Castaways of New Mojave
The high school students and their teachers who were kidnapped by the alien Garubis and stranded on an alien world are struggling to survive in the face of dangers they’ve never encountered—and perhaps worst of all, the familiar dangers created by human nature.
Interstellar kidnapping… or opportunity?
A thousand teens and their teachers were stunned when the alien Garubis yanked Twenty-Nine Palms High School right out of California’s Mojave desert, plopping it into a jungle many light years away. It was supposed to be a “gift”—a new settlement for humanity. But tell that to Mark, Alexandra, Barry and Sophie when strange parasites attack… and they don’t know what to eat… and the island of Earth-buildings runs out of water!
Some claim to have spotted strange tool-users in the forest. Are the Garubis back? Or is this some other possible alien menace?
Whatever the skyjacked teenagers and their small number of adult companions face, they will need guts, ingenuity, hard work… and luck! But maybe the worst threat will come from the former students themselves. From basic human nature.
We sure don’t seem to be in Oz …
All things considered … I’d rather be in Kansas.
His first alien sunrise crept in through a heavy, oily-damp, twilight mist that seemed to slither—as if alive—around Twenty-Nine Palms High School. The fog came in waves that parted to flow past a dozen or so Spanish style buildings, perched atop a perfectly cylindrical plateau—a stony plug that had been stolen from a California town and plopped down here, less than a day before.
From atop the school’s mission-style bell tower, Mark Bamford stared across the cracked and buckled pavement of Rimpau Avenue and still-smoldering ruins of an Arco station, past a sudden, curving precipice and down to a sweeping vale of eerie, other-world timberland. A wild tangle of pale-green forest giants, festooned with crimson vines, surrounded the campus in all directions.
A day ago, the distant view from this stucco tower would have been all dunes and sand, dotted with the spindly Joshua trees of California’s Mojave desert. But all of that had changed.
We’re not in California anymore. Or America, or on Earth.
Heck. All things considered, I’d rather be somewhere in the Solar System.
As dawn-light slowly built, he started making out features farther away. Miles beyond the red-and-lime jungle—on a bearing which the Physics Club guys were now calling South—there jutted a line of sheer, almost-glassy, purple cliffs, a high ridge of iridescent stone that slanted away toward serried ranges of serrated mountains. In the opposite direction, a rolling landscape, dotted with meadows, climbed gradually toward more mountains. And “westward”? Well—the jungle descended into a deep haze, with vague hints at a boundary that might be some far-off shoreline, perhaps even a sea.
By comparison, the plug that had been scooped up from Earth and plonked down here—a disk less than half a kilometer across, centered on the high school—seemed pathetically small, like a dinghy on a vast and dangerous ocean. This remnant of Earth—“The Rock” as folks were calling it—was home.
At sixteen—almost seventeen—Mark had more experience at being out of his element than most, following his widower father through U.S. military bases all over the Americas, Africa and Asia, where Mark learned to improvise, adapting to new cultures and acquiring new skills. But no Earthly experience could have prepared him—or anyone—for what happened yesterday.
It’s been less than day? It feels like a week, a lifetime, since …
… since a traumatic snatch, when the alien Garubis dropped some kind of force field from their hovering ship, an interstellar kidnapping whose magnitude was still just sinking in. Hurled across the cosmos and then dropped onto a strange planet, those unlucky enough to be caught on the school grounds, or neighboring blocks, were coping in various ways. Mostly by cowering in the school gymnasium or dim classrooms with the blinds drawn, especially after last night’s harrowing attack by horrible bat-things.
But humans come in many personality types. And Mark wasn’t one to keep still, for long. So, he had volunteered for pre-dawn lookout duty, despite muscles that still ached from racing all over the place yesterday, helping to salvage supplies from the gas station and grocery store.
‘Muscle’ is what I’m good for, he thought. Alex did most of the quick thinking. Thanks to her, we managed to save some gas and most of the frozen food.
All that scurrying about—including hard, dangerous labor—would have been exhausting enough. Only then came last night’s frenetic battle with swarms of nasty, biting varmints. Fortunately, none of the awful creatures had been seen since midnight. Ms. O’Brien, the biology teacher, declared her confidence that they were nocturnal. Mark knew he ought to feel better, as the dawn mist began to fade and real daylight spread. But he was haunted with bitter pangs, from last night’s combat.
How many died? I know of at least two … and a couple more who are barely hanging on.
Some credited Mark’s quick thinking with saving lives. But not everyone’s. Stark memories loomed—of one little freshman, lying in a pool of blood, while alien parasites crowded in to lap it up.
Is that why you volunteered to take this watch shift? Out of guilt?
Fortunately, there was no time to fret over that question, because then his relief arrived.
“Howzit, Bam?” asked Dave McCarty, clambering up a narrow stair into the tower, then leaning out to inhale scents of a strange new world. McCarty clearly loved it up here, soaking in the view.
“Zit happens,” Mark replied, with a shrug. Dave ran with the leather crowd. He was into Harleys and thrash metal, none of which appealed to Mark, but the two of them weren’t unfriendly.
“See any new kinds of bird-things?” McCarty asked. He opened his scroll-tablet by pulling apart the two rods, and aimed it outward, turning slowly to scan the horizon. Behind him, another figure climbed the stair—a junior named Penny Hill, carrying a pair of binoculars that looked huge in her petite hands. But she swung them up with confidence, scanning the horizon with evident joy. Great. Another enthusiast.
Like Dave, she was clearly loving every minute of this adventure. Out of the total population of The Rock—more than a thousand human souls—Mark figured a few hundred zealots were like this. Despite every setback and even bat-thing attacks, they just couldn’t wait to make this planet their own—a kind of personality that might prove crazy, or crazy-useful, in the days ahead.
For now, though, Mark only had attention for their tiny slice of Earth. From fifty feet up, he could see just how much—how little—of their town had been carved up and deposited unknown light years away from home—a disk maybe four hundred meters across—or less than half a dozen football fields—and ten meters thick. Their island was just big enough to encompass most of the high school grounds, a few homes and small businesses, including two-thirds of the Food King.
Thank God for that last stroke of luck. And let’s hope we’re making the best of it.
Dave sniffed and pulled back from him. “Dude, you still reek of gasoline! I saw what you and Alex did, climbing down to the pipes and saving some of the stuff spilling from the Arco Station. That was some fast thinking … but …”
“But why don’t you take a shower or something, before someone makes a spark and you blow up?”
Mark would like nothing better than a shower. He shook his head, though. This valley was covered in jungle—the trees and underbrush looked as thick as rain forest—but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. They couldn’t be sure when or if there would be a storm. And what if any downpour wasn’t safe to drink?
“Shouldn’t waste water,” he said.
“Water. Right. Bummer.” Dave nodded. “Still, that was great, what you and Alex did. And then running around after dark, saving those kids from bats? Everybody’s talking about it.”
