Previously: The exile Ianno Starling and the computer Glimmer make a pact to adventure and find riches. Their pact crumbles at the first sign of trial. Their tearful reunion.
"I'm just so glad you're here."
Glimmer's voice struck through Starling's fatigue and he beamed, irrationaly tried to hide the tears in his eyes, and crumpled to the ground.
He dreamed he was searching the ground in the dark still, and the stars were piercing his eyes, and Glimmer was telling him where she was but he still couldn't see her. "Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey."
He realized he was lying in the mud by the stream, the sun was in his eyes, and Glimmer was in his ear. "Hey. Hey. Hey."
"What?" he snapped, and sat upright. He was still very tired.
"You were having a bad dream so I tried to wake you up."
He stretched, slouched to the stream and drank. "Thanks." The water was murky and tasted like dirt. "You don't have some kind of ultraviolet water purification function, do you?"
"Not on me," she said. "We need to find a real town in case this water makes you sick. You also need a hat. I don't think we should hit the people there."
He felt his head. The unexpectedly shaggy hair was muddy and clumped. "Sounds good. And a haircut and a bath. And food." He felt like the pangs had been his companions all his life.
He cradled Glimmer under his arm and climbed out of the ravine on the opposite side of the garage, keeping a wary eye on it. North of the ghost town they found a dusty gravel road. The rusted sign bore directions in a barely readable font:
<- HOLYWATER 26
-> VENTURE 15
"Venture," he said. "I like the sound of it. And it's closer."
"Fifteen whats?" she asked.
I do need a hat, he thought, as the sun rose higher. His feet crunched on the gravel in a familiar rhythm, and he struggled to keep his eyes on the horizon as he chatted with Glimmer.
"I've never heard of a road like this," she said. "Why don't they pour concrete instead?"
"Nobody lives out here," he said. "There isn't any money. This is the best they can do." He shifted her to his other arm.
"Why do people come here, then?"
"No place else to go, I guess. Some people just want to be let alone, or the city's too constrictive." He paused. "Maybe there aren't cities here." The thought was frightening, but somewhat tantalizing. He'd grown used to the wide spaces.
"Also," he said, uncomfortable with the thought, "there are possibilities out here. Maybe there are minerals to find, or new land to irrigate. Even poor places can make you rich if you find the right hustle. Or even if that doesn't work out, you can get rich selling things to people that do."
The road twisted around a rise and bent at ninety degrees. Venture, however large it was, was still out of sight. Starling stopped to catch his breath. His stomach roared.
"Let's do that," she said. "Sell things to people trying to get rich."
"We have to get to know the area first," he said. "Maybe people really are getting rich. Maybe they'll want your marbles so badly we'll be set for life."
"I hadn't thought of that." She sounded disappointed. "Would you be satisfied with that?"
Over his shoulder he spotted a plume of dust coming up the road. He stepped off the gravel and walked on the dusty roadside, thinking.
"I wouldn't," he said. "You can always get richer, and..."
"It would be too easy," he said.
A battered pickup, more rust than metal, stopped with a whine beside them. The driver, a fleshy man with shoulders cramped in the small cab, peered out of a broken window. "You get mugged?"
Starling straightened up. "Uh, no sir, just bad at traveling. You got a ride?"
The driver threw a thumb at the pickup bed. Starling vaulted in and wedged himself between an upturned wheelbarrow and a large toolbox.
"Oooh." Glimmer sounded impressed. "Is it always this easy?"
"Depends on the area," he said. "When they're this friendly it's easy to get rides."
The pickup coughed and accelerated. "It also, most of the time," said Starling, "means they're poor." The picks and shovels piled by the door of the truckbed were worn, their handles cracked and taped.
He smiled, thinking of his father's delivery bicycle, oiling its chain while his father turned the pedals. He relaxed against the cab and watched the dust cloud rise into the blue sky.