Something was stirring the animals up. Like there was a disaster looming somewhere that humans were too thick-skinned to sense - and it was an odd turn of phrase, Simone thought to herself. They were too thin skinned for the current world, in the general sense. Unable to evolve and solidify their standing on the world, and so they were on the road to extinction no matter how far they advanced with science. Not in terms of their population. Every now and then there was a disaster like the earthquake at the East Russia Research Institute, but the populations in colonies were usually stagnant, and controlled to be that way.
The problem was the land, because so far only the surviving aircrafts used by the registry and the far from perfect hoverbikes, there was no way to live without contact with the land. And the hoverbikes weren't a livelihood. They were simply a means for travel. The aircrafts could perhaps carry around hydroponic tanks but they would hardly fit a viable population on there. So unless the researchers found a way to stop the poison from advancing, they were looking at another hundred to two-hundred years before there was no place on earth spared that poison.
But that didn't bother the animals. They evolved and they ran on the plains that burned human feet with no problems of their own. Acute things bothered them more, and Simone wondered what it was. The earthquake? The fumes over Greenland? Or had something stirred the hornet's nest, so to speak? Had the bloodhounds gone on one of their feasts after getting an unexpected snack? Usually, it was the village - and she could see its lights now, on the horizon. Usually they got something a little bigger than simple cuts and scrapes after fighting away the wild beasts that took up homes close by. That always followed creatures known as bloodhounds - creatures no living person could describe but who they knew existed, before there was a massacre left behind.
It was always the smaller villagers - and they survived because they were small clumps of people, scattered over a healthy stretch of land. Eventually, the poison would force them into close quarters but for the moment they defended the pentagon. A somewhat different structure to many other colonies who had their population concentrated at the centre and resigned themselves to the fact that the periphery would continue to slip away from them. That was why they were called villages - villages instead of towns or cities, and though entire villages were wiped out many times, they were rebuilt and they continued on. Space was the only thing that separated them and from their neighbour villages and space was easily filled. Who knew if that was a better method than some others, and who had the right to say?
The horizon had drawn closer, and the lights brighter.
HeLa zigzagged across the plains. He made in one direction, then found himself diverging at the sound of bone-chilling howls until they'd faded with distance again. Then there were flickering lights, the kind he saw night by night and they'd always been accompanied by rumbling hums and flashing bullets and he veered off from that course as well. And then there was rumbling and a faint light, and he turned away from that as well until he was far away from civilisation and the people traversing the plain and all sources of light except the sliver of moon in the sky.
And then he slowed, because there was nothing pushing him desperately now, nothing wrong with the place he was in. Though the burning sensation rose through his feet when he stood too long, and he had to move again. Had to move, slowly, stumbling, until he found a place where he wasn't burning…
If there was such a place.
Boris followed Tony's lead almost automatically. He'd heard no scream follow them but the snarls had been enough, and he had plenty of theories of what could have occurred, and each ultimately lead to the same end but just more painfully than the last thought. But they could do nothing else except flee, because if they stopped, then they'd be next and that was assuming they wouldn't suddenly find themselves surrounded again. And Tony wasn't talking either, and Nelly wasn't there to give some comment to any sight or sound and Louis wasn't there with his still innocent fascination with everything.
They'd switched the lights off. Boris didn't have his rifle either. He didn't know what happened to it. He'd thrown the other samples he'd gotten as well, and the food they'd been carrying. They could live a few days without food, and when they gave up they could use the wireless to find the nearest habitation and rest there and make peace with the fact that they'd failed, because they'd been turned around too thoroughly. Blind searching wasn't going to uncover HeLa. They weren't going to uncover HeLa – and if they did, they'd definitely leave a trail of blood and they'd be pounced upon before they reached civilisation. Didn't the Council know such monsters existed on the plains?
