Date: Year 14, day 4.
Location: Saint Louis, Missouri.
Miles traveled so far: 1100.
Miles left to go: 1200.
After breakfast, we said goodbye to our comfortable RV. I put the battery back in the Humvee, and the engine started up with no problem. The battery would charge back up while we were driving. Tan took a turn at the wheel, and I sat in the back with Conner.
Kansas City had the same tall glass-covered buildings that Denver had, only it had a few older brick buildings mixed in too. The freeway entered a tangled mess of connecting roads that looked like a bowl of spaghetti. We got in the wrong lane and ended up looping back around once before we finally found the freeway that would take us east. Maybe I’d been wrong when I told Pippen even past people wouldn’t build a road that went in a circle!
“Okay Tan,” Pippen said. “We’re on our way to Atlanta. Now tell us why you think we’ll find people there.”
“I can’t tell you!” Tan said. “If you tell someone the plan out loud, it never works!”
“That’s in movies, Tan. This is reality,” Pippen reminded him.
“How do you know we’re not in a movie?” asked Tan.
“We’d all have to be a lot better looking if we were in a movie,” said Pippen. “Well, you guys would anyway.”
The terrain was rolling hills now, with a lot of trees. The further east we got, the closer together the cities got, and the more cars there were on the roads. Occasionally we’d find sections where the cars were bumper to bumper, blocking the entire road. It was probably a “traffic jam” like Jon had told us about. We still kept up a good speed by driving on the shoulder of the road. I don’t know why past people never figured that trick out.
“The next big city we get to is Saint Louis,” Pippen said, looking at the geography book. “It’s right next to the Mississippi River. And, oooh, Callie, you’re going to love this!”
Pippen turned in her seat and held the book out so I could see the picture. I think my heart skipped a beat. A gigantic silver arch, like an inverted parabola, soared hundreds of feet into the air. It wasn’t part of a building. It didn’t support a bridge. It was just an arch, standing alone against the sky. I reached out to touch the picture, to connect myself to those past engineers who had the guts to construct something that big that didn’t do anything except shout out, “Look what we made!” But Conner grabbed the book.
“Hey, look! There are catfish in the Mississippi River! I’m going fishing!”
I glanced at the equipment crammed in the back. “You didn’t bring a fishing pole. How are you going to fish?”
Conner pulled an Altoids tin out of his pocket.
“Fish eat mints?” I asked.
Conner opened the tin. “This is my survival kit. See? Fishing line, sinkers, and fishhooks. Good for catching fish. Razor blade. Good for gutting a fish. Needle and thread, good for sewing yourself back together after you cut yourself gutting the fish. Flattened roll of duct tape. Good for–”
“–everything else!” I finished. Nobody had to convince me duct tape was essential for survival.
The kit made me think. I could see how if you were stranded with nothing but a survival kit, it could be the difference between life and death. Obviously I’d been too hasty in the Modern Survival Manual. I got out my notebook and fixed it.
Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation
A survival kit.
In a few hours, we got to Saint Louis. There were even more old buildings here than in Kansas City. I guess since civilization started on the east and spread to the west, the further east you went, the older the cities. The freeway took us through town. I kept looking up at the city skyline, trying to be the first to see the arch. Suddenly Tan slammed on the brakes. I pulled my face out of the seat in front and looked to see what was wrong. The freeway dipped down to go under another road. But the overpass had collapsed, leaving the freeway choked with broken concrete and twisted metal.
“Earthquake maybe?” asked Tan.
“Or a flood,” I said. “Look at all the wood and garbage down there! Whatever it was, it happened after Fixer, because nobody cleaned it up.”
Tan turned around and we got off the highway and made our way through the city streets instead. I noticed a muddy line running along the bottom of the buildings, about a foot above the sidewalk. There had been a flood here. Some older buildings had even collapsed, spilling bricks across the street. Rubble crunched under our tires.
A cold knot was growing in my stomach. Would my beautiful arch have withstood a flood? Tan turned one way and another to avoid the worst of the debris, while I tried to locate us on a map of the city.
“Which way is north?” Tan called out. “I can’t see any satellite dishes!”
“Just keep looking for the arch,” I said. It’s right next to the bridge that takes us over the Mississippi River.”
I glanced right and left every time we came to a cross street. Finally, through a gap in the buildings, I caught a glimpse of sunlight shining on a silver curve. “There it is!” I yelled.
Keeping the silver curve in sight, we zigzagged back and forth through the streets, until finally we came out in a huge weed-choked park. Beyond the park was the Mississippi River, muddy brown and impossibly wide. The arch rose above us, smooth and tall and perfect, not even any rust on it.
But the bridge was gone.
We sat under the arch, eating crackers with strawberry jam. In front of us, a staircase led down to the west bank of the Mississippi River. The staircase was the size of the football field back at the school, but half of it was taken up by a huge flat-bottomed barge that lay on the steps like a confused whale. According to the map, we should have been able to see four different bridges from where we were sitting. They were all gone. A few pillars still stuck out of the water where the bridges had been.
