It got way hotter and steamier as we pushed along, but that was no big surprise since it was early May. After a while I heard my new companion start puffing away up ahead, and suddenly he staggered off through the shrubs and brambles lining the path and slumped down against a birch. His head went niddle-noddle wobbly on his neck, and I thought he was going to pass out on me. “Gotta stop. Need a drink, now,” he panted. Well, everyone knows when you’re that thirsty you should’ve already been drinking up. I asked him, “You ever get any survival training? Because if you did, you didn’t learn much.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Meaning you never keep running until you need water. You drink on the run, yeah?”
“Wasn’t thinking. And anyways, you seem like in a rush, and I’m not gonna slow down a guy with a gun at my back.”
He had a point there. “Next time before you start getting woozy like that, don’t wait. Drink, okay?”
He nodded, reached into his kit to pull out his canteen, and started to suck up water like a donkey with its nose in a bucket.
“Hey, hey, don’t drink it all,” I finally had to tell him. “You’ll make yourself sick, and besides, we’ve got a ways to go before we reach a spring.”
“How far away’s that?”
I pulled a map out. “We’re about here. The way I see it, we’ve mostly made up for lost time. We can even slow down some and still set up camp by sunset. See this mark here? That’s a clean spring down along ‘bout five klicks. We’ll stop there to fill up and then push on to where we can settle in. That sound about right, friend?”
“You don’t like that? Then tell me your name.”
“Name’s Dunc Two. My father was Dunc, too. He was Dunc One.”
I might have thought of that myself. “How’s ’bout I just call you Dunc, hey?”
“Okay by me. And you?” he asked.
“Travis, Cohort of Summer Aught Three.”
“Impressive. Travis, then. So you’ve got cohorts like us, right?”
I nodded and he asked, “How many’s in yours?”
“The four of us boys and three girls, and that’s all that’s left. Started with seven and four. Yours?”
“We’re three left. The other two took off, and one reason I’m out here is to find out if they’re still alive. We were friends.”
“What’s your other reason?”
“Like I said, I’m on my way to the power station.”
“Like you said, but you didn’t say why.”
“Got my reasons.”
“If you’re gonna run with me, I want to know.”
He stared into himself for a few seconds and then leaned a little toward me. “You know how nobody goes down near the Flies.” Well, shit, who didn’t know that? Everybody knew it was just plain stupid. He leaned in a little more. “Well, I want to see one. I’ve gotta find out what they look like and what they’re up to.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Up to then, I’d never talked with anyone who wanted to risk his life like that. As far as I knew, nobody had seen a Fly for years and years. Nobody knew if they were still on the planet much less hanging around any particular place like the power station. And nobody with any sense would want to go poking around south of the river to flush out a Fly. It was a dangerous area, and this Dunc was either a fool or a hell of a lot braver than I was.
“All you’re gonna find out is what it’s like to be a few seconds from croaking it. So, this is why you left Catfish? I mean besides finding your cohort.”
“Well, if I’m gonna be honest with ya, it’s really mostly about the Flies. The fellas from my cohort–I’m gonna guess they’re either dead by now or resettled. They were going to try to find jobs at one of the metal-working shops down around Hamtown, but there’s been no word of them in half a year. So, if our paths cross, well, that’ll be fine, but, like I said, it’s Flies I want to find.”
Sometimes cohorts stick hard together, but others, like Dunc’s, don’t, and I understood what he was saying about how it wasn’t all that important to him to find his old mates. But I didn’t like his idea of looking for trouble, and I said so. “I think this is where we’re gonna part ways, Dunc. Good luck t’ya, but I’m not planning on going anywhere near the power station.”
Dunc gave me the eye. “Hey, wait a minute now. You telling me you’ve never been even a little curious about the Flies?”
“Well, sure, but look here. There’s no Flies around. They’re probably all gone. Nobody’s seen ’em for a long time, and, I mean there’s always stories about Flies this and Flies that, but–”
Dunc broke in. “It’s different–what we’ve heard at Catfish lately, I mean. There’ve been solid reports.”
Now there are always stories about how this one saw a Fly or that one talked with a Fly. All rubbish–at least that’s what I thought before I learned otherwise later. I once believed that nearly everything you might hear about the Flies was probably made up. The few sure facts weren’t exciting enough for most, so of course the stories grew and grew. What did anyone know about them for sure? Not much. They’d first been spotted streaming out of a hole in the sky over some far-off Old Days place called Australia. After that, they flew all over like flies swarming a heap of dung, brushing away and destroying what defenses all the Old Days armies had to throw at them. Flying all over–that’s how they got the name Flies. Way back it was thought they were sampling or collecting or observing, or at least that’s the way it looked. But since they didn’t make any effort to talk with us humans, who knew what they were really up to. As for their appearance, their bodies I mean, there were only a handful of eyewitness in the weeks the Flies were on the planet in main force. They reported seeing nothing like the pattern of earth-born animals which we all take for granted. Nothing exactly like a face, a head, arms, legs…you get the picture. Or lack of one. Teacher said that the Flies had made more of an impression than a picture, and a pretty blurry one at that. When they were all through darting around, they pretty much vanished. One morning the world turned round under the sun, and there was hardly a trace of the Flies anywhere. Old stories say they’d built what looked to be strongholds in a handful of places scattered over the earth. Since no one had ever found a way into a stronghold, if that’s what they were, and because Meeks are deadly serious about keeping everyone away from them, going down there for a look-around seemed way beyond loony to me, and that’s just what I told Dunc.