Episode 2 Scene 10
I rolled over. My head ached. I rolled over again, searching for the position of minimum pain. It wasn’t happening. I scanned the immediate surroundings for the bottles responsible for this epic hangover. There had to be at least two of them, and they had to be at least eighty proof. The throbbing in my skull surged higher. I lifted my head and took in the branches above. My eyeballs lagged about half a second behind the movement of my cranium. What the hell kind of hangover was this? At least the tree stayed in place, and it was the one I went to sleep under last night.
I levered myself up to a sitting position, lowered my head, and vomited up last night’s meal. Strange, I didn’t remember eating carrots. I staggered to my feet, shuffled a waltz of uncertain steps, and braced my shoulder against a tree. The horizon stopped swooping, and the headache backed off a touch. Then a man stepped forward.
“You all right, mate?” said the man.
I twitched. Where the hell had he come from? I took a look at him, a real close look. The accent was strange and his tan was ludicrous. Who the hell stands out in the sun long enough to turn that brown? And what the hell was he wearing? He had on a broad-brimmed hat with a solid, no-nonsense khaki uniform, complete with heavy cotton shorts. I say nothing. My speech center had yet to overcome the pain in my skull.
He walked across to my ride and took a closer look. “Not from around here, sport?”
I rolled myself off the tree and managed to stand under my own power. He continued to study my bike.
“Your first time, mate?” he asked.
What’s he talking about? I cleared my throat. It was a dry, hacking effort, but it worked.
“Any chance of a drink?” I croaked.
The man laughed and reached down to a pack at his feet. It looked to be fifty years old in design, but it also looked brand-new. He opened the pack and pulled out a dented aluminum water bottle, the type the military uses.
“Try this,” he offered, unscrewing the cap.
I took the bottle and sniffed the contents. It’s always best to check. The man laughed again.
“Not completely stupid, then,” he said. “Go ahead. It’s only water.”
I raised the bottle in the international bottoms-up salute. He stared at me blankly.
“Just drink it, sunshine. We’re not at a garden party.”
Fair point. This hangover was heroic, and I was acting like a wimp. I took a swig. It was blood warm, but it was water. I took another gulp. It was sweet, like real water, not the crap that comes out of a tap.
I looked around more carefully. My eyesight was gradually reasserting its primacy over my brain. The tree next to me was familiar, but the rest of the landscape wasn’t. The countryside wasn’t exactly barren, but the earth between the scraggly underbrush was a vivid red. We weren’t in any part of North America that I knew of. This was one hell of a hangover.
“Where am I?” I asked.
The man smiled again. “Maralinga, mate, but that’s only half the answer.”
“Only half the answer to what?”
“The real question, sunshine. The real question.”
I looked him over again. There was a casual alertness about him. I handed him the water bottle. He screwed the cap on and returned it to his pack. Military, I thought. Army most likely, but which one, and where did that accent come from? A lot of shit had happened since The Blink and paramilitary units had popped up everywhere, but none of them I knew of included heavy khaki shorts as part of their uniform.
“What question should I be asking?” I tried.
“Look at this.”
He stepped closer and extended his arm. He unclipped the protective leather covering of his watch. Its black face contrasted sharply with the white digits. Good for military personnel. Easy to read. I looked closer. It was too old-fashioned for my taste, but functional.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I shrugged. A picture of cool indifference. My cop training was back.
“A little old-school for me, dude. But thanks for sharing.”
“Dude. Dude. Dude.” He tried out the word, it seemed new to him and sounded weird with his accent.
“So,” he continues. “The watch. Old or new?”
“Old, obviously,” I started to say.
But it was gleaming new. Not a scratch on the watch crystal. It was something my grandfather would have worn. Oh, shit. My eyes widened, and I made an uncoordinated jerking motion with my head. I’d been cascaded. That was why I felt like such a piece of shit. Now I knew what the question should be.
“When are we?” I tried.
The man laughed again. He must’ve belonged to the happiest army in the world.
“I knew you’d get there eventually,” he smiled. “Dude.”