The first thing we needed for a quest was transportation. Tuck was right when he said we had no idea what the roads were like. That meant we needed a vehicle that could travel over good roads, bad roads, or no roads at all. We needed Arnold.
The rain had stopped by the time I walked outside to the corner of the parking lot where Arnold the Humvee lived. I patted him on his sand-colored hood. “Hey, Arnold! Ready for a dangerous mission?”
A Humvee was the army’s idea of how to get around in style. It looks a bit like a pickup truck but wide and low to the ground for stability. It’s got a big diesel engine, huge tires, and an ingenious axle system that gives it so much clearance underneath that you could drive over the top of someone sunbathing without even messing up her hair. I know. I’ve done it. There’s also a circular hatch in the middle of the roof. I think you’re supposed to be able to mount a machine gun up there, but Tan and I hadn’t been able to find one at the army reserve base where we rescued Arnold. And Tan had searched the whole base. Twice.
As we drove to the school’s auto shop, Arnold accidentally ran over several innocent concrete blocks in the parking lot. Yeah, Arnold was ready for a mission.
In the auto shop, I got Arnold outfitted for the quest. “First, let’s get you a spare tire,” I said.
As big as Arnold looks on the outside, he has surprisingly little room inside. In the back there’s a cargo bed like in a pickup truck, but a lot of that space is taken up by the big wheel wells. The cargo bed extends forward between the seats, running all the way to the dashboard at the front. The seats are off to the right and left of the cargo bed, with sunken areas for your feet.
I opened the long, sloping hatch that covers the back. The hatch has a really spiff hinge system so you can open it in either direction. Conner can lift the big Humvee tires by himself, but I had to use the shop’s overhead crane to hoist the spare into the cargo bed. Then I discovered I had a big problem. The spare tire took up almost all the space.
“Oh, grulk!” I said to Arnold. “I don’t think we’ve got room for both a spare tire and supplies. Yes, that’s true, you’ve got run-flat tires, so if you got a flat, you could still go about a hundred miles. How far apart do you think past people built army bases?”
Arnold didn’t know the answer either. I took the spare back out and settled for a tire repair kit. “Now, what are we going to do about your drinking problem?” I asked.
If Arnold has a weak spot, it’s his thirst for fuel. He has a big 25 gallon tank, but he only gets 12 miles per gallon. I could do the math, and the answer wasn’t pretty. We were only going to be able to go 300 miles before we’d run out of fuel. I put four jerry cans in their brackets on the back bumper. Each jerry can holds five gallons, so that was another twenty gallons. Still not good enough for a trip a tenth of the way around the earth. I rounded up all the jerry cans I had left, sixteen of them, and strapped them to the sloping cargo hatch, then stepped back to survey my work.
“Yes, I know, this just ruins your aerodynamics,” I told Arnold, “but honestly, you weren’t all that streamlined to begin with.”
The jerry cans were going to make it impossible to lift the back hatch when they were full, but we could reach the cargo area from the inside. And it still wouldn’t be enough fuel to get us all the way to Florida and back, but it was the best I could do. I sighed and threw my fuel pumping kit in too. We were going to have to hope we could find usable fuel along the way. I loaded in my general purpose toolbox and all the other tools I could think of that we might need. Humvees are really durable, but I wanted to be prepared in case we had a breakdown.
I drove Arnold out to the row of tanker trucks and filled his fuel tank and the jerry cans all the way full, using fuel from one of the older tankers I knew was not contaminated. I make a lot of mistakes, but I try to make each one just once. I drove up the sidewalk and parked outside the front door of the school. As I climbed down out of the driver’s seat, the front doors of the school burst open, and all the kids in the clan poured out. Everyone was carrying something. Kell had boxes of food, Ort had bottles of water, and Fahina had sleeping bags. Sal brought flashlights and extra batteries, Moon brought mosquito repellant and sunscreen, Ed brought towels, and Newt brought toilet paper. I got a bit of a lump in my throat when I realized how they’d gotten everything together so quickly. Each person was bringing out the things Jon used to assign us when we were going out on adventures! With no orders from anyone, they had all just stepped in and done their jobs. Chatting as if this were just another trip to the lake, they quickly stuffed equipment into the back of the Humvee.
Pippen and Tan and Conner came out of the school together. Tan had changed into his green scrubs and had a small medical bag around his waist. Pippen was wearing cargo pants that must have had ten pockets in them. Conner was wearing camouflage pants and shirt. There were two military rifles slung over his shoulder, and he was carrying a box that bristled with knives. Conner loves knives. He put the box and one of the rifles in the truck, then carried the other rifle over to Harri.
Whenever Jon was out finding, Conner had always stepped in as temporary Guardian, but now Harri would have to do that job. I was curious to see how Conner would hand over the defense of the clan. Maybe they were going to perform some sort of elaborate military drill with the rifle. Maybe Conner would give his second-in-command a gutsy speech about keeping up the fight should he fail to return from this mission. Maybe they would even hug! I watched carefully. Conner handed the rifle to Harri, who checked it without comment.
