Chapter 9:

True Bonds, Part 3


The three of them set off for their destination immediately. Kyle and Ella already had the destination logged into their systems, but for Caleb, who had no such abilities, they gave him a hand-drawn map local surveyors had previously made of the area. Caleb received a quick lesson in reading maps, and Kyle pointed out some of the nearby landmarks.

After a quick scan of the map, Caleb noted that their destination was about 50 miles from where they currently were. In a car, that sort of distance could have been covered in no time, but the remainers made it a rule to not use any of humanity's technology to get around. It was overuse of that technology that caused civilization's ruin in the first place, so there was an agreement that Computer would make sure the remainers avoid doing just that.

Because of that, a simple 50 mile trip became a trek that took multiple days to cover. Along the way, Caleb would have to take multiple rests to avoid exhaustion or heatstroke, as well as recover his energy by eating and drinking water. Thankfully, Caleb had spent the last few years training for this kind of survivalist life, so the first day showed him taking on the trek with little trouble, and the group was able to cover 20 miles of the journey easily.

The next two days were no different; Caleb diligently made the trek with no complaints while making sure to pay attention to his stamina and water levels. Kyle was particularly impressed. He was certain that Caleb would at least have a little trouble his first time around, but so far, Kyle hadn't needed to step in at all. His growth left Kyle with conflicted feelings; he was proud of Caleb's growth, but there was a hint of loneliness as well knowing that their separation would happen sooner rather than later.

The trio made it to their destination in the middle of the third day, with the sun still high up in the sky. Caleb thrust his hands up into the air victoriously once he caught sight of the designated zone marked on the map. “All right! We made it here in good time! Now we can get started right away!”

“Hold your horses,” Kyle said as he grabbed on to Caleb's shoulder. “You should rest for today. You skipped lunch just so you could get here faster, didn't you?”

“But it'd be a waste if we spent the whole day resting!”

“There's no rush,” Kyle sighed. “Computer isn't looking at how quickly you finish the job, but how well. Besides, look at this place. If you don't keep your stamina up, you'll have an accident.”

Kyle wasn't exaggerating. They had already heard about how treacherous this former flatland had become, but the image did not do the place justice. Jagged rocks jutted fiercely out of the ground, and giant fissures in the ground left hazardous and unstable areas all throughout. Even a strong breeze would cause the new rock formations to crumble and shift slightly.

“Damn that blue egghead,” Ella grumbled. “What's he doing sending Caleb to a place like this?”

“Well, his main job is to survey,” Kyle mused. “It's not like he doesn't have experience maneuvering across this kind of terrain either. Besides, we're here to take care of the more dangerous parts of the job, right?”

Ella sighed, but she didn't complain any further. Instead, the three of them immediately started making camp, building a makeshift shelter in a place safe from wind and sand. Caleb spent his time checking the area for a water source while also procuring food for the night. He'd had the food he'd taken from the relay tower, of course, but he wanted to make sure he had an emergency supply just in case things went wrong.

By the time he was done with that, night had fallen. Caleb started a fire, cooked up the rabbit he had hunted, and went to bed early. He wanted to wake up as early as possible so he could get started on his first job already. He didn't care that the job was dangerous. He had been working towards this for five years now, and he couldn't stop his excitement from taking over.

Morning soon broke, and Caleb was up only a few moments later. He quickly gathered his things and set out for the job site, with Kyle and Ella following close behind him.

“Don't rush things, understand?” Kyle warned Caleb as they walked. “If the job takes multiple days, then that's just how it's going to be. Better than you getting injured because you were in too much of a hurry.”

“I got it already,” Caleb groaned. “I won't rush things, I promise.”

The trio walked onto the jagged and collapsed ground in front of them, testing each step slowly as they did. To their relief, the ground was not as unstable as they thought it'd be, though the fissures and cracks made sure to remind them not to move carelessly. A sharp gust suddenly blew through, kicking up sand into the air.

“Looks like it's going to be windy today,” Kyle remarked as he glanced up at the sky. “Caleb, put on your goggles. Throwing on a mask to protect your nose and mouth wouldn't be a bad idea either.”

Caleb nodded and dug into his pack for some of the other supplies he had picked up while at the relay tower. Goggles and face masks weren't things that remainers needed, but Kyle predicted that it would be something Caleb would have to use at some point and requested Computer have some made for him.

Now protected from the sandy winds, Caleb began exploring the area around him in earnest. Kyle and Ella were also glancing around, but this was his job; if he wanted to prove that the job of being a remainer suited him, he had to show results.

Unfortunately for him, this shattered flatlands yielded no odd surprises or strange artifacts for him to discover, only jagged rock and crumbling sand as far as the eye could see. So far, the only thing Caleb could claim to have gained from this excursion was an intense workout in the sun.

Still, he remembered what Computer had said. It was undeniable that there used to be some kind of facility out here, though it had claimed to not know what its purpose was. So long as Caleb kept searching, he was certain that he could find something of note out here.

Despite his renewed resolve, Caleb ended his first day with nothing to show for it. It was certainly a little disheartening, but if he thought about it, he had only really covered about twenty to twenty-five percent of the area. The possibility that something was left uncovered in the areas he hadn't checked were quite high.

“Well, don't let it get you down,” Kyle said reassuringly as they walked back to the camp. “Searching places like these always takes time. You don't want to push yourself too hard and fall over or get heatstroke, so you should take your time, as I said before.”