It was a huge setback for the quest. I think I’d have felt a lot worse if I wasn’t sitting with my back up against my silver arch. It curved up above me into the sky and came down again on the far side of the park, its solid bulk reassuring me that engineering could conquer nature.
Tan tossed a cracker to some nervous birds. “What do you think happened here, Callie?”
I put down the maps I was studying. “Well, you remember Jon says during the first year, there wasn’t a summer?”
Pippen stopped flipping jam at the birds with her spoon. “Yeah, Jon says during the Neverending Winter the snow got so deep he had to wear snowshoes when he went out to get supplies.”
“Right. I think maybe the whole world was colder for a year. Maybe there wasn’t any snow this far south, but I’ll bet there was a lot of snow up north, and this river starts almost up in Canada.”
“Yeah, but Jon says that summer came back the next year,” said Pippen.
I nodded. “So here’s what I think happened: The weather goes back to normal, and all that snow melts. It runs down into the river. According to the map, there are a lot of dams on the river north of here. They get full really fast. They’re engineered to handle that; they’ve got spillways where the water can pour over if the dam gets too full. But maybe a spillway gets plugged with branches. Or a dam develops a leak. Or maybe a big earthquake hits. And one of the dams breaks.”
Tan caught the idea. “And all it would take is one dam failing! All that water rushes down to the next dam, which is already full. That one breaks too, and soon there’s this enormous wave, carrying trees and boats and houses, sweeping down the river, taking out the bridges as it goes, and it doesn’t stop until it reaches the ocean!”
“Fwoooosh!” contributed Conner.
“So now we know what happened,” said Tan, “but how are we getting across the river?”
We walked down the steps past the barge and stood at the edge of the river. Rivers back home were fast, violent things, crystal-clear and ice-cold. This river was muddy brown, and hardly seemed like it was moving at all, until you spotted a leaf floating along. Even then, the river was only moving at a walking speed. It seemed harmless until you noticed the giant barges crushed like aluminum cans and flung up on the banks.
“Zow!” said Pippen. “It’s so wide I can’t even see the other side from here!”
Without a word, Conner picked her up and held her over his head.
“Oh, there it is! Never mind.”
Conner put her down, and turned to me. “Can we go around the river?”
“Around? It runs all the way from Canada to the ocean, and it’s between us and Florida.”
“Can we find a shallow spot and drive through it?” asked Pippen. “How deep can Arnold drive in water?”
“Pretty deep,” I said. “Clear up to the air intake cap at the bottom of the windshield. But look at the size of that barge. If those things floated up and down this river, it’s too deep for us to drive across.”
“Callie,” said Conner, “what do you have to do when you get a new truck running for the clan?”
I ticked the items off on my fingers. “Well, first I check the wheel wells for wasp nests. Then I pump up the tires, check the fuel for contamination, make sure the coolant hasn’t frozen and cracked the engine. The big problem is the battery. Car batteries lose their charge after a year, and ones that have been sitting around for fourteen are usually so corroded I can’t charge them up again. So I replace the old batteries with deep-cycle batteries, which are like normal car batteries, but they don’t die after long storage. That’s the kind of batteries Arnold has now.”
“Okay,” said Conner, “so why can’t we just find a rowboat and row over to the other side? We take the batteries with us and you get a new truck running and we go on to Florida.”
“And leave Arnold behind?” I asked, horrified.
“We could pick the Humvee up again on the way home.”
“But what if we have to take another route home?” I protested.
Conner scowled. “It’s just a truck, Callie! Is this part of your ‘I can talk to machines’ thing? You know, you’re crazier than Pippen is!”
“That’s not it at all!” I protested. “There’s no guarantee we’d be able to find a vehicle on the other side that can handle rough roads as well as Arnold, and we still don’t know what’s between us and the lab.” Conner started to argue, so I said quickly, “I’ll tell you what. We’ll make your idea plan C. Plan A is we drive south along this side of the river, looking for a bridge that’s still intact. If that doesn’t work, we try plan B. If plan B fails, we leave Arnold and row across the river.”
“Well, okay,” said Conner, but he didn’t sound happy.
We found a freeway on our side that followed the river south. It didn’t run right next to the river but ran parallel, several miles to the west. We’d only gone a few miles when we found the freeway cut in half by a steep-sided gully. It was dry now, but we could see that water had run through here once. We got off the freeway, found a spot in the gully that Arnold could drive through, then got back on the freeway. Soon we came to an eastbound road that according to the map had a bridge that went across the river. We drove east until we got back to the river. But the bridge was gone, washed out like the others. We drove back to the freeway and headed south again.
We repeated this over and over for hours. Working our way south through damaged roads, heading east to check out the next bridge, finding it gone, heading back to the freeway. My confidence that engineering could conquer nature was fading quickly.
Tan tipped back an imaginary cowboy hat. “Sun’s getting’ low, Miss Callahan. I reckon we better find us a place to circle the wagons soon.”
