Tara has been gone for roughly ten seconds when the reality of what has just occurred sinks in. Usually, my delayed reaction to external stimuli while programming is cause for playful teasing. It is a frequent occurrence that I'll answer a question asked of me minutes, or even hours later, not registering that any time has passed at all. I feel awful. I should have been the one to go.
I am not a worrier, and yet, after a mere thirty minutes, my stomach is churning. Mostly, I feel bad for not paying more attention to the situation. Tara can take care of herself; I know everything is probably fine, but I don't like being separated out here, especially when we have no way of communicating.
I try to focus on my programming project – it is useless. What if our LRC breaks down? Tara and Freddie aren't particularly good with cars. They don't have many tools with them, either. Part of me knows full well that I am being overly dramatic, but my mind is too busy building a stream of nightmare scenarios to do anything about it.
Forty five minutes have passed when I ask our team how long it took Freddie to come back the first time. Gem says it was about an hour. More than anything, I want to go after them to find out what is up, but I resolve to wait fifteen more minutes. If they aren't back by then, I'll convince someone to take me to them.
In the meantime, I forcefully heave the onslaught of worries which are flooding my consciousness to the background. If Tara is out there because I was too busy working, I may as well accomplish something. Twenty minutes comes and goes – still no sign of them. Disengaged from programming, my brain immediately returns to its worried calculations.
Now, I'm doing math in my head, trying to figure out how long it would take Tara to get there and back, making up some constant for the time Freddie requires to negotiate with someone. The town was only fifteen kilometers away! I don't remember the roads being that bad. Soon, I realize this train of thought is pointless and unproductive, and go to the group again. Nobody seems concerned except for Gem.
She suggests that I talk to her boyfriend, Matt, to see if he'll take me in the Swift. He went last time, so he'll know where to go. I find him in the car, and explain my concerns, asking if he'd be willing to take me to the next village. Without hesitation, he agrees. We haven't had much time to get to know one another yet; I am deeply grateful for his generosity.
Matt and I talk about something while we drive, but I have absolutely no recollection of it. I am probably being a terrible conversationalist, wrapped up with worry. The car is shaking like a jackhammer. I am simultaneously shocked by how poorly the Swift handles the Mongolian terrain, and impressed that it has held together so well out here.
The ride really is awful! No wonder everyone thinks our car is so nice. I tell Matt that we've found the washboard effect almost completely disappears when we approach or exceed 60kph. He's never had the Swift up to that speed before. With a smile, he decides to give it a go. The tiny three cylinder engine is barely up to the task.
The Swift slowly creeps through the 40s, eventually inching its way past 50kph. As we work our way up to 60kph, drifting around corners, throwing up a cloud of dust, swerving around rocks and obstacles, we hit the magic minimum velocity required to beat the washboard. The ride smooths out! These high speeds come with plenty of other dangers to contend with, though.
The entire time we're driving, I keep thinking "We should pass them, we should pass them. They should be on their way back by now. What on earth is going on out there?" We've seen no sign of them by the time we reach the village. I am on high alert, scanning the area like a Terminator, calculating and evaluating every object in my line of vision.
When no crimson crosses my radar, my stomach drops like lead. Where in the hell is the LRC? Where is Tara? There is nothing in this town. If the LRC was here, we'd see it. Where are they!? As we coast to a halt, we're accosted by a group of smiling Mongolian villagers, coming to see what we're up to.
Matt starts in asking right away: "Red car? Red car?" Eventually he finds a man he recognizes, who points us further down the road. There must be some mistake. The guy is saying they are 25 kilometers away.
I am watching the odometer in the Swift, willing the numbers to rotate faster. I wait for the moment I'll see Tara and Freddie coming towards us in the LRC. The further we go, the guiltier I feel. I'm sure Tara must be upset with me by now. Eventually, it dawns on me that we have no tools with us either; they are all laying around the Jimny. For a moment, I feel like I am in the part of a campy horror film where the group is divided and slaughtered one by one.
After what feels like hours, we arrive in the next town. Again, I scour the village. I am a heat-seeking missile, locking on to anything red. Where are they, where are they, where are they!? Did they take a different road back? Did we somehow pass them and not see them? The sun is starting to set. This is not good.
People from the village show up, and we cause more confused commotion. Eventually, they point to a ger a little further afield. There are no driveways out here; we just drive across the steppe, right to it. As we approach, a wave of relief washes over me. There is the LRC. There is Tara. There's Freddie, standing next to a huge truck!