It was one of those moments Aidyn lived for. He trimmed the sail and felt the sand skiff pick up a couple of more knots. Blasting across a wide-open salt flat while looking for the spring so Whiterock City could have water was about as much fun as you could have anymore. He remembered the stories his grandfather told him about The Before when you traveled in a “car” that didn’t need wind or muscle to move. Granddad had said that, when he was Aidyn’s age, he had a machine called a “Mustang” that could have left any skiff in the dust. He wondered what that would’ve felt like.
Damn, he thought, realizing he’d drifted a bit from his course across the pan and realigned the front tire with the distant peak he was using for a landmark. He didn’t know the name of it. He didn’t know the names of any of the terrain features he saw. He’d read them on the map but couldn’t remember a single one. He wished he could. Petra had tried her best to teach him, but stuff like that just wouldn’t stick in his brain. Doc Zalman said it had something to do with some chemical shit his mom had come in contact with while she was pregnant with him. Organophos– organo–, he didn’t know. Whatever it was, it made it hard for him to concentrate or remember things. Most people wrote him off as a dummy, but not Petra. She treated him like he was smart. Like he mattered.
He was drifting again. Laying the joystick over and trimming the sail, the rudder out in front pulled the skiff back on course. He had to pay attention. Petra had talked the Mayor into giving him this mission and he couldn’t screw it up. She told the council nobody could handle a sand skiff like him and so what if he couldn’t tell you the names of landmarks, he had an uncanny sense of direction and could find the spring the old maps said were there. Of course, they didn’t know if the water was drinkable. Or whether they’d gone dry like so many they found in these days after the Big Die-off. Or even if the springs had ever existed. Guarantees of things like accurate maps were in short supply these days.
He checked his course again and found he was right on it. Good. Petra would be proud of him. Maybe if he found the spring, when he got back, they could bond. He was sixteen and it was time he took a mate. Petra was a couple of years older than him, but he didn’t care. She was the only girl in the city he’d even thought about bonding with. All the others were either silly little kids or snotty bitches who looked down their noses at him. Like it was his fault that his granddad had helped engineer the virus that had killed so many people. He wasn’t even born when that happened. But Petra? She said that what his family did wasn’t his fault. Something about the sins of the father. He didn’t know what that meant, but he liked it when she said it. He liked it when she said anything.
He’d been sailing across the flat since sunrise. While the sun was still high in the sky, it was definitely past noon. He needed to make a pit stop—another term he’d picked up from his grandfather—so he spilled the sail and pulled the brake. He needed to take a leak but there wasn’t a bush in sight. Oh well, it wasn’t like there was anyone around to see.
Afterward, he pulled a growler and a ration bar out of his pack. He took a swallow of water from the growler and gnawed off a chunk from the bar. They may have had everything you needed to survive in an easy-to-carry/no-preparation-required package. Unfortunately, easy-to-carry didn’t translate to easy-to-eat. The only way he’d ever managed to finish one was by downing plenty of water with each bite. He’d never call it tasty, but it was fuel and he needed it.
By the time he was done, his jaw ached. But at least he wasn’t hungry anymore. He replaced the growler and dug into his pack, pulling out the map Petra had given him. Holding it in front of him, he did his best to line it up with the terrain and scuffed a mark in the salt with his boot. Before he settled back into the seat of the skiff, he picked up the front end and moved it around, placing the front wheel directly on the mark. Once he was seated, he pulled down his goggles and adjusted his cap. Then, he wrapped the scarf over the lower part of his face and tucked the tails into his jacket. Releasing the brake, he unfurled the sail and took off again.
He’d been sailing for a couple of hours when he hit the mud. It was an ever-present danger on the flats, one you couldn’t see coming. The salt would crust over, concealing it and the next thing you knew, you were stuck. Could’ve been worse though. At least he hadn’t hit a chuckhole. Mimzy had hit one a few months ago that broke the axle and bent the frame of his skiff. Peaches wasn’t happy about that and gave him an awful hiding. It sucked the way he was always more concerned with the vehicles he was responsible for than the people who operated them. But he did help Mimzy pull the skiff over to the machine shop and showed him how to fix everything, even down to turning a new axle on the lathe.
