By: Jim Bates
The exciting conclusion of Jim's ten part SF series!
Quinn and Karen rested while Jen scouted ahead. They had been traversing the foothills for the last day, but didn't seem to be getting any closer to the mountain range rising in front of them. They were so close they felt they could reach out and touch them, but, of course, they couldn't and their plight was wearing everyone down.
"How's your water supply holding up?" Quinn asked his wife.
Karen took the plastic bottle out of her pack and showed him. "Half empty. Or half full according to you." She attempted a smile through her cracked lips, but was unsuccessful. The three-day hike across No Man's Land had taken its toll on her generally positive disposition.
Quinn showed her his bottle. "Same," he said, and didn't even try to make a joke. He was too exhausted.
Their son Matt had fallen asleep in his father's lap moments after they'd stopped to rest, done in by the arduous journey. Dust devils blew past in an endless parade reminding them that if they didn't find water soon, they would die. They'd been out of food for over a day.
"We should conserve water even more than we are," Karen said, raising her bottle to take a drink, then thinking twice before putting it down and screwing the cap on and putting it away. She hadn't touched a drop. "I'll save it for Matt," she whispered to Quinn.
At the sound of his name Matt stirred and sat up. Blinking and rubbing his eyes he asked, "Where's Jen?" They'd become fast friends in the five days since they'd met in the city and begun their journey together.
Quinn rubbed his son's head, mussing up his hair in a show of affection. "She went on up ahead," he pointed. "See, she's out there."
Jen had walked along the spur of a rocky outcropping and was about a hundred yards away. As they watched, she turned and shouted. "Hey, you guys. Come here. Come quick. I think I see something."
Instead of waiting, she jogged back as the three others hurried to meet her. Quinn was carrying Matt on his back.
They met half way. "What is it?" he asked.
"I see rocks piled up out there. Like a symbol or signal of some sort." She motioned and began walking. "Come on."
Quinn and Karen followed her to the first pile. "Look," she pointed. "See what I mean? I wonder what they are?" She was showing them a two-foot-tall stack of flat rocks set one on top of the other with the larger ones, about two feet across, at the bottom, and smaller ones placed on top of each other.
Karen said, "I've read about these." She bent down and studied the pyramid shaped structure. "It's called a cairn. They're used to mark a path over rocky ground."
"So, you don't get lost?" Matt asked. He'd been following the conversation closely.
"That's right," his mom said.
"So, someone put them there?"
Quinn, Karen and Jen all looked at the five-year-old. They could see it in his eyes. The dull stare of exhaustion was replaced by a bright, almost a lively glimmer; a glimmer of what they all suddenly felt. Something they hadn't felt for a few days. Hope.
"Yes," his mother said, "Someone put them there."
"Wow," Matt exclaimed.
Jen had another thought. "On the other hand, we don't know anything about whoever built them. They might be friendly, they might not."
"She's right," Karen said. "We should be careful."
"But we should follow them, right?" Quinn asked.
"Yeah, we should," Karen answered him.
Jen added. "We really don't have any other choice, do we?"
"No, we don't," Quinn nodded grimly. "Let's go." He set Matt on his shoulders and off they went.
The cairns were spaced out about every hundred yards or so. Sometimes it was hard to find the next one, and more than once they got off in the wrong direction. Crossing No Man's Land had been hard going and the dry ground had torn up their shoes, making walking difficult. Since yesterday, when they'd begun climbing into the foothills, the land was still dry and sunbaked, but hillier, and they had to do more climbing which further ruined their shoes and made walking even more difficult. The closer they got to the mountains, the hillier the land became and the harder it was to make progress.
After following the cairns for most of the afternoon they were all exhausted.
"Let's stop here and rest," Quinn said. He took Matt off his shoulders and they plopped down on the rocky surface. The others gratefully joined them.
"Dad, I'm thirsty," Matt said and coughed a little. "My throat is really dry."