"The Council can't know everything," Tony said flatly, but there was a lilt in there that made Boris wonder if he believed his own words. Not that it mattered. The Council couldn't really be blamed for Louis, but Nelly was on their hands. Nelly could have been either them – should have been Boris, really, because he'd been the one carrying the phial of blood, and the one who hadn't secured it properly. All Nelly had done was reverse into him and that would have been Tony if he hadn't been further away at the time. And Louis wouldn't have to have been crushed of Boris hadn't sent him in that direction, or had gotten there faster after the other had called, or had checked the cage properly – but that hadn't been his job. Whose job had it been? None of theirs, since their only job was to throw the food in, unless the researchers needed an extra hand.
He could see how people hated science, even if he'd never met such people. They might never too. The wasteland was as barren as it had been and the thin sliver of moon in the night sky gave them no hint of direction. They'd have to wait for the sun to come up before they knew which way was east, and they'd have to survive the night for that. They couldn't park their hoverbikes because they'd quickly crumble away. They couldn't drive all night in a straight line because they might wind up too far from civilisation. The hoverbikes ran on solar power as well as fuel so they could go for another day but not another night. They'd run out before they dried up like shrimps and stopped floundering like stranded fish.
But they were stranded fish regardless of how much water they had between them, regardless of the hoverbike that was their livelihood in the poisoned plains, regardless of the wireless that could put them into contact with the institute they'd been dispatched from and ask for directions back. But Boris didn't mention the thought, and neither did Tony. They simply glided haphazardly over the wasteland, aiming for no destination in particular.
The village was in good spirits and welcomed her news – moreso because they were one of those that loathed science and thought the earthquake at the research institute to be a just punishment for its practitioners.
But, Simone soon found out, the reason they'd been in good spirits before her arrival was that there'd been a massacre, and not of any of their villages.
"Lots of meat," one of the women chatted, and insisted on packing the bounty hunter some to take with her. She denied the offer. The animals of the wilderness had a formidable sense of smell and she didn't want to give them a reason to chase after her. But she accepted the cooked stew happily, and ate in slurps as she listened to the tale she'd just missed.
"There was a big explosion!" The woman had three kids with her, and they were an excitable bunch, waving their arms to animate the words they spoke. "Boom! Like this!"
"How?" Simone wondered, when the children repeated themselves and said nothing new.
"We don't know." The woman shook her head. "The men saw some metal there – they used it to slide back and it spared their feet." She smiled fondly at a passing man. He grinned back, hefting the creature over his shoulder. Simone took a close look at it. The fur was almost black, and the snout long. What she could see of the teeth between tight lips showed them sharp canine as well. And the tail curled in a way that seemed entirely useless in the evolutionary scheme of things.
The man passed. The woman shooed the three children after him, and then added in a low voice: "There was a human body as well. Might have been a bounty hunter like you."
"Maybe," Simone shrugged. "We don't exactly keep in contact." But another thought occurred to her. "They might have been security, from the Institute. I hear they were sent out to catch an escaped test subject."
The woman grimaced. "It's barbaric, that is. Individuals are as important as the world. Killing for food or safety is one thing, and we kill without pain if we can."
"I've heard," Simone replied. "I find it easier to take the best of both worlds, but then, I don't have loyalties to anyone."
"You don't support what destroyed us," said the woman. "You only take advantage of it – and so do we. It's impossible to cast such things off us entirely. Collecting scraps off the wasteland. Trading things. But there are some things we – most of us – don't want a part of."
"Time does that," Simone said lightly. "When dramatic things don't happen, people forget why their ancestors felt so strongly about certain things. Or something like that."
"Does bounty hunting let you search out wisdom?" the woman asked. "You are young, but you speak like a woman not held back by pride."
Simone laughed at that. "We all have pride," she said. "It's a failing of humankind. My pride is just a different sort – being alive at the end of the day and having gained something."
"Never mind what you've lost?" the woman asked.
Simone shook her head. Her blonde hair came free and she twisted it deftly back into a knot. "I have my life," she said plainly. "Everything else can be exchanged if it means I'm alive at the end of the exchange." Her eyes flickered in the direction the family had gone. "I have no other commitments."
