Saturday, October 10, 2015

Age of Pandora: Day Six, Part Two

I am participating in the Age of Pandora fitness program from These posts are a fictional representation of the workouts that I do each day. I list my actual workout in parentheses at relevant points.

Previously in this story...

(Or start from the beginning.)

Day Six, Part Two

While the cave wasn't far from the mines, the terrain was rocky and rugged; the sun had already passed its zenith and was on the way down when I finally found the cave. (50 jumping jacks) If the shadows hadn't been at the angles they were, I might've missed it altogether; the entrance was small and nearly overgrown with vines, and I had to crouch down to enter.

After a yard or so, the cave widened and the ceiling rose enough that I could stand upright, though just barely. Though some light did make it in from the outside, it was meager; searching around the junk littering the floor, I found the stub of a candle stuck to a flat, smooth stone. I used one of the precious matches from my pack, which I set on the ground, to light it and held it aloft, shielding the flickering flame with my hand from the breeze that wafted in from the entrance.

The fluttering orange light illuminated the dry walls, revealing a cacophony of mad charcoal scribbling all over the stone. Much of it was mathematical equations, using esoteric symbols and letters - whether the math involved was beyond my knowledge or whether it was just gibberish, I couldn't tell. Interspersed amongst the frantic algebra were words and phrases: EVOLVE, NEW WORLD, HARVEST. My heart sank. No answers here - only more questions.

I heard a scuffling step behind me and, startled, turned to find its source - only have stars explode before my eyes as I was cracked upside the head. Dazed, I dropped the candle, which extinguished and plunged the cave into shadow once more. Another heavy blow - with a club of some kind - sent me staggering, and I fell to my knees, my arms raised in feeble defense. My mysterious attacker pushed my chest to the cave floor and grabbed my wrists, tying them behind me with a stout rope.

"...The fuck...?" was all I could manage, my head still reeling. I craned my neck in an attempt to see who was my opponent; silhouetted as they were by the light from the entrance, I couldn't make out any distinguishing features, except that they were wearing a hooded cowl of some kind. Once my wrists were firmly bound, they pulled me up to a sitting position. Blood from a cut somewhere on my scalp dripped into my eye, and I futilely tried to blink it away. "My pack's over there," I said. "Take whatever you want."

"I am no common thief or looter," said my attacker, insulted. From the voice I surmised they were probably male, but I wasn't sure.

"Then what do you want?"

"You were looking for the sacred scripts, but you are not worthy. It is my duty to stop you."

"Sacred...? Are you a priest or something?"

"I serve the Creator. It is my duty to protect the knowledge here from unworthy eyes."

"Fucking -" I shook my head with frustration. Another thing Hella neglected to tell me! Or perhaps she didn't know about this mad monk. "So are you going to kill me then?"

"No, of course not." The priest sounded genuinely shocked at the suggestion. "We Dreamers merely observe, and endure. You will be tried by the Creator's hand. He will decide whether you are worthy of Awakening or damned to eternal dreaming." The priest retrieved a small wooden box tied to their belt and unbuckled the straps that kept it closed. Gingerly opening the lid, the priest tilted the box until a handful of scorpions, obsidian-colored and about as long as my middle finger, tumbled onto the dust of the floor.

"Hey wait - WAIT!" I shouted as the priest gave a strange little bow and scuttled out of the cave. I turned my attention to my new companions. The scorpions seemed disoriented by their recent journey, and wandered in small circles on the floor. However, as the seconds passed their movements became more purposeful, if not any slower. No doubt they were pissed at being dumped in a strange cave. I didn't want to give them the opportunity to take out their anger on me.

I scooted backwards until my back was pressed against the wall of the cave; using that for leverage, I managed to get my feet beneath me and stand upright. One of the scorpions wandered especially close, and I jumped to the side to stay out of range of its tail. My pack was still sitting near the opposite wall, half-shrouded in shadow. Staying on my tiptoes, I gingerly picked my way across the cave, performing a mincing dance as I avoided coming too close to the scorpions. When I got to my pack, I squatted down so I'd be able to grab it with my hands still tied behind my back. Then, still mincing and prancing around the arachnids, I hurried out of the cave and into the afternoon light. (4 sets of: 10 combos of 4 calf raises-4 split lunges-10 side leg raises-10 butt kickers)

There was no sign of the mad priest outside. I sat down, tucked up my legs, and managed to bring my arms to the front so I could undo the knot with my teeth. Once my hands were finally free, I wiped the half-clotted blood from my face and gingerly touched the cut on my scalp; the hair around it was matted and sticky with blood, and a large welt was starting to grow there. My mind was still fuzzy, although that was mostly cleared by the adrenaline of escaping the scorpions. I shook my head again. Was everyone here insane because the world went to shit, or did the world go to shit because everyone was fucking insane?

I'd have to solve this chicken-and-egg question later; I didn't want to hang around here for too long in case the mad monk came back. Shouldering my pack, I headed back west, in the direction of my camp. If I never met another human again, it would be too soon.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Age of Pandora: Day Five and Day Six, Part One

I am participating in the Age of Pandora fitness program from These posts are a fictional representation of the workouts that I do each day. I list my actual workout in parentheses at relevant points.

Previously in this story...

(Or start from the beginning.)

Day Five

It took a full day for the floodwaters to subside, so I started out early the next morning. I gave Ermis my other apple and two of my firestarters as payment for his care and hospitality. He deserved more, but he resisted accepting even that small of a token. Finally, after several minutes of my insisting, he relented.

The sand was still sodden as I hiked back down the spit of land and turned north to follow the shoreline. Seaweed, dead fish, and other flotsam littered the ground all the way to the edges of the forest. I hugged the tree line as I hiked north, keeping the open shore on one side and the forest on the other. I'd hoped that the way north would be easier here, but I was soon proven wrong; sudden cliffs, old landslides of tumbled boulders, and other obstacles lay in my path just as often as sandy beaches, if not more so. More than once I found myself turning inland for several hundred yards, hoping to find a way around a steep drop-off.

Early on in the day I spotted the rusted, pitted hulk of a shipwreck peeking out of the water. It kept drawing my eye as I hiked north. No one in the world, as the world currently was, could have built it. Obviously it came from before. Before what? I wondered. I knew, deep in my bones, that the world I grew up in - the world that existed before I woke up in that glass coffin - was not at all like what I found now. Something had happened while I was sleeping. And it had happened a long time ago, if Ermis had been a young man when he visited the ARC. A long, long time ago.

I saw no other signs of humanity for the rest of the day, and as darkness descended I found a shallow cave in which to make camp. After a bit of a struggle with the damp wood, I enkindled a cheerful little fire, which I hunkered beside to stave off the chill of night.

Day Six, Part One

I hadn't walked more than a few hours before I spotted a gaggle of ramshackle huts. A couple women sat outside, one expertly filleting a fish while the other repaired a hole in a net. They eyed me suspiciously as I approached. "...Is this the Resistance camp?" I asked.

The woman with the net shook her head. "Not quite. It's past yonder ridge." She pointed with the small wooden hook she'd been using to complete her work.

"You planning to join up with them?" the second woman said, shifting her grip on her fillet knife.

I paused, unsure what the correct answer was, or what the penalty would be if I got it wrong. "No. I'm looking for someone, and I thought maybe they could help me."

Snorting derisively, the woman with the net said, "Then you'd best be prepared to pay for their time and effort. The Resistance makes sure everyone pays them, sooner or later."

"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

The women returned their attention to their work as I continued on. The ridge took several switchbacks and detours to climb, but when I reached the top I spotted the telltale plumes of campfire smoke. (Did 66 jumping jacks.)

A sharp whistle rang out as I approached the camp - a tight cluster of tumbledown structures and tents surrounded by a wall of earth and timber - and a motley assortment of faces peered at me from beside campfires, from windows with teeth of broken glass, from stained tent flaps. As I descended the ridge towards the camp, I spotted a decaying suspension bridge spanning the length of the bay nearby. Several of its cables had snapped and were hanging down to the water, vines and bushes grew on its listing deck, and bird nests perched atop its towers. The narrow entrance in the outer wall of the camp stood open so, meeting no resistance, I strolled in.

They're just kids, I realized with a shock. These Resistance "fighters" looked to average only 14 or 15 years old; some looked like they'd barely made it through puberty. There was an adult here and there amongst them, but they were a definite minority. However, young and not-as-young, they all wore a crude symbol of a shield and a fist raised in defiance on their clothing. I scanned the group; some watched me with varying levels of veiled or blatant curiosity, while others pointedly ignored me. There was no clear commander or anything like that, so I walked up to a nearby teen with mousy hair and ruddy skin. "Could you point me to whoever's in charge around here?" I asked.

