The balloon hung off in the distance. I couldn’t see any heads peeping over the edge of the basket, but that didn’t make me any less nervous. I kept my hand near my gun, which was conveniently wedged in between my belt and the waistband of my trousers, just in the right place to shoot me in the foot if I was lucky, going through my knee on the way down if I was unlucky. I didn’t care. I’d been out in this scrub wasteland the locals liked to call a desert for thirteen days now and I was beginning to feel like Jesus, except that there were no temptations to be seen. No-one had appeared and offered me dominion over all the cities of the world, no-one had turned up with a mine-cart full of gold ingots and told me that they were mine for the taking, and no-one had handed me a geological map with the sites of four oil-wells marked on it. I was feeling a little aggrieved.
I looked up at the balloon again, and my trigger finger twitched. Maybe there was one temptation after all.
All around the wasteland stretched out, pretty much flat except for the lumpy bits, which adequately described my first wife, our first bed, and the sex as well. Scrubby little shrubs poked up every few feet in every direction, sucking all the moisture they could find from the ground, which was dusty and cracked. Now and then there’d be a bigger expanse of space, and then a tree would haul itself arthritically out of the ground, a scattering of leaves like a monk’s tonsure all it afford. I’d tried climbing one of them and the branches had just broken off under my weight, and I’m not heavy. Especially not being out here for thirteen days, living off bugs stupid enough to get close enough to catch, beef jerky I’d been given before I left, and some can of beans I’d found stashed in a crevice in some rocks. I figured someone else was probably starving now, but better them than me. I looked up at the balloon again then, wondering if they were in there, following me, waiting for a chance to get their cans back. I hoped they weren’t.
I tramped on, looking for something, anything that didn’t belong here. Now and then the landscape humped up a little, nothing as sophisticated as a hill, more like a big termite mound, and I’d have to walk round it. Just as it was getting towards sunset, and the sun was low in the west making me shade my eyes to see anything that way, I rounded another hump in the desert and found myself at a bus-stop.
There was no road, and no sign of any bus either coming, or ever having arrived. The sign stood there, rusting slowly away in the ground. It advertised the number 12 route, and the 55 night-bus, only I knew for a fact that Persecution, the nearest town for fifty miles, only had two buses, the 1 and the 3. The 2 had been blown up accidentally a year back and the town had voted not to replace it. The road was way off in the distance somewhere, out of sight at least. No bus would be coming this way, which made the queue all the more puzzling.
When I got a little closer and got the dazzle of the sun out of my eyes I saw that the queue was made up of headless mannequins. The shop dummies were a little battered, with chips and chunks knocked out of knees and elbows, and most of them were missing at least one finger. They were all rough to the touch, scoured by the dry earth and near-sand that the wind carried when it got up and started blowing. They formed an orderly line, the front one actually holding on to the bus stop pole with one damaged hand, one foot raised up on tiptoe as though getting ready to walk. The whole scene was a little eerie, and I was all set to walk on by and forget about it until I saw the dark patch in the earth near the back of the queue. Dark like water.
And there it was, hidden at the back, shorter than the rest, the mannequin that had a head. Only the head belonged to Jenny, the little girl out of Persecution I was out here looking for. Her blond curls formed ringlets over her forehead, and her filmy blue eyes stared off into the distance, towards the balloon in some unpleasant coincidence. A tiny trickle of dried blood ran from the corner of her mouth, and more, much more, ran down the mannequin to pool in the earth at its feet. The head had been put on there while it was still fresh.
Something whined past me, and a puff of earth geysered up beside me. I dropped like the bullet had hit me, scuttering round in the dust so that I was lengthwise beside the line, hardest to hit. Someone in the balloon had started shooting at me. I humped my back like a caterpillar, ignoring the spasm of pain from my vertebrae, and gently pulled my gun free from my waistband. I would shoot back. Jenny was a friend of mine.