A Rayn Mirago Novel #1
Sojourn: The Wildlands
by B.D. Messick
Rayn Mirago's seventeenth birthday is tomorrow, but there will be no party, no gifts, and no celebration. Like every other child in this world where humanity is on the brink of extinction and resources are at a premium, she must make her Sojourn across the former United States to prove her worth. The human race has nearly been wiped due to overpopulation, global warming, and our own ignorance and conceit. The coastal cities of the U.S. have been reclaimed by the ocean and the Midwest is now a vast desert wasteland known as the Deadlands. The remaining fifty thousand or so survivors in the old United States now live in one of five walled cities, called Enclaves where they eek out a meager existence.
Rayn's Sojourn begins when she steps through the gates of the Vegas Enclave and into the vast wilderness between the old city and Deadlands, an area known as the Wildlands. She will face many struggles and dangers that will challenge her, make her doubt herself, and force her to realize that she is stronger than she ever imagined.
But first, she must overcome the burden of leaving her old life, everything and everyone she has ever known and loved behind.
BUY THE BOOK
I can hear them.
They're close, maybe twenty yards.
I press myself up against the hard stone wall of the abandoned gas station, trying to decide on my next move.
I need some water, my throat is parched and my tongue feels like sandpaper in my mouth, but that'll have to wait. The sun is burning down on me with a vengeance as sweat trickles down my forehead and into my eyes. In the distance, I can see the tops of the few mega-hotels that are still struggling to remain upright.
These guys are making too much noise, talking too much and not taking this as seriously as they should. It's a matter of life and death and they're talking so loud I can hear them over the wind and the sand as it blows down the empty street. They're too confident, and that's my main advantage and I mean to exploit it. But the first thing I need is to get to a safer location. My heart is beating too fast, so I take a few seconds to slow my breathing using the techniques that my father taught me.
Close your eyes...inhale through your nose, out through your mouth.
I open my eyes again and begin to formulate a plan. Unfortunately, other than this little building behind me, there's very little cover within at least forty yards, maybe more. There's a half burned out strip center across the highway, but there's no way in hell that I'd make that before they shot me down. The rest of the road is completely empty, not even a derelict car in sight.
Then I see it. One of those old, silver metal trashcans sitting on the curb, maybe ten yards away. It's odd to see it there as if someone might ever come by and pick up the trash. It's far too small to hide behind, but it might make an excellent distraction. I scrape my fingers through the thick sand and dust on the ground it in front of me until I find a nice flat rock. I pick it up and test its weight in my palm, getting used to its heft and balance.
Holding the stone upright, I fling it towards the can. It flies through the air like a dart, cutting its way along instead of flip flopping end over end. It hits the container and luckily, it's empty. The can falls over and clatters on the street before beginning to roll down the empty avenue propelled by the never-ending wind that whips through this place.
“Hey! Down here,” I hear one of my pursuers yell.
Pressing myself up against the wall as flat as I can, I watch as the four of them rush by in the direction of the noise. For a moment, I think about turning and darting back the way they came, but I change my plan as I notice how clumsy and disorganized they are. I can't believe they didn't even turn to look in my direction as they passed my hiding place. As soon as the last of the group moves by, I jump to my feet and race after them. Before they even reach the trashcan, I pounce on the one in the rear, knocking him to the ground with a solid kick to the back of his knee. He lands hard on the sand covered street. The other three don't even turn and look in my direction.
Seriously? How the hell did they survive this long?
I jump over the prone body of my first victim and rush at the remaining three members. I slam into the first one, sending her into her companion, arms flailing wildly. They both stumble for a few feet, trying to regain their balance, but it's a pointless exercise. Just as they're hitting the ground in a tangled mess of arms and legs, their leader, who's a lot bigger than he looked from a distance spins to face me, but it's too little too late. I jump, pushing off with my right leg and extending my left towards his stomach. In a move that seems way too dexterous for someone of his size, he sidesteps to the left and I miss him by a few inches. I land and immediately tuck and roll before spinning around to face him again.
He's a lot bigger than I thought, at least six foot five and two hundred and fifty pounds. He looks at me and smiles, which unnerves me for a second. I'm half his size at best, and I just took down three of his companions, but that doesn't seem to faze him at all.
“Come on girl!” he sneers at me.
