At what should have been mountains, but were now a yellow haze.
"How long do we have?" Casey asked.
"It's just the drift." A screen near his elbow flashed and his eyes shifted. "We have an hour. Maybe two."
The last evac had been five days. She'd returned home to find a family of raccoons had taken up residence in her bathroom.
She walked through her last moments at home.
An alarm sounded in the distance. The fire buoys.
Casey climbed into the last empty seat.
"Branscombe is at 4,000 acres."
"I heard Solano's at 48."
"50-mile-an-hour gusts, they say."
Casey leaned against the window, eyes shut. Then she tapped her wrist twice and closed her mind.
The transport was empty.
She looked out the window and saw they'd parked near a low-slung government building.
Passengers lined up outside, hunched in the dim.
Casey looked up at the gray-haired man addressing her.
"You forgot your bag." He held out a well-worn brown canvas pack.
Slowly waking, she surveyed the people ahead of her. Most carried backpacks like hers, emergency kits stored in closets or garages. Pulled out for evacs.
Bags like hers? But…
She pulled the kit off her back and looked at it with suspicion, then held it at arms length and walked back up the line to find the man who'd handed it to her
Casey squinted into the darkness to her left. Next to the transport a slight young man in heavy gear stood ready, feet shoulder-width apart, one hand near his weapon. His pale face shone.
The moon was out.
Who are you to tell me to get back in line?
She stepped back in to the line, unsure if he was carrying a weapon or just used to carrying one.
His hand stayed near his hip.
He didn't relax.
It was probably someone's e-kit: copies of documents, a battery, an emergency blanket, a pair of socks, and a tiny bottle of water purification pills.
That's what Casey had in hers. At home.
She counted the people ahead of her, just nine or ten left. The man who'd handed her the pack was already inside.
Casey slipped it off and tried to look inside.
She reached inside and felt clothes, plastic-wrapped ration bars, and a zippered pouch.
She shook the pouch and heard the clink of pills in a glass jar.
Just a few people ahead of her in line now and nowhere to chuck contraband if she found something illegal.
The front pocket held the most valuable items: a set of vapes, two battery bricks, a first aid kit, and a roll of twenties.
The check-in table was staffed by two women in navy blue sweatshirts. No insignia, but the matching shirts made them seem official, somehow. They wore alert but friendly faces, like the off-duty firefighters who shopped at her grocer.
They were never really off-duty.
"Place of birth?"
"Really?" Woman 2 broke from the protocol, frowning.
"Series B is for at-risk populations." Woman 2 was still frowning, but just with her eyes.
"I teach freshman classes and live on campus. My vector score was 66.8"
"Just a sore arm"
Woman 1 motioned her to the side of the table. Away from the door and closer to the guard.
Ada tapped Casey's wrist again.
She swims, thought Casey, holding out her left hand, palm down, fingers loosely spread.
Ready for testing.
A drop of Casey's blood was assessed on the spot.
She already knew what they'd see.
The 2022 flu
A brush with TB
All of then written into her blood.
But they wouldn't see Ada. Ada knew how to avoid needles, air syringes, random scans.
Calm now, they'll let you in.
The reader chimed and Casey was nodded into the light.
People slept near their families, neighbors, people they knew.
Casey didn't have anyone nearby. Her family would be in a South County center. If they got out at all.
Then she sat down and wiggled her toes in her boots. No sense in settling in. Evac usually included a hot meal and there weren't kitchen facilities in this room. There'd be a mess somewhere in the camp.
She wanted to keep the pack with her, so she opened it up and took out the clothes she'd felt earlier. A t-shirt and a pair of leggings.
Maybe a girl's, but that wouldn't explain the cash.
The family groups and elders turned toward her and moved to the door in a tide of hunger and tired.
Nobody in the room looked like the man who'd handed her the pack.
Pay attention, she told herself. Everyone here is an individual. They have their own strengths and weaknesses. Needs. Insecurities.
And you need to know how to exploit them.
Casey listened for a key handoff during their walk to the mess hall, but the guard jingled with each step.
Ah, she thought. You need to show you're in charge, you're the one with the keys.
She'd need to check on that when they got into the light.
If he came inside.
Can you remind me? She asked. Of course, said Ada, reminder set.
Casey wiped the conversation from her face and attempted a tired-but-friendly look. A little dazed. Alone.
The camp had other buildings. Other guards. She'd have to wait it out. Trying to leave now, regardless of what was in the pack, would be suspect.
They'd come for her.
They had the same thought Casey did: there'd be a meal, a restless night, and tomorrow they'd pack up early, head down the mountain in a blackout van, and hike home from the depot.
"872 to base. We're at 70% containment. Got a flare along the Solano ridge, but we should have this wrapped up by morning."
The women wore long gray center-parted hair, their own aprons, and mended clothes.
Casey scanned the men, and though they had gray hair they were all the wrong size to the the guy who handed her the bag.
There's another exit from the camp room. He could have gone out there.
But the staff…
They're not always paying attention.
