Authors: Tom D Wright
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Post-Apocalyptic
In the decades following the precipitous decline of humankind on the planet, wildlife rebounded with almost explosive growth. A couple of apex predators that have thrived exceptionally well are wolves and cougars, but so has their natural prey. As long as we maintain a fire and do not overly attract them, we will give each other a wide berth, and they will pursue the prey they are accustomed to.
Danae stares at the garment for a moment. I do not blame her, but washing her shirt is not an option, and she did not bring a change of clothing.
When she turns her back to me and starts changing, I work on feeding the fire, but out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a tattoo. Then she tosses the soiled shirt into the flames, where it smolders before it bursts into a blazing pyre.
“So what’s with the tigers on your arms?” I ask.
She is silent at first as she takes up a stick to prod the fire. “I got them a month after my husband was lost at sea.” She pauses, as if debating with herself whether to elaborate, then continues. “My father gave me a children’s book about tigers, something from the Old Times. It said they are solitary animals that hunt and live in their own territory and take care of themselves. I liked that. A tigress only mates for breeding and then if the male won’t leave on his own, she drives him off. At least, that’s what it said.”
“Seems like a fitting symbol,” I respond, only half facetiously.
Danae snorts a laugh, then says, “We recognize our own kind. There’s plenty of tiger in you too. So tell me: this thing we came out here to get; you called it a generator. What’s so important about it?”
It is my turn to poke at the fire while I think of a reply. There is an answer, and there is a real answer. I decide to take her question at face value and give her the simple response.
“I can’t tell you much about the Archives, but I’ll share what I can. You’ve probably heard stories about the Demon Days, when Intellinet caused all computer-based tech to self-destruct, and civilization basically collapsed.” Danae nods, so I continue. “Well, Intellinet missed a few places that had older technology, and one of those places became the Archives. We have managed to keep it running, much of it for far longer than it was designed to last. But some very important things require an advanced infrastructure, which just no longer exists.
“When those things fail—and some of them already have—we don’t have any replacements, and won’t in our lifetime. Probably not for quite a few lifetimes. But if this generator works the way we think it does, it could buy us some important time. I’m not at liberty to tell you exactly how, just that it could.”
How would I explain lifting satellites to higher orbits or salvaging parts from the Lunar bases to someone who probably knows less about science than an Old Time kindergartener?
“So,” Danae says slowly, “this thing wasn’t just another curiosity for your collection. It actually is important.” She bows her head and then looks away. “I’m sorry, K’Marr. Really, I had no idea.”
Danae re-wraps her blanket around her shoulders and lies down, facing the night and her thoughts. For a while, I feed the snapping flames and build up a considerable bed of embers. Distant snarls and yelps from what sound like coyotes echo through the trees, up the hill from where I dragged the bodies.
Mother Earth is taking the Disciple and his companions back into her bosom. There might be something to their beliefs for all I know, but I do not plan to rejoin Mother Earth any time soon.
After making sure my crossbow is cocked and loaded with a bolt, I stack a pile of wood near my bedroll. The sound of the feeding frenzy reaches a crescendo; Danae glances fearfully into the darkness downhill.
Hauling my backpack over, I reach into one of the many tiny compartments I have sewn inside to organize my gear, and pull out one of my small indulgences. I picked up this little treasure on retrieval about fifteen years ago, and use it from time to time when I need a morale booster. Danae looks like she could use a boost, and I am certain she has never experienced something like this.
I am not sure why I am doing this. Maybe I still feel guilty, or I am just a sucker for kittens and crying women. I power the iPod on and unfold the earbuds. The means to modify the playlist is long gone, so I am stuck with the musical taste of someone who has probably been dead for at least thirty years. But it is not a bad collection, and I know exactly what to pull up.
When I crouch down next to Danae, I indicate silently that she should place the earbuds over her ears. With a puzzled look, she complies. She jumps as the auto-morphic earbuds detect her ear and mold into shape over her earlobes. That is another technology we will not see again for a long time.
When I press play, her eyes open wide and her mouth drops as she sits up. She listens to the symphonic sounds of the Moody Blues as they play “Nights in White Satin,” followed by “Late Lament.”
Her head drops into her hands as she quietly weeps. There is something intensely personal about the private world she is experiencing. Embarrassed, I look up at the stars while the playlist moves on to several classic songs from the Twenties.
Danae is immersed deep in her own little world, which leaves me free to get lost in my own.
When I am on retrieval, I cannot let myself get sentimental. My mind shifts into the time-tested coping mechanism used by warriors and doctors, who deal with survival under intense pressure. I lock my emotions away where they cannot interfere with staying alive, which is perhaps why I prefer staying in the field.
