Behind the Ruins, Chapter One

Behind the Ruins, Chapter 1
Copyright 2012, Michael Lane, all rights reserved.

I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins.

-- Hermann Hesse

Chapter 1: Contact

           Grey expected to kill the three men.

He lay concealed under a clump of juniper bushes halfway up the sloping wall of a brushy gorge, and the bitter smell of the plant masked his scent. The trio below didn’t seem to have a dog, but he took the precaution anyway. Crickets chirred in the dry bunchgrass that tufted between the blocks of peach shale and birds whistled in the larger clumps of brush. To his left, the mouth of the Gorge opened out after a few hundred yards on a dry range of hills overlooking the sweep of the valley and the long glitter of Lake Okanagan.
The men moved up the path that Grey had descended an hour ago. They took their time, and the birds continued to warble, undisturbed by their progress.
Grey had glimpsed them an hour ago when they crossed his trail in the foothills and turned upslope. He had looped back at a cautious jog to see if they were backtracking him. It could be coincidence, but he’d never trusted coincidence. He frowned and rolled his head to the right, onto the stock of his old rifle.
He studied each through the telescopic sight. The man in the lead was thin to the point of emaciation; muscles moved like bundled wire under the sunburnt skin of his neck and arms. He wore ragged, filthy jeans, a colorless canvas jacket with the hood pulled up and a pair of heavy boots. He carried a shotgun and moved in a crouch, his head bobbing as his eyes flicked from the ground to the walls of the gorge.
The other two wore clothing equally dirty and hard-used, but they also wore packs and carried folded hides for bedrolls. The last bore the greenish cylinder of a rolled tarp. Both were heavily armed; belt knives, pistols and long guns. The heavier, blonde-bearded man in the middle of the tiny column carried a black assault rifle across a crooked elbow.
The gully made a turn just below the hidden watcher; it was a blind corner and Grey expected the three to pause there. They did. The men were close enough to smell on the warm updraft: Rancid grease, sweat and badly cured hides. The rocky walls of the gorge funneled sound to him, and he could hear each pebble their feet dislodged.
The scout spoke, and the watcher realized he’d been mistaken. The skeletal tracker was a woman.
"This is stupid," she said. "We should just hide up on the hill here. We can get him when he comes back through." She gestured to the hillside where Grey lay watching.
Beard shook his head, glancing where she had indicated for a bare second.
"I’m not crawling up a hundred feet of rock and brush when we can find his camp, get comfortable and pop him when he comes back. Besides, he might not come back this way."
"Why are you so set on killing him?" The tracker asked, straightening and rubbing the small of her back. She propped the shotgun across her shoulder while she kneaded knotted muscles with her free hand. "We’re supposed to be mapping and keeping quiet. You remember what Harris said."
Beard spat. "Fuck Harris. I want his rifle, Ang." His brow crinkled and a look of dull cunning washed over his features. "Harris don’t need anybody running around with sniper rifles when we come back."
"Looked like a deer rifle to me," the tracker muttered.
Grey sighed and slipped the rifle’s safety off.
The second man cursed and turned away, fumbling at his fly.
"You got a bitch?" Beard called, his voice ugly. The other man rooted around in his layers of clothing.
"Naw I just need to piss. You’re the boss, boss."
"Don’t fucking forget it," Beard said. "Hurry up and let’s get moving."
The problem, Grey reflected, was that his camp wasn’t at the end of this particular trail. If it had been, he’d have simply avoided these three; nothing at his camp was that important. At the end of this trail was Doc’s cabin, and these strangers weren’t the sort of visitors Doc needed.
He exhaled slowly, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.
You didn’t have to be much of a marksman to hit with a shotgun, so Grey swung the barrel a few inches and shot the scout first. The bullet took her in the side of the head and reflex made her straighten with a jolt before she fell. The report of the gun thundered and echoed in the narrow defile. Grey worked the bolt, nestled behind the scope again and swung to Beard, who had thrown himself behind a boulder and was scanning the slope for a target. The other man was trying to simultaneously button his fly, unsling his rifle and hide, and managed to do none of the three. Grey ignored him for a moment and rested the crosshairs of his rifle just above the shoulder of the rock that Beard hid behind.
"Fucker!" Beard yelled. "You shot Ang!"
"Yes I did," Grey murmured under his voice. "And if you’d just left it alone I wouldn’t have had to."
After six or eight fumbling, near-tearful seconds, the third man had finally managed to get his rifle unslung and his fly closed, and was backing rapidly down the trail. His pants were wet down the front. Grey let him go for the moment and waited.
"Fucking coward!" Beard howled. It was dramatic, but Grey noted the man kept his head down. He did lean the assault rifle over the rock and fired a brief, deafening burst, but the bullets came nowhere near the junipers and merely dislodged a few harmless rocks that galloped down the slope.
Wet-pants was his downfall. Beard finally noticed his compatriot was edging away without getting shot.
"Don’t you run off on me, asshole," Beard snarled. "You find cover and we’ll kill this shitheel."
Pants gave Beard a bleary, white-eyed look and turned, starting a stumbling run down the gully, his pack jouncing up and down as his feet slipped and twisted on the jumbled rocks.
"Oh you useless fuck," Beard yelled, twisting around and aiming his rifle at his friend. In doing so, he exposed the top of his head. Grey put a bullet in it, and the effect made him grimace. He worked the bolt again, chambering a third round, and sat up, resting the gun across his left knee for stability. The bullet took Pants in the neck, just above the backpack, and his scurry ended in two or three loose-limbed lunges and a clattering collapse.
Grey worked the action a third time and then collected his spent brass, pocketing the shell cases. He switched the safety back on, reloaded with three rounds from a coat pocket, and took a pull from his canteen while dust settled in the defile.
He waited until the crickets and birds returned to their chorus before descending to examine the bodies.
He stripped the corpses, setting their belongings aside before dragging them into a small washout. The crevice was an arm-span across, with crumbling earth walls that fed into the main gully. Grey climbed the shifting slope and stomped back and forth, sneezing in the clouds of dust. Enough loose earth and rock slid down to cover the three after a few minutes of work.
Leaving the trio to their shared grave, Grey squatted by the packs and heaps of clothes. He examined each item before setting it aside in one of two piles. The sun set as he finished, the sky shifting to a cobalt blue streaked with the irregular weave of meteorites, and Grey filled one of the liberated backpacks with items from the smaller heap of salvage. He used the pack Pants had carried; Beard’s was sodden with blood. He tied the guns together with a bit of cord and lashed them across the pack. The things in the larger pile followed their departed owners into the washout, to be covered by another layer of dirt.
Grey stood and stretched, his blocky silhouette made top heavy by the second pack slung over his own, and began to follow the gully back into the hills. The fading light slowed him in the shadowed bottom of the arroyo. It took him two hours to reach Doc’s cabin.

