Rachit, Avi, and Carina rode silently for a long time. Bhoora had fallen back into a nap in the truck bed. The hover pods seemed to moan a little louder than usual as they sped eastward.
“Amoli asked about you,” Carina said.
“Really?” Avi replied.
“Well, she asked when we all were coming back, but I got the feeling she was really asking about you,” Carina said.
“Oh.” He looked out the window and didn’t pursue it. His sister’s interpersonal intuition wasn’t exactly legendary.
The vehicle ground by the tops of long stretches of oak groves which spotted the land between Sundar and Endale. They climbed into the hill country where the tree people made their homes high in the deciduous forests that stretched across the southern part of Tamesh.
Creeks stitched through the countryside, flowing downward out of the hock hills to the sun-bathed north. The landscape that they passed was like a million-mile garden stretching out in every direction. The breeze that drifted in the open windows was cool and carried the scent of the forest's vitality. The aromatic layers hinted at the untouched wood, which had been there countless eons. Birds gave the melody as the trees danced to their song, which was both ancient and new.
Mid-morning, Bhoora's incessant droning from the bed of the hover truck let the three know that he needed a break. They stopped for a half-hour to graze in the forest before climbing back to altitude and picking up some more distance.
Avi had not been to Endale in years. He could still remember the beautiful scene, an entire city perched high in the upper canopy of the evergreen forest. When he had visited last, the city's architecture was bustling with vines, branches, and all kinds of treetop life. It had been almost a decade since he'd visited as a boy, and he couldn't wait to see how it had changed.
“Looks like a storm up ahead,” Carina said, as they drove forward.
“Couldn’t be,” Rachit countered. “We won’t have storms until late spring.”
“Well, it’s something,” Carina called.
“Your eyes must be sharper than mine because I don't see anything,” Avi said.
With the windows down, they zoomed past the blurring tops of giant trees. Towering oaks, massive maples, and enormous elms stretched skyward, drinking in the delicious sunbeams. I’m doing it! He could hardly believe that the journey had begun. A week or two, and he’d be back home looking forward to his marriage arrangement with Amoli Patel.
“I think it might be some type of low-pressure system driving upper-level thunderheads,” Carina said, gesturing once more to a darkened shadow on the horizon.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” said Rachit. “But I don't like the look of it.” This time Avi could faintly make out a hint of something dark at the corners of the sky. A timid concern pushed its way into his mind. He pressed back, trying to ignore it, but with each second they flew, his worry increased.
“Could it possibly be that the rains will come early this year,” Avi said, trying not to let his mood sound overshadowed. His explanation bought another few moments of peace. He watched the countryside speeding by.
A voluminous roar erupted from the bed of the truck. All three turned to see Bhoora, leaning over the side of the vehicle, eyes trained on the forward horizon. He let out another roar and snarled wildly. Avi stuck his head out the window.
“Bhoora, what’s wrong, boy?” Avi said. Bhoora pawed at the side of the truck, leaving deep scratches in the rusted paint job. Bhoora’s massive weight stressed the hover pads on the starboard side of the truck, making it drag to the left. Carina made the corrections to straighten their path.
“Hey, don’t let him do that!” Carina shouted, as the metal of the hover truck crumpled under Bhoora’s powerful claws. Avi ignored Carina’s concern, watching Bhoora’s eyes instead. He had never seen him so worried before.
“He sees it too,” Rachit said.
“Sees what?” Avi asked, still looking back at the wild-eyed bear.
“That atmospheric anomaly,” Carina said, pointing forward. Avi turned to look through the front window of the hover truck. He couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. What had only been a faint haze on the horizon had materialized and was unmistakable now.
“Is it a building?” In the distance, a massive tan wall seemed to billow upward from the forest. It cast a shadow on the trees below.
“No, it couldn’t be a building,” Rachit responded. “It’s too big.” While the hover truck was still moving, Rachit climbed out the side window and crawled into the bed of the truck to get a better look. Bhoora groaned again as Rachit stood over the cab next to the giant bear. Rachit squinted his eyes at the shadowed column that pushed upward like a tower to the sky.
“You and me should have stayed home,” Rachit said to Bhoora, where the others could not hear. Bhoora groaned, but Rachit didn't speak bear.
“It looks kind of like clouds,” Rachit said, leaning over and tucking his head back in the window.
