|The Wind at Raven's Rest
Author: PapaMike PM
This is the diary of communications officer 089426480. An episodic account of the life of a wind-catcher.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Adventure - Words: 21,917 - Favs: 1 - Published: 02-03-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2888084
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
In the mountainous region of Kookemoore (area089) is settlement 089426, commonly referred to as Raven's Rest. It is the last inhabited point along the mountain road, beyond is the unrelenting peaks known as the Steeps. Electrical storms have plagued the region for generations, bringing with them swarms of pteroraptors. This makes overland communication quite difficult so settlements such as 089426 rely on a series of underground cable communication tunnels. These are monitored and maintained by communications officers, the 'wind-catchers'.
They are individually charged with a small area of com. tunnels, accessible via openings on the surface. It is an isolated existence, however it is not a deprived one. They are given more than ample rations and accommodation.
This is the personal diary of communications officer 089426480.
I was born in a small mountain town called Raven's Rest, population 500. It is set into the side of Raven's Peak, hanging above the valley below. It is mostly self-reliant, using large greenhouses for all means of agriculture. The more vital parts of the town are inside the mountain itself, such as the hospital, the barracks.
When the wind-catchers used to ride in on their gliders I would watch them circling over the valley before landing at the entrance to the settlement. When they would leave, they'd use the upper hanger exit , it is the highest point of town and was built on a natural rock shelf. They'd just drop away, and for one moment my breath would catch as they hurtled towards the ground.
Gliders are strange contraptions; they look so fragile. They are made of highly durable materials and are more likely to survive a crash in one piece than the humans riding them. I don't pretend to understand how the collapsible frame and fine metallic fibres work in their entirety but I believe the process of the wind rushing over the yellowed membrane creates a static charge. This causes the membrane to expand allowing it to catch the wind. It is guided by a very simple bar mechanism.
There are seasoned catchers who would sit in the corners of Joe's (the only pub in town) during their duty-leave, swapping stories and scars, hooting about how much each one hurt. I would roll my eyes as I passed, thinking they'd ridden the wind for so long it had snatched away some of their brains. I know now that the only reason they laugh at it is because if they don't they will never get the courage to get back up when they fall down.
My Grandfather always told me humans were not created to fly; our clumsy limbs are far better designed for falling.
It has been 1 week since I left home, surprisingly I find I miss it. I miss waking up in the morning to the smell of fresh bread from the bakery down the road, I even miss the gossipy Baker's wife.
Raven's Rest is a funny place, it was established a few hundred years ago when the ruling government still released rebels into the mountains to picked off by the pteroraptors or die of exposure. Settlement 089426 was the last stop before they were marched to their deaths, a joint prison and barracks where the doomed traitors would have a last meal and a restless night's sleep. It was around the time the town was beginning to stabilise in numbers that the infamous rebel leader Simon 'Raven' Dale was captured. He spent the whole night writing a letter to his younger sister. The other prisoners asked him why he wasn't sleeping in a warm bed while he could, and he simple answered that he'd have all the sleep he could wish for soon enough.
My Grandfather would tell me the story as a child. He didn't have many stories, but he enjoyed repeating them with such relish that we never told him that we had heard it all before. He was particularly fond of stories about the rebels; I think he sometimes wished that the revolution had succeeded.
Today I was working on one of the tunnel access panels. The tunnels themselves are underground, but if the weatherproofing on the doors and the outer control panels are not checked regularly then it means weeks of climbing through small chutes and painstakingly replacing the heavy-duty rubber seals.
When I returned to my home my rations had been delivered, although I received no letters. I continue to send correspondence to Grandfather and Riley, I am not expecting a reply anytime soon. Riley wasn't pleased when I joined the Establishment and it may take a few weeks of careful wheedling before he is ready to forgive me. I hope that he will be willing to speak to me by the time I arrive in Rest for my first visit home.
I do not expect a letter from Grandfather.
I had my first encounter with the pteroraptors today. I have, of course, studied them at the training camps, but those were sad specimens, poor preparation for the sharp beaks and almost worrying intelligence. They're fast too, and the swarm moves as if it shared one mind, when one goes down, they all screech with rage. Their screams horrific harmonies to the beating drum beats their pale wings make. White skin stretched across their bodies so tightly that you can see the blue-black veins just beneath the surface.
They appeared on the distant horizon as I was returning home, I knew that there was a possibility that a swarm would appear. A brief electrical storm, which had prevented me from travelling too far from home by air, had sprung up just before lunch. The moment it had passed I was in the air, hoping to make it home undisturbed. The air was chillingly still the way it is after storm clouds have whipped it up before. I was spiralling higher in the hopes for better currents and a speedier journey home when through the crisp air I spotted what looked like a small cloud just above the tree line, heading into the valley. My heart jumped into my throat. I almost fell from the sky as minor panic began to choke me with the slow realisation that if I didn't move soon they would catch me in the open, and I would die.
Excluding the sound of the wind, it is deathly quiet in the air. That day I heard a hideous shriek, as if a child was dying in abject misery. If I had looked behind me then I may simply have plummeted to my death.
I have never been so relieved to see my little hatch before. In little over a week it has become my sanctuary, although that may have been the abject fear talking. I dropped from the sky, hoping the sudden action would buy me a few vital seconds that I needed to activate the defence system. As I hit the ground I stumbled and thought it was all over when I heard the whistling of the wind over the angles of the pteroraptors bodies.
I tore from the harness that kept me attached to the glider. My hand stung as I slammed my hand onto the emergency shield button, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as it crackled into life. Through my flight goggles I watched as their momentum carried the nasty buggers straight into the electric force field. I smashed my hands over my ears in the hopes to block out their cries. The acrid smell of burnt flesh hit me as I pulled of my goggles and mask and slumped against the hatch into my small underground abode. Despite the terrible smell I was still pulling in deep breaths, trying not to retch. In a few moments I knew I would have to make a report, check my equipment for any damage and more important make a call to Riley, telling him I'm sorry about the time I broke his favourite toy car, or the time I told the girl he fancied (Stacey Alder) that he still wet the bed at age 10, or the fact I left him alone with Grandfather because I couldn't cope with everyone knowing our business all the time.
In the end I made the report, checked and repaired my equipment, scraped the remains of the pteroraptors off my shield and went to bed.
Do you know why they train you to regularly use a diary during training? The reasons are two fold. The first is that if anything happens to you during the course of duty they can use your diary, along with official reports, to retrace your steps and hopefully find a body.
The second, and unwritten reason, is to stop you losing your mind. Many of the people who choose to become communications officers are from small towns, where you are surrounded by friends, family and neighbours all the time. You are then taken to the training complex in Sidley (089421) where you share a room with 20 other apprentices while you achieve your qualifications. It is a shock to the system to graduate and suddenly you're all alone. That is why at the camp you are told it is vital, but not compulsory, to keep a journal.
The training camp is a strange place. Candidates arrive from the entire 89th region in the hopes that they will be given a chance to leave the small town they came from. The irony is that after a few days you start to miss the suffocating feeling of Rest, or wherever you're from. I imagine eventually that loneliness will go away but not before it becomes a gnawing sadness inside you. I haven't reached that point yet, but I have been told it's usually around the three-month mark. That's why they give you leave for a week every three months.
At the moment; I'm just missing the idea of home. The last time I saw Riley was at the train station. The only safe way to reach the camp is by the bullet train, and even then it's definitely a trip you don't want to make lightly. He walked me to the station, but refused to see me off at the platform. He said he loved me, but he couldn't forgive me for what I had done, and then he hugged me and left.
The last time I saw Grandfather was the evening before, I don't think my leaving bothered him all that much and he couldn't come with us to the station. He thanked me for his nightly cup of tea and I left him in his chair.
As I have said, the journey to the camp is a bit of a nightmare. Even with clear sky, it is a full day of travel. The bullet train is also the only way to travel through the electrical storms, as long as the line does not flood. The only real threat is the occasional swarms of pteroraptors, which follow in the wake of the storm. They feed on the carrion, and are extremely aggressive towards all forms of life. They will land on top of the train and use their sharp beaks to rip away at the metal skin of the train, once inside they will destroy the electrics in order to get through to the passengers. Highly skilled sharpshooters emerge from the train after the storms have passed and strap themselves to the top and sides of the trains to combat the problem.
As a child, I would dread the electrical storms that would crash in the sky outside, and just when you thought everything was okay you would hear the unholy screech of a pack of the pteroraptors. If I slept at that point, I would dream that hell itself had arrived on earth, outraged with the state of man, its harbinger the clash of the angry sky. It was as if the earth itself was rebelling against humankind.
Now I do not mind the storms, at the camp it was an excuse to relax and do nothing. The eventual arrival of the pteroraptors was greeted in the manner you would expect for target practice.
There is little to report as it has been raining constantly for almost two days now, there is a large storm passing over. I have been told via the weather network that it will blow itself out by the end of the week but until it does I am grounded.
I was walking back from the section I have been working on (it is about a 30 minute walk) and stumbled across the Raven's Rest road outpost. It's a small set of structures built into the side of the valley to help disguise them in the woodland. The running of the tiny complex falls on the head of the Clarke family. Now I think its Frank Clarke, 72 and widowed, who is the outpost keeper, but I did not stop to see how he was doing. I probably should at some point, especially since it is at the centre of my jurisdiction.
The outpost is not visited often because the mountain road is a slow and dangerous way to travel. In the valley, the woodlands hide travellers from predators and the elements, but the rocky mountain passes are extremely exposed. The outpost was set up by the Establishment in order to offer a place for traders and visitors of Raven's Rest to recuperate before the last stretch of their journey. Before the railway it was in high demand, now it is only really used by wind-catchers heading into town to pick up spare parts, clothing or to visit family on their leave.
Some of the other catchers have mentioned on the communications network that there is a good bar there, and they gather there to meet travelling companions heading out of the valley in either direction. Other catchers, who do not need to go into town for whatever reason, choose to stay there instead.
As a child my Grandfather would stop in there when he took me to see my father in the next town over. The wind-catchers would always escort us either way so that we did not have to do the journey alone. The rooms are small and they sometimes smell of dust but overall it is a clean, quiet place, at least in the sections I was allowed in. I have never actually seen the bar. The late Mrs. Clarke would always sit us in the kitchen and slip me biscuits under the table. My Grandfather would trade stories with Mr. (call me Frank) Clarke pretending not to notice that I was on my fourth honey and oat cookie. I made a promise immediately that considering tomorrow there was little to do until the storms passed, I would check the bar out, and maybe even stay over if there was room, it would save me a walk in the dark and wet.
