A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

August 24, 2007

38. Passengers

"Have you gone mad?" Patch spluttered.

"I think it is a perfectly elegant solution to our problem," Zelina said. "Look. There is the river we need to cross. There is the bridge we dare not run across. And there is the big automobile that will carry us."

"You have gone mad. You want to get into an automobile, like a human, and –"

"Not in," Zelina said. "On. We shall ride on the roof."

"How we will get to the roof?"

"From time to time the big automobiles stop right here."

They perched on a thick sky-road wire near one of the many places where two highways met in a forest of metal branches and hanging lights. It was true that the big automobiles, the ones that looked like long metal boxes, or solid-walled cages, did stop directly beneath this wire. But –

"I am not jumping onto and riding an automobile," Patch said flatly.

"They have flat roofs. They're as large as some of the buildings we've crossed."

"Buildings don't move!"

"The whole appeal of automobiles is that they do move. They will carry us across the bridge and the river. One might carry us all the way to the Great Avenue for all we know."

"And how would we get off? The sky-road is too high above us to jump up to."

"I don't know," Zelina admitted. "But when we face that problem, we will be on the other side of the river, and so we will have successfully mastered the current problem. I believe in dealing with one obstacle at a time."

"But…what if…"

Patch fell silent. He couldn't find the right way to argue. The problem with her plan was not that it didn't make sense. The problem was that it was insane. The last time Patch had tried to ride a human vehicle, first he had been nearly eaten by a dog, and then he had nearly drowned. And the idea of jumping onto a death machine and riding it along a strip of wasteland was even crazier than that of hiding in a boat. He looked back down the sky-road to Wriggler, Quicknose and Backflip, but they were distracted some distance back by their own conversation.

A big death machine came to rest beneath them, wheezing and hissing so loudly that Patch could hardly hear anything else, emitting plumes of air that stank of oil and chemicals. It was so obviously something that should be avoided, rather than adopted, that Patch cried out with horror when Zelina leapt on top of it.

"Come on, Patch!" she shouted. "Now is the time!"

No, Patch thought. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances would he follow the mad Queen of All Cats onto this stinking, eruptive death machine.

But then it began to pull away, and his legs crouched and leapt almost as if commanded by someone else, and he skidded across the metal roof of the big automobile, dangerously close to its edge, before he regained his balance and scampered next to Zelina – skated, really, his claws clicking against the cold and slippery roof.

The big automobile rumbled and hissed and shook beneath them. Patch could barely believe what he had just done. He turned to look towards Wriggler and Quicknose and Backflip, and saw them growing smaller. For a moment Patch felt motion in his gut; then, for a brief period, the big automobile seemed stationary, and it seemed like the world around them that was moving; and then the big automobile came to a sudden, shuddering halt, and both Patch and Zelina lost their balance and went skidding forward across its roof, and then it started up again, and they went skidding backwards. If not for the shallow corrugations that gave their claws something to hook onto, they would both have fallen and died.

"You crazy idiot!" Patch shouted furiously at Zelina.

Zelina did not dispute his words. She smelled of and trembled with terror. The big automobile rocked, banged, and rattled as its navigated its stop-start way along the clogged highway, and on its roof Patch and Zelina staggered and slid erratically about, keeping desperately away from the roof's unwalled edges. Their battle for life and balance was so fraught and demanding that Patch did not realize they were on the bridge until they were more than halfway across it. By then he was too frightened of falling to be worried about falcons.

The big automobile stopped for a relatively long period about three-quarters of the way across the bridge, and Patch and Zelina managed to catch their breath. Patch felt sick and dizzy from having been thrown about. The air was laced with the acrid fumes of automobiles, but the breeze from the great waters to the south kept it breathable. Loud honking noises and human shouts rose and reverberated all around them as they tried to cling to the middle of the automobile's roof.

"This is the worst idea any animal has ever had!" Patch shouted.

"I didn't make you jump," Zelina pointed out. "And we're almost there."

The bus lurched forward again, and they went sprawling – but they had learned something from the first nightmarish maelstrom of motion, and by lying on their bellies and reaching out with the claws of all four limbs, they managed to limit how far they slid, and then crawled back to the center of the roof. The view beneath them from either side slipped suddenly from water to concrete. They had crossed the river. Patch tried to open his memory book and calculate how far he was from the Center Kingdom proper, but his mind was whirling with too much fear and excitement to concentrate.

"Look for a place to jump off," Zelina said.

Patch looked. He realized with growing horror that there was no sky-road at all around them, no system of posts and wires along which they could climb, and no trees. There was only concrete and metal; staggeringly high mountains that blotted out the very sun, concrete highways and walkways, metal posts and automobiles.

"I don't see anywhere," Patch said.

"Neither do I."

The big automobile roared and wheezed forward. When it turned corners, which it did several times, Patch and Zelina slid away from the turn and nearly off the side of the automobile. After the first such near-death experience they learned to move to the opposite side whenever they felt a turn beginning. Patch still had to focus entirely on remaining perched on the automobile rather than falling and being crushed between its wheeled rubber feet and the concrete. Cats, however, have far better balance than squirrels, which is why Zelina was able to devote enough attention to the world around them to notice their salvation.

"Trees!" she cried. "Look, Patch, trees!"

They were few in number, they were scrawny and bedraggled and seemed to be growing straight out of concrete, but there were indeed trees lining this latest highway onto which they had turned; and when the big automobile stopped next, there was a tree immediately next to it. Patch and Zelina did not hesitate to leap onto its branches. Shortly afterwards the big automobile pulled away and disappeared down the highway, leaving Patch and Zelina in the safety of a tree, on the island of the Center Kingdom, temporarily triumphant.


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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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