THEY SKIRTED THE RUINED BUILDING, entered a broken expanse of asphalt, the remains of a parking lot dotted with cars, their tires cracked and mostly gone. Some were ruined and at angles, some parked in an orderly fashion, all of them stripped to bare metal by wind and dust, their windshields often blasted opaque. For a moment, a brief flash, he saw the lot as it had been, surrounded by trees, the curving pedestrian bridge leading a few hundred feet or so away to a stadium or coliseum, and then the vision was gone.
The bridge to the stadium was collapsed now, and the stadium, too, must have fallen, was no longer looming visibly over the road. In the lot, most of the cars were empty, though in a few he thought he saw bodies curled on the seats, long dead. Some cars had their doors open and here and there, where the asphalt was most intact, he saw odd dark stains. Distorted shapes, not unlike human bodies.
They approached a corner of the lot, beyond which remains of streets ran to the four points of the compass. At the edge of the lot they paused, and the mule walking beside him turned to him. “Does this look familiar?” the mule asked.
“Some of it,” Horkai admitted.
“Can you help us know where to go next?” the mule asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll try.”
He looked out across the intersection, to where on the far side the hill descended into a field of rubble. He tried to remember what had been there. Dormitories, maybe. To his left side a slope upward, with whatever was behind it hidden. To the right it sloped downward, going first east and then south to reveal the dark scar that the valley below had become, the lake far beyond it, a mottled gray on the horizon.
“Which way?” asked the mule. “We should not waste time.”
Horkai raised his hands somewhat helplessly, let them fall. “Straight ahead,” he finally said.
The two mules exchanged glances, though because of their hoods, Horkai had difficulty seeing the expressions on their faces. “Straight ahead we go,” said the mule beneath him, and they started off.
* * *
A SLOW BUT MILD DESCENT, picking their way through the rubble, then, soon after, an open stretch of dirt and dust. The wind picked up and blew dust everywhere. He began to wish he were wearing a suit himself. He squinted, ended up pulling his shirt high to cover his mouth, his nose. They passed an old track-and-field facility, with half-collapsed bleachers, and passed around another stadium just north of it, this one larger and in better condition. The mules gave it a wide berth.
“Why are you avoiding it?” asked Horkai.
“It might be someone’s home,” said the mule he was riding. “It will only slow us down to have to kill them.”
A ruined motel, the remains of an old museum, a replica of a dinosaur skeleton collapsing outside it. They kept up a steady pace, the mules showing no signs of flagging. Another parking lot—this one larger and spattered with large shell craters. They crossed it, came on the other side to the largest street they’d seen so far, perhaps four lanes wide or perhaps six—difficult to tell with the state it was in. In his head he saw it as six, but couldn’t tell if it was his imagination or a memory. The road was buckled and torn, but more intact than the streets they’d seen before. On one corner were the remains of a pole and the metal blade of a street sign, but it had been scoured by sand or dust until it was bare metal.
“It looks promising,” said the mule beside him, his voice just audible through the speaker. Either he wasn’t speaking directly into the microphone or his speaker had become clogged with dust.
“Which one are you?” Horkai asked.
The mule misstepped but caught himself. He drew a little closer, holding on to the other Q’s shoulder, his hand resting softly against Horkai’s side. “I’m the older one,” he said.
“The first one,” said Horkai.
The Q shook his head. “The first of the two of us,” he corrected. “But not the first one.”
“I’m sorry,” said Horkai. “I can’t remember the name of the one who was oldest.”
“I don’t think we told you the name of the one who’s the oldest.”
“No,” said Horkai. “That’s not what I mean. The oldest of the two of you. Your name.”
“Ah,” said the Q. “Why didn’t you say so? I’m Qatik.”
“Qatik,” he said. “Of course you are.”
“Why do you say of course? Is it inevitable?”
Horkai shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just a way of speaking. Why were the two of you chosen for this?”
“It is an honor to be chosen,” said Qatik.
“Yes, but why?” asked Horkai. “Why you?”
“You are our purpose.”
“How did I come to be your purpose?”
“You have always been our purpose,” said Qatik.
They moved forward for a time in silence, Qatik still clinging to his brother. Horkai tried again.
“What do you think of Rasmus?”
For a moment Qatik didn’t speak. “What do you mean?” he finally said. “He is Rasmus.”
“What do you mean by ‘He is Rasmus’?” asked Horkai, confused.
“Exactly that,” said Qatik. “Rasmus is Rasmus and is no other.”
“But that doesn’t explain what you think of him,” said Horkai. “Do you like him?”
“He is Rasmus,” said Qatik. “He has his purpose. How can I judge how well he serves it? His purpose is different from our purpose and I do not understand it nearly as well as I do my own. That is proper. Surely you can see that?”
“Yes, I suppose,” said Horkai. “But what does that have to do with whether you like him or not?”
“Exactly. How can I like or dislike someone whose purpose I imperfectly understand? You, however, I can speak about with more authority. You are the burden. As far as I understand that portion of your purpose, you fulfill it admirably. You are sturdy but not overly heavy. You do not struggle when you are carried, you do not scream except when injured, and you do not fall off if you are not tied on. Burden, I like the way you fulfill your purpose.”
“Call me Horkai,” he said. “And liking the way I fulfill my purpose is not the same as liking me.”
“But what are we if we are not our purpose?” asked Qatik. “Burden Horkai, I like the way you fulfill your purpose.”
“Just Horkai,” said Horkai.
They might have talked more, but Qanik grunted and shrugged Qatik’s arm off his shoulder. Qatik fell silent, gradually drifted away. They walked, faster now, Horkai gently rocking up and down as they went.