This could use some garlic, she thought.
Your wish is my command, replied Ada, lighting up Casey's truncated glutemate receptors.
Food's more important than you think, said Ada. It tells us a lot. For example, nobody here tried to poison you.
Casey looked around the room, taking in everything so that Ada could analyze it later.
Once outside, Casey lifted her eyes to the sky. It was clear enough now to see the stars.
And the moon had moved.
That should be enough for Ada to locate me, she thought.
35.4° lattitude, Ada said. Given the terrain and vegetation, this is the North End of Los Padres, near San Luis Obispo.
Three hours from home by bike. Five by transport.
It's the stars, actually, Ada said, in the same matter-of-fact, a-little-too-smart way she said everything. I'll teach you how to do it when we get home.
Casey sighed. Sometimes it was hard, having someone a smarter than you inside your own head.
As they got closer to the bunk house, Casey took a few more breaths of the mountain air. She dreaded a night in the shared exhalation of 50 other evacuees.
Sweatshirt 1 addressed the group. "You have ten minutes to get organized, then we'll take bio breaks in groups of ten. If you have questions, I'm Wilder."
Wilder stayed with them in the bunk room. Casey assumed Sweatshirt 2 was outside, shepherding strays.
Nothing feminine. Unless you counted the first aid kit. Men never packed a first aid kit.
She took the bag with her, even though she hadn't found a toothbrush.
Not that she wanted to use a stranger's toothbrush. She just wanted to feel clean.
The guard was tired. Casey weighed an escape that night versus the risk of being more thoroughly tested tomorrow.
The mirrors were sheets of heavy duty stainless steel, unbreakable and barely reflective. Casey washed her hands with the process soap, then wet her face, careful to keep the water away from her eyes and mouth.
That was a long way to run.
Can you help? She asked Ada.
I can't get a standard line out. It's all radio here.
If you can get close enough to an electrical outlet…and if they're not on a generator…
Before Ada's words could flash into being, Casey felt herself changing. Her anger, the ready rebellion, it all disappeared.
They'll live. If you're around to help them.
Ada let the implication sit while she worked through Casey's extremities.
Human beings don't go around putting their hands on lights.
I'm going to let go now. Finish checking the bag and then get some sleep.
Will you watch out for me?
When you sleep, I sleep. We both need rest.
Casey felt Ada loosen her grip. She looked around. Nobody had noticed. They had their own worries.
Should I dump this stuff?
Keep it all. Could be good to trade if we're here long.
To everyone less she was another small brown woman in long, dusty coat, carefully checking her bag, making repairs to previous goods.
Not a killer.
You're not a killer.
Like most of the room, she dressed in layers. If you were never sure when you'd leave or when you'd get back, you wore a lot more clothes.
You also carried a lot more supplies.
Was that the first time?
Can you stay out of my memories?
We're sorry. It's hard to know sometimes…what to respond to.
Ada was quiet.
…human. Casey finished the sentence herself, then put her shells back on and waited for the lights to go out.
Good morning, Ada whispered.
What time is it?
6:13 AM, California time. Dawn in 30. Sunrise in an hour.
Casey closed her eyes and listened to her bunkmates, tried listening beyond them to the guards outside.
Her shoulders ached from the curled-up sides of the old cot, but everyone in the room slept on. Casey thought through her options.
Ada was quiet.
Can I go back to sleep? Casey asked.
I'll wake you in twenty.
Ada set a timer, then hummed Casey back to sleep.
Get in the first bathroom line. Ada instructed her. We can be ready faster.
Casey obliged, pulling on her boots and pack before looking up at the door.
Casey gave her an almost smile and got in the quickly-forming line. She looked over Wilder's shoulder into the dawn-lit preserve.
A girl went missing yesterday.
Casey misstepped, kicking up dust before she caught herself.
Right before we got here.
No. Young, but not a kid.
Like us? Yes.
Are we going to look for her? Casey asked.
Only if you want to. Ada held Casey's hand, gave her a quick squeeze.
Whoa, whoa. Ada shifted in Casey's brain, tamping down on the cascading effects of her limbic response. No fighting. No stealing vehicles. Just get on a transport that won't take you too far from camp.
Will San Luis Obispo do? she asked Ada.
That or Paso Robles. Which way would you have gone, to escape from here? Follow your instincts. Ada replied.
It's Harvest. The town will be full of people. Lots of workers. Vacationers.
I'll get a place when I have some reception, Casey told Ada. Is it okay to use a card? Or should I pay with cash?
Casey rubbed her ear.
Tapped her wrist.
Casey let out the breath she'd held.
No Ada, no problem. You lived for 40 years without someone else's voice in your head. You can survive one night in Paso Robles without her.
Casey tried reaching out to her once more, then realized she needed to breathe on her own.
Dusty rows of almond trees, pistachios with branches heavy. A BBQ joint, boarded up.
Casey's mouth watered.
Hello self, this is a good time to eat. She sighed, wondering how much function she'd handed off to Ada.