Mark nodded, accepting the compliment, but wondered. What did I really do, after the Big Snatch, when that awful noise stopped and everyone stood up … staring around ourselves at the Great Gift that the Garubis gave us? I tried to cope, I guess … Sometimes you don’t have a second to think. You just act.
“Not everyone feels that way,” he answered. “Some think it’s my fault that we were brought here.”
Dave finished his scan of the surroundings and lowered his tablet.
“You mean on account of how you and Alex saved Na-Bistaka’s life? Alerting NASA and the feds that an honest-to-gosh alien was being held prisoner by some dumb-ass high school students?”
Rescued from a dopey cabal of nerds and jocks, the Garubis emissary hadn’t spared even a moment to express gratitude. Right-off, Na-Bistaka demanded that the authorities help him to ‘phone home,’ setting in motion a course of events that led, months later, to the aliens’ “gift”… scooping up Twenty-Nine Palms High and teleporting it far across interstellar space.
To Dave and Penny, that made Mark a first class hero. Others had a darker opinion.
“Colin Gornet and a lot of others blame me.”
“Well, you’re not responsible for the opinions of idiots,” came a new voice from the stair.
Alexandra Behr emerged—tall and lanky and not quite sixteen, she was the closest thing to a sister that Mark figured he’d ever have.
“It’s getting crowded up here,” he grumbled.
“Then come on down, Bam,” Alex answered. “Your shift is over and they’re getting ready to serve breakfast.”
That reminded him of the yawning cavity in his stomach, and how food would be a critical problem, today. And possibly for the rest of our short lives, if we don’t solve it soon.
“You guys’ll be all right?” he asked Penny and Dave. Stupid question. They were already peering across the alien landscape, eagerly pointing at features revealed by long, dawn shadows. Proof that some kinds of human … and probably all kinds … were simply crazy. And my own variety might be the worst of all.
“Come on, Bam.” Alex jabbed him out of his thoughts with an elbow and pointed him toward the stair. “Let’s get some food. I figure it’s gonna be a very long day.”
The Earthling kidnap victims should have been too busy to fight among themselves. Especially while dawn spread so beautifully across those distant, purple and white mountains, as if the planet were apologizing for an awful night. But …
Seven killed. Before the first rays of sunrise, a junior girl bled out from a neck wound—arterial—that Ms. O’Brien could not stop. And Mark carefully sat down on the gym floor with his head spinning when he heard it was Arlene Hsu. Brilliant, watchful, pretty Arlene. She was sixteen years old, confident of both a swimming scholarship and doing pre-med at Stanford. Planned to save the world. Gone.
And little Glen Shapiro, whose asthma had stymied him a month ago, when trying out for the varsity climbing team. Though Mark recalled the freshman’s grinning vow to come back next year. Now—some reaction to bat-thing saliva had sent the poor kid into convulsions, then cardiac arrest. And several more had seizures, causing all the wounded to wonder about poisonous bat-thing toxins. Am I next?
The other five dead were all strangers to him, for which Mark was grateful—which made him feel sick and guilty. But he pushed that aside. Except for Arlene, his friends were alive.
Breakfast was disorderly. Hundreds of colorful little boxes were passed around the gym, granola bars, fruit bars, fruit wraps—lots of carbs. But when he stepped outside, blinking at the dawn, Mark smelled eggs and bacon, coming from somewhere in the main wing of the school. Not the cafeteria. A bunch of kids ran inside, poked around and reported the caf was empty. So, there were people holed up in an office or classroom somewhere, using Bunsen burners or a camp stove.
“Oh, man,” said uber-nerd Barry Tang, putting his hand on his belly.
Alex scanned the second-floor windows. “I hope they choke on it.”
“Well, there’s no sense letting fresh grub go bad,” said Mark. But a dark corner of him wanted necks to strangle.
Anyway, who had an appetite? While students gathered on the main steps, a cluster of somber teachers carried the dead into strange, slightly-orange sunlight, two of the bodies wrapped in American flags, the other five in school banners. Most the island’s population followed—a solemn, whispering procession—to a patch of lawn between the flag pole and the parking lot’s rows of useless automobiles.
Principal Jeffers was already there, having personally helped to dig graves, aided by the no-nonsense efforts of Greg and Nick Hammar. And Mr. Perez the campus cop, whose burly, bare torso gleamed as he sent final shovels of earth flying. Soil stained the tears rolling down his cheeks, and he had to be dragged out of the final pit as Jeffers whispered “Enough. That’s enough.”
Mark would have chosen another place to begin a cemetery. The space around the mounds of dirt was too big. To him it looked like Jeffers was planning for more casualties, but it was also as quiet a spot as they’d find on their island that wasn’t paved over, and maybe Jeffers was expecting more.
The reporter from Channel Six news—trapped along with everyone else when the Garubis aliens hurled over a thousand humans to another world—recorded the scene for posterity as four members of the school band ad-lib’d “Amazing Grace” on trumpet, saxophone, tuba and snare drum. Ms. Najarro—the soft-spoken, very religious freshman-class teacher—led a prayer, then half a dozen students made brief attempts to memorialize their friends. Most did surprisingly well, but one victim, a recent transfer student, had nobody. So, Helene Shockley stepped in, gorgeously dark and charismatic—followed by Principal Jeffers who added some comforting thoughts. Mark didn’t take in many words, though the tone seemed right. Reassuring. Determined.
One sour note might seem a bad omen, to some. Toward the end of the ceremony, Avenue Annie blundered through the crowd, panhandling for spare change as she had done along Rimpau for years, while out-thrusting a cardboard sign with slanted lettering in red marker, shuffling along a path that only she could sense, as students made way for her. She was said to live in the small homeless encampment at the edge of Twenty-Nine Palms, beneath an overpass that now lay many light years away, along with the homes of every student who used to snicker or take pity on her. At fifty or sixty, with bad teeth, she was puffy-faced and gray beneath her trademark San Diego Padres cap. Annie jingled her cup, oblivious to the reason for this gathering, delighted to find coins, and even paper money thrust on her, just to make her go away.
“Gimme change. All my stuff is gone,” he overhead her mutter. “All my stuff is gone.”
Yeah, Mark realized. My stuff, too. We’re all homeless now.
“Somebody better talk to her,” Alex murmured. But she needn’t have worried. As the funeral broke up, two girls took Annie by the arm and gently guided her toward the Food King market, where volunteers were setting up barbeques again. On today’s lunch menu? Anything in the grocery that seemed on the verge of spoiling.
