Life In Hel

 

They rested for but an hour beside the pool, Dak anxious to be moving on. Lin suggested daylight might reveal some trace of those who had set the fire, but Dak thought it unlikely.

“This is not the head of the burn.” He pointed out the charred remains of a handful of white thorn trees and unfamiliar scrub. “I doubt they would have been staying here.” He surveyed the horizon ahead of them. “And there is damn little cover here, Lin. If they are close, they could easily spot us.

Lin agreed to the logic of that argument and began preparing to go. While Dak refilled the water bottles Lin collected the largest of the brush pig’s bones, and any that held even a hint of meat. They would crack the bones open for the marrow come dawn, a breakfast Lin really looked forward to.

While the vicinity of the water hole afforded little cover the charred plateau they traversed provided even less. It was beginning to look like they would be caught out in the open by sunrise when they finally stumbled upon a crack in the earth, a jagged crevasse about a stone throw wide and perhaps twice as deep.

As they searched the edge for a way down it suddenly dawned on Lin that they were no longer walking on ash.

“We’ve missed the fire’s head,” she said, weariness and defeat straining her voice.

Dak came up short, and gazed around. “Damn. I’m sorry. I’m so tired I wasn’t paying attention.”

She leaned into him and gave him a squeeze around the middle. “That’s OK. I didn’t notice either. We’ll just have to backtrack and look for it tomorrow.” He only nodded in way of reply and started a very tentative descent. This time the dingos let him take the lead. In fact, they seemed reluctant to follow even after Lin began her climb down.

“The dingos don’t like this,” Lin called down after Dak.

“It’s not that bad,” he shouted back up.

She continued on down. Eventually, after much yipping in consternation, the dingos followed her lead.

They made camp amid a tumble of boulders on the east face of the little canyon. Dak took stock of their water situation and concluded that they could move onward for one more day before reaching the halfway point, at which time they would need to return to the waterhole if no new source was found.

Lin set about cracking open the bones. Each crack of the rock she used echoed eerily up and down the arroyo. Neither she nor Dak liked it, but they had to eat. They scooped out the marrow with sharpened twigs and tossed the remains to the dingos. Komaninu leapt upon them with relish, but Shisha only sniffed, then turned away with a whine, and laid down with her head between her forepaws, shivering.

Lin looked from Shisha to Dak and said, “I don’t think we should stay here too long.”

~

© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Some previous excepts (most recent first):
Setting Out
Firestorm
Escape from Hel

 

The I Write Friday Flash badgeThey hid amongst the rocks just outside the mouth of the cave. Dak held a palm-sized stone in his right hand – a small pile of similar stones stacked near his feet. Lin crouched beside him, dividing her attention between the man walking on the charred plains below, and the two fully alert dingos which stood near her side. If either Komaninu or Shisha began to fidget she would soothe them to keep them quiet.

“Can you tell who it is?” Lin asked, straining to see.

Dak shook his head, no. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be.” He considered the figure below. “Judging by his size and bearing, maybe Jacob?”

Lin nodded. “Yeah, kind of reminds me of Jacob.”

So they were lucky. Jacob was not one of Michael’s best trackers.

“I think the wildfire has thrown him off.” Dak said.

They collectively caught their breaths when the man looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun. He mopped his brow, bowed his head, and moved on. As soon as Lin relaxed Shisha let out a little yip.

The man looked up again, but only hurried his pace. He was alone in the wild, and evidently did not relish a run in with a dingo.

Once he was fully out of sight Lin and Dak retreated to the coolness of the cave, followed by the pups, which curled up at their feet.

“We best leave tonight,” Dak said.

Lin wormed into him to make herself more comfortable. “We have water here.”

“We can come back, if need be. We need to find whoever set that fire, Lin. He knows where we are. We don’t know where he is. That gives him the advantage.”

Lin drew in a deep breath and let out a slow sigh.

“Will it ever end, do you think?” she asked him. “The running. The hiding.”

Dak wrapped an arm over her shoulder, cupped her breast, and having no answer said nothing.

