4.13 Where Lightning Strikes

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Just apologize! Margo wanted to shout at Thomas.

Both Thomas and Cherise seemed to be doing their best to pretend that the other didn't exist. All Thomas had to do was say he was sorry, and that would begin to heal the chasm between them. It would also go a long way towards reassuring Lynn and everyone else that he was more human than Torth. Surely he understood that.

Her foster brother would have apologized without hesitation, but this yellow-eyed version seemed to have some sort of emotional damage. Margo couldn't read his face the way she used to. She couldn't figure out why he was still acting aloof, and that made her nervous. What if he relapsed into full Torth mode?

They sped through a concrete canal, turning corners at frightening speed. Only Thomas knew where they were going and how to get there. Pung had been smart to grab the blaster glove, but the rest of them needed to learn how to drive. They needed to be self-reliant.

The control panel looked impossibly complicated. Torth glyphs scrolled and blinked on the dim screen.

"Are the Torth searching for us?" Margo asked, noticing a few transports soaring in the distance.

Thomas swerved around a pipe that jutted out of the wall. "They will be," he said.

That was it. He was a lot less forthcoming than he used to be.

Margo turned up the collar of her luxury robe. Even with the thick material, the wind made her shiver. City lights barely lit the canal, so she couldn't see the upcoming turns until they were nearly upon them. Thomas must be navigating by memory or some kind of radar.

"What's that?" Lynn asked in a panic.

Water roared ahead. It sounded like Niagara Falls, echoing off canal walls. Margo could smell the humidity, and the darkness in front of them looked blacker than it should. There was a cliff, or a pit. An ending.

"I've calculated our velocity, momentum, and mass," Thomas said in his uncaring voice. "We'll make it."

They had no time to argue with him. He'd given them almost no time to prepare. Margo threw herself forward, onto her hands and knees, as the platform suddenly veered upward, climbing at a steep angle that was almost vertical. The thundering water was almost deafening. If anyone screamed, Margo couldn't hear them. An enormous open pit yawned to one side, and she knew that if they lost momentum, they would plummet into churning water and drown.

Their hovercart crested the narrow strip of concrete and flew down on the far side. A moonlit desert spread before them. They plunged several feet, bounced on a cushion of air, then continued to hurtle at top speed across the rocky landscape.

"No one will have seen our exit," Thomas said.

"We could have died." Lynn clutched the railing, as if weak.

"Welcome to my life." Thomas didn't seem to care about how shaken everyone else was. "We're attempting to run away from the Torth Empire, so we should expect to die at any time. Get used to it."

He sounded uncaring, yet the dry wind felt like freedom. Margo gazed at the rocky desert with wonder. No Torth in sight. No slaves, no sewage, no threats, just inert rocks and sand. She hadn't expected to ever feel hopeful again.

Behind them, aerial transports cavorted past skyscrapers wrapped in casino colors, as endless as a neon mountain range. The buildings were as smooth-faced and expressionless as Torth. All was silent except for the rush of wind, and ominous rumbles that must be spacecraft in the distance.

"You saved us," Margo said to Thomas. She wanted to hug him. She didn't think he would welcome a hug.

"All I could do as a Torth was collect opportunities," Thomas said. "We're using them all up now." He seemed despondent. "I can't predict how far we'll get."

Kessa spoke with quiet wonderment. "This is farther than I knew was possible."

Lynn stared at Thomas with an anxious frown, her gray-white hair ruffled by wind. She was bundled in a luxury robe, but her discomfort was plain. She didn't want to be in debt to Thomas.

"It's too risky for me to use this anymore." Thomas shoved the data tablet off his lap, and it clattered to the floor, dark and powered off. "Other high rank Torth have the same access," he explained. "If I leave the tablet on, I'll be leaving them a way to theoretically locate us."

Margo backed away as if it was a venomous snake.

"Your slave collars have trackers, too," Thomas said. "And this hovercart. Good thing I used the governance tablet to de-register all of our devices."

That didn't sound final enough to Margo. She began to run through plans in her mind, but without the hovercart, they wouldn't get far on foot. They needed a hiding place where no Torth would think to look. They needed a lot more power than the few devices Thomas had run away with.

"Is that Alex?" Kessa said.

Three full moons brightened the night and silhouetted the rocky horizon. Margo couldn't see as far as an ummin, but spiky shapes crowned the tallest hill, and one of those shapes did look like the contraption for Alex's death. It leaned at a crazy angle.

"I assume he's still there," Thomas said. "Sand blasts from the storm buried the surveillance equipment, and drove away the audience that was supposed to witness his death. No one knows what happened to him. But they'll be sending people here any time. We have to be quick."

They raced downslope, wind rushing past. Upslope felt like an eternity. When they finally crested the ridge, they glided into a wonderland of squiggly rocks.

It reminded Margo of the aftermath of ice storms, when trees and roads were encased in glossy ice, but these crystals were dark and sinister, leaning at drunken angles. A shadowy figure lay amidst the chaotic rocks. "Alex," Lynn whispered.

The crucifixion contraption had all but toppled, and his sparse gladiator armor couldn't have protected him from wind-driven sand or much else.

"Is he ...?" Lynn didn't seem to have the nerve to finish her question.

"I don't know." Thomas sounded bitter about not knowing. "We just have to make guesses, and survive on guesswork." Judging by his tone, guesswork was worse than starvation or torture.

When the hovercart plowed over squiggle-rocks, they shattered, like fragile glass.

"These are fulgurite formations," Thomas said. "Lightning sand." He looked awestruck, even a little bit fearful. His gaze scanned the rocky wonderland and Alex.

The whole ridge must have shook with sheets of electricity, to kick up so many sprays of sand and fuse the sprays into squiggle-rocks. So much violent lightning.

And Alex was chained to the equivalent of a lightning rod.

Margo would give anything to hear his deep voice again, and to have another exploratory conversation with him, but she might as well wish for magical powers while she was at it. She might as well wish for Jonathan Stead to return from the heavens and smite the Torth Empire. A slave such as herself was used to harsh realities. There was no way Alex could have survived.

His corpse would probably be gruesome, after he'd hung in chains for more than eight hours, scorched by the sun and then scoured by sand and electrical burns. Margo vaulted over the hovercart railing before the platform slid to a complete stop. She needed to protect Lynn and Cherise from debilitating trauma. They would accept the judgment of a nurse without having to see the damage up close.

Alien rocks crunched and shattered under her boots, which were held together with rags. The cross was so tilted, Margo would be able to touch the sculpted muscles of his shoulders.

He didn't look dead. He merely looked asleep, his beard and hair a tangled mess. Margo reached towards his face. She didn't expect to feel breath ... but Alex was breathing.

"How is this possible?" She touched his parched lips.

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