He looked down at the muck that held his vehicle. Lucky for him, it didn’t seem too wide. He grabbed his pack and tossed it out onto firmer ground. Then, he rooted around behind his seat looking for the tow rope. He hoped he could pull the skiff out of the mud and keep going. If not, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. He climbed onto the frame, jumped over the mud, and landed beside his pack. He made a quick assessment of the situation. The front tire was mired up to the axle. The rear wheels were in the mud but hadn’t really sunk in deep. He cautiously tested the ground just behind them with the toe of his boot. The salt cracked and a little mud oozed up, but not too bad. The thing was, though, you had to be really careful. Once, when they were crossing a flat, a little kid—maybe 6 or 7 years old—wasn’t paying attention and stepped into a big bog and got totally swallowed up. Never saw him again. His mom cried and begged the Mayor to help her pull the kid out, but he said the boy was already dead and the mud was better than any burial we could give him. It sucked, but that was life in The After.
He stripped off all his clothes in preparation for crawling in and hooking up the tow rope. The salt was going to be hell on his bare skin, but better a little discomfort now than spending the rest of this trip with his only clothes being covered in mud. The sun would be going down soon, and it got cold out on the flat. Being covered in wet mud when that happened wouldn’t just be uncomfortable, it would be life-threatening. He grabbed one end of the rope and got down on his stomach to spread out his body weight as much as possible and began to slither toward the rear end of the skiff.
After just a few feet, his elbows and knees hurt like hell, and then he broke through the crust. The mud was cold and smelled terrible. Just a couple more feet, he thought. He finally made it and secured the rope around the axle with a clove hitch that Peaches had shown him how to tie. Then, he wormed his way back to solid ground. When he was able, he stood up and scraped away the mud that was on his hands. As much as he wanted, he wasn’t going to waste time wiping away the rest of it in case he had to crawl back through it for some reason. He did clean off his feet and slip his boots back on. Then, he tossed the rope over his shoulder, leaned in, and began to pull. For a minute, he didn’t think the skiff was going to come out. Just as he was about to give up and try something else, he heard a sucking sound, and the craft began to move. He leaned into it hard and soon the skiff was back on solid ground. He fell to hands and knees, gasping. Thank god it came out, he thought. If it hadn’t, he would have been screwed.
He found a small pool of water about twenty feet away. It wasn’t drinkable because of all the salt but it would do nicely for getting all that gooey, smelly mud off his body. He realized he’d really gotten lucky because this could’ve been a disaster. If the skiff had been damaged or stuck too deep for him to pull it out, he’d have to continue on foot, and he wasn’t sure he could make it all the way across the flat. It was a terribly long walk, and he’d never have been able to carry enough water. And, of course, there were the storms. You did not want to be caught out on the pan when one of those blew up. The winds blew so fiercely that the salt they picked up could scour the flesh from your bones. An operating skiff was no guarantee that he wouldn’t get caught in one, but if he did, at least he’d have enough material to rig up a shelter so he could ride it out. And there was no way he could carry all that plus the food and water he’d need if he was on foot. Yeah, he’d definitely gotten lucky this time. He prayed to the Maker that his luck would hold.
Thirty minutes later, he was ripping across the salt faster than he’d ever gone before. He wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, though. Yeah, he was making up for the time he’d lost getting the skiff free, but he wondered where this wind was coming from. He hoped it wasn’t a storm. Dear Maker, he thought, please don’t be a storm. He couldn’t see anything but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. Depending on what it picked up as it blew, you might not see a gale until it was right on top of you. He sighed. Best bet was to push hard and make the rocks before something bad happened. They were definitely getting closer. He might even get there before dark. He crossed his fingers and toes that he would.