When I was 11 we stopped travelling to visit my father and a few years later Mrs. Clarke passed away. To the best of my knowledge she took her honey and oat cookie recipe to the grave with her.
I am writing this from the kitchen at the outpost. Tomorrow is my day off and I have spent the majority of today in the rain. I have started drinking but it must be 6 o'clock for somebody, somewhere. There are three other coms. Officers who within easy travelling distance of here, but only two have made it in this afternoon. When I entered the bar they offered me a greeting, but then went back to their conversation. They were eating cheese sandwiches, washing them down with warm cider. My stomach made its jealousy known, and after asking them where I could find the person in charge they pointed me out to a little courtyard behind the bar. I found Frank, much older then I expected, sitting on an upturned crate, smoking a pipe and staring out at the rain. The very picture of a contemplative loner. I cleared my throat in the hopes that I would not startle him. He just waved his hand through the pipe smoke and gruffly replied.
"One minute, I'll get you your refills in one minuet." He blew out another long puff, and we both watched intently as it was beaten into submission by the rain. The only sound that followed for a few moments was the sound of water hitting the corrugated steel of the roof of the canopy. I was about to declare that I wasn't looking for a refill, but a place I could change into the dry set of clothes in my pack when he tip the remains of his pipe into a puddle and turned to face me. "Well," he said, surprised at the new face, "why didn't you say something sooner, look at you your freezing to death." With that I was lead helplessly through the complex to a room of my own.
After a hot bath, and a change of clothes, I found myself wandering back down to the bar. The two other coms. Officers had now moved onto a game of cards. They offered to deal me on the next hand and relieve me of my money, but I declined.
I found Frank in the kitchen heating up cider and making more sandwiches. The sight was so hauntingly familiar, for a moment my chest ached for the Grandfather of my childhood, who should be sitting at the table swapping jokes and admiring the absent Mrs. Clarke's cooking. The feeling was so sudden and strong that I was momentarily cast adrift in the doorway, and it wasn't until Frank told me to sit myself down that I could remember how to move.
I introduced myself; Mr. Clarke was surprised but clasped me on the shoulder and then went to fetch the "good hooch". He asked me all about how I was finding the lifestyle of my profession, and how my family were.
"Riley is good, he is working as a mechanic in town. Grandfather is good. He can't really leave the house on his own anymore." I shrugged; everyone in town knew what had happened to Grandfather so I never had to give updates before. I suddenly hit me that this man could have no idea about the man Grandfather had become and I really didn't want to be the one who told him that.
He just nodded however, and then we carried on talking about other thing, he told me that his nephew was going to be moving to train as the outpost keeper, so that Mr. Clarke could eventually retire. He had a sister in the capital that had a spare room. His nephew wasn't from Raven's Rest, but used to visit often. I have vague recollections of throwing mud at a skinny boy, just a few years older then myself on one of the trips with my Grandfather.
After hours of chatting, drinking and the occasional awkward silence, Mr. Clarke, excused himself for bed and I began to write this. Before he left me alone though, he made me promise to volunteer to escort his nephew from the train station at Raven's Rest to the outpost, as it will coincide with the end of my leave.
I also wrote a letter to Riley, in the hopes that he has stopped ignoring me, I left it in the box marked outgoing mail. It should arrive at Rest in the next few days.
I'm sorry I won't be home for Grandfather's birthday. Hope all is well. Give my love to Grandfather and anyone else who asks. I'll be home the week after, if my room is still free?
Don't be such a dramatic idiot. Of course your room is still free, who would sleep in it. We'll celebrate Granddad's birthday when you're here, it won't make much difference to him.
I didn't get a faithfully yours, or sincerely your devoted cousin, or love Riley, but I got a letter so I am counting that as a victory for now, at least I don't have to find another place to stay while I'm in town. I have ordered a book for Grandfather's birthday; it should be arriving at the outpost just in time for me to pick it up on my way into Rest.
I had to call in some favours to get it with some of the guys from training. They eventually tracked it down in a small fishing village south of the capital, and have sent it with the spare parts for my glider repair kit so it won't raise suspicion. Mr. Clarke promised me that he will keep it safe when it arrives there, and will lose the forwarding address.
When I spoke to him a few days ago he told me he didn't have much to lose, and as long as I didn't go getting his nephew into trouble he would be happy to help any relative of 'Old-Man Coor'. I'd never heard my Grandfather referred to with such respect, it made my stomach churn in a surprisingly nasty way.
I miss him.
People don't talk in my family. As a child I remember a lot of shouting and long silences. When I was sent to my Grandfather at the age of 4 I didn't miss home. I only have vague impressions of what it was life to live there. Somewhere in the collection of things that have become my memories over the years there are photos of me as a baby in some unfamiliar home. It's not my home, my home is in Rest.
Riley came to live with us a year later, after I turned 5. We still didn't talk about anything truly important, but there was more general noise. He was 7, and I thought he was a messiah sent to show me how to live my unimportant life because after a few hours he had caught a frog in a box just outside the greenhouses. He had a look on his face which spoke of unerring confidence as he condoned to let me carry the box back home. The frog escaped while we were sitting down at dinner, from the smug look on the cats face I'm glad we never found any remains.
We didn't talk on the walk home. He met me at the gates of the town, he had to have been waiting there for at least 3 hours, but he played it off as an unhappy coincidence. He shouldered my duffle bag and we walked the whole way home in silence. I wasn't brave enough to start a conversation in the high street. We bumped into a few people who stopped to say hello, but the only time Riley deigned to join the conversation was when Stacey Alder stopped and gave me a hug, leaving only after she had a promise that we would both meet her in Joe's later for a drink and a trip down memory lane. Riley agreed because Stacey has lead him around by the short hairs ever since she learned to flutter her eyelids. I agreed because Stacey would be paying and I had promised to meet some other wind catchers there while we were all on leave. When I mentioned this prior arrangement, Riley's face shuttered closed and he muttered something about getting home. He turned so quickly that he missed the sad look Stacey shot him as he began to walk away. I said an apologetic goodbye and rushed to catch up with my stony faced cousin.
We weren't disturbed for the rest of the walk home, partly because we took to the side streets after that, and partly because Riley's cold stare made people think twice before interrupting our journey. I just did my best to keep up with him, feeling like a scolded child and hating him for making me feel that way.
When we reached home he stormed up the front steps and into the house without so much as a glance in my direction. I took a moment to take in the house I have dreamed about since I left to join the Establishment. My dreams were often restless ones, that made me wake in my lonely existence, desperate for some one to talk to, but pleased no-one was around as witness to my weakness. I thought this moment would fill me with dread as I reached for the door handle and enter the house.
I didn't, instead I remember the time I tripped on the stairs and chipped my front tooth. There was a little blood and a lot of tears, but I whisked to the dentist almost immediately and didn't have to eat anything but ice-cream for two days.
As I entered the house the smell of dust, pipe tobacco and coffee washed over me. I was a smell unique to my home and something I associated with being wholly masculine. There was the sound of a clock ticking somewhere in the depths of the dusty house, in big grandfather clock that I knew would still be in the study to my left.
The stairs ahead of me creaked as Riley's heavy feet stomped down them with all the grace of a drunk bull. He stood in front of me for a few moments glaring at my glider which I held between us like a shield.
"Your bags in your room, you can put that in the shed," he said gesturing to my improvised barrier. "We'll have lunch in about an hour." With that he was moving to the kitchen.
"Where's Granddad?" I asked.
"Where else?" Riley responded. With that he was gone. The door to the kitchen firmly closed. I went out back to store my glider and flight gear and then went up to my room.
My room was exactly the same as I left it, I was surprised that it had been dusted and aired. Riley has always hated doing chores and I would have thought he would have taken my absence as an excuse to stop cleaning my room.
When I fist moved in I had what is now Riley's room. For a few years we shared it, but as we got older Grandfather decided it would be more peaceful if we had our own spaces to retreat to. Almost instantly the number of arguments halved and so did the pranks. I stopped putting instant pudding in the shower head and Riley stopped filling my bed with things he found in the garden.
We helped each other decorate our bedrooms. Riley's is green, with a surprising amount of plants in it. He also has all of the family photo albums in his room. He used to look at them in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep. Grandfather got fed up of him sneaking out of bed, waking us up so he let them keep them in his room. I made digital copies of every picture in there before I left. It took me weeks of wheedling to get him to agree to it.
My room is brown. I was never bothered about the colour, it was the paint we had left over when we had finished painting the shed. It has lasted a long time, and has the feint shimmer of weatherproofing. It never bothered me because you can't see much of the wall anyway. Instead of plants, I filled my space with hundreds of data-disks. Each one is another docu-vid, technical manual, historical volume or collection of fiction. When I was 11, I became obsessed with reading and would lock myself in my room for days absorbing words. I began to link what I learned to the world, and I hated the thought that one day I would need knowledge and would not be able to find the relevant disk, so each is chaotically categorised in a filing system that is remarkable hard to explain, even to those who know me best.
I ran my hands across each shelf before collapsing on my bed. My bedclothes smelled clean, and I buried my head under the pillows for a few moments, closing my eyes tight against the pain in my chest.
After I had recovered from the feeling of being home, I stripped out of my dirty travel clothes, washed in the bathroom sink and dressed in some soft cotton trousers and a long sleeved shirt. It was not a cold day, but one where the sun spends it time hiding behind the clouds. Every time it disappeared and the wind picked up, I knew I would regret choosing a t-shirt.
I padded down the stairs, I wore thick socks, but no slippers. I didn't want to attract attention until I was ready for it and slipped down into the den. The small room had always been dwarfed by the large fireplace, and overstuffed chairs that occupied it. There are no TV's permitted in my Grandfather's house, so all the furniture is instead turned to make the radio, next to the fire, the focal point. Off against one wall was a drinks cabinet which used to be used only on the night of the turn of the year. Now two glasses and a decanted brandy sat on top. The key which used to hang around Grandfather's neck sticking out of the keyhole.
Above the fireplace was the obligatory family photo. It was taken on my birthday, the first year Riley came to stay with us. Both of us had been forced to wear our best party clothes, but the effort by the adults who cooed over us was ruined when we returned from the garden for jelly and custard covered head to foot in sticky mud. It had been deliberate on our part, the day was dry and sunny, so we had gotten the garden hose out and decided to make a slide on the grass. It was Riley's idea, but I would have followed him straight into the Steeps if he'd asked. I took the blame, because it was my birthday, and Grandfather laughed as we climbed all over him covering him in muddy prints. One of the parents had captured the moment we entered with Grandfather's look of shock and our two grinning, muddy, mugs.