Barry accompanied Alex and Mark partway, as they headed for a group rendezvous at the northern Edge. No one spoke, at first, as they passed the campus maintenance man, Mr. Ortiz, and a crew of student volunteers, who were sweeping together piles of dead bat-things. There were lots, stunned first by fire extinguishers then smashed by vengeful student athletes wielding baseball bats. More than Mark expected. Mounds of them. He felt a mix of satisfaction, curiosity and … well, a little touch of shame. After all, we’re the invaders here. They were minding their own business, preying on other creatures of this world, when our mere presence drove them into a frenzy.
“Well, I have duties in the bio lab,” Barry told them. “We’re trying to hack the gene sifters, chemsynths and Molecu-Macs, so they aren’t locked into curriculums anymore. For some reason the Board of Education was paranoid about students using genetics equipment for other things!” He gave a dry laugh. “But I think we’ll manage.”
“Are you guys joining the expedition?” Barry added, nodding toward the Edge, where a cluster was already gathering around Gracie Donner. Even after last night’s horror, she had no lack of volunteers, including—especially—Dave McCarty, along with several burly fellows bearing formidable, saw-edged pruning tools at the end of long poles. Mark glanced at Alex.
“Looks like we better hurry if we want a spot.” She nodded. “They’re already passing out gear. Ooh, Lacrosse sticks! Those should be perfect for grabbing samples.”
Mark nodded with a faint smile. Of course, that’s where they both belonged. Only … each step that he took brought sharp muscle twinges. Yesterday was hard on me—rappelling down cliffs to fill great big buckets with spilling gasoline and all that. Then fighting bat-things half the night. Maybe I’m getting old.
But he and Alex had some important suggestions for the expedition and Mark doubted there was anyone with more experience in jungles than he had, in Colombia, so …
They made it twenty paces toward the Donner group before someone—the skinny sophomore who showed real guts last night … oh yeah, Leonard Kelly—sped over and plucked at Mark’s sleeve.
“Mr. Castro wants you,” Leo said. “For a meeting at the faculty lounge.”
Another meeting? Mark moaned within. His body felt relieved, but suddenly he worried about Alex and his other friends, heading out there without him. It must have been plain on his face.
“We’ll be fine,” she assured.
“Um. I guess. We talked about leggings,” he began.
“Yeah. I’ll make sure everyone wraps plastic around their ankles, from shoe-to-knee.”
“I remember everything we discussed.”
“Yeah, smartass? Just be—”
“You’re not my dad, you know. Even though I know you want to be.”
There were mixed meanings and layers in that, but Alex cut off any further talk with an embrace that lasted maybe a microsecond, before hurrying off to join the expedition.
“—careful,” he finished, watching her go with a blend of anxiety and envy for the adventure, before turning back to the fretful encampment of Earthlings.
A lingering grease-and-salt smell of bacon was strong inside the school halls. That made him ravenous, and he was already in a fragile mood. Hovering somewhere between dread and anger, he was tempted to go upstairs and hunt around for somebody to punch.
The carnie boss, Zach Serpa, rounded a corner down the hall, clomping toward him in heavy leather boots. Dark stubble clung to Serpa’s long face and the man stared at him, then glanced back over one shoulder as if lost.
Mark tamped down on his emotions, trying to be friendly. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Faculty lounge,” Serpa said, tersely.
Okay, another invitee. An obvious one, representing one of the groups who had been snatched up, along with students and faculty. But why me?
He led Serpa back to the corner and through two doors, to a large room that had lights and one wall self-illuminated to serve as an electronic whiteboard. Well, power from the rooftop solar, stored in the school’s battery arrays, could be allocated to specific places, and this meeting was high priority.
In the lounge they found a leadership gathering: Principal Jeffers and Mr. Castro, along with almost a dozen other teachers and coaches. Also Mr. Marshall, owner of the Chevy dealership, representing the townies. Scott Tepper and Helene Shockley for the student body. And Colin Gornet for … the jocks? Or for the rich-folk community at the south end of Twenty-Nine Palms, and on the other side of a galaxy maybe? Gornet’s glance at Mark was far from welcoming. But Mr. Castro came forth and greeted him with a squeeze above the elbow, careful of Mark’s bandaged wrist. “How are you doing?” he asked softly.
“No, seriously.” Castro bent a little to make direct eye contact. “How are you doing?”
“I’m …” Mark realized that he was in a bit of a daze and must be showing it. He bore down a little, straightening so that his spine crackled. “Just not sure why I’m here.”
Castro glanced left and right. “Not everyone is blind, Mark. Some of us can see who’s always in the right place, doing useful things.” Another arm squeeze and the teacher turned away, letting Mark find a seat in the far back corner, next to Kristina Zhirinova, another student who seemed as puzzled as he was, over being invited to attend.
Last to arrive was Ms. O’Brien, a robust brunette in her thirties. The former Navy medic looked haggard and pale beneath her southern California tan. I doubt she’s slept a wink.
“Okay, we’re all here. Thank you for coming,” Principal Jeffers said, then seemed to stumble, blinking to find his focus, and Mark wondered if it had been a mistake to put the funerals first.
“We’ll have to be quick,” Mr. Castro said, encouraging.
The principal nodded and agreed, “Yes. The students are frightened, tired. We all are. Last night …” He stopped himself and shook his head, as if retreating before he made an accusation. “We need to do a better job of setting an example.”
Mark nodded once, then looked around at the others. Ms. Liang and Ms. Pacheco sat on worn, brown leather chairs by the mini-kitchen, effectively removing themselves from the discussion, while the rest of the group stood or sat in a haphazard circle—though the physics teacher, Mr. Davis, stared at the floor, while Mrs. Swain gazed out the window. Seated on a folding chair, Coach Lavallee took a tool from his cane and used the opportunity to adjust some setting on his artificial leg. Everyone else watched each other, uneasy and tense. Zach Serpa, leader of the carnival workers, fidgeted in his denim jacket.
When asked to report on the bat-thing aftermath, Ms. O’Brien spoke with guarded optimism. “We were desperately worried that the parasites’ scratches and bites and … tongue licks … carried something lethal. There is a toxin, clearly. But as it turns out—” she exhaled a deep breath “—most humans seem to neutralize it, pretty well. Except for a few cases like poor little Glen Shapiro, who had some kind of desperate allergic reaction. Which he only made worse by injecting himself with an epinephrine-zixol pen. The same thing happened to Laurelyn Palo, and she barely survived. So now we know something not to do. Next time.”
Her last two words cast a pall over what had—overall—been pretty good news. The combination of pain and numbness in Mark’s wrist seemed to take another quality, knowing now that it wasn’t a death sentence. Not this. Not yet. But there was always the next thing.
“Still,” Coach Lavallee muttered. “To know we can never venture out at night …” In addition to running varsity athletics, he was sponsor of the astronomy club. Others murmured at that grim prospect, especially with darkness stretching here so long. All of them had grown up fearless of any time of day.
