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The Wall of Fire

Pippen’s eyes flew open. “What?” she squeaked. “You’re going to let Fixer get me? Are you insane?”

Tan put the cap back on the needle. 

“Pippen,” he said, “the infection has spread all through your body, and I’m afraid by the time we get you home, it’s going to be too late to stop it. You’re going to die, and I can’t save you. But Fixer can. Fixer was designed to kill bacteria. I’m not going to give you the shut-off; I’m going to let Fixer cure you!”

Pippen gripped the neck of Tan’s scrubs and pulled herself to a sitting position. 

“No Tan, you don’t understand! Fixer isn’t a cure, it’s death! It’s Nature! She’s trying to kill me! Don’t let Fixer get me, Tan, don’t let her get me!”

Tan held Pippen’s hands and spoke to her calmly, as good as any movie doctor I’d ever seen. “Pippen, listen to me. You have a fever, you’re scared, and you aren’t thinking straight. You saw Fixer heal the scar on Jon’s foot. You know it works. I’m going to keep this dosage of shut-off for you. I have to let Fixer get you, but then I’m going to give you the shut-off and bring you back. It’s the only way.”

Pippen looked at me with desperation in her eyes. “Callie?”

“Tan says it’ll work,” I said. “I trust him with my life.” 

She turned to Conner, who nodded reassuringly.

Pippen licked her dry lips. “Okay, I trust you, Tan. But you’ve got to make it a promise! Rule three says you can’t break a promise! Promise me you’ll bring me back!”

“I’ll bring you back,” said Tan. “I promise.”

Pippen let go of Tan’s shirt and lay back on the blankets. 

Conner shoved the throttle up to four, and the dragon snorted and flung itself forward. The track was perfectly straight here, and there were no other trains in sight. I opened the back door of the cabin and went out onto the catwalk to have a private talk with the dragon. The wind threatened to tear me off the side of the locomotive and I clung tightly to the railing. 

“Listen,” I shouted, “I know I’m asking a lot from you. You were asleep for so long, sitting out in the rain and the sun. I didn’t have time to check you for damage, and now I’m pushing you so hard that…well…the strain might kill you. I don’t know if there’s a paradise where locomotives go when they die. But I’ve got to get home to save my clan, and you’re my only hope for getting me there in time. Will you do it for me?”

I put my hand on the engine access door. The dragon didn’t answer in words, but under my hand I could feel her heart pumping strong and steady. This might be the dragon’s last flight, but she was flying. I looked back over the tail. The train tracks had taken a different route than the road here. The landscape consisted of only two things, golden grass and steel rail, stretching endlessly off to the horizon. If there was a paradise for locomotives, we were already there. 

Tan stuck his head out the door. “Callie, get in here!”

“Problem?” I asked as I came in.

“I figured out why this place is still grass,” Tan said. “Look.”

He pointed out the front window. We were still in the prairie, so there wasn’t much to see. It was late, and the light was fading. Huge black clouds lined the horizon to the west. I saw a few flashes of lightning, and a bright orange glow on the horizon.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” I asked. “The sunset?”

“That’s not the sun,” Tan said grimly.

I looked again. The black clouds were rising, boiling up into the air. The orange glow moved, dying down and then flaring up again. 

“Fire!” I said.

“This whole prairie must get swept every few years by fire!” Tan said. “That’s why there are no trees or shrubs. They get burned off! Only grass can grow back fast enough.”

Conner looked at me for orders.

“Keep going,” I said. “Maybe there’s a gap we can get through.”

But a few miles later it was clear there was no way through the fire. The line of orange stretched for miles in front of us, and our track ran straight into the middle of it. Flames billowed a hundred feet into the sky. Conner dropped the throttle back to idle, and we coasted slowly to a stop well back from the flames.

“Ideas?” I asked.

“We can go around,” said Conner. “The map shows another track that goes into Utah from the north, but we’d have to go back hundreds of miles to get to it.

“I think the fire must stop when it hits a road or a river,” said Tan. “Otherwise, fires would have killed all the buffalo by now. We could go back to the last river we crossed, and wait for the fire to die out.”

I thought about our options. I thought about the rest of the clan, waiting for our return, with no idea of what was creeping up on them. I had a vision of arriving home with the shut-off, only to find we were an hour too late.

Conner interrupted my thoughts. “Callie, whatever you decide, we’ll do it, but you’d better make up your mind now! The fire is moving this way fast!”

