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Chit and I headed south, alone in the MOG, leaving Fia in her cocoon of security and nanotronics. At my direction, he took us in a southerly loop around the Boston area, coming up on Downtown from beneath. This close to town, the roadbeds had been maintained at a high level of repair, and ground traffic was actually somewhat thick. The MOG towered over most of the small electric or hydroburner runabouts, but they refused to give way for us - Bostonian suicidal driver’s arrogance. Chit muttered several times to himself about probable crush patterns and I saw his hands twitch towards the gear selector during a few instances of microcar stupidity in heavy traffic, but he refrained from steamrollering any commuters.

We pulled off the highway into South Boston, a few miles from my loft. I had him park in front of a coffee shop with public bandwidth while I jumped online to make the call.

“What.” The voice was uninviting.

I swallowed. “Is Sully there?”

“Never heard of him.”

“Look, please tell him this is Top Eckhardt, and I want to talk to him about his car.”

There was a pause. I waited, watching traffic pass the MOG in the parking area through my goggles with my comstruct’s soft colors superimposed. Then there was a click, loud enough to bring to mind angrily manhandled equipment. “Top?” It was Sully’s voice.

“Hi, Sully-”

“Tell me my car’s all right, Top. Before we start.”

“Your car’s all right, Sully. And I’m sorry.”

Ten seconds of silence. I imagined Sully schooling himself to a lower level of anger and winced. Then, “Okay. Where is it.”

“It’s hidden. Not from you,” I hurried to add, realizing how that sounded. “I had to hide it, they chased me from Canobie. The car should be fine, you can pick it up anytime.”

“Who chased you? I didn’t call it in!”

I felt a knot of tension I’d been holding onto ease, at that, before I realized that maybe Sully hadn’t called it in because he’d been hoping to deal with me himself. “I didn’t steal your car to steal your car, Sully. I took it because some scumbags were waiting for me at mine and I had no other way home. I’ll say it again, then I won’t say it anymore because it’ll just piss you off, but I’m really sorry about that.”

“Okay, let’s leave that for now, Top. Where’s the Lotus?”

I gave him the GPS coordinates of the tunnel entrance and of the car, updated by inertial navigation during my underground run. “I left the alarm and the active defenses on, so the car should be all right, but the ground will probably shield it from comms, and I don't know if your autopilot can handle the tunnel so somebody’ll have to go get it out of there.”

“Did you hurt it?” He was calming down. The threat in his voice sounded, I hoped, purely pro forma.

“No. I ran some stupid maneuvers getting away, but I didn’t bend a thing. I may have taken a FOD ding or two on the fans but they were still working fine when I parked it. It should have enough flitmix to get home.”

“All right. Hang on.” There was a pause. I imagined some Boston native kid listening in horror as his boss told him where he was going and what he was driving for his next errand. “I think you should come see me sometime, Top, and tell me what the hell this is all about.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. “Sully, is that an invitation, or is that an order?”

There was a laugh of unknown sincerity. “It’s an invitation unless you don’t show up.”

Right. “I don’t know when I can get down there, Sully. I’m not trying to bullshit you. I’m just not done with this crap.”

“This is the mooks who were watching your car?”

“Yeah. I’m in something that they’re into.”

“Okay. I hear you. You got a recorder on this link?”

“No!”

“No, you idiot. Can you?”

“Oh.” I curbed my embarrassment and told my portable to record. “Yeah, now.”

“Good. You need something, no guarantees, but you see my secretary and you ask.” Sully reeled off a ‘Verse link code. “Don’t get me wrong, Top, you still come see me after this gets sorted out. But you get it sorted out, and you call if you need help. You’re my neighbor, and this stays in the family.”

I had no idea how to take that. “Okay, Sully. Thanks.”

There was a laugh, more genuine, over the link. “Don’t thank me until you’re done seeing me.”

Then he disconnected.

I turned to Chit. “Okay, we can head north. I wanted to check in with somebody.”

Chit had been sipping coffee and watching the traffic. “Who?”

I grimaced. “The guy whose car I stole to get away from the rally. I wanted to tell him where the car was.”

Chit dumped his cup out the window and started the MOG. “You sounded pretty deferential to somebody whose car you stole.”

“Yeah. He’s - I don’t know what Sully is. He’s Southie native, and he has a couple big businesses, and I swear he’s hooked into all kinds of stuff but I don’t know what or how. He carries himself like he is. Better safe, anyway. I wanted him to know where his car was and that it was all right.”

We pulled back onto the road. Chit checked his mirror. “Had he called the cops?”

“Nope.”

Chit shook his head, swinging into the middle lane. “If he’s not your friend, that’s not a good sign, Top.”