The youth maintained his meticulously unimpressed expression as he retorted, "I could. Do I have any reason to?"

I rolled my eyes; it seemed teenage attitude hadn't changed with the collapse of society. But I didn't have the time or the inclination to tussle with a smartass kid. "Forget it - I'll ask someone else." However, as I turned to leave, the kid snatched my upper arm in a surprisingly strong grip.

"Hold up a sec," he said, and I turned to meet his gaze. He was about my height and, flush with new testosterone, he was noticeably bulkier than me. Suddenly, I was less confident in my ability to control the situation. "We're fighting to keep you safe, you know. I think we deserve a little payment in return."

The heat of anger rose to my face, and I yanked my arm free. "You've been keeping me safe? Well, you've been doing a shit job of it so far. I'll pay you when you do something worth paying for," Some part of me knew that I was stupidly running my mouth off; the rest of me was too pissed to care. The kid puffed out his chest and squared up, and I followed suit even as I noted a number of other Resistance members circling closer, anticipating blood like sharks.

"What the fuck is going on here?" a sharp voice interrupted, cutting through the thick tension in the air. "Terry, the fuck're you doing? Are you picking fights with new recruits?" A slim woman about my age with short-cropped red hair and pale coral skin shouldered her way through the crowd, which parted for her as though she were three times larger. I had found the person in charge after all.

"I'm not here to join up," I said once I saw the kid - Terry, apparently - back down. "I'm looking for someone who used to be part of the Resistance. Old guy named Jotunn? Used to be a scout?"

The woman considered me with a canny expression. "What's your name?"


"Tell you what, Phoenix. You help me out, and I'll help you out. I was just putting together a rescue team to help some of my recruits who got stuck in a mine. You look capable enough. Help me get them out, and I'll tell you what you want to know."

It was my turn to don a thoughtful expression. The woman seemed straightforward and open; if she was intending to double-cross me, she was doing a good job of hiding it. And she did just save my ass, as much as I didn't want to admit it. "And whom would I be helping?" I asked.

"Name's Hella." She thrust out her hand. "Do we have a deal?"

After a moment's consideration, I shook Hella's outstretched hand. "Deal."

A grin dimpled Hella's cheeks. "Good." She briefly filled me in on the details: a group of recruits had been exploring the mine to determine its viability as a shelter and as a source of raw materials when there was a cave-in, trapping them inside. Once I was caught up with the situation, I was introduced to the other members of the rescue crew, armed with shovels and pickaxes, and we trekked to the abandoned mine in the nearby mountains. (Did 20 jumping jacks)

As we neared the mine, Hella gestured for everyone to take cover amongst the boulders and bushes. We crept closer to the entrance, Hella in the lead, until she held up her fist in a signal to stop. I peeked through the leaves to see what faced us. The entrance to the mine was partially collapsed, but still navigable - if not for the dozen giant rats, the size of cocker spaniels. "You didn't mention the rats," I hissed at Hella.

"Why would I? Of course there are rats," Hella retorted. She turned to face her crew and me. "Okay. You, you, and you - " she pointed at me and two other individuals, both teen girls with short, curly black hair and dark skin " - try to get the rats' attention and draw them off." The girls nodded and untied the slings that they'd secured around their waists. Hella turned to the rest of the group, saying, "The rest of us will move in once it's safer and help dig our comrades out. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," came the whispered reply.

The two girls with slings started creeping through the underbrush so they could attack the rats from a different angle; as I followed them, one of the diggers touched my arm to get my attention. "Do you want a sling?" he asked, gesturing to his own.

I shook my head. "I have no idea how to use one. I'd probably just hurt myself." The digger shrugged in reply, and I continued to follow the teens as they circled around the left side of the mine entrance and partially uphill. The entire time we moved into position, they picked up smooth stones and put them into their pockets for later use as ammunition; I decided to do the same. Even if I couldn't use a sling I still had a decent throwing arm. When we were far enough away from the rest of the group, we stopped and made eye contact with each other. The larger of the girls held up her hand and silently counted down. Three... two... one... go!

We stood and let the first volley fly. The girls, with fluid flicks of their wrists, shot stones from their slings with laser accuracy, smashing in the heads of two rats that were sniffing near the mine entrance. My less-deadly stone cracked the side of a third rat that hissed angrily but remained very much alive. The remaining rats scurried about in a moment of confusion, but quickly honed in on our location and stared us down. We loosed a second volley - not as successful this time, as the rats saw it coming and managed to dodge, mostly. Hackles raised, the rats decided we were worth the fight and charged towards us.

"Go go go go!" the larger teen ordered, and we retreated at a jog, continuing to hurl stones at the rats. But they were fast - faster than we expected - and it was easier for them with their four legs to navigate the uneven terrain than it was for us on our two legs. We dropped a few more of the rats, but a handful still remained, and they were determined in their pursuit. Soon it was all we could do to keep just out of reach of their large, snapping teeth. Realizing we would tire out before the rats did, I skidded to a halt and landed a kick square in the ribs of one of the rats, sending it flying. As the other rats took pause, I hefted a large branch and started swinging. The teens followed suit, and our makeshift clubs sent three more rats limping away. (Three sets of: ten repeats of 2 push-ups-10 overhead punches-2 jump squats-10 front kicks)

Rats are smart creatures; at this point they realized we were too much of a match for them, so the ones that still could retreated into the forest. Panting and sweating, the teens and I flashed triumphant grins at each other. We dropped our clubs and loped back to the mine entrance, where the rest of the crew was retrieving the last of the trapped kids. Hella looked up at our approach, "Hey, good job, y'all," she said with a bright smile.

"Would have appreciated the warning that I might get eaten by rats," I said, although by this point it almost was a joke. I was still high on the adrenaline of victory, so I found myself unable to be too upset.

"Well I dunno what else you expected," Hella said. "The mines around here are always crawling with rats. You gotta fight them off every time you come around."

I realized I didn't have an answer to that, so I just wiped the sweat from my forehead and checked the bandage on my arm.

As the Resistance members filed off down the trail, back towards the camp, Hella pulled me aside and asked me in a soft voice, "So what is it you wanna know about my dad?"

"Jotunn was your dad?"

Hella rolled her eyes with exasperation. "Yes, but I try not to bring that up too much around the crew. Now what did you want him for?"

"I wanted to ask him a few questions about a place he visited back when he was a scout. Do you know where he is?"

"Dead, probably." Hella's tone was cautiously flat. "I haven't heard from him in years."

I grimaced. "Oh. I'm sorry." When Hella didn't respond to my attempt at sympathy, I ventured on, "Did he ever tell you about his time as a scout? Maybe about a white building with a force field of - "

"Oh jeez, that." Hella pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. "Yeah, he wouldn't shut the fuck up about it. He was always full of stories - and he was always the hero. When I was a little girl I ate that shit up. It's why I joined the Resistance in the first place; that building, according to Dad, was proof that there was a chance at something better. A chance at beating the Harvest. So that's why we had to fight." She gave a long sigh and stared off at the receding backs of the other Resistance members, who by now had almost completely disappeared amongst the foliage. "It's easy to believe in stuff like that when you're young."

"Did your dad leave behind anything from when he visited that place?"

Hella scoffed. "No, don't you get it? He lied. It was all bullshit. It was bullshit he told me to make me feel better about the shit world that we live in. Bullshit that he told you, too, apparently."

"But what if he wasn't lying? What if he was telling the truth?" When Hella responded with nothing but a level stare, I pushed further. "Did he leave anything behind? Some papers, maybe?"

"Yeah... yeah, he had papers. He read them again and again and again - completely obsessed. He took them to a cave further up in the mountains. It was like his study or something. He kept talking about the end of the world, a curse - I thought he'd wind up joining the Dreamers. He didn't... but I'm not sure he was any better off." Hella shaded her eyes with one hand and scanned the distance, then pointed at a prominent outcropping the next peak over. "See that rock that looks kinda like a face? His cave is just past there."

I nodded. "Thanks." When I started walking in the direction she'd indicated, Hella reached out to stop me.

"Whoa, whoa - you're gonna go over there? Alone?"

"I've been all right alone so far."