~

They climbed to the top of the cliff by the light of the setting moon, Tetu, and waited behind a low rock face for it to fully sink below the horizon. Dak wanted to leave the area in the darkness between moons, figuring that if their position was watched such timing would offer the best concealment.

The top of the plateau had been desolate enough before the wild fire. Now it was like a scene from Hell itself. And like Hell, it was hot, radiating back heat from Kepler’s unforgiving gaze. Dak reminded himself that they would miss this heat in just a few hours, after the full chill of the desert set in.

They decided to strike out in the direction the fire had come from. Dak hoped to find its origin, and from there that Lin, the more experienced of the two when it came to skills of the wilds, might find a trail to follow. Water was their most limiting factor, so they had agreed before setting out that they would only go as far as half the water would take them. If they found no other source of water by then they would head back to the cave to refill and reconsider their options. For now they went on, Dak steering by keeping the Sentinal over his left shoulder.

As usual, the dingos ran before them.

The second moon, Iah, had just cleared the horizon when a warning went up from the dingos. Dak and Lin froze, trying to fix a bearing on the yips. They had taken only a few steps when the yipping stopped.

“What do you think?” Dak asked Lin.

“I don’t know.” Once a dingo got started they usually only stopped yipping after the kill, or when killed.

They hurried forward, but with caution. It was not long before they heard something racing toward them, then heard one little yip of recognition. Shisha paused only a moment, then turned tail and ran back the way she came.

“They’ve found something,” Lin said, quickening her pace and taking the lead.

Shisha came back three more times to ensure they were following. The next time they saw her she was with Koma, chewing on the remnants of their kill, a brush pig.

“I thought you trained them to save the kills for us.” Dak said with a bit of humor in his tone.

As they approached they forgot the pig for something much more important. A few feet beyond the kill was an open pool of water.

© 2015 by Jon M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Three days out from Hel and still no signs of pursuit. They rested now, backs pressed up against the cool north face of a boulder, one of many such stones strewn across this barren plain. Lin reasoned that this was the last direction Michael would expect them to go. The terrain was difficult, with little in the way of food and even less in terms of water. To their advantage the rocky soil left little in the way of a trail to be followed. Her decision would either save them or they would die of dehydration.

Lin rooted through her ever lighter rucksack and came up with the bundle she was searching for. She unwrapped the plastic bag and gave Dak two pisspods, taking two for herself. “We still have four left,” she said as she started chewing on the nasty tasting succulents. Dak held out his hand, offering his two back to her. “No. You need the moisture as much as I do. I sure the hell can’t carry you.”

He nodded and began to chew, gazing out over the expanse of desert still awaiting them.

“We should make for that,” he said, pointing with his half decimated pod toward a ridge line in the distance. “I don’t know much about geology, but I think I’ve heard escarpments are caused by fault lines and faults can allow springs to reach the surface.”

Lin shrugged. One waypoint was as good as another as far as she was concerned, as long as it led away from Hel, Michael Macdonald, and his immortal zealots.

“We should wait until the sun is down,” she suggested. With that they both curled up in what little shade they could find.

She awoke to find Dak sitting beside her reading by the dwindling light of dusk. His little book of poetry was his most prized possession. He found it on a scavenging run to Second City, and wisely kept it secret. She was the only person in Hel who knew he had it. There were damn few opportunities to read in Hel. Now he could read at his leisure. When she stirred he set the book aside.

They ate the last of their korba beans and then chewed a pisspod each, careful to suck out every last drop of moisture. They saved the last two for their hike. They marked the position of the Sentinel, just becoming visible in the darkening sky, and struck out for Dak’s escarpment.

Sometime after their third break Lin pulled up short, holding up a hand in warning. Dak drew close, and whispered, “What?”

“Listen.” She cocked her head, turning it this way and that as if it were an antenna.

Then he heard the yip.

“Kalecks?” he asked.

She shook her head, no. “Dingo.” That was good. Kalecks hunted in packs. Dingos usually roamed alone. “We better skirt west.”