I thought about that for while as we drove north towards the Scar.

* * *

Around the perimeter of the Scar, the New Coast Gov once placed warning signs and alarm systems along major roadways intended to prevent the unwary from straying into the backyard of quietly sleeping nanotechnology. Human fear and time have done them one better - the buildings and roads begin to decay into the unmistakable slough of abandonment some fifty miles up what was once I-93. Chit gentled the MOG into another of its copious arsenal of terrain-smashingly low gears and turns off the broken tarmac towards a shape that from its low profile, large size and cleared paved surroundings was once either a mall or a warehouse of some kind.

I held on to one of the many oh shit handles near the passenger door and tried not to think about what was being tossed up into the air along with the grit, trash and dust. Still, we weren't the first to come this way; the Cyclone fence was down, and tire ruts - old but still visible - crisscrossed the ancient parking lot. Chit drove straight across to the middle of the lot, looked critically at the building ahead of us, then turned right and began to parallel it while examining it closely. He ignored the occasional lump in our path which, from the shrieking groans of rusty metal that the MOG raised as we flattened them, were either wrecked shopping carts or very rusty cars underneath the mounds of vegetation, I wasn't sure which. The MOG didn't seem to really care either way.

"What're you looking for?"

"Know it when I see it." He was back into laconic par excellence. I gave up trying to get an answer and looked around. There were birds flushing away from our approach, and a single deer was bounding off across the far side of the lot. Other than that, the area looked completely devoid of higher life forms. We jolted over what might have been a dividing rail, causing Chit to absently select a slightly different mode of ground-pound from the milspec gearbox that was howling happily below us. It sounded as if it was being fed mechanical sacrifices.

"There." He swung the wheel abruptly left, smashing me against my belt and the door. By the time I righted myself, we were barrelling directly at what looked like a featureless wall of falling ivy and stripling trees, hiding a dark brown surface.

"What the fuck are you-"

WHAMscreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-

There was an amazing noise but surprisingly little jolt. I startled reflexively, but the MOG just kept grinding forward into darkness. After a few dozen feet, Chit brought it to a halt and reached for the dashboard. There was a click, and light glared out from the roof of the cab. We were in what looked like a loading area; the nose of the MOG was some two meters from a crumbled concrete dock that rose almost to the level of the hood. Rusted piles around us suggested dumpsters and what might have been a van. Chit opened his door and swung out before I could object, although I tried.

"Damn it, Chit, there could still be stacktrace in here-"

His muffled reply came back. "Nah. No burn. That's concrete, it would've scarred."

I hate it when I panic and people prove me wrong. I opened the door and swung down onto the floor, walking around to the back of the MOG to meet Chit. He had opened the tailgate and was rummaging around in a toolbox welded to one side of the bed. "What're you doing?"

"Gonna see if I can make us a little less conspicuous." He straightened up, holding a four-foot prybar, and walked off towards our entry point. Following him towards the daylight, I could see what had happened - he'd hit a heavily-rusted drop-down door, which had been weak enough to just split into crazed steel petals that now blossomed randomly into the loading dock where the MOG had rumbled through. He examined this critically for a few moments, then began to strategically bend and thwack a few of the larger ones back into place. I watched, not having a prybar of my own. After perhaps five minutes, there was enough metal across the doorway that he could reach out and pull plant matter across the gap like a sickly green curtain. It didn't look undisturbed, but I realized that the darkness of the gap behind the plants didn't look all that different from a long-ago caved-in hole.

Chit snorted. "Not great. But as long as the plants don't look too bad, maybe not terrible. This side doesn't face the highway." He marched back to the MOG and threw the prybar back into the toolbox before latching it again, then turned to me. "Okay."

"Okay what?"

"Okay, now we have to talk."

I regarded him a bit uneasily. "About what?"

"About you. About the run. About taking care of yourself."

"I thought that was your job."

He snorted again. "It is. We're gonna try to make it something less than impossible." He jumped up to sit on the tailgate of the MOG. "Come up here."

I did the same.

"Listen, Top." He scaled his Stetson off into the truck bed. "What do you know about guns?"

"I know I don't like 'em."

"That's not what I asked."

"I know how they work."

"Stop stalling."

"Look, I was raised in the country. I know how to shoot a long rifle."

"When was the last time you did?"

I fidgeted. "Maybe fifteen years?"

He ran his hands through his hair. "Forget that." Silent for a moment, he came to a decision. Reaching behind himself in a smooth motion, he brought his right hand out and had laid a shape on the tailgate before I was quite aware of what he'd done.