"Family is a big commitment," the woman agreed.
Nothing had come after them yet. But when Boris' engine coughed, then died with the sun peeking out from the horizon like a cheeky child, they both knew it was only a matter of time.
Tony slowed. If they'd been back at the Institute, Boris would simply have called for someone to take over his shift and he'd get his repairs done. But they weren't back at the Institute, and though they had the tools for minor, non-corrosive repairs, anything else was impossible. And the choices were bleak: take Boris on the remaining hoverbike and go half as fast, stay and wait to see if it could be repaired or at least patched, or simply leave the other behind and carry out the mission alone.
As though either of them were thinking about the mission as opposed to just aimlessly moving through the plain. He shook himself. There was a fog in his head that refused to lift. A fog of despair, perhaps, or failure. "Check the bike," he sighed. "I'll stand guard."
Boris did so, grimacing as he stepped down onto the corrosive soil, and Tony turned his bike to slowly circle the other. The lack of stirring life was barely bearable now, but for different reasons than before. As a security guard he'd watched the lay slopes just west of the Institute until he could have replicated every contour and the flicker of moving shadows was a frequent relief. But now the emptiness was a cage within which they waited for their execution, and the shadows the executioners. And yet Tony had no choice but to stare out into it, because he was a security guard and that was his job, even now.
Boris grunted, and then there were sounds of clattering and hissing that led Tony to assume the problem was fixable. He glanced to make sure - Boris was trying to straighten out a crushed tube - and then went back to his vigil. If Boris fixed his engine, they'd be able to move again - but move where was the question, and the question they'd been avoiding.
If it had crossed Boris' mind to send a quick message through the wireless - to the institute, or to the Council to report failure and a request to abort - he didn't speak it. And neither did Tony, and not because there was any hope for success. There never really had been. Maybe the council hadn't been aware, or maybe they had and they'd become the guinea pigs for the rest of the council, for the rest of the world.
And it didn't matter, because three - four if the counted Louis - lives were a small number but a powerful force to sway the public, to promote unity - and it was all fantastical, the political battles that went on as though one leading party would eventually rule the world, but they got swept up in such things anyway. Protecting the institute meant they were on the side of science, on the side that had created HeLa, that had condoned it, fed it in order to protect the sliver of humanity they still considered - and now they chased it instead of letting it vanish into the wide expanse of the wild to be ignorant off, like the hounds that had followed the trail of blood.
They'd come upon them eventually. They would because the blood from the beasts they'd shot still clung to them. But they hadn't. Not yet.
Tony could only think of two reasons why, because Nelly alone wasn't meal enough for over twenty flesh-hungry beasts. Either she'd blown them up - with her share of the explosives meant to control HeLa, or they'd found something more appealing to fill their bellies. He doubted it was the latter. Humans would be a rare treat in the middle of the wasted plains. More likely it was Nelly, a security guard to the end in a world where security guards mostly died wasting away of old age because they learnt quickly how to handle the wolgers and tibers and berolves they had to deal with, and lose a limb in those early days at the most. His own leg had been regrown twice - the first time because a wolger had bitten it deep enough to get the sciatic nerve and biceps femoris accompanying it, and the second because the initial replacement had been in its imperfect stages and hadn't lasted.
But using those explosives meant they wouldn't be able to use them later, that they'd have no way to control HeLa when they caught him. If they caught him. They weren't even trying to catch him now. Just trying to stay alive until they died. They were as dreary as the landscape, as dreary as all humans, really, fighting against inevitable extinction but it was far starker when there were only two humans, surrounded by impending death.
"Done," sighed Boris, and clamboured onto his hoverbike. Sweat clung to his forehead and his eyes were dark. Tony straightened his course. "Did you find something?"
In truth, he'd just picked a random direction. Because it didn't matter.
Boris didn't ask him again. Nor did he comment on the fact that Tony wasn't talking now. Not like when they'd left, when he'd been filling the otherwise oppressive silence, the otherwise ash-heavy air. Now it was the scent of blood that chased them, and that was a foreign thing - and a frightening one. He was the oldest security guard. He'd only had a few more years in him anyway. But this was different.