Hella raised an eyebrow. "Clearly," she said, giving the bandages on my arm a pointed look. Still, she didn't try to stop me further.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Age of Pandora: Day Four

I am participating in the Age of Pandora fitness program from These posts are a fictional representation of the workouts that I do each day. I list my actual workout in parentheses at relevant points.

Previously in this story...

(Or start from the beginning.)

Day Four

Despite my protests, Ermis had insisted that I sleep in his bed and he sleep on the floor in my bedroll. When I awoke the next day, he had already put away my bedroll neatly beside my backpack. Sun streamed in through the windows, the storm having long since passed. My arm throbbed painfully, but not as badly as it had the night before. I sat up in bed, clutching the blanket close to me for warmth, and scanned the room for a sign of where Ermis had disappeared to. After a moment, I spotted him on the balcony outside, tending to a half-dozen stout fishing poles, the lines stretching over the side of the railing.

Pulling the blanket around my shoulders like a cloak, I joined Ermis outside. My shirt and sweater flapped in the breeze as they draped over the railing; they were still a bit damp to the touch, so I contented myself with just the blanket for a while longer. "How's the arm this morning?" Ermis asked me.

"Better. I think," I said, holding it out for him to examine. A trace amount of blood had seeped into the bandage; when he unwound them to check the sutures, I got a close look at them for the first time. Four jagged rows of black stitches - two on the top and two on the bottom - ran crosswise on my arm, with myriad smaller, shallower cuts surrounding them. A deep purple bruise bloomed across the area as well.

"No sign of infection yet," Ermis said with some satisfaction. "But keep an eye on it. And that arm is definitely out of commission for a good while." He patted me on the shoulder. "C'mon, let's get you inside and change the bandage - "

A loud buzzing caught our attention, and we turned to see one of the fishing rods rattling as it unspooled its line. "Oh, hell!" Ermis shouted, darting over to grab the pole before it disappeared over the edge of the balcony. He struggled mightily for a moment or two, the tip of the pole bending in a parabolic arc as the fish struggled to free itself.

I leaned over the railing just in time to spot a huge, muddy-gray carp break the surface of the floodwaters and begin its long journey up the lighthouse by the hook in its mouth. "You got it!" I shouted. "Here, I can - "

"Oh hell no, you're not touching that fish with your arm like that," Ermis grunted. "You'll undo all my hard work. C'mere, take this from me! I'll grab 'em."

Dropping the blanket I'd drawn about my shoulders, I braced the butt of the fishing pole against my leg and used my good arm to stabilize it. Every time the fish flailed, the rod jerked and shook in my hand, but I managed to hold tight and keep the reel from unspooling. (Three sets of: 15 sec side leg raise hold (per leg), 30 sec calf raise hold, 30 sec side splits hold. Then 5 min raised arm hold, 5 min speedbag punches)

Ermis reached over the railing - so far I feared he'd topple over the side - and snagged the line, hauling the carp up and dropping it on the balcony floor. The fish, easily as long as my entire arm, flicked droplets all over the area as it desperately tried to swim away in water that wasn't there, its large mouth gaping. Ermis grabbed a club that was leaning next to the door and slammed it down on the carp's head, stilling it for good. He looked over at me. "You doing okay?"

My arm had started bleeding slightly. Shivering from the wind hitting my bare torso, I put some gentle pressure on the wound and raised it above my head. "I'd really like that fresh bandage now, if you don't mind."

"Yep, yep, come along." Ermis hauled the fish away from the edge, the hook still embedded in its lips, and held the door open for me. "Sorry about that - if I leave them on the line for too long, they get torn apart by the others, especially once the floodwaters start to go down. You should probably apply the bandage yourself. I still have fish juice on me. The kit is over by the table."

I awkwardly wrapped fresh gauze over the wound as Ermis cleaned the fish, washed his hands as best he could, and retrieved the fallen blanket. By the time he was done, I was sitting with my legs dangling down the ladder opening, peering down at the soupy mess of water below. He tossed my shirt and sweater, which by now were dry, at my back to get my attention. "Pretty necklace you got there," he said.

Instinctively I reached for the dog tags hanging around my neck, but I said nothing in reply. Ermis knew where I was from, or at least had an inkling - that much was sure. But for some reason he didn't press the subject. Maybe he didn't want to know more. The desire for knowledge had driven his friend crazy, after all. I pulled on my shirt and sweater, leaving the dog tags hidden against my chest, and stood. "You said that the Resistance would know where Jotunn is? Where can I find them?" I asked as I examined the sleeve of my sweater. There was still a faint, dark stain on it, almost a shadow, and two ragged holes about an inch in diameter.

"Their camp is a long ways north from here, way up the coast. It'll take you a day or two to get there. And you're not going anywhere until the water recedes a bit." Sensing my frustration, Ermis finished smoothing the blanket out on his mattress and, reaching underneath the bed, pulled out a flat piece of wood and two small bags. "But hey, at least I finally have some company! I've been looking for an opponent. You play checkers?" He set the flat piece of wood, which had a grid of squares crudely carved onto its surface, on the table and opened the bags to reveal smooth stones - light in one bag, dark in the other.

I did know how to play checkers, I realized, but I had the inkling that I wasn't very good. My hunch was confirmed as Ermis proceeded to beat me four games in a row. He was kind enough to point out when I was making an exceptionally stupid move, but that small mercy wasn't enough to save me. Before I got too discouraged, Ermis suggested we try something else. "I don't suppose you've ever heard of Go?" he asked.

"I... have, actually," I said, my brow furrowed as I gently teased the knowledge out from the tangled mess of my brain. "You put the stones on the intersections like this, right?" I placed a dark stone on the board to demonstrate.

"Yep, that's it," Ermis said, placing a light stone on the board in response.

The board was much smaller than a proper Go board, so our games went quickly. I beat Ermis three games in a row; apparently I was much better at Go than at checkers.

"Damn it all!" Ermis said. He wasn't used to losing, I suppose. "How the hell can you remember how to play this so well but you can't remember your own damn name?" He stopped and looked up at me. "I'm sorry. That was unkind," he said, softly.

I shook my head. "I was wondering the same thing." We decided to take a break and cook up the fish we'd landed earlier, supplementing the meal with one of the apples I'd brought.

"You're not so odd, really," Ermis commented as we sat on the balcony and watched the sun begin to set behind the mountains. "Brains are mysterious things. Back in my Resistance days, I knew a kid who fell off a cliff while we were trying to string up a rope bridge. Cracked his head right open. We thought he wouldn't last the night, but he did. Pulled through, eventually, and went on to live for a few more years." He flicked a fishbone from his meal over the railing. "But the funny thing was, ever since, whenever he tried to say something, another thing would come out. His brain would think one word, but at some point the wires would get crossed and his mouth would say a completely different word. He could still understand what people said to him just fine, but damned if he didn't sound like a word salad to everyone else."

"How'd he eventually die?" I asked.

"Harvest," Ermis said. "An early wave of it. He got caught right outside of camp. Tried to call for help - tried to warn us - but we just couldn't understand what he was trying to tell us."

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Age of Pandora: Day Three

I am participating in the Age of Pandora fitness program from These posts are a fictional representation of the workouts that I do each day. I list my actual workout in parentheses at relevant points.

Previously in this story...

(Or start from the beginning.)

Day Three

It wasn't until late in the morning that I finally worked up the courage to ask Ricardo about the ARC. We were going through his stock of clothing, searching for a pair of pants to trade for the oversized pair I was currently wearing. "While I was on my way here," I said, struggling to button a pair of cargo pants that were slightly too small, "I saw this big, weird, white building off to the west. Do you have any idea what that is?" I gave up, stripped the pants off, and handed them back to Ricardo.

He offered me another pair to try on. "Hm. I think I know what you're talking about, but I've never been there. I never leave the Agora if I can help it - it's too dangerous out there. Though I suppose you already know all about that."

I scoffed, humorlessly. But at least this pair of pants, made of durable wool, actually fit. I handed Ricardo the pair I'd initially scavenged as payment.

"But you know," Ricardo mused as he folded the trousers neatly and set them amongst the small piles of clothes he had stored away, "I betcha Ermis would be able to tell you about it. He's been around the area, and he's pretty old so he's probably seen it all. He lives at the lighthouse, on the bay, or he did last I heard. It's a pretty good trek from here, though, so I dunno how interested you are."

