Daylight comes creeping across the cold dead deserts, chasing away the darkness of night. Another day dawning in the long tale of days. Where the shapeless dark has been before, a new terrain comes into being, of rust-red plains and a brilliant blue sky above them. Sand and sky, red and blue, each is a mirror of the other, reflecting its pristine perfection: always faultless, forever empty.
Trapped between earth and sky is the restless wind, the master of all movement on the plains. It is the wind that sings the dust-devils into being and laments their passing, smothering the tracks that they make. It is the wind that hisses across the dunes, building their slithering slopes and driving them on their march towards the eternal horizon. It is the wind that whistles around the rocks and the cliffs and the outcrops, taking the dust that was once part of them and turning it against them, grinding them down, leaving only endless emptiness in their place.
Day after day, this is the way that things are and the way that things have been for untold ages past: blue sky, red rock, and the wind's many voices.
But not today. Today is different. Today, there is another note that rises and falls across the sands.
A ragged red plume flares up into the sky, a rising smoke-streak that scatters the whirling winds before it. The track it leaves is straight, an unerring line that cuts across the dust-devils' countless criss-cross trails. It does not deviate; no graceful curves or dizzying loops are left in its wake. It brings an unnatural order to the ageless dunes, a new geometry that scars the landscape.
At the head of the dust-plume is a splinter of metal and glass that glints in the daylight, moving faster and more purposefully than any dust-devil. The velocycle's massive wheels churn up the sand, one fore and one aft. The coming day strikes sparks from the supple arch of metal that connects them, and beneath the arch, the barrel of the engine drums away, drowning out the wind. Held out ahead, as if it is trying to outrun its own wheels, is the jutting dart-shape of the cockpit.
The velocycle thief lies face-forwards beneath the glass of the canopy, watching through the goggles of his facemask as the horizon streams towards him. Noise fills the cockpit. Noise fills everything. The hammering of the engine burrows into the thief's bones, shaking all the way up his spine past his ribs and into his skull until his teeth rattle. Still he does not relent. For mile after racing mile, he keeps the accelerator-stalk pressed as hard as he can, pushing the velocycle to its absolute maximum.
Ahead and to the left, the horizon shifts and grows, buckling into the silhouette of some highlands. The thief glances down at the radar-screen, and smears away a spatter of drying blood-drops with one red-gloved hand. The screen shows nothing. Nothing and not nothing – only the glowing dot of his vehicle at the centre, the outlines of swelling dunes, and the rocky outcrops up ahead; nothing for the thief to worry about. But he knows that the radar-screen will not remain empty for long.
He kicks back into the steering-stirrups to angle the velocycle towards the rising cliffs. High ground is where he needs to go, and he is determined to get there by the quickest and most direct path.
It is an uncomfortable ride. The thief is still learning to read the shades and textures of the ground-radar, but even when he can, it makes no difference. Boulders or sand, hollows or ridges, he does not care what lies between him and his goal. The speedometer peaks when he cuts across a stretch of hard-baked rock pavement or on the empty flats, and drops away when the wheels plough into deep-piled dunes. The studded tyres spin and skid, but still the thief presses onwards. No matter what the obstacles, he carries on carving out his route towards the highlands, knife-edge straight.
Another number on the instrument-display catches his eye, and he glances quickly at it. The thief guesses it shows how much fuel is left in the tanks, and it is falling steadily towards zero: his reckless dash across the plains is drawing to a close.
The silhouette on the horizon hardens into the dark stripe of a plateau. The thief cannot tell how far away it is, not from the radar – he is used to judging distances by eye. Those eyes peer out through the goggles of his facemask and study the way that the outline of the plateau shifts with each passing mile. He gauges the distance to it by the angle it cuts across the sky and how the perspective changes the shape of its slopes. All those signs tell him that he might have twenty-five or thirty miles to go – a few minutes at the speed he is travelling. Just a few minutes. Maximum speed, no detours or delays. That is all the thief needs if he is going to survive.
When he looks down at the radar-screen again, it is there: another vehicle. The glowing dot flashes strong and steady behind the smudged back-scatter of the velocycle's dust-wake. They have found him; just as he had expected they would, but far sooner than he had hoped. The miles and miles of empty desert between them will not matter now. Even as he watches the radar, the distance between his velocycle and the other vehicle shrinks, eaten up by the speed of pursuit.
The thief checks and re-checks, looking from the rushing view of the deserts outside to the instrument-display, to the radar, to the instrument-display, and back to the deserts again.
Highlands, speed, radar, fuel.
Highlands, speed, radar, fuel.
