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Dee paused at the bottom of the path, halting at the place where the land flattened out and the path widened into a road. The road wasn't paved, of course, but the dirt surface was so packed that it almost had the consistency of stone. She still saw tracks, however... the passage of boots and strange animals was still fresh, as were the parallel lines of the wagon wheels. The prints were all pointing back the way she had just come. No prints lead away, and there weren't any bare footprints. Dee remembered that the people in the wagon had been barefoot, so none of them had made it out. Or, if they had, they'd taken some other route. Dee wondered what happened to them, and was still wondering when Treach began scratching at the dirt to her right, near the center of the road.
Dee wasn't surprised to see that the dog had discovered something shiny, and was busily digging it out of the ground. It looked like a piece of metal, and when Dee got closer she saw that it was a rectangular... plate? Yes, that's exactly what it was: A metal plate about two feet on its longest side. The metal looked like bronze or...
...Gold? It couldn't be gold... could it?
No. It had to be brass. No one would half-bury a giant gold brick in the middle of a dirt road. But it looked like that's exactly what someone had done. There were symbols carved into the surface. Dee could see them clearly, but she had no idea what they meant... the clusters of concentric circles and swirls were alien to her. They were probably just decoration, but the groupings and spaces between them implied some deeper meaning.
"It's a sign," Dee said. "A sign I can't read. This sure as hell isn't English. Or anything else I've seen."
She scratched and tapped at the golden surface with her fingernail. It seemed solid. She tried to pry up one of the edges, but it wouldn't budge.
"Sorry, Treach. Looks like this one's staying here."
Treach sniffed the odd plate for a few more seconds, then trotted behind Dee as she walked. An hour of walking brought them to the first of the massive fields she'd seen before. Large stalks rose on either side of the road, cutting off their view of everything except the road and the plants that surrounded it. The road curved ahead, so there wasn't much to see in that direction. But she knew there was something. She'd seen something green... but she couldn't tell how far it was. Or what it was. But it was something other than what she was seeing now.
Which was... what?
At first Dee assumed they were corn stalks, but she didn't actually SEE any corn growing on the plants.
"What is this stuff?" she muttered. She quickened her pace and allowed her path to take her to one side of the road. Then she stopped and examined one of the stalks. The thing towered over her; it had to be at least seven feet tall. Long, thin, dry leaves jutted from a hearty central stalk. The leaves jutted out a few feet, then drooped downward to end in a single, wicked point. Nestled in the nook at the base of each leaf was a cluster of small pods; each cluster was about the size of her fist, and the pods were smaller than her fingernail. Everything... stalk, leaves, and pods... were a light brown color with just a hint of green. Dee picked one of the pods and crushed it between her fingers, releasing a moist, odorless pulp. She was tempted to taste it, but decided against it. She wasn't quite that desperate for food yet. But she was thirsty.
"Let's see what we have, Treach."
Dee unslung her backpack and sat it down. She reached in, intentionally avoiding the blanket-wrapped lump until she found the single bottle of water near the bottom, underneath the energy bars, first-aid kit, and the zip-lock bag of dry dog food. There was a canteen in there as well, but it was empty. Dee brought out the bottle and took a swig. She reached into another part of the bag and brought out a small plastic bowl. She put the bowl on the ground and poured some water into it for Treach.
The dog drank noisily.
"Drink up," said Dee. "If they've got water for plants, they've got water to drink, too. Might have to leave the road, though."
Dee squinted at spaces between the plants, looking for hints of either a path or some kind of irrigation system. She saw neither, so she retrieved the empty bowl and started walking again.
"Gotta be a farm around here. A house. Somebody has to tend this crap, whatever it is. They've got soldiers. They've got crops. There's civilization here somewhere."
Treach trotted ahead, sniffed at one of the strange plants, then pissed on it.
There was a loud cry, like a shriek from overhead. Dee jumped back and looked up in time to see a large black bird streak past them, flying low over the plants. Dee followed it with her eyes. The bird arced upward, then veered out over the field to join a cluster of similar birds circling a spot in the field.
"Looks like they've got crows, too," said Dee, even though she wasn't quite sure that what she'd seen was a crow. It had been too large, and the sound it had made wasn't crow-like at all.
Dee squinted at the dark shapes in the sky. There were about thirty of them, circling silently. It was hard to judge distance, but whatever the birds were so interested in didn't look too far away.
"That looks like a whole lot of none of my damn business. C'mon Treach."
Treach sniffed the air, sniffed again, and darted off... off the road and into the field of crops toward the spot where the dark birds circled.