Dak held her arm to keep her from moving. “No. I think we should follow the sound.”

She shook her head vehemently. “They are dangerous.”

“But it will be near water.”

She opened her mouth to object, then closed it again without saying a word. Water was a powerful lure.

~

They had damned little in the way of weapons – a walking stick and a few tools Dak had pilfered from his workbench: a knife, two screwdrivers, a pair of wire cutters, and a needle-nosed pliers. Not much to face down a forty pound desert-wise predator.

The yips were closer now, perhaps as close as the next valley. “The winds are right,” Dak said. “It should not smell us coming.”

He knelt to rummage through his sack. He came up with a length of nylon rope and an odd metal ring about three inches thick, slightly larger than his palm. He tied the rope to the ring, creating something akin to a bola. Standing, he gave it a few experimental twirls. “I’ve been practicing with this rig up at the shop,” he told her. “I’m pretty good with it.”

They climbed the hill cautiously, eyes constantly roving for movement, ears alert for any sound. The yips had been fairly regular. Now the pattern was broken and all was eerily silent. Dak took the lead, walking upright, his iron flail swinging loosely at his side. Lin brought up the rear, crouching, constantly glancing behind least they get flanked,

There was a yip off to the right. An answering yip came from the left.

“Hell.”

Both attackers came at once. Lin screamed even as she started flailing with the stick. She heard the sudden hum of the rope spinning up to speed and then an anguished yowl. She managed to hold one of the dingo’s at bay with the walking stick, striking it several times as it tried to come in low for her legs. As it attacked again there was a swoosh and the iron ring came down solidly, breaking the animal’s back. It yowled in agony until Dak fell on it with his knife to put it out of its misery.

All the energy drained out of Lin and she sank to the ground. “You son-of-a-bitch,” she huffed, catching her breath. “Don’t ever do this to me again.”

“What? You did great. And now we have enough food for a week.”

“We were almost food for a week.”

Dak laughed and began field dressing their kills.

Lin remained on edge, worried there had been two dingos. She had never before encounter more than one at a time. As Dak worked Lin got up and prowled the perimeter, staff in hand.

“Dak!”

He rushed to her side.

“Look.” A shallow den was dug in the side of the hill. Two dingo pups huddled there, yammering for their mother. “That explains it,” she said. “They were a breeding pair.”

“Kill them.”

As Dak walked away Lin knelt and reached for the nearest pup’s throat.

~

With the coming of sunlight they could see greenery near the base of the ridge. An oasis. Water. Life. Even from here they could see clusters of teruga trees.

They ate quickly anxious to be off. Lin threw strips of meat to the two dingo pups yammering at her feet. They devoured their mother greedily.

~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Lin wiggled out of her good clothes, folded them neatly, and put them back into the plastic bag. She glanced around self-consciously before pulling on the threadbare slacks, then the tattered blouse. Two buttons were missing, leaving an awkward gap just under her breasts. She patted the gap as closed as she could then sat to put on the goddamn shoes. She missed good shoes most of all. She stashed the plastic bag, now containing her one and only good outfit, and quickly made tracks.

Michael would be pleased with the package. Antibiotics, antiseptics, morphine, and copper wire – all items on the priority list. Lin’s contact had done well.

She became aware of the Coyotes as she walked the isolated stretch along Manufacturing Way. Glancing over her shoulder she saw thee of them hanging back a couple of hundred feet. Realizing she was aware of them they quickened their pace.

“Hey grandma, what you still doing out?” one of them called.

She walked faster, cradling the heavy bundle closer to her chest.

They began jogging to close the gap. “What’s your hurry, gran? You know, you shouldn’t be away from the Villas on your own.”

“Maybe she wandered away from the bus,” one of the others joked. They laughed. She bloted. They laughed all the louder. She heard them running too, quickly closing the gap. There was no way she would get away. On impulse she stopped and whirled around to face her tormentors. They reigned in quickly, a bit surprised by her move, but not put off for long. One of them, the apparent leader, smiled at her. The other two peeled off, one flanking left, the other right.

