The end of the Peggy era was harsh.
They left Pecos at the base camp of the Ulugh Muztagh and flew back to the States in complete silence. Well, complete silence other than Tommy taking forty-five full seconds to open what had to be the loudest plastic packet of airplane peanuts in the known universe. But mostly, it was fifteen hours of folded arms, heads turned towards windows, and fitful naps in the stale recycled air.
At the tiny airfield, they slumped in line behind a large family of Quebecois all talking at once, very loud and very fast. The oldest boy, bedecked in a Mohawk and some truly complicated facial ornaments, snuck a glance at them, and his eyes lit up in recognition. For a second, Rawhide was sure he was going to say something, break the cloud of bone-weary tension, maybe ask pour un autographe. But then he turned, and picked up the little girl who was folded at his feet, and muttered something about dirty floors and germs and merde, you can sleep later.
As soon as they pulled up to the fields behind the Institute, Buckaroo was off, striding toward the fungus dome purposefully without a look back. They could see him stop, hunch over a bit, and enter in his code, and then the triple thick steel doors swung closed behind him with a ringing clang. Fungus dome security had been a top priority since the Myconid rebellion in ‘81. What a mess.
Reno shot a furrowed nervous look around.
“Hey, Rawhide, d’you think maybe somebody should--”
He gestured toward the lab doors.
Rawhide paused, then shouldered another bag from the pile of luggage on the grassy patch in front of them.
“Looks like his ribs are healing up nicely,” he said, and circled around, waving a hand to Crambo the bus driver. Then he started for the back living quarter doors. He needed thirteen hours of sleep, and Buckaroo needed to prove that he could still spend thirteen sleepless hours studying his model DNA and checking his cell cultures, that he wasn’t damaged at all.
Rawhide hadn’t expected a lot of things when he flew off on a whim to Northern Africa, thoroughly exhausted with divorce proceedings, Texans, and dissertations about the Calvin-Benson cycle. He hadn’t expected to end up riding with the Touareg, taking the nomad route from Algeria to Mali, across the Sahel and back again. He hadn’t expected how much it hurt to sit on a camel, how difficult it was to learn Tamahaq, how easy it was to let go of indoor plumbing and a million things that make up life in America. He hadn’t expected that when you owned no more than you could carry, it was almost possible to float on desert winds.
He hadn’t expected, after two years of this, to end up slumped over a warm beer in a hotel bar in Marrakech, to look across the room and meet the rather searing eyes of a strange thin man in an impeccable periwinkle suit.
He definitely hadn’t expected the man to raise his glass of scotch, nod almost conspiratorially, and join him at the bar.
They introduced themselves and fell silent for a moment, studying each other.
“Why blue?” Buckaroo said, referring to his shesh and alasho, the turban and veil the men of the tribe wore, “Why dye it blue?”
“There’s no water in the desert. You can pound dried indigo into the cloth instead of some sort of dyeing process.”
Only two days later did the business with the traitorous Russian figure-skating Interpol officer and the Saharan Vaporizer Conspiracy begin, and by the end of that fiasco they knew: there would be no escaping each other.
Buckaroo didn’t come out of the lab for days. He shut himself up with a new batch of white mice and a few questionable-looking serums. Was that diazeline?
Food disappeared from the kitchen overnight, and a series of increasingly strange noises rang through the ventilation system, but nobody saw him for a good two weeks.
Mostly, they sat, Tommy with his massive book of Legal Lexicon crossword puzzles, Reno aimlessly, staring out the window, and Rawhide at the piano, lightly tapping the keys so they’d make no sound, thinking the music through in his head.
Tommy and Reno were growing increasingly restless, Rawhide could tell. Tommy had stopped asking for seven-letter words for litigious, and started just looking up the answers in the back, a near sacrilege. And Reno just grew quieter and quieter, the lines on his forehead growing deeper and deeper.
They were disappointed in him. They expected something from him.
They were worried.
Sure, they had a point. It was officially post-Peggy, and Rawhide suspected that they would never, ever go back to Tibet.
But there was something that these boys, smart and true they might be, would never understand. Tommy and his strange fascination with Objectivism, and Reno and his loud open heart just wouldn’t get it.
The Touareg tell a story about their matriarch, the Mother Of Us All, Tin Hinan, who led them from Morocco to the Ahaggar mountains round about the 4th or 5th century.
She set out on this long and difficult journey with her servant, Takama. They walked through deserts and over mountains, looking for a land where the Touareg could gather and live. They walked, and Tin Hinan spoke about the new land where the people would ride free and herd their animals. And Takama listened, and her shoes began to fall apart.
They walked, and Tin Hinan spoke about the babies that would come, healthy and beautiful, and the prosperity that the new land would bring. And Takama listened, and the rocks began to cut her feet.
When they finally reached the Ahaggar, Tin Hinan looked down and saw the bloody foot-prints behind them and Takama’s shredded soles and cried. How lucky I am, she said, to have a friend who will walk in blood and silence beside me.
Labib the shepherd wrote this on Rawhide’s palm in the special Tifinagh writing, a small collection of geometric shapes corresponding to sounds, only used when silence is necessary. He did it twice. Once when they first met, and once the day that Rawhide left the people.
Rawhide wrote it on Buckaroo’s limp palm as he lay unconscious in a trench and Irina the traitorous Russian figure-skating Interpol officer shot at them with a .30-06
At least, Rawhide thinks that is the story he was told, the one he passed on. Tifinagh is hard to decipher, and harder to recreate. But the gist is clear, right?
Blood, silence, friends, journeys. You know.
At the end of two weeks, Rawhide finally listened to Tommy’s pointed throat-clearings, and Reno’s “Hey…the boss…do you think…? I mean…”s and headed into the lab.
Buckaroo was hunched over a microscope, tensed and concentrating, hands deftly working the fine-focus knobs.
“Yes,” he said, not looking up, “what is it?”
Rawhide pulled a stool up to the table next to him, and perched on it. He didn’t say anything. He waited.
Finally Buckaroo looked up.
It’s always been hard for Rawhide to describe powerful eyes. It’s not that they burn, it’s not that they pierce. It’s that some people, people with a certain force behind them, or in them, or moving through them constantly can arrest time itself with a look, and all the metaphors in the world can’t quite sum up the experience of being scanned and measured like a specimen, evaluated, judged, and discarded.
Rawhide did what he always did when Buckaroo pulled this kind of shit. He smiled.
Buckaroo’s hand slipped from the microscope, and relaxed against the table. He took in a long breath, let it out, and sagged. All tense and driven purpose left him, and for the first time, he looked like a man who had reached the end of something.
“She…” he began, and then the pause lengthened, and became final.
“I know,” said Rawhide.
They looked at each other.
They looked at each other.
They looked at each other.
“Hikita called,” Buckaroo said after long long moments of near-peace, “It works.”
The beginning of the next adventure was nigh.