Mark discovered that Mr. Castro was looking at him. The teacher inclined his head slightly. Twice. When Mark stayed silent, Castro cleared his throat.
“I believe Mr. Bamford here has some tactical observations. Don’t be shy, Mark. We all know what you did last night, with the fire extinguishers and the rescue parties.”
Clearly, most of those in the room were not aware and stared at him, though it was Helene’s expression of appreciative encouragement that had him nonplussed.
“I … don’t think the extinguishers are anything but a last resort. Sure, we can rig a way to recharge them with compressed air … and maybe add something … some powder that the bat-things hate. Should be easy enough to test—”
Helene scribbled on her pad and Mark saw his suggestions flow concisely across the whiteboard wall.
“—but I think we’ll accomplish more with a simpler technology,” he continued, then ventured a single word. “Umbrellas.”
Colin Gornet snorted and Serpa groaned from his perch, sitting atop the kitchenette counter.
“They … they always attack from above,” Mark explained, stammering a little. “In a dive. It probably works for their normal prey. Our best … tactic … last night was to wave stuff or hold stuff overhead. Sure. I guess a single person would be helpless against a swarm, even with an umbrella. But in groups, it might present a kind of shield. With careful clothing, of course. And with lookouts to spot a swarm … Maybe rigging something from the audio lab to detect their sound as they approach. With all of that, sure. I think we can learn how to go out at night.”
His voice trailed off and Mr. Castro’s look of encouragement didn’t help much.
Umbrellas? Idiot! You sounded so lame.
“We can do better than that!” Gornet scoffed. “I say use fire!”
“Torches?” Mr. Davis asked. “I suppose we could experiment, burning different things to see if smoke repels—”
“No, you don’t get it,” Colin interrupted the teacher, something he knew he could get away with, now. “I mean take fire to them! Find their nest or cave—whatever—and burn it out!”
The big linebacker stood and spread his arms. “You’re all thinking too small. We should do what settlers did, back on Earth. They’d clear a wide zone around their settlement. Burning a defensive perimeter, far enough so that nothing and nobody could approach without coming under fire.”
Mr. Davis winced. “That sounds pretty harsh on the—well—natives.”
“What natives? Do you see any signs of intelligence out there?”
“I meant native creatures—”
“Who attacked us, last night!”
“—but that raises another question,” Coach Lavallee asked. “Will we recognize a higher race, if we meet one?”
Mr. Castro mused. “The Garubis said they were giving humanity a ‘gift.’ Clearly, we’re that gift—a second home. An interstellar colony—”
“Maybe a penal colony, a prison, as punishment for the way their envoy was treated.”
“Until he was rescued and given hospitality.” Castro shrugged. “Either way, reward or punishment, doesn’t that imply this world is for us, alone?”
Zach Serpa scowled at mention of the alien kidnappers. “We need to survive. Whatever it takes! Then find some way to get payback on those bastards.”
And Serpa glared directly at Mark, making evident why the fellow was so hostile. Less than a year—or a lifetime—ago, Mark and Alex had saved the life of Na-Bistaka, the Garubis agent who was stranded on Earth, which led eventually to humanity earning a ‘reward.’ And some would never forget who made this abduction possible. Serpa’s expression seemed to say watch your back, kid.
Principal Jeffers spoke, for the first time in a while.
“That’s a … very aggressive proposal, Colin. I’m sure we’ll give it serious consideration. Though we should wait to hear from Miss Donner’s expedition. We can take it up, when we find out what they discover.”
Clearly, he was worried sick about sending a party of teenagers down into an alien jungle. But with food running low, and water even faster, there was no choice.
The Garubis wouldn’t have dropped us into a place where we could breathe, only to then starve. They’re nasty. But they mentioned some kind of honor code that limits them. We’d have a chance, at least. And, of course, Mark knew he could just be kidding himself.
The other coach of Boy’s Sports, Mr. Hensen—short and sharp—took a step into the circle.
“Even if we do find things to eat out there, that won’t last for long. Hunters and foragers deplete an area and then move on. Isn’t that right, Harry?”
Mr. Castro nodded, and Mark realized he hadn’t known the history teacher’s first name.
“But we can’t become nomads,” Hensen continued. “Beyond a few months, at most, we have to establish agriculture! Kristina, has your club worked out a plan?”
Oh yeah, Mark recalled. She’s president of the school’s 4-H chapter. It went unspoken that Ms. Takka, the club’s nervous faculty adviser, was in no shape to attend. Kristina has more reason to be here than I do.
The young woman aimed her pen-phone at Helene’s tablet and a chart appeared on the whiteboard. “We have a variety of seeds, vegetables, corn, wheat,” she began, in her Russian accent. “Not enough for crops to feed a thousand, but to make a fair-sized seed harvest. That harvest of seeds could then be planted—”
“Two growing seasons, then, before we can get a sustained and big enough yield to be self-supporting,” Scott Tepper summarized, scanning the chart. “That’s a long time.”
Kristina nodded. “This climate feels temperate and the jungle that surrounds us suggests there’s never snow in this zone. The good news? That could mean two, possibly rapid, growing seasons. Still, that may actually be bad news over the long run.”
“Why is that?” Ms. Liang asked, quietly.
“The winter reset,” Mr. Castro murmured. Then he looked up. “Low-tech agriculture does better, actually, in places where snow falls for at least a short time, killing or knocking down all the weeds and grasses and insects that compete with crops. Farmers can plow in the spring, taking on nature from an even start.” He glanced sidelong at Kristina and Mark. “I grew up on a farm.”
“So?” Colin Gornet said. “Whatever advantage those farmers got from snow, others got from fire! Isn’t that right?”
Castro nodded, reluctantly.
“Tropical agriculturalists would slash down a patch of jungle, let it dry, then burn it. The ash made a fertile clearing, weed-free, for their gardens. But—” Swiftly changing the subject, he turned again to Kristina. “But you seem to be saying we should get busy, planting those first seed gardens, right away. Starting in Earth soil.”
“We will need every patch of lawn, yes … I mean …” Her voice trailed off as, clearly, she realized what that would entail. Eyes turned to Principal Jeffers, who had led the dawn burial detail, and who now looked pale.
The bodies we just put in the ground. They’ll have to be moved.
“Everything depends on water,” Mark reminded them. “Gracie’s first expedition is aiming for those heights, just north of us. If there’s a nearby stream or creek, and we can rig some way to get it here …”
He stopped, as spring/stream ➔ WATER and bring here appeared on the whiteboard. This time, he was able to return Helene’s encouraging smile.
Easy fellah. She’s friendly to everyone.
“There’ll be other needs,” Kristina added. “Like fertilizer. That part of the hardware store is gone. Left behind on Earth.”
Mark sighed. He had already spoken too much, but—
“The poop decks.”
“What’s that?” Mrs. Swain asked, archly, perhaps suspecting bad language.