It was a near thing, but he made it to the mountains with just enough time to secure the skiff and find some cover in the rocks. He had indeed been riding the leading edge of a storm and it was a big one. About an hour after he’d first noticed the increased wind speed, the leading edge of the derecho blew across something with enough color to show up. While he wasn’t happy about the situation, there was some relief in knowing what was going on. He watched it for a couple of minutes, taking note of the speed, and realized that if he was going to beat this thing to rocks, he needed to fly every inch of canvas he had available. He dumped the sail and braked to a halt. As quickly as he could, he rigged the spinnaker and hoisted it. Stopping like this was a gamble but the speed he’d gain should make up for it. Plus, his spinnaker was a storm sail and might hold up longer if the squall caught him. He battened down the locker and jumped into the seat before unfurling the sail. The wind was strong enough that when the big sheet filled out, it overcame the brakes and started dragging the skiff across the flat. He kicked off the brake as he clicked the safety harness and took off. In just a few seconds he was sailing faster than he ever had before. There was no way to tell just how fast out on the featureless pan, but he figured it could be as high as 100 miles per hour. He could probably pick up even more speed if he turned off the wind a bit more but that might take him too far from his intended destination, so he had to make do. But his speed was enough, and he ate up the miles, getting to the rocks in time to secure everything and hunker down in a small cavity hollowed out in the lee of a large boulder. After the storm passed, he crawled out and made sure his skiff was undamaged and he had a way to get back. Finding everything in order, he noticed the lengthening shadows and realized he’d better make camp for the night and wait until tomorrow to push deeper into the rocks. The hollow where he’d ridden out the storm was as good a campsite as he was likely to find, so he laid out his bedroll, grabbed his growler and another ration bar, and settled in for the night.
He woke in time to see the sun coming up over the mountains on the far side of the pan. As he worked out the kinks from a night of sleeping on the ground, he surveyed the slope ahead of him and began to pick out a route up through the rocks to where he hoped the springs were located. It wasn’t going to be easy, that much was obvious. The terrain was extremely rough, and a good bit of the rock looked to be sandstone and shale. He knew from experience that stuff crumbled easily, so he’d have to watch his step. Figuring he could make it up to where he thought the springs were in a few hours, he felt there was no need to carry all his gear. He removed the heaviest things from his pack and left them with his bedroll and took only a plastic growler, some webbing, and a ration bar. He shook the water bottle, estimating how much he had left. About half full, he thought. Still, he thought he’d better find the springs soon; he didn’t want to get dehydrated. He slung the pack on his back and started to climb.
Six hours later, he was on his way back down. He couldn’t believe his luck, finding the spring on his first try. They also appeared to be strong and hopefully would provide enough water for the city to stay in one place for a while. And the water was clear and cold and sweet as any he’d ever had. Things had been pretty rough after bandit activity had forced them north from Cibola. Down there, water had been plentiful what with the Grand River close by. But it was a scarce commodity in these parts and the few sinks and springs they’d found just couldn’t sustain a city their size for more than a day or two. They needed a couple of weeks in one place to repair equipment and fill their water tanks for a final push up into the northern foothills. Word was, it was a real land of milk and honey. He hadn’t understood that phrase the first time he’d heard it and asked why they were looking for milk and honey. A couple of people had laughed at him, but Petra had explained it meant a place where there was plenty of food and life was easy.
He was drifting again and this time, it cost him. Caught up in his daydreaming, he stepped on a piece of sandstone, and it crumbled underneath him. He fell, skidding down the steep incline before his descent was arrested by a very substantial piece of granite, slamming into it with an audible crack that he was pretty sure meant his leg was broken. Laying still for a second, he took stock of his situation. He still had his pack and, aside from a few scrapes and scratches, there didn’t seem to be any injuries besides his leg, although that was definitely enough. Strangely, it didn’t hurt too bad. That was probably shock, he thought. He wasn’t sure what that was, but he’d heard Doc Zalman say that people would walk around with the awfulest wounds and not even know they were hurt because of it. He tried to pull himself up and away from the rock and his leg shifted. Then, it hurt. Oh god, did it hurt. But he had to sit up so he could look around. Steeling himself for the pain he knew was coming, he pushed himself into a sitting position, gritting through clenched teeth. He scanned the area around him, noticing some decent shade a meter or so