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Chapter 6     
The Checkpoint

     "We’ll need money. As much as we can get," Leif decided. "We have to buy food and pay for places to sleep. And maybe pay for information. I hope you ladies don't mind eating crummy food and sleeping in seedy inns."
     "I hate having to fight so strongly against my Kamiko-who-gets-hungry now that I am in Back,” lamented Kamiko. “I'd forgotten how that part of me tries to be in control."
     "Welcome back to Back," Leif added.
     "Will we be able to find food and lodging?" Isabella wondered aloud.
     "The Gatherer said the major, and only, road to the Palaces is lined with shops and inns," Leif explained. "Plus, we must find the black market where we can exchange money. But I'm sure that can be found, too."
     "They have their own money?" Isabella asked.
     "To better keep control," Leif explained. "Now remember, we can’t flow anything. No truths, no healings, no Beat. Stare at the ground. Don't look anyone in the eye. They have patrols and checkpoints manned by people who are especially sensitive to the flows. If they find us out they could shoot us on the spot. Which reminds me, I'll need a gun."
     Again, the reality of what they were doing hit Isabella and Kamiko. They spent the next day practicing their shuffling walk and downcast gaze. They also read some scribbled notes the Gatherer had given them further describing what they might encounter.
     "Let no emotion show on your face except total hopelessness," Leif kept telling them. "Our lives depend on it."
     In the evenings Leif and Isabella enjoyed getting re-acquainted with Kamiko. With her being in Beyond they had lost touch with the little things in her life. At one point when she and Isabella were alone, Kamiko gently broached the subject of how she and Leif were doing as a couple.
     "I'm sensing some unhappiness.”
     Isabella looked at her friend for a moment without saying anything. Tears welled up in her eyes.
     "I'm not happy," she answered. "But not now. After we rescue Devan we'll talk more."
     Kamiko left it at that. They were leaving the next day and Isabella didn't need anything more distracting her.
     The next morning found them taking public transportation south. When even public transportation would go no closer, they walked. At first the sun was shining. They found themselves enjoying the change from their normal routine.
     "Almost the same as when we set out on our first journey," Kamiko remarked. "Let's call this Journey II.”
     But as they went farther the sun appeared less bright. The air felt heavier and more oppressive. Any enjoyment the three had experienced earlier was gone. They mostly were silent as they walked, each apprehensive at what lay ahead.
     They met more and more people heading south with them- people you only had to look at once to know they had given up. The three didn’t dare try to give them hope for fear of giving their mission away. Instead they had to likewise appear without hope even though it hurt them inside not to be able to help this sad group.
     At least we have a chance for more practice appearing hopeless, Leif thought. They were doing better at looking and acting the part.
     They saw a darkness ahead. As they walked nearer, Leif saw it was a thick layer of black misty substance high in the sky that completely blotted out the sun. It defied the laws of physics.
     "That shouldn't be able to exist," Leif said to the others.
     Then it hit him. It was part of the presence that permeated this horrible land, a part of Death itself. Isabella and Kamiko gasped when Leif told them what he thought it was.
     "How will we ever rescue Devan out of such a terrible place?" Kamiko exclaimed.
     "The Source sent us," Leif answered. "The Source will show us the way."
     "But we can't even receive flows or the Beat from the Source," Isabella wailed.
     "Still, we must believe the Source thinks we can do it," Leif responded.
     The sun faded fast as they crossed the edge where the black layer began. After a short distance, it was dark enough to barely make out the road. What little vegetation there might have been was gone. Now there were only bare fields of hard dirt.
     "So I guess we are now in the Land of Death," Leif mused.
     "I doubt there will be a sign saying, 'Welcome to Death,’" Kamiko said with no enthusiasm whatsoever.
     They had to stop talking because they were coming to a crowd of people almost stopped in the road.
     "What's going on?" Leif asked one of the crowd.
     "Checkpoint ahead," one man replied, who began to fidget in the manner of one who had often been the target of authority figures, and often for good reason.
     Here would be their first real test. Sensitives would focus on them when their turn came. If any of them flowed life in any form the mission would be over before it began.
     "Keep calm," Leif whispered. "Remember, we trained for this."
     They joined the slow-moving crowd, which eventually formed into a line. They saw the checkpoint. Harsh, bright lights bathed a small shack. Men with guns were at the ready. Other men walked up to each traveler and stared them in the face.
     Those are the Sensitives, Leif thought.
     Not only were they sensing for any flows, but they looked at faces and eyes. Leif wished they had trained even more than they had. Now it was their turn. Each of them had to endure that stare for what seemed an eternity. Leif froze when he heard the man with Isabella ask another Sensitive to come over.
     "I'm picking up something. Not sure what. How about you?"
     The other man stared at Isabella a long while before turning away.
     "She must be a nut case. I'm just getting static. She's probably scared bad."
     Leif breathed a small sigh of relief as Isabella joined them past the checkpoint, though the man continued to stare at her back. Finally, he turned to the next traveler. Leif saw Isabella trembling. He longed to put his arms around her but didn’t dare. Not here where it would cause suspicion. They had passed their first test, barely.
     "Now to find a place to eat and exchange our money.”
     They had had to deal with shop owners along the way, but here in Death the rules were different. A wrong move here could be fatal.
     It was a bizarre sight as they continued on the narrow, pot-holed road. On both sides of the road were run-down shops and inns. The feeble, flickering light coming from windows and store fronts gave just enough illumination for them to see. From the air, the road resembled a dimly glowing snake in a sea of darkness.
     They went into one of the shops where they saw people inside eating. The Gatherer had told them there were "banks" where they could exchange their money, but the rates were robbery. They could receive a better rate through the flourishing black market in the shops.
     Leif went to the shop worker while Isabella and Kamiko stayed at the entrance. After some discussion Leif came back.
     "Let's eat.”
     The worker sat them at a table and brought a non-appetizing meal consisting of a thin slice of what they hoped was beef, smothered in greasy gravy, and two  small overcooked, overaged whole potatoes.
     “Only thing on the menu,” Leif informed them.
     He disappeared into a room in the back. Isabella and Kamiko were worried by the time Leif re-appeared and joined them.
     "Well, we have money.”
     "I don't like this," Isabella said. "How do I know you’re safe when you go off like that?"
     "You don't," Leif answered. "I don't care for it either. I let him know I was armed."
     Leif paid the bill and they walked back out to the road.
     "I suggest we walk until we are too tired to go any farther. Then we'll find a place to sleep."
     The girls agreed and they began walking. They trudged silently past stores, inns, and people either walking on the road or standing outside the shops. While some seemed to know each other, the majority were by themselves. What talk the   three overheard centered mainly around how much farther to the Pleasure Palaces, and whether they would be able to find any work.
     "I can't go much farther,” Isabella announced.
     They stopped at the next inn they came to. The room was dirty and the bed looked dirtier.
     "You two take the bed and I'll sleep on the sofa," Leif suggested.
     Isabella and Kamiko were too tired to let the condition of the room or bed stop them from dropping on the bed. Soon they were asleep. Leif laid his gun on the lamp table next to the sofa. He practiced grabbing it as he jumped up from a lying position.
     I'm not turning the lights off, he muttered.
     He fell into an uneasy sleep. The weight of being responsible for the girls' safety was beginning to wear on him.
     The next day they repeated the routine: walk, eat, sleep. And the next day. It was strange calling it "day" since it was dark continuously. Leif thought he could tell the "days" were slightly less dark, but not by much.
     It wasn't until the third "day" they saw their first clump of huge buildings in the distance.
     It had to be the Pleasure Palace.

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