“The … toilets we’ve been using. They hang over the Edge, getting rid of human waste. Clever for an emergency. But maybe we should find some way to … collect … and use it all.”
Mark sank a little as everyone stared at him, some of them with disgust and others with approval.
“Terrific!” Scott Tepper commented after a couple of seconds. “You take charge of that committee, will you Bamford? And helping the 4-H kids prepare all the lawns as gardens.” The Student Body President glanced sidelong at Principal Jeffers, who looked stricken, but nodded.
And who made you king? Mark was tempted to retort. But he didn’t, as Tepper continued smoothly.
“All of that is secondary, and we’ll deal with it in due course. But first what we need to do is make sure we’re safe,” he said, earning nods and agreement from Zach Serpa and Coach Hensen.
Mrs. Swain turned from the window at last, her age lines tense as a bulldog’s. “I agree,” she said. “Find the bats. Burn them out. Burn it all! Burn a buffer zone far enough away from us to be secure.”
Colin and two other teachers murmured support as Helene added Burn a safety zone to the whiteboard. Mark saw Kristina lift her head, too, nodding agreement.
Then Scott launched into his main agenda item—what Mark’s dad would have called a law-and-order ticket.
First, he proposed guards. More guards, and not just haphazard patrols, but two athletes in each of ten fortified positions along the rim of their island, with four in the bell tower. And two at every door to the stockrooms, where they would gather, secure, and ration everything of potential use, exactly as Principal Jeffers had secured the liquor and pharmaceuticals on the first day.
“You were right,” Scott said smoothly, setting Jeffers up to look ridiculous if he disagreed.
Food. Water. Tools. Batteries. Everything would be tallied and locked up. At a glance, it made sense. Moreover, even if a council of some kind had official authority, choosing the guards would leave Scott and his buddies as gatekeepers of every key resource. For the good of everyone, naturally.
Smoothly, eloquently, he was selling fear.
Mark could tell what Mr. Castro was thinking. This is an ancient pattern. And it wasn’t just dry lessons from history class. Mark recalled stories told by his father, about petty tyrants at home and abroad.
But just because of that, is it wrong? Maybe dynamic leadership—a strong voice and a clever manipulator—is just what’s needed, to get across an emergency.
Only most of the time, the ‘emergency’ never ends. And the strong, above all, look out for themselves.
Mark mostly listened, except at one point to say—“I don’t see how two guys in a tower at the rim are gonna make any difference, if the bat-things come back. Meanwhile, that’s a lot of manpower taken from useful tasks.”
Scott’s expression passed quickly from irritation to ingratiation. “That’s a great point, Bamford. We need to strengthen all the project teams, by making work mandatory. Everyone gets on a crew and works, or you don’t eat. It was like that for the Pilgrims, for the settlers. It’s like that on a ship, sailing unexplored waters. And that’s pretty much what we are.”
Good metaphor, Mark thought, somewhat in awe. Only, are you angling to be captain? Glancing at the Principal, he saw Jeffers rouse himself, sitting up, as if aware what was at stake.
“I was about to propose the same thing, Scott. Work is the medicine that our students and citizens need.”
The head of the carnies fumed.
“I’m not part of your ship, boy.”
But Scott was resilient. “I’m sure the Carnival Tribe can work out their own schedules and tasks, for the good of all. Would you be willing to coordinate that, Mr. Serpa? Naturally, several of your people will be on the security and supplies committees.”
Masterful, Mark thought, truly admiring Scott’s smoothness and agility with people, as the carnie settled back onto his counter-top perch, grunting acceptance.
Almost as if it had been planned in advance, Coach Hensen said, “The people with discipline are the ones we can count on right now, right? Only a few of us had military experience.” He nodded at Lavallee and O’Brien. “But we have something close. The sports teams.”
And so, Colin Gornet slid, by nods of consensus, into leadership of the public safety committee. He spoke for a minute about giving priority to fashioning weapons: “In case there’s nasties out there a lot bigger than bats.”
The outline of goals took shape. And while Tepper kept deferring to Jeffers, he came across as the one with a Bold Plan. Except that—
—Except that it was small. Mark figured that soon the human beings on this world must worry less about each other and look outward, weigh and deal with challenges, instead of creating their own.
“Discipline is vital,” Scott said. “We’ve got to work together or we’re in real trouble.”
There were other matters. But Mr. Davis and Mrs. Swain were especially anxious to get this meeting over with and make sure that lunch was handled better—more fairly—than breakfast had been.
“We have maybe three more meals of perishable food from the market,” Swain explained. “After that, it’s pastas, and canned goods. Then crackers … then nothing. But long before that, we’ll need water.”
Well, at least someone has priorities right, Mark thought, a little surprised that it had been her.
“Yes, okay, let’s go,” Jeffers said uncomfortably. “We’ll meet again tonight.”
But it was Scott Tepper who led them out of the room.
Mr. Castro stopped Mark as the faculty and others went down the hall.
“It’s unfortunate that so much of what we learned was divisive,” Castro said quickly, and Mark noticed he said ‘we’, including himself with the kids, and why not?
“Who’s cool, what’s cool, I’m popular, you’re not,” Castro went on. “Maybe if the bats hadn’t attacked …” He shook his head. “In some ways our civilization was too successful. So much luxury and idle time.”
Mr. Castro had been staring after the others. Only now he turned to face Mark.
“Every little bad boy music video, every fad for shoes or new slang … every rich suburban kid who pretends to be ghetto … Those things speak to something real and deep in us,” Mr. Castro said. “Who’s big. Who’s tough. We’re going to see more of it. ”
And your point is …? Mark thought without speaking it.
“I want you to be ready.”
“Me.” Goosebumps crawled up the back of Mark’s neck like an icy hand.
“We’re in this for more than survival, son. Assuming we can solve our immediate crises, there’s a civilization to build here. Ideally one built on everything they learned on Earth—and not repeating their mistakes.”
It was the first time Mark had heard his homeworld referred to that way. As they.
“In order to do that, we must hold the middle,” Mr. Castro said. “Wherever there’s common ground, move to it. Do you understand?”
“Me,” he repeated, in a level tone. But a confused question.
“You’re a natural leader, Mark.”
“Seriously, though a very different kind than Scott or Colin. A time will come when you’ll admit it.”
He was halfway to the Big Ramp worksite, at the northeast end of the Rock, just under the loading dock of the 7-11 store, when twin explosions ripped the sky, rocking him back and sending gouts of dust boiling upward. The smoky cloud quickly drifted across the car dealership and then out over the endless red and lime jungle.
There had been no warning whistle or alarm. Worse, Mark was horrified to see curious students running forward, excited to see what a pair of dynamite sticks had done to the very north end of Rimpau Avenue.
“Stop!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Take cover you fools!”
