The frigid water of the ocean seeped into River's bones, dragging him down. He'd made a string of bad decisions, and now here he was, sinking.
It was his own fault. He should have changed the Skym battery yesterday. One minute it had been fluttering high above the water, then it had dropped several yards from shore, splashing like a stone. He'd instinctively plunged after it. Within minutes the Skym had floated out of reach, and a rogue wave crashed on top of him. He was in over his head, and had no idea which way was up.
He'd been overconfident. He was weak, tired, pretending the past few weeks of sparse diet and sleepless nights weren't affecting him. For the first time, he regretted the deal he'd made with Uncle Jim: stick it out on the show until the end, or at least six months, and Jim would give it a rest about the military academy and pay for a year of travel. This time next year, River expected to be backpacking the Appalachian Trail, taking as long as he liked. No cameras, no audience, no show. Just him, alone. It was a good deal. He knew a lot about wilderness survival.
He just hadn't bargained on electronic contraptions tumbling from the sky.
If only he hadn't left his camp across the bay. It was solid and dry, tons of fish. A blue plastic barrel had washed up on his beach after that earthquake three days ago, and he'd used it as a giant bobber, fixing trotlines to it and letting it drift in the currents where trout gathered.
His arms felt heavy, as if weighed down with lead, but he also had the odd sensation that gravity had become a spent force. The ocean had swallowed him up, and he thought perhaps he was drowning. Images of home flitted past his eyes: his parents laughing on their rambling front porch; hiking the trails behind the house with his best friend, Terrell; everyone grilling fresh-caught perch over a fire.
He swam and reached the floating Skym. Tendrils of seaweed grazed his body, and tiredness spread through his limbs. He felt no desire to spend the last of his energy making it back to shore. Maybe he could float for a while, bob along on the waves like the dead Skym.
If he could just rest for a bit, not worry about anything . . .
His mother, in front of a campfire, picking the tiny bones from a perch. She made a face. It wasn't her favorite fish.
Work it out, River.
It was like when she'd wake him in the morning to mow the lawn.
Leave me alone. I'm tired.
Get over it. Swim.
She was right. He probably shouldn't die like this. It would piss her off.
He summoned a last reserve of strength, grabbed the Skym, clipped it to his belt, then struck for shore in the distance.
How had he gotten so far out? He swam, arms aching, and when he finally touched ground, he couldn't take a single step. All that struggle in the water had been for nothing; it'd be just as easy to die here as in the ocean. He was wet and cold, had no fire or dry clothes. Too late to do anything about it now.
He dropped onto the sand, and his last thought was that the tide would pull him back out again and his bones would become coral.
When he opened his eyes, he found he wasn't dead, so there was that. The sun was too bright, and birds circled overhead. They dove in and out of his line of sight, swooping for fish. The sound of crashing water was distinct from the rushing noise in his head. So the ocean was on his right. The Skym was grounded to his left, green light gleaming and pointed directly at him.
His Skym was recovered and charged. He somehow was still alive. And he was, it seemed, naked. Which wouldn't have been a big deal, except for the Skym staring at him.
His next thought was that something was on fire, he
was on fire. Smoke cloaked his lungs, and he gasped himself upright. He shivered as a Mylar blanket slipped from his chest. A fire roared in a pit beside him. His jacket, shirt, pants, and socks hung from a nearby branch like a string of dead fish. His boots hung upside down on two stakes pointed toward the fire. It looked comical, as though someone had been buried in the dirt with their feet sticking up.
He shivered again and pulled the blanket around his shoulders, then looked for a clue to what had happened, who had built the fire, who had saved his life.
He hadn't anticipated what a pain the Skym would be. The producers said he'd get kicked off the show if he couldn't keep it going, so he'd had to do that, even if it meant taking risks he knew he shouldn't.
The lady producer had asked, "How comfortable are you with operating the Skym?"
He'd shrugged like it was no big deal, he could handle it.
He remembered the way her eyes had narrowed and she'd jotted a note in her clipboard.
She'd been right to doubt him. The Skym made everything harder in the wild. Lugging the batteries, making sure they stayed charged, the low-grade buzz as it followed him like a giant bug. And now he'd almost died rescuing the thing, and it was all on display for . . . how many people watching? Each one strapped into an overpriced visor, mouth hanging open in a trance? River couldn't remember the number he'd been told. It'd been in the millions.
Everything else he could deal with, even the lousy weather. That was the easy part of the whole thing: surviving.
It was the show, apparently, that was going to kill him.
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book 10 Things I Hate about Pinky by Sandhya Menon.