“Nobody dies,” Conner said.
“Right,” said Harri.
I snorted in disappointment. Boys!
Conner went back to his box of knives. He chose a large hunting knife and clipped it to the right side of his belt. Then he looked around a bit, unsatisfied. He rummaged through the tools I’d put in the Humvee and pulled out a long crowbar and slipped it through the left side of his belt.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I need a short-range melee weapon. This is my sword.”
“A sword, huh? Does your sword have a legendary name like ‘Excalibur’ or ‘Sting’ or ‘Riptide’?” I asked.
Conner slid the crowbar out a bit and looked at the lettering on the hilt.
“Stanley,” he said.
Newt and Kell helped me arrange the cargo in the back.
“We want to go too,” Kell said.
“Thanks,” I said sincerely, “but this isn’t an adventure. We’re going on a very dangerous quest, and we need to minimize the risk to the future of civilization should we fail.” Newt protested until I added, “And there are only four seats.”
Actually there was another reason I didn’t want to take anyone else. We already had the perfect team for a quest. Wizard, warrior, healer, and thief. Conner could pound anything that tried to eat us, Tan could patch us up if we got injured, I could solve any mechanical problems, and Pippen…
Actually I’m not sure why people take thieves on quests. Maybe to keep things from getting boring.
On the other side of the Humvee, Bonni handed Pippen a hat. Pippen has very pale skin, and she’s always getting her nose sunburned. Considering they’d been fighting just yesterday, I thought it was nice of Bonni to bring Pippen a hat for the quest. But Pippen just stared at it. I looked again. This was not just any hat. This was Bonni’s one-of-a-kind white Columbia Sun Goddess, her very favorite hat in the entire world. Pippen hesitated a moment, then flung her arms around Bonni, nearly knocking her to the ground.
Tuck brought out a cardboard box. “These maps were all printed just a year or so before Zero Day. Have you figured what roads you’re going to take?”
I found a map of the entire United States and spread it out on the hood of the Humvee. Tuck and Tan and Conner leaned over it. Pippen crawled up on the hood and fished a Sharpie out of a pocket and handed it to me.
“I think we need to stick to the red lines; those are the biggest roads,” I said. “If we head south first, we can get to this thick red line down here. We go east on this line, and it takes us out of Utah, through Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri until we get to Saint Louis.” I struggled a bit pronouncing the strange names. “Then we switch to this other red line here and we head down through Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, and then Florida. Orlando’s right here in the middle of Florida. Simple, huh?”
Everyone agreed it was a good plan. Of course, not every obstacle shows up on a map, but at least now we knew which way we were going.
Tan gave some last-minute doctor-to-veterinarian advice to Vega.
“You’ve done feeding tubes on animals. You can do the same on Jon. I’m thinking you could use baby food.”
Vega nodded. “Moon’s helped me take care of sick animals before. She’ll be my nurse. Between the two of us, we can watch Jon 24 hours a day.”
“Good,” said Tan. “If the ventilator fails, show everyone how to use the manual bag and trade off every hour. We should be gone no longer than …” He turned to me. “How long will this take, Callie?”
I did the math in my head. Orlando was about 2000 miles away. If we drove 10 hours a day, at 50 miles per hour, we could travel 500 miles per day. So, four days to get to the lab. Maybe a day to get the shut-off factor, and another four days to get back. Nine days. But that was if everything went perfectly, and I was enough of an engineer to know how often that had happened in the history of the world.
“Ten days,” I said.
In fifteen minutes, the Humvee was completely loaded. We were ready to go. But first, we had one more thing to do.
The four of us stood around Jon’s bed. The machine next to him clicked and hissed, pushing air in and out of Jon’s lungs through a tube down his throat. At least he wasn’t curled up any more. He looked like he was sleeping peacefully. Pippen put a single dandelion in a vase on the table by Jon’s head. Conner stood by the foot of the bed, saying nothing. Tan fiddled with the buttons on the machine one last time.
I picked up Jon’s hand and squeezed it. “Jon, it’s Callie. I don’t know if you can hear me. Tan and Conner and Pippen and I are going to go get the shut-off factor from the lab. We may be gone a few days. You just rest.” I put his hand back down and fixed his blanket. “Hold on, Jon. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
Conner got behind the wheel of the Humvee. I called shotgun. Tan and Pippen climbed into the back. Everyone else stood on the front steps and cheered and waved as Conner drove down the sidewalk and out onto the street. The clouds were clearing, and the noon sun was starting to dry the rain off the pavement. I watched the school grow smaller in the side mirror until it finally disappeared. The quest had begun. And it wasn’t even lunchtime yet!