* * *
         The hilltop cabin was C-shaped, made of peeled logs, with stubby wings flanking a huge red cedar. Grey approached it slowly. His eyes had adapted to the moonlight, but beneath the trees that surrounded the building the shadows were complete. No light escaped the cabin, but he smelled wood smoke.

        Something moved beneath the cedar, crackling in the dry fall bracken. Grey saw a dim piebald shape, waist-high, approaching from behind the tree.

       "Winston, come here," he murmured.

        The shape woofed quietly, and a heavy patter of paws followed. Grey leaned down and scratched the broad head between its upright ears.

        "Good boy. You watching out for Doc?"

         The dog cried with the strangled yodel of a husky, circled Grey and sniffed at the pack and unfamiliar guns he carried. It growled once, and then fell silent, cocking its head and looking toward the cabin.

         "Doc? That you?"

         "Grey?" A rusty voice asked, followed by the sound of someone clearing their throat. "I wasn’t expecting you back."

           "I wasn’t expecting on coming back so soon. Can I come up?"

           "Come on up."

            Winston padded off as Grey advanced. Doc waited until his visitor was inside the cabin’s mudroom and closed the little antechamber’s outer door before opening the inner. The yellow light of kerosene lamps made Grey squint, and he dropped the pack and scavenged weapons with a clatter as soon as he’d entered. The combination of smoke, cooking fat and the high acrid odor of herbs made him sneeze. Cupboards and shelves covered most of the walls, many of them stacked with the crumbling paperbacks Doc enjoyed. In one corner were stacked big orange cases with steel latches; Okanagan Fire and Rescue stenciled in white on each.

           Grey took off his own pack and coat and leaned his rifle against the pile.

           Doc was a thin fox of a man with steel-rimmed glasses and a perpetual stoop. His eyes were still sharp under bushy white eyebrows and he paused a moment, looking at Grey closely before turning and gesturing toward a plank table. Flanked by five mismatched kitchen chairs, the table occupied most of the cabin’s kitchen.

           "You’ve got blood on your pants, young man," Doc said. "Do you want some chicory?"

           "If it’s made, thanks, I would."

            Doc nodded and turned to the woodstove against the far wall.

