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They took shelter behind a boulder overlooking a low crack in the ground. The engine noise grew steadily louder and then ebbed into a low whirr. Stones ground under wheels as the vehicle came to a halt on the other side of the boulder.

It was the quadricycle, remotely operated by me. I didn't know exactly where they were, but I had the rough course Clair had projected and an even rougher estimate of their speed cross-country. This wasn't the first time I had stopped, but it was the first time I had heard movement in response.

"Clair?" I called over the quadricycle's speakers. "I know you're nearby, but I can't locate you precisely. Sorry it's taken me so long. This whole area is under intense scrutiny. I'm lucky I could get in at all."

I heard Clair exhale with relief.

"It's okay," she told Jesse. "That's our ride."

"That's Q? Really?"

"I know she sounds young, but let's not look a gift horse in the mouth. You know what that means, don't you?"

They climbed out of the crack in the ground. The quadricycle was twenty metres away, a squat, moon-buggy of a thing, little more than a frame with four balloon wheels capable of fitting into a d-mat booth then expanding out to seat two. It had a sprinkling of antennae protruding from the rear bench and a small dish pointing skyward. A pair of tiny cameras mounted at the front swivelled to face her, locked on.

"Don't reply via the Air," I told them through the dash speakers. "I have established a secure maser link with the quadricycle. No one can detect it unless they're standing directly in the beam."

"You can hear me like this?" Clair asked, jogging closer.

"Perfectly well, Clair."

"I could kiss you, Q. Hell, I could kiss this thing, whatever it is."

Jesse approached more warily. "Hello?"

"Jesse Linwood, I presume," I said, a mild sense of jealousy deflating my joy at being in touch with Clair again. The relationship between her and Jesse had noticeably changed throughout the course of the night. I was no longer her newest friend. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Same, I guess."

Clair took off her backpack and helmet and threw them in the space between seats. The flimsy-looking sides barely flexed under her weight.

"I don't suppose you thought to pack any supplies."

"It didn't occur to me, Clair. I'm sorry." I kicked myself for forgetting their physical needs. "I'll take you past the booth in Copperopolis, if you like."

"All right," she said. "But let's not hang about. We're running behind as it is. Jesse? Are you getting on or what?"

He was examining the underside of the frame. "Yes. It's just . . . a nice design. Good choice, Q."

"Thanks, Jesse." I felt buoyed by his praise. We bonded in that moment. "Would you like to drive?"

"If that's okay with you, sure."

I opened a hatch in front of the vacant seat, and a delicate-looking steering system unfolded. It looked like a retro gaming system controller, but with fewer buttons.

"Cool," he said, finally getting aboard. He pressed two buttons and tested the joystick. Beneath them, the buggy stirred. The wheels spun, kicking up gravel, and they were back on their way.

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