I shrugged, attempting to retain an air of casualness. "Well, I'm probably going to scout around the area a bit - get my bearings, you know. Maybe I'll swing by there. What direction is it?" I pulled out my map, and we determined that the lighthouse was already marked on it. It was much further east, probably a full day's travel if I set out right away, perched on a finger of land that poked out into the large bay - it looked like a channel on the map, its terminus beyond the range of the paper.

Part of me was loath to leave this small haven of safety and community. The other part of me already itched and buzzed from the constant human presence, the inescapable smells and sounds of habitation. Maybe a day trip was in order; I could always come back. That thought, more than anything else, gave me comfort. I packed up my supplies, which were now augmented with another few days' worth of food, a package of firestarters made from lint and wax, a small aluminum pan, a basic first aid kit, and a lightweight tarp that would keep me dry if it rained - payment for the doe I'd bagged the night before. They'd also shared some fresh venison roast with me for breakfast. As I shouldered my backpack, Ricardo and I shook hands. "Good luck out there, Phoenix," he said.

"Thanks." I crouched down and scritched Rosa, who was lounging near the gate, behind her fuzzy ears. "And thank you for helping me yesterday, Rosa." The gate rattled open and I stepped outside, paused to consult the map and get my bearings, then headed off down the road, the other members of Agora Canis shouting their good-byes and good-lucks behind me. (Ran 1500 meters)

The weather stayed cool all day, with the sun partially obscured by gray clouds. A chilly wind, not strong but still with bite, tugged at my sweater and stripped rust-colored leaves from the trees. Wherever I was, it was far enough north to have a proper autumn. But would it get much colder? Hazy memories of a snow-covered landscape - much flatter than this place - floated to the surface of my mind. The sting of frozen cheeks, the swish of skis strapped to my feet, the flush of sudden warmth as I stepped indoors; these sensations whipped past me, one after another, devoid of any context that would help me decipher them, leaving me momentarily breathless.

Okay. So I've lived through cold and snowy winters before. I'd probably be able to handle whatever climate this place had. I hoped.

When I crested the last ridge and finally saw the lighthouse perched on the edge of the bay, the clouds had multiplied until they completely obscured the sun, and the wind had increased its ferocity. The water of the bay was slate-gray, with frothy white chop traveling across its surface. A storm was coming, and it didn't care who knew. A fat raindrop hit my shoulder, so I began to scurry downhill as fast as was safely manageable.

By the time I reached the bottom, thunder rolled across the sky and rain was falling in ragged, intermittent spurts. The storm would break in full force any minute. There was still a flat, sandy expanse between me and the lighthouse, about a hundred yards long. I stepped out from the relative shelter of the trees and began trudging across the sandy ground - then was tackled to the ground from behind.

Coughing and spitting out sand, I flailed against the weight that pinned me down. A loud growl rattled in my ear. Oh fuck. The straps of my backpack dug into my shoulders as the animal on top of me started tugging and shaking it; if I hadn't been wearing that pack, I'd be dead right now. Frantically I wiggled and twisted, and finally I was able to slip my arms out of the straps and crawl forward. Looking back, I kicked the animal in the face, causing it to yelp angrily and back off enough for me to scramble to my feet.

The animal most closely resembled a hairless wolf, except closer in size to a Great Dane. It looked unnaturally spindly and spiderlike with nothing but pale, wrinkled pink skin, like its legs were a bit too long for its body. It dropped my backpack in the sand and fixed its yellow eyes on me, its white teeth bared. There was no way I'd be able to outrun it, especially not over this terrain. I pulled my hunting knife out of its sheath and held it low at the ready.

With a snarl, the wolf-thing leaped at me, and I held up my free arm to defend my face while swinging the knife around to stab it in the flank. A burning pain shot through my forearm as it clamped down, but at the same time I felt the brief resistance as my blade pierced its hide and slid between its ribs. Both it and I yelled in pain as the force of its leap - it weighed about as much as I did, maybe more - knocked me to the ground. Stars exploded in my vision. Gasping for air, I tightened my grip on my knife and stabbed again, again, again, not caring where my blows landed. The handle grew slick with the wolf-thing's blood and with the rain, which now fell steadily. (20 repeats of: 5 squats-1 push-up-1 knife hand strike)

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity - although it was probably mere seconds - the wolf-thing released its grip on my arm and backed away, limping and bleeding. I struggled to stand while nursing one injured arm and holding a knife in my uninjured hand. The wind whipped sand and rain in my face as the wolf-thing and I eyed each other warily, both knowing the other was injured but not sure what move to make next. I risked tearing my gaze from my adversary for a moment to find my pack; it was just a few feet away, off to the left. I stepped to the side, the wolf-thing mirroring my movement, and slowly reached down with my free hand to grab it - then almost dropped it immediately. Shit. I was hurt bad; my grip was all messed up. I gritted my teeth and hoisted the backpack to my shoulder, keeping the bloody knife pointed at the wounded animal the entire time.

The wolf-thing panted heavily as it considered its options. Finally, with a angry sniff, it turned and limped away, back towards the shelter of the trees. I let out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding, waited until it had disappeared into the forest, and started limping across the stretch of sand towards the lighthouse. The door at the base of the lighthouse was open, and a short man with white curly hair and dark brown skin stood in the doorway, waving frantically at me. "Hurry, hurry!" he shouted. I could barely hear his voice before the wind tore it away. "Get inside!"

I increased my pace to a pained jog, blinking away the rain that now came down in thick torrents. As I neared the lighthouse, I began to splash through puddles, and I realized that the water in the bay was rising - and fast. I staggered through the door, which the old man - Ermis, I presumed - slammed shut behind me, blotting out the howl of the wind. "Up the ladder. C'mon, up, up, up," he said, hustling me over to a rusted metal ladder. Muddy water already sloshed beneath the door and over the floor.

Swearing under my breath, I managed to climb despite my wounded arm - if it weren't for Ermis supporting me from below, I probably would not have been able to make it. When I finally reached the upper platform, I collapsed on the floor and placed a hand over my eyes; my vision swam from the pain. I heard Ermis kneel beside me and gently take my wounded arm in his hands for examination. I was too tired to resist, even if I had wanted to. "Good thing I noticed you," he said as he delicately peeled back the blood-soaked sleeves of my sweater and undershirt. "Ain't many people in these parts."

"First aid... in my pack..." I mumbled, gesturing weakly at the backpack I'd dumped on the floor next to me.

"Oh I've my own, and probably better than what you've got." Ermis retrieved a small suitcase sitting next to a chest of drawers, opening it up to reveal a motley assortment of bandages, pills, and other medical paraphernalia. He opened a battered aspirin bottle and shook two out into my free hand. "For the pain. It's not enough, but it's better than nothing. I'm gonna have to stitch you up a bit." I swallowed the pills dry and grimaced as he poured a small amount of hydrogen peroxide over the wound to clean it. When the peroxide stopped fizzing and bubbling, he dabbed the wound dry with a soft cloth and examined it. He whistled softly. "That puppy really got you good," he said, reaching into the suitcase for a curved needle and a spool of thick black thread. "Not gonna bullshit you - this is going to hurt a lot. Here. Bite down on this." He handed me a stout dowel wrapped in leather.

I closed my eyes and braced myself for what was coming next. He hadn't bullshit me; I wanted to scream every time the needle went in. I think I might have, at a few points; things got fuzzy after the first minute or so. By the time he was finally - finally! - done, I was shaking and sweating from the pain, the leather-wrapped dowel soaking with drool. Ermis gently wrapped my forearm in gauze to protect the sutures. "There you go. Now, let's get your shirt off you, clean the blood out of it." I hadn't even noticed - besides my own blood on the sleeve, the body of my sweater was splotched with blood from the wolf-thing.

With Ermis's help, I feebly pulled off my sweater and henley; he retrieved a frayed blanket from his bed, draping it around my shoulders. Then he took my bloodstained clothes out to the balcony that encircled the upper level of the lighthouse. Through the windows, I watched as, bracing himself against the wind and rain, Ermis tied my clothes to the railing so they could be soaked clean by the storm, and then he hurried back inside.

Standing just inside the door, Ermis shook himself off like a dog and flashed me a broad smile. "How are you feeling?"

"I feel like I'm going to throw up."

"Well, if you do, just try to aim for the ladder opening."

I glanced down through the opening to the ground floor; it was completely flooded, the water reaching several feet up the ladder. "Does this happen every time it storms?"

"...You're not from around here, are you?" Ermis asked, helping me to my feet.

"Not really, no." I allowed Ermis to lead me to his single wooden table and sat in one of the chairs; he took the one across from me.