            Grey pulled a chair out and sat. The oil lamp on the table drew deep shadow lines around his mouth and eyes and picked out the wires of white hair among the brown in his beard. Without his pack and knee-length deerhide coat, he was still blocky; a broad-shouldered man a few inches below six feet with a middle-aged paunch and weathered face.

             After a few rattles and clinks, Doc returned to the table. He sat down, and pushed one of two old blue mugs to Grey. The contents steamed in the cool air of the cabin.

            "So?" Doc asked after a sip.

            Grey drank and then set the cup down, turning it between his palms as he stared at it.

             "We may have a problem."

             Doc raised an eyebrow.

             Grey searched in his shirt pocket and laid a folded lump of paper on the table.

             "Look at this. Tell me what you think," he said.

             The older man unfolded the paper and examined it, sipping his chicory. After a minute he leaned back, his eyes rising to the rafters overhead where smoked meats hung like dark bats.

             "I don’t know what to think," he said at last. "Tell me what you know."

          Grey scratched his nose and described his meeting with the trio in the gully. Doc listened without comment.

          "When I went through their gear I found that in a coat pocket." He tapped the paper with a grimy finger.

           "It doesn’t make sense," Doc said, frowning. "They were trying to get your rifle? But this, and what the tracker said? There has to be something a lot more important than theft going on."

          Grey scratched in his beard and squinted. "Well, their lead man was an idiot. I doubt whoever he works for would be pleased." He paused and had another sip. "Christ, I want some real coffee," he added, staring into his mug.

         Doc shrugged. "You can get it now and then at the Port, but it’s dear. There’s a little trickling in from the coast, now. Ships bring it up from Mexico."

         Grey grunted and picked up the folded paper. He read the neat printing on its back aloud:

          "Property of United States Continental Defense Force Third Battalion (CDF-3WR). If found, return to office of Colonel something-wich."

          "Rastowich, I think," Doc offered. He unfolded the paper and flipped it over to reveal a map, creased and dirty from use. "And this, did you notice it also has a Continental Defense label on it? Printed, not stamped like the back?"

          Grey nodded. "And some little penciled Xs where half the settlements in the valley are. And that it shows the Metaline Falls crater."

         "So the map was made after the Fall," Doc said. "And it’s well-made. This was printed on an offset press I think, and on rag stock paper."

        "Rag stock?"

        "Paper with a lot of linen content. Like money used to be." Doc said as he took off his glasses, polishing them on the tail of his shirt. It was homespun, like his trousers, and taken in trade for his services. "These three, they weren’t soldiers?"

        Grey shook his head. "No, and not deserters, either. I think they were scouts for a raiding party. I’d bet they killed whoever the map and that damn machinegun belonged to; probably a scout for this CDF thing. And then they used the map to mark out where the local settlements are."

        "What are we going to do?" Doc asked, pushing back his chair and fetching the coffee pot as his visitor refolded the map. He refilled the cups and sat down, staring at Grey.

       "You’re asking me? I’m a trapper."

       "You know the land around here for a hundred miles and you know the people. You’re the closest thing we have to a cop," Doc said. "So, yes, I’m asking you."

       Grey took another sip. "I think maybe the world didn’t end quite as much as we thought it did. Looks like some of the American government lived through it. Or someone who thinks they’re the government. We’ve heard news on and off, so I guess it’s not really a surprise."

       Doc exhaled through his nose and nodded. "I’d really rather see some Canadian troops if I have to have an army in the neighborhood."

       "I doubt the army, whoever it belongs to, is the issue we need to worry about," Grey said. "These raiders are looking to work us hard. Otherwise they wouldn’t be bothering to mark off all our little towns on that map."

      "I’d always wondered," Doc mused. "Without radio, you never knew if it was silent was because everything was finished, or if you just were out of the loop." He paused, running a big-knuckled hand over his face. "But that’s minor, I suppose. These other strangers come first, like you say. Stay the night, I’ll feed you and we’ll decide what we should do in the morning. Sound good?"

      Grey nodded.

      "And there’s water in the cistern, so go get cleaned up."

     "Thanks, Doc. I want you to keep those guns. They’re not in great shape, and there’s not a lot of ammo for any of them, but they’ll trade good." Doc started to say something, but Grey cut him off as he rose. "You can owe me a couple of outpatient visits. We’ll call it square."

     In his dreams it’s twenty years ago. It usually is. He’s riding his bike down Monroe Street, watching traffic and listening to his iPod. It’s summer and the air is baked dry, rank with hot tar from the fresh asphalt and the stink of car exhaust. He’s been to the 7-11 to get milk and a quart of ice cream and he’s in a hurry to get home before it melts.

