A jeep manned by three soldiers led the way. They skirted the edges of the city, rounding a broad district of industrial yards full of smoke stacks, power stations, refineries and scrap yards. Silhouetted workers moved in the light behind chain link and razor wire.
"Well, if there's an ass end of Graden, this is it," Bryce said as he drove. "So why didn't you tell the soldiers you understood their language?"
Eddie frowned out at the factories. They crossed a road leading into the city. Road Construction signs blocked the way.
"I don't like this place," Eddie said.
"Lt. Barinks seems nice enough. I think we'll be fine."
"Yeah, but Sgt. Ardinne hated us. You should have heard what she said when she thought we didn't understand."
"Is that why you lied to her?"
Eddie shrugged. "I clammed up because it was awkward. But I think I should pretend I'm ignorant for now. They're not telling us everything."
They crossed another street. More road construction signs blocked the way.
"I think they're not letting people out of the city," Eddie said. "They've blocked all the roads."
Bryce nodded. "Makes sense. It's a dangerous world out there. That means we'll be safe inside."
"Don't you think you're being naïve?"
Bryce sighed. "I'm being tired and hungry. If there's a place to sleep up ahead, I'm all for it. You think they have cheeseburgers in Graden? I could seriously go for a cheeseburger."
Eddie glanced back to make sure Syd and Phyllis's buggy was still there, then studied the soldiers ahead. Two of the soldiers had side arms. The third wore a red beret. The one with the beret sat in the back seat and watched the cars behind. Occasionally, Eddie glimpsed the man's piercing gray eyes through the jeep's back window.
The jeep turned at the next intersection leading into a district of warehouses and narrow lanes. A military checkpoint blocked the road. The soldiers in the jeep exchanged a few words with the guards. The guards waved them through.
"It's like we're driving into Berlin in World War II."
"No, it's not," Bryce said. "They're just scared. Who wouldn't be? If I had a city to run and the whole world went down the crapper, I'd do everything possible to keep people safe and comfortable."
Eddie stared at him. "You're usually the suspicious one."
"Like I said, I'm tired. When was the last time I slept? Oh, yeah, for about fifteen minutes before some spider creature yanked me into the air and a dragon man abducted me with his gurg army. It hasn't been a very restful week."
The lights of a restaurant lit up the night on their left. Its bright lights and colors were a stark contrast to the dreary old warehouses. It had the unmistakable look of a restaurant chain. "Oh, man," Bryce said. "Cheeseburgers."
"The sign says 'Joe Punk's ChickenPalooza,'" Eddie said.
"Chicken's good too."
At the far end of the restaurant was a railroad crossing. The jeep slowed, then crossed. As Bryce approached it, yellow warning lights blinked and a warning bell clanged. The cross guard arms swung down, blocking their way. A distant train horn warned of its approach.
"Great," Bryce said, smacking the steering wheel. "I want sleep now."
The brake lights of the jeep lit up. The soldier in the red beret stepped out into the rain to watch them as the train began passing. It crawled by.
"Well, that's it," Bryce said, cranking the wheel to the left.
"What are you doing?"
"If we've got to wait, we might as well get a bite to eat."
"But the soldiers... Uh, oh, nevermind." Eddie rubbed his empty belly. "Let's eat."
They pulled into the parking lot of Joe Punk's. Phyllis's buggy pulled in next to them. Syd jumped out. "What are you doing?"
"But we're supposed to follow."
"We can get it to go." Bryce pointed. "The soldiers are right there on the other side of the train. See red hat guy? He knows we haven't run off. We'll be back on the road before the train passes."
Syd frowned, distressed, but he and Phyllis followed the others into the restaurant.
The place had the familiar odor of fried chicken, plastic and disinfectant. Bryce took a deep breath and groaned with approval. He approached the counter with Eddie.
The skinny teenager at the counter smiled at them all. His eyes landed on Kai and Phyllis with momentary confusion. Then he grinned. "Some kind of cosplay convention?"
Bryce turned to Eddie. "Guess you do the talking."
Eddie hadn't realized the boy wasn't speaking English. He nodded and stepped forward. "Cosplay convention?"