It becomes a ritual, and every time he looks at the radar, the glowing dot that follows him is closer. Unmistakably closer. There is no doubt: his pursuers are approaching him faster than he is approaching the high ground.
The thief glances up from the blood-spattered radar-screen towards the plateau, willing away the distance. Another jolt. Another drift. Another stretch of bare bedrock where the wheels roar with sudden freedom.
Out there, in the cold dead deserts, the margins of survival are always so small. A finger's width. The blink of an eye. One wrong step. Margins too small to be sure of their impact. Still the thief tries to measure them, to count the costs and to even the odds. His pursuers might not reach him in time. He still has a chance. But if they do catch him, he will not give up without a fight – they know that now.
Another few minutes, another few miles, and the dot has crept right up until it is almost directly behind him. The thief glances over his shoulder through the rear section of the canopy, but the view is obscured by the trailing dust-clouds thrown up from the wheels of his velocycle. Then for a moment the clouds clear and he sees the metal and glass teardrop of the other velocycle, a mile or so behind him. Its steering-fins twitch eagerly, waving and gesturing from their recesses in its streamlined outer skin, urging it into a subtle new angle of pursuit.
Unlike the thief, the pilot of the hunter-velocycle reads the grey-green shadows of the ground-radar like an expert. Every hollow, every drift, every obstacle that slows the thief down, the hunter-pilot avoids. Where the stolen velocycle lurches forwards from one jarring impact to another, crunching over half-buried edges or jolting across the choked-up scar left by some long-dead river, its pursuer takes a weaving detour. Despite its meandering route, the hunter-velocycle is closing the distance. Soon, the two vehicles will be head-to-tail, and the shadows that reach out from the highlands are still miles away: those fine margins of survival are becoming finer by the second.
The dot comes closer. Closer. Closer. Closer. Then the next time that the thief checks, the two dots in his radar-screen have become one, and the hunter-velocycle is behind him. It darts in and out of the billowing wake thrown up by his wheels, looking for a way to draw level. Its pilot is too close now to care about the obstacles that the thief blunders through. There is no way to bring the pursuit to an end trapped in the plume of dust thrown up behind his quarry, and the hunter-pilot knows it – he has to come alongside.
The thief knows it too. Every time the hunter-velocycle veers out to one side or the other, he matches it with a blocking move of his own, keeping his wide rear wheel directly in front of his pursuers. His steering is clumsy, but it has the desired effect. Again and again, he counters. Again and again, he keeps his lead.
But it is a game that the thief cannot win. The attempts to draw level have ceased to be random; the pilot of the hunter-velocycle only ever tries to overtake on the right-hand side. Every time, the thief is forced to steer slightly right-wards to block the move, and gradually, the hunter is pushing him away from the highlands and away from safety. With the cliffs now running almost alongside instead of ahead, the thief has a decision to make: keep his lead, or keep his course.
He kicks back hard into the left-hand steering-stirrup. Fins and vanes flare out down one side of his velocycle, catching the wind and pulling the vehicle back in the direction of the cliffs. In an instant, the pilot of the hunter-velocycle does the same. The thief is back on course, but he has lost his lead; the hunter-velocycle has come alongside, throwing up a parallel dusty streak.
The two vehicles dance a duet, their tracks snaking alongside each other across the flats. The thief glances over at the pilot of the hunter-velocycle, huddled forwards like him in the same prone pose beneath the canopy. He cannot see the pilot's face through the transparent visor of the helmet, but he does not need to – they all look the same, each and every one of them.
Abruptly, the thief turns away and glances forwards, first at the rising cliffs, and then down at the radar-screen. Only a few miles left. Five minutes, no more. In the supply-pouch in the small of his back, he can feel the weight of the pistol he took. He only has four shots remaining. Not enough, perhaps, when the fuel runs out and it comes to a stand-off, but four shots will have to do.
Except the hunter-pilot will not let it come to a stand-off. The hunter-velocycle bucks slightly as the rear section of the canopy lifts and slides backwards. A passenger sits upright out of the cockpit and into the full force of the wind. The currents catch hold of the hunter-velocycle, slowing it, buffeting it, rocking it on its axis, and the pilot struggles with the steering as the streamlining vanishes.
The movement catches the thief's eye. He glances over at the hunter-velocycle and he sees a new threat: the cold hard glint of daylight running down the barrel of a rifle.
The gunman turns sideways on to the wind and pulls the rifle back into his shoulder, setting the telescopic sight as close as he can to the visor of his helmet. He struggles to stay upright, aiming slightly to the rear of the canopy of the stolen velocycle where the thief's legs are stretched out behind him. Even now, after all that has happened, they will not kill him. Not outright, anyway.