“Leave me alone, you spoiled brats.”

The leader pretended to be affronted. “Sounds like we got a crabby old lady here, guys. Thinks we’re spoiled brats,” he finished in a crybaby voice. The guy on the right slid out of view. “What you got there, gandma?” the leader asked, pointing at the bundle.

“Nothing you’d want.”

“You got that right,” a voice said from behind.

She whirled round to face him. He danced back a few steps, grinning.

The guy on the left grabbed her shoulder. She tried to spin away from him, but the leader grabbed her arm. She shoved against him with the bundle. He glanced down at her chest, where her blouse sagged open.

“Hey, she’s still got tits!” They all hooted.

“Still looks good enough to do,” one of them said.

“Hell, yeah!” Arms wrapped around her from behind. She threw her head back, making solid contact with a face. A stream of curses followed, and though he let go the other two jumped her. She flailed at them ineffectively, trying to protect the bundle while also using it as a shield. The leader just grabbed it and tossed it away, then reached in and ripped her blouse open, sending the remaining buttons flying. A bloody face shoved itself in front of her. “You’ll pay for this, you bitch.”

A beam of light flashed over them. The boys looked up, startled, then quickly released her, backing off.

“What’s going on here?” A tall figure approached, hidden behind the powerful beam. The light shot from person to person, washing over Lin two or three times. “That’s enough of this nonsense,” the voice said. “You boys get your butts home before I run you in for creating a nuisance.” Relieved, crying, Lin fumbled to try and hold her blouse together. The light jabbed at the boys again. “You heard me. Get!” The boys fled.

The light switched off. Lin was momentarily blind.

“Little bastards.” The man moved closer. Her eyes slowly adjusted and she saw he was Guard, not a night watchman. Her eyes flicked to the bundle. “I’m real sorry about that, ma’am. I see that kind of crap every day. I hope they enjoy their old age. Did they hurt you?”

She shook her head. “No.. not yet.”

The Guard stepped away to pick up her bundle.

“I’m glad I happened along when I did. I hate to ask you, ma’am, but I need to check your bag here.”

Her breath caught.

He pulled open the draw strings and shinned his light into the bag. He poked around a bit, turned off the light, and drew the strings taught. She could hardly believe it when he handed the bag back to her. “We just have to make sure. There have been some thefts around here lately. Squad room always blames it on you oldsters. Those three punks, more likely. Do you have another blouse?”

She shook her head, no.

The light flicked on again. He searched the sidewalk and the nearby lawn, but was only able to find one button. “Hope you can rustle up some more. At least the material didn’t tear. Can I give you a lift somewhere?”

Her instinct was to say no, but she really wanted to put distance between herself and the Coyotes. “Away from them,” she finally managed. “Down the road, to the next bridge, or the one after.”

“I can do that.” He escorted her to his car, held the door open for her.

~

He dropped her off at the bridge over the tram line. “This where you live?”

“Sometimes.”

“I’ll try and keep an eye out.”

When his tail lights disappeared she scrambled down the bank. She listened hard, searching the darkness for hidden threats. Once convinced she was safe she opened the bag to inspect the contents.

It appeared to be nothing but a collection of old rags and discarded packing material. Miraculously, her contraband was still well hidden, wrapped in rags near the bottom of the bag. She could not believe her luck. She pulled them out, one by one, to check her inventory. Her heart sank when the last bundle felt wet to the touch. She carefully unwrapped it and let out a little gasp of dismay. The bottle containing antibiotics was in shards.

Lin broke down and cried.

 

Dak tinkered with the bomb components for nearly two weeks, trying to look industrious while actually making very little progress. His own lack of knowledge helped in his ruse – he had never made a bomb before so any serious attempt was largely guesswork anyway. But Michael was getting impatient, and now Lin was beginning to pay the price for the delay. He’d gotten strong hints that if there was no significant progress soon things would get rough for Lin. Now Michael stood next to Dak’s workbench and gazed out over the valley where the korba beans grew.