I could feel the heat through the glass now, and glowing embers were drifting down and landing on the dragon’s nose. I looked at Pippen. She was awake, and looking toward the windows. The orange glow from outside flickered in her eyes. I couldn’t let her down. I couldn’t let the clan down. 

I turned to Conner. “Push it to eight! We’re going through!” 

With no hesitation, Conner slammed the throttle all the way up. The dragon roared and shot forward, throwing me against the back wall. The entire cabin shook as we raced faster toward the wall of flame. Tan barely had time to slide the side windows closed. Then we were in the fire. I could see nothing but flames outside, licking at the windows. It felt like the inside of an oven. The smoke stung my eyes and I gasped for breath. The fire was sucking all the oxygen from the air. The engine coughed and stumbled, nearly stalling.

“Come on, baby!” I choked out. “You can make it!”

The engine roared again, and the dragon clawed her way forward. Then suddenly the flames were gone, and there was nothing but black in front of us.

Conner eased the throttle back. Tan turned on the windshield wipers to clear the ash from the front windows and I flipped on the headlights. We were on the surface of a strange planet. The ground in front of us was black and smoking. It stretched as far as the headlights reached without a blade of grass in sight. I opened a side window. The air on this barren planet was a bit smoky, but breathable. Behind us, the red glow of the fire faded in the distance. Then the rain started, sending rivers of soot down the windows. 

Tan hung out the window and watched the blackened landscape for a minute. “It’s hard to believe anything living could survive that, but in a few days, little shoots of grass will be popping up again. Grass is hard to kill.”

“So are humans,” Conner said.

When we reached the outskirts of Denver, we found our route blocked by trains a few times and had to backtrack to find a clear path. I took over driving while Conner climbed up and down switching tracks. With every delay, I could feel our time ticking away. If only I’d figured Fixer out sooner! I remembered the hour we’d spent just playing in the enchanted forest on the way east. I’d give anything to have that hour back now! Pippen lay in her pile of blankets, awake, but not saying a word. Tan sat next to her, watching to see when Fixer struck. 

Finally we were past Denver. The rain had stopped and we climbed up into the Rocky Mountains. Every time I got the dragon up to a decent speed, there would be a blind curve, and I’d have to slow down in case there was another train around the bend. “Conner, Tan, get some sleep,” I said. “I’ll wake you up if I need you.”

Conner stretched out in the back and was out in seconds. But Tan shook his head. “I can’t sleep.” He didn’t mean he wasn’t tired. He meant he had to watch Pippen. He’d made a promise.

Our headlights lit the track in front as it wound through the dark mountains. Sometimes the road ran alongside us, sometimes it turned and took another route for a while. The tracks got steeper and we climbed higher into the mountains. Eventually we entered a tunnel that seemed to go on forever. “We must be going through the mountain now,” I said. “Do you think there will be a bear in this tunnel too?”

“I’d like to see a bear try to scratch us up now,” Tan said. 

But there were no bears in this tunnel. We shot out the other side along with a cloud of bats.

Pippen was asleep now, and every so often, Tan would check her pulse to see if she was in a coma, or just sleeping. Once he tried prying up an eyelid, and got his hand slapped away.

Tan left Pippen for a few minutes to find our location on the map. Then he took the co-pilot chair and leaned forward to peer through the windshield.

“Okay,” he said, “we should be able to see it soon. Right…right…riiight…there!

We rounded a curve, and our headlights lit the other side of the canyon. Two graceful white lines curved gently through the canyon, interrupted in the middle by two dark gashes. One gash was the rockslide that covered the upper highway, and the other was the missing chunk of road we’d blown up on our second day. I still felt bad about breaking a beautiful piece of engineering. But my gamble on taking the train tracks home instead of the freeway was finally paying off. The roadblock that had given us hours of trouble on the way east was past us in seconds on the way west.

Finally the land began to flatten out, and I knew we were almost out of Colorado. Tan dozed next to Pippen. Every fifteen minutes the alarm on his watch would beep, and he’d wake up and check her breathing, then drift off again. The adrenaline rush of driving through a wall of flame had worn off hours ago. I’d been driving all night and I was tired. Not the kind of tired where you want to lie down and sleep for a little while, but the kind of tired where there’s an ache behind your eyes and your bones feel like lead and you want to lie down and sleep forever. My team was depending on me to lead them home, but the night was dark, everyone else was asleep, and the snake bite on my arm was hurting again. Doubts began to creep in. Could I actually lead everyone back home? Were we going to be able to save the clan? Tan had injected three of us with the shut-off, but had he gotten the right stuff? 

