Perched atop his camel, Nathaniel Fludd plodded through the desert sand. He did his best to ignore the merciless sun beating down on him.
Beastologist, he thought, trying out the title. I am a beastologist. One week ago, he’d been a castoff, unwanted by just about everybody. Now he was a beastologist-in-training. He imagined introducing himself. "Why yes, Nathaniel Fludd here. Pleased to meet you. What’s that? Oh, I’m a beastologist." The faces around him would look duly impressed.
Aunt Phil’s dry voice poked through his daydream. "This might be a good time to check your headings."
"The headings?" she reminded him. "You’re supposed to be navigating the way back to Wadi Rumba."
Nate looked down at the compass in his hand. The needle pointed to the north, but there was no town where it should be. He shook the compass, hoping maybe that would help.
"It’s not stuck, Nate," Aunt Phil said. "Think. What did I tell you about north?"
"That the compass needle always points there?" He tried to keep the frustration out of his voice.
"And what else?"
Nate sighed. He was tired and his brain felt as fried as a breakfast egg from the heat of the Arabian sun. He wasn’t interested in learning how to navigate right now. All he wanted was someplace cool to lie down. And water—an entire tub full of ice cold water.
But Aunt Phil was relentless. Once she had gotten it in her head that Nate was to learn how to use the compass, that had been it. He was in charge of getting them back to Wadi Rumba. The problem was, he was failing miserably. He scrunched up his brain, trying to remember everything she’d told him. "Oh!" He remembered something. "Are we still above the equator? Because maybe I got that backwards."
Before Aunt Phil could answer, Greasle poked her head out of his rucksack. "Why’re we stopped here?"
Aunt Phil glanced at the tiny gremlin. "Just orienting ourselves," she said.
"Well, hurry up already," Greasle said, but softly, so Aunt Phil wouldn’t hear.
Nate glanced back at the compass. The needle had moved a few degrees to the east. He frowned at Greasle. "Get back in the pack. You’re making the needle jump again."
"Sorry," she muttered. "I likes it better in the pack anyway."
Nate immediately felt guilty for snapping at her. She was his best friend, after all. His only friend, really. And it wasn’t her fault they were off course. At least, he didn’t think it was her fault. "Could Greasle’s effect on the compass have put us off course?" he asked.
Aunt Phil shook her head. She didn’t look hot or tired at all. "No—as long as the gremlin stays in the pack where she belongs, she has no effect on the compass. We’re off course because you didn’t allow for the difference between true north and magnetic north."
"Oh yeah." He’d completely forgotten about that part. Nate looked around. Nothing but miles of sand and scorching heat. His first test at a true Fludd skill and he’d failed. But maybe now Aunt Phil would take over. He looked at her hopefully.
She shook her head. "No, Nate. We learn best from our mistakes. I’m willing to bet you’ll never forget the magnetic north differential again. However, in the interest of time, I will tell you that you need to adjust by four degrees to the east."
Nate grit his teeth, then set the outside ring on the compass four degrees to the east. As he looked up to reorient himself, he saw a cloud of dust coming toward them. "Look," he said.
Aunt Phil lifted the binoculars from around her neck. "Riders," she said after a moment. "Looking for us, it seems."
"How can you tell that?" he asked. Her skills never ceased to amaze him.
She lowered the binoculars and smiled. "Because they’re waving. Come on. Let’s ride out to meet them. They weren’t scheduled to come looking for us for another two days."
"Then why are they here?"
"That’s what I want to find out," she said. "Something must have come up."
Nate’s heart sank at the cheerful oh good, an exciting new disaster tone in his aunt’s voice. It could mean only one thing: trouble.