Casey allowed herself three bites and folded up the pack, still hungry.
In front of one, a 10 ft tall fountain, shaped like a wine glass, shot geysers of purple water into the air.
Less than 30 minutes after leaving the camp they rolled into Paso Robles. The first of three transports parked on the main square.
She could be tracked to Pass Robles. She'd scanned into the bus. It was how they made sure everyone was out of the camp.
They all wanted coffee. Casey wanted to know why her transport had gone so far south. Over 100 miles too far.
And she wanted to find the girl.
I'll just get a cup of coffee, read the paper, and seem like my regular self.
Like I decided to turn an evac into a vacation.
Casey sipped her coffee and read quotes from people in Napa. The ones who kept planting new vines, against all sensible advice.
Casey pocketed her phone and people watched, enjoying the residents' farm slang.
She flipped through the options without looking closely.
I'm looking for a single bedroom. I don't need kitchen access. Shared bath ok.
You got this, Case. You spent 40 years without Ada. Just read.
She flipped back through the listings, discarding boarding houses and male hosts, places too far north.
The girl. She'd stay on the south side. Casey listened. To herself.
And then Casey remembered that she already had a bag.
Casey sighed. There was already plenty of data tying her to the bag. They'd recorded her exit transport, she'd bought a coffee and signed into the coffeeshop network, and now the room payment, too
Casey ordered breakfast from her table and ate the egg sandwich like a robot. If robots ate egg sandwiches. Which they don't. Unless you wanted a robot to pretend it was a person. Eating would be a good trick.
Casey's mind ran away with itself.
I'm like one of those little old ladies talking to her cats, Casey thought, pulling on her pack. Except I don't have a cat. I don't have anyone…
She ran though the lists she'd been drilled on.
People were the easiest target. Men, actually. Single men. Men in unhappy marriages. Men with poor social skills.
Casey could turn them, even without Ada's help.
In Fern Canyon, the neighborhood was a mix of centuries old wooden houses and newer ranches. Part of the rebuild after the fires in the 20's.
Instead, eucalyptus saplings grew in untended groves.
"You must be Cesaria," pronouncing it like a cross between Little Caesar's pizza and diarrhea.
Think fresh. Clean. Like you packed a tube of toothpaste.
The woman responded in the way Casey's size and youth was intended. She tutted, scooting Casey inside the house.
Casey swallowed. She hadn't come up with a cover story.
"I'm going to meet some friends at the tasting rooms downtown tonight. You know, one of those girls weekend things…" Casey felt
"A girls' weekend? I do hope you're aware that guests are not permitted here." The woman had crossed her arms, was leaning back in disbelief.
The little dog continued to sniff.
"Oh, that's exactly why I
Casey waved toward the clock on the wall, as though the early hour was backup for her lie.
"It wasn't completely a lie."
"Sweetie, are you alright?"
"Oh, um, your dog gave me a little lick. I don't have any pets, so I was a bit surprised, that's all." Casey looked down at the dog. 8 inches at the shoulder, with an underbite that gave it a look of
Casey mimicked the woman's speech, stretched it, added a bit of Casey, but made them part of the same group.
And the woman smiled. "That's my Billy! He loves the ladies. But bring a man around here and he'll
Casey nodded to show she understood, all the while questions to Ada raced across her mind.
But Ada was silent.
Casey shrugged the weight of the backpack from one shoulder to the other, reminding her
Casey gave her a smile, wondering how she could take a shower immediately upon arrival without seeming suspicious.
"Go for a walk." Ada said, as though she'd been away for moments
"I'd love to drop off my things and then go for a walk around the neighborhood. I'm sure you'd like some time to get started with your day…" Casey trailed off.
Her name is Jennifer. Ada said, just above a whisper.
Who are these students she's taking about? Casey hissed back.
Casey snapped back to the conversation. Jennifer was explaining which dresser knobs were sticking and pointing out the towels, worn and faded.
With Ada's return, all Casey wanted to do was get to latest info on the escapee.
"Oh!" Jennifer said, finally realizing that Casey hadn't seen the room.
The dog likes me, Casey replied. And I like dogs. You just don't understand them.
And you do?
I understand why we need dogs, Casey replied. Any person who's ever had a dog knows that.
And I don't?
Already the air was warm. It would be brutal by the afternoon.
"You can't see it from the front, but I've got full solar on this place. Western exposure, so it's not so good in the morning, but it'll be nice and cool all afternoon."
But her host was already in the bathroom, offering pointers on how to use the shower.
Casey peeked into the tiny bathroom where her host was demonstrating just how to jiggle each handle to get it working.
"Oh, I can make it last." Casey assured her with a grin.
Casey grinned harder, her focus on Jennifer. Stop talking. Just, stop. She's suspicious already.
She's not suspicious. Just back up slowly and ask if you can shower now
After walking her through a few more peculiarities of the rental, Jennifer creaked back down the stairs, calling her fluffball of a dog away from the interesting new smells attached to Casey and her pack.