I rush at him again, and he bends at the waist, preparing for the impact. I feign a move to the right and he adjusts, but at the last moment, I turn left and kick out my leg, striking him in the right calf just below his knee. I almost lose my balance, since hitting him is like kicking a brick wall. By the time I regain my footing and turn, he's already starting to get up.
“You need to stay down, big boy!” I think as I run at him, preparing my next attack.
I hear the words, but they don't mean anything at that moment.
“Ms. Mirago!” comes my name even louder.
That stops me in my tracks just a few feet from my target. I blink my eyes a few times before running my hands through my hair, wiping the sweat off my brow.
“That'll do, for now,” Mr. Issac says as he steps out from inside one of the small storefronts in the abandoned strip center. He's a small man, thin and wiry, but I've seen him fight. You don't want to mess with him.
He looks at me with a scowl, but then I spot the secretive little wink and I feel better.
“Everybody head back to school, the test is over,” he says. “You too, Ms. Mirago.”
I watch as the other students get to their feet, brushing the dirt and dust off their clothes. A couple of them shoot me dirty looks, but I ignore them as I retie my ponytail and start the long walk back to campus.
This is the former city of Las Vegas, my Enclave, at least for the next two days.
* * * *
By the time I get back, everyone is in the cafeteria. I push through the double doors leading to the lunchroom and immediately, my best friend Luk looks up from his table and smiles at me. My heart starts beating a little faster at the sight of him. I sit down across from him and smile. I expect him to ask about the test, but he doesn't, which I'm actually grateful for.
All of the sudden he pokes me in the arm as we sit there waiting for our daily lunch rations. He’s sixteen although he looks more like he’s twenty. He’s taller than all the other boys and more handsome, with a square jaw, green eyes, and blonde hair that just won’t lay right but still looks perfect no matter what time of day it is. Even his clothes, including a pair of jeans with worn out knees and a light green polo shirt with frayed sleeves fit him better than they should. If my clothes were in that condition, they would look like rags on me. We’ve known each other since we were five. His birthday is in two months, mine is in two days. I will more than likely never see him again after tomorrow. Looking at him, I smile, trying to hide the sadness that lurks behind my eyes.
“What? Why are you poking me?” I ask, acting more annoyed than I really am.
I’ve never really been that into boys, it’s better not to get too involved with anyone; it just makes it harder to say goodbye, but there's something about Luk that makes my heart beat a little faster and my stomach flutter. When he smiles back at me everything around us seems to fade into the background.
“I just felt like it." He grins at me, but I can see the sadness behind his eyes.
He knows what my birthday means, and so does everyone else in school, which is why they've been avoiding me. I can’t really blame them. When I think about it, I probably did the same thing when some of the other kids I knew were turning seventeen. I’m just grateful that my birthday is before Luk’s, I don’t think I could handle letting him go. I don’t think I love him, but maybe if things were different, something might blossom between us, but there’s no point in thinking about that, the time for that had passed.
The server girl stops by the table and drops off our trays of food. She doesn’t even make eye contact with me. I notice immediately how much more food is on my tray than Luk’s and I know he does too. Just another reminder. He has two slices of bread, probably stale, some mashed potatoes, and some sort of green vegetable, but my tray is loaded with at least twice as much food including two green apples and a delicious looking piece of roast beef. I also have milk as opposed to the somewhat cloudy water in his glass.
“You're going to get a big ass,” he says, trying to break the tension with a joke.
I’d have to eat a lot more than this to “get a big ass” as Luk says. I’m too tall, too thin, and not nearly pretty enough for someone like Luk to be interested in me, but he never treats me like that. While his green eyes sparkle like emeralds, my pale blue ones are nothing special, but when he looks at me with my tepid brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that reaches just below my shoulders and the freckles that spot my cheeks, I feel beautiful.
“You mean as big as yours?” I say, laughing, my light blue eyes shining.
He turns and looks down at his butt before looking back at me and smiling.
“My ass isn’t big, it’s just right for someone my size.”
“Uh huh,” I say as I take a bite of the juicy and tender beef on my tray.
I savor everything about it. The taste. The way the juices mingle with the seasonings and even the scent of it as I bring it to my mouth. Meat is not something that we get very often; it’s far too scarce. Luk watches me eat it and then turns back to his bland tray of mashed stuff and old bread, nibbling on the corner of a slice.