"Mind if I ask why you decided to come out to visit me? I mean, I can't think of any other reason you'd be in the area."

Clutching the blanket close to me with my good hand, I said, "I wanted to learn more about that large white building northwest of here. Ricardo said you probably knew about it."

Ermis gave me a sidelong glance as thunder growled outside. "What's it to you?"

"I need to know about the people who made it and what they were doing there."

Raising an eyebrow, Ermis gave my bandaged arm a significant look and said. "Boy, I hope that all this is worth it for you."

"I think it will be."

"What's you're name, kid?"


For whatever reason, my answer made Ermis even more suspicious. He drummed his fingers against the table for a few moments, echoing the beating of the rain against the windows. "Well," he said finally, "I won't ask why this is so important to you, though I have my guesses. But yeah, I've been there." Abruptly he stood. "You want some food? Drink? This is gonna be a long story." I nodded, suddenly realizing how dry my mouth was, and he retrieved an opaque glass bottle from his chest of drawers, along with some strips of smoked fish and some wilted greens from a nearby basket.

Unstoppering the bottle and passing it to me, Ermis said, "I went out to that place a long time ago, back when I was still young and stupid."

He paused with a grin as I took a swig from the bottle and immediately started coughing when the liquid burned my throat. "This is moonshine!" I sputtered, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.

 "Yeah. Sorry I held out on you before. I didn't want you drinking before I sewed you up - alcohol makes you bleed more, which woulda been no good." He waited as I took another gulp of moonshine, this time savoring the fire it brought to my chest and belly, followed by a comforting numbness. "Anyway, like I said, this was a long time ago. I'd joined up with the Resistance as a scout - "


"Mm-hmm. Like I said, I was young and stupid. I'm not exactly proud of my time with them, but I can't take it back now."

"What is the Resistance resisting, exactly?" I hadn't seen a single sign of a functioning government so far, so the presence of a rebel faction made no sense.

"Boy, you weren't kidding when you said you weren't from around here." Sighing, Ermis retrieved the bottle of moonshine from me and took a long pull. "In theory? They're fighting against the Harvest." He noticed my blank, confused expression and elaborated, "Every five years a horde of creatures - that's the only way I can describe them - sweeps through and kills anyone caught in their path. No one knows where they come from, or why they do this. All we know is that if you don't find shelter, you will die."

"Except the Resistance?"

Rolling his eyes, Ermis said, "Like I said, in theory they're fighting the Harvest. In reality they hide just like the rest of us. They'd be stupid not to. Maybe they take potshots at a few of the creatures from the safety of their shelter. Most of the time they just use their might to bully the rest of us for food and supplies. When I was your age, I thought the Resistance had the right way of things. Gotta band together, use our collective strength, all that. Now I'm not so convinced. They really don't have the Harvest where you're from?"

I hesitated, chewing lightly on my lower lip. "...Well, I don't know. I can't remember anything about where I'm from. Or who I am, for that matter."

Ermis nodded slowly, as if everything was starting to make sense to him. "In that case, let me finish telling you what you came here to learn." He passed the moonshine back to me. "My friend Jotunn and I, we were on a scouting mission to find more supplies for the Resistance; we'd seen that building before, but we'd never managed to get into it. There was a shield of some kind - like a force field - surrounding it. The power source must have been inside the building. Everyone had theories about what was in there, but we didn't think we'd ever find out for sure."

A crack of lightning flashed outside, a boom of thunder trailing close behind it. Ermis glanced out the window. "One day there was a storm - way worse than this drizzle - and Jotunn and I were caught in it. We were too far from shelter, and probably would've died if it hadn't been for the lightning strike. It hit the shield surrounding the building - must've overloaded the power supply, because the shield went down. So we went in, decided to start grabbing anything we could carry while we were there. Papers, writing implements, glass containers, metal tools... anything we could get our hands on."

Ermis paused; I could almost see the wheels in his head turning as he recalled these long-ago events. I silently offered him the moonshine, which he accepted and took a greedy swig of before continuing. "Eventually we came to a room that was filled with rows of... boxes. Glass boxes." He locked eyes with me, and my heart began to race. I knew where this was headed. "There were people inside. Not dead - sleeping, or something like that." Abruptly he broke eye contact and leaned back in his chair. "Suddenly an alarm started going off. Lights started flashing on all this different equipment. Jotunn and I had no idea what was going on, but we figured that if we didn't get out soon, the shield would turn back on and we'd be trapped in there with all those sleeping people. So we bolted. Sure enough, not long after we got out, the shield went back up."

Sweat broke out on my upper lip. This had happened when Ermis was a young man - probably a good forty or fifty years ago. How long had I been trapped in that place?

"No one believed us when we told them, of course," Ermis concluded. "They thought Jotunn and I were just fucking with them - two scouts trying to scare the plebes with tall tales of our travels." He shook his head. "Poor Jotunn didn't handle it well. Bastard went a little crazy trying to prove that what we saw was true."

Silence settled over us at the conclusion of his story, broken only by the thrumming of rain against the windows and the occasional growl of thunder. Finally, I asked, "You said you grabbed papers - was there anything on them? Do you have any of them left?"

Nodding, Ermis rose from his chair. "Most of it we traded for supplies; paper's hard to come by, so it's pretty valuable. But I did keep one."

He went to his narrow bed and reached under the mattress to retrieve a single, yellowed, battered sheet of paper. As I accepted the paper from him, I asked, "What about Jotunn? Would he have more?"

"Dunno," Ermis said with a shrug. "We split ways long ago, when I left the Resistance. You'd have to ask them what happened to him." Noticing my apprehensive look, he said, "Oh, they probably won't hurt you, especially if you have something to trade in return for information. They're bullies, but they're not evil."

I nodded, though I wasn't entirely convinced, and looked down at the paper in my hand. The ink was faded and water-stained, and what was legible didn't make much sense. It was all technical babble about fusion cells, solar power, secondary power cycles... the best I could tell, it was about how to make a power system that would last a long, long time. Longer than the lifetimes of whoever designed it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Age of Pandora: Day Two

I am participating in the Age of Pandora fitness program from These posts are a fictional representation of the workouts that I do each day. I list my actual workout in parentheses at relevant points.

Previously in this story...

(Though in the story I traveled to the camp yesterday, in the program they don't have me do the related workout until today: 36 half-jacks)

Day Two

Half-frozen dew covered the ground when I awoke the next morning. The light still had the pale gray tint of dawn as I sat up and brushed off the handful of coin-shaped leaves that had fallen on my blanket during the night; my breath clouded briefly in the quiet air. Occasionally a bird chirped from above, but otherwise the forest was completely still. For the first time since I could remember - the first time since yesterday - I actually felt at peace.

But I knew it wouldn't last for long.

With I sigh I stood (stiffly - my limbs were still protesting yesterday's activity) and took fresh stock of the little campsite I'd stumbled upon. The twisting, tangled buckthorn all around had formed a dome about five paces wide; if I reached up I could touch the "ceiling" from the center of the dome, while the entrance to the dome was low enough that I had to crouch to get in and out. From the outside, the camp was almost entirely obscured by leaves and branches. About 25 yards away gurgled a small creek, cutting a narrow trench through the moist and leaf-strewn earth. This was, I decided, as good a place as any to stay for now.

In the canvas backpack I found a dense, chewy bar of nuts, oats, and fruit wrapped in thin leather. As I munched my breakfast, I had the feeling that I'd eaten almost identical breakfasts many times before, but I couldn't recall any specific instances. Was this going to be my life from now on - running from monsters and a constant sense of deja vu?

If I dwelled on that possibility for too long I'd probably go mad, so I distracted myself with improving my new home. Using a flexible wire saw I also found in the backpack, I reinforced one section of the dome with fallen branches, then wove smaller, flexible sticks throughout to further solidify that section; now I had a rain shelter of sorts to keep my bedroll dry. Then, after some thought, I decided to use the large knife I'd found to sharpen the ends of some branches the thickness of my arm. About ten yards away from camp, I stuck them in the ground at an angle, facing out. It probably wasn't going to stop anything big, but it was better than nothing. (Three sets of: 2 push-ups, 20 scissor chops, 20 scissors, 2 push-ups, 20 side arm raises, 20 raised arm circles)

Reinforcing my camp took up the entire morning, and while the soreness in my muscles had subsided as I worked, I welcomed the chance to sit down and rest. By this point the sun was just reaching its zenith, and it had warmed up enough that I'd stripped down to only a thin henley, the sleeves pushed up past my elbows, and my baggy trousers held up by a battered leather belt. Before eating lunch, I decided to take full stock of my food stores: two more of those nut bars, a can of black beans, a half-dozen large strips of some kind of jerky, two bruised apples, and a large canteen of water. This would last me, what, another day or two? Three or, if I was careful? At least I could get fresh water from the stream.