Caleb nodded understandingly. “I guess I haven't seen you guys do remainer jobs all that much, so I don't really have a sense for how much time I'm supposed to spend here. What happens if I spend a week here without finding anything?”

“There's no need to put that much pressure on yourself. You're not going to be punished if you don't find anything.”

“Yeah, but I want to prove I can do the work. How can I do that without results?”

“You're quite the earnest kid, aren't you?” Kyle sighed. “Well, I hope your enthusiasm works out in your favor.”

The second and third days ended up not too different from the first. To keep track of where he'd already searched, Caleb used a pencil to sketch out a map on some loose paper, cataloging all of the areas he'd explored while marking danger zones and safe passageways. His map was crude, but he could read it, and that's all that mattered.

He looked over the map at the end of the third day. By this point, over half of the area had been thoroughly searched, but he still had nothing to show for it. It wasn't as if he had found nothing; in fact, he had found several objects that hinted to humans having built something here before, mostly rusted metal frames that were falling apart with a single touch. Still, it wasn't enough to make any solid conclusions about whether there really was an abandoned facility here.

“Still, isn't that good enough for your first time?” Ella asked as she started a fire for the tired young remainer-in-training. “I'm sure Computer doesn't expect you to make a big find on your first job.”

Caleb didn't disagree, but a sense of dissatisfaction brewed inside him when he thought about quitting here. It made him feel like he was giving up, and he didn't want to do that when he hadn't even come across any huge problems yet.

“Well, in any case, I at least want to search through the rest of this area before I call it quits,” Caleb declared. “I don't want to leave it unfinished just because I can.”

“Do whatever you like,” Ella replied. “We'll be with you for as long as it takes.”

Caleb smiled. Even if Kyle and Ella weren't actively helping him with this job, their presence still gave him some comfort and reassured him. He didn't want to rely on them too much, but he wanted to enjoy their company for as long as he could. It wouldn't be long before he'd be going off with his own partner, after all.

The fourth day started out fairly similar to the rest: Caleb studiously mapping out the area as he ventured out into the area he had yet to explore. As he did, he noted the area he had walked into was one of the more dangerous parts of the ravaged plains, with giant chasms splitting the ground and opening up into dark abyss. He made sure to watch his footing as he continued mapping out the area.

As he looked around, he realized that the area he had chosen to search today may have been one of his worst possible choices. The area was incredibly uneven, having been shaken up the most by the earthquake, and it was covered in loose rock and sand. Even with his goggles, he was having a hard time dealing with the harsh and sandy winds, which were blowing much stronger than usual today.

An unusually strong breeze sent Caleb slightly off balance, though he very quickly managed to catch himself before he went falling off the edge. As he quickly caught his breath, he looked down into the ravine below him. It was deep enough that he could not even see the bottom. He certainly did not want to be moving around recklessly here.

As he continued to stare down into the ravine, he noticed something he hadn't seen before while exploring the other parts of the wrecked flatlands. It was a hole in the opposing cliff, but instead of a crevice, it seemed to reveal a flat gray surface that looked suspiciously like a wall. It was relatively close to the surface, though it was still plenty far away from where Caleb was. Still, if that was supposed to be a wall connected to the rumored facility, then Caleb wouldn't have to go far to find it.

Caleb found a place to cross over to the opposite side and started walking around the area where the facility should have been. If there was anything here at all, then it would be right below him if his theory was correct. Caleb cautiously tested the ground by firmly slamming his foot down. That kicked up some dirt and sand, but the rock itself showed no sign of crumbling apart even with a second stomp.

Still, it didn't hurt to be cautious. Caleb turned to Kyle and called him over. “I'm thinking of digging around here. If I'm right, the facility should be too far below me. What do you think?”

“It's not a bad idea,” Kyle replied. “But I wouldn't suggest you do it by yourself. Ella and I can take care of this. Why don't you take a break while we do?”

“Is that all right?” Caleb asked. “Isn't the point of all this so I can prove my worth as a remainer?”

“Remember what I said? It's not like you'd always be doing stuff like this on your own. Besides, Ella and I haven't done anything so far. At least let us take care of the manual labor, yeah?”

Caleb reluctantly nodded. It was true that it was probably better for Kyle and Ella to take care of digging through the rock. They were many times stronger than him, and they could get through it a lot faster as well. With no reason to argue back, Caleb sat down in a shady area and ate a quick lunch while Kyle and Ella took out shovels and began digging into the rock.

After half an hour of resting in the shade, Caleb heard Kyle call him over. When he got there, he was surprised to see how much they had dug; a giant hole several meters in diameter stood before him. He looked down into the hole to see a grey steel floor, along with a giant hatch next to Kyle and Ella, who glanced down at it with stern expressions.

“Caleb, come over here,” Kyle called out as Caleb approached them. His usual carefree smile was gone, and his face showed a mixture of concern and consternation. “Come look at what we've found.”

Caleb looked down at the hatch the two of them found. It was rather small, though it was large enough for an adult person to get in easily. On the hatch was a strange symbol that Caleb had yet to see. Noting the confusion on Caleb's face, Kyle bent down and tapped lightly on the symbol with his finger.

“Make sure you never forget what this symbol means, Caleb. It's a warning that one of the most dangerous things to come out of human civilization is present: nuclear radiation.”

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