     The traffic and heat eases a little when he swings onto Hillcrest. Three houses up and he veers into his own driveway, leaning the bike with the confidence of the young so the plastic bag hanging from the handlebars whispers grittily against the concrete as he zooms past his mother’s old Prius.

     He bangs into the house, sweaty but not breathing hard, and stops. His mother, father and both sisters are in the living room, their eyes glued to the flat screen that dad is so proud of. It looks like a weather report at first and he doesn’t understand, so he pulls out his earbuds and starts to ask what’s going on. His mother shakes her head and spares him a glance heavy with an emotion he can’t identify. In the dream it’s easy, though. It’s terror.

     Her glance confuses him, and it’s a moment before he can focus on what the announcer is saying. The words are broken by static and the picture flips and fuzzes strangely. The boy is too young to remember TV before cable and satellite; seeing CNN not working right scares him at some visceral level. A man in a suit is reading from a paper. Behind him, figures dash around a studio.

     "...additional impacts have been reported in the Pacific, and the President will be making a live announcement on the hour. Again, several meteors have struck across Asia and Eastern Europe, causing as yet unknown damage, but early reports are that thousands are dead. Shanghai may have been the site of another impact, and all communication from the area has ceased according to reports. Scientists around the world have reported intense disturbances in the upper atmosphere due to micrometeorites and world telecommunications are suffering some interference.

     "We now go live to NASA Administrator Darleen Kruft for an explanation of the severity of the situation."

     The severity is all too obvious within a few hours, as the earth slews through a cloud of debris that has wandered in from the deeps. Hundreds of meteorites five to ten meters across are exploding in the stratosphere with the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Thunderous explosions shatter the sky over and over; loud enough to set off car alarms and break windows. Grey recalls that sound as the hallmark of disaster for the rest of his life - the warbling wail of the cars as God drops his bombs on an unready world.

     He can’t remember what happened to the ice cream.

     Satellite feeds go down and newsmen fade away even as they speak of upper-atmosphere disturbances, of third-wave EMP. That night, a shock throws everyone in Spokane from their beds, screaming, and a brilliant light flares to the north - brighter than any lightning stroke. By the next afternoon, survivors fleeing south have brought news of a strike near the Canadian border. They say nothing is left.

     The sky darkens with smoke and dust and clouds over the next few days, and Grey won’t see the sun again for two years. Ash and rain fall in a muddy mix that robs the world of color. Over the next week thunder rumbles ceaselessly as the atmosphere fights to destroy the invaders. During that time, something happens to almost every machine except the simplest. Transformers on every power line die in lurid showers of sparks. Watches quit working, cars won’t start, computers are dark, phones are silent.

     That was in August. By September the big strikes have largely stopped, but the damage is done. With no communications things fall apart. Disease follows disaster as it always does, and death follows behind. People try to stop the rot, but there simply aren’t enough parts to repair the world and many that had lain in storage are also found to be ruined. Linesmen in the early days manage to get a few power stations running, and restring cable to hospitals, and then another cluster of impacts in the atmosphere burns everything out. Within a few weeks everyone understands.

     Grey’s father loads the family into the old Willy’s panel van that had been his grandfather’s jeep. None of the other cars will start. They manage to get out of the city and into the country, and five days later they would reach the little cabin above Cook’s Lake. It was usually an eight hour drive, but not anymore. They siphon gas into jerry cans. There is gas everywhere, in dead cars.

     Most of the images are sharp but fragmentary, even in his dreams. His mind doesn’t want to see things clearly, and he’s glad of that, but there are moments like snapshots as the old Willy’s growls its way around abandoned vehicles and across the miles.

     He remembers watching his father standing in the highway, arguing with a man with a bloody face. The man has a gun, and is yelling that they can’t come through without paying his toll. The road here ducks under another, lying in a deep concrete throat. Stalled and burnt vehicles clutter all but a narrow path. The man wants food. Father has already explained to them all that the food they have may not be enough. There are only a few months until the snow comes, and they will need luck to kill enough game for the winter.

     Grey is in the back seat, and the .22 rifle is in his lap. The man can’t see it. His father walks back, circling to the rear of the Willy’s. The food, mostly canned goods from the larder at home, is stacked in the space behind the rear seats.

     The man circles the jeep, the gun in his hands pointed at Grey’s father, though his eyes dart around constantly.