A dozen or so halted, glanced back at him and obeyed, diving for shelter. Too slowly, as dirt and gravel—lofted high by the explosions—were yanked back by gravity, pattering over the street, followed by one larger chunk of earth … then another, and blocks of asphalt.
I never should have gone to the damn meeting. Mark cursed as he raced forward, disobeying his own advice, pelted by a final wave of falling pebbles. Near the Edge, waving his way through dust, he found rescuers already gathered around the stupid, the unlucky … the injured. One student whimpered as classmates pushed away at a slab of black paving that pinned her leg. And one of the carnies—Rafael Something—who had offered to help the ramp project with explosives from his private stash. Illegal back in California, but here more valuable than gold. Now, Rafael lay on his back, unconscious but breathing, with a long gash along the left side of his skull.
“Grab that piece of pipe,” he told Froggi Hayashi. “Nick, we’ll need solid chunks, for cribbing.”
Mark elbowed his way through the crowd. “Get back! You can’t lift that off of her by hand. You’ll only make things worse.”
The girl was crying, but speaking clear words and up on one elbow. Good. No sign yet of shock. Mark peered under the slab and could see most of her leg. More good news. There were oozing red smears, but no bright red gushers of arterial blood. Okay, one thing at a time. “Someone send for Ms. O’Brien!”
Camie Rosa, an earnest and hardworking sophomore, answered. “Already done. They’re on their way. What should we do, Mark?”
“I need four strong guys here. Nobody else! Don’t move Rafael till Ms. O’Brien can look at him. The rest of you get away!”
Froggi came up, dragging a length of metal pipe.
“That one you pointed at was no good. All bent. But this one should do.”
“Great. Nick, slide that big chunk there … no there … to serve as a fulcrum. You,” he pointed at a big townie. “Help Froggi wedge the pipe there, at that angle. Don’t go near her leg!”
He knelt next to the girl, whose head now rested on the lap of a kneeling friend.
“Hi there. You’re sure being brave.”
“I’m … trying …” It came out as half a moan, but not a sob.
“What’s your name?”
“Well Julia, we’re gonna get that slab of Rimpau off of you. We’ll do it by prying and cribbing. It’s an old method that firefighters use all the time. So just hang in there, okay?”
She nodded, bravely. Mark knelt lower to peer again beneath.
“Shift it left. No the other left! Now a little deeper. Okay, two of you grab that second big chunk and get ready to slide it in, when we lift.” He stood up next to Froggi and Nick at the makeshift lever. Mr. Davis joined them, avoiding Mark’s eyes.
You were supervising here? How could you let this happen? Mark wanted to shout. But he left it unspoken.
“Ready? Now. Lean into it!”
The pipe—freshly blown out from beneath the street—quivered and seemed almost about to buckle. But as four men pushed downward, the fulcrum held. And the slab of asphalt lifted … maybe six centimeters.
“Push … it … in.” He grunted at the two who were already shoving their crib stone into place. Gingerly, Mark released his weight. Nick and the others followed suit, letting the lever go slack. The crib held.
At Dad’s last posting, Mark had trained for certification with CERT—the local Community Emergency Response Team—all that remained of American civil defense nowadays, taught by local firefighters all over the nation. All pretty basic stuff, but different in a lot of ways from what you learned in scouting. Of course, he had hoped never to use any of it, in real life.
“All right, let’s move the fulcrum and re-set the lever.”
Glancing over a shoulder, he saw that Ms. O’Brien was already tending Rafael, with two of her assistants. Good. Fast action.
But you and I are going to have a talk, he thought, sending a sharp glance at Mr. Davis, who should have known better. Around explosives, you run things taut, or not at all.
Davis responded with a silent, abashed nod. And Mark realized: No talk would be needed.
“Okay,” he nodded at those gathered around Julia. “Get ready to drag her out. Only when I tell you!”
In two minutes, Julia was free, on a stretcher being rushed to the school’s makeshift infirmary. To the crowd that had gathered, Mark could only growl.
“What’re you staring at? Come on. Let’s all get back to work. We need a ramp by sundown.”
The idea seemed sound enough. Blast chunks out of the very end of Rimpau, then tumble debris over the edge. Make a ramp leading down to the native surface, below. Something both convenient and secure, since it would descend between two easily defended walls, with a strong gate planned for in between.
Mark approved, overall, since it would make things easier for Alex and Gracie and the rest of the Donner Expedition, when they returned, instead of having to use ropes again.
But dumb things happen when you rush inexperienced people.
Mark glanced over to where Scott Tepper stood, along with Colin Gornet, Helene Shockley and a covey of female students, who clustered around them, taking notes and bringing messages on slips of paper, then dashing off with more orders.
“Please take this to Principal Jeffers,” the student leader told one of his errand girls, handing her a written report. And Mark noted: well, at least the principal is still in the loop. And Tepper’s polite. Heck, you had to give Scott points for charisma and decisiveness … which may be exactly what we need, Mark thought. So don’t rush to judgment.
The inspection tour did seem to make the work crews buckle down harder, hauling slabs of Rimpau to the Edge, aided by a small gardening tractor from the hardware store.
Mark noticed Scott staring at him, as he swung a pick, breaking up chunks of under-soil to go into a waiting cart. Something in the student leader’s expression did not seem pleased.
Hey, we’re working as hard as we can. And it’s not even close to noon, yet.
Or was something else bothering Tepper?
Mark tried to minimize the way people kept coming up and asking him what to do next. He refrained from pointing and instead muttered suggestions under his breath, between swings of the pick. But girls and guys would dash off purposefully, making it clear who was in charge, here.
So he gave up pretending. Mark handed the pick to his relief man and did a quick round, making sure that everyone wore hats and took sips of precious water, while teams with shovels and buckets and ropes cleaned out all the loose stuff, piling it into trailers for the tractor crew to haul off. At least no one was doing anything stupid, at this moment.
Mark joined Mr. Davis and two students, huddled over a crudely sketched work plan. Jane Shevtsov, whose many passions included architecture, rolled her wheelchair to a laser-theodolite, took some measurements, and confirmed that the trench was ten meters long, five wide and slanting down to more than three meters deep at the Edge. Soon, a runner returned from the Edge with a breathless account. The last street slab had been pushed over the precipice, and the rubble pile now made a pretty big platform, rising from the forest floor almost to meet the ramp.
Impressive, Mark thought. But that’s as far as we go, using explosives and chunks of pavement. Sure, a Big Ramp—straight down to the forest floor—could be completed, some time in the future. Right now though, Mark didn’t care about a full road for vehicles. His concern was the Donner Expedition. Today, all we need is a trail.
Jane must have reached the same conclusion. She spoke as Scott Tepper and his staff approached for a report.
“We need to turn 90 degrees,” Jane suggested.