The landscape was dark, but the sky was the color of flame. A huge black cloud billowed up over the horizon. Then two red eyes formed in the center of the cloud. They swept back and forth, searching. Then they stopped, staring directly at me. Fixer had found me! The black cloud split into an enormous fanged mouth and Fixer shrieked in triumph with a sound like–

–like the warbling vigilance control alarm! My head snapped up and I looked out the windshield, expecting to see a landslide or another train in the way, but the track in front was clear. I smacked the yellow button and the alarm silenced. Yeesh! My heart was still pounding in my chest. If I’d fallen asleep driving a car or truck, we’d all be dead now!

“Callie?” Conner called from the back. “What was that sound? Are you okay?” He came up and stood by my seat.

“I’m fine,” I said. No, that was a lie. “I’m scared, Conner. Are we going to die?”

“How would I know? All I know is we’re not dead yet. So we keep fighting.”

“I guess so,” I said. “Things just seem kinda black right now.”

“It’s not completely black,” Conner said. “Have a look.”

I glanced out the side window. It was still dark, but behind us I could see the outline of the mountains now, backed by a deep blue sky. Sunrise was on the way.

“That’s something you can learn from nature,” Conner said. “No matter how dark the night gets, morning always comes.”

I sighed. “I wish life wouldn’t get so dark.”

“If it never got dark, you wouldn’t be able to see the stars,” Conner said. “It’s my turn to drive now. You go get some rest.”

Date: Year 14, day 12.

Location: Deadly Desert.

Things I need to worry about today: The future of all of humanity.

Gratefully I gave up the engineer’s seat and went back to take Conner’s place on the blankets. But now I was wide awake. Apparently I’d gone past tired, past fatigued, past exhausted, and reached some new state I’d never reached before: too tired to sleep. Well, as long as I couldn’t sleep, I might as well use the time doing something productive. I got out my notebook and pen and wrote down yesterday’s journey. Today was the twelfth day, the last day of the quest. I’d started this quest, and today, win or lose, I was going to finish it. If we died, at least my notebook would survive. Years from now, when aliens visited earth, they’d find the notebook and read that the last of the humans went down fighting.

I looked around at my quest team. 

Pippen groaned in her sleep, her legs twitching as if she were trying to run from something. I’d always thought of her as crazy and reckless, but she had more raw courage crammed inside her small frame than anyone else in the clan. 

Tan was asleep by Pippen. If there had been any doubts about Tan being a “real doctor,” there was no question now. He’d kept us patched up, and he’d found the last piece of the Fixer puzzle just in time.

Conner sat at the controls, one hand on the throttle, keeping our speed as fast as the tracks would allow. Conner was my rock, steady and strong. I’d sometimes looked down on him for not being as smart as me, but I was beginning to realize there was more to life than just being smart. 

I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought I could cross the country without them! Now, I would face an army of zombies if I could have these three at my back. I turned the pages of my notebook back to the chapter on survival and revised it one more time.

Chapter 1: The Most Important Thing to Have in a Survival Situation

A lighter.

A survival kit.

A charged car battery.

A sharp knife.

The will to survive.


A slight stutter from the engine caught my attention. It sounded like one of the cylinders was cutting out. The engine had sixteen cylinders, but this was not a good sign. Was the dragon’s heart failing? No reason to say anything to the others. There was nothing we could do about it.

Pippen stirred and raised her head. “Where are we?”

“We’re in the middle of the deadly desert,” Conner said.

“We’re back in Utah? I want to see!” insisted Pippen.

Tan helped her stand up so she could look out the window. It was good to see her standing again, even if she was a bit pale. The first rays of sunshine were just hitting the red cliffs outside. Pippen stretched her hand toward the window.

“I’m cold,” she complained. “I thought deserts were supposed to be hot.”

“I can explain that,” I offered. “During the night, if there’s no cloud cover, the heat radiates back out into space as infrared–”

“I’m cold,” Pippen repeated. Then a look of panic crossed her face. “Tan!” she gasped. Her eyes rolled back and she fell into Tan’s arms.

Conner hit the brake and the train squealed to a stop. We all gathered around Pippen. She was curled into a tight ball in Tan’s arms. As we watched, little black threads formed under her pale skin. Tan straightened Pippen’s leg out and peeled the bandage back. Black lines pulsed and rippled in the swollen skin around the wound. Tan set Pippen gently back on the blankets and she curled up again. “I’ll bring you back!” he promised.

“Looks like you were right about Fixer’s timer,” I said.