And different was that two guards who'd had another twenty, thirty years in them had gone first. Nelly had already said it. Nelly should have been saying it again but she couldn't because she was one of the dead and Boris was the quiet one, even before the shock seeped into his bones.
And the shock seeped in so easily because they had gotten too used to routine. Two hundred years after the world had drastically changed, they'd become used to the wastelands and the small colonies, small communities split between advancing science and managing without, and the poison slowly eating what viable land remained.
Or viable for them, anyway, because the beasts they'd seen didn't seem to have any problems living off the wasteland.
Simone smelt ash before she made it to the scene, and no wonder, she thought, when she took it in. Those kids had been right about something going "boom". She saw bits of metal that might have been part of a hoverbike, but there wasn't much of a way to tell. And a skeleton entirely stripped of its flesh, and bullets scattered about in the sand. She picked those bullets up to tweak and reuse, or trade to someone else who would. Little of their bullets were made anew. There simply wasn't enough metal.
On that note, she took what metal the villagers hadn't already cleared away and strapped them to her bike. She'd have to give them a thorough cleaning before setting off, but science-heavy places like the institute were always in need of metal. Generation involved fancy alchemy stuff that she couldn't grasp, but foraging was an easy enough skill and half of bounty hunting at that.
The skeleton she considered for a moment. What they did with the bones of the dead depended on the colony, though cremation was more or less a world standard for the flesh. The East Asia Research Institute kept them somewhere. The village they were nearer to tossed them to the desert or used the long bones – of the arms and legs – to make spears and knives. But they could those back to the wasteland if they cared to. There were a few carcasses as well. Some had begun to rot though the poison that seeped through open wounds nullified the smell.
In the end, she chose to take only the head. They'd know who it belonged to with the teeth, whether it was a security guard from the East Asia Research Institute or someone else. Or if she bumped into the Registry along the way, they could do the same. And a skill weighed no more than the bits of metal, and her bike was made to carry things, not drag like the hoverbikes of security. It was no extra baggage for her but a prize that could earn some petty cash.
And maybe a safer passage across the plain as well, now that the bloodhounds had taken a decent sized blow to their numbers.
The silence was oppressing, but Boris struggled with forming a thought coherent and appropriate enough to speak. It was far easier to just drive listlessly, following behind Tony and looking only at the rear of his hoverbike. They hadn't swapped shifts yet. Tony's eyes must have been burning and it would be all too easy for shadows to slip close – too close.
But it wouldn't be much better if they did swap, because they'd gone a day and a night and another morning without sleep and Boris was seeing shadows out of the corners of his eyes anyway. He'd given up staring at them. He was out of bullets too – a foolish move in retrospect, though it couldn't have been helped at time. But between the bullets and the explosives, it would have been smarter to use the explosives. They had a higher chance of success, and easier to make at the lab. In fact, it would have been an easy thing to blow up their stalkers, return to base, fetch some new supplies, and resume the search for HeLa.
But they hadn't done it. The explosives hadn't even occurred to them until the explosion waved them off into the then blind horizon. And by then it was too late for Nelly, and too late for the explosives too because the ones on her had gone off. Whether she'd done it on purpose or the damage to her bike had triggered the chain reaction was anyone's guess now. Nor did it matter. Nelly was dead even if they hadn't seen the body. And they could only hope it was the explosives that had led a swift execution, because the alternative was being torn, mouthful at a time, until the flowing blood insulated the poison, or the heart or brain or some other vital thing was torn.
And if they didn't act against it, that was the fate that awaited them as well. The stalking shadows would reveal fangs – blood stained perhaps, or pearly white and ready to feast, and then that would be the end of their aimless wandering.