That night as Grandfather tucked me into bed, he told me that it was bad to lie, but if it protected the ones we loved exceptions could be made. He made me promise to never lie to him again, but said he would have done the same, if he had known he wouldn't get in trouble, he would have lied about the mud slide too.
The next day he made Riley water the garden and replant grass in the muddy patch we had left in our wake. I thought Riley would ignore me with all the determination of a busted seven year old boy, but instead he chased me around the garden and tackled me into a bush. I was laughing the whole time.
On the other side of the den is a door into my Grandfather's study, I was working up the courage to knock on the door when Riley entered. I spun around, embarrassed at being caught in hesitation and he just sighed and shook his head.
"Lunch is ready if you want it." He turned and I followed him into the kitchen. He sat me down and then piled my plate with stew and mashed potatoes. It smelt heavenly, and it was gone in the time it took him to plate up and get drinks. He just sighed and shook his head, taking my plate to the counter to serve me seconds, as he turned away I almost thought I saw a smile.
The second time around the food tasted better, because I had taken the edge off my hunger. Every few seconds Riley would pause eating as if he wanted to say something and then, as if he had thought better of it he would take a sip of his water and continue eating. It was driving me up the wall, so I put my cutlery down and stared straight at him. Suddenly his plate must have spontaneously combusted, it was the only explanation for the focus with which he was staring at it.
"Are we talking again yet?" He choked at the candid question. As a child he would sometimes ignore me when we had a really bad fight, my response to this would be to follow him around asking "are we talking again yet?" Eventually he'd give up and talk to me. Today was no exception.
"Well we can't live in the same house for a whole week if we're not talking." He said, neatly putting his fork down too. And for the first time since I had returned looked me in the eye.
"Why not?" I grinned at him. "We've gone way longer without speaking before." He didn't smile back like I thought he would, instead he lost my eye contact again and chased some potato around his plate.
"I'm still angry at you." I could deal with that.
Lunch was more civil after that, although still just a stilted. Riley told me about his work, he's been working for an old friend of Grandfather's for a long time as a mechanic, although now he's been placed in charge of training the new apprentices who have just joined. He told me they are all hard workers, but were slow to catch on. He asks me what are kids being taught in school. I said I wouldn't know, I hardly ever stayed in lessons, he just smirked at that. We didn't talk about my work.
After lunch I helped Riley wash up and then he said he needed to go back to work. Just before he was going to leave he hesitated at the door. The next thing I knew, I was being swept into a bear hug but before I could reciprocate he was making his way out of the door.
"I did miss you 'Elma. I'll see you tonight." Then he was gone, and was left alone in the hallway, not even trying to battle the big grin that was breaking out on my face.
I didn't know what to do with myself while Riley was gone, so I checked the dirty washing basket and sure enough it was full. I put a wash on, and decided to air my room. But once all the dusting was done, and there were no more chores to hide behind I knew I would have to face my Grandfather.
I stood in front of his office door for about 15 minuets before I got up the courage to knock. There was silence for a moment before a clipped "come in" floated from my Grandfather's inner sanctum. I pushed the door open and was hit by the strong smell of pipe tobacco. I breathed in deeply for courage and where there had always been a warm smell, similar to cinnamon, underneath the smoke, there was now only the smell of mould and neglect.
"Don't just stand there in the door, come in and sit down," my Grandfather barked. Before I knew it my legs had obeyed and I was perched in the over stuffed armchair facing the large, mahogany desk. Grandfather was reading a hardback law text, the pages yellowed with age and crinkled as his finger slowly made it down the page. "What can I do for you?" He asked without looking up.
My Grandfather started a law degree when he was my age but dropped out to marry my Grandmother a year before he graduated and settled in Raven's Rest. Grandmother was pregnant with Riley's father and his twin sister Agatha. A few years later she died giving birth to my dad. I asked Grandfather once whether he regretted moving to Rest. He said that sometimes things didn't go the way you planned them, but the universe had a habit of balancing things out. In Rest he became the editor for the local paper, and in his spare time he helped the community by offering free legal advice. He told me he would never have found his own slice of contentment if he had left my Grandmother to pursue his career. He loved our town, and the people who lived in it.
Over the last couple of years though he slowly pulled back from the town and isolated himself. He pulled back and buried himself in his books and his writing. When I was 17 he retired from the local paper, and that was the last nail in his carefully constructed wall. I realised later that he had been pulling back for far longer then a few years, that we had all been carefully manipulated to fall into place as his care providers. We were to be his minions, his servants in the real world, and what was worse we were forbidden from talking about the terms of our imprisonment with the community. For all that we were his conduits, we were just as isolated as him.
It didn't stop people finding out about the reason that 'Old-man Coor' was refusing visitors. No one would ask, but their pitying looks and whispers spoke words to me and Riley. Riley dealt with it by becoming even more of a social butterfly, I joined the Establishment as soon as I could as a wind catcher, because I knew that it would make Grandfather angry. The sad truth is that he never noticed. I just didn't factor into his world anymore.
Seeing what my Grandfather has become is always heartbreaking. As I sat in front of him, I noticed that he'd lost weight, his eyes had sunken. Hair had slowly migrated from the top of his head to his beard, which was now long and scraggly. His clothes looked wrinkled, as if he had been sleeping in them for a couple of days, and there was splatters of ink all up the white shirt sleeves. Grandfather has never revelled in technology and mechanics like me and Riley, and always refuses to do his personal writing on anything but old fashioned paper.
"It's me Granddad, Ellie." His face snapped up, his eyebrows drawn together, I struggled to keep the tears that were welling up from spilling. Then suddenly the fog in his eyes cleared and he smiled brightly at me.
"Of course it is, it's good to see you Ellie-Belly, shall we have a cup of tea?" I nodded and moved to leave but before I could Grandfather was looming over me. Then I had a nostril full of beard and I was being hugged for the second time that day. It was all a bit too much, I sobbed. Most of the men in my family are all over six foot, but I take after my mother, and as such my Grandfather's hug swallowed my whole body.
"There, there silly, why are you crying?" My Grandfathers voice cracked from years of smoking, shouting and laughing.
"No reason, I just missed you." I sniffled as he released me and wiped my nose on my sleeve.
"You are silly, I live here too." I know I should have explained, but I couldn't. I didn't want to upset him on a good day, so instead I just agreed.
We sat in the kitchen for half an hour chatting about books we had both read before Grandfather complained of exhaustion. It hits him suddenly and sometimes his speech pattern suffers. I helped him into the den and laid him out on the sofa. I went upstairs to fetch a blanket for him, and when I returned his eyes were unfocused, staring at the ceiling through heavy lids. I approached him quietly, hoping not to disturb his thoughts, but he snapped out of it as I lay the blanket over him.
"Thank you." He said, semi-focusing on my face. I pulled a footstool over and perched beside him, gingerly taking his hand. He retuned my touch with a light squeeze, far lighter then it would have been in the past.
"I have two grandchildren about your age." He said, his face covered in a soft smile. A fist slammed into my chest, squeezing my heart and my lungs. I just smiled back, the tears finally spilling over.
"Yeah?" I croaked out. He nodded and gestured to the picture hanging over the fireplace.
"That's them when they were little, cute kids." He said laughing lightly, his speech was slurred and his eyes unfocused again. "Wiley-Riley and Ellie-Belly." His hand slipped from mine, he was lost in his mind, and wouldn't emerge for some time. He wouldn't miss me.
There is a cupboard in the kitchen which is for emergencies only. Inside is a packet of cigarettes, a lighter, an envelope with an undisclosed amount of money, in varying currencies, spare keys to all the locks in the house and a bottle of vodka. When Riley was arrested for joyriding, we finished the bottle off and as punishment for being caught, Riley was charged with keeping the cupboard stocked at all times. Every time one of us made a mistake, the title of 'Keeper of the Cupboard' changed hands, but it was always well stocked. I grabbed the cigarettes and the lighter and headed into the garden, stopping at the fridge for a beer.
The sun was fading from the sky, casting long shadows in the garden, making it feel as if the world was slowly being eaten by darkness. I sat on the decking, stretching out my legs in front of me and smoked as I watched the sky burnout. A few hours, or minuets, later I was joined by Riley with a beer, he lit his own cigarette and pulled me against his side.
"I spoke to Granddad."
"He's lost weight."
Eventually we would make dinner, put Granddad to bed and then scurry off to our own rooms to hide, but for now I was happy to sit with Riley and enjoy being home. At least outside the house I was home.
I, once again, found myself in a pub, or rather the only pub in Rest. It used to be called the Raven's Wing, but after the second rebellion it's name changed, along with the management and it's now called Joe's. Joe is the man who owns it, although he spends most of his time out back, beating his wife. He is best-friends with the mayor and in a small town that means a lot.
Riley sat opposite me, chatting with his work colleagues. Soon their boisterous talk turned into a game of dice, the currency was rounds of drinks and it was to the sound of Riley's victory that I left the table. I made my way to the bar and ordered another drink. I wasn't ready to face the cheering of Riley's group just yet, but it was good to see that he is being looked after. He has friends here, more then he did before I left, or maybe I had never noticed him before. He was so quiet after Grandfather fell ill, I thought he was isolating the world, maybe he was just distancing himself from us, before we knew it he had left us emotionally. We didn't give him much reason to stay.
I was just walking back to the table when some idiot exploded from his seat and knocked me into the wall. I spilled my pint all over him and hit the wall, sliding to the grimy floor.
"Watch where you're going arsehole! You got me all wet." I recognised the voice of the idiot towering over me instantly, through the gloom I could see his greasy red face. Vince Lamont, son of the chief of police and professional creep. He was well known for his bar crawls, his father would be furious if he knew he picked on someone who knew their rights as well as I did. There were enough honest witnesses in the room to sway even a totally corrupt town council. I may not have been as well liked as Riley, but I was certain I was more well liked then Vincent Lamont.
"Back off buddy, it was an accident." Someone was getting in Vincent's face, blocking me from him. He was tall and looked like he might be one of the loggers who work out of the old barracks. I couldn't tell in this light but it looked like his hair was light-brown. It wasn't long before Riley was at my side, picking me up and dusting me off. I still hadn't seen my rescuers face but I could hear him doing a number on the Lamont boy, soon he had seated my wood be attacker, ordered another round of drinks. He was cracking jokes and Vincent was laughing so hard it looked like he would choke on his own spit, I kind of hoped he would.
