Year 14, day 7.
Location: Just outside of Florida.
Weather: Hot and sticky.
Miles traveled so far: I’m going to quit trying to figure this out.
Miles left to go: 220. Almost there!
Things I need to worry about today: We’re getting low on fuel again.
The kudzu vines started to disappear as we got into Florida. It may have been the goats we saw along the road that were eating the stuff like it was candy, but I think the kudzu was just plain getting out-competed by other plants. The freeway was mostly clear, but everything else was covered in green. Trees, bushes, and vines grew like crazy on either side of the freeway, crawling out on the overpasses, climbing up the signposts. Cars that had come to a stop too close to the edge of the road were slowly getting eaten by vines with flame-colored flowers.
“Callie, what does the book say about Florida?” Pippen asked. “I want to know what’s going to try to kill me today.”
I found the chapter and read out loud.
Florida was named by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. “Florida” means “Flowered” in Spanish. The highest point in the Florida peninsula is Sugarloaf Mountain, rising 312 feet above sea level.
“Three hundred and twelve feet?” Pippen asked. “How big is a three hundred foot mountain, Conner?”
“Have you ever been up to the meadow above the water tanks?” asked Conner.
“I’ve ridden my bike up there,” said Pippen. “But that’s just a hill, not a mountain.”
“Our hill is two hundred feet taller than the tallest mountain in Florida,” said Conner.
Florida is home to a wide variety of plants and animal species, including panthers, crocodiles, and alligators.
“Okay, I’m dead,” muttered Pippen.
Florida is also the adopted home of many invasive species. Burmese pythons and African rock pythons, originally kept as pets, have escaped into the Florida wetlands, where they have grown so large they now compete with the alligators for the spot of top predator.
“I am so dead!” said Pippen.
Florida’s largest industry is tourism. Florida has miles of beaches, theme parks such as Walt Disney World and SeaWorld, and safari parks where tourists can watch exotic animals from the safety of their cars.
Florida also boasts the Kennedy Space Center, several major universities, and medical research laboratories.
“Including Utopia Labs!” I said. “Maybe there will be a big sign, ‘Welcome, Fixer Survivors! This way to shut-off factor!’”
“Which with our luck, will lead to a trap door to the dungeon,” added Pippen.
Something gray and ugly burst out of the trees in front of us. Conner swerved to avoid hitting it as it ran across the freeway and dove into the undergrowth on the opposite side.
Pippen climbed over Tan to look out the window. “What was that?”
“A pig,” said Tan.
“I’ve seen pictures of pigs; they’re cute and pink,” Pippen said. “That thing was hairy and had fangs!”
“I’m pretty sure it was a pig,” said Tan. “Maybe they’ve adapted to survive here.”
A few miles later we slowed to look at a herd of monkeys sitting high in the trees to the side of the highway, eating some kind of fruit. Conner slid his window down and hooted at them. He must have said something terribly rude in monkey, because they went crazy, screeching and throwing fruit pits at him.
“Is Florida supposed to have monkeys?” Pippen asked.
I leafed through the book. “It doesn’t mention monkeys in here. Maybe they’re descended from pets. Did past people keep monkeys as pets?”
“Lots of past kids had pet monkeys,” said Tan. “I’ve seen it in movies.”
“But there aren’t any monkeys in Clan Valley!” Pippen protested. “That’s not fair! How come our past kids didn’t get monkeys? Did Fixer kill the monkeys, Tan?”
“Fixer didn’t kill the monkeys, winter did,” Tan said. “To avoid destroying healthy cells, Fixer must have been able to recognize human DNA. So it wouldn’t have attacked animals. But we have winter in Utah. All the animals that live back home, even the ones that started out as pets, have to be tough enough to survive freezing temperatures. We’re far enough south now that they don’t have winter. That’s why there are so many different kinds of animals and plants here.”
That seemed like a reasonable explanation for the monkeys. But an hour later, as we were coming to the top of an overpass, Conner stomped on the brake and brought the Humvee to a skidding stop. “Okay, tell me past kids kept those as pets!”
Five hundred feet ahead of us, a herd of huge gray elephants was plodding methodically down the road.
“Elephants?” I exclaimed. “It’s like a jungle here!”
“Of course!” said Tan, reaching over my shoulder and snatching the geography book away from me. “Look, there were safari parks in Florida, with animals from all over the world! When the humans all of a sudden stopped coming to feed them, the animals probably turned to eating each other. But eventually, they found ways to get through the fence.”
“Zow,” said Pippen. “Florida really is a jungle now!”
Conner thumped his chest. “Me Conner of Jungle!” He pointed to me. “You Jane?”
