off to the old airport.

My attention drifted when a sensor I had hoped wouldn't go off did go off.

I called Clair immediately, even though it meant breaking radio silence.

"Is it Libby?" she asked.

"No. He's on his way to you."

"Who?"

"Dylan Linwood."

"That can't be," she said. "He's really dead this time. I saw his body."

"I know, but his label appeared in the station at Oakdale one minute ago. There's no doubt."

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