"You alright Thel?" Riley was looking at me with concern. I was a lot smaller then Vincent, and had hit the wall pretty hard, but I was tough, and annoyed that Riley didn't think I could handle myself. Most of the beer had sloshed onto my chest, soaking the front of my shirt. My trousers were covered in grit and stains from sitting on the ground. Riley sent someone who owed him a drink to replace the one I'd lost while he sat back down at his table. The rest of the mechanics seemed a little cautious, still worried that trouble would start so they ignored the quiet conversation me and Riley were having.
"I turn my back for one second and your off picking fights." The comment didn't seem like much, but it was clear that Riley was angry at me.
"I didn't pick any fight, that shit-head bumped into me, I didn't even say anything."
"Honestly Thel, I just wanted a nice evening out, and you have to go and antagonise the chief of police." I was hurt that Riley thought I had picked the fight. I hadn't even known Vincent was in the bar. We had come to blows a few times when we were at school, he was two years older then me and in Riley's class. I managed to break his nose when I was 10 and did 2 weeks detention, he dislocated my shoulder and was suspended from school for a month. He didn't like me very much.
I didn't hang around much longer, Riley's friends soon drew him back into some game. He played with a vengeance winning the first round and soon getting lost in the second. They tried to entice me into joining, but I declined and went outside to catch some 'fresh air'.
Outside Joe's, shadows flickered along the peeling paint and cracked concrete. The dirty windows filtered the lights inside the bar to a pathetic imitation of illumination. The match flared in the dark air, fighting back against the gloom for a brief moment. This high into the mountains it is so quiet at night. I just stood on the rickety porch and stared out into the night. In the distance I could hear the storm bell ring, a warning that an electrical storm was on it's way, and we should stay within the town for safety. The door creaked in the still air, letting out a cloud of noise and stench from inside. I thought it would be Riley, coming to drag me back inside, I was surprised to be confronted with a man I have never met before. He had two drinks and as he made his way over to me he cleared his throat. Stan Clarke is the nephew of old man Clarke, not only my mysterious rescuer from Vincent Lamont, but also the person who I would be escorting in a few days to the outpost. He handed me a drink and introduced himself. I laughed when he said his name, and so did he when I explained what a small world it is. He seems like a nice guy, we chatted for while, and drank and smoke in between the silences. He's staying at a bed and breakfast only a few minuets away, we have arranged to meet tomorrow to organize ourselves for the journey.
Clarke walked me home. It was raining so hard each drop felt like an icy needle and transformed into wintry caresses as they slipped and seeped into our bones. I said goodbye to Clarke and walked up to the door, the house was as dark and silent as death. I made as little noise as possible, heading for the stairs when I heard muttering from the living room.
Granddad was drunk, his eyes weren't lucid and his hands were shaking. I collected a blanket from the sofa and made my way to where he sat, raving by the decaying embers of the fire.
"You!" He screeched, moving the brandy bottle out of my grasp, baptising the floor with booze. I flinched back as he lumbered to his feet and swung his knobbly fist back he furiously screamed, "What have you done?"
The first blow shocked me to my core, the second knocked me off my feet. Soon I was cowering beneath him, too confused that the only parent I had ever known was trying to kill me. I struggled against him and made a dash for the door, but he quickly blocked my way. He swung the bottle in a high arch as it to hit me again, but I was taking the stairs two at a time, running on instinct. My heart was hammering a million miles a minuet in my throat, slowly choking me with fear. The bottle didn't smash as it connected with the floor, not like in the leisure-vids.
I reached my room and slammed the door shut, grateful that the lock slid easily into place. I didn't stop to breath though, until I had wedged the bed against the door and hidden in the bottom of my wardrobe. I could hear my Grandfather yelling in the hallway. All I could do was pull an old coat from the rail and wrap it around me. I bit down on a sleeve to stifle the wail that was forcing it's way up from my gut.
After a few minuets the shouting changed, and another voice, Riley, joined my Grandfathers, along with sounds of a struggle. After a surprisingly short period of time, the noise ceased. It took me another minuet or so to work up the courage to leave the safety of the wardrobe. Then there was a soft knock on the door.
"Thel? Thel are you in there?" Riley sounded tired and a little shaken, but it was the only voice I wanted to hear in the whole world. I pushed the bed out of the way of the door, slid the bolt back and flung it wide. Riley was on the other side, arm held in preparation to knock again. When he saw my face his eyes darkened and he pulled me into a hug. We stood there for a moment, clinging to each other, two shipwreck survivors lost in the world, hoping to find a way home. He whispered my name into my hair and I just squeezed my eyes shut.
Eventually we broke apart, and with a shaking breath I explained to him what had happened. On discovering I had left the bar, he had decided to call it a night. It was a good thing too, he said, he had managed to sedate Granddad. I looked down the corridor, and there he was, slumped against the wall, just a drunk old man. The drug had taken all of the fight out of him, not strong enough to truly knock him out. His eyes were unfocused and his breathing laboured.
It took me a few seconds before I could help Riley carry him to bed, it would have taken longer but I found it almost a humorous thought to be afraid of such a pathetic lump. While Riley went to fetch him some water and painkillers for the morning I set about undressing him and tucking him in. I was about to leave when he grabbed my wrist. Three words rang out in the quiet air of the dark room.
Please… kill… me.
I ran, pulled back from my Grandfather and just fled the room, barging past Riley in the corridor. Shaking and confused, I think those words will stay with me for a long time. To my shame, after my initial revulsion faded I considered it. It would be so easy. I could inject him with a triple dose of sedative. I could smother him in his sleep. I could choke him with my bare hands. It would be over in only a few moments. I felt sick. I still do.
I packed my things and checked the weather report on the device given me for my work. The storm would be gone by the time the sun was up. Riley found me sitting in the kitchen. He had changed his clothes. He just stood looking out of the window for a while, I was surprised when he finally spoke to me.
"I can't stay. As soon as the storm has passed, I'll speak to Clarke and then leave." Riley nodded, he still hadn't looked at me.
"I heard." I didn't need to asked what he was talking about. "Are you going to do it?" I was stunned. Yes it had crossed my mind, but I don't think I could get past that intial revulsion.
"What do you mean, of course I'm not going to do it! How could you ask that?" And I suddenly knew, he could ask that because he had considered it. Grandfather had asked him too, and Riley was hoping I would do it and take the decision out of his hand. I choked on my stomach, the bile leaving an acrid taste in the back of my mouth. "Riley," I said, the whisper sounding impossibly loud in the small hours of the morning. I felt betrayed.
"It's all very well for you Tel, you'll leave as soon as you can. I can't, I'm here, I've watched our Granddad slowly decay and transform into that husk upstairs. Have you ever watched anything die? Of course I want it to end, he's not the only one suffering in this damn house!"
I was a coward, I left. He was shouting after me, begging me not to leave, telling me he didn't mean it, he was just tired. We all were tired.
My Grandfather had devoted his life to the cause of dignity and freedom. Somewhere inside his shattered mind was my Granddad, continuing that struggle. I couldn't help him, I thought he was wrong. I hated him for asking me, for making me an accomplish to his knife-edge ethics. I had always thought I was liberal minded, that people had a right to choose, but when tested all I found was that I was deeply disgusted that anyone would give up so easily. Was there nothing worth living for anymore? Were we, family, no longer a reason to fight, but instead a means to an end.
I wandered about in the rain for an hour. The town is dead at this time of night, and no one is stupid enough to walk in the rain. No one except me. Eventually I found myself at the B&B where Clarke was staying. He was surprised to see me again so soon. His cheeks were flushed from sleep and his eyes groggy. He stared, unblinking for a few moments until his sleep addled brain took stock of the situation. His eyes darkened and his hand gently reached for my chin, turning my head to the side too look at where Grandfather had hit me, which was no doubt painted with a vivid bruise by now (I could at least feel that it was swollen quite badly. He whistled low and long and then released my chin, I couldn't look him in the eye, suddenly afraid of what he would see there.
"I guess you better come in." He stood to the side and motioned me in. The room was small and clean, sparsely furnished, and what was there was built to be tough and functional not beautiful, but the walls were painted a warm terracotta, so it didn't feel as utilitarian as it otherwise might.
Clarke didn't ask me what had happened, he got me a set of warm clothes and a towel and then left me in private to change. When he returned it was with a token for the small space heater in the corner and a spare blanket. We argued briefly about who would take the bed, but I gave in sooner then was probably polite, Clarke didn't seem to mind, instead he commandeered the pillow, my thin sleeping mat and the warm quilt. That seemed only right.
We didn't hang around for too long the next day. I woke up and was all alone, so I took the advantage of the moment of privacy to wash and dress. He returned a few moments later with a covered tray that smelled delicious. Clarke shared his breakfast with me, although I have a feeling that Mrs. Greaves had taken pity on us and given him larger portions for his unsanctioned guest so that he wouldn't go without.
We didn't talk about the night before until we were well away from the town. The weather was pleasant with no indicators to the storm the night before. I remained on alert for pteroraptors for the whole journey, and having a second pair of eyes was a great comfort.
Clarke told me about the village he came from. I've never seen the sea in real life, only in vids and pictures. I told him this and he just nodded, promising to take me if I ever wanted to change that. There was an awkward moment when he asked me how my father was.
My father has been in prison since I can remember. There are vague images of a house in a city from my childhood, more smells and colours then shapes. He was sentenced with treason and the assault and accidental manslaughter of my mother. My Grandfather says that he would never have hurt my mother, but he keeps his mouth shut about the treason. When he was arrested by the establishment, he traded rebel secrets. Riley's whole family were implicated, and my uncle never forgave him. There were rumours that his death could have been suicide or possibly revenge, but it didn't make much of a difference, I no longer had to travel for days to visit him. I simply told Clarke that my father had passed away a while ago, he was sorry to hear that, in that awkward way people who have never met the deceased are.
Clarke asked me what I thought of my father's crimes, which has always been an uncomfortable position for me. My Grandfather never encouraged us to talk about our parents at home, afraid that we could be targets for their beliefs. Part of the reason he moved us to Rest was to get away from the rumours, but he had no love for the establishment. He believed it was corrupt and tailored for the strong and wealthy, not the people who really needed them. He had written articles saying as much when he was younger, before the censorship had been put in place, and after the censorship I suppose he just stopped.
I told Clarke that I knew that the Establishment had it's faults, but rebelling had killed both my parents and the anger had, in my eyes, broken my Grandfather. I couldn't fight because I knew it was useless, we just have to make the best of what we've got, I said. There was no point rocking a boat that would never sink.