It should have been so simple to admit defeat, or the need for resupply and just go back – and he for one would not be agreeing to go out again for some time, if at all. The dry institute was suddenly a comforting thought, and one he could wrap himself within like a security blanket against the Russian winter cold. But to get there meant breaking out of the cocoon – meant taking action and losing the hypnotic effect of routine and he wished that Tony would do something, because Tony was more experienced and less close and Tony had always held himself together better than the rest of them.
But Tony did nothing. Perhaps he was locked in his own comfortable cocoon as well.
Simone considered heading to the East Russia Research Institute, but she caught a snippet on her wireless that made her change her mind. The registry had responded to her note about the explosion, saying they were over the western wasteland and would be arriving at the village colony in an hour or two. So she'd stayed near the town, searching carefully but thoroughly for any hints of the bloodhounds and for the quarry that had led three security guards out of home.
But all she'd seen for her troubles were the wastelands, sloping ambiguously, and a few wolgers that were easily dealt with. The low hum of the approaching aircraft marked the end of that and she turned her bike around. She didn't want to miss the Registry after all - nor did any child until they grew out of the phase where things were still new and exciting, but that was a different matter.
It hovered above an unpoisoned dune. The troughs were all grey and black, but the taller dunes still had their original sand-yellow hue. Too small a space to land, but enough for a hoverbike or three. Enough to stand upon. And two Registry workers leapt lightly down to meet with her there.
The aircraft looked like it could use some touching up, and the Registry seemed to know it because the woman who disembarked first turned back to her transport with a grimace. "Sometimes I wish I was a bounty hunter instead."
The man behind her rolled his eyes. "This job's far safer but just as interesting." Looking at Simone, he added: "Kojo. And this is Asha."
Asha scanned the other woman, and her vehicle as well. "You called us?"
"Bloodhounds did," Simone corrected, "and I've heard something about a HeLa running loose as well?"
"Council secret," Kojo shrugged. "Another advantage of being official."
"And yet anyone can hack into those secrets if they've got the skills," Simone replied. It might have been insulting, but Kojo seemed to be poking his companion more than addressing her with those jibes. "And if I ever run into the fellow, I'm sure I'll know as much as the world."
"Perhaps." Asha glared at Kojo. 'Shut up,' her almost yellow eyes seemed to say, before she turned back to Simone. "So what can you tell us about these bloodhounds?"
Simone tossed her the head. To her credit, Asha didn't fumble the catch, though an expression of disgust flickered across Kojo's face, prompting both women to laugh.
The wounds had long since been cauterised by the poisoned soil. Even where she'd cut the neck was just acid burns. But the skull structure was preserved, and some skin and fur. Asha turned it over in her hands, rubbing lightly on a patch of fur to discern its original colour. She winced when she ran leather-clad thumbs over the teeth. "Sharp," she commented, examining the tear in her glove. A little blood leaked out of it.
Kojo sighed. "Leave that to the scientists. Our job is only to collect the information and do head counts."
"How do you appreciate how sharp their teeth are if you don't feel them?" Asha shot back. "These would have no problem cutting into human meat." She paused, then pulled a pair of tweezers from her pocket and pulled out something from between two teeth. "Did, by the looks of things."
Kojo grimaced again. Simone leaned closer.
Those strands were too long to be anything but human hair.
They'd circled at some point. They must have because they came upon the very carcasses they'd fled from. Boris remembered them clearly. And he could see Nelly's hovorbike as well. And a little ash from the explosion, that the desert wind hadn't yet managed to sweep away.
Tony didn't seem to notice. He was just looking ahead. "Tony!" The call came out as more of a croak, and Tony didn't turn. He became a speck on the horizon – and then not even that. Boris had slowed without realising it, as much a part of the painting as the carrion around him.
He shook himself lightly. Part of him wanted to disembark: to search those sparsely fleshed bones for Nelly: the undeniable human buried under all those beasts. But it was an exercise in futility: moreso than their aimless wandering that might take them to civilisation, or their quarry. What sort of hunters were they, anyway, who hunted half-heartedly? He laughed aloud and it echoed strangely about him.
