A loud whinny jarred Meagan from her dream of walking through a cool forest of towering pines. Instantly alert, she sat up and looked around. The sun had yet to clear the horizon and only a faint wash of gray on the distant hills heralded the dawn. The cool forest of her dream had vanished. She opened her canteen and poured water down her parched throat. Dust grated on her teeth and sweat stung her eyes. She dampened her bandana and wiped her face off. Even so early in the day, the heat was stifling.
In the penumbra, a herd of horses milled restlessly in front of what looked like a narrow curtain of pale mist hanging from the sky. As Meagan watched, the curtain grew brighter and began to sparkle. The tethered mare whinnied again. She pulled against the rope and pawed the ground, her tail swishing angrily.
Meagan pulled on a pair of pants and fastened a worn pair of leather chaps around her legs. She rolled up her sleeping bag and stuffed it in a threadbare backpack. Her twin brother, on the other side of the campsite, was still sound asleep. She prodded him with her foot. "Come on, Carl."
"Why do horses always have to wake up so early?" The groan ended in a huge yawn. Carl sat up stiffly and climbed to his feet. He coughed and pulled his bandana up over his mouth as he rolled up his sleeping bag and packed. "I hope the herd is heading for some greener pastures, this dust is getting to me."
Meagan nodded in agreement. This planet had been as dried as an old bone. She untied the lead mare from her tether and then lassoed a sorrel filly. She bridled and saddled the horse, then swung into the saddle and adjusted the girth, all the while watching the herd. One by one, the horses moved through the curtain of mist, parting it with their narrow heads before slipping past and disappearing.
"Carl!" she shouted hoarsely as she caught sight of the stallion, bringing up the rear of the herd.
Carl whistled, and a gray horse with a white face trotted out of the herd and approached him, ears pricked, nostrils fluttering. "Hey, Boo," Carl said, and he scratched the horse's broad forehead.
"Hurry!" Meagan cried. Her filly snorted and tossed her head, eager to be off.
Carl grabbed his saddle from the ground and put it on the horse's back. He tightened the girth and swung into his saddle, checking to see that his saddlebags were in place and his hat securely fastened. "All set!" he said, wrapping his horse's mane tightly around his hands. "Let's go!" he yelled as he dug his heels into his mount's sleek sides. His horse snorted and broke into a gallop.
Meagan pulled her bandana tightly over her mouth and nose and closed her eyes. It did no good to try to see anything during the passages. Swirling winds carried sand and grit, and if you didn't keep your eyes shut you could go blind. Her parents had told her that often enough. She was nearly nineteen now, old enough to know almost everything about the passages – except nobody knew why wind and sand filled what should have been a vacuum.
She crouched low on her horse's back, gripping the saddle with all her strength as strong winds buffeted her from all directions. Despite her bandana, dust from the passage clogged her mouth and nose. Meagan held on, kicking the sorrel filly forward. It had almost finished. She cracked one eye open. The final barrier loomed just ahead, a madly swirling wall of mist and sand. Now! She gritted her teeth and hunched her shoulders, dreading the loud thunderclap that always accompanied this part. Her horse shot through as if she'd been ejected from a cannon, and they careened out to the other side where the rest of the herd waited.
They stood knee deep in blue-green grass beneath a pale lavender sky. Her mount shuddered once, very hard, then snorted a cloud of dust out of its nostrils and settled down to graze. Meagan heaved a sigh and patted her filly's glossy neck.
Carl arrived out of the mist wall at the same time the herd stallion did, and soon after they crossed it, the mist curtain evaporated. Where it had been, there was nothing but endless blue prairie with high red cliffs in the distance. Carl batted the dust off his hat. "Well, this looks like a nice place," he said, looking around. "Do you know where we are?"
"It looks like Tauii 3," said Meagan, checking the star-map on her watch.
"I wonder how long we'll be here." Carl didn't sound anxious, he was busy shaking sand out of the pockets of his coat.
Meagan sneezed loudly and sighed. "I hope there's a place to bathe."
Carl laughed. "There's so much dirt caked on me, I could probably grow seeds."
They rode for the better part of an hour, keeping close together but speaking little. Occasionally, Meagan would look at her brother. He rode easily, sitting deep in the saddle, his hands light on the reins. His hat was off and his seal-brown hair ruffled in the breeze. He kept it long as was the custom with the herders, tying it in a ponytail. Meagan's hair was long, dark, and straight, too. They both had pale, freckled skin and almond-shaped eyes that were so dark brown they looked almost black. When Carl was tired, his cheekbones pressed against his skin. Right now, they were both tired and thirsty.
"What are you thinking about?" Carl asked her.
Meagan shrugged. "Nothing." She didn't like conversation. Before, she used to chatter like a little jaybird. She could remember her father teasing her about it. But now there was a huge, tight knot in her throat that kept words locked in her head, out of reach.
Carl had no such problems. He talked enough for the both of them. "Back home, rain is pounding on the glass domes, water running down them so thick it's like being inside a waterfall." Carl cocked his eyebrow at her. "Just think how lucky we are to be outside, not cooped in some underground city for six months. It's a good thing the settlers found Home Planet. Can you imagine if they'd landed somewhere else?"
Meagan shuddered at the thought. The settlers had left Mother Earth eight centuries before, looking for seed planets to colonize. A storm had blown them off course, and they'd landed on Home Planet, where huge herds of horses seemed to appear and disappear like magic. But it wasn't magic. It was a sort of telekinetic energy the herds used to escape the electrical storms that swept Home Planet six months a year. The entire planet was inhospitable when the lightning storms raged, so the herds of horses left, voyaging through space to other planets.
The settlers hid in huge underground stations and built the bubble dome cities in order to survive the storms that battered Home Planet. Some pioneers learned to follow the herds, riding along with them, mapping their course with star-watches and searching for new planets. It wasn't easy being a herder, but Meagan and Carl had grown up following their parents. Their parents had been herders, and after they disappeared in a raid, Meagan and Carl had continued to herd, following their small band of horses across the galaxy.
Meagan sighed and dug her chin into her bandana. She missed her parents and her little sister terribly, but hated to dwell on it. It made the knot inside her throat grow huge and feel as if it would burst. Instead, she tried to catch sight of a likely campground.