“It's the incorrect chromatic hue to be a cloud,” Carina argued. She was right. As they watched the wall of billowing brownish shadows, a feeling of deep foreboding grew in Avi's stomach. The wall moved ever upward, like a glacier of sand aimed at the sky.
“How far from Endale are we?” Avi asked as Rachit crawled back into the cab through the truck window.
“Straight ahead, less than five minutes,” Carina said. All three looked. The giant column of brown clouds stretched both directions as far as they could see. It surrounded the city of Endale. Carina reached for the controls and throttled the hover truck down. They leaned into the deceleration. A loud thump on the roof of the truck reminded them that Bhoora wasn’t used to riding in vehicles. He roared with the pain of another bump. Normally they would have laughed, but what met their eyes was far too sinister.
Carina took manual controls and guided the hover truck through the trees to the forest floor. She parked the vehicle a few dozen paces from the rising wall of brown. Once the truck was motionless, Avi glanced at his two companions. Carina met Avi's eyes. Rachit sat motionless, staring at the wall that rose from the forest floor before them.
“Rachit, do you know what this is?” Avi asked. Hiding his features, Rachit responded in a sharp tone.
“It’s a dust cloud,” he said.
“It couldn’t be,” Carina began. “The laws of physics—”
“It’s a dust cloud!” Rachit said. His word was final and irrefutable. Carina quieted as they waited for more explanation. “Something bad has happened.”
A sense of dark bewilderment washed over Avi as he turned back to the site ahead. They had never seen or even heard of a dust cloud of such massive proportions.
“How could a dust cloud be so—" Avi said but wasn't sure of the words. It seemed true, now that Rachit said it. The wall had an amber hue. It pushed skyward in a flow of grit.
“Dust clouds are carried on the wind,” Carina said, trying to puzzle it together. “Even with the most extreme conditioned variables in pressure differentials, Coriolis effect, and convective mixing a column of vertical wind shear would not have such demonstrative rigidity,” she said.
“Does she always talk like that?” Rachit said.
“What are you saying, Sis?” Avi asked.
“Something's not right,” Carina said.
“You think? What clued you in?” Uncle Rachit said. At his sarcasm, they all sat quietly for a few moments.
What Avi could not understand is why the so-called dust cloud was so well defined. It didn’t have the soft billowing edges that he would expect. It came to a certain point and then went no further. It was as if the flow of dust had met an invisible wall of glass and had nowhere to go but up. He tried again. “How could it be so straight?”
“Because it doesn't occur naturally,” Rachit said in a dark whisper. Avi thought he sensed aggression at the edge of his uncle's words. He brushed it away, thinking the anxiety of the moment had twisted his own perception.
“What does it mean?” Avi asked with a quaver in his voice.
“It means we should turn this truck around and go back to Sundar,” Rachit said. Avi was about to speak, but Carina beat him to it.
“We can go around it.”
"It stretches to both horizons,” Avi said. They both looked in opposite directions.
“Why would there be a dust cloud over Endale?” Carina asked.
“It could only mean one thing,” Rachit supplied. His words left too much unsaid.
“What?” Carina begged. Instead of answering, Rachit set his jaw and ground his teeth.
“You really think we should turn back?” Avi asked.
“No,” Carina said.
“Yes,” Rachit said.
“Sis, I really don’t think we can go around,” Avi said. His voice was gentle and noncommittal.
“Well, then—" Her words drifted off. “Could we go over?” she said more to herself than the others. She leaned her head out the window and looked at the sky. As she was looking, the truck lurched violently as if something heavy struck it. Avi jumped with the start. His air came in a violent gasp.
“What was that?” he said. With the words, his heart rose to the occasion with a rapid rhythm. He was on edge.
“Relax,” Rachit laughed. “It's just Meatloaf back there. He got out of the truck bed.” Avi looked back nervously. Rachit was right. Bhoora had leaped down from the bed and was sniffing around the perimeter of the truck.
“Don’t go near that thing, Bhoora,” Avi said through the window, pointing to the dust cloud. “Do you hear me?”
“What’s your reading?” Rachit asked.
“No, we can’t go over it,” Carina slapped the side of the truck as she explained, “She won’t do that kind of altitude. She’ll top out at about two hundred.”
“Which is why we should have brought my cruiser,” Uncle Rachit said.
“You didn’t want Bhoora in your cruiser, remember?” Carina said.