“Do you want some?” I ask.
He looks at me and smiles warmly. “You need it more than me,” he says, and once again, I see that tiny twinge of pain and sorrow in his expression before he looks back down at his food.
I don’t know why I do it, maybe because I know I’ll be gone in two days, but I reach over and touch his hand, just for a moment before pulling my fingers back. I feel a jolt course through me from the innocent contact and he jerks his head up. Our eyes meet for a second and we both smile.
“Take some, I can’t eat all this,” I whisper.
He raises his head a little and looks up at the white and blue cracked ceiling. I can see that his eyes are watery even as he smiles weakly at me before he slowly takes one of my apples.
“Thanks, Rayn,” he says quietly as he slips the apple into his pocket.
I smile at him and then turn my attention back to my lunch, the feeling of my hand on his still coursing through my body. We finish our meals in silence. I look up every now and then at the rest of the students in the room, but everyone is involved in their own conversations or more interested in their food than in me. The few kids who do happen to make eye contact quickly look away. Mercifully, the bell rings just a few seconds later and everyone begins filing out.
Luk gets up and looks at me before brushing a loose strand of hair away from his face. “Are you coming?”
“I don’t think so,” I answer with a small sigh.
His expression tells me everything; he's disappointed but he understands. He just nods and smiles weakly before he turns and follows the rest of the students out of the cafeteria. The school is pretty lax with students about classes the week before their seventeenth birthdays and I decide to take advantage. I sit for a few minutes in the empty cafeteria, the only sounds coming from the kitchen as the staff cleans up. Looking around at the faded paint, the cracked windowpanes, and the old tables with their mismatched chairs, I realize that I'll actually miss this place.
I force myself up from my seat and walk slowly to the double doors that lead out to the school grounds. As I push them open, I have to shield my eyes for a few seconds as the sun bursts into the room. They adjust quickly and I let the doors swing shut with a bang as I walk outside. The school is situated in the southwest corner of the city, not far from the imposing concrete and steel wall that surrounds and protects us. I can see the rusted and twisted barbed wire that tops the barrier. I stare at it for a moment, realizing that in less than two days I'll be on the other side of it with no chance of returning.
I walk over to a large oak tree; one of the few that still survives on the school grounds. It’s a little brown in patches and a few branches only sport a spattering of leaves, but it is still alive, refusing to give in. Sitting down, I lean against the trunk, pulling my legs underneath me. I can feel the rough bark through my shirt as I press myself back against the tree. All of the sudden, I'm startled by a voice from behind me. I jump up and almost instinctively assume a combat stance, even though violence within the city walls is virtually unheard of. It’s then that I see Mr. Wallace, the principal, standing on the other side of the tree.
“It’s okay, Ms. Mirago,” he says gently, his voice carries both authority and gentleness.
I relax, lowering my arms and sighing deeply. He looks me over and smiles.
“Well, it appears that your classes have at least been worth it,” he says leaning against the tree.
I nod and smile back. I’ve always liked Mr. Wallace. His hair is grey with a small amount of brown scattered about and his blue eyes are always full of sympathy and humor.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says in his calm way of speaking.
“It’s okay, I was just— I don’t know what I was doing actually.”
“Let’s sit down,” he says, gesturing with his hands.
We both settle in under the tree on opposite sides of the old oak with the rough brown trunk between us. He looks at me for a moment before he smiles again. There has always been something about him that makes me relax. I feel all the tension literally fall away, melting into the dusty brown soil.
“I understand your test went well today.”
I sigh and nod. “Yeah.”
“But you're still not convinced you're ready?”
“It was too easy. It was like they weren't even trying.”
“I know. Mr. Issac and I are trying to remedy that, but they're just sophomores. They have two more years before their trials.”
I nod again, but their lack of skill bothers me.
“They've got a lot of work to do if they're going to have any chance of making it.”
Mr. Wallace nods and then looks at me thoughtfully. “Are you prepared?”
I know what he means, but I really don’t want to talk about it. Two seconds later, however, I find myself answering him.
“I think so.”