Quinn gave him his water bottle and watched as the little boy drank half of what was left, which wasn't much. He smiled, though, when Matt handed it back and said, "Here, Dad. I saved some for you."
"Thanks, buddy," he grabbed his son for a quick one-armed hug and took a sip. He was nearing the last of his water.
Karen and Jen each took a sip from theirs, trying to conserve. They, too, were on their last bottles. They'd finished off the last of their energy bars the day before. If they didn't find food and more importantly, water, soon, their fate was sealed.
Quinn looked back from where they'd come from, back toward No Man's Land and the city they'd escaped to build a better life. Exactly what that life was going to look like, Quinn had no idea, but he'd never second guess himself for the risk they'd taken. At least now his family was together. That was the main thing.
Karen got up and pulled on her backpack. "We need to get going."
Jen joined her. "I'm glad we don't' have to wear those gas masks anymore. They were started to bug me."
In spite of their dire situation, Karen smiled. "I know. You weren't happy at all."
The further they'd traveled from the city, the better the air had become. The dust storms weren't as prevalent either. So yesterday Karen, a former scientist in the city with Millennium Microbial, pronounced the air safe for them all to breathe. "You mean we can ditch the gas masks?" Jen had asked, grinning from ear to ear and removing hers and tossing it aside. "It's about time."
"Yes, but let's keep them with us," Karen said, reaching down, picking it up and handing it back to her. "You never know when they might come in handy for something."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Jen said, and put it in her backpack.
Yesterday, the cleaner air had been a morale booster, but, now, having no food and running out of water was starting to begin to bring the mood of the group down.
Quinn had an idea. "Jen, why don't you scout up ahead like before and check out where the cairns are leading? We'll follow along with Matt."
Jen was happy to have the responsibility. Of all of them, she was in the best shape and happy to accommodate. "Sure. Consider it done."
Quinn and Karen watched her trot over the rocky ground before Quinn lifted Matt to his shoulders and they began following behind, picking their way slowly over the irregular ground. The hills surrounding them were getting steeper. The sun was getting low in the sky behind the mountain range in front of them. Dusk was setting in and it would soon be dark. They'd have to consider making camp and figuring out a way to get through the night while trying not to think about the food they didn't have.
Suddenly they heard a shout. Jen appeared on the top of a low rise in front of them and waved, "Hey guys, come here. Hurry!"
"What is it?" Karen yelled, picking up her pace and taking Quinn's hand, pulling him along.
"Good news. The trail goes into a canyon. I've got a feeling there might be water in it."
Quinn and Karen joined her and looked to where she was pointing. The trail veered away from the direction they'd been traveling and cut to the left, dropping down into what looked to be a shady canyon.
He didn't have to think. "Let's go and check it out," Quinn said. They scrambled down the steep decline.
Once at the bottom they notice the air was remarkably cooler and immediately their spirits revived. The sides of the canyon were step and blocked out most of the sun, but after walking a short way along a sandy trail they found a pool of spring fed water. After drinking their fill, they made camp for the night. As the sun set, they huddled together for warmth against the cold night air and slept fitfully. Even though their thirsty was quenched, hunger pangs were strong; they'd been without food for nearly two days and needed to find some soon.
At dawn the next day the little group was up and moving. They followed the cairns, which after a few hours led them out of the canyon and up a steep hill. The stream disappeared below it. Jen scampered up the hill and scouted.
She was gone only a short time before she came running back. Breathlessly she said, "Guys. I think we've made it. I can see a beautiful valley out there. It's only a few miles away. I think the canyon lead us through the mountains. We didn't have to climb them. Who knows how many days it saved us?"
"Are you sure?" Quinn asked.
"Who cares?" Karen said. "Let's go see."
Jen lead them back to where she'd been. She'd followed a cairn to the edge of a steep hill that fell away below them. "Look," she pointed. At the bottom they could see where the creek had reappeared.
"My god," Karen said. "I don't believe it."
