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 darebee.com. 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.

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