"Bye, Nelly," he said to the mess, after he'd collected himself. None of them were stripped clean, like there'd been too much food for even the most gluttonous beast and they were happy to let the rest spoil or be dissolved. And it was a sad fate to leave Nelly to: Nelly who deserved a funeral as much as Louis, as much as any other dead human. But the living always mattered more.
He eased forward: slowly, reluctantly, until the scene was another recent memory to bear with, and then he accelerated. The wind was hot and stale and brought no comfort, and nor did the surrounds: dunes sloping all about them, studded in yellow while the rest were a dead and poison-steeped grey. The horizon was a blurry line. No dots along it that could be Tony, or HeLa, or those monsters, or any settlement to give them a brief reprieve. No sounds except his engine and the breaths from his dry throat. He could stop for water. He should. But then he and Tony would get further apart. Easier pickings for the world that was, for them at least, shrinking by the day.
And then there was another noise. A low hum. Not straight: almost perpendicular, to his right. Not the growls of beasts who'd smelt fresh prey. Not natural at all. Synthetic.
Was that Tony? He cut his engine and listened. Not a hovorbike at all. An aircraft, like the ones the Registry used to traverse the world. Becoming louder. Coming closer. And then he could see it: a speck of grey growing larger. And then the aircraft itself, with one door open and a head of auburn hair poking out. She shouted something. He didn't hear. The aircraft came closer. "Get on the dune!" she repeated.
He started his engine up again and obeyed. They hovered and dropped a ramp. He rode it smoothly, but skidded when he braked inside. "How many more?" the woman asked.
"One." The air was frigid, and made him cough. "Just…Tony."
She pulled a bottle of water from her utility belt and threw it at him. He caught it and gratefully drank. "Not too much," she cautioned.
He coughed more with the ice water anyhow. Though it did clear his head a little.
The woman left. He hoped she'd gone to inform the pilot of Tony. But they hadn't asked which way. Perhaps they left tracks visible in the air. But they shouldn't. They didn't touch the ground.
Or maybe they could see Tony, knew where he was. The height put more land in their view: more safe spots, more patches where the poison had done its work and where only the mutated beasts still roamed.
He slid off his bike. The floor felt unsteady underfoot and he slumped against the wall. That was cool too: cool even through the tough fabric he wore, and his leather gloves. It eased his sour muscles but sent a chill down to his stomach. Made the water slosh uncomfortably. Or maybe that was just him unused to being so high. Hovorbikes didn't have the same effect. Hovorbikes only glided. They didn't fly.
He closed his eyes.
"Hey! This isn't a sleeping spot!"
The woman was back.
Simone saw the aircraft off north-east, then headed a slightly different way. Back to the mass of bones and bits of flesh. She still had to find that security's body – though it was going to be a job with what she'd seen. The pile was easy enough to find, and the blood was all but a part of the acid sand. But the carcasses were all in pieces, bones scrambled, and finding a human head amongst them all meant checking each and every set of teeth.
And though it wasn't the first time she'd seen proof of cannibalism, the image of that hair between sharp teeth still shook her. Enough to have drawn a long sturdy knife in her left hand and a handgun in her right. Rifles were better long-distance shots, but she wasn't going to be making many of those while bent over a pile of part-burnt, part-dissolved and part-eaten corpses. She wasn't going to be making any shots, hopefully. These bones had already been picked, and the rest was rubbish to be buried now.
Finally, she found what she was looking for. A head, neck and part of the torso, and she could only guess at where the rest of it was. There was still some hair on the skull: charred but still unmistakingly blonde (and too close to her own hair for comfort), and the longest strands as long as her forearm. Both eyes were gone though: blackened holes, and the bone of her right cheek was gone. Still teeth though: tiny in comparison to the bloodhounds that had devoured the rest of her.