"But it's true," Jen pointed further. The creek followed a meandering path and then spilled out into a valley that looked to be about five miles away. And the best part? It was green.
"It's beautiful," Karen said, smiling. She hugged Quinn and Matt, and then hugged Jen. "We made it!"
"We've still got a way to go," Quinn pointed out. "Plus, we don't have any food."
"He's right," Jen said. "You guys come along. I'll keep scouting up ahead. Maybe I can find some berries or something."
Quinn and Karen watched their friend climb down the hill and begin following the creek on its way to the valley. But, before coming after her, they sat down with Matt to let the little boy rest before heading out.
"Are we really going to be saved, Dad?" he asked, snuggling with his mom. "Really?"
"Yes, we are," Quinn said, not adding the last part of what he was going to say, which was, "I think." Truth be told, he really didn't know. In his heart, though, for the good of them all he hoped they were finally through the worst of their journey. He really did.
Next to him Karen took his hand, "You did a good thing, Quinn, kidnapping Matt and getting us out of the city. At the time, I wasn't sure if it was a wise thing to do, but in the end, if it wasn't the wisest thing to do, it certainly was the right thing to do." She paused and smiled and hugged both Quinn and Matt tightly. "Look at us. We're together. We're a family."
Quinn grinned. "My turn." And he hugged both Karen and Matt. Yes, they were. They were a family, who could now live the way they wanted, just like he'd always wanted them to do.
He was feeling so good, he didn't hear Matt the first time until his son poked him in the arm. "Dad?"
"What?" he had bent his head to organize his backpack and get ready to follow Jen.
"Dad, look. It's Jen."
"Good. We'll keep our eyes on her and follow her in just a minute." He wasn't looking, but busying himself with the flap on his pack.
"Um, Quinn," Karen said. Something in her tone made Quinn stop his packing and look up.
"Look." She pointed.
Quinn looked. "Oh, my god," he said.
"Yeah," Karen looked at him. "Now what?"
He looked back at her. Then out to where Jen was. "I don't know. You have any ideas."
Karen took out her phone and turned on the binocular application and watched Jen approach. But she wasn't alone. She was with a man. A guy about six and a half feet tall wearing a flowing white robe with a leather satchel strapped across his front. He had long black hair and a swarthy complexion. Even at a great distance Karen could see he had brilliant white teeth. She knew, because she could see him smiling. So was Jen. They both were. They were talking, and every now and then Jen laughed at something the man said.
Quinn turned to Karen and said, "What do you think of that?"
"What I think is that Jen's found a friend."
Jen had, indeed, found a friend.
"Welcome to our land," the stranger said, walking up to Quinn and Karen and Matt and extending his hand for all three of them to shake, which they did. "Let me introduce myself. I am Aaron and," he pointed behind him to the green valley, "my people and I are from down there. We would be very happy to have you all come live with us."
He explained that he was one of nearly four hundred people who were living in the valley; people who over the years had escaped the city and begun living a better life.
"You're serious?" Quinn asked. "You want us to come and live with you?"
"I am," the friendly, good-natured man said. "I've never been more serious in my life."
"Let's go, Dad," Matt said, obviously smitten with the stranger.
Aaron reached into his satchel and pulled out something that smelled delicious.
"Here, little man," he said, "Have some of this."
Matt sniffed it and then took a tentative bite. His eyes lit up. "This is good!" And quickly ate it all.
Aaron turned to Quinn and Karen. "It's called bread," he said. "I'll teach you how to make it."
Jen took Aaron by the arm and said to Quinn, "Should we go, then?"
"Yeah, lets," Quinn said.
"Definitely," Karen added.
Matt yelled, "Yippee!"
Quinn hoisted Matt onto his back and Karen took his hand, turned to him and said, "We really did it, Quinn. We made it,"
Quinn smiled back at her and they embraced. "Yeah, we did."
And off they went, hand and hand, following Jen and Aaron, on their way to beginning their new life. They had, indeed, made it.