Chapter 4: Progress
Hours later, I glanced up towards where we had started. I could still see the peak where we had landed, and that filled me with a deep annoyance. It had taken forever to reach the base of the mountain, and we had only been following the valley we were in for a slightly less than an hour. Logic said that we were making good time, all things considered, but I was still annoyed that we hadn’t made it further by now.
The valley itself was long and narrow, almost more a shallow canyon than a valley, but it gave us a clear direction to follow. Also, progress was much faster and easier, especially since entering the valley had been like turning on a switch which activated life. Where, moments before, we had been walking on barren and harsh stone, we were now standing on fresh, loamy soil. Grasses rose from the ground like tiny waves of wheat, fluttering in the slight breeze that wound through the valley’s floor. It was a comforting moment to sit and rest on a ground that did not bite and scratch as you sought comfort.
Despite this slight reprieve, we all knew that we could not stay. The peak still towered above us and the valley stretched before us. We had to keep moving if we hoped to find a town soon. So, we kept marching on. As we walked, I marveled at the view in this place. I could not have imagined a more pleasant and perfect place. The slopes between the mountains were calm and slow to climb, making travel an altogether pleasant experience as we walked over and around them. The grass was soft against my feet and the breeze brought a comfortable coolness that swiftly replaced the chilly air atop the mountain. I had even begun to wonder if my paranoia over using clothing to make Rick’s sling had been foolishly placed. The more I thought about it though, the more it bothered me. It seemed like we’d stepped into a storybook and after everything we’d seen something seemed off.
After a short while, we found a stream; a slow trickling brook that appeared out of the mountains and joined the slowly downward sloping of the valley’s floor. The water was clear and I could only guess that this was melted snow or some other form of runoff from the mountains that framed this valley on either side. However, when I looked up, I could see only the jagged and bare peaks that stretched as far as the horizon in either direction.
I knew that normally there would be snow caps atop each peak. Since we had landed though, there had been no sign of snow. In fact, other than the occasional cool breeze, it had been unseasonably warm. Therefore, I wondered, where had the stream had come from? It was strange, especially as I noticed that as we walked further on, the stream never grew larger, but it had different trails leading down from the mountain every so often. For a stream with tributaries, there was no sign of increased size or speed that would make sense given the circumstances.
I pointed this out to my companions, but none of us could make heads or tails of it, and we soon returned to our relative silence as we walked. I could only assume that each of us was doing the same thing, practicing the same lines of thought as I was doing in mine. ‘Where are we going? What will we find? Would we be able to find a town? What about my family? Were they worried? How long before I could go home?’ These thoughts raced through my head, but I did not wish to linger on them longer than I could help it, and help it I could not. Especially when Rick intervened into my thoughts.
“You didn’t seem surprised when I said that I had kids, Dr. Tan. Not like Bobbi back there.” He gestured with his thumb behind him, where the pink-haired woman was taking up the rear of our little procession. She glared at him though no real malice reached her eyes, and she stuck out her tongue at him in response.
“No. I wasn’t surprised. You seemed about the right age.”
“Oh? I don’t think that we’re that different in age, you and me, so does that mean that you have a family back home?”
I glanced back at him, looking him directly in the eye with an incredulous expression. He had asked me one of the questions that I did not want to think about (not that I could help doing so). “Yeah, sort of. A fiancé.”
“Oh? How long until the wedding?” He smiled, the same intrigued and scandalized smile that each and every friend would make when they heard about just such an arrangement.
“We haven’t really set a date. It was more spontaneous than that. It was right before I left on this trip, actually.” I desperately hoped that this was enough, that not another question would be asked. It was foolish to hope such.
“Oh. Congrats, then.” He smiled, winking at me. “Mind sharing his name?”
“Actually, Richard, I do mind. We’re kind of in the middle of something here and I am actually trying very hard not to worry about what is happening at home. I’m sure that my entire family and all of my friends are in the middle of a panic right now. No doubt the news has had something to say about our plane not arriving and I feel terrible about that. The less I think about it, the easier it is for me to focus on the hope that we can find a town here soon. Okay?”
He shrunk back, surprised at the intensity of my words. I felt bad, terrible even, knowing that I had shocked him into silence like that. I had meant every word though. My worry hd been growing worse because I knew that others would be worried. We needed to find a town, and fast, for the sake of our sanity. Not to mention to alleviate the panic that must be settling in about a disappearing plane. A morbid amusement settled in as I imagined how the news stations were handling a plane that had not only disappeared, but was replaced with a similarly sized gigantic bird.