I then asked him about his family.
"My mother was a teacher, she loved to read poetry. She met my father at work, he was a school inspector for the establishment. When censorship was brought in she joined the rebels and left my father. I don't know if she ever asked him to go with her.
Then one day, one of her contacts in the justice system warned her that someone from her faction had been captured and soon all their cover would be blown. She took me and fled to a tiny fishing village. The Establishment never found her, and if they did they probably would have left her alone, she couldn't cause trouble in the middle of nowhere. She died two years ago of a heart attack while gardening, and I finished my schooling and then came here."
I stopped dead, unable to make my feet move, a chill sliding it's way down my spine. Riley's face had gone dark, and when he noticed I had stopped in my tracks he smiled and turned to face me.
"The man who had warned her fled into the mountains, taking with him his godchild, as a favour to a friend. For many years I didn't understand my mother's reluctance to continue fighting, when she dies I joined the rebels and discovered something quite interesting with the help of my uncle. The man who had been arrested and betrayed us, was innocent. He hadn't known enough information to be of any use to the Establishment, but his wife's dear friend had known plenty. He worked in the courts of the Establishment for years. When they were betrayed all thought it was the man who had been arrested, but it turned out it was the lawyer, Simon Coor. He fled from the city, afraid that the rebels would find out what he had done, he had traded a whole faction of freedom fighters for the lives of his Goddaughter and her mother. However your mother was killed a few weeks before your father's trial and in another perversion of justice he was blamed.
For years we searched for your Grandfather to make him pay for what he did, only to find that he had taken in two rebel orphans. Riley really is your cousin by the way, he was sent to Simon when the investigation implicated his own parents. So instead of a monster, I found a confused old man. What kind of revenge is that? Is that justice? Does it change anything? I wanted to kill him, and failing that I would have killed you and your cousin."
I was confused, but to tell you the truth, as I write now, I find it hard to dredge up and explain the truest extent of my feelings. The only real thought in my head was that I had to stay alert, this was a man who wanted revenge, it had been denied him, but it could take the form of my death instead. I know that had it not been for that thought, I might have been lost in my own despair. I have thought about it, and I believe I will continue to think about my origins and family for the rest of my life, but I have come to the conclusion that it doesn't change anything. I will never know why my Grandfather chose not to tell me.
Stan was looking at me, I don't really know why, what did he want me to do, apologise? I could, but it wouldn't mean much. Did he want me to beg for my life? That wouldn't mean much either. So I just stared at him, waiting for the next move. I think I was scarred, but despite the rising panic (or perhaps because of it) I didn't move a muscle.
"So?" He said, spreading his hands out. "What would you do?" I honestly didn't know, I said as much. "There isn't much we can do, might as well keep walking." He said, and with that just turned around and continued walking. I didn't move for a while, It took me about half an hour to catch up with him when I finally did, and then we continued on in silence. I hoped he was keeping an eye out for pteroraptors swarms because I know I wasn't.
My mind eventually began to tick, and when it did, I couldn't stop it racing. Everything my Grandfath- Simon Coor, had ever told me was thrown into sharp relief. I couldn't trust him, I couldn't tell Riley, and the man who had been my saviour last night wanted me dead. I kept a careful eye on him until the outpost was in sight.
I was going to continue on to my own home, and leave him behind, but he just laughed and invited me to stay the night. There was no point me walking home now, I would have to camp in the forest, and that would be more dangerous then staying in the outpost.
"If I was going to kill you then I would have done it by now."
Old-man Clarke was suspiciously absent but I was thankful for that. Stan made me a sandwich and then we moved into the bar, and had a few beers. Both of us seemed determined to ignore the topic in favour of small talk, but eventually that ran dry. I surprised myself by being the first to broach the subject.
"Why didn't you kill me?" Maybe I was tempting fate here, but I wanted to understand him, I was compelled to get inside his head. He just shook his head and stared into his drink. If I had been in his place I don't think I could have answered that question.
I did not sleep well that night. I was visited by nightmares that would have be waking up choking on a scream, but when I tried to make any sense of them they vanished into the back of my mind. I gave up trying to sleep an hour before dawn and instead dug my cigarettes out of my bag and went down to the kitchen. When I had a mug of ghastly coffee, I went out onto the front steps to watch the day start.
The forest is quiet enough at night. There is a little noise from insects and nocturnal creatures, but it tends to soak into the general sounds of the mountains, I don't notice them so much anymore. Around dawn though, the forest changes, it become dead still, and then as if cued by some unseen force birds begin to sing all at once, although none will leave the safety of the trees until it's light.
That morning was like being in the centre of a storm, for a moment I could believe it really was over, that the world was back to being calm and boring, just like it had always been. I could pretend that Stan wouldn't be awake soon, and that I could come to the outpost without guilt and at I now felt.
Out of sympathy, and pity for his story, I hadn't expressed my anger to Stan for shattering my comfortable life, but I had realised at some point last night that I was furious at him. The anger was clean and clear, but brighter and easier to feel then any of the other emotions I had experience in the last week. I had clutched to it last night like a life-raft, but even that was washed away as the sun broke over the treetops that obscured the horizon.
I knew then that Stan Clarke would not have hurt me, I had come and asked for his help, and he could do nothing but give it freely. I also knew that had he killed me yesterday, I would not have fought back. Not because I agreed with the act of murder as virtuous or righteous, even with his sob-story, but because I didn't want to live. I couldn't face dealing with what had been revealed to me. I think I understood my Grandfather, I couldn't forgive him for what he asked of me, but I felt more at peace with his request. With that realisation arrived a feeling of resigned power. No matter what happened today, I would experience it, let it wash over me and in the end I would be there, not necessarily untouched but fundamentally unchanged.
I had not planned to make another entry into my diary today, but much has happened that I think is worthy of recording. From this moment on, I will no longer be entering my private journal into my electronic log, in fact I will no longer be keeping a log, as I am no longer a legal citizen of the Establishment.
Once the sun had ridden I gathered my things and prepared to leave. I knew that after my holiday there would be a few days of solid work before I was once again on top of maintenance. Temporary teams would have kept everything in check, but they often didn't have time to do more then rudimentary repairs on some of the more sensitive equipment.
I was in the foyer of the out-post, having rung the bell for assistance, ready to say goodbye when Old-man Coor emerged from a hatch that lead to the family's quarters.
"Thelma! That was quick, you got my message then?" I of course had received no message, and said as much.
"Oh well, it doesn't matter, you're here now. I thought it was quite quick, even for you." He made his way out to the small courtyard, motioning for me to follow.
"What did you need to see me about Mr. Clarke?" I had a sinking feeling that I would have to stay nearby for a while longer. I dropped my bag as we passed through the kitchen and out into the yard. No sense lugging about the heavy pack if I was going to be here for a while. I took comfort in the slim dart gun shoved into my boot however, after the last few days, I wasn't going to be walking around unarmed anymore.
Once we were outside in the yard I could see why Mr. Clarke had wanted to see me. The storm must have dislodged a branch and as it fell it damaged the roof. Stan and I had been too tired, we hadn't even ventured near the courtyard and had not noticed the damage. Not that we could do anything about it last night. The damage was primarily superficial, but if it rained the water would rush in, More importantly, when the branch had fallen and damaged the roof, the shield must have been damaged along with it, otherwise the branch wouldn't have broken through. If this was the case then the out-post would be extremely vulnerable to pteroraptors and the electrical storms themselves. That would have to be fixed before the repairs to the roof could be made, and since I was the only wind-catcher on the premises, I would have to fix it.
When Mr. Clarke had discovered the damage, he had messaged me in Rest to request our speedy return to help with the repairs, since the nearest communications officer was three days travel away.
I was pleased I had thought to carry my repair-pen with me. There would be one in the out-post, but the subtly that was required for really good shield repair was nearly impossible with an unfamiliar tool. I began work on the damaged shield modulator, only to discover that some of the wire casings for the conductors had cracked and worn away and lead to water damage. I replaced the wires, repaired the casing, and by lunch the shield was working at minimum efficiency once again.
After a pleasantly awkward lunch with Stan and Mr. Clarke, I fine tuned the shield, while they began clearing the debris from the damaged roof. At one point Stan accidentally dropped a very large chunk of wood on his own foot, and it took all of my will-power to remain straight-faced as he hopped and danced around the courtyard, swearing like my old training supervisor. Mr. Clarke didn't bother to try and hide his amusement, laughing long and loud and declaring it time for a break.
At 4:56 (I remember the time exactly because I was testing the shield's response time) we heard the bell ringing alerting us to someone's presence. We all stopped doing what we were doing and I looked across to the two Clarkes. Mr. Clarke looked at his nephew to see if he was expecting anyone, most people alerted the out-post that they were on their way, but Stan just shrugged and went back to tiling the roof. So Mr. Clarke climbed down and went to investigate.
I assumed that it was just another traveller who had stumbled across the out-post and decided to rest up, so when Mr. Clarke followed by two criminal investigators I was surprised. One was a potbellied man, with ruddy cheeks and thinning blonde hair, the other was a meek looking man who had thin lips, pursed with what looked like disgust.
"Thelma, these men would like to talk to you." I just nodded, my mouth oddly dry. I hadn't committed any crimes lately that I could think of. Then I remembered Grandfather's book, illegal under the censorship. I could feel the now familiar emotion of panic bubbling up inside my chest.
"One moment please gentlemen," I had learned as a child that when confronted with authority it was best to be polite as possible, and keep your mouth shut. I finished my work in less then a minuet and then sealed everything shut and put away my pen.
I followed Mr. Clarke into the kitchen, who pulled out a chair for me and then made some tea. The two criminal investigators had to seat themselves and were not offered any refreshments, to which they shared a look, but didn't comment. Once Mr. Clarke had left, the chubby investigator puffed his cheeks up.
"Thelma Coor?" The man's voice was surprisingly squeaky. I almost rolled my eyes, but instead I just confirmed that yes, I was Thelma Coor. He then asked to see my identification, almost as if he was stalling for time. I showed him my coms-badge and his partner verified it. Once that was over he cleared his throat and tapped the table with his fingers nervously.
"Thelma Coor, it is my duty to inform you of the death of your Grandfather." He went on to say that he had died early this morning, seemingly in his sleep, but that was yet to be confirmed by a coroner. Riley was missing, and apparently that was enough to make him the prime suspect.
"Miss Coor, I need to know where you were last night. A neighbour saw you leaving upset, would you care to explain?" The man had reached across the table but I withdrew mine. I didn't want him touching me in mock sympathy while he grilled me to see if I had killed my Grandfather.