Running a hand through my short-cropped hair, which by now was damp with sweat, I examined the red and white label on the black beans. It was unremarkable, and while the brand name seemed vaguely familiar, so did everything else I encountered around here. In other words, it didn't provide any clues. I set the can down and grabbed a piece of jerky to munch on as I unfolded the large map.

"PANDORA" was written across the top in large, black letters. That probably wasn't the name of the stranger; Pandora was a woman's name, historically - and then I stopped short, wondering where that bit of knowledge had come from. I carefully tugged on that thread of memory to see where it would lead. Pandora... from ancient myth... she was given a box and told not to open it, but her curiosity overtook her and so, of course, she peeked inside. A host of evils came out, causing all the misery and strife of society. Was the insect monster that killed my savior one of Pandora's evils? Part of me knew that was taking the story too literally; the other part of me wasn't so sure.

On one side of the map was a symbol with "The ARC" written beneath. The symbol vaguely resembled the large facility I'd just come from. "So if I came from there, and I went east..." I muttered, tracing my finger along the paper, "then I think I'm somewhere around here." I used the stub of a pencil I found tucked in the map's creases to mark where I approximated my camp to be. Translating the hand-drawn landmarks to the mountain ranges surrounding me was a challenge at best, and who knew how accurate the distances were.

I turned my attention to some of the other symbols on the map. Two were labeled "Agora." I didn't know what the word meant, but I recognized that it was Greek - as was the Pandora myth, I realized. Did that have any relevance, or was it just that the guy who made this map spoke Greek? The only way to find out, I decided, was to go to one of these Agoras and see what they actually were.

I packed my newfound possessions, tying my bedroll to the outside of the backpack and tucking my knife (and its sheath) into my belt. Map in hand, I struck out towards the closer of the two Agoras, called Agora Canis - "Dog". (Ran 550 meters)

The journey took longer than the map implied, although that was probably because I got turned around at a few points and had to regain my bearings. Eventually I came across a cracked, crumbling road that seemed to lead in the direction I wanted to go, and my journey became much easier - no more clambering over boulders and fallen trees. As I hiked down the road, I saw ahead of me several tidy plumes of smoke. They didn't seem like the result of a wildfire; they were too orderly. They were from campfires... and where there were campfires, there were people.

My stride faltered. On the one hand, the only person I'd encountered so far had saved my life. On the other hand, someone had stuck me in that glass coffin and wiped my brain. I paused in the middle of the road, staring at the white smoke.

"Anyone making campfires out here," I said aloud, "probably has more in common with the guy who saved me than with whoever mind-wiped me." Satisfied, I continued down the road. After a few more minutes' walk, I rounded a curve and finally saw Agora Canis.

It was a decent-sized settlement, maybe a hundred yards wide, adjacent to the old road. A mixture of timber, rusted metal sheeting, and rough-hewn stone formed a tall protective wall with a front gate; the smoke came from within the enclosure. Atop the wall, over the gate, stood a man and a woman. They'd already spotted me and were watching me intently; I could see the glint of glass in the sun as the woman raised a pair of binoculars to her face.  Since there was no point in trying to hide, I steeled my nerves and strode towards the gate.

"Looking for supplies?" the man asked when I was close enough.

"Uh, yeah," I replied. Supplies were among the many things I was searching for.

"What's you're name?"

I hesitated. "...I don't know," I finally admitted, my voice cracking a bit.

The man glanced at the woman, then back down at you. "You don't know?"

"No. My head got messed up somehow. I can't remember anything." My throat tightened and I could feel tears welling in my eyes. Acknowledging it to myself was one thing, but this was the first time I was saying it aloud. I couldn't remember who I was. My brain was broken. "The guy who was helping me out, he... he died."

The man and woman exchanged another look, their eyebrows raised. The woman asked, "The guy who helped you - the guy who died - what was his name?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. But he saved my life. And he left me this map." It was close enough to the truth, anyway. "This placed is marked on it. Agora Canis."

That was apparently enough to satisfy the man and woman - I guess they were guards - so the woman looked over her shoulder to someone down in the enclosure and hollered, "Open 'er up!"

The gate rattled aside, and I stepped through the thick, ramshackle fortification. Inside the Agora was an open yard of dirt and crumbling pavement, dotted with a few tents and lean-tos, and at the center of which stood the remains of a one-story brown brick building. Though it had obviously gone through years of makeshift repairs, its origins as a solid, professional structure were still apparent. An old rest stop, I thought, and then shook my head. These phrases and ideas kept buzzing around my head, heedless of what was most convenient for me.

A handful of people milled outside the building, accompanied by an equal number of dogs. Almost all of the people were busy repairing or creating something; one was scraping fur from a deer hide stretched over a wooden frame, another was chopping up root vegetables and throwing them into a battered pot hanging over a cooking fire. They looked up at my approach; I could feel the silent appraisal in their gaze, and hoped that they didn't find me lacking. One of the dogs barked once, cautiously.

The person who opened the gate - a slim middle-aged man with copper skin and silver flecks in his dark hair - approached me with his hand outstretched in greeting. A brown-and-white dog with floppy ears and a friendly face followed close at his heels. "Don't remember your name, huh?" he said as we shook. His grip was firm and warm. "Well, I'm Ricardo, anyway. What should we call you? We can't just say 'hey you.'"

"I... uh..." I wracked my brain for a suitable name. "Phoenix. You can call me Phoenix."

Ricardo grinned. "You have a flair for the dramatic, Phoenix." Cocking his hands on his hips, he looked me up and down. "So you need some supplies, then? Food, clothes that fit you, a tent maybe? Nothing more than you can carry, I presume." When I nodded, he continued, "Since I've never seen you before, I'm gonna assume you don't know how things work around here. If you have something to trade, great. If you can help out with a task in exchange for our supplies, that works too. If you're too sick or hurt to pitch in, no problem, we'll still help you, but we trust you'll make it up to us when you can. Make sense?"

I nodded again. This was obviously not the first time he'd delivered this spiel. "I don't really have anything to trade."

"Well." He gave me another once-over. "You look to be in pretty good shape, so I've got a few jobs that you could help out with. I have a message I need delivered to Camp Raza, so you could run it to them. Or you could head over to Bunker 201 with a couple of my guys and help them repair their wall. Or you can head out and kill me a deer; we're running low on fresh meat."

I had no idea where (or what) Camp Raza was, so that was out of the question. Nor did I know where Bunker 201 was; besides, while everyone seemed friendly enough so far, I wasn't entirely keen on striking out to an unknown location with several strangers. "I can get you a deer," I said.

Ricardo nodded. "All right then. I'll lend you a spear and one of my dogs for the job. Come with me." He led me to the central building, where he gave me a spear with a shaft a bit thinner than my wrist and about as long as I was tall, topped with a thick, chipped shard of blue glass about the length of my hand. Ricardo then called over a large, lanky dog with fluffy red fur and alert, triangular ears. "This is Rosa," he said, giving her an affectionate pat on the shoulders. "She'll help you run down a deer. Just tell her what you want her to do, and she'll do it. Rosa," he said in demonstration, "go with Phoenix." He pointed at me, and Rosa's gaze followed his gesture. After a moment's consideration, she walked over and waited patiently by my side.

Huh. "...All right then." I hefted the spear over my shoulder. "Come on, Rosa." We headed out the gate, which rattled closed behind us. Rosa looked up at me expectantly, and I said, "Find a deer, Rosa. Uh, track. Track, Rosa." What grammar should I use with a dog? Regardless of whether I was using the right syntax, Rosa seemed to understand; sticking her nose to the ground, she started off through the scrub and trees at a trot, and I hurried to keep up with her. (30 half-jacks)

The sun was skimming the peaks of the mountains, casting massive shadows, when Rosa suddenly let out a baying howl and took off through the forest. As I sprinted after her, I caught a glimpse of a gray-brown blur ahead as a deer - a doe, it looked like - fled in terror from us. In a matter of seconds both the deer and Rosa were out of sight, but I could still hear Rosa's incessant, excited baying. I followed the sounds of the chase, scrambling over boulders and weaving between tree trunks.