“Well, you only can do so much. There's no way you can be totally ready for it”
I almost feel like he's purposely avoiding saying the name, as if it might make it come sooner. I pause for a moment and study his face. It is a gentle and kind face, but I feel like there's something hidden under the surface, some pain or loss that he cannot speak of.
“How was it for you?” I ask before I even know what I'm saying.
I've never even asked my parents that same question; it’s just something that people don’t ask each other, even though every person over seventeen has been through it. Whatever happens out there, they keep it to themselves. Mr. Wallace looks at me for a few seconds before he answers. I watch him closely but I don’t detect any change in his mood or expression.
He sighs. “I think it’s different for everyone, Rayn,” he says, calling me Rayn for the first time in my life. “Have you ever asked your parents about it?”
“No,” I answer quietly.
He looks at me with sympathy in his eyes and nods.
I’ve been through the classes. I know why we do it. It does seem to make sense on a practical level, but it certainly doesn’t on an emotional one. I know the facts from History Class:
The Earth was dying.
It had been for some time. A slow and agonizing death. War, global warming, and pollution had finally taken their toll. The major coastal cities of the United States had long ago been abandoned to the rising oceans. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, and Boston, among many others, became nothing more than flooded relics and reminders of humanity’s arrogance and ignorance.
Diseases became plagues, which became epidemics, which finally became pandemics, nearly wiping out the human race. The population that survived the turmoil moved into six walled cities that came to be called Enclaves, Dallas, Chicago, Las Vegas, Spokane, Atlanta and Denver. No one ventured outside the city walls for long. Pollution, combined with the introduction of genetically enhanced species from decades before resulted in mutations that now rule the Wildlands that surround our Enclave. Beyond the Wildlands lies the start of the Deadlands, a massive desert, which now covers the entire central United States from what used to be Colorado all the way to Ohio, north into Illinois and south to Mexico, all of which has basically been abandoned. The Enclaves of Chicago and Dallas still struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. When they were first established, the land around them was still fertile and hospitable, but now the dry, barren landscape of the Deadlands laps at their walls. Denver was abandoned more than fifty years ago when the sands of the desert overwhelmed the walls and forced the population to seek refuge within the other Enclaves; most never made it.
Transportation between the isolated Enclaves is non-existent. The oil ran out nearly a century ago and the natural gas and coal did not last much longer. Only the blazing sun and the ever-present wind now power the planet. There's no longer a central government within the former United States; that entity died almost half a century ago. Each Enclave governs itself and life within the cities is tough but better than outside the walls.
The survivors soon realized that with resources at a premium, only the strongest could be permitted to survive, so it was decided that when every child reached the age of seventeen, they had to complete a trial that came to be called the Sojourn. I know sojourn doesn't mean journey, but rather a brief stay of some kind, but it seemed to fit nonetheless. I guess they co-opted the word. Who was going to say anything? I doubt there was anyone at the Webster offices to complain.
The individual Enclaves also realized with isolation comes the unfortunate inability to introduce new blood into the population, so the Sojourns would also function as a sort of “genetic exchange” program wherein the weak would be weeded out from the strong and thus the genetic pool would be strengthened within each city.
Each individual had to leave the safety of their home, their family and everything they knew and complete the arduous journey to one of the other Enclaves, their destination chosen before they leave at a ceremony called the Lottery. If they survive the ordeal, they are given a home in their new city and a place in society.
I can feel tears beginning to fill my eyes as we sit there under the shade of the old tree.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I say, barely able to hold back my emotions.
For the last two weeks, I haven’t done anything but think about the Sojourn. I worry about my parents, and how I'll never see them again, never feel the warmth of a hug from my mother or the feel of my father’s beard on my face when he kisses my cheek. But most of all, I dread never seeing Luk again.
“You are stronger than you think, Rayn,” he says. “I’ve seen you in your classes and I know you can do anything you set your mind to.”
The classes he’s talking about are the ones we all take during our final year of school. They include firearms and archery training, survival skills, unarmed combat, and various other skills that might be useful outside the walls.
I look at him and nod slowly, trying to swallow my fear and tears before speaking again. I sigh deeply. “Why don’t I feel that way?”
“Well, sometimes it is hard for us to see our own strengths,” he replies with a warm smile.
