At noon, they restarted their walk and made their way around various small towns neighboring Celaeno. It was impossible to go through the train station in Celaeno, so they were headed for the next train stop. It would take them to a post where they could switch over to a train heading west.
Along the path, the trio hid from passing cars until Ya Nu asked, “Can’t we ask for a ride?”
“No,” Lucas replied. “That’ll leave a witness who’ll clearly remember us. Our faces might be broadcasted across Celaeno and maybe even Astradom by now.”
“We left a letter,” Ya Nu muttered under her breath. It was not a great plan by any stretch, but Lucas had in fact written a letter explaining their emergency departure and eventual return, excluding specific details. Whether it worked or not didn’t matter. An explanation was better than none, Lucas had reasoned.
But he knew that with a letter or not, they were in trouble. An unauthorized absence was a harsh penalty and desertion was a crime, and he hoped that they would fall under the former. Students could officially request a transfer, permanent leave, or drop out if they no longer wished to continue service in the ISC-M. Training institute or not, Hollyhock was an extension of Astradom’s Prime Military that vetted their students and expected strict order.
Skirting around, the group came across an outlying fuel station packed with incoming and outgoing dual trucks. Relaxed drivers mingled in the area resting, eating, and socializing.
Dual trucks were made from the bones of VI-ruses and were extra resistant to damage. They could hold multiple times the load of regular trucks, and the content was sealed by power stones that meant the cargo was near impossible to open without the key or use of extreme brute force. While its specialties made it a valuable asset to the trade industry, dual trucks were also frequently used by criminals to transport illegal goods.
Among the workers here, the lawbreakers would be mingled in with the common folk.
An idea struck Ya Nu. She changed their course and beckoned her teammates to follow her into a hiding spot near the fuel station. As they watched the scene, Ya Nu said, “Lobelia, ditch the trains for now. Regular citizens are no good, but people who want to stay under the radar are fair game, yea? And we don’t have to ask nicely.”
She eventually picked out a man among the drivers. “Him. Our target,” she said as he climbed into his dual truck and started the engine. He drove out of the fuel station and headed towards a secluded road.
This bare road stretched on for miles. The driver covered only a few miles and was already bored. The large meal he had back at the fuel station didn't help. He yawned and his vehicle swerved offtrack. Suddenly a heavy object hit the front end of the dual truck and fell under the wheels. He grunted but barely reacted. Didn’t matter what he hit, he hope it died quickly.
The truck driver drove on until he heard a rattle underneath. Something must have stuck on the underside. He couldn’t proceed with that ominous racket. Drawing the attention of authorities wasn't something he wanted.
The driver parked the vehicle and climbed out to inspect the back, then he crouched down to peer under the vehicle. From on top the dual truck, Za leapt down; his feet first connecting with the man’s head and back, and slamming him against the pavement. As the driver’s consciousness wavered, Za grabbed one of the man’s legs and bent it back.
Lucas and Ya Nu quickly appeared from behind the dual truck.
“No! Don’t!” Ya Nu shouted. The memory to his actions against the criminal at the convenience store came back to her.
“Leave the rest to us,” Lucas said.
Aware of the situation he was in, the driver grunted indignantly through the haze building in his head. Za coldly glanced down at the driver and then stepped back.
In the late evening, the dual truck made its way down a different road. It’s engine hummed. Ya Nu sat behind the steering wheel navigating the huge vehicle while Lucas was seated on the passenger side. The original driver was squeezed in between them, concussed and bound with a cloth over his eyes and ears. Lucas was responsible for feeding him water and directing him to a vomit bag. A bruise had formed on the man’s head, but he was otherwise unharmed thanks to the intervention from Ya Nu and Lucas.
They could not leave the man behind to be found and risk an investigation by the authorities or his cronies, if not for his sake then to trace the missing cargo. They planned to return the dual truck to its driver eventually, but for now they needed the easy transportation.
Currently, Za was hooked to the top of the trailer and was indifferent to the strong winds. Ya Nu and Lucas was accustomed to his oddity and let him be. To make the most use of his vantage, Lucas tasked him with lookout duty and warned him to hide when they were within sight of other vehicles or towns. They didn’t need Za to stand out like a beacon.
In the driver’s seat, Ya Nu tapped her fingers cheerfully on the steering wheel as she concentrated on the road ahead of them. She handled the dual truck easily. Lucas observed her. Although he knew other students shared vastly different experiences from him, this was still new for him.
“Amaryllis, do you own a license?” he asked.
“Doesn't matter,” Ya Nu replied. She indicated the man’s license that they had pulled from his pocket and propped up on the dashboard along with his wallet. “It’s fake. I recognize the markings. Algol’s specialty. The law can't stop us from learning. Don’t underestimate the things we will do to survive. Alstroemeria’s not the only one with surprising skills, right?”
Algol, the slums of Astradom. Lucas wondered if he had touched on a potentially sensitive topic. He recognized that he didn’t know much about his quint members, especially Marigold and Amaryllis.
Ya Nu picked up the conversation where he left off in a different direction. “I’ve never been out of Astradom. Forged passes are expensive, you know,” she said. “Have you travelled?”
Lucas dug into his memory and said, “Actually, to Formicidan. Dorylus three years ago with my sister. It’s exactly how the Student Council presenters described it. Dunes, stone buildings, and crowded. Their accents and dialects aren’t too different from ours.” Formicidan was half the size of Astradom but Dorylus was as interesting as Celaeno.
“Hmm,” Ya Nu digested the information but latched onto a more interesting topic. “You have a sister?”
“Just the one. She’s three years younger.”
“Must be nice. There’s only mom and me,” Ya Nu said. “I left her behind for Hollyhock. She has no one else now.”
Their conversation lapsed into silence.
Lucas turned his head to look out the side window and wondered what his father would think if he knew that his son was traveling across the country kidnapping criminals and hijacking their dual trucks.
They drove west until the dual truck ran low on fuel then stopped at another station. Ya Nu wanted the right driver and so they rested and waited until she made the call, then repeated the process. The first dual truck was parked and left behind, its original driver conscious but still blindfolded and bound. They could not risk him escaping before they were far away.
As they climbed into their next vehicle, Lucas was apologetic that he couldn’t relieve Ya Nu from the driver's seat. She waved it off.
“There’s no time to teach you. Let’s just focus on getting across Astradom as fast as possible,” she said. Heavy dark circles had formed under her eyes, but she was determined and Lucas did not try to dissuade her.
Gradually, the landscape became rougher and vegetation sparse. On the outskirts of Astradom, the population thinned and sightings of other humans lessened. Eventually, they passed by the last sizable town. With Ya Nu at the helm, the trio cut several hours away from Lucas’ estimate, as well as useless time on foot, and arrived at the border of Formicidan and Astradom on the third morning.
Lucas’ connection had come through with the passes. He received them on his phone and sent Ya Nu her electronic pass to enter Formicidan. Za did not carry his phone, as Lucas expected, and they would enter together.
Ya Nu was nervous, but Lucas assured her that going through the cross-border patrol was simple. Travel between ISC countries was encouraged and with the large number of people crossing daily, stopping individuals or groups for close inspection was rare. They easily blended in with other travelers that arrived to the official outpost on foot, those coming from the train station several miles back, or the people who were dropped off by car or bus. The patrol who scanned their passes barely glanced down.
In no time at all, the trio stepped foot into Formicidan.
Eyeing the rough landscape, Ya Nu celebrated with a tired grimace. “I made it. I’m alive.”