The Troika Online - Stepan Chapman

CHAPTER ONE

THE DESERT

“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,” the Dormouse began in a great hurry; “and theirnames were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—”

“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”

“So they were,” said the Dormouse; “very ill.”

—Lewis Carroll

The three of them were crossing a desert of white sand. They’d been crossing it for as long as they could remember. Today they listened to the wind as they traveled. The wind hadn’t let up all day. It carved ridges in the sand, like isobars on a barometric pressure map.

Two of the suns had set, but one remained in the western sky. It baked the heaps of boulders and the lichens that grew on them. Three sets of tracks stretched across the plain, wavering under a shimmering ocean of air. There were human tracks, tire tracks, and the prints of some huge beast.

The brontosaur’s head hung close to the white sand, swinging to the left and the right on her leathery gray neck. She was forty feet long and fifteen feet tall at the hips. She limped arthritically. Her joints were killing her.

The jeep drove along behind her on its four massive wheels on their independent axles. The glassy black panels of its photovoltaic collectors were angled out above its back to catch the last of the day’s light. Its drive chain felt sluggish. Its turbines whined, complaining of the heat.

The old Mexican woman walked behind the jeep. Her skin was the color of terra cotta, and her hair was as white as snow. She wore canvas shoes and drab green coveralls with many zippered pockets. Over her eyes, she wore tinted glasses with orange lenses, rims of copper wire, and side screens of copper mesh.

Her name was Eva, and she was more than half mad. Some days she walked in small circles for hours, twisting up her hair and talking to herself. When she did, Alex and Naomi would have to wait for her to snap out of it. Alex was the jeep. Naomi was the brontosaur.

They were all incredibly ancient. Their earliest memories dated back to the Twentieth Century. Alex claimed to be the eldest. On the face of things, you’d expect a brontosaur to be older than a jeep, but Naomi agreed with Alex and maintained that she, Naomi, was the youngest.

None of them seriously believed the stories they told themselves about themselves. They’d forgotten where they came from. They also didn’t know where they were. The desert crossing had been going on this way for centuries.

Triads, Alex thought to himself. I need more triads. Animal vegetable mineral, done that. One had her heart cut out. One got locked in a freezer. One gnawed off his own paw. Hah!

Naomi swung her muzzle toward the old woman. What is Father talking about? she asked.

Don’t ask me! Eva told her. How the fuck would I know? Ask him yourself, you fucking pinhead.

Yes, Mother, thought Naomi.

She’s in a snit, put in Alex.

She’s always in a snit, thought Naomi. She should be put to sleep.

Painlessly? asked Alex. Or after torture? Naomi chewed a ball of cud and considered the question.

The wind whispered over the ridges of the white sand. Alex drove around Naomi and took the lead. Eva went on walking behind the others. It gave her something to look at, other than sand patterns, sandstone outcrops, and lichens. The last of the suns was slipping down behind a mesa. Soon the air would cool off. Then the three of them would stop for the night.

The behavior of the three suns was erratic. One of them was liable to rise while another was setting, while the third hovered at high noon for days on end. At other times they would come close to synchronizing. There seemed to be little pattern in their movements. There seemed to be only confusion.

Eva stumbled over a rock and looked down. Every stone had its own spattering of lichen—burnt orange or pale aqua.

The brontosaur marched on in the failing light, tears leaking slowly from her eyes, suffering the stiffness of her joints. Years of exposure to sun and wind had weathered her sleek hide into rutted tree bark that was stretched like a rickety tent over her spine and ribs. She swallowed