There was a handgun lying on the metal surface between us. I think I jumped slightly. "Where the fuck did you get that?"

"Where d'you think I got it? Never mind, don't answer that. Listen carefully." He looked at me. I looked at him to show him I was listening. "Good. This- " - he picked up the gun, ejected the magazine and caught it with his other hand - "is a Pistolframe Automatic Defense Weapon, Active Nano. It's called a Padawan for short. Yes, it's stupid, and no, I don't care." He handed me the gun. I took it with both hands. It was light, apparently made of polymer and ceramics. Chit took it back from me, still looking me in the eye. "It is a fully self-contained weapon, and uses squash-state electricity and some simpleminded nanotech to build itself flechette ammunition from heavy metal blocks in the magazines."

While I was watching, he suddenly inserted the magazine, released the safety, turned and waved the gun at the wall behind him. There was a series of loud CRACK noises. By the time I realized he'd fired the thing, there was a neat row of light splotches on the rusty wall behind him, metal showing through where the rust had been shocked free of the surface surrounding the holes the flechettes had made. The gun looked like it hadn't done a thing. Chit raised his eyebrow at me.

"Uh..."

"I'm showing you this because-" he took out the magazine again and handed the gun to me- "-this one's yours. I want you to keep it on you from now on."

"Are you crazy?" Genuine shock caused me to look up at him. "I don't know how to use this thing!"

"I know." His grin was toothy. "That's why we're here. We have a couple days before we can go anywhere safely. Guess what we're going to be doing."

I looked at him and groaned.

* * *

Two days later, we hadn't heard from Fia. I was fit to bounce off the walls, but Chit refused to get flustered, and was still calmly drilling and grilling me on the damn gun.

"So you're in the cafe. You're talking to someone. The door opens, and two guys come in. They're carrying, openly, and they're looking around like they're looking for someone. You've got the Pad in your holster. Their backs are to you. What do you do?"

"If their backs are to me, I get the Pad out, carefully. Make sure the safety is off. Keep the gun out of sight under the table and make sure I have a clear path to move out of the table's way..."

"No."

"No?"

"No, Top."

"What'd I miss?"

"You screwed up at step one."

I thought back. "They're hostile...maybe they're not looking for me?"

"Nope."

I was getting exasperated. "Then what?"

"Top, you're not a fucking gunfighter. If their backs are to you, you find a way to get quietly out of your seat and you get the fuck out of Dodge, leaving the Pad in the holster."

"Why the hell did you give it to me then?"

"To protect you."

"Then why don't I use it?"

"Because I can't teach you enough in a few days to teach you how to properly protect yourself with a gun as a primary option. I can only try to teach you how to safely handle a gun so that if I or someone else who does know how to use a gun tells you to shoot the fuck out of something, you're more dangerous to that something than to yourself. More importantly, I gave you the gun because there is always the chance that you will find yourself in a situation which you cannot get out of without using it, and which in your best judgement cannot be made worse by trying. Example: someone walks up to you and starts shooting at you in a place where you cannot run because they're blocking the exits. That's pretty much it."

"And how likely is that?"

"I don't fucking know. If I did, I'd play the ponies."

I was cooling down. "Okay. So what you're saying is that I should just leave it unless you tell me to pull it out, or if nobody else is around, unless there is absolutely no way in hell I can think of to get away or deal with the situation without it."

"Right. And remember, if there's anybody behind the people you want to shoot at who you don't want to kill, don't bother."

"Okay." I sighed.

"Hey, man." Chit looked at me and grinned lopsidedly.

"What?"

"We having fun yet?"

"Fuck you, Farnham."

* * *

After four days I could draw the Pad and hit five fist-sized objects five meters away in under five seconds. Not with five rounds, but Chit said that precision shooting was for circuses and sixguns - the whole point of technology was to give you an advantage. "If you're trying to survive, Top, you're going to be outgunned, because I'm telling you not to draw unless you are. If you're outgunned, there's no point holding back, and a Pad can slice two hundred and fifty-six rounds off a magblock. You see targets? Put out fucking rounds."

"Okay, Chit."

"Good. See those five cartons over there-"

I drowned him out in an avalanche of heavy metal thunder. He looked at the pocked concrete wall the cartons had been placed in front of and nodded judiciously. "Better."

I grinned.

* * *

We left the dead shopping mall after four days. I had a Padawan holstered under my waistband and three spare magblocks distributed around my person.

"Hey, Chit?"

"Yeah?"

"What are you carrying?"

"You don't want to fucking know."

On reflection, I thought, looking at the badly-chewed up concrete of the loading dock (all done by gun-newcomer me) I probably didn't.

* * *

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