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.

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