“Right.” Mark nodded, glad that someone else spoke first, with the obvious. “We can start at the platform, at the bottom of the ramp. That’s halfway down to the forest floor. But from there, we then turn left and descend the rest of the way by slanting along the Rock’s edge, right behind the 7-11.”
Jane agreed. “It’s how they built the early highways. Chisel along the side of a mountain. We only need to drop another six meters or so. Of course … it’ll be sweaty work. Fortunately, this is Mojave sandstone, not granite.”
Colin Gornet grunted. “How soon can we get a crew working down below? We need to start cutting trees for a clearing, right away.”
Mark, too, was eager for that to happen, having his own reasons.
“We can lower some guys by rope and bring the trail down to meet them.”
“I’ll go!” Volunteered Nick Hammar.
“And me,” said his brother. All the X Guys who weren’t with the Donner Group stepped up. Yep, anything having to do with rope. They were all crazy, of course, heedless of any dangers that might lurk in that jungle. And Mark was proud of them.
“Good,” said Scott Tepper. “Great work. Let’s get it done.” And he turned to go, followed by his Management Team.
Taking up the rear, Helene looked back over her shoulder, then hurried after Scott with her tablet.
Good choice, Mark nodded after her. That’s where the sun is rising.
Along with a dozen other boys, Mark labored hard on the trail—digging along the edge of the Rock where it faced the nearest hills, just a couple of kilometers away to the north. Early this morning, the Donner Expedition had to use ropes in a controlled scramble to reach the forest floor. But there would be a useful footpath when they returned. That is, if Mark and this crew had anything to say about it.
A pair of sharp-eyed girls with archery gear kept watch—Mark had sent Colin Gornet’s appointed spearmen back to the top and that pair lurked now at the plateau’s rim, flourishing their new lances, stabbing pretend monsters and getting in the way of several carpentry shop students, who were building a gate.
Intermittent packets of bio-kids—three or four members of Future Medical Professionals or Biology Club—edged past burly, sweating road builders to go fetch more samples of foliage or local insect-like things for Ms. Takka’s lab. Some of them carried baited traps, in hope of capturing animals.
As if any critter with sense would come near all this racket we’re making. Still, it felt good to know that Barry was busy indoors, cracking safeguards on the gene-testers and other sophisticated lab instruments, so they might be useful on an alien world. We all have tools appropriate to our talents, Mark thought as he mopped his brow and got back to work, pounding away at the Rock.
You can get a lot done with picks and shovels and sledge hammers, in a few hours. Starting on the rubble platform, at the end of the Big Ramp, their new trail turned ninety degrees to descend at a gentle slope, parallel to the Edge, along the Rock’s barely perceptible curve.
There it met a second work crew—braver than this one and working almost as hard—that chopped and hacked away at native vegetation, creating the first clearing. In places, vines were so tangled they looked almost woven. Now and then, faced with a bigger trunk, the crew fired up a chain saw, careful to be miserly with gas. A couple of larger trees, in toppling over, had done much of the work for them.
No one knew what dangers that team risked, so near the riot of purple, red and green. Though one problem became apparent when a student stepped into a foot-sized hole, badly twisting his ankle. Similar pits were all over the place. Soon one kid’s sole duty was probe for them, sticking upright branches into each cavity, as a warning.
Mark might have volunteered for the brush-clearing party, except that by working higher up, he could scan for sight or sound of the returning Donner Group. I should have gone with them, he thought, for at least the eightieth time. Instead of attending that damn meeting.
A rustle of hurried footsteps made him turn and look upslope. Leo Kelly appeared at the rim, spotted Mark, and hurried along the new trail. Colin Gornet’s Public Safety Committee had requisitioned for their own use every phone with walkie talkie capability, so the rest of the crews made do with runners. Leo was among the best.
“They …” he panted a bit, swallowed, then told Mark: “They’re ready. At the lawn.”
What? Mark blinked. Oh, yeah. That. He put down the heavy sledge and one of the other volunteers, a carnie named Manny, took over, slamming the nearly vertical wall that a Garubis ray had sliced out of Mother Earth. Fortunately, Mojave Desert sandstone was fairly soft.
“Please go tell the clearing crew.” He pointed at the fellows chopping and hauling vegetation, below. “They need to focus on digging. On digging you-know-what.”
Leo nodded and hurried downslope, dodging around sweat-shimmering young men swinging pickaxes. Mark cringed at sending the little guy … but it was getting easier to delegate tasks, even dangerous ones. Stuff’s got to get done. Something maybe Dad would say, though with better grammar.
Muscles quivered as he ascended, step-by-step to the rim, where the new gate was rising, with watch towers on each side. Just ten meters or so to the left, another team was rebuilding one of the Poop Decks, so that human waste would funnel toward a catchment at the base of the Rock. For later use. If there’s a later.
Glancing back down at the new clearing, Mark saw that crews had pulled every bit of brush away from some newly bared ground. Now, most of the girls and guys were hard at work with shovels. Sighing, he turned back to a task that could not be avoided.
Rimpau seemed busier than ever, even back home during rush hour. Former students and others hurried in all directions at their assigned tasks, like bees in a hive, and from window glimpses he could tell that just as much work was happening indoors. Colin Gornet’s patrols had sifted every room, closet or attic for shirkers. Even those cowering in shock had been rousted, told to shake it off, and put to one job or another, even if just a rote task, indoors. The incentive was pretty clear: work, if you want to eat.
Ms. O’Brien seemed to be everywhere, demanding that each person wear a hat outdoors, and long sleeves. No one knew what this sunlight would do to Earthling skin … or if there might be daylight versions of the bat-things, for that matter.
Noise and smells spilled from the metal shop, along with a steady stream of needed implements. After filling Colin’s top priority order for weapons—and re-fitting football gear into armor—they had to make brackets and fasteners for Gornet’s ridiculous watch towers. There was plenty of raw material, for now. A crew led by Mr. Marshall was out there, harvesting metal—rebar and piping—from two collapsed houses and the ragged edges of his Chevy dealership.
As Mark passed, the metal students, supervised by Mr. Lumumba, were bending sheets into what looked like gutters. Oh, yeah. Makes sense. Nothing was more important than water. They should be ready, in case those dark, western clouds chose to come close and be generous. By nightfall, each rooftop must drain into catchments. The hardware store only offered a small number of rain barrels, so it seemed that every tub, basin and trashcan now squatted under one gutter or another.
If only I remembered that Mayan rain dance Dad and I saw in Guatemala, that time.
Other teams were busy doing Scott Tepper’s bidding. One, led by Helene Shockley, was going from house to house with clipboards and shopping carts, backed up by Gornet’s biggest teammates and two of Serpa’s carnies, seeking anything that might be useful and hauling it away to one of three assigned storehouses. Mark saw one dazed homeowner staring at a neatly printed receipt in her hand, and he sympathized with her resentment … till he saw two shopping carts leaving her house piled high with desperately-needed blankets and pillows. All right. Scott’s doing needful things. So far.
