It is the year 2048. Karen, orphaned at 14, leaves the only home she has ever known to make her way into a devastated world that may hold no place for her... By Risa Bear, with illustrations and cover design by Katrin Orav.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

33

Wolf was ready for spring.
       There had been little in the way of decent food and shelter through the winter months. He'd kept away from the towns on the principle that they had been the sort of places in which the Pilgrims had met people like him. Along the overgrown country roads were similar dangers. It had now been decades since the Undoing, but most travelers sought out such homes, barns and other structures as might contain some remnant of civilization's food web, and the more enterprising among them set up shop in such places to await the arrival of others and prey upon them.
       When the sparse snows had come, things had been simpler for him. Small animals could be tracked to their lairs and dug out. The habits of large carnivores could be read in tracks as well; Wolf, in his isolation, had become more adept in reading the signs, and begun to blend into this new world.
       Eventually he'd found a locked-up A-frame cabin with only one windowpane out, and noting there were no footprints in the vicinity of the doors or the window, had decided to risk a closer look. The window had divided lights with four large panes, one of which had been cleared of glass. The screen leaned against the wall nearby. Wolf had sniffed the dank air at the window, listened, and then, with great care, pried apart the remainder of the sash and climbed in.
       Here he'd found the usual: pine-paneled floors, walls and ceilings, rope rugs, a wood stove, prints of mountain scenes, Adirondack chairs, tables with "rustic" lamps. There seemed to be a theme: posters and statuettes of bears in anthropomorphic poses. Timeless, if a little cheesy. 
    A child had discovered the place, cleaned out the pantry over the course of a few weeks, and then gone upstairs to die in bed. Mice had made nests in the blankets all around the remains.
       Wolf had eaten a few blind, pink mouselets and moved on to inventory the place: a stove, refrigerator, cabinets full of chipped plates and bowls and such, drawers full of old-lady stuff, a trunkful of board games, knickknacks, travel books. The usual "vacation getaway" spot for the retired lower- middle class of days gone by. 
    A photo print in a frame had drawn his attention; it displayed a pre-teen boy, half smiling, half embarrassed, posing with a bent, gray-haired, and mildly stern elderly woman. "To G-Ma. Wally."
       Curious, Wolf had drawn the photo out from beneath the backing and turned it over; a date had been printed: 04-29. He'd carried it to the upstairs bunk and compared the structure of the skull reposing on the corruption-stained pillow with that of the child in the photo. Very likely this was Wally, gone to ground in the only safe-house he knew, twenty-two years or so ago.
       A padlocked shed, tucked away in undergrowth, had better rewarded Wolf's efforts. He had expected as much; such doors had resisted foragers of Wally's generation. A case of cans, labels rasped away by banana slugs and rusted but intact, had proved to be an energy-rich white variety of beans in red sauce. Other cans had held, among other things, the ubiquitous "pineapple juice," whatever that was. There were quite a lot of tools; perhaps this had been "G-Pa's" man-cave. In a corner stood a badly rusted .22 bolt-action rifle. On shelves he'd found some decrepit fishing tackle, some plastic toys, a small pair of binoculars, "made in China," and a toy bow, also of some sort of plastic, with a degraded string, along with several arrows with field points and red polyethylene fletching.
       Wolf had already suffered some deprivation due to his belated discovery that the AK, which had been such an asset when he'd had his small army, was a liability for a man alone. Yes, he could defend himself with it, and hunt, if need be, while his ammunition held out and remained reliable, but only at the risk of calling undue attention to his location. He'd now carried the AK for months without using it at all, and was concerned about its condition. So little oil of any kind these days! Yet he was loath to give it up. He'd fashioned a succession of knobbed throwing sticks and had become, by necessity, adept at waiting for small mammals to come within range. The bow represented a step up.
