It was near midday when I woke and decided to tentatively take a peek outside. I slowly peered out into the fog, snaking my hands around the opening at the mouth of the cave. There were no silhouettes of any strange beings in the immediate area per my observation, so I decided that it must be safe to emerge fully from my temporary shelter. I was briefly startled by a large growl which I took to be a bear, but I quickly recovered when I realized that it was the sound of my own stomach.
I looked at my watch. No new messages. Checking my coordinates one more time, I realized that I wasn’t from the path that I was supposed to have followed, so I took a brief moment to survey the area where I’d landed last night. It appeared to be nothing but wilderness. I definitely wasn’t likely to find any new tech here. Any time I’d found tech previously, it had been in the ruins of some great city. I think the last ruin I’d searched with my men had once been called Topeka. It was nothing to look at now, but according to one of Ellie’s books, it used to be a sprawling metropolitan area filled with people and concrete.
My new friend stood munching on some grass near a tree. I was pleasantly surprised to see that she hadn’t left me. As odd as our meeting had been, it was comforting to have her around, even if she was only a horse. I felt connected to her, like I could rely on her to save my life. She may very well already have.
I turned back toward the cave and reached around the corner, fishing for my pack. I needed to have a little bite of something before I left to find my coordinates. The way I had it figured, if I rode the horse, I could cross the distance required in a quarter of the time it would have taken me on foot. She was going to give me the edge I needed to at least make it back alive.
Kneeling down to search my provisions, I found 2 apples. I tossed one over to Star. That’s what I decided to call the mare, mostly because I felt she needed a proper name and it sounded much better than Horse; but also, because Ellie had always talked about wanting to see the stars. She spoke of them as if they were magical lights in the night sky. She had never seen them. To be completely honest, I had only seen them once before myself as I was fortunate enough to be Topside when the sky was clear. I’d been told that wishing upon them would bring you good fortune. I wasn’t at all superstitious, but I hoped that Star would bring luck to me.
I sat and bit into my apple, savoring the juicy flavor. We may not have been able to keep animals in the underground due to space restrictions, but we were very good at growing fruits and vegetables. The apple was juicy, perfectly ripe, and very sweet. I actually enjoyed this part of my journeys. There is nothing like biting into a crisp apple and enjoying the majestic scene of the open wilderness before you, especially on a day like today when it wasn’t even raining.
Just as I finished my apple and thought contently about my good fortune, I felt the sharp end of a cold blade at my throat.
“What’re ye doing here, undergrounder?”
Damn it! I knew it was too good to be true, I thought.
“I’m just passing through. There were things in the darkness last night, and Star…I mean, that horse over there, it brought me here last night. I don’t want any trouble.”
“Oh, no trouble. No trouble, ye say. Ye don’t want any trouble, but ye enters my domain. Mine. And alone. Ye know ye don’t belong here.”
“Listen, guy, really if you’ll just let me grab my gear, I’ll be on my way. I have a lot of ground to cover and…”
“Ye won’t be going anywhere today, undergrounder. Ye entered my home, ye will be my guest until I see fit to set ye free…if I want ta be generous ’nuff ta set ye free.”
Star had finished munching her apple and tossed me a look of pity. Gee, thanks, I thought. Don’t you have any more heroic antics in you?
I knew it was pointless to struggle with my host when he had his blade to my throat. I would have to bide my time in order to escape. We had been quickly briefed about this group of ‘people’ during our Topsider training. They were called “Stormriders.”
The Stormriders were known to be on the wild side, ruthless and unforgiving. I was lucky that this one felt like playing with his food, so to speak. As a general rule, they had no issue killing those whom they felt had infringed upon their territory. This one, though, seemed somewhat reasonable. If he was reasonable, perhaps I could reason with him.
“I’m on an important mission. You really need to let me go. We have to get off this rock before it dies completely!” I put a lot of emphasis on the death part, hoping that he would feel the concern in my voice. Instead, he formed a gag from a spare shirt in my pack and shoved it into my mouth after binding my hands.
“No, undergrounder. She ain’t dead. Ain’t dying. She’s alive. She’s ne’er been more alive! The storms become more and more fierce and worthy opponents e’ry day!”
I quickly came to the realization that reasoning with him was also pointless. I would have to wait for the appropriate moment to make my escape.