Eventually, the tenor of Rosa's barks shifted - higher pitched, more frequent, more frantic. I picked up my pace, my lungs burning; the commotion grew louder, and soon I caught up with Rosa, who had cornered the small doe against a tall shelf of rock. The doe trembled and stumbled with fear, bleeding from many small nips that Rosa had inflicted upon her during the chase. Barking all the time, Rosa darted first one way, then the other, predicting the doe's next move and keeping her from escaping.

I paused to catch my breath and adjusted my grip on the spear. How was I supposed to go about this? I didn't want the doe to suffer any more than she already had. The poor thing... she was obviously terrified. She had just spent the last hour or more running for her life, and now she was backed against a wall with no escape, just as I had been a mere day before - no. No no no. I quickly suppressed the thought. Right under the front leg, I said to myself. That's about where the heart is. That's the fastest way. I hoped I was right.

Cautiously I approached the doe, but by this point she was too exhausted to attempt any evasion. I leveled the spear, aimed as best I could, and thrust forward. There was almost no resistance as the sharp point plunged into her; the doe let out a strangled cry and jolted forward, then fell, ripping the spear from my hands. I collapsed in a heap and watched as the doe breathed once, twice, three times... and then no more.

I burst into uncontrollable sobbing. This was, I had absolutely no doubt, the first time I had ever killed anything. (Four sets of: 100 punches from Horse pose)

Rosa sidled up next to me and leaned against me as I sobbed, attempting to comfort me with her warmth and her softness. I threw my arms around her in a desperate hug, which she tolerated with the patience of a saint. By the time I'd regained a semblance of composure, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains entirely, and the sky was rapidly turning deep violet. I stood, brushed the twigs and leaves from my pants, and walked over to the corpse of the deer. Crouching by her head, I placed my hand on her still-warm neck and said, "I'm really, really sorry. I need food and supplies. You'll be put to good use, I promise." With a swift tug I pulled the spear out of her chest.

After a bit of an awkward struggle, I managed to hoist the doe over my shoulders in a fireman's carry, her legs dangling over either shoulder. I looked at Rosa, then up at the dark sky. Soon it would be completely night, and I had no idea how far afield we'd strayed from the Agora during the hunt. But I did not want to spend the night in the forest. Not tonight. "Rosa, let's go home."

Rosa wagged her tail once, then started off at a sedate trot down the slope of the mountain, checking over her shoulder to make sure I could keep up. Together we began the hike into the deepening night. (30 half-jacks)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Age of Pandora: Day One

Damn it's been a while since I posted... well, I'd like to revive this blog, and I think a good way to do it is to dramatize my workout routine, which is the Age of Pandora program from It is, essentially, a choose-your-own-adventure book that incorporates bodyweight and aerobic exercises. Each "chapter" is a set of exercises that relate (more or less) to the story at hand. So, let's begin...

Day One

Whatever I had been dreaming about, the blaring siren instantly banished it from my mind. I jolted awake, unsure of who I was or where I was or why a siren was wailing overhead. The fog of sleep cleared from my mind... but the memories weren't there. Why weren't they there? What was happening?

Panic started rising in my chest, but I did my best to swallow it and take stock of my surroundings. I was in some sort of glass container, not much larger than a coffin, at a slight recline. (How did I know what I coffin was if I couldn't remember my own name?) Outside was a hallway extending to the left and right, with bare concrete floor and equally bare concrete wall. Every few yards, a red light pulsed in alarm; they were the only illumination. I groped for a latch, a handle, a switch - something to open the box. Nothing. I reached up and felt the top of the box, discovering the cool metal of a vent. No air filtered through, as far as I could tell. It was starting to get warm.

I pounded on the glass with my fist. "HELP! HELP! SOMEBODY!" My voice rang in the confined space, but I wasn't sure if anyone could hear me over that damn siren. I banged on the glass some more, but no one came. The hallway was, as far as I could tell, completely abandoned. Sweat broke out on my forehead, and I stopped to catch my breath. The air was starting to feel stale. I needed to get out of there.

I started hitting the glass again, but this time with more force and more purpose. My hands bruised; I switched to my elbows. Finally - finally! - a crack appeared. By this time sweat was dripping from my face. "Let... me... out... let... me... out!" I grunted. The crack grew into a small spiderweb of fractures. My elbows aching, I switched to my knees. "God DAMN it!" I howled, and with a final strike the glass shattered into a constellation of fractures and partially fell away, leaving a small hole. I clawed at the hole with my hands, breaking off kernels of glass until the hole was big enough for me to get through. (40 palm strikes, 40 elbow strikes, 40 knee strikes)

Stumbling to my feet, I paused to catch my breath, my bloodied hands on my bruised knees. On either side of my container, going all up and down the hallway, were similar glass coffins; some were broken much like mine, while others were opened through a mechanism I hadn't been able to discover. But no one was in any of them. I stood upright, my body aching, and debated whether to go right or left. The choices seemed identical; in both directions, the hallway stretched about twenty yards before ending in a T-junction. "Two roads diverged in a wood," I thought with fleeting amusement, and then wondered what had brought that phrase to mind.

A scream cut over the siren, and I whirled to the right to search for its source. Whoever it was, they weren't coming any closer to me. They were just screaming and screaming - and then, nothing. No, not nothing; I strained my ears, and beneath the wail of the siren I could hear growls and grunts. They weren't human.

My mouth went to ash and my limbs froze. Whatever it was, it sounded like it was busy eating the poor sap in the next hallway over. I glanced down towards the left end of the hallway. I had no idea what lay in that direction, but it couldn't be worse than what I was hearing to the right. Slowly, I crept towards the left junction; I had no idea how keen of hearing whatever-it-was had, and I didn't want to risk it.  (Three sets of: 10 lunges, 10 lunge step-ups, 10 side lunges)

When I reached the end of the hallway, I ran. I took another left without fully realizing what I was doing or where I was going. I was vaguely aware of passing some computer terminals, some more glass coffins, a dolly - this was a factory or some other kind of facility. Ahead of me was a set of fire doors; I burst through and found myself on a catwalk over a large open space, with rows of equipment-laden tables beneath. My feet clanged on the metal grating as I sprinted across, my lungs burning. At the far end was a stairwell, which I almost tumbled down in my hurry. When I reached the bottom, clinging to the railing for balance, I heard the fire doors open again and a chittering growl.

"Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck." I didn't even spare a glance up to see what was chasing me. I didn't want to know. I bolted down the rows of tables, dodging wire shelving and file cabinets and other debris that had been scattered in whatever struggle just took place here. Above, I heard the pounding of feet - paws - as whatever-it-was chased after me. (Three sets of: 10 high knees, 2 jump knee tucks, 10 high knees, jump right, 10 high knees, 2 jump knee tucks, 10 high knees, jump left)

I found another hallway and ran down it, my breath ragged, the red emergency lights still the only illumination. Ahead of me, on the right, I spotted a large metal door. I skidded to a stop in front of it and yanked on the handle. It didn't move. I tried again. Nothing. It was only then I spotted the keypad lock. "Oh come on," I wailed, staggering back in defeat. At the far end of the hallway, I heard that chittering growl again. Dread and bile in my throat, I turned to face whatever-it-was - and was yanked into a dark alcove opposite the door, my scream muffled by a hand - a human hand - over my mouth. I could just barely see a male figure looming over me. "Don't. Move," he hissed, keeping one hand on my mouth and the other clasped around my wrist.

With hot water pipes gurgling just inches from my ear, I complied. In the hallway, I could hear whatever-it-was galloping closer and closer - and then past us, further down the hallway, still making that bizarre cry. (Wall sit for 60 seconds)

When whatever-it-was had passed, the man released his grip and peered out into the hallway. In the relatively brighter light, I finally got a halfway decent look at him. He had one of those weatherbeaten faces that made it impossible to accurately guess his age; in the red light, I couldn't tell whether his greasy hair was gray or blond. An ugly scar ran down the middle of his forehead, beside the right side of his nose, and over both lips before ending just above his chin. He looked back at me and jerked his head in a gesture to follow him. "Come with me if you want to live," he said.

The phrase sounded familiar, and the hint of a smile from the man made me even more suspicious. But what did I know? Nothing - not my name, not where I'd heard that phrase before, not anything. So I just nodded and fell into step behind him as he headed back towards the open room and crept along the outer wall. Soon we reached another hallway, one I'd missed in my earlier blind flight. I continued to wrack my brain as he led me several dozen yards down the hall. I felt a cool breeze on my face, and we came to a large hole in the wall that opened to the outside. Suddenly, something in my brain clicked. "Terminator!" I said. "The movie!"