       Returning to the tackle box, Wolf had located a reel of fly line and stripped it to get the nylon backing, and had re-strung the bow. He also re-worked for himself a couple of wicked arrows using small frog gigs as the points; perhaps he could learn to use them during the spring fish runs. He had also taken a pair of needle-nosed pliers, the binoculars, some wire for snare-making, some safety pins, and some hooks and a roll of six-pound-test line that seemed not too brittle. Loading his backpack with as many of the cans as he could carry, and snatching a functional set of rain gear from a nail, he'd walked away over the melting snow into the gently falling rain, secure in the knowledge he could now reach Roseburg before summer.
         He'd stopped on the edge of the deeper woods and looked back, surprising himself with a salute for the long-departed Wally and his well-equipped grandparents.
       At night he'd unobtrusively buried himself in forest litter; nothing hungry had disturbed his sleep. Wolf had heard of a large hair-covered man-like creature that was supposed to have lived hereabouts in this fashion. With bitter humor he supposed he might be mistaken for it.

:::

A day came when the country Wolf traversed was more sparsely vegetated and less prone to incessant rain. Poison oak abounded, with many of last year's blushed leaves intact. There were numerous acorns beneath the twisted oaks, and he tried adding these to his diet along with the abundant small ground squirrels, but found the nuts bitter on the stomach. He managed to dispatch a small, very pregnant doe with the little bow, and camped out on its protein for days as the weather warmed. Over the next range of hills, Wolf knew, the houses, of which he'd seen few that were intact, would be more numerous, along with roads, strip malls, and the like, all wrecked, but familiar.
       These were his old stomping grounds, and he'd done much of the stomping.
       As soon as the venison turned sour, Wolf watered up at the nearby creek, which was running muddy but looked reasonably healthy, and climbed to the top of the range. Setting down his pack in a patch of manzanitas, he moved to the shade of a tall, isolated madrone, with young chinkapin trees all round its barkless feet, and settled down for a day's observation.
       Nothing was going on in the overgrown streets and back yards within his view. This was significant; the Umpqua river valley was narrow here; it had been a prime site for preying upon Pilgrim  groups. Perhaps the migration had finally petered out. Filled with overturned and burned out, or abandoned and stripped vehicles, the former urban spaces were still, except for the occasional movements of what were, he confirmed by the binoculars, mostly coyotes. These were working circuitous routes round a pride of lions that rested in the shade of several Ponderosa pines in a vacant lot. The lions, descended from those that had escaped a large private zoo nearby, were motionless except for a flicking of the ears at some spring-hatched flies. "Nothing to see here – move along." Wolf rested the glasses longest on the old KKUV building. If there were any radio broadcasting activity in this location, he could see no sign of it.
       So, where was everybody?
       He decided to relocate to the next hill west, across the old freeway. From there, he would be able to observe one of his former homes – the Douglas Patrol and Detention Facility.
       Returning to his backpack, Wolf saw movement, of something large and spotted, from the corner of his eye, and hesitated a moment. Familiar, but worrying. Too many big cats around here; they must still be living off the herds of several kinds of ungulates that had radiated out from Winston into these hills. He picked up the AK, popped the foam earplug from the end of the barrel, unwrapped the oiled cloth from the receiver, held open the bolt, put a thumb inside to reflect light off his thumbnail up the barrel, and looked in. Clean. His magazines, also wrapped in oiled cloth, were in the backpack. These he unwrapped, snapped a precious round out, and re-wrapped. He slipped the jacketed brass round into the chamber. One never knew. If the cat was tracking him, he might have to resort to a noisy means of defense.
       Walking quietly from stand to stand of madrone and oak, Wolf made his way down to, and across, the Highway of Death and the abandoned neighborhood of manufactured homes – half of them burned out – without incident. Plunging into the shade of the Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines on the other side, he came to a chain-link fence, swung himself easily over it, and began his ascent. He took his time and stayed hydrated; it was never a good idea to make much racket, and it was getting hot out for the time of year. He checked behind himself from time to time, sitting down in the brush and waiting, as if he were still-hunting, for any sign of movement. A few black-and-white birds puttered about on tree trunks, looking for bugs in the bark.