“No, I didn't want Bhoora on the trip,” he said, but then added an acidic, “remember?” It was an obvious line of mockery, something that would not stand with Carina. Avi was wilting as he listened to them. He knew he should say something to stop it, but their words were sharp, and he didn't want to get skewered.
“You can’t sit there and pretend that you’re better—”
“Pretend?” Rachit interrupted cooly. It was clear who was in control of himself and who was losing the contest. “I’m not pretending.” He smoothed back his hair with his hand. He smiled, showing his teeth. She prepared another volley.
“Guys,” Avi said, pleading. Neither were ready to relent, but they put a pause on their skirmish.
“What do we think? Do we turn back?” There was a kind of comfort in the words. In the broader arc of his life story, Avi wanted to be the type who traveled courageously, but at the present moment, with his heart beating like it was, he just wanted to be home. He wanted Amoli Patel as his wife, but maybe his father would arrange the marriage on account of Avi’s attempt to travel. At the moment, he wanted more than anything to go to the safety of his parent’s orchard.
All of this, he didn’t want to admit. So he hoped that Carina and Rachit would agree. If they did, he could keep some dignity by not casting a vote. He could pretend as if he wanted to go forward but got outvoted. He tried to remain calm as everything in him was screaming for the safety of his farm.
“Yes, we turn back,” Rachit said without hesitation. A long pause followed. They both looked at Carina. Her reluctance to answer told Avi all he needed to know.
“Well,” she said. “Yes, I think we should turn back, but not because of the truck. The truck is fine. It's just that we don't know the variables we're working under in this kind of atmospheric circumstance and—" she continued. But Avi didn't hear her words. A wave of relief washed over him. It was bittersweet. He thought of Amoli Patel, with her soft hair and rare smile. He would just have to find another way. He felt the lifting of the wild weight of his tremendous anxiety. In another second, the argument ramped up again.
“It absolutely is because of this truck,” Rachit said. “My cruiser can do five hundred without even breaking a sweat—”
“Sweating, now there’s something you’d know something about,” Carina shot back, nodding toward a growing pool of perspiration on his shirt.
“I'll have you know; I am an easy sweater. My mother was, and I've always—" On and on it went. Avi had had enough and was glad to turn homeward. The sooner they got on their way, the better. The only thing to do was get Bhoora back in the truck, so they could turn around.
“Bhoora, come on, Boy,” Avi called, slapping the side of the truck through the open window. No response. “Bhoora, we're going home. Let's go.” No response. “Bhoora?” He pulled at the latch from the outside, since the inner latch didn't work. As he exited the truck, the two continued to argue in the cab. Avi didn't notice. He paced all the way around the truck, looking for his furry friend. He glanced at the surrounding trees, but he didn't see the tawny beast among the trunks. Frantically now he called out for his friend. A greater fear washed over him.
“Oh, that just beats it all,” Rachit said. “The bear’s gone missing.” Rachit and Carina got out of the truck and called for the bear. There was no response.
“Are there any tracks?” Carina asked.
“Yes, tracks,” Avi said, coming to his senses. He searched the ground for signs of Bhoora’s direction.
“Here we go,” Carina said. Rachit and Avi crowded, kneeling. “They go that way.” She looked up and pointed directly at the dust cloud wall. They all stared for a long moment. Avi's thumping blood vessels pressed against his eardrums, rumbling. The thunderous sound echoed in his head.
“The lumbering rodent wandered into the dirt cloud. Now that is too much,” Rachit said.
“Hush,” Carina whispered. “He loves that bear.”
“Bhoora, what have you done?” Avi mouthed, but soundless. He stood and froze in place. He did nothing but watch. “What do we do?” he asked, but neither of them heard. He could be in trouble, or worse.
From the dust cloud, a wild howl erupted. A pitiful agony poured through the air; a pain-filled moaning.
“Oh, No!” Avi knew at once. “Oh, No. No. No!”
“Is that—” Rachit said.
“It’s—” Carina half answered.
There was no time to think. Only action. His muscles tensed. His feet sprang. In seconds he was moving. Running. Blasting. No thought other than Bhoora. He leaped stones. Dodged trees. He charged at the mountain of dust. Heart pounding. Breath gulping. At the storm shaped sand, he ran.
“No, Avi, don’t!” Carina shouted.
With no thought of the danger, he sped into the dust cloud and disappeared.