Beyond the ruins of the city stretched open desert.
Visibility was low. The smallest stirring of air disturbed the dust, and it came up in clouds with every footfall. It would have been impossible to tell just how far one could see, if it were not for the hunched skeletons of a few trees, which stood at various distances from the city, and so offered some perspective from which to gauge the lay of the unvaried land ahead.
There was no sound of water, nor reek of anything.
As if it made no difference, without a word, they set off into the desert.
Now and again the snap of a gunshot would fall upon their ears. Over time the shots grew fainter and fainter, until they sounded like nothing more than the murmuring of the wind—if they were anything more at all. The dust-choked air grew dimmer. Still the direction of the sun did not evince itself.
Dexter sucked his fingers for the fifteenth time. The moisture from the squished tomato had long since left them. There was only a rancid taste. He sucked his fingers for the sixteenth time.
They could see up to about ten paces ahead of them. To the right or left, close or far, ahead or behind, sometimes they saw pockets of air where the dust was denser, through which nothing could be seen. They did their best to avoid those clouds; but often in evading one they ran straight into another, and once for fifteen minutes they could not find each other, and when one spotted the other and called, the other could not hear, for the voice of the first was choked with dust and thirst, and the air and the other’s ears were both clogged. At last, one wandered, and one stumbled, out of that dust-cloud, and peering dizzily about, they saw each other through layers of suspended sand, faint and blurred around the edges, like ghosts. They staggered towards each other. Dexter removed his jacket, and each of them slid one arm into one sleeve of it, so that they would not drift apart again.
The dimness became darkness. The cold worsened. The air chafed their hands, faces, noses, throats. There was a hole in the Wolf’s shirt. She could feel the cold through it.
Then they were blind, telling earth from sky by their feet alone. There was no telling how late the night was, how far they had come. Wolf felt that, for all their walking, it could not have been far; but Dexter said it was only because the landscape was unchanging, that it seemed they had not moved much.
“You can tell this used to be part of the city,” he said. “Real deserts have dunes, like waves, and the sand is so soft and deep one could sink and drown in it, just like water. But the land here is flat and the ground is hard. There is pavement somewhere underfoot, beneath perhaps only six inches of dust.”
“We left the city centre behind hours ago,” said Wolf. “No city could ever stretch this far.”
“Why not?” said Dexter.
“People cannot live away from farms.”
“If you had invented a machine that could travel the whole world and a half within the space of twenty-four hours, where is the trouble in transporting food from the farms to the city centre a day's walk away?”
“Then why aren’t there ruins here, too?”
“Perhaps this was the city centre, Wolf. And that's why it was completely razed, while the other part was left alone.”
“Then how come the trees are still standing,” said Wolf.
“They are,” mused Dexter.
“There is such a thing as controlled demolition,” he said at length. “I read about it in one of the Timehouses. The buildings could have been planted with bombs from within, so that they would just collapse into themselves. That could have left a few trees standing.”
“Or maybe this wasn’t a city,” said Wolf, “and it wasn’t bombed.”
The dust got into her throat for the twelfth time, and she choked it up, and remembered yet again why they hardly spoke.
The cold deepened.
Dexter began to cough.
“We could use my jacket,” said the Wolf.
“It’s fine,” said Dexter.
“Just to give you a break.”
He did not need much convincing. They removed their arms from his jacket and he put it on properly. Wolf removed hers and they each slipped an arm into a sleeve. The cold instantly set its teeth at her nape.
“All right?” said Dexter. He smothered a coughing fit in his sleeve.
Wolf did not answer. Her teeth were clamped to keep them from chattering.
“Should we run?” she said, when she could bear the chill no longer.
“We’ve got forty millilitres left.”
They ran twenty paces and stopped.
Dexter was coughing too hard to answer.
“You’ve caught a cold,” said Wolf.
“Then you might as well have your jacket back,” he rasped, removing it, “else you’ll—” A cough cut him off.
“Drink some water,” said Wolf. “Just a sip.”
Dexter bent over his knees and retched, jerking Wolf down with him.
At last he spat something onto the ground.
They walked on, without a sense of time or distance. They were in a state beyond hunger, beyond exhaustion, beyond reason; the only sensation was thirst, and the only will, to put one foot in front of the other. There was no sense in resting, to save their strength for an hour just as bleak as this. Even if there was sense in anything other than walking straight ahead, they refused to think of it, for that would force them to drag their heads out of stupor, to feel their hunger and the pain in their feet, seeping with blisters.
Wolf tried to swallow, but could not. She tried to spit, but could not. Her mouth was completely dry.
They had no more strength to talk. They kept walking. The moment they stopped walking they would drop down with exhaustion. They must keep walking.
But in time they stopped.
“Wolf,” whispered Dexter suddenly, “do I see you?”
“What?” croaked the Wolf.
Dexter recovered from a coughing fit and spat. “That... Did you hear...?”
“I’m sure it was an echo. We’ve reached someplace—another part of the city—”
“Could be just a hill,” said Wolf.
They stumbled on. Slowly they began to discern each other’s shapes. A wind began to blow, and their steps grew small and stiff as they braced themselves against it. The ground grew rockier beneath their feet, or perhaps it was only their feet growing more and more swollen, and feeling bumps where there were none.
Half-asleep they staggered forward, dragged on by the other when each dropped off. Some time later they found themselves at the crest of quite a steep slope, and it seemed that a little grass grew there, from the feel of it. Ahead there was a horizon, and a bleary light emerging from it: a yellow puddle rising out of the curve of the earth and swelling towards the dark clouds above. And in all her sleepiness Wolf smiled, and let out a broken, squeaky laugh, for the sunlight was so beautiful.
They dismounted the crest and headed down the slope, which was dished and lay still in shadow. The land sloped downward from some time, and rocky formations thrust up from the ground here and there. At the very bottom of what was now evidently a valley they trod into a soggy puddle.
There they drank the last of their water.
They stood there, swaying on their feet, in the shadow of the vale, while the sun shone on the tops of distant crags. The morning breeze grew stronger. Wolf took her sleeve from Dexter’s jacket and he put it on properly. It was then they smelled the smoke.
Not any kind of smoke. It was a smell all too familiar.
“You know what this means,” said Dexter.
Wolf cleared her throat.
“Survival mode off.”
They lay down on the ground and slept.
They would need their strength.
SYNOPSIS. Sixty years following nuclear apocalypse, seven youths emerge from their sheltered society on a diplomatic mission to seek and reconnect with the scattered civilizations of the world. Yet the young Primus League is not prepared for the urban wastelands, the rural misery, and the violent factions that await them—the seemingly irreconcilable shards of a past order. It will take more than dreams, promises, and good intentions to restore the spirit of humanity to the broken humans of the earth.
*This is a chapter excerpt. Not the whole chapter.
**By this point in the story, Dexter and the Black Wolf have been separated from their companions—and their map.