* * *
THE ROAD TOOK THEM SLOWLY UP, edging closer to the mountains—unless it was the mountains that came closer of their own accord.
He thought he saw movement in one of the housing complexes they passed, a series of ruined duplexes that had once been identical and now were collapsed in somewhat disparate ways. Another flat, empty space, perhaps an old sports field. He could see it in his mind, green as it had been, rather than the slightly concave rectangle of dirt it was now. Things were coming back to him, though slowly, and not the important things. Or was it simply his imagination making an educated guess about what had been there?
A huge gouge in the ground 30 feet wide and 150 long, either a long-interrupted construction site or the result of some instrument of devastation. Farther on, in the dust, to one side of an intersection, was a metal signpost, bent over and crushed, the sign itself buried in the dust. Qatik stopped and dragged it up, straightening it until they could see at the end of it the octagonal shape of a stop sign, the word STOP faded but still faintly visible on it.
“What does it say?” asked Qatik.
“Have you never seen a stop sign?” asked Horkai.
Qatik shook his head.
“Can’t you read?”
Within his hood, Qatik shook his head again. “Neither of us read. But I can recognize letters.”
Beneath him, he felt Qanik nod. “It’s not important for everyone to read,” said Qanik. “Some read and some do other things. We all have our purpose.”
“Who told you that?” asked Horkai. “Someone who can read, I bet.”
Not detecting the irony in his tone, Qanik nodded. “Our leader,” he said. “Rasmus.”
“Should we stop?” asked Qatik. “As the sign instructs?”
“It isn’t meant for us,” Horkai said. “And besides, we’ve already stopped. Now we can go on.”
Qatik let the sign fall. They walked on, Qanik stopping every once in a while to reposition Horkai on his shoulders. A collapsed strip mall, beside it a building mostly intact.
A Mormon ward house, little left of it beyond a weathered spire and a flattened roof. The houses became sparser, thinning out, and then they thickened momentarily again before thinning out further still.
They came to a large intersection, the road crossing it almost as big as the one they were traveling, and the mules stopped.
“Which way?” asked Qatik.
Horkai shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Which way?” asked Qatik again, as if he hadn’t heard. Not knowing what else to do, Horkai pushed on the back of Qanik’s head until he moved out into the intersection. From there, he looked to either side. To the east, the road ran quickly south, trailing up a high ridge. To the west, it moved straight ahead, climbing very slowly. In front of them, it continued roughly north, coming still closer to the mountains.
The map Rasmus had given them followed a path between the mountains and the lake. For now, thought Horkai, they would stay close to the mountains and wait for the lake to appear. He pushed on the back of Qanik’s head again, and they started forward and through the intersection. Qatik hesitated a moment and then followed as well.
* * *
THEY WALKED IN SILENCE for another mile or nearly so, the mountain building up to one side. The wind and dust were making him cough. An old, severely damaged electric substation, transformers crumpled or fallen over in the dust. And then the road split again, one strand of it following a slow curve westward and uphill, toward the lake, the other threading down and into the mouth of a dust-clogged canyon, immediately curving out of sight.
“Which way?” asked Qatik again.
“Maybe the canyon,” said Qanik.
“Not the canyon,” said Horkai, on impulse.
“Why not?” said Qanik from below him. “The canyon. It goes north, we’re going north. We should take the canyon.”
“I don’t think it goes where we’re going,” said Horkai.
“I don’t know,” said Horkai. “It’s just what I feel.”
Qatik came around in front of the other mule until their faceplates were nearly touching. They stared at each other for a long time, perhaps moving their lips as well, perhaps even reading each others’ lips—it was impossible for Horkai to say, since from above he couldn’t see their faces. And then, finally, Qatik backed up, looked at him.
“All right,” he said. “We will do as you say.”
* * *
THEY MOVED ON, the two mules relentless, never stopping to rest. They went up a hill and then hit level ground, crossing again through the remains of neighborhoods, another town, perhaps, or maybe the same one, everything seeming at once familiar and utterly foreign.
They passed an anemic stream, its water bloodred. The mules kept as much distance from it as they could. The sun was high overhead now, perhaps just approaching its apex, perhaps just starting its downward arc. He was thirsty, his mouth dry from the dust in the air, his skin grainy with it and raw from the wind. They passed a ruined school, unless it was something else just as large, maybe a hospital. On the other side was another hospital, unless it was a school. The mules stopped and eyed the latter building for a moment, speaking to each other in muffled voices, their speakers half-covered with their gloves, then shook their heads, continued on.
The road began to slope downward. He could see the lake again now, glowering in the distance two or three or more miles away, looking much larger than it had seemed initially at the other end of town, if they were still in the same town. The water was an odd color, a bloodred tinge to it, though not quite as red as the stream had been. A sort of dead marsh lay beside the lake, sickly gray from this distance. Between them and the marsh, he could see a much larger road: the freeway.
Horkai patted Qanik on the head. “There,” he said. “Do you see? That’s the freeway. That’s what we need.”
The mule paused, then nodded. They picked their way toward it, and started north when they finally reached it.
* * *
FOR LONG STRETCHES, the freeway was intact and then would suddenly dissolve into a crater or buckle into peaks so that they had to either go around it or clamber up and down it. It took a long slow curve northeast, following the banks of the lake at a distance, and for an hour or two or maybe three, Horkai thought it was the wrong road. Once or twice he almost said something to the mules, but he didn’t know exactly what to say, nor did he know what other road they could take. The lake had been on the map, so maybe they were on the right road after all. How many freeways could there be?
And then, at last, the road curved north a little and began to climb. He could see, in the distance, the point where it crested the low side of the mountain, miles away. It was okay, he told himself. It was the right road.