Now I make an unprecedented exception and crack that box open for a moment.
The brilliant red disc that is Mars hovers just above the horizon and I think about Sarah, closing my eyes and trying to picture her in my mind. The only image I have left of her after all these decades is my memory of her long, flowing blond hair, fine and soft as down. Her lips are thin but always dance with life, and she wears her emotions on her mouth the way most others wear them in their eyes. But the anger in her lavender eyes can pierce Kevlar armor. It did the night I left her.
After that I was trapped on Earth with no way to return home, so I should have moved on. Sarah surely believed that I had died, and had moved on herself, but for the first few years, I kept hoping to find a way home.
The years passed, but I never stopped holding out for Sarah, until it was safer to hold onto her memory than to surrender to the pain of accepting that what we had was gone. My most recent lover at the Archives told me that, the bitter winter night when she broke up with me, and she was more right than I care to admit.
A year later, she married Wally.
I cannot even remember the last time I let myself say my wife’s name. Now I whisper it, a forlorn declaration of longing floating upward toward that red dot in the sky.
“Sarah. Sarah. Sarah.”
The syllables are like a spell as they leave my lips. For years I felt a constant connection with her, but like my old photographs, that also has faded. Can she sense me softly speak her name, across the millions of miles? It feels like a foreign word as it comes off my tongue, but her name calls forth such a deep ache inside me that I want to curl into a ball.
Decades have passed since I let myself believe that I might hold Sarah in my arms again. I buried that option long ago. But in the cave behind me, a stone’s throw away, is a device smaller than my head which might change everything. It is still a long shot—one hell of a long shot in fact, because we have absolutely no idea yet how the damn thing works. But this is the real debt that I owe Doc.
That just maybe, someday, I will get home.
Morning does not so much break as gradually materialize around us. During the pre-dawn hours a wave of low clouds rolls in, enveloping us in a dense gray fog. A thin sheen of moisture clings to everything, and the thick air deadens the sound around us.
My breath hangs before me when I toss a few handy chunks of wood into the fire, which I fed throughout the night. I am naturally a light sleeper on retrievals, subconsciously alert and drifting in and out of sleep, but I always feel far safer beside a good fire in the wilderness than within any human habitation.
The genuinely dangerous animals are the two-legged kind, because they are the unpredictable ones. It is much better now than it was the first few years after the Crash. Nowhere was safe during the Demon Days, when roaming bands of starving humans wandered the countryside, preying on whatever they could kill and eat. Other humans made the easiest prey during those days.
I stretch carefully, because during the night Danae crawled over and slipped under my blanket. Neither of us offered, nor gave, anything more than human warmth. She sleeps with her back pressed against me, so when I arise she stirs and murmurs briefly while I tuck the blankets back around her. Then she turns over and settles back to sleeping. She looks so peaceful that I resist a foolish urge to brush the hair out of her face.
Taking my electric light, I head back into the cave and examine the ship for anything else I might want to recover. If something was important enough that Intellinet sent a ship for it, then it’s likely these spare parts in the small hold are valuable. I grab some of everything, like a sort of grab-and-dash jewelry store robbery and stash as much as I can in one of the extra packs.
Tracing the wires back from where I cut out the generator, the thin cables lead to several small devices that I cannot identify. They look like fins, and I do not see anything else that could be any sort of stabilizer or control, so I add those as well.
Professor Leasson can puzzle over them back at the Archives.
Danae is gone when I exit the cave, but she emerges from some bushes on the far side of the small clearing. She gives me a brief smile as she sits by the fire and cleans up.
“How did you sleep?” I ask as I retrieve a thin, twelve-inch handle from my pack, along with some leather shoelaces and a short rope.
“Better than I expected,” she says without looking up.
“Good. We have a long way to go, so I want to get started as soon as possible,” I say, as I unfold the titanium saw blade.
Without waiting for a response, I hunt around the edge of the clearing for several sturdy saplings that are just the right size. The fog is thinning by the time I have cleaned and trimmed them to length. Danae helps me lash them together with the laces and I add some crosspieces for the pack frame. Finally, I use the rope to attach a long strap to the frame so I can sling it over my shoulder.
A few minutes later, the goons’ packs, filled with the generator and parts, are tied onto the crude travois, along with my own pack and Doc’s. As I cinch the last knots in place, I tell Danae it is almost time for us to go. Pulling this thing will be a bit tricky until we get back down to the flat trail, but at least the return trip is nearly all downhill.