away. He’d filled his growler before leaving the springs but knew that wouldn’t last long if he didn’t get out of the sun. He was already sweating from the exertion of picking his way down the slope and couldn’t afford to lose anymore his body’s water. He took a deep breath to ready himself for the pain he knew was coming and began to slide across the sandy hollow where he’d landed. It was agony. He wanted to stop about halfway across, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to start moving again. Finally, he felt the cool of the shade and his back touched the rock. He slumped against it, breathing heavily. After he gathered himself, he noticed some sticks about as thick as his wrist just off to his right. Pulling them over, he found a couple were straight enough to make a splint. He didn’t know if he’d be able to walk but, if he could stabilize his leg, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much every time he moved. He selected the best candidates, then dug into his pack for the webbing he was suddenly so thankful he’d brought. Using the knife his grandfather had given him, he cut strips long enough to bind the sticks into a splint like they’d taught him while training to be a sand rider. Once he’d accomplished the task, he tentatively shifted around a bit to test his handiwork. It didn’t feel good, but he didn’t want to scream in pain either. He moved a bit more, sliding over to an outcropping he could use to pull himself into a standing position. Still not great, but doable. He draped his arm over the rock and levered himself to his feet. He stood there for a second before attempting a step. When he did, pain shot through his leg and, though he did manage a few steps, he knew he was too wobbly to attempt the descent down his skiff. They’d prepared for this eventuality, though. He lowered himself down and slid over to his pack. He reached in and pulled out the parachute flares Peaches had given him. There was a card with the agreed-upon sequence for them: one flare meant he’d found the springs and was heading to the rendezvous point. Two meant the springs weren’t there. And, most importantly to him now, three meant he needed help. Petra had made the card when people said a dummy like him would never be able to remember all that. When she gave it to him, she said she had faith in him, that he wouldn’t need it and she was only doing it to shut the doubters up. She was right, he did remember. He pulled out the flares and tucked the card back into his pack. He almost fired them off right then but decided to wait until it was darker. Peaches said they were supposed to be visible during the day, but they’d do better at night. In his current situation, he didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances and settled in to wait for the sun to go down.
The next morning, he started the day with a few bites of ration bar. He thought of the Rule of Threes that had been pounded into his head during training — three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food — as he took stock of his situation. Air wasn’t an issue and food might not be plentiful, but he’d probably be okay. And, while it wouldn’t be comfortable at night, the shelter situation wasn’t too bad. But water? That was a different story. It had taken him almost three days to get here and he was traveling lighter, and faster, than any rescue team. There was no way they could cover that ground in that same amount of time. Probably four days was the best he could hope for. And that’s only if they saw the flares last night. Well, at least he’d thought to fill his growler before starting down from the spring. As he lifted it to take a drink, he thought it felt too light. He swirled it around and felt something drip on his leg. A quick look found a small hole punched into the side just above the midline of the container. He put his hand down on the sand beside him and found it damp. Shit. The growlers carried by sand riders held enough water to keep an adult well hydrated through one day. They’d given him four to get him across the flats, but he’d left the others down in the hollow of the rocks with the rest of his gear. Three to four days on a half a quart would be pushing the survival envelope. Especially in this heat. He realized he had two choices: pick his way down to his gear or climb up to the springs. Going up was the better option. He hadn’t gone that far when he fell and, until he stepped on that sandstone, the footing had been fairly stable. He had to do something because staying where he was could mean dying and he wasn’t ready to die. Taking a sip of water, he slid over to the rock outcropping he’d used to pull himself up yesterday. On his feet again, he tested his leg. It hurt like hell, but he thought he stand it if he had to. He shuffled over the chute he’d tumbled down the day before and looked up. The cleft that held the springs was about fifty feet straight above him. But the path he would have to take was anything but straight. With all the switchbacks, he would probably end up covering closer to a hundred feet than fifty. He realized that just these few minutes of exertion out in the sun had caused him to start sweating. That wasn’t good. He needed his water inside his body, not out. He decided to wait until the sun was a little lower before attempting this climb and hobbled back to the shade.