I’m not sure if I believe him, but at least someone thinks I can survive what’s coming. A lot of my chances depend on which Enclave I end up choosing during the Lottery ceremony two days from now, but it’s not as if any of the options are good. The journey is difficult no matter where your destination lies. I want to ask him more, but I'm not sure if I should, or even if it’s fair to force him to remember something that's obviously so painful, but he can read my face.
“Did you want to ask me something else?”
I pause for a moment before answering. “Don’t you miss your family?” I blurt out.
Mr. Wallace looks at me with that tender and natural expression on his face; the one that makes it easy to ask him anything. “Of course,” he says. “But there was no choosing one over the other. It’s something that needs to be endured for the good of everyone.”
He pauses for a few seconds before continuing. “When I arrived here I was sure I would never be happy again, but then I met my wife, made new friends, and life goes on,” he says, giving me a warm little smile.
I nod, but it really doesn’t make me feel much better. All I can think about is my family and Luk. I honestly don’t know why I can’t get him out of my head. Maybe I'm purposely trying to distance myself from him in preparation for my test, but if that’s the case, I'm doing a crappy job. Mr. Wallace and I sit for a while without speaking. I play with a few small stones I find laying in the dirt, flipping them back and forth while he simply sits quietly respecting my self-imposed silence.
The school bell rings and I'm jolted out of my daydream.
Mr. Wallace rises slowly, brushing bits of dirt off his black trousers before he looks at me. “Well, I'm afraid I need to get back to my office and I think you need to head home”
I nod at him and get to my feet. The rest of the kids are streaming out of the school through the main doors a few yards from where I'm sitting.
“Thank you, Mr. Wallace.”
“You are quite welcome, Rayn,” he says before he takes one step closer and leans in a little. “You’ll make it, I have faith in you,” he whispers.
With that, he turns slowly on his heel and strides back towards the building, waving at and speaking to a few of the students as they head home. I get to my feet and follow slowly after him, my head down, not wanting to have any contact with the other kids.
“Are you okay?” I hear Luk ask.
I look up and he’s walking towards me, a worried expression on his face. Every time I see him now I get a tiny stab of pain in my chest.
“I’m fine,” not being as honest as I should be.
I spot a few of the other students I know waving, but I look away quickly pretending that I don’t see them. They don’t make a second attempt. When Luk reaches me, I feel that familiar flutter in my stomach and I want nothing more than to run away with him and forget everything else.
“I figured you would come back in after a while,” he says, standing in front of me.
“I was going to, but Mr. Wallace found me and we were talking,” I say looking up into his eyes.
He nods and grins and I think he’s going to make some sort of smart remark like he always does, but this time, he doesn’t.
“Did it help?”
“A little, I guess,” I reply, although I’m not sure if I really believe what I’m saying.
“Do you need to get home right away?”
The flutter returns.
“No, I told my parents I might be home a little later today,” I answer.
“Good. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Okay,” a little nervousness in my voice.
“I have a place,” he says with a wicked little grin that makes me want to faint into his arms.
I’m shocked when he reaches out and takes my hand. For a moment, I think about pulling mine back, but the feeling of his large, firm hand enveloping my much smaller, thinner hand is too powerful. We dart around the back of the school and through a hole in the old chain link fence that surrounds the campus. I read an old book one time about Las Vegas in the early 2000s; it was full of light, noise, celebrations, and excess of all kinds. The Vegas we live in is a much, much different place. Gone are the casinos with their garish lights and throngs of people. Most of them collapsed long ago and lie in piles of twisted metal and broken concrete. The desert has reclaimed most of the outlying city and only the wall keeps the sand at bay.
Our school is in an old shopping center at the head of the former “Strip” as it used to be called. Luk and I cross in front of a few abandoned storefronts on our way to his “place”. I don’t really even care where we’re going, all I can think of is how I'm with Luk and that's all that matters. As we walk, I swear I can feel the beat of his heart through his hand. We pass by hundreds of rusting old cars abandoned on the streets and highways when the gasoline finally ran out. They sit on flattened tires waiting for nature to finally reclaim them.
“Where are we going?” I ask, even though I don’t really care.
“Give it a minute,” he says with a wink.
We start climbing up a small hill that probably covers the remains of some long collapsed building. When we reach the top, an old water tower lays toppled across the hill, the tank split open.
“This is it?” I ask.
Luk turns and looks at me and shakes his head.
