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Terrain that had looked flat on the satellite map of California's Central Valley turned out to be wrinkled and cracked in unexpected ways. Jesse and Clair stumbled in and out of ditches, getting tangled in old fences and constantly stepping on jagged rocks, arguing about whether it was better to travel on the ridges, skirt the sides, or follow the dry creek beds they came across. The creeks were safer, but they curved in unpredictable ways and were often clogged with debris. Their progress was very slow.

The way became hillier as she and Jesse approached the southernmost fringes of Copperopolis. Their sporadic conversation provided much insight for me, later, into the changeable nature of interpersonal relations.

Clair: "I really need to rest. Can't we stop for a minute?"

Jesse: "No. Not far now."

Clair: "You said that half an hour ago."

Jesse: "I did. But what does 'far' mean? Aren't all locations the same to you, d-mat girl?"

Clair: "Screw philosophy. Carry me."

Jesse: "Not for all the tea in China, if you know what that means."

Clair: "Of course. That's where tea came from before we could fab it any time we wanted. I'm not stupid."

Jesse: "I would never suggest that, not in a blue fit."

Clair: "Then why . . . I'm sorry. I don't mean to be such a grouch."

Jesse: "It's okay. It's not your fault we're stuck in the boring bit."

Clair: "What do you mean?"

Jesse: "This is the part most adventure stories gloss over, the part where the heroes are slugging on for hours in the dark, bored out of their freaking brains."

Clair: "Screw adventures, too."

Jesse: "Agreed, with all my heart."

They tramped on for a minute, skirting the edge of a tiny, dried-up pond. The ribcage of some large animal, a horse or a cow, stuck out of the caked soil like bony fingers cupping long-lost treasure.

Jesse: "Can I ask you about Zep?"

Clair: "I guess. What about him?"

Jesse: "You told Aunt Arabelle that Zep was just a friend, but he looked like more than that to me." (silence) "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

Clair: "No, it's okay. If you want to know, I'll tell you."

Jesse: "Only . . . I thought he was going out with Libby."

Clair: "He was. But he liked me too, and I liked him back."

Jesse: "Oh."

Clair: "Don't say it like that. I never wanted anything to happen. It just did, and there was no taking it back. I wanted to take it back, of course, but . . . ."

Jesse: "I get it. It was complicated."

Clair: "What about you? Apart from having a crush on Libby like everyone else, what's your love-life like?"

Jesse: "Are you kidding? I can't date at college because everyone thinks I'm a freak. The girls I've met through WHOLE have been predictably intense. I suppose I could hook up with someone via the Air, but what's the point when everyone lives so far apart? So, no love-life at all, I'm afraid."

Clair: "You wouldn't use d-mat even to get lucky?"

Jesse: "Not even. We Stainer boys are made of sterner stuff than that."

Clair: "No point dreaming of what you can't have, I guess."

Jesse: "Exactly." (silence) "Zep would have carried you."

Clair: "Not if Libby was around."

Jesse: "That's better than nothing."

Clair: "Is it?"

Jesse: "I guess not."

(sound of engine noise)

Clair: "Wait. Do you hear that?"

Jesse: "A bike or something-coming this way!"

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