"I was with Stan Clarke from when I left my Grandfather's house until I arrived here, he can confirmed that." My voice sounded distant to my own ears. At that point the other investigator left with a nod and some false statement of grief on my behalf, he was probably going to check my story with Stan. The fat investigator leaned back in his chair, the big pink face tilting into the harsh light of the kitchen, making it look more like a caricature then a live being.
"We knew that a nice, upstanding young communications officer such as yourself couldn't have been mixed up in any nasty business such as your Grandfather.." I looked at him sharply, and the corner of his lip twitched upwards, he knew he had my undivided attention. "We found quite a remarkable collection of contraband in your Grandfather's office, and it seems that he was in league with the enemies of the state." The man licked his great chops. "You wouldn't have any knowledge of that would you?" I shook my head no, pretended to be quite shocked by the idea.
"There must be some kind of mistake officer, my Grandfather worked in the Establishment Law department in the capital for many years." There was a grotesque burst of laughter from the lump opposite me.
"Sounds about right, you'd be surprised how many of the rebels infiltrate our good organisation." He said this with a wink as if he hadn't just accused me of treason. Uncomfortable my hand slipped from my lap and pushed my hair behind my ear. Too late I realised what I'd done.
"That's a nasty bruise you have there young lady," patronising pig. "How did that happen?"
"I walked into a door." He looked at me for a long time, probably trying to discern whether I was telling the truth or not. I had perfected my look of wide-eyed innocence in my youth, and it proved to have been a worth-while life skill.
"You should be more careful." Said the man, once again leaning across the space between us. I managed to dread up a smile from somewhere, although I'm sure it was as unconvincing as it felt. The investigator no doubt would chalk that up to the fact I had just found out my Grandfather was not only a rebel, but also dead, he wasn't expected to know I had lost my Grandfather along time ago. I mad my excuses and we went in search of his partner.
Once I was sure he had left I ran in search of Stan. I barged past Mr. Clarke in the who had come in search of me, and made my way out back once again. Stan was smoking a cigarette drinking a glass of water in the last of the day's sun.
I made some undecipherable noise of rage and launched myself at him, knocking him off his feet. He was shocked but it didn't take him long to grab my fists to prevent me from hitting him in the face, but I just squirmed and smashed my knee into his upper thigh, missing his groin, but still getting a satisfying grunt of pain.
He gasped something unflattering and threw me off him. As I landed I smacked my head. I felt him pin me under his weight. I was a spitting, hissing animal and the only thought in my head was that I wanted him to hurt. Instead of hurting me he held me still, swearing softly as I continued to fight him.
"I am not letting you go until you act like a rational human being," He said, his voice so calm, it only served to make me angrier. But I couldn't fight him forever and he knew that. Eventually I began to get tired and my struggles lessened, although the venom pouring from my mouth didn't lessen. I called him every word that entered my head. Murderer I screamed finally, fucking murderer. I think my heart was breaking.
"I didn't kill him" he said calmly, as if it was the truth. The fight left me even more suddenly then it had come one, and all that replaced it was a desperate sadness. I cried and cried and Stan just held me until it was over.
Mr. Clarke appeared and helped me back into the kitchen. A short while later a cup of tea was set in front of me, and that made me cry all over again. I poured it all out and when I was done I felt raw. As if someone had rubbed my soul with sandpaper. There was an empty space where my heart had been, and I was scared by the true depth of my grief.
After the tea had gone cold and had been replaced with a plate a food, Stan sat beside me.
"I didn't kill him Thelma." His voice was low and more serious then I could remember it being since we'd met, even more serious then when we'd journeyed from Rest just a couple days ago. He took my hand, and I didn't pull back, but I didn't respond. "I didn't kill him, but it's important that you know that I would have. That morning when you woke up and I was gone, I had gone to kill him, but I was too late, he was already gone."
I pulled away from him then. I had known he had wanted to kill my Grandfather, did it change anything that he didn't? I had wanted to kill him, Riley had, did that make us as bad as Stan?
"Thelma, I need you to listen to me, that morning when I left, Riley asked me to hide him. He said that he didn't do anything wrong, but he had seen something he shouldn't have seen, so I hid him. I sent him to stay with some friends." I blinked at him, surprised by his act of kindness, he had no love for my family, and I was surprised that he would do that. I should have given him more credit then that.
"They're going to come for me Thel," the Establishment, everywhere I went this year they were chasing away the ones I loved. "I have to go into hiding again. I think you should do the same."
"Where would I go?" My voice was rougher, it didn't sound like my own.
"Come with me?" I was shocked, again I should have given him more credit then that. By following him, I would be putting him at risk. We would be twice as likely to be found, I could betray him at any moment, and some darker part of me still wanted to kill me.
Hope is a strange thing, it made me believe that I could one day leave Rest and make something, even when all my teachers said I was a lost cause. I kept me going when my Grandfather first forgot my name. It woke me up some nights with memories of my mother, thinking she would be beside me. It made me believe I would see Riley again and it was hope that assured me he couldn't have killed our Grandfather. It was the only thing that made me wake up the next morning, pack my things and lead Stan to my little hut were I packed everything I valued, including my flight kit and follow him up into the mountains. When all the evil is in the world, hope is the last piece of light in the corner of your broken heart, it may be small, but it has the power to change the world. At least that is what I believed as we walked further then I had ever been in my whole life.
I thought I was in fairly good physical condition, turns out I'm not. It feels like we have been walking for days. My feet are slowly turning to magma in my shoes and all my joints are stiff from sleeping on the ground for far too long. I used to enjoy sleeping outdoors when I knew I had a cosy cabin to go back to, now that I am faced with the possibility that we could be out in the open for months, the idea is definitely not appealing to me anymore.
It feels like we have been out here months, although in truth I know it's only been a week and a half. We have been lucky with the weather, the spring storms have massed and the really bad summer ones have yet to emerge from over the mountains. Stan keeps promising me that we will find shelter before they arrive, but every time the wind picks up, he nervously checks his map (well it's more of a ragged doodle, but using any of the digital GPS equipment would mean we could give away our location).
We came close to getting caught on the second day, I hadn't realised that my glider had a tracking beacon built into it. When we realised Stan almost threw it over a cliff in a fit of anger. We could hear the trackers on our tail, stumbling through the undergrowth with no subtlety. I suppose you don't need to be quiet, when your prey is stupid enough to basically tell you where they are.
I managed to persuade Stan that we needed the glider, and instead we began a mad rush to find the tiny GPS chip. It was actually integrated into one of the straps and instead of trying to save it, I just cut it off and we dropped it into a nearby stream. It floated off down the mountain and we went in the other direction, hopefully losing the Establishment in the process.
One thing I have come to appreciate since joining Stan is that technology need not rule your life. I have been trained to believe that technology is helpful, it makes our lives better, my job was to protect, maintain and upgrade that technology. But what is the price of that dependency? I am beginning to think that maybe it is our freedom. I understand why my Grandfather valued his books, and refused to allow us to become reliant on technology like the rest of our small-town. If we would ever find ourselves without technology we would not be helpless.
That night I went a little way away from our camp to wash and think, and quickly found myself breaking apart all my electronic navigational tools. I salvaged what I could and buried the rest.
Another thing I am starting to miss is hot water. I never used to think about showers, but I miss them more then comfy beds. Up in the mountains the water is particularly icy and I am well and truly fed up of shivering when I want to be clean.
I like the stars out here though. They are more beautiful then you can imagine, I can actually see the bands of what must be our galaxy as the drift across the sky. You could see a lot of stars from the town, but I never looked up. Out here there are millions of little lights blinking in the sky each night, and they are the last thing you see before you sleep. I can't believe I never found time to just look at them before. They've always been there, it seems silly that humans spend so much time looking at each other when those little jewels create such beauty. They don't hunt each other, kill each other or try to hurt each other in anyway. They cannot love, but they shine so brightly that that doesn't seem to matter.
I don't know if you will ever get a chance to read this, as we cannot send letters by the conventional means, for fear of giving ourselves away. If you are still alive, I hope you are well. I have spent the last six months in the mountains and have seen sights I couldn't have dreamed of before. At first I felt like the Raven, a rebel hiding amongst the Steeps in the hopes that the Establishment will one day let me live a normal life. A recent run-in with some investigators has made me realise that may be unlikely.
The scariest thing that has happened so far was when we stumbled into a pteroraptors nesting site.
I have never seen a pteroraptors so close before, unless it was on the other side of a shield. I never thought that the shields would distort the image so badly. When you look at them, in a non-stressing environment, the first thing that strikes you is that they are quite beautiful. Their skin is paler when they are at rest, and the dark veins run like lace across their wing membrane. Their beaks are still as sharp but less threatening when you aren't being chased by a creature doing more then a passing impression of a demon. Instead most of the nesting pteroraptors were cooing softly to un-hatched eggs.
Stan had avoided telling me for fear of worrying him, in that moment I could have killed him. It was along the only safe path we could take, and it was out of season so it should have been abandoned. It wasn't and we had to kill four of them before we managed to escape. It's one thing defending yourself when they hunt you across you're forest, but going into a place where they are supposed to be safe and raise their young just didn't feel right.
That night we sat by the campfire and nursed our injuries Stan tried to lighten the mood with a joke. I just glared at him until he shut-up and then I turned away and pretended to be asleep. I kept up the silent treatment for three days until he finally snapped at me.
I will admit that I had no love for Stan's cause before Grandfather's death, I always though it was weak and ungrateful. I was proud that despite the lot we had been dealt that I had made something worthwhile, I now realise that the value I placed on that life was one marked out for me. That no-one really will be free as long as the Establishment stands.
They are not kind rulers. When we needed help they were nowhere to be found, in the remote regions towns and civilisations slowly begin to crumble and the weight of their own corruption. I thought Kookemoore was the best example going of this, I was wrong.
A few days ago we travelled through a place called Muldon. It at the end of the Steeps along the west-coast of the country. It is twice the size of Rest, but most of the buildings are derelict, and have been long left to suffer the elements. Stan told me it is a place well-known in the region for all the wrong reasons. We headed there to meet with some old friend's of his, had we not had a reason to go there, I would happily have avoided the experience.
There is a smell in the streets of rotting seaweed and stale bodies. Stan described it as the smell of the underbelly of the Establishment, I think he was being a little overdramatic, although it was not pleasant. As I have said most of the houses are boarded up, the only things that dwell there now are rats and vagrants. The local law enforcement are incompetent, and not encouraged to help any of the poor souls that find themselves stuck here. It is truly a place ruled by vice and squalor.