“You know, you need to learn some patience. Good things come to those who wait.”
I mouth the words back at him trying to make fun, but he just laughs and I can’t help but smile.
“Wait here for a second,” he says before disappearing inside.
I stand outside the rusted old relic, kicking at the small stones and other debris that litter the ground. A few moments later, he steps back outside and takes my hand in his.
“Come on,” he says, smiling warmly at me.
Luk pulls me into the tank through a huge crack in the side. Once inside I'm surprised to see a blanket spread out on the floor with a plate and a couple of apples, a wedge of cheese, and two bottles of water on it. It’s not much, but I know he must have worked and traded for a few months to afford this.
“Tada!” Luk says with a flourish.
“What is this?”
“Just a little something special for you,” he says as we stand there still holding hands.
I feel my skin heat up and I know I’m blushing, but again, I don’t care.
“You didn’t need to do this.”
“I know, I wanted to,” he says as he pulls the apple I gave him earlier out of his pocket and sets it with the others. “You helped out too.”
Before I know what I'm doing, I pull him a little closer and hug him, wrapping my arms around him. He feels warm and solid against me and I relish the feeling as his arms close around me. We stand there, holding each other for a few moments then I feel him gradually starting to turn me.
“What are you doing?” I ask, trying to stifle a laugh.
“Well, there’s this too.”
When I look, I can see the entire Enclave laid out in front of us. We're high above the city, a steep mound of jumbled debris directly below us. The old Strip runs down the center of the city, but where the casinos were once king, there's now a collection of small farm plots running on both sides of the cracked and worn pavement. A few patched together wind-turbines turn lazily in the weak breeze, struggling to pump water to the surface for the small farm plots. I’ve seen it before of course, but it feels different this time and not just because I'm in Luk’s arms. I know deep down, this is one of the last times I'll ever see it. Luk gently releases his hold on me and pulls me over to his little picnic setup.
When I smile at him his face lights up and I feel happy. I almost forget about everything else.
“When did you plan this?” I ask as I sit down so I can look out at the city.
He joins me on the blanket, sitting right next to me. His hip brushes against mine and I feel a rush of heat flow through me. I swallow hard and smile at him.
“I’ve been working on it for the last few weeks,” he says with a grin.
I shake my head and smile back at him.
I turn and look into his eyes and for a moment, I am lost in them. He releases my hand and then he's touching my cheek, caressing my skin gently. I can feel the heat of his flesh and my eyes close as I lean against his hand. When my eyes open he smiles at me and then leans forward. His lips brush against mine; my heart beats faster, I see fireworks behind my eyelids and then I'm thrust back into the here and now. I jerk away and stare at him.
“What the hell was that?” I almost yell. I can feel anger rising in my chest.
He looks both hurt and shocked and his mouth moves, but no words come out.
“I just thought—” he starts to say before I interrupt him.
“You just thought what?” I yell as I stand up, backing away from him. “That you would take pity on me?”
“What?” he asks as he gets to his feet.
I can feel tears coming to my eyes and the last thing I want to do is cry in front of him, but I can’t help it.
“Why would you do this to me?” I scream, my voice echoing around the makeshift room.
“Do what? Be nice to you?” he says, starting to get angry himself.
“I’m so stupid,” I say between the tears.
“You’re not stupid, don’t ever say that!” he says, probably a little louder than he intended.
“Why would you even look at someone like me?” I yell as I stalk around the space, continuing to cry.
“Because I—” he starts to say, but I step up closer to him and put my finger in his face.
“Don’t even say it! Don’t you dare! How can you do this to me now? In two days I’m leaving forever, leaving everyone and everything I love and this is the time you pick to do something like this!” I yell, gesturing like a madwoman.
He just looks at me and says nothing, but I can see the hurt in his eyes and it just makes me feel worse. He starts to move towards me, but I step back, holding my hand up as I move to the exit. Tears are streaming down my face and I can hardly even think.
“Stay away from me!” I yell before I turn and run out and down the hill, stumbling as I go.
When I reach the bottom, I turn back for a moment and I can see him standing just outside the tank, silhouetted against the darkening sky. I want to run back up the hill; I want to throw myself into his arms and tell him how I really feel, but I can’t. Instead, I turn and run as fast as I can almost blind from the tears that I just can’t stop.