She unrolled a sheet of plastic and wrapped the body up. Roughly, yes, but the plastic was already burning when she heaved it over her bike. No-one had bothered finding a way to prevent that. There were more important things to explore: ways to stop their bodies from dissolving, their plants from dissolving, the infrastructure that let them stand on the ground in relative peace…
In a sense, what she was doing now was a waste as well. Not for her. People often paid for things that had no survival value and a dead body was one of those things. The need for closure, for that final farewell… Even if they had no family, no lover, no close friends, it was an important part of human culture: one those things that had survived even this dissolving world.
She hissed. Suddenly, her boots were hot and she clambered onto her bike and inspected the soles. She'd stood in the sand too long: the leather had burnt away, and the steel plate underneath was specked with black. She unhooked her water bottle and doused both soles. They hissed and, dripping, she put the boots on again. They were more bearable now.
She still had three quarters of her water. Plenty to get to the Institute.
She started up her hovorbike and headed east.
Boris' stomach plummeted, and the aircraft followed suit. "You're looking pale," the woman frowned.
"Just my stomach.' And his muscles, which had cooled but were now stiff. But that wasn't unexpected. How long had he sat, almost perfectly still, on that hovorbike? How long had they gone in that big circle?
The woman left again, then came back with a bucket. "Here." She sounded a little uncomfortable, but Boris was grateful for the bucket. Though he hoped he didn't need it. It smelt of some sort of cleaning agent. Not what they used in the Institute, though. Still calming. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
"It's lemon. Not a drug."
"It smells nice." His voice sounded a little better. The cooler temperature and the water was kicking in, now. "I'm sorry," he said suddenly. "I've totally abandoned my manners."
"The bloodhounds probably grabbed them." The woman grinned. "But that's fine. We're used to it." Her hair, that had been floating a little, settled down as the aircraft stopped moving. "I'm Asha."
"Asha," Boris repeated. "I'm Boris."
"And we're picking up Tony now." She nodded. "And Simone might've found one, so that's all of you."
"Simone?" But he didn't really want to know, because Nelly was the only one this Simone could have found and there was no way Nelly could be in one presentable piece.
Better to think about Tony, who should be appearing any moment now. Except he didn't. The aircraft simply started moving again.
"Guess we left the hovorbike behind." Asha stared at the door, before yelling: "Kojo!"
A man with a black goatee – who Boris assumed was Kojo – appeared a moment later. "Guy's mumbling about that HeLa," he said. "Not even worried his friend could've been eaten by those bloodhounds."
"We were supposed to find HeLa," Boris mumbled. "Claire said to bring her something interesting as a souvenir, as well."
The two Registry workers looked at each other, then back at him. "The both of you are in shock," Asha said finally, and more gently than she'd spoken so far. "We were on our way to the Institute, but it might be better if we went straight to the Council instead. They'll probably want to speak to you, and we can drop you off after that."
"We can't do anything about HeLa," Kojo added apologetically.
HeLa was far from his mind. But not from Tony's, by the sounds of it. He shrugged. "It's fine,' he said. "Never really thought we could drag an immortal guy by the belly anyway. Nelly even called it a suicide mission."
"The earth should've killed these suicide missions." Asha's voice was hard again. "There's few enough as it is."
"Our jobs are to account for every one that's left." Kojo crouched down, touching his forehead gently against the security guard's. "You've got a bit of a fever, too. And your skin's quite dry."
"Driving about in the desert for a day and a night will do that," sighed Asha.
"And not having eaten recently." Kojo raised an eyebrow.
"Didn't have time," Boris mumbled. "Tony was just driving ahead, and I had to follow."
"You didn't want to lose the only other living thing around." Kojo nodded sympathetically. "Something liquid might be best, for now. You're looking a little pale and unsteady." He tactfully ignored the bucket.
There was silence for a moment, before Asha groaned. "Fine," she said. "I'll go get a mix."
"Get two," Kojo instructed. "And a straw. And see if you can make some progress with the other guy."
"His name's Tony," Asha called over her shoulder. "See? Progress already!"
The Registry's job was to count heads, essentially: human heads, animals, and resources as well. But listening to the pair of them, Boris wondered how many impromptu rescue missions they'd pulled off in the process, to sound so familiar with the scene.