Having said that I have met good people there, whom we now travel with. They are a small group of around six families who earn their living where they can. They lead a nomadic lifestyle and as such fly under the radar of the Establishment. None of them have birth-certificates, and when they die their bodies are burnt on pyres and their ashes scattered. They never set foot in a hospital, school or any other Establishment building. As far as the government records department are concerned they do not exist. They are the perfect travelling companions if we ever hope to make it to the Southern boarder.
There are whispers of an army forming in the South, that is why we travel there. As we go we leave messages for others to follow, and hopefully they will follow, although we could reach the boarder and be greeted only by crickets. Alternatively it could be a trap that has been set for us, but we have decided that it's worth the risk, and the closer we get to the rendezvous place, the more cautious we will have to be.
We met our new friends camping on the beach along from the fishing docks of Muldon. Although the town is slowly decaying as it is given over to criminals and decay, it still has a surprisingly lively market. A small sign of hope at the heart of a dying beast. There are so many types of fish, all the kinds that you and me have only ever seen process and packaged. They are all laid out on display on the stalls, and most of them still have their heads. The smell is unpleasant at first, but after a while you get used to it. Stan bought us some dinner, all of it was stuff that would taste good cooked on an open fire, and I have a new love affair with prawns. They are a strange grey colour before they are cooked, with dark veins running along their shells, but they turn a bright coral pink when they are cooked. Stan kept laughing at my amazement, and I just threatened to trade him in for a giant prawn. He says there are really big ones in the southern waters, and has promised we can try some if we ever make it that far.
I hope we do, I wonder how big they get?
Wherever you are Riley, I hope the stars are as bright as they are here, and the company as good.
We have been travelling along the coast for 2 weeks now. When I first saw the sea I was amazed, it disappeared over the edge of the world, falling past where the monster dwelt in the old days.
Me and Stan have a routine now, we are sharing a caravan with a young man called Joseph who is quiet and spends his days doing odd jobs around the campsite or in the closest village. I offered to help, but for safety's sake I am not aloud out of the campsite during the day. Joseph's caravan is small and you quickly learn to overcome any outdated notions of privacy. As we travel through more populated areas Stan and I find ourselves hiding in one of the storage caravans or dressed up in disguise. We both have dyed our hair darker, and it is currently braided in the customary nomadic style. The first time I caught my reflection I almost introduced myself our new travelling companion. Every time I bathe, the water turns a dark green.
For the past couple of weeks we have moved further in land and have been travelling through wide open stretches of fields. Out here there are very few cities, most of the population is scattered across the vast country side in small farming communities. It is easy for us to pass unnoticed, especially since there are very few army barracks here. I guess the Establishment doesn't fear farmers and milkmaids.
There aren't many trees out here. I have spent my whole lives looking at endless trees and mountains, and now all I can see is grass and wheat and the occasional lonely oak.
At night the family gather around the fire and sing songs and tell traditional stories. The first night that it happened I was too shy to really join in. In moments like that I realise how truly far apart our lives have been until then. Joseph asked me to tell him about my family. Beside me Stan was stiff, but I said there really wasn't much to say. I never knew my mother, I don't remember my father, my Grandfather is dead and the only family I have left could be miles away. He said he was very sorry to hear that, I just laughed it off and said not to worry. Family is important here, and I think I miss what my family should have been as opposed to what they really are. Having said that, I think about Riley every night and hope wherever he is that he is safe.
Stan then told them all about the town he lived in as a child and the summers spent in the outpost at Rest. They told a story about how the world came to be. Apparently there was once a great monster who travelled through the sky, which is like a chaotic soup. From the soup he swallowed the stars, the earth and the first beings which would become us, and that is how we are travelling through the universe, inside of a benevolent cosmic monster. I've never heard a story that explains our existence, only the scientific theory. The Establishment doesn't approve of religion. Stan says that religion scares them, I think it seems silly to be scared of stories. Maybe one day we'll know the truth.
This evening I've been asked to tell a story, but I don't know many that would interest adults and children alike. Maybe I'll tell the story about how Raven's Rest got it's name. I should check with Joseph first, but it's always been one of my favourites.
The past few days we have been getting closer and closer to one of the few cities we will need to stop at on our long journey south. Joseph keeps assuring us that we wont be there long, we only need to stop and trade for the few things we can't pick up on the way, and to get one of the carts wheel struts mended. Stan says we'll be fine as long as we stay out of sight and don't do anything stupid. No one pays too much attention to travellers in a city as Large as Helm, but I notice the closer we get the quieter he becomes, and the longer we have to spend inside the carts each day.
In two days we will be inside the outer limits of the city, and we may begin to encounter soldiers and investigators more regularly. There is site not far from the city centre where Joseph says we will be permitted to set up camp. It is one of the few places inside the city limits that travellers are tolerated, so we wont be the only group there. It is a chance to socialise and that is where we will have to part ways and find a caravan travelling much further south then our friends will be able to take us. It will be sad to part ways but I will be glad that we wont be putting them in danger for much longer.
Today we have arrived in Helm, I have never seen so many people in one place before. The whole city is more of an exercise in the disparity of man then a place you would want to live. All the houses on the outskirts of the city are built out of lightweight materials and wonky brickwork. Joseph told me that apparently most of them moved in ages ago, part of the cost of the industrialisation that the Establishment required to feed their empire. They were only supposed to be temporary homes, but no one now has any money to built better accommodation for the bottom rungs on a long ladder of smog and machinery.
As you get closer to the city centre, the street begin to widen and the noise dies down, although there is still an underlying smell of decay. We made our way to the campsite, a long winding route that avoided the richer areas and the people who may be offended by the notion of a people who choose to spend their whole lives on the move.
The site is beside the entrance to the trade markets of Helm, which are inside massive glass roofed buildings with incredible wrought iron doors painted black to protect them from the natural effects of weather and time. One of the family elders told me later that the market buildings are some of the oldest in the city, and originally marked the outer limits of the city. It was were people from the countryside used to come and sell goods but now it's mostly craftsmen and women from the city, the produce has been pushed out back.
The campsite was a large paved area enclosed in high flint walls and guard towers, a reminder that while the travelling life style was tolerated, it wasn't truly accepted by many people. Inside the walls there were perhaps close to three hundred families all pressed in close performing their chores. There was noise and colour and the smell of dinner fast approaching. It took a while to find a placed for us to set up, apparently there is some sort of pecking order which decides where you should camp, but it looked a lot like chaos from where I was sitting.
For dinner we sat with not only the family group we had been travelling with but others close to us too. The whole event was co-ordinated by a fierce looking woman called Myrtle who soon had us all running around fetching water and monitoring fires. The stew tasted so good that I didn't mind the sore shoulders I received from lugging water too and fro all afternoon.
After dinner people sat around fires chatting quietly, I was used to music and laughter, but the mood was rather more subdued. I asked Joseph why there were no songs, and he told me that inside the city they had to keep the noise down so as not to disturb the permanent residents. If they made too much noise then they would be driven out of the city and the site would be closed.
It's hard to sleep in the city, strange noises and shouting in the distance tricks you into thinking that a fight is about to break out close to you. The calls of dogs and cats echo of the hard pavements and close buildings, turning them into shrieks of ghouls and other nightmare monsters.
We have left Joseph and his family behind in Helm. It was shame to leave them behind and there were a few tears shed in the departure (although Stan will still deny it if you ask him). Now we are moving further south with a group of merchants, the leader is a young woman called Camilla who seems to be constantly armed.
To pass the time, me and Stan have been telling each other stories. Although since we have now run out we are making them up as we go along. Entering into the spirit of things Stan began by telling me a story about a seal, although he spent a lot longer explaining what a seal was then he did actually telling the story. Apparently they breath air, but live in the sea, quite amazing. He has promised he will take me to see some one day. In return I have promised to teach him to fly.
He has tried to get me to give him the codes for the com tunnels and communication encryptions, but I said I would have to think about it first. I took an oath of loyalty towards the Establishment, and even though that Establishment has betrayed me, I don't think I can betray them. So far nothing I have done has broken that oath, and it may seem silly to Stan, but the day I took it was the proudest day of my life.
Camilla will be escorting us to the capital, where we will have to continue on alone to the boarder. In a few days we shall be stopping at a small town which is apparently famous for it's glass-works. Camilla tells us there is also an excellent artisans market there (the reason she is visiting there) and we will have a few days to relax. Due to the market there the locals are very used to people coming and going, and two more strangers will hardly be worth a second glance. It feels as though we have been on the move forever, and it will be good to stop and rest for a while.
Stan told me as we arrived in town that we needed to be extra cautious. The closer we got to the border the more Rebel activity there was, and the Establishment would be alot less forgiving down here. On the way into town there were hundreds of unmarked graves, the last resting places of the victims of the Establishments iron rod. Any rebels caught here would be killed and then buried, they were not even allowed a name in death, the ultimate punishment that the Establishment could think to give the traitors of this great country of ours.
We were walking through the market today when soldiers, seemingly appeared from noweher, were chasing a scraggly figure. As their prey broke free from the crowd one of them shouted stop. Moments later there was a flash and the loud roar of a discharged weapon. All noise in the market seemed to cease in that moment as the man cried out and fell to the floor. Hushed whispers began as the crowd inched closer, careful not to stand in the way of the furious soldiers, now bearing down upon their victim.
At first I couldn't see much, people had formed a ring in the square and had become an almost impenetrable barrier but I could hear the moans as the criminal was beaten by the unyielding guardians. Stan tried to pull me away, and I heard him swear as I broke free and made my way to the front of the crowd, careful to keep my face hidden. I couldn't follow him because as another blow was landed on the prostrate body I knew that it was Riley.
"Scum!" said another guard, his heavy black boot making a dull thud as it connected with his chest, silencing his cries as my cousin tried to breath. He curled himself around his stomach, but the soldiers merely refocused their attack on his kidneys, he would be pissing blood for weeks.
I had had enough, and as one of the guard reached down to pull him to his feet, I made to stand beside him, but Stan was there again, holding me back, hand clasped over my mouth so that I wouldn't say anything to give us away. I struggled against him, but my movements were once again absorbed my the crowd who shifted to follow the soldiers and their prize to the main square and the fountain.
"This man has been found guilty of treason, murder and atempt to evade justice, and so has been sentenced by the Establishment to be put to death." There was a gasp from a woman beside me, but other then that, the crowd was desperately silent. Behind Stan's hands, my mouth worked to draw in air that suddenly seemed too thin. It was Riley, I had to do something.