       It was nearly sunset when Wolf approached the peak of the ridge. Here he expected to find an outcrop of stone, through a crack in which he would worm himself into position to observe the old facility. But the outcrop didn't look right. Glassing it with the binoculars, he realized it had been built up cleverly, with native stone, into a lookout.
       Occupied, too. Not that he could see anything conclusive, but he got "that feeling" when looking in that direction.
       So. Now we're onto something.
       No telling what, though.
       What to do? There was no guarantee that they were the "Rogue Valley Volunteers" or associated with Magee in any way; and no guarantee that if they were, they would welcome his appearance. If he bypassed the lookout, they would be in his rear, and if he ran in into trouble ahead, could find this way blocked against his retreat. It was unlikely they had a signal system that worked at night, other than courier. If he supplanted them in the lookout, on the morrow he could examine the old prison site below at his leisure. Then, if it seemed appropriate to withdraw, who could know that it had been he that had been here?
        Besides, he was low on protein.
       Backing painstakingly away through the brush, Wolf settled down to a wait, comfortably out of sight, dressing himself warmly from the backpack with a black wool sweater and matching watch cap. He ate the last can of the "G-Ma" beans, drank water, blackened his face and hands with lampblack from a bean can under which he'd burnt a tallow candle weeks earlier, and sharpened his knife on a fine gritstone – slowly, so as to limit the noise of the blade rasping against the stone.
       Well past midnight, and also past quarter-moonset, Wolf sequestered his pack and rifle under a projecting ledge, deployed his war quiver and sheath – arrows on his left thigh, knife on his right – and approached the summit again, small bow in hand.
       Softly, softly.
       A late spring front had moved in, in the evening, and the tiny raindrops on the new foliage helped mask his movements. Wolf's nose told him that someone had recently urinated by the entrance to the grotto. Easing round the doorway, he was able to peer into the darkness ahead, and see that two men were sitting at a stone table. He could discern no weapons.
       Based on the size of the space, there would be two more, perhaps – sleeping. Watch on, watch off.
       One arrow, a sharpened field point, was already nocked to his string. Wolf drew, aimed for center mass on the first shadow, and released.
       Neither of the sitters moved. Something about the thump of the arrow – as of its having been fired into straw – was his first clue that something was wrong. Whoa, time to go! Wolf habitually nocked another arrow as he turned to flee the now-obvious trap.     
    Someone stood up in the darkness at the edge of the woods below.
       "Freeze! Stay where you are!" shouted a voice. Wolf released his second arrow into the shadow, which emitted a groan and fell over backwards. No bag of straw, that one! He nocked a third arrow as he ran.
       "Fire!" the same voice, a familiar one, shouted. As Wolf loped toward the relative safety of the dark line of Douglas fir trees, an ear-splitting report – shotgun! – went off nearby, and at the same moment something heavy struck him in the back, staggering him and causing him to drop the bow. Two shadows rose up before him, as if reaching for his arms, and he drew his knife, blade down and edge forward, and stepped in toward them both, sweeping for jugular veins from within their reach.
       There were screams – and then another explosion.
       Wolf saw a burst of light illuminating the trees with his silhouette, then, vaguely aware that he'd been struck on the back of the head, observed the dark and unforgiving stones rushing up to meet him.

:::

"My god, Wolf, what was that all about?" The familiar voice again.
       "Mmnh?" Wolf was having trouble getting his bearings. And he shouldn't be replying, in any case – should be feigning continued unconsciousness, gathering data on his surroundings – but the pain in his head kept him from thinking clearly. If he'd been shot at point-blank range from a shotgun, why was he thinking at all?
       Opening his eyes in darkness, Wolf flexed a bit and found that he was lying on his back, on stone or cement, with his hands tied uncomfortably beneath him – wire? – and his clothes were gone. All he was wearing was the narrow-gauge wiring on his wrists, and some kind of shackle on one ankle.
       Nice. Might as well converse.
