There were only two ways out. He could retrace his way back south and try to make Plainview or he could head north and follow the canyon across country towards Amarillo.
I don’t have fuel enough for either one. There were solar cells on the top of the crawler, but they only produced enough juice for the lights and creature comforts inside. If he re-routed all that power to the staging batteries, he might make a hundred yards a day. Food and water would run out before he covered any ground.
I need that H2. Could he hide nearby and sneak back after nightfall and steal some of the small cylinders? He had a wheeled trolley, but once loaded it would be difficult to pull manually though the drifts.
Maybe I could contact the Marshals. The idea was odd. Most of the land around here was abandoned, officially on the Bureau of Land Management books, and considered a federal wasteland. Law enforcement was loose and the few people who lived here took care of themselves. Cities had been looted and left to decay in the sun.
I could give them a call, and wait here for the few days it would take them to show up. They could arrest her and I could get my hydrogen.
He stopped the crawler and turned on the phone.
NO SIGNAL. He frowned and drove ahead to a rise.
NO SIGNAL. Even if the satellite were low on the horizon, he should get something.
Ike went outside. Up on the roof. A simple white plastic blister had a starred hole in the side. A rifle shot.
Dumb luck, or did she know what she was doing. With the antenna out, there’d be no calls to the Marshals nor to anyone else for that matter.
I’m on my own. Friends and neighbors were flexible concepts when you lived alone on wheels, but there’d been a few people who’d respond if he called for help.
How far can I make it on foot? Who’s closest? Amarillo wasn’t terribly far by crawler, but days away on foot. His mind inventoried his food and water supplies.
I’m dead if I leave the crawler. He applied power to the wheels. No more wasted time. He had to get out of the canyon before the last of the hydrogen was gone.
Ike crossed the central sand field and began climbing north. Don’t stop and don’t change speed except to adapt to the grade. The hydrogen gauge redlined quickly. He was running on dregs.
Uphill grades burned energy. There were three levels of terrace, a giant’s stair, between the bottom of the canyon and the caprock above. He was on the middle level, making good speed, when an ancient bridge over a nameless creek collapsed under his weight.
As the crawler overturned and started tumbling down the slope, a coffeepot struck him in the head.
Ike floated. The world was cool, and except for the rhythm of pain that echoed his heartbeat, nothing disturbed his rest.
The world was also wet. He waved his hand, and the caress of water shook him free of the haze in his mind. The headache doubled.
He blinked his eyes open. Water trickled noisily over stones. A fern grew from a clump of moss so green it didn’t seem real.
There were eyes, watching him. Little round glistening eyes. Frog eyes, raised above its head like the antenna blister on his crawler.
The blister that had been shot.
Ike blinked again and tried to sit up. The frog took offense and jumped, lost immediately in the jungle of vegetation.
Pounding pain in his head sapped his strength. Ike settled back down, his head resting on something soft, half way into the water.
Where am I? He pulled his hand up where he could see it, out of the water. His fingers were wrinkled from long submersion. I’m naked. He checked his body. Aches and pains. Bruises.
The crawler overturned.
When he touched his aching head his fingertips were stained red. His head was sticky. A scab had formed, from his right temple nearly back to his ear.
He elbowed himself up to a sitting position. Water ran off his skin and he shivered.
What is this place? He couldn’t tell its size. Vegetation obscured the view in all directions. Overhead was a uniform glow. I can’t be outdoors.
A girl pushed through a canebrake, watching him from across the pool.
She was wrapped in a worn and frayed robe, bare feet stepping carefully on a cobblestone pathway. She was younger than he. Perhaps twenty-five?
Pale brown hair. Her face was smooth and unwrinkled, pretty in a simple way–a face that had never grown accustomed to cosmetics.
“You’re awake,” she said.
“My head is throbbing.”
“A bad cut.” Her eyes drifted away. He lifted his hand out of the water and she re-focussed on him. “You were dry. I put you here.”
Ike asked, “You’re the girl who shot at me?”
“I’m the only one here.”
He suspected as much.
“Mr. Reuel? Is he dead?”
She looked away, upset. “He’s in the house.”
Ike eased back into the water. He was too weak to do anything else.
“How did you know I was in trouble?”
“I was watching you, with the binoculars. When you went over the side....” She shivered.
“Thank you for rescuing me.”
Be polite now. Deal with the other issues later.
She just nodded, watching him. Then, she stepped into the pool, robe and all, keeping away from him. The steps went deep. The stress and worry on her face drifted away as she settled into the water up to her chin.
“I live here.”
“This is inside the dome, right?”
She nodded, not making eye contact. She tolerated his presence, but her focus was on something else entirely.
She’s a water sprite. This is her natural element. She’s beautiful now.
The throb in his head just highlighted his unease. For two hermits, it was a far too intimate situation for comfort. He wished she would go away, and tell him where she put his clothes.
He shivered, and it wasn’t from the water. I might be stuck here.
“My crawler. How badly damaged is it?”
“I don’t know.” Her voice skipped gently across the water. “The door was sprung. It looked pretty beat up.”
“Do you have another vehicle? Something I could borrow long enough to reach town. I would bring it back once I got the crawler repaired.”
“There is no other vehicle, no town.”
He opened his mouth to argue the latter, but kept his silence. How long had she lived here? Was she even sane? She’d shot at him. Yet, she rescued him from the rollover.
She might want me alive, temporarily. I need some clothes. I don’t want to end up in a meat locker. Nor as mulch for her garden as a discarded stud. There were stories of other isolated families gone insane. As a traveling salesman, he knew them all.
He shifted his position. “I’m going to get up. Where are my clothes?”
She looked as if she had been startled awake. “Behind you, up the path.” She turned around and began leaving the pool. The robe, sodden wet, did little for her modesty. Ike had to force his attention away. He had to get up and out on his own, while she wasn’t looking.
The effort made him dizzy. How much blood did I lose?
He was still on hands and knees by the time he got out of the water, but a creeper vine a couple of inches thick worked as a hand rail and he got unsteadily to his feet.
His clothes had been washed and were draped across a large flat rock.
Still damp. It’s humid in here. He dressed as quickly as he could.
The girl hadn’t followed. He continued down the winding cobblestone pathway. The exterior double-door was in plain sight and he pushed through the little airlock and stood outside.
He could feel moisture evaporate from clothes and skin. Hot dry air stripped it away.
He staggered forward. The dome behind him was bigger than he’d thought. It’s her whole ecosystem, really. It was her sole source for food. The water inside made life possible. How long had Reuel worked on it? Was she his daughter?
Little things clicked in his head. The cobblestone paths, the size of the vines, the animal life–it had been a self-contained habitat for decades at the least. Had they extracted the water from the aquifer before it had been drained?
Is it big enough to support me as well?
He shied away from that idea. I need to get back to civilization. The hermit girl can have her frogs.