gotcha

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A man in his seventies stepped into the light, weathered and faded by the sun. His eyes were so gray they were almost transparent from the quadricycle's perspective. He was wearing a thin silk dressing gown that hung down past his knees, and slippers that had seen better decades.

"Er, no," said Jesse, his sandwich forgotten. "We're just passing through. I hope that's okay."

"Fine with me, son, as long as you're not making a racket or tearing the place up."

"We won't. Thank you."

They stood in silence for several seconds while I checked the new arrivals bona fides. He didn't seem dangerous.

"Never trusted that thing," he said, indicating the booth. "They made me put it here in exchange for free power. I know it comes from the satellites now, but you still need wires to get it around. It was either that or move. They said it was for emergencies, but who's going to have an emergency out here? The last lot to come by were balloonists. If they have an emergency, they're dead. Am I right?"

"You're right," said Jesse with a small laugh. "How long have you lived here?"

"All my life, and I ain't going anywhere now."

"No one's making you. We're just passing through."

Clair came around the corner.

"Ah, here's the pretty one. Jayden Beaumont, proprietor of the Old Corner Saloon."

Beaumont smiled with yellow teeth and extended a crooked hand.

"Clair Hill. Sorry if we woke you, Mr Beaumont."

"Call me Jay. And no need to apologize. I don't sleep so well these days. Tumbleweeds in Telegraph City, I hear them."

He let her go and she stepped away.

"You two need a bed for the night?" he asked them. "It's not too late to throw something together. Breakfast included, free of charge."

"No, thanks," said Clair quickly. "You get many people out here?"

He scratched at his scalp and pulled an odd face. "Not many, it's true, but some. Student geologists, the odd surveyor, historians, hobbyists. Is that what you two are? On some kind of college race, perhaps?"

"That's it," she said. "A treasure-hunt, actually. If you see someone else tonight, don't tell them we were here."

He tapped his nose. "Gotcha."

"Guess we'd better move on," she said. "Don't want to fall too far behind. Thanks for letting me use your bathroom."

He smiled and said, almost sadly, "Sure, honey."

From under his dressing gown he pulled a shotgun. He pumped the action and pointed it at stomach height, midway between Jesse and Clair.

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