The man chuckled. "Hey, you're quicker 'n' most." He clambered over the rubble and reached a hand back to help me up.

I stood atop the pile of shattered concrete and gazed out over the landscape. Whatever I had expected, it hadn't been... this. A craggy mountain terrain sprawled out in front of me. Although there were forests, they seemed thin and sickly, little more than buckthorn brambles. A few roads crossed the land, but they were in obvious disrepair, with large patches of crabgrass and other weeds growing from their cracks. There was something profoundly wrong with this land, but I couldn't explain what.

Noticing my bewilderment, the man chuckled again. "Welcome to - "

A large, bluish blur darted down from the roof of the facility. All I could make out was some sort of exoskeleton, an insectoid set of jaws - and then a spray of blood. It took me a second to realize the man's head was gone. "HOLY SHIT!" I tumbled sideways off the rubble and to the dusty earth, then scrambled to my feet as I bolted for the nearest strand of trees. My legs, still not recovered from my other recent flight, screamed and burned in protest; my heart thudded manically in my ears. As soon as I reached the thick brush, I dove down and prayed that the insect thing hadn't followed. (Three sets of: 6 jumping jacks, 6 hop heel clicks, 6 side leg raises, 6 straight leg bounds, 6 butt kicks, 6 split jacks)

When my heart had finally calmed and my breath had returned to normal, I poked my head up to check for danger. Nothing. I guessed the giant insect had enough food already. I sat up and tried to order my thoughts. Going back to that facility wasn't an option. Staying in one place until I starved to death (or got eaten) also didn't sound good. So the only thing for me to do was to go deeper into the forest and find someplace relatively safe to stay. Minor details like my name and where I'd come from would have to come later.

Keeping low to the ground, I made my way through the buckthorn bramble. The sun was setting behind me, so I figured I was heading east. Eventually, in a hollow beneath a curved dome of branches, I found the remains of the camp. Maybe it belonged to that stranger who'd saved me; if that were the case, he wouldn't need it anymore. I picked up the canvas backpack propped beneath a tree trunk and rifled through it: some warm clothes, a knife, a rope, a bit of food, and a beaten map.

Without hesitation I stripped off the strange silver jumpsuit I'd woken up in and put on the stranger's clothes; as night came on and the heat of all my exertion wore away, it was obvious that my initial attire was too thin to keep the growing cold at bay. As I removed the jumpsuit, something jingled around my neck: a set of dog tags on a silver chain. I held them up to the rapidly-dying light to examine them. No name, unfortunately, dashing my hopes for an easy answer to at least one of my questions. Their only markings were an engraving of a phoenix, another one of those bits of knowledge that sprung to my consciousness without me knowing the source. I kept the dog tags around my neck as I put on my new outfit. The clothing was obviously for someone much larger than me - I had to roll up the hem of the pants and the cuffs of the sleeves several times - but it was relatively clean, and it was comfortable.

Next to the backpack was a bedroll - no more than a couple strategically-folded blankets. As my adrenaline had worn off, a deep exhaustion had set in, one that penetrated to the marrow of my bones. I curled up and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. (Three sets of: 6 knee-to-elbow crunches, 6 flutter kicks, 6 crunch kicks, 6 hundreds, 6 bridges, 6 Superman stretches)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Skyrim Cooking: Chicken Dumplings

I decided to bump the difficulty level up a notch for my next Skyrim cooking project. I've always been a fan of meat pies (insert dirty joke here), so I wanted to try my hand at chicken dumplings. For the purposes of my adventure, I interpreted "dumpling" as "pasty" (pronounced PAST-ee, for those unfamiliar) because I'm from the Northwoods and we love our pasties. I used this recipe as the base, with some changes; some intentional, and some made out of necessity because I have limited supplies in my kitchen.

I didn't take any in-progress pictures because I was running around like a madwoman trying to juggle four or five cats the entire time. Making pasties from scratch is hard, and it takes time. However, the end result is TOTALLY WORTH IT. They came out deliciously, probably because they're about 60% butter. I still have a few in my freezer, which I'm going to have for dinner over the next couple days. Everyone else who's tried one thought they were tasty too.

Please note that I made my crusts a bit on the thick side, so I had leftover filling. I just stored it in a Tupperware container and heated it up later to eat with a piece of buttered bread. Very tasty.

So without further ado, here's the chicken dumpling pasty recipe:

Chicken Pasties

Serves about 9

Filling Ingredients
  • 1 lb raw boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into large pieces
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • ½ c frozen peas
  • ½ c frozen corn
  • 1 large celery stalk, sliced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 medium to large potato, cubed
  • ⅓ c unsalted butter
  • 2 medium leeks, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ⅓ c unbleached flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ¼ tsp rosemary, crushed
  • ¼ tsp thyme
  • 2 c chicken broth
  • ¾ c milk

Dough Ingredients
  • 3¾ c unbleached flour, plus extra for rolling surface
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 Tblsp sugar
  • 17 Tblsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • ¾ c cold vegetable shortening, cut into chunks
  • ¼ c cold vodka
  • ¼ c cold water
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tsp water (optional, for glaze)

Filling Directions
  1.  Slice the veggies and cut the chicken into halves/quarters.
  2. In a large saucepan, combine chicken, carrots, peas, corn, celery, and bay leaves. Cover with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 10 minutes.
  3. Add cubed potato to the pot and boil for another 5 minutes.
  4. Drain the water. Remove the chicken from the mixture to let it cool.
  5. Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add leeks and garlic. Cook until slightly browned (about 5 minutes).
  6. Stir in flour and seasonings.
  7. Slowly stir in chicken broth and milk. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until thick (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.
  8. While the leek mixture is simmering, shred the chicken and return it to the vegetable mixture.
  9. Add the leek mixture to the vegetable/chicken mixture and stir well. Cook over medium-low heat until thickened, about 2-4 minutes.
  10. Remove from heat. Put the filling in the refrigerator while you make the crust.
Crust Directions
(Note: if you have a large enough food processor, use it in steps 1-3. Otherwise, do like I did and put the ingredients in a large bowl and smoosh them together with your hands (after washing them of course).)
  1. Combine 2¾ cups flour, the salt, and the sugar. (1 cup of flour is set aside for now.)
  2. Add the butter and shortening a little bit at a time. If using a food processor, mix it in short pulses. If mixing by hand, mash the flour into the butter and shortening with your fingers.
  3. Once the mixture is clumpy, with no loose flour left, add the final cup of flour and mix it all together until the butter, shortening, and flour are evenly mixed together.
  4. Sprinkle the vodka and water over the mixture. Fold the dough over on itself a few times with either your hands or a spatula.
  5. Divide the dough into three balls and flatten them slightly into discs. If you wish to chill the dough, wrap the discs in plastic wrap and pop them in the fridge for at least 45 minutes. However, I used the dough right away with no ill effects; it was just a bit trickier to handle because it was softer.
  6. Cover your work surface, hands, and rolling pin in flour. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper. Take one of the discs of dough and roll it out until it’s about ⅛ of an inch thick.
  7. With either a cookie cutter or a sharp knife, cut out a circle about 6 inches in diameter. Carefully transfer the circle of dough to the parchment paper. (I found it helped to use a spatula to lift it like a pancake or omlette.) Gather up the scraps of dough, roll it out again, and cut out another circle. Repeat this process for as long as you have enough dough. (I got about 3 circles per disc.) You may choose to refrigerate the dough circles for about 30 minutes, but I didn’t bother.
Assembly Directions
  1. Set the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Take the filling out of the fridge (and the crust, if you’ve been chilling it).
  3. Place about ¼ to ⅓ cup of filling in the center of each circle of dough. Gently fold the circle in half over the filling and pinch the edge together with your fingers, or press it together with a fork.
  4. Cut a small slit in the top of each pasty and lightly brush them with the egg wash, if desired.
  5. Bake the pasties until they are golden brown and the filling is bubbling (about 25-30 minutes). Remove them from the oven and let them cool for a few minutes before serving.
If you don't want to cook all the pasties at once and would like to save some for later, then make them like normal but put them in the freezer instead of the oven. Once they're frozen solid, wrap them in plastic wrap or put them in freezer bags. When you're ready to bake them, set the oven to 400 degrees and pop them in like you would if they were fresh. They might need an extra five minutes or so to bake, though.