Finished with that house inventory, Helene was turning to the next when she caught sight of Mark and gave him a wave, a warm smile. And if he trusted his own emotions, he might have imagined it more than just friendly. Perhaps his return nod seemed curt, but seriously. I’m just too tired to do more.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
Passing along the high school’s New Building, he glanced up and saw a figure standing at the big, main office window. Principal Jeffers seemed to be watching Mark, specifically. Well, he knows where I’m heading.
The lawn next to the parking lot. The one that Kristina had deemed best for a starter seed garden, because it was much softer and more fertile than the athletic field, and within easy reach. It could be fenced and well guarded. A team of 4-H kids and carnies stood by a pair of donkeys who were hitched to—it looked like a big lawn mower, converted into a wheeled plow. Someone had been ingenious and quick. He made a mental note to find out who.
They were waiting for diggers to finish a sad task. Mr. Perez and Mr. Castro refused to let any students take their place. Digging up what had been put there just ten or so hours ago, as dawn rose in what they now called “east.”
Was it really this morning?
Despite the long, long day, Mark tried to quash his worry. This was, after all, his assigned team. His and Kristina’s. Bodies wrapped in flags emerged from the loose earth and were borne gently to a waiting gardener’s trailer, normally pulled by a lawn tractor. But no one suggested using precious gasoline this time. It was just too personal.
Mr. Perez sat on the edge of the last grave and sobbed, while students pushed dirt back into the others and the plowing team got ready. Mark glanced at Kristina, who nodded back: I got this.
Heck, it was her lawn, her club’s seeds, her team. Who was Scott, anyway, to declare this Mark’s domain? He needed to be elsewhere.
A long pole had been rigged with crossbars and Mark took position among six volunteers pulling the wagon. Taking a glance back, he saw Kristina’s farmers already at work, calling to the donkeys, flipping slabs of lawn upside down and consulting a big book as they argued about proper planting depths and such.
And it won’t do a damn bit of good, without water, he thought, while leaning into his crossbar. Seven student bodies added up to weighty cargo.
As they rolled along Rimpau, workers paused, removing their caps, hats, and head scarves. For many of the kids, this might be their first direct contact with death. Fortunate American youths, whose luck had turned, on a dime. As luck can do.
The only one who spoke was Avenue Annie, the homeless woman, whose wanderings and babblings no one tried to interrupt.
“Verginns Oh you verrrgins! Chumps don’ ask for no hep? Oh, oh! Then you GET no hep!” Her jovial wave and shuffling dance did no wonders for Mark’s mood, or any of the other haulers.
Back again at the edge gate, they had to turn around, so that the pull-yoke was uphill. And Mark realized. My body is spent. I can’t do everything … anything … anymore.
And something else. Mr. Castro said … I need to learn to lead.
On impulse, he strode over to the two big football player guards, pulled the helmet off of one of them and gently tugged the spear out of his hands. Mark gestured toward the cart, and his meaning was clear.
Overcoming initial surprise, the fellow nodded his dense afro before shrugging out of his armor and moving swiftly to take a crossbar. Micah Johnson, yeah, that’s his name. I’ve seen him play. Pretty good, in fact. Had a scholarship at San Diego State? And I never saw him bully anyone.
The other guard, after brief resistance, also gave up his lance to an exhausted trail builder, taking a position next to Mr. Perez and …
… and Principal Jeffers, who joined the team, backing gently, carefully, slowly down the newly-made ramp, then shifting sharply to head down the new Edge Trail. And Mark’s respect for the man went back up a notch.
He was tempted to follow, to participate in the second interment. But with spear in hand, he had a new job. Guardian. Right now, the archery girls would be far more useful than I am. Still, he peered out across jungle toward the northern hills, hoping for a glint of metal, or a flash of clothing, or the sound of human voices.
This time the ceremony was abbreviated. Jeffers and Perez departed quickly, returning to the Rock with bleak expressions. Get some sleep, man. For heaven’s sake, Mark wanted to shout at the principal, who seemed on the verge of collapse. When the cart crew re-emerged, Micah and his teammate kept pulling, returning it to the high school. Good for you. I shouldn’t assume all the sports guys are like Gornet. Another lesson.
But he stopped Leo Kelly, who was following the cart.
“Please go back down and tell them,” he indicated students who were slowly filling in the graves. “Ask them to recover the flags, first. Replace ‘em with brush. Then pile on rocks.”
Leo blinked comprehension, then spun and hurried back the way he came. Ah, the energy of youth.
We can’t afford to waste anything, he thought. Even flags could come in handy.
Micah had left a pair of binoculars. Mark used them to resume scanning. The jungle clearing crew was done toppling trees—for today, at least. Now they kept busy making piles of chopped bushes and tangled vines—presumably free of any critters who could scurry away. But three of the guys were acting peculiarly.
What the hell are they doing? Through binoculars he recognized Froggi and the Hammars. I might have known. They were using machetes, hacking leaves and stems away from what looked like several slender trunks, peering and inspecting their handiwork. Soon they could be seen dragging several past the new cemetery, to the base of the sloping trail. Nick Hammar shouted, beckoning Mark to come down.
I’ve got no time for games, he thought, shaking his head and resuming his sentry scan. Only then Micah and his partner returned. And Mark knew it wouldn’t do for Colin Gornet to catch them out of armor. So, he handed back the spear and binoculars and helped them back into their pads. Mark gave Micah a brotherly fist bump and turned to find out what the X-guys wanted.
“Look at this!” Froggi demanded, pointing at a trio of long, straight trunks, stripped of stems, lying near the base of the Edge Trail. The thinnest was about as wide as Mark’s arm. Another, as thick as his thigh. They were far too heavy-looking to serve as pikes. Maybe … as fence material?
“I took a short stroll in there, a while back,” Froggi motioned to the forest, and quickly cut off Mark’s rebuke. “Not far! Just to take a whiz, y’know? When I found a whole grove of these things. They’re different than the big trees or the low brush or the vines. Do they remind you of anything?”
Mark stared down at them for a few seconds, then blinked.
“Bamboo? I guess they’re kind of similar.”
He grabbed Froggi’s machete, using its blunt backside to strike the nearest trunk. It gave a booming “thunk!”
“Hollow,” Nick said, with evident satisfaction.
“Hollow,” Greg Hammar repeated his twin’s eloquence, as implications began to dawn on Mark.
“And you say there’s a lot of this?”
“Acres of it. All different sizes. Wherever the ground seems a bit soggy.”
Mark nodded. “Okay. Let’s get these to the wood shop, so we can look inside.”
But he didn’t follow them beyond the crest of the trail. The Edge Trail was still far from finished.