“One more bridge.” I insisted. “It’s not dark yet.”
We got off the freeway and turned onto an east-going road that took us into a medium-sized town.
“Turn right on the next street,” I said, looking at the map. “This one’s a train bridge, but we might be able to drive across as long as there aren’t any trains blocking the bridge. Okay, now turn left, and we should be able to find the train tracks.”
We found the train tracks easily, because there was a big train sitting on them. The crossing barrier was down, and there was a line of cars waiting for the train to go by.
Pippen slid her window down and hollered at the past drivers, “Hey guys, I think it’s going to be here for a while!”
Luckily the train was a short one and it ended before we got to the river. The train bridge was a truss structure, lovely classical engineering. Lots of criss-crossing steel beams designed to form triangles, the strongest shape. At least, the part I could see looked like that. Out in the river, the concrete piers were crumbled, and the entire center section of the bridge was gone. I could see a few rusty beams sticking up out of the water.
I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice. “Oh well. Tan, find us a place for the night, and we’ll try plan B tomorrow.”
Tan drove us down a small road that ran alongside the river, then turned into a parking lot. “This here looks like a right good place to tie up the horses!”
We were near a bend in the river, in what was once a boat harbor. A concrete ramp slanted down into the water. Nearby, a long aluminum boat dock ran out into the river. The parking lot was a junkyard. Dead branches, garbage, and dozens of boats had been pushed here and left behind by the flood waters.
“There!” said Pippen. “I found our home for tonight!”
Our home was a blue and white houseboat, about the size of the RV, sitting in the parking lot. Pippen jumped out of the truck and ran inside.
She popped her head back out the door. “Hey guys! We’ve got bunk beds!”
Conner got out Stanley, and he and Tan started to work propping branches under one corner so the houseboat would be level. The houseboat had 12-volt lighting like the RV, so I got out a battery and hooked it up. There was also an outboard motor on the back, but outboard motors run on gasoline, not diesel. I wandered over to look at the pile of junk. It didn’t look very helpful either. There was a canoe that was small enough for us to carry down to the river, but it was too small for all our stuff, and it had a hole in it. Some of the bigger boats could probably carry all our equipment, but I couldn’t see how we could get them out of the pile, and down to the water. The rest of the pile was just garbage. Plastic bottles, lawn chairs, clothing, scraps of wood. Nothing that would get Arnold across.
I went down to the water, walked out to the far end of the dock, and sat cross-legged on the end. In the fading light, I could see the opposite shore, half a mile away. It might as well have been the surface of the moon. I rubbed my temples and tried to think. How had people gotten wagons across rivers before they made bridges? Maybe Jon had covered this in geography class. Probably while I was asleep. I remembered Jon collapsing and the terrible, shocked expression on his face as he slid to the ground. I hung my head and looked at the dark, muddy water sliding past.
The dock shook, and someone sat down next to me.
“Hey, Conner,” I said without looking up.
Conner smacked me on the side of the head. “Mosquito,” he explained, showing me his hand. “What are you doing out here?”
“Working out the details of plan B for tomorrow,” I said, trying to sound confident.
Conner had been my best friend far too long to fall for this. “There isn’t really a plan B, is there?”
“No,” I admitted miserably. “Conner, I can’t leave Arnold on this side of the river! And, no, it’s not because I talk to machines. If we didn’t have Arnold, we never would have gotten this far. I’m afraid if we leave Arnold behind, we’re going to get stranded somewhere and die. But I can’t come up with a way to get us and him across the river!”
I expected Conner to argue, but he just sat quietly next to me for a while. Finally he said, “Think of it as one of those math problems you like. A very smart engineer has to cross a river. She has a truck full of supplies, a pile of useful garbage, and three friends. What does she do?”
“She fails,” I said. “She fails and everyone realizes she’s not really an engineer, she’s just a little girl who’s been faking it for years.”
“You’re just tired,” Conner said. “Pippen found a propane grill that still works, and she’s heating up some chili. Come in, get some dinner and some sleep. You’ll think of something tomorrow. You’re the smartest person in the whole world, and you’ll get us to Florida somehow.” He pressed something into my hand. “Here. You can even use my duct tape.”
I didn’t look up.
“Callie, if you sit out here in the dark, the mosquitoes will find you. See, they’re out looking for you with flashlights now!”
I looked up and saw hundreds of tiny blinking lights floating through the air. For just a second, it did look like the mosquitoes had advanced their level of technology significantly.
Then I laughed. “Conner, I think those are fireflies!”
“I know. I just wanted to hear you laugh.”
I turned and looked at Conner, with the floating lights flickering behind him. I smiled. “Thanks, Conner. You always believe in me, even when I don’t. It’s like you’re more than just my friend. You’re sort of like…”
“Like what?” asked Conner.
“…like the big brother I never had!” I finished.
I punched Conner in the arm. “Come on, big brother, let’s go in and get some chili.”
Conner got up, a look of pain on his face. The big wimp! I hadn’t hit him that hard!