Denio Junction's empty, not even a squatter, no good source of water. They camp out in front of the library, eat their tinned soup and jerky over a sagebrush fire. Overhead, the stars, and no light pollution for maybe a good hundred miles.
He takes some notes on the fuel in the back of the truck - two cans left, two empty - time to circle back, maybe. The girl reads by the fire, something picked up last town - is quiet.
"I'm a problem." she finally says when he breaks out the peace pipe.
"Not now," he says. "Too bad you can't shoot. We'd probably eat more jackrabbit."
"But I don't get a gun."
"That still bothering you?"
"Can't hunt. You want me to hunt?"
"Once you know how to shoot." He grins, passes her the pipe. She's not fussed by the conversation. Is hitting the pipe like a pro. "But unless we find some spare rounds, you're not learning."
She feeds the fire more sagebrush, more dried tumbleweed that crumbles into fragile ash and dust. "So I'm not a problem. What all do you need done?"
"Pretty self-sufficient, or I wouldn't be out here."
She frowns. "Burn City's absent a problem."
He nods. "Isn't a problem for me."
"What if I'm a problem? Down the road?"
"Got a higher tolerance for problems, or I wouldn't be out here." He waits, she waits. He goes on. "We start having problems. I'll let you know. Same goes for you. We decide you're ready and wanting a hat on your head, we'll talk about it. I need something, I'll ask: you do the same, and we're fine."
"Radical self-reliance? Really? I'm not too self-reliant right now." She empties the ashes from the pipe into the fire.
"You're driving, you're talking to folks, you're not eating more than your share. Entire gave me plenty of rations for two. This isn't their, or my first rodeo. Just yours - you think I'm rushing to shit on someone new to this?"
In a rush she says "This is what I thought it'd be - maybe. When I came out. But it isn't, it can't be."
"No," he agrees. "Eternal build week, almost. But it's never going to be like Home again, not quite. It's something different."
They talk about it, but not much more. She bunks down back to back with him in the truck bed - no question for either of them now, even unspoken, where that line is and that it won't be crossed. It's a cold night.
Sometime between midnight and dawn, they curl into each other's heat. Ranger Ranger wakes up with a mouthful of faded pink hair, and the girl, grumpily, drooling on his faded jacket, complains about him snoring.
"So how did you end up out here?" she asks.
He grins. "Came out, nothing to go back to."
"You were a Ranger before?" She doesn't take her eyes off the road. "That must have been real..."
"Different. Less ground to cover, for one thing. More borg shit."
"I thought the borg owned the Ranch?"
"Who rules Burn City?" he jokes. Stretches his bare, dirty toes over the passenger side mirror. "I mean sure everybody knows what jobs need done, but if somebody's an asshole, they don't stay in charge. Burn City runs Burn City, the Ranch runs the Ranch"
"Not Burn City?"
"Nah. Not the skate park, not Entire, not the Junction back when people were there."
"Where'd they go?"
"The Junction?" He shrugs. "Maybe Andy's Place, maybe somewhere else on the 140. Nobody left anything obvious behind, not many gunshots. No bodies. Could be a lot of things."
She thinks about it. "Some people just run out of stuff, don't they?"
"Sure. And everybody trades for what they need. Entire and Burn City trade for a lot from the Ranch - the Ranch trades for raw supplies. Tries not to take people in."
"Rangers live in the Ranch, though?"
"Nah." They're motoring on towards Sulfur, down to a can and a half of gas now. Not bad, they won't run dry. "I live here."
"Out here?" She's incredulous. "But everybody knows..."
"Everybody knows dick. We resupply, sure. Who's got water and most of the supplies?"
She frowns. "The Ranch, but..."
"But nothing." He shrugs. "We don't stay there more than a night or two unless there's some major event going down. Or work to be done. Tires to change."
"And what, you drive around, write reports?"
"Pick up strays." She scowls. "You can't tell me you're not doing well with the spare hair dye."
Her mouth quirks up. They've not been down much, the corners of it, and she looks years younger, some days into the walkabout. "You know what that pilot had in the back of his plane? Fucktons of candied oranges. And..." She fishes in her pack, back behind in the cab, lifts something up. A bag packed full of green nuggets and a slightly smaller bag full of some very distinctive fungi.
"Kid," he says, admiring, no begrudging about it for the first time that trip. "How much hair dye did you trade that old man for all that?"
Her grin's like a slice of the burning sky, the first he's seen out of her. "He thought we might have a problem with scurvy, that's the oranges. Man's got bright pink and blue hair now, we stayed up all night on it."
"Thought you stayed up all night on something, sure as shit was right. This'll keep us in joints till the Ranch." She stows it, still smiling. No offense taken, there.
Under their wheels, the road rolls on over hills, mountains, the truck shuddering over cracks, potholes. And as the night settles in, they begin to hear, in the distance, the blaring of ska.