“Go talk to the elephants, Conner of the Jungle,” I said. “Tell them to get out of the way. We’re in a hurry.”
Conner eyed the elephants doubtfully. The largest probably weighed three times what Arnold did. “Conner of Jungle sorry. Only speak language of monkey.”
The elephant herd was headed in the same direction we were. They lumbered along in front of us as if the highway were their private trail, and the cars they were passing were just odd boulders. They took up our entire side of the highway, leaving no room to pass. We drove slowly, staying well behind them.
“You know, Tarzan didn’t really talk like that,” I told Conner.
“Yes, Tarzan talk like this!” insisted Conner. “Conner see movie!”
“In the original novels,” I explained, “Tarzan learned to speak perfect English. Tarzan was a lot like you, always rescuing someone in peril.”
“Or discovering lost kingdoms,” added Tan. “Seems like in every book he was stumbling over another lost kingdom.”
I looked at the dense trees to either side of the highway. “You could lose a good-sized kingdom in here!”
The elephant leader turned right, and the entire herd rumbled down the off ramp, leaving the highway clear again. “Huh,” said Tan. “I guess that was their exit.”
Around noon, I leaned over the radio rack and peeked at the fuel gage, for the tenth time. “Conner, how many full jerry cans do we still have?” I asked.
“None,” said Conner. “You already know that.”
“Yeah,” I admitted, “but I was sort of hoping for an answer that didn’t mean we’d have to make a fuel stop.”
Tan looked out the window at the impenetrable jungle. “You want to go in there?”
“No, but we have to. We don’t have enough fuel to get to Orlando.”
Off to the side of the road, we could see a medium-sized city. Taller buildings poked up through the top of the jungle. Conner took the next exit, and we drove into the city. The highway had been mostly clear of plants, but here the jungle was beginning to crawl out onto the edges of the roads. On narrow streets the trees met at the top, making the road a dark tunnel.
“Okay, Pippen, if you were a gas station, where would you be?” I asked.
Pippen didn’t even hesitate. “There!”
Sure enough, in the direction she was pointing was a tall leaf-covered shape that with a little imagination could be a gasoline price sign.
Conner drove into the gas station. A mat of fallen leaves covered the ground, and the small store was choked with vines. Conner drove to the side where I could just make out the shapes of fuel pumps under the vines. He stopped the truck and turned around in his seat. “Okay, we’re in the jungle, so everyone be careful. Tan and I will be buddies. Pippen, stay with Callie.”
Pippen stuck her tongue out at Conner. I started to protest that I gave the orders, not Conner, but then stopped myself. Maybe Conner was hopeless at any math above elementary level, but he knew more about the outdoors than I ever would. I’d never wanted to be the leader anyway.
The humidity hit me as soon as I stepped out of the Humvee. It felt like the girls’ shower at the school. I could feel my hair go limp. Well, limper, anyway. I could see the shapes of big above-ground fuel tanks behind the pumps. Conner unsheathed Stanley and hacked away the vines covering the tanks. A maze of pipes and valves emerged, all a bit rusty from the damp air. But this time, the valves on the tanks were all padlocked. “This is going to take a while,” I said. “Let’s take a bathroom and lunch break first.”
The bathrooms were outside at the back of the gas station store, men’s on one side and women’s on the other. When Pippen and I came out of the bathroom, Conner and Tan burst out of the gas station store, bearing a prize. “Look, Doritos!” cried Tan.
Rats know which packages have edible food in them, and they can chew through plastic and cardboard. The only containers that stop them are glass and metal. Most of the time when we find bags of chips in stores or houses, the rats and mice have gotten there first. Occasionally we find an intact bag when we break into a car or a vending machine. Doritos are so valuable you can get someone to take over your garbage duty for a day for a small vending-machine bag. These were full-sized bags and the boys were carrying armloads of them.
“We’re rich!” shouted Pippen.
“Where did you get those?” I asked in amazement.
“They were in a big display bin in the middle of the store,” said Tan. “I think the sides of the display were too smooth for rats to climb.
We nommed two bags of Doritos. Jon always says chips taste stale, but he’s the only one who thinks so. Tan didn’t think his were cheesy enough, so he squirted some canned cheese on them. Conner stuffed a bag into his backpack for lunch tomorrow. I wiped my orange-covered hands on my pants. Time to get to work. I started toward the fuel tanks.
“Hold on a second, Callie!” called Conner, pulling his military rifle out of the humvee. He unclipped the hunting knife in its leather sheath from his belt and handed it to me. “The jungle is dangerous. I want you to carry this knife. It’s my best one. It’s got a good balance and I just sharpened it last week.”
“Conner, I can’t take your knife!”