“Once we overthrow the tyranny of First City we will ascend to our proper station, establish a more just and beneficent world – a world where all citizens are immortal, not just the elite few.” It seemed Michael was in political speech mode, though he didn’t bother to look at Dak as he spoke. “There will be no more Governor. No more Special Forces. No more Hospice.” Dak said nothing. Michael wasn’t making conversation, he was laying down an ultimatum. All the workers were now under cover of shade doing light manual labor. Field work was only done until mid-morning, and in the late afternoons to avoid the brutal heat. Michael shifted, half turning toward Dak. “The weeds are getting out of hand in the korba beans.” Dak froze – the wire held between his fingers and thumb began quivering, echoing his own tension. “I might need to send someone out all day tomorrow for weeding.” He flashed Dak a smile then turned and headed back to his central yurt.

It would not take more than a week or two of field work in the full sun to kill Lin. Dak grit his teeth, angry and frustrated. He could delay no longer. Today Dak would do his best to actually cobble together his first explosive.

It was just a small bomb, for testing purposes. Michael had enough materials in store to build two or three test devices and still have plenty for the main event – the bombing of the pumping station that cooled First City’s nuclear power plant. The entire population of Hel gathered on the hillock overlooking the midden fields. At the far end a loose pile of scrap was barely visible.

Michael nodded to Dak – it was time.

Dak squeezed Lin’s hand, then set the tip of one of the wires to the positive post of the battery. There was a slight spark and almost instantly the scrap pile at the edge of the midden field exploded. Startled gasps of the crowd settled into an uneasy silence, broken only by the sound of one of the few children who started crying. Then Michael started clapping, loud and slow, as he took several steps forward, awed by the display. Others joined in, echoing their leader, until everyone was celebrating enthusiastically. Dak stood still, taking congratulatory claps on the back in silence.

“After our great victory,” Michael said stepping over to embrace his bomb maker, “then you and Lin will be given the Nano Juice. You will become like unto me, an immortal.”

~

“We have to go now.” Dak whispered to Lin as they lay on their mat. He knew it would not be easy. The constant guard outside the yurt was simply their most immediate problem. If they managed to get away simple survival on Kepler 11 d would be a daily struggle. But causing a meltdown of the First City nuclear plant was insanity of the first order.

“How? Where will we go? First City?”

“And go to Hospice?” He let a grim laugh escape. “I’m not ready to be recycled just yet. We’ll have to strike out on our own.”

She pulled him close. “He’ll track us down.”

“He’ll certainly try.”

As soon as Dak crawled from the yurt Barry Skogg challenged him. “Yo, Dak, where you going?” At three in the morning Barry looked none too alert, but he was quickly ramping up to speed. He scrambled to pick up his walking stick, should a weapon be required.

“I need to take a crap,” Dak informed him.

Barry looked from the midden fields to Dak to the yurt, obviously weighing his options. It could be risky leaving Lin unwatched. But Dak was his primary responsibility. “OK. I’ll go with you in case there are any jackals out there.” They called the mid-sized night predators jackals – the closest Earth analog anyone could think of.

“Thanks.” Dak did his best to make it sound sincere.

They passed the rising form of the composting solar toilets, Dak’s latest brilliant idea – still under construction. Soon the pits would be a thing of the past.

Luckily for Dak he was able to pass some waste. He cleaned as best he could and then headed back toward the village. As they passed the solar toilet a figure slipped out from the shadows, struck Barry from behind. He let out only a dull, “Uh,” and hit the ground in a heap. Lin let the stone drop from her hand as Dak stooped to check the man.

“I think he’s dead.”

Lin sucked in a quick breath. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”

Dak handed her Barry’s staff then riffled through his pockets. Then he stripped the man of his shoes, shirt, and pants. He left him only his undergarments. Hel had taught them both some very harsh lessons. Leave nothing useful behind.

“Let’s go,” he said as he rose. There was no time for any passing ceremony. He simply gestured toward Barry, as if in apology. With that they struck out to the southwest, away from Hel, away from First City, away from everyone and everything they had ever known.
~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

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