       "Mullins?"
       "Well, yeah, that's me. Prisoner number three-one-eight-one-seven. And you're Wolf, three-three-four- –"
       "– -oh-four-seven. So that's old news. So what's going on here?"
       "I asked you first. We thought we were just catching an interloper. Wolf, ya got me in trouble, I'm down three good men."
       "Well, sorry about that. They come after me, I go after them."
       "But, Wolf, you come sneakin' like that, what are we gonna do? So ... what was that all about?"
       "I got info that Magee was callin' us in."
       "Uh, huh, and so you shoot your way into the listening post?"
       "Didn't know it was yours."
       "Did ya ask?"
       "Mullins, am I where I think I am?"
       "As in home sweet home? Yeah, the Hole itself, block A."
       "So, how come I'm alive?"
       "Mmh? Oh, okay, I can answer that too. Bean-bag gun." Pause. "So where ya been for two whole years?"
       "Eatin' my way up towards Port Land."
       Pause. "Got a reason why your little army ain't with you?"
       "Umm, sure. Things is a bit rougher out there than maybe I thought."
       "Well, tell ya what, Wolf, I take ya report, if it's good stuff, maybe I'm not in so much trouble for taking casualties."
       "I hear ya, Mullins, but some things, 'need to know basis.'"
       "Shit. Y'probably just killed us both." Longer pause.
       Ah, there are listeners. Figures.
       The thing to do, then, would be to be open about – some things. Up to a point.
       Mullins shifted around on the floor. From the sound of it, he was naked and shackled, himself. "Umm, 'kay, back to th' chit-chat. You crossed the freeway in daylight, right in front of us. What brought that on?"
       "Th' big cats. They look nocturnal."
       "Yeah, they are; that's why we encourage 'em." Pause. "Wolf, I gotta tell ya, I dunno if Magee's even wanta see ya. Y'come in here 'n try to off people, no questions asked, it's like y'want to be disloyal. Why no front door?"
       "Mullins. Lissen at y'self. I'm not even sure Magee's still around, an' am I gonna go up th' Hole road an' walk up to th' gate? What if th' effin' Yoo Ess Army was back? You remember what it was like bein' their prisoner here; and for all I know, y'are again, an' me with ya. I come over th' hill to scope out th' Hole, an' that outpost was in my way. I figgered to clean it out an' do my own effin' listenin'. By th' way, nice job on th' piss by th' doorway."
       "Huh! You taught me that one." Pause. "Wolf, gimme somethin' ta live on, here. Where's yer men?"
       "''K, well, I guess I'm goin' nowhere wi' not tellin' ya. We was doin' all right on our own, workin' our way up the north-running river, when we run into a buncha effin' Pilgrims 'at c'd defend 'emselves. Got boxed in and wiped. My own fault, too. Was in a spot where I couldn't get to my men an' found a hole in th' action and walked outta there. Been comin' this way ever since."
       "'Wolf the Lucky.' But, Pilgrims? That stayed put?"
       "Ahh, I dunno, like th' Eastsiders, dressed peculiar, organized, not runnin' north."
       "How c'd they do that? Build a fort, live off other Pilgrims? We're about out of Pilgrims, y'know."
       "Yeah, I noticed. Well, yeah, Mullins, I think they did do that in a way. Some folks, I'm thinkin' military deserters, sorta backed into a canyon, an' recruited heavy while they could. So, yeah, sorta fortified. Armed, too."
       "Wolf, that don't sound quite right; if there were enough of them in one place to take out your army, what the hell have they been eatin'?"
       Wolf rolled over as far as the leg iron would let him. He faced in the direction of Mullins' voice and rested the side of his still-aching head on the cold floor. "Well, I'll tell ya. Oats. Wheat. Potatoes. Beans. Mutton. Beef. Some stuff I've eaten, I never even heard of."
       "Dubya-tee-eff, Wolf, farmers?"
       "Farmers, Mullins. As Magee'd say: 'a land of milk and honey.'"