We sit by the dying fire and chew on a breakfast of jerky and some kind of fried biscuits that I picked up in Port Sadelow, made of flour, nuts, raisins and some assorted seeds. Not exactly bed and breakfast cuisine, but it will get us back to town.
Before we leave, I break up the fire and kick a thick layer of dirt over the remaining embers. I doubt I will ever return to this site but just in case, I cover the front of the cave with dead brush.
Then I step into the travois and pull the front crossbeam up to my waist, looping the strap over one shoulder to help support the dead weight. It does not feel too heavy right now, but I know that as the hours go by the apparent weight will increase exponentially, so Danae gets to carry my walking stick.
Some beams of light manage to push through the thinning fog as we trudge silently back along the path we came up the day before. When we pass the small ridge where Wally lies buried, I glimpse his cairn. I can be loyal, sometimes to a fault, but I try not to let myself get sentimental while on retrievals. Still, I do pause to catch my breath and adjust the travois before we continue.
The forest trail from the cave down to the road is narrow enough that we have to walk single file, and strenuous enough that neither of us wastes any breath talking unnecessarily. The sun has burnt off the last of the clouds by the time we get down to the public road, and although we are under a thick canopy of tree boughs, it is warm enough that I take off my duster.
We make much better time on the open byway; I figure we will reach Port Sadelow by mid-afternoon. The wide road allows us to walk side by side, and soon after we start down the dusty road, Danae breaks the silence.
“Do you have a ship waiting to pick you up when we get back to town?” she asks.
“Not exactly. Normally, I would use my sat phone about now to contact the Archives and arrange for a pickup. But when your buddies ambushed us yesterday, I lost my only means to directly communicate with them.”
“Like I said last night, I’m sorry,” she answers contritely. But she has no idea just how very sorry she is going to be. I decide to clue her in.
“That Disciple was right when he said they know where to find you. They won’t know what happened, but when he doesn’t come back, they won’t care. They’re like killer bees. When one gets taken out, a whole swarm descends on you with their own form of blind justice. You’re lucky if they kill you quickly.”
The grim look that forms on Danae’s face appears completely out of place, and she takes a deep breath. “I’m sure I’ll figure something out. With Papa gone I have no reason to stay in Port Sadelow. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, but I just couldn’t do it. There were so many things to memorize, and the facts leaked from my brain like water through a fishnet. Worse than that, whenever he had to sew someone up and asked me to help, half the time I passed out. The only way I could help was by not looking, and that drove him crazy. I can skin a rabbit without thinking about it, but stitch a wound? No way. Port Sadelow has no need for a useless nurse that can’t stand the sight of blood.”
“How did your father end up there?” I ask. “Not that it’s a bad town, I’ve seen a lot worse. But it’s definitely on the other side of remote.”
Danae smiles to herself as she replies, “My mother was from Port Sadelow, but she died when I was ten. Since the town still needed a doctor, Papa stayed on, but after Mother died her family never wanted anything to do with me. They said I was cursed or something. So when Sheldon was lost at sea, that just confirmed the rumors and convinced my relatives.”
Based on my experience over the past day, I might agree with her maternal relatives, if I were the superstitious sort. But I will not let a fisherman wife’s tale spook me, even if she is a widow.
“Just make sure you don’t waste time leaving town,” I warn her. “You probably have a few weeks before he’s missed. But as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow, the Disciples will come, so get out sooner rather than later. Do you know what you want to do?”
As she walks, Danae stares at the ground for a few minutes. I can see that she is thinking, and I just wait for her response.
When it comes, she speaks with a subdued voice. “When my mother died, it was like my childhood died with her. That took my past, and then when Sheldon died it was like my future died with him. So Papa was everything I had to live for, from day to day. Now that he is dead, I don’t even have the present to live for. So I don’t have an answer, except to say that I need to look for it. All I know is that it’s not in Port Sadelow.”
“Good luck with that,” I tell her. “I’ve been seeking that answer for quite a few years.”
Danae laughs quietly and smiles at me. “So what are you going to do from here?”
“I have a backup plan in case I lose contact, a series of rendezvous points. The first one will be a week from now, in another town.”
“Really? Where? Maybe we’re going the same way.”
“Like I’m going to tell you, of all people!” I cannot help it, the words pop out of my mouth before I think about them. Danae stops in her tracks and drops her pack on the trail. By the time I turn to face her, her arms are crossed and she regards me with a cold stare.
“I know what I did was a mistake,” she says with a quivering voice, fighting back emotion. “But I paid dearly for it with my father’s life, and will have to live with what happened to him until the day I die. That weight is everything I can bear right now, and I sure as hell don’t need you to add to it. So believe me when I tell you that I will never betray you or lie to you again. Or don’t. Really, I don’t give a damn. But if you can’t start trusting me then just leave me here. Now.”