     "You all stay in there and nice and quiet if you don’t want your daddy killed," the man says as he passes. If he leaned forward he would see the rifle, but he doesn’t. He’s made them all put their hands up on the seat back – mom’s are on the dash – and he’s watching those.

     Grey feels dizzy and cold and his face is numb. He’s watching his father, and when the man turns away to address the family in the jeep, Grey sees his father nod once over his shoulder, and his lips move with exaggerated care as he says two words.

     Grey nods.

     The man has his father pick up one of the cardboard boxes of cans – perhaps a quarter of their food – and gestures for him to carry it to the side of the road. His father is behind the man. Looking out the passenger window, Grey sees the man turn to speak to his dad. His father has no expression on his face as he bends down to set the box on the ground.

     Grey’s hands leave the seat back and lift the rifle. He’s shot lots of ground squirrels on camping trips. He’s gone grouse hunting every year for the past three, and he’s a good shot.

     He shoots the man in the back of the head. No one in the Willy’s makes a sound. He’s fourteen years old.

     His father reloads the box of cans. Grey slips the rifle’s safety back on. His father stops at his window before climbing back in the driver’s seat.

     "You did the right thing," he says, but his eyes are haunted.

     He looks out the window, past his father. One of the man’s legs is still jiggling. As he watches, it stops.

     They drive on.

     He remembers the town of Newport. It’s the only place they see that still has electricity. There’s a dam above the town. Grey supposes that’s why. Later he realizes it was just that they’d had the parts to repair the first waves of burnouts. When he rides through, come winter, the lights will be dead.

     There are no locals on the streets, and shops are closed. They see one man in a policeman’s uniform on a horse. He has a shotgun lying across the pommel of his saddle and he wordlessly waves them on. Not here, his face says. Keep moving. They do.

     It’s dark, and they’ve stopped near a Chevy pickup with the dealer’s papers still in its window. It has rolled to a halt on the shoulder. Grey is siphoning gas into the four jerry cans the Willy’s carries while his dad watches, cradling his deer rifle. The gas tastes like poison but he gets it flowing after a try or two. As the cans fill he stands and looks up into the night sky. There are no stars, but meteorites flash and thrum above the clouds of ash and smoke, flaring in milky streaks and blurs. A big one rolls a glowing, thundering spotlight across the sky from east to west, passing behind the mountains. Grey waits for the flash of its impact but it never comes.

     The air smells of electricity and smoke. His younger sister Pamela is crying soundlessly. Far away, someone yells wordlessly; a feral, mad sound.

     They keep moving.

     Grey sat up and swung his feet from the cot to the cold floor, blinking at the dark. After a moment, he shook his head and lay back down, straightening the blanket.

     In the distance a coyote called in the moonlight. He closed his eyes and slept until daybreak.

     Breakfast was bacon, a plump venison sausage and hash browns. Doc got the potatoes from Tillingford’s nearby farm. Grey brought him the venison.

     "Where’d you get bacon?" Grey asked.

     "A farmer up by the Forks is raising pigs. I traded Maggie Gordon for this. She had a tooth that needed seeing to, and she traded him for some chickens." Doc grinned. His own teeth were even and white.

     "I gotta swing up that way again, then," Grey said. "Maybe I can work out some trade. I miss bacon."

     The two men ate in silence. The husky stuck its head in the cabin door and whoofled at the smell, wagging its curled tail. Doc gave it a bacon rind and sent it back outside.

     "So," Doc said.

     "So," Grey echoed. "Well. The map tends to make me a believer."

     Doc watched Grey and said nothing.

     "These weren’t soldiers, but they weren’t just homicidal hillbillies. Someone’s got an organized gang going." Grey grinned without humor and scratched his chin. "Just like the old days, before the ammunition got scarce. It surprises me though. As things have settled down, the assholes with guns were usually the first to get shot."

     "You shot a few over the years, as I recall," Doc offered.

     Grey’s smile vanished.

     "I don’t go looking for trouble."

     "Fine, no need to get your shorts in a knot," Doc said, clearing the table. "So what do you think we should do?"

     Grey rose and stretched.

     "I’ll see if I can backtrack them. Figure out where they came from, and where they got that map. Ask people in the valley what they’ve seen."

     "Sounds like a plan," Doc said. "Do you need anything? Food? Medicine?"

     Grey shook his head and bent to tighten his bootlaces.

     "I’ll go pack up my camp and then start working their trail. Probably won’t be able to follow them far anyway."

     When Grey left half an hour later, Doc pressed a small paper-wrapped parcel into his hands at the door. Winston whined and snuffled at it.