“I’ve got Stanley and the M4 rifle, and I’ve got more knives in the truck. I’d feel better if you were wearing this one.”
“I’m the wizard! You’re the warrior in this quest!” I protested. “And what about Tan and Pippen?”
“Tan has pepper spray. Pippen’s carrying pepper spray, brass knuckles, and some of those ninja throwing stars.”
Yeah, that sounded like Pippen. She doesn’t like to carry a backpack, but she’s usually got so much junk in her pockets it’s a wonder she can walk. I held still while Conner clipped the sheath to my belt.
I went to talk to the fuel system. Conner explained to an unhappy Pippen that while the boys went into the store for more supplies, she needed to stay outside with me since she was my buddy. A flock of colorful birds flew out of the trees and wheeled around in a circle before they flew off. They were gorgeous, green and yellow and orange. I didn’t think the jungle was as dangerous as Conner did, but I admit I felt a bit braver now that I had a weapon. I wasn’t sure what good a knife would do if an elephant attacked me, but I had no training in using guns. Pippen lost the argument with Conner, and climbed onto the roof of a vine-covered car near me, where she flopped down in a way that stated she was bored to a degree that no human had achieved since the beginning of time.
I turned to the tanks. “Okay,” I said, “how do you work?”
At first the mess of rusty pipes was just a mess of rusty pipes. I ignored the tanks labeled “premium” and “regular” and concentrated on the tank labeled “#2 diesel.” Soon the system started to talk to me, and the tangle started to make sense. I could see that this pipe led to the pumps; it must carry the fuel. That one went to the top of the tank, so it must be a vent pipe. There was a pipe that came from the bottom of the tank and stopped at a valve closed with a padlock. That would be a drain valve, which was just what I needed. I got my tools from the truck and cut the padlock off with the bolt-cutters. I opened the valve and was rewarded with a beautiful stream of diesel fuel. The fitting on the valve didn’t match any of the hoses I had, but that didn’t matter; I had duct tape. I taped up a connection, ran a hose to Arnold’s fuel tank, and turned on the valve.
“How long is this going to take?” called Pippen from the top of her car.
“Quite a while. I haven’t even gotten to the jerry cans yet.”
“I need to go to the bathroom again!”
I hesitated. Conner had insisted we stay with our buddies. But I couldn’t stop in the middle of filling the tanks. My duct tape job was starting to leak. Pippen and I had already been in the bathroom, and the most dangerous thing in there was some slightly aggressive moss. Besides, I was in charge, not Conner. “Just go quickly, okay?”
When Arnold’s tank was full, I kinked the hose and climbed up on the back hatch to fill the jerry cans. By the time I got them all full and got down to shut the valve off, Pippen still wasn’t back. Grumbling, I wiped the fuel off my hands and went to find her.
Nobody was in the women’s bathroom, but in the soft ground off the concrete I could see Pippen’s footprints heading into the deep jungle. Conner was going to pound me! Unless…unless I could catch up with Pippen, and bring her back before something ate her. Then Conner would never need to know we weren’t just in the bathroom. It wasn’t the safest plan in the world, but it avoided me getting pounded, and wild animals would think twice about attacking me when they saw my big knife.
I followed Pippen’s footprints into the jungle. There was a narrow trail through the trees and bushes, and I pushed through as quickly as I could. Birds screeched and flapped away from me as I disturbed them, but so far, they were the only animals I could see. There was a good chance Pippen was still uneaten. I was getting worried about how far I had gone from the gas station, but the footprints were still clear in the ground, and I was sure I could find my way back along the path.
Finally I pushed through some big leafy ferns and found myself in a clearing with a small stream running through it. In the middle of the clearing was Pippen, crouched down to inspect something on the jungle floor. It was a tiny frog, about the size of a nine-volt battery. The most amazing thing was its color. It was glossy black, with bright yellow stripes that stood out clearly against the green leaf it was sitting on. It was so breathtaking I forgot I was supposed to be rescuing Pippen.
“Hello, little froggy,” said Pippen. “Would you like to come home with me and live in a jar and eat flies? You would?”
Pippen reached toward the frog. Then I remembered I was angry. “Pippen!” I shouted.
Pippen looked up. “Callie!” she said, excitedly. “Did you see this little guy? He’s…” Pippen looked down. “He’s gone!”
I cut loose on Pippen. “I can’t believe you went off on your own! For someone who thinks Nature is out to kill her, you sure are making it easy!”
Pippen tried a sheepish smile, but I wasn’t letting her off that easily. “You’re lucky I found you before you got ambushed by a sloth or something! You can’t go off exploring by yourself!”
Pippen scowled. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do! Who made you boss anyway?”