The gunman holds his aim, holds his breath, and squeezes the trigger. The sharp crack of the shot is torn away by the wind.
At the very last instant, the thief veers away. Drowned by the noise of the engines, he does not hear the shot itself. He feels its impact somewhere aft, a dull thud against the rhythm of the engine. No warning-lights flash. No alarms sound. The shot has failed to end the chase.
The gunman steadies himself for another attempt, unbuckling the safety-harness that restricts his movement. He finds a different angle this time, so that the shot will count wherever the bullet strikes.
Lying face-forwards in the cockpit, the thief can do nothing but watch. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide – he will never reach the safety of the plateau.
A warning buzz jolts him back into the moment: the fuel is almost gone. For a heartbeat and no more, the thief eases his grip on the accelerator-stalk and hits the brakes. The gunshot comes as the hunter-velocycle flashes on past him at full speed. It misses his legs, misses all of him, and punches through one of the windows in the cockpit-canopy.
The decompression-alarm howls, its keening audible even above the engine-noise and the low-fuel warning. Breathable air vents out and the choking atmosphere of the desert floods in. An emergency oxygen-mask pops out from one of the solid sections in the canopy-roof, swinging from a twisted stalk of plastic tubing. The thief bats the mask away and scrapes and paws at the kaleidoscope of canopy-glass that now lies scattered across the radar-screen. He has seen something there that even his unaccustomed eyes have learnt to recognise: loose stones.
With a yank back on the accelerator-stalk and a kick of his right foot, the thief veers away from the highlands and towards the pebble-field. A blinding cloud of dust and grit sprays up from the wheels of his vehicle, and he feels his stomach slip backwards.
Behind and to the left of him, the hunter-velocycle barely slows, slews around, and accelerates in pursuit, but the hunters have lost their advantage. The gunman holds the rim of the open canopy with one hand, his rifle useless for the moment as the hunters come up quickly behind the stolen velocycle's solid rear wheel.
Inside the cockpit, the thief glances down at the radar-screen. He watches the dot of the hunter-velocycle creep up behind him again, cutting away his lead. The thief has no chances remaining; his timing will have to be perfect.
The pebble-field appears ahead, strewn across a wide landscape that might once have been a river, losing its power as it spread out towards a long-dead ocean. The noise from the racing wheels changes to a rumble. Together, nose to tail, the velocycles jolt and judder across the sweep of stones.
The thief keeps his eyes on the radar-screen. The dot of the hunter-velocycle creeps closer. And closer. And closer. The fuel warning-light seems to blink in time with the rise and fall of the decompression-alarm, becoming a metronome, ticking away, marking out the time to act.
One; two; three…
Without warning, the thief pulls the stolen velocycle around into a sudden switchback turn, aiming at the cliffs and cutting across the path taken by his pursuers.
It is a move that an expert pilot might manage to make one time in ten, and the thief is no expert. The angle of the turn is too sharp to be made at one hundred and thirty miles an hour – too sharp even to be made at sixty.
The back wheel skids out from under him, carving across the sands and sending a scudding fan of crimson dust into the air. The thief fights to maintain control, steering one way and then the other, but it is no use. His velocycle slides over onto its side, spinning wildly. Stones scatter in all directions. Out of control, the velocycle tears a gouge into the ground, shearing off all the steering-fins on one side. Shreds of metal and plastic fly into the air, joining the hail of gravel from the wheels.
Too late to steer a safe course, the pilot of the hunter-velocycle brakes. All the steering-fins punch out at once, but the hunter-velocycle is too close to stop. The studded front wheel rams into the underside of the stolen velocycle, slowing both vehicles almost instantly to a walking pace. The impact sends the gunman flying out of the open canopy, and the hunter-velocycle flips end-over-end over its prey.
Almost weightless, it seems, the hunter-velocycle spirals gracefully into the air, looping slowly high and far. And then, gathering speed, it comes back down to a splintering crash on its back among the boulders. Fuel from its shattered tanks ignites, fed by a stream of leaking oxygen from the cockpit. Fire races across the wreck, quick and hungry flames that leap high with a whoofing roar. They flare, breathing the last of the air in the cockpit. Then almost as quickly the flames become a whispering flicker, fanned only by the thin ration of oxygen in the poisonous atmosphere.
A smear of smoke mixes with dust, red and black, and lifts across the shining blue of the sky. It flutters there proudly, and as the flames die back to almost nothing, the plains fall silent once again.