Tan nodded. “Now we’ll see if I was right about the shut-off protecting us!”

We waited, barely breathing for a minute. Two minutes. Nobody fell over.

“Yes!” I cheered. “It worked! We’re immune to Fixer!”

We are,” said Tan grimly, “but the rest of the clan back at the school isn’t. If I’m right, every one of them just collapsed. We need to get home now!”

Oh, spack! I’d forgotten that part! My brain was working too slowly. I tried to calculate how many hours of sleep I’d gotten in the last week, but I couldn’t do the math.

“Okay, now give Pippen the shut-off,” said Conner.

Tan shook his head. “She’s really sick. Fixer is killing off the bacteria now, and I hope it’s also repairing the damage. I want to give it as long as possible to work. As long as she’s still breathing, she’s safe. If her breathing slows too much, then I’ll inject her.”

“What if you inject her, but she stops breathing before the shut-off takes effect?” I asked.

“Then I breathe for her,” Tan replied. “I’ll take care of Pippen. You just get us home.”

Getting us back home sounded simple enough. We had only a hundred miles left, and the train tracks ran within a few blocks of our school. 

“I’ll drive,” I said. No one questioned my right to take the final leg. I started the train forward again. But between the Deadly Desert and home there was another mountain we had to cross, and the uneven sound of the engine was getting worse. 

Even Conner noticed it. He tipped his head to one side and listened to the stuttering. “What’s the dragon saying?”

“She says she’s not as young as she used to be,” I translated, “but she thinks she can get us over one more mountain. Once we get home, I can fix her up.”

I turned to Tan. “How much time do we have?” 

“Not much,” said Tan. “The clannies back home are all in a coma right now, like Pippen. She’s still breathing, so they must be too. But in a couple of hours, the coma will get too deep and they won’t be able to breathe on their own. If they die, the human race is doomed.”

“But the four of us will still be alive,” said Conner.

Tan nodded. “Yeah, but we aren’t enough to keep the race going. We could have kids, and they’d be fine. But our grandkids would have to marry their own relatives. They have too many genes in common, so everyone in the fourth generation is born weak, with big lips and no chin. The fifth generation is all mutants with two toes and five eyes, and then a disease comes along that nobody has any immunity to, and everybody foams at the mouth and dies.”


We flew up into the mountains. I was going far too fast for this winding canyon. If we came around a corner and found another train on the tracks, I wasn’t going to have time to stop. But I had to take the risk; the future of all humanity depended on me getting the cure home in time. The future of all humanity—I couldn’t really grasp that concept; it was too big. What I could understand was that the lives of the clan depended on me. I was driven forward by the terrible fear that we’d get home too late, and everyone in the clan would be dead. Even if I survived, I didn’t think I could live with that. So I drove the dragon forward at an insane speed. If we slammed into another locomotive, at least the end would be quick.

Finally we were through the mountains, and on the last downhill slope. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as the morning sun lighting up the blades of the frozen wind turbines as we came down the canyon into Clan Valley! The rails were empty, and the switches were in the right direction, so I let the dragon run as fast as she could without flying off the tracks on the curves. The big engine banged and shook, but the dragon didn’t stop. As we got within a mile of the school, I let out a long blast on the horn. No humans would hear it, but I wanted the dogs and rabbits and birds to know the quest team had come home!

Conner already had Pippen slung over his shoulder and was standing on the bottom step as I brought the dragon to a squealing stop at the closest point to the school. Conner dropped to the ground and began to run down the street. 

“Come on, Callie!” yelled Tan as he followed, aluminum case of shut-off in his hand.

“Just a second, I have to shut down the engine!” I yelled.

I slung my backpack and ran along the catwalk, threw open the engine access door, and flipped the switch from “run” to “stop.” The engine rattled to a stop, and the dragon gave a satisfied hiss. I patted her side gratefully. “We did it baby! We made it!”

Then I leaped down the steps, hit the ground, and ran after Tan and Conner.

The school was half a mile from the train tracks, and we ran all the way. Tan reached the front door first and flung it open, and we rushed in after him.

Tan looked around the dark, empty living room. “Where is everyone?”

“Breakfast time,” I said, breathing hard. “Lunchroom!”

We ran down the hall to the lunchroom and burst through the door. The clan was there, all lying on the tile floor. Moon was the nearest to the door, lying curled up next to a shattered glass and a puddle of Tang. I dropped to my knees next to her and put my ear by her mouth. Nothing.

“We’re too late!” I gasped. “They’re all dead!”