“You did. Your exact words were, ‘You’re our leader.’”
Pippen opened her mouth to protest and then closed it. One nice thing about having a good memory is you win a lot of arguments. Pippen stood up, looking very hurt. One bad thing about winning arguments is you don’t make a lot of friends. Immediately I regretted yelling at her. I tried to repair the damage. “Let’s get back to the truck, and I won’t tell Conner you wandered off,” I offered.
I started to turn, but Pippen grabbed my arm. “Callie!” she said in a whisper. “Something moved behind that bush!”
I looked across the clearing in the direction Pippen was pointing. “It’s a patch of dry grass,” I said. “It’s just moving in the wind.”
“Dry grass in the middle of the jungle?” asked Pippen.
I looked again. The orange patch of grass stirred, but there was no breeze. Finally my brain sorted out the shape. “That’s a tiger!” I said in shock.
“What does your survival manual say to do about tigers?” Pippen asked urgently.
It didn’t have an entry on tigers specifically, but Conner had said what to do about cougars. “We have to show it we’re too much trouble to eat,” I said.
Pippen’s right hand was still clamped around my arm. With her left hand she reached into a pocket and pulled out a piece of metal with four finger-sized holes. Some remote part of my brain noted it was made of machined aluminum, not brass. And it was pink. Pippin slipped it on and made a fist. I drew my knife. It had seemed huge when Conner had given it to me, now it looked pathetically small against a tiger.
“Quick,” I whispered, “what’s cat for, ‘Don’t mess with us, we’re dangerous!’?”
“Mroaw, ffft!” Pippen whispered back.
“Mroaw! Ffft, ffft!” I yelled as loudly as I could.
Lazily, the tiger got up, stretched, and walked away into the jungle. I let out my breath in relief.
“We did it! We scared him off” yelled Pippen, releasing my arm.
I rubbed the dents where her fingers had been. “More likely he’d never seen a human before and wasn’t sure how we’d taste. Come on, let’s get back to the truck.”
I turned back toward the path and then froze. I was staring right at a pair of shiny black eyes. The eyes were set in a triangular head, and the head was attached to the biggest snake I’d ever seen. The snake froze too, and we stared at each other while I tried frantically to remember what Conner had said about snakes.
Snakes can’t hear, but they can smell with their tongues, and they see motion very well.
I didn’t dare turn my head. “Pippen,” I said between clenched teeth, “back away slowly!”
The snake flicked its tongue in and out, moving its head from side to side as if it were searching for me.
They can strike a distance of one-half their body length.
This snake’s head was not much bigger than my hand, but I’d read they can stretch their jaws to swallow big prey. Its green and brown body was thicker than my leg and at least fifteen feet long. So striking range was seven and a half feet. I was only three feet away. Oh, spack! Maybe I could wait until it blinked, then sprint for safety. I waited, but the snake just stared straight at me without blinking. Sweat started to drip down my cheek. Did snakes even have eyelids? I wasn’t sure. Finally the snake drew back its body in an ‘S’ shape, giving me another two feet of distance. I spun around and exploded into a run, trying desperately for a world record in the two-and-a-half foot dash.
I felt the snake slam into me and sink its teeth into my arm, knocking me to the ground. My first thought was I am such an idiot! I was so concerned about keeping Pippen from getting eaten I forgot I could end up as lunch! My second thought was Ow!
The snake spun me around, wrapping around my chest and stomach. I tried to scream, but nothing came out but a weak “Huff!” Then the snake tightened around me, and I couldn’t draw in another breath. Pippen ran toward me, pink knuckles clenched in her fingers. She drew back her fist and slammed it into the snake. The snake only squeezed tighter. I felt like my ribs were going to crack and my heart was going to burst. Pippen threw down the knuckles and ran. Was she running away from the snake or running to get help? My lungs were twitching now, trying desperately to draw in air. It didn’t matter if Pippen had gone to get Conner. By the time he got here, I’d be dead. What a lousy way for an engineer to die! An engineer should die in a fiery explosion, not get eaten by a snake!
Maybe it was the lack of oxygen to my brain, but suddenly I got mad. Stupid walnut-brained reptile! I’d show him that humans aren’t as soft as we look! The snake’s teeth were clamped on my left arm, but my right arm was sticking out between the snake’s coils, and I was still holding my knife. I brought the blade up and slid it between my left arm and the snake’s body, close to its head. I couldn’t see what I was doing and only hoped I was right about which edge of the knife was the sharp one. Blackness was creeping into the edges of my vision, and I knew I only had a few seconds of consciousness left. With all the strength I had left, I slashed outward.
The snake thrashed, slamming my head into the ground. The world exploded in a burst of light, then faded into black.