Curtis hacked away at the snake as the others explored. At his advice, they took the pistol from his bag and remained close together. At first, paranoia tightly bound them – so much that they were bumping into each other every time Ben paused. For fear that he’d accidentally discharge the pistol, Ben asked Jen and Pook to fall back a little, which they did, but only with great reluctance. Fright made great watchmen of the both of them as they progressed slowly past the outer dome wall.
Once outside the dome, the surrounding terrain was mostly flat save for tight clusters of cacti and distant hillocks. The nearest feature of note was what appeared to be a dry lake bed about a quarter of a mile away. Ben led the group towards it, not sure why, other than the hunch that it might contain something they could use.
The surrounding terrain bristled with small, shy reptiles ducking for cover. The group plodded noisily and clumsily across a landscape of mostly sand and succulents – making progress in tiny paranoid spurts of motion. Aside from a few strange looking plants, they could have been in pretty much any desert they’d ever seen.
Within an hour, they had finally reached the edge of the dry lake, though to be fair not one of them knew the exact time. They had relied on digital technology for such a thing, and not one of their devices seemed to work.
The lake had a shape that immediately triggered something in Ben’s mind. He and Jen met eyes almost simultaneously and they said as one, “Bomb crater.”
Pookie looked extra hard at the features for several moments – her brow furrowed with concentration. She added a few seconds later, “Nuclear bomb… right?”
Ben shrugged and said, “Yeah, probably. But nothing we have to worry about. It hasn’t been a bomb crater for over a thousand years. I figure by now it’s as safe as it’ll ever be.”
He looked towards the central part of the crater and noticed something that seemed out of place – but he needed to get closer to really know.
“I’m going in, if anyone wants to follow.”
Sand had smoothed the slope of the crater, but it was still a little tricky going down. Squat cacti ringed the upper portion, and pointy grasses grew in clumps as they made their way closer to the bottom.
When they reached the lowest part of the crater, Ben called for a short break so he could catch his breath. His legs were covered in red welts and tiny scratches, and Jen insisted he sit still so she could look for signs of trouble. Ben hunched over so she could check him out.
About halfway through Jen’s examination, Ben bolted forward about a yard. He holstered the pistol in the pocket of his Tyvek “skirt” and leaned down - revealing more ass crack than Jen could bear.
He bent low to grasp something small, round, and pale green in color.
He held it to his nose for a few seconds and gave it a delicate squeeze and sniffed it again. He squeezed the orb firmly into his mouth and dropped its skin on the ground.
Ben’s face puckered a moment and he screeched, “Hoo ya!”
The others moved in closer to see what Ben was up to. As he noticed them, he smiled wolfishly and said, “Wild grapes! Sour as lemons, but sweet too.”
He spat a few seeds on the ground and said, “We should get more… who knows when we’ll get another shot at some fresh vitamin C.”
The grapevines grew amidst a tangle of low shrubs that spread haphazardly across the crater floor.
Ben and the others single-mindedly began filling their packs with bunches as he severed the stems with his plastic cutter. Unlike store bought grapes, these fruit were fastened by thick rigid stems and required a little extra effort to remove in a bundle. The progress was slowed as they dug deeper because the shrubs’ branches bristled with tiny sharp spikes.
Ben’s pack was close to capacity when a cloaked figure rushed towards them shouting incoherently.
“Thayssar na choors!” the yet-identified stranger screamed, pulling a crude weapon from a strap on his back. The figure brandished the long stick in an unwieldy fashion, taking various jabs towards the group with the blunt tip.
Ben tried to say something but was interrupted.
“Layve yir takkin en begwon.”
Pookie stood before the stranger and puffed her chest out – she broke into a heavily accented voice and pointed her finger to emphasize her words, “You be goin, ya little shit. Aint no signs round here. These’r ours.”
Pookie’s words and gestures seemed to work, because the robed person dropped their weapon, backed away nervously, and cowered low behind a nearby bush.
“Norneet furdat eyd denno yir barinkiin – takki tyeth en begwan azyiilyke”
Ben moved his hand from the pistol at his side and backed away slowly.
“That was amazing,” he said towards Pookie, but still not letting his eyes fall away from the stranger.
“Weren’t nothin’ big,” she said, dropping much of her exaggerated accent, “You just gotta let em know who’s boss.”
Jenna looked at Pookie and added, “It almost seemed like you understood him.”
“I did… and now he unnerstands me,” Pookie replied smugly.
Both Ben and Jen turned disbelieving glares toward her. The robed stranger fled in a plume of dust.
Reading their incredulous faces, Pookie chuckled and said, “It aint magic or nothin’. I got a cousin from Brooklyn who moved to Jamaica who talks a much crazier accent.”
Her eyes softened and squinted sadly for a moment as she realized her mistake, “I had a cousin, I mean.”
Ben patted her on the back, “I say you’re amazing… all I heard was gibberish.”
“Gibberish? I didn’t even get that far…” Jenna chimed in, “It sounded like pitchy grunts to me.”