Six hours later, it was fully dark, and he was less than halfway up the trail. His leg hurt like hell, and he was reduced to crawling. He would reach out, grab an outcrop, and pull himself up, dragging his injured leg behind. It was painfully slow going. At this rate, he’d be lucky to make the top before the sun came up. Worse, the effort, combined with the pain, had him sweating. Not as bad as earlier when the sun was up, but still. That worried him but it would be worth it if he could get to the springs. Once there, he’d have all the water he could need. Hopefully, he could also find a place to get out of the sun. He remembered when Dink got caught out on the flats for several days with no shade. His sunburn was awful, and Doc said he had something called heat stroke. They tried to cool him down, but it didn’t help. Doc said his brain had swollen and his kidneys shut down. There was nothing they could do except try to make him as comfortable as possible and see if he pulled through. He didn’t. Like his peers, Aidyn knew the possibility of dying was part of being a sand rider, but he didn’t want to do anything to help it along. Especially not the way Dink went. It was awful: convulsions, vomiting, shitting, blood in it, too. Doc said the only saving grace was that Dink was unconscious and didn’t know what was going on. That wasn’t going to happen to him, though. He kept pulling himself up and, slowly but surely, the opening which led to the springs got closer. As he was getting close to the top, it happened again: an outcrop of sandstone crumbled under his weight, and he slid all the way back down to where he started. He didn’t get hurt this time and he supposed that was something. But he realized that he wasn’t going to make up to the springs. And, that all the sweat and effort he’d just expended was wasted. It was all he could do not to sob. He pulled himself back under the shelf that would protect him from the sun when it came up, took a small sip of water, and settled in to wait.
He was amazed at how slowly time passed when you didn’t move very much. He’d begun scratching marks on the rock after attempting the climb. It was a good thing because, otherwise, he wouldn’t have any idea how long he’d been there. It felt more like four weeks than four days. He had drunk the last bit of his water two days ago, but he had remembered how to make a solar still from his training. Yesterday morning, he’d crawled out into the sunlight and dug a hole, placing the bottom half of the growler he’d cut up at the bottom. Then, he spread his poncho over it, anchoring the edges, and put a rock in the center to weigh it down. That was supposed to allow the condensation that formed on the bottom side of the cape to drip down into the cup. He knew it likely wouldn’t be enough to sustain him for very long, being just a fraction of what he needed, but it didn’t need to be very long. Help should be there any day now. He just had to hold on.
He looked up at the marks on the rock above him and saw six scratches, the first ones deep and sure. The later ones, though, were more erratic and shallower. It was hard to remember if he’d made a mark for today or not. He wanted to crawl out to his still and see if there was anything to drink but his whole body ached, and he was so weak. He drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened by a sharp screech. Opening his eyes, he saw a large, ugly bird staring at him. His brain was very foggy, but he still knew a buzzard when he saw one. And, he still had enough of his wits about him to know what that meant. It wasn’t good. He tried to shoo it away, but it just looked at him. He picked up one of the sticks lying close by and swung. But he was too weak and too slow to make contact and the bird easily dodged him and moved back out of reach. His efforts to scare it off left him exhausted and he sank back into the sand. Drifting off again, he heard the rustle of feathers as the vulture moved closer. He didn’t have the energy to chase it away again and he didn’t care. He hoped that his body wouldn’t be too mangled by the carrion eaters when the rescue party found it. The only thing that bothered him was that he’d never see Petra again. That thought stirred something inside him, but he couldn’t focus enough to do anything with it. He opened his eyes to see that the bird was coming closer. He watched it shamble toward him thinking it was weird how an animal so graceful in the air was so goofy on the ground. It was almost on him when it exploded with a solid thump and feathers flew everywhere. He saw movement across the small depression where he lay and realized after a second it was a person. They clambered over the lip of rock with a slingshot trained on the bird’s carcass, moving over to him. Petra. He recognized her jacket. She slid under the rock shelf and cradled his head in her lap. Pushing her goggles up, she pulled her kerchief down so he could see her face.
“Hey,” he croaked. “I found them. Right where you thought.”
“Shut up,” she said as she uncapped her water bottle and held it up to his chapped, cracked lips. “Drink,” and water trickled into his mouth. Nothing in his entire life had ever tasted so good.
It was now or never, he thought. If he didn’t ask now, he wasn’t sure he’d get another chance. “Petra,” he said, “will you bond with me when we get back?”
With tears in her eyes, she nodded. He smiled and relaxed into her arms. She said yes, he thought. He didn’t care what happened now. He closed his eyes and drifted off one more time.