9 Days Earlier
The sand rose and fell in miniature dunes as far as he could see. Unless he looked straight up into the cloudless sky, it was all sand, sand in two-foot dunes.
He turned, just his head, then his upper body, as far as he could, all the way right, all the way left.
Jarring not to see footprints behind him. As a tracker, no trail was out of his experience.
His pack grew heavier as he listened.
The silence, too, grew heavier.
No wind. Not a flutter.
He brushed his right hand on the rough canvas sleeve on his left forearm. Heard the light scratching noise.
He could hear. There just wasn’t anything to hear.
He turned again, this time his whole body, stepping a few degrees at a time in a circle.
On the horizon.
A glint of sun on something shiny.
Without pause he continued his circle.
That sparkle was the only sign of not sand to be seen.
He headed toward it.
His boots were designed for sand. Broad soles, larger than his feet, kept him from sinking into the soft sand. Lateral ridges in the soles gripped the loose ground beneath him, giving him the best possible traction in the shifting, sliding soft sand.
Dizzy. As he walked, he realized that was what was wrong with his head. A light dizziness, a fuzziness mentally, not physically.
The pack on his back.
He couldn’t remember what was in it.
He didn’t remember packing it.
That might have surprised him if he had any memory at all before standing in that spot now a half-mile behind him.
He felt his head with both hands, sliding them around then checking for blood.
No apparent injury.
The memory loss explained the dizziness. Or was it the other way around?
Open the pack.
He couldn’t make himself sit. Something prickled at the back of his neck when he started to crouch.
Instead, he shifted the pack, slipped it off his left arm and swung it around front with his right.
Unzipping the top, he pulled the sides apart to see clearly inside.
Four tall thin containers, side by side, the height of the pack.
Was it water? Water made sense. He was in a desert.
But nothing else had made sense.
Holding the pack with his right hand, he cranked the top off one of the jugs with his left.
He held the pack closer, put his nose right up to the jug’s opening.
It smelled like water.
Which was worse, to stick his face in the pack, losing sight of the horizon, or to put the pack down, bending over, with the same result?
He set the pack down, lifted the open jug, and took a sip.
Water. Clean. No chemical taste.
He gulped down a quarter of the jug, then stopped, worried about how long it might have to last.
There was no way to know how far away the shiny object was, nor whether it meant help.
He screwed the lid down tight, but as he shoved the other jugs aside to push the it into the pack, he could see that the jugs weren’t as tall as the pack, they were three or four inches short.
There was a compartment in the bottom of the pack.
He pulled the jugs out, but the bottom was sealed, heavy ballistic cloth stitched strong at every seam.
He rolled the pack around, looking at the outside from sides, back, front, bottom.
The outsides were single pieces, giving no indication of the extra space inside.
He felt his pockets for a knife, anything sharp to cut through the bottom to see what treasure might be hidden there.
He had nothing. The clips and hooks on the pack were heavy nylon or plastic with no sharp edges. It appeared that the sharpest things in his possession were his fingernails and teeth.
He’d wait until he was more desperate before gnawing his way through the heavy cloth in the bottom of the pack.
He repacked the water, put the pack over his shoulder, and trudged.
It was hot, but not brutal.
Every few steps, he glanced left and right, eyes on the horizon.
Every dozen left-right checks, he turned in a complete circle, checking his six.
Still no sound.
Still nothing to see except an occasional flare from whatever shiny thing the sun was touching to the west.
If the sun passed the shiny object, it would no longer reflect toward him.
He’d lose sight of it. The glints would be on the other side.
He stepped faster.
He checked left, right, and behind less often.
Walking harder made him thirstier. He cautiously balanced water conservation with the danger of dehydration.
With no knowledge of what lay ahead, it was impossible to plan his water use.
Best to be conservative, plan for the worst.
He knew he could survive on about a quart of water a day under normal circumstances. Walking in sand in the heat, he could try to survive on fifty percent more, but knew it was safer to plan double.
That meant the four gallons in his pack would last eight days at most.
Splitting the half gallon day’s ration in quarters, he’d already had one of four water breaks for the day, when he first discovered it in his pack.
The featureless landscape and sky made time estimating difficult. He hadn’t thought to sundial an estimate earlier. He stopped now, facing the glint to the west, noted the angle of his shadow.
Swinging the pack around, he drank another quarter of the day’s water. His sweat was drying quickly, leaving no salty patches on his clothes. No worries about salt loss yet.
With an eighth of his water gone, the pack was lighter. Four pounds lighter.
He moved faster.
Less weight, more speed.
The dunes were smaller, no more than a foot. Not even dunes, gentle undulations in the flattest desert imaginable.
There, in the distance ahead, not a glint, but a string, a tiny shining band, left to right across the horizon.
Hard to tell the distance, but it felt close.
Pushing hard, the sand fought back. He slid when his foot landed wrong and when his toe dug into the face of a miniature dune it threw off his rhythm.
He kept pushing.
The sun was past the shining object.
It didn’t matter.
He could see it now.
From as far as he could see to the south to as far as he could see to the north.
Two strands of shining wire hung from thin shining metal poles twenty or so feet apart.
Nothing looked dangerous about it.
He set down the pack and took out the partially drunk water jug, taking the lid off and tossing it back in the pack.
Tilted it slowly above the top wire, pouring the thinnest stream he could, trying for a solid stream from top wire to bottom wire.
By the time the jug was almost empty he had a solid visible stream connecting the two wires, and nothing happened.
Except that the ground got wet.
And his pack got lighter.
He put the almost empty jug in the pack, zipped it, and lifted it through the fence with his left hand, crouching and stepping through with his left foot.
He bent, straddling the lower wire, back pushing lightly against the upper wire.
Leaned left, lifted his right foot, and stepped through.
Now he was on the other side of the fence.
And nothing had changed.
He looked left, to the south.
Right, to the north.
Back the way he’d come.
At least this time there were footprints.
He slung the pack over his shoulder and headed west again.
No idea why. He had no idea what was out there.
It was just something to do.
And on his third step the sand opened up and swallowed him.