"Well, you've got her all dressed up like some kind of robot lady, and the girl looks like something out of a sci-fi flick."
"They're refugees. We all are."
Eddie frowned. "Um..."
Bryce leaned forward and whispered in Eddie's ear. "I hope you're ordering food. If they've got biscuits, I want them. And waters all around. I'm sick of soda."
Eddie nodded. He studied the menu and placed his order, enough for the five of them. "And make this to go."
"Okay. That will be thirty-two ninety-five."
Eddie reached for his wallet.
"Your hand," the boy said impatiently.
The boy scoffed. "Just put your hand in the scanner." He nodded at a wide white ring suspended above the register.
Eddie stared at it.
"Just scan your hand, man. I can't start the order until you pay."
Eddie eased his hand into the ring, fearing it might close around his wrist or shock him.
The boy blinked, his professional courtesy evaporating. "What's the deal?" he cried.
"Where's your chip?"
The boy stared at Eddie disbelieving. "You... you're identity chip."
"Um," Eddie said.
"This isn't funny."
"I don't have an identity chip. Like I said, we're not from around here. We're refugees."
"You're from out of town? But still, where's your chip?"
"I'm from out of your reality. Don't you know what's going on out there?"
"I... I think I need to get the manager." The boy turned and ran around the corner into the food prep area.
"What's going on?" Phyllis asked.
"He was asking for an ident..." Eddie trailed off as he turned and found the soldiers entering the restaurant, their weapons drawn. The one in the red beret stood behind them, watching them with blazing gray eyes.
"Return to your vehicles," the soldier closest said, his gun trained on Phyllis. "Immediately."
Phyllis didn't hesitate. The instant she saw the gun, she charged forward, whipped the pistol out of his hand and beat him across the forehead with its butt. The other two soldiers barely had time to react when she gripped the second soldier around the wrist and yanked his hand upward.
"Phyllis, stop," Syd shouted.
Phyllis yanked the gun out of his hand, threw both weapons on the ground, then turned to Syd.
"This will not win us any friends," Syd said.
"They're the ones pointing guns."
"This is their land. We follow their rules."
Phyllis turned towards the soldier in the beret who glared at her with wide-eyed intensity. "We should go home," Phyllis said.
"I'm not leaving here empty handed," Syd said. "If you want to go back to my father, go."
Phyllis dropped her head. She stepped back and held up her hands.
* * *
The soldiers allowed Phyllis to ride with Syd, her hands bound in cuffs (she had scoffed when they put them on). Syd drove. A second jeep of soldiers arrived, following close behind them. Another set of three , Eddie noticed. Always two armed and one wearing the beret.
Their destination was a large stadium at the edge of the commercial district. Eddie noticed that all the streets they took were deserted. This was likely by design, and he wondered if the military had closed nearby businesses, or perhaps they only brought refugees in under the cover of night.
The brilliant sign at the entrance to the endless parking lot announced Yolondo Drysdale Memorial Stadium. Home of the Graden Zephyrs. They followed the jeep into a section of the parking lot fenced off with razor wire and guarded by soldiers with dogs. At the far end of the lot, a river ran burbling away into the darkness.
Eddie stared at it and thought of the stone in his pocket once again. " Place this stone into the first river or stream you see." That's what the Lamia had said, that was the promise Eddie had made. And here was the river.
But the soldiers won't let me go near there, Eddie reasoned to himself. There's no way I can keep my promise yet. I'll do it later. That sounded right. He had enough to worry about right now. His life might be in danger.
Bryce backed the car into a spot at the end of the lot by the river. Beside them stood a dusty old Winnebago with an airbrushed mural of what appeared to be Richard Nixon. No one spoke as soldiers escorted them towards the stadium—all of them exhausted, except for Phyllis whose eyes darted around, taking in every move of every soldier. Kai staggered from fatigue, and Bryce drew her up and carried her on his back.
Phyllis protested as they entered the tunnel to the inner stadium, but a weary look from Syd silenced her. Their escorts stood aside and shepherded the weary travelers into the stadium interior. "Inside," one of them commanded. They all filed in. Once Bryce and Kai had cleared the door, a metal gate slammed shut behind them.