Zelinski offered Caleb a new shirt, which was conveniently stashed in the back of his Ford Focus.  While Caleb changed, Rand ate and swallowed a whole chilli.  This made him hack like a cat with a hairball.  But Zelinski made him do it.  He had a point: it was the earliest stage of Rand’s infection so the chilli action would have the best effect.  “You might live five, ten or fifty times longer,” the scientist said cryptically.

Tam and Caleb got in the back of the Lexus.  Zelinski took the Focus.  Rand put their destination address into his satnav.  The METMA Centre and commercial park they subsequently met in were on the north-east side of Rounlin.  They’d come straight south from Varsity but on the return journey they were making a diagonal, north-west.  Maybe it would be safer.  Tam still thought yesterday’s madness was only the start.

And sure enough, the country road was almost empty.  To her left, Tam saw low buildings that looked laughably retro.  Signage from the sixties and seventies heralded awful housewifey clothes and Tupperware everything.  Almost half the stores looked shut for good.  To her right, there were farms.  Or, possibly, one single endless farm.  She saw needle-like plumes of smoke on the horizon.  And they passed anonymous bloodstains and once, a disowned leg.

Rand slowed at a checkpoint.  Four soldiers dressed for imminent battle looked at them.  They looked like goddamn commandoes and Tam wondered what they were doing on the back road.  Her heart beat a little faster.  Maybe Rand had unwittingly strayed into the Heart of Darkness.  The Lexus stopped and the driver’s window rolled down with a calculated purr.

The young soldier who looked in was clean-shaven and poised.  Rand was equally cool and for a split second, Tam perceived a stand-off.  She wondered what was wrong with their driver.

“Good morning,” said the soldier.  “We’re with METMA.  We’re here to check for anything suspicious.”  As he spoke, another soldier looked through the windows at Tam and Caleb.  Tam felt vulnerable.  She decided to trust Rand.  But when she looked in the rear-view mirror at his reflection, the look on his face was like he’d been slapped and told to do a chicken dance.

Zelinski’s Focus came up behind them.  He was waved on.  He overtook them, knifing in a quizzical glance.  The second soldier finished his inspection, which was as cursory as glancing inside and walking around the car.  The first, who had been looking around as if for helicopters, turned his attention to Rand again.  “Okay,” he said.  “Now, I have to ask you for compensation.”

“Excuse me?” said Rand, and his eyebrows rose like two corks in a bowl of water.

“Government duty,” said the soldier.  Tam was just glad they seemed to have missed Caleb, or thought for some reason that he wasn’t suspicious.  But they were carrying submachine-guns so she wanted to tell Rand to shut up and pay up.  He was in a Lexus.  “Emergency fund,” said the soldier.  “All extra staff have been brought in and they don’t have enough funds.  The public are being asked to provide immediate assistance.  It’s very important.”

There was an incredibly long pause.  Rand looked straight ahead and took several deep breaths.  Then he reached into his pocket and took out his wallet.  But instead of showing them green stuff, he showed them identification.

“My name is Will Rand,” he said.  “I am a senior manager with METMA.” His voice slowed and Tam found, as he spoke, that the whole scene came into clarity.  “Now, I know for a fact that nobody who works for METMA carries a gun.”  Tam saw that, strangely, each of their weapons was different.  One of them had a helmet, but not the others.   One had aviators on his head.  One had a grenade strapped to his chest.  None of them had stripes on their arms.  They had no vehicles, no tent or table or computer, no radios.  “You are not METMA,” said Rand,  “and neither are you military.  Those are upmarket BB guns.  You’re not getting my money and I’m reporting this to the police as a fraud.  Not to mention Criminal Impersonation of a Government Agent, which is a felony by the way.”

The “soldier” made a gesture like he was swatting a fly and turned away with a disgruntled puff.  “Shit man,” he said.  “Fuck off then.”  He muttered something to his friends and they all walked away, muttering, offended.  Tam wondered when the world had officially turned into a gameshow.

None of them could think of anything to say that would sum up this incident.  Rand slowly moved off.  Eventually Caleb said, “Reminds me of the time I made balloon animals as a kid.  Boy, I made up more animals than God himself.”

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