As I landed on the ground, the world took a sickening lurch, and I landed on my hands and knees. Shaking my head, trying to dispel the brief wooziness that accompanied a jump, I stared up at the sign. Aside from the scrub trees and brush, it was the only structure in sight – likely the only structure for miles.
The blowing dust, tasting of dryness and desperation, was already striking against my lips. I blinked my eyes, trying to keep my vision clear, and gazed up at the sign. The letters seemed to meld together, the characters twisting back and forth like serpents. Were those numbers in miles or kilometers? Either way, there was no chance that I could walk that far.
Taking advantage of the small square of shade offered by the sign, scant shelter against the blazing heat of the sun, I squatted down. I shrugged off the satchel slung over a shoulder, dropping it into the dust and scree. The zipper was already jammed, but I managed to get it open with a sharp tug.
I dug through the satchel’s contents. A dirty sweatshirt was tossed away into the dirt, as was an old and ratty pair of socks. I reached further into the bag, rooting around. I knew that it had to be in here. I had ended up here – it must have come with me.
Finally, my questing fingers closed on a small cylinder at the bottom of the bag. I pulled it out, not caring as its edges were caught by the other articles of clothing. My hand emerged from the satchel holding a small tube, the approximate length of a soda can but only half as thick. Three wires stuck out from the bottom of the cylinder, and several gold bands wrapped around its circumference. A small red button was set flush in the top. I was always surprised by its weight in my hand.
Rolling the device in my hands, I inspected it carefully for damage. It appeared intact; there were a couple slight scratches on its casing, but the button and the probes at the bottom seemed undamaged. With utmost gentleness, I laid it down in the dust and resumed rummaging through my pack.
The device’s catalyst must be in here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have activated, wouldn’t have brought me here. My hand once again sank to the bottom of the bag, questing. I felt another cylinder, and my hand registered wetness. That wasn’t good.
I hauled the cylinder out, but as I held up the water bottle to the light, the last few drops of precious water spilled out, dripping to leave dark circles on the gravel. “No,” I cried, trying in vain to tip the bottle so that the water wouldn’t spill away.
By the time I found the hole, the source of the leak, there were no more than a few drops left. I stared at the last of my water. Would it be enough? With shaking hands, I unscrewed the top of the bottle, holding its lip just above the three prongs on my device.
The last couple of droplets flowed down the side of the plastic with agonizing slowness. They fell onto the prongs as I watched, unblinking, my heart in my throat.
A drop of water hit the first prong, and a soft glow suffused the first gold ring encircling the device. A heartbeat later, another drop touched the other side prong, and another ring lit up. Only one more!
I tried to hold steady, but my trembling fingers slipped slightly. The bottle’s neck slid, and the last droplet of water fell to the ground. “No!” I cried once again, and I threw the empty piece of plastic aside. I jammed the prongs of my device into the ground, but the drop of life-giving liquid was already sinking beneath the soil.
I scrabbled at the rough dirt beneath the sign, feeling my desperation rising. I shoved aside piles of dust, chasing after that precious water that would mean the difference between salvation and failure. I could see the tiny, dark patch of soil, receding away from me.
One more scoop, and for a few brief seconds, it was visible. I jammed in the prongs of the device, praying fervently. And slowly, as if unsure, that third ring began to glow blue, joining its fellows.
I grabbed at the satchel and stood up. As my head and shoulders cleared the top of the sign, I felt the heat immediately soaking into my skin. I grinned triumphantly at the empty desert and slammed my finger down on the button.
I felt the device vibrate slightly in my hand. The desert around me shimmered, blurred, and I felt an invisible hook in my gut jerk upwards.
My triumphant grin spread across my face as the world dissolved around me. Briefly, I wished that I hadn’t stolen the device before they had installed a way to aim, to pick a location. But the device could take me anywhere. They’d never be able to catch me. I could always keep moving, always stay away, and they’d never find me.
A few seconds later, as the world once again began to resolve around me, I felt the familiar nausea rise. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that it was getting worse. We had tested the device and had never seen any ill effects. But no one had used it as much as I. I bent over and put my head between my knees for a moment, covering my eyes with my hands. After a deep breath, the queasiness was gone. I sat up and looked around.
Once again, I was in a desert. My heart sank. But I could see a man-made structure a couple dozen yards away. I squinted through the haze rising from the dust, trying to read the words on the sheet of metal.