For several moments I stand there, examining her hardened eyes glistening with unshed tears. I am tempted to turn and start walking. It would be so easy, and I have more than enough reason. Instead, the intense, naked honesty of her direct, unflinching gaze deflates my skepticism. I do believe her sincerity. Whatever else may happen, she is not going to stab me in the back again.
I cannot take back my words, much as I regret them now, but I can give an equally sincere apology. Dropping the travois, I walk over to her and hold out my hand. “Okay, I do believe you, so let’s make a new start. Shall we pledge to be friends?”
Her expression is impassive as she regards my face for several long seconds before making up her mind, then uncrosses her arms and says, “Alright, then, as of this moment whatever happened in the past is behind us. I swear that I’ll be a good and true friend.”
Tears finally emerge from her eyes when she takes my hand and shakes it. Then she gives me a long embrace followed by a kiss on the cheek, before reaching down for her pack. I pick up the sledge crossbar, and we resume our trek to town.
Now that we have made nice and she has agreed to leave town, I can leave her in Port Sadelow and walk away with a clean conscience, but a chivalrous part of me continues to nag. We have gone about ten steps when I say one word.
“I’m sorry, what’s that?” she asks.
“Entiak is where I’m going,” I tell her. “A small, unremarkable fishing boat will be there for a few days, looking to hire a crewmember. Particularly, someone who meets my description.” The rendezvous is not the only reason I am going to Entiak. I need to swing by there anyway, due to some unfinished personal business I have to take care of while I am in this region. But that side trip comes after getting the generator into Archives hands.
We walk along the trail under the leafy canopy for about a half-mile before she responds, “That’s where my father is from. He only took me there once, but his brother lives in Entiak, so I think I’ll go stay with my uncle for a while, until I get on my feet.”
Great, I knew that was coming. I still have not figured out how I will get myself there, let alone my newfound friend. “I’ll help you get as far as Entiak, but that’s it.”
The hike to Port Sadelow is uneventful and quiet, and the hours turn into miles. As we near the first farmsteads, several small caravans pass by, heading toward us. They move quickly and do not even slow down as they approach, let alone acknowledge us. I scramble to pull the travois off to the side in order to avoid being trampled. It is mid-afternoon when we reach the last hill leading down into the town.
Those caravans rushed by as if fleeing a fire, which rouses the paranoid survivalist in me. So my instincts tell me not to rush down blindly into the port town. I learned the hard way decades ago that it is better to be safe than dead.
At the top of the ridge overlooking Port Sadelow, I find an abandoned barn on the edge of the forest. Large blackberry brambles have grown up, mostly engulfing the outside. After ensuring no one is observing us, I clear a path and drag the travois inside the dark structure. The damp smell of rotting wood permeates the air, and thick stands of fern dominate the floor.
Half of the interior stalls have fallen over and the other half require little encouragement, but the walls of the barn itself seem sturdy enough that we are not in imminent danger of being buried alive.
Just inside, I stash my rig with the packs in the broken remains of the first standing stall, along with my walking stick. Outside the barn door is an old cistern which is seriously falling apart. What water it manages to hold is somewhat brackish, but it is regularly flushed with rain that runs through a drain from the roof. I definitely would not drink the liquid, but it is bearable enough to clean up and make ourselves presentable for town.
Checking again to make sure we are still alone, we step out onto the road and head down through the falling daylight into Port Sadelow.
From the top of the hill I can see the whole settlement laid out below. The port town is not large—I would guess it has a couple of thousand inhabitants. The main street runs about ten blocks, and several parallel side streets flank both sides of the main thoroughfare.
Danae leads us down the side street we used to exit town the previous day. The dirt road is lined with what I guess are fishing cottages, based on the handful of people in their yards who ignore us, focused on mending nets or smoking fish—except a couple of old women who eye me suspiciously.
When we come up to Danae’s street and start to turn the corner, I stop. Two figures wearing black capes and hats stand with their backs toward us, a few houses down. They are talking casually and pointing at the building in front of them, so I do not think they noticed us. Grasping her hand, I pull her back and we retrace our steps. It is a good thing we do not have our packs.
“Tell me they weren’t outside your house,” I say wistfully, hoping I am wrong.
“I will if you want me to, but the fact is that they were. Should we try the back way?”
I ponder whether there is even any reason to enter the house, but if we can check it out, I want to find out what they are up to. Waiting for darkness would be to our advantage, but the ground is unfamiliar and I do not want to use a light to broadcast our presence inside the house. I nod for her to lead the way.