For about two hours we proceeded along the freeway, Kiri carefully matching our speed to that of the other traffic (this was definitely not a good time to earn a speeding ticket, I reflected). Several times we crossed over other highways, which for the most part dumped their traffic onto ours, until we found ourselves in the middle of what was developing into a heavy mass of bumper-to-bumper traffic. At the same time I gradually became aware of a dark blot along the horizon ahead, visible even against the dull grey of the polluted sky. Once I thought I heard a train whistle of some kind from the paralleling rail line, followed by the rattle of freight cars, but at the time we were several lanes deep with solid traffic on all sides and the sounds remained only sounds.
As the dark smear ahead gradually developed into a dome of brownish yellow smog our speed began dropping accordingly, until we were crawling along at perhaps twenty miles per hour by the time we entered the outskirts of what was evidently a large industrialized city. A distinct plume of black smoke was beginning to separate itself from the general blot until it stood out clearly ahead and slightly to the left, with the major part of the smog off to the right.
"I don't understand this," muttered Kiri, clearly working herself into a nervous state at the delay. "This is supposed to be the bypass route around the city."
The mystery was soon solved in a rather dismaying manner, as we found ourselves being routed off the freeway directly towards the city at the next interchange. As we swung up and over the empty lanes I got a glimpse of a huge object, seemingly the size of an ocean liner, engulfed in flames at the base of the giant plume of smoke, surrounded by a cloud of emergency vehicles both on the ground and in the air.
"That's a Deshtiran battleship," said Kiri, awe in her voice.
"Not everyone's on their way to Qozernon," Zyanita added calmly. Judging from the immense halo of scorched landscape surrounding the wreckage, I suspected that it had been an impressive mishap.
"Looks like this war's already taken its first casualties," I remarked unthinkingly.
"No, not the first," said Senaria softly, looking away from the rest of us. No one spoke for the next few minutes as we entered Watu Djamus, as the city was called.
"Well, I guess we're going to get a close-up look at one of the Brizali's industrial hellholes," Kiri sighed. "I really hadn't planned on this. Let's see if we can stay out of trouble this time."
Any hopes I might have had of our diverging route taking us through the city on a high-speed freeway were quickly dashed as our detour soon dumped us directly onto an ordinary city street. From then on we were slowly working our way from one intersection to the next though honking, foul-smelling traffic as we entered the bowels of the city. Along the way I learned that the four-color Deshtiran traffic lights followed the color conventions commonly in use on the Twin Planets, with blue indicating a favorable condition (equivalent to the way green is almost universally used on Earth), orange a danger situation (or "stop"), and green and yellow for progressively more unfavorable intermediate states. As it happened, I was later to encounter these colors under rather more interesting circumstances.
It took very little time for me to realize that Watu Djamus was one of the ugliest cities I had ever seen. In addition to the severely polluted air (far less breathable than that we had encountered upon landing), the city itself had the aspect of a giant industrial park, with the narrow streets threading their ways between gigantic factory complexes of sheet metal and poured concrete. Overhead were countless assemblages of piping, electrical cables, catwalks, and conveyer belts. What little one saw of the sky was an occasional glimpse of flat brownish-grey, and at times the smog was so thick that vehicles drove with their lights on.
The people I saw were uniformly dressed in the drab grey shirts and faded shorts of the Brizal work force. Occasionally one saw a black shirt, indicating a member of the Brizal organization. Although at times we passed through what could have been considered a residential area, it generally consisted of drab lookalike buildings with stores on the first floor and multiple apartments above, so squeezed into such various corners and gaps in the surrounding factory buildings as to seem an afterthought.
Here and there were what amounted to conveyer belts for humans, which appeared to be as close to public transportation as anything we saw, and which generally connected a cluster of apartments with one of the nearby factories. The vast majority of the vehicle traffic around us consisted of official business, the vehicles being occupied by at least one Brizal in addition to any other passengers, or of truck deliveries of all sorts. Occasionally a police or emergency vehicle appeared overhead on its way to some unknown crisis.
What I found most interesting was what I didn't see. Watching the crowds of workers waiting at stoplights, or boarding the conveyer belts, I realized that this was no 1984 scenario. I saw innumerable instances of courtesy and good humor as the crowds jostled their way along, and an occasional smile here and there. It hit me that this was a defeated, occupied world, not a sea of brainwashed automatons. Noting also the occasional side glance full of suppressed hatred directed at the omnipresent Brizal officers, I suspected that eventually there would be a reckoning, and I wondered just how civilized the Deshtirans would prove then.
It took us a good three hours to work our way through the dismal place, and at that we were probably lucky. It was with tremendous relief that we found ourselves crossing under an immense aggregation of power line towers and over another rail line, and then accelerating back onto the freeway from which we had been so rudely ejected. Soon we were leaving the last outskirts behind.
"Traffic looks a lot lighter now," Kiri noted gratefully. "There are no other cities between here and Tar Deshta, and it's a relatively small town. Let's hope there aren't any more detours." I glanced back to see the black plume of smoke still roiling high into the air, eventually disappearing into the overall murk. I wondered how many people had perished in the mishap, and felt my stomach knot up as the realization hit me that whatever the number, it would easily be dwarfed by the catastrophe looming ahead.
Eventually Zyanita crawled over the seat and disappeared into the back, to return a few minutes later with sandwiches and containers of fruit juice. "I think we'd best avoid any more rest stops if we can," she commented dryly. "If you need a break, bathrooms are through the back and third universe on the left." I had to grin; it was certainly the closest to humor that I'd heard her attempt.
For a while we munched in silence as we watched the barren scenery slide by. Ahead stretched the freeway, bordered on one side by a tremendous series of transmission towers and on the other by the single rail line, as far as the eye could see. Finally breaking the silence as she looked around at the rest of us, Kiri seemed to be thinking aloud as she said, "The hardest part of all this is going to be getting through the checkpoint at Tar Deshta. It's not a place just anyone can enter. We're going to have to play it very cool, and it might be a good idea if several of us hid in the living quarters just in case. The less we resemble the police description the better."
I nodded, feeling a bit like a criminal myself. "We've gotten this far," Senaria said softly. "We'll do this somehow." Those were the last words spoken for a considerable time, as we each rode cocooned in our own thoughts.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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