Riley was forced to his knees, his eyes dead, his lips thin and pale. I wish I could say he looked like a brave man, ready to face his end, but in truth he looked like a terrified boy, who had been caught stealing from the teacher's desk. Stan's other arm came up around my torso and pulled me into his body. I think he was offering comfort, but it felt more like he was restraining me.
I wanted to get away, I didn't want to see my cousin shot in the centre of a small town hundreds of miles from our home. I couldn't though, Stan held me close, and deep down I felt as though I owed Riley this. I had gotten him into this mess and this was our punishment. He would die, and I wouldn't take my eyes from his face as the gun was raised to his temple and the trigger pulled.
Another shot rang out, echoing loud in the packed square, absorbed by every body watching, felt in my very soul. Somewhere a dog started barking and a woman or too wailed. I don't know if they knew Riley but I didn't feel as though they had the right to mourn his loss. I was his best-friend and I could shout, I couldn't scream, I just forced myself not blink as his body hit the floor and blood poured from the gaping wound that had ripped half of his face off where the bullet had exited.
His eyes were closed, and I was thankful for that, I didn't need to see the life fade from them. It was enough seeing how the body, more like a lump of meat now, didn't even jolt as the guards continued to empty round after round into his body. Once they had deemed the corpse dead enough they simply turned and left, leaving the body to be stripped by passing oportunists and eventually dragged away and buried at night, so that none would know where this man had found his final bed in the cold earth.
I tried to pull from Stan once again but the fight had left me, and he didn't find it difficult to pull us into an alley and then into his arms. We stood for a long time, him making barely audible noises, that I suppose were supposed to be comforting, and me simply silent.
"We have to leave." He said, I just nodded
"In a minuet, just give me a minuet."
That night as we left we saw a cart carrying the body of my cousin, and Stan let us take a detour to watch the burial from behind a warehouse. We waited for the undertakers and their thugs to leave before I left the necklace that Riley had given me for my 13th Birthday, buried in the freshly turned earth.
We are now on our way to the capital alone. We left Camilla and her friends behind, deeming it too dangerous now to put others at risk, besides, we would less likely be caught if we are a smaller number.
There is an empty space where my heart should be and the edges of it burn. I can't seem to make the sickness in my stomach fade. Stan says that it will with time, but I don't think I will ever be able to rid myself of the image of Riley on his knees, pale and sweaty in the bright southern sun.
The image woke me from my sleep, and now I am too scarred of it to try and sleep again.
Today we entered the woodlands surrounding the capital city. Stan tells me that they were first planted before the Establishment came to power and were cultivated to support a large deer population the King and his court would hunt in the summer. Now they are ignored, and work as a natural barrier. We have had to be incredibly careful While traversing it as the army use it for training purposes, although it is unlikely that we would encounter any troupes this time of the year.
The woods are different from the ones at home, the trees here are broad leafed, and loose their leaves in winter. This means that the ground is littered with crunchy orange leaves in the autumn and the trees are completely bare in winter. For now the leaves have only just begun to change, and so the floor is covered with only a few gold specks.
There seems to be a greater variety of wildlife here too, probably because there are no pteroraptors here to feed on them. I saw a fox today, just out in the open, bold as brass. It zipped away when it saw us, but it didn't seem too bothered by our presence.
Stan tells me that when the Raven first rallied his rebel army to try and fight the Establishment, this is where they hid for years undetected. Deer still roam the woods in impressive numbers, although it is now illegal for anyone but the army to kill them. That didn't stop us tracking one down and having it for dinner. They are quite beautiful, they seem to be made of light and shadows, dappled to match their surroundings. We took down a young male, after three failed attempts. The meat was rich and we have left it drying on the fire so that it will last longer in our packs.
Stan recons it will take us a few good days of travel if we wish to avoid the capital, originally we had planned to stop there and see if we could make contact with any one from across the boarder, but the Establishment is aiming to completely eradicate the rebel threat. We learned that Riley wasn't the only rebel caught and killed. The numbers of possible friends are rapidly dwindling as the prisons slowly fill and the gallows are prepared. If we are caught we would make fine examples to the general population.
We spent another day hiking through the woods. As we walk we are picking up any edible berries and nuts that we find. I should thank the Establishment for the extensive knowledge of the plant life. When in training you are equipped with survival books that list useful techniques and extensive notes on how to find food and where. It has made our meals far more interesting, until this point we had been relying on dry rations and food given to us by our travelling companions. We have yet to find mushrooms, but Stan recons they will be plenty as we enter the deeper, darker parts of the woods.
We no longer tell each other stories as we travel, too concerned with the long list of aches that have returned from the mountains in full force. I had enjoyed travelling with the caravans, where good food and comfy beds were readily available. The hard ground and constant moving has left me aching in places I didn't know existed. Everything is stiff and painful, it is a miracle I am able to gather the strength to move in the mornings. I know from past experience that soon we will become accustomed to the lifestyle, but as it is I have the tunnel vision of a being in pain.
At night my dreams are no longer haunted by thoughts of Riley. Instead they are the empty landscapes of the exhausted. For that I am grateful.
We have finally left the endless woods of the capital, although now our party is much larger then it was before.
It was early evening when we encountered the first in our party. We were sitting by the fire having dinner, being particularly talkative about nothing in particular. A twig snapped off to the right somewhere. Nothing to be alarmed about, but movement of the ferns and undergrowth seemed to indicate that it was something larger then the usual wildlife, and not even a stupid deer would venture this close to a fire.
Stan signalled for silence and I reached for my crossbow as he gathered his pistol. We began to circle the fire silently, careful where we let our feet fall so as not to give away our location as we moved to where the rustling was still going on. A mistake, heralded by the cold press of a gun against my lower back and the hiss of "drop your weapons".
Stan, for all his intelligence whirled to cover me, but all that did was enable the other person hiding in the bushes to ambush him. There was brief tussle, but Stan was no match for the element of surprise. In few moments we were disarmed and being patted down for concealed weapons, I didn't have the heart to tell them they were wasting their time, besides, I doubt that would have stopped them.
Then began the longest and most tedious interrogation I have ever been through. They sat us down away from the fire, and began asking us question. Who were we? What were we doing here? Who sent us? At first we were extremely reluctant to answer them, but it soon became apparent that they weren't with the Establishment, and even if they were, it didn't matter if we said anything, the only person I could incriminate was sitting beside me, and his patience seemed to be wearing thin.
When we realised we were all on the same side they helped us up, clapped us on the back and asked if we would like to join them. The man's name was Paul and the woman was Irene. They were part of a small band of 10 freedom fighters who were hoping to break free some of their friends before they were processed and sent to a maximum security prison. They only had a small window of opportunity, and once they had succeeded they planned to cross the border like ourselves and either find the rebel army or create their own.
They explained their plan to free their friends and that is how we found ourselves sneaking through the city streets, heading straight into the wolves jaws at the Investigation Headquarters.
The easiest part was actually gaining entrance, the rebels had someone on the inside who let us in and lead us to the cells, bypassing the usually security measures, and distracting the on-duty guard as we slipped the keys from the wall and headed to discreetly open the doors when we were given the signal to say that the security system had been taken offline without any glitches detected.
What I saw in the cells almost made me loose my dinner. I have vague memories of visiting my father in prison. The rooms were uniform, to match the prisoners, and everything had a vague smell of bleach and cigarettes. This was very different.
The prisoners kept here weren't considered dangerous, and indeed were often low level rebels and petty criminals, many too young to know any better. The recent crack-down had lead to serve overcrowding. Cells designed for one or two people were now holding up to ten adults and more children. The rooms were freezing and smelt of disease and death. In more then one room there was a dead body covered with a thin blanket to hide from the wide-eyed prisoners. We let all the captives free, but only a few would be fit enough to bring with us into the woods. Many would hide in the back alleys or be recaptured in a matter of hours.
Once all the cells had been emptied we were able to overwhelm and round up the few remaining Investigators who were unlucky enough to be on the night shift and locked them in the cells. This would prevent them from raising the alarm and give them a taste of their own medicine. Once they had been dealt with we once again snuck out into the night, separating into small groups to maximise our chances. It was deceptively easy, and I was expecting the ball to drop any minuet and discover that it had all been a trap. It wasn't until we made it back into the woods that I found myself breathing comfortably again.
Once we were back at camp, Irene (who had proven herself to be a calm and capable leader) explained that it would take days of wandering between various points in the woods before the group became whole again. She explained that leading a rebel life included not only a lot of failure, but a lot of waiting around to discover whether or not your friends and family had made it. I didn't feel the need to tell her I was aware of that brutal fact personally, but I was.
The next few days we found ourselves seemingly randomly wandering the woods, occasionally meeting with other groups. The only signals that I could discern were the occasional bird calls, but Stan explained that as we walked some of the group would leave signs telling those who knew how to read them where we were going. Whenever we did meet a new group we didn't join them as I had previously thought. Instead Irene gave new orders and once again we separated. Each small band would make their own way to the border, each taking a different route. The hope was that the Establishment couldn't stop all of us.
On the second day Paul left our group to join another, his group would be heading south-west, where as we would be travelling south-east. Eventually, Irene said, we would reach a river, and follow it across the border.
It was shock when we finally did leave the woods. I hadn't realised it but my eyes had quickly adjusted to the lower levels of light caused by the dense plant-life. Despite that it was pleasant to once again be out in the open. Although it was more dangerous as we would be easily spotted, it would also be easier to spot anyone following us.
Beyond the woods were lush grasslands, however they soon gave way to dryer plains broken up only by rocky outcrops. The river we were following prevented the plains from becoming a desert, but even at this time of the year the sun was surprisingly unrelenting and I was soon missing the frequent storms of my home region.
Irene has promised that tomorrow we will reach the last settlement before the border (Pioneer's Point), there we will be able to purchase horses which will make our jobs much easier. I explained that I didn't know how to ride, and she just laughed and said I would have plenty of time on my hands to learn. Once we reach Pioneer's Point I will have travelled from one point of the country to the other, a feat few have accomplished, and one I never dreamed of.
We are now travelling by horseback, although it will still be at least two weeks of riding alongside the river until we reach the border. After Pioneer's Point the river cut through the landscape and formed the bottom of a enormous canyon. For fear of flash floods we are riding along the top, although we must periodically climb down to get water.
I have now gotten used to riding, although I am unsure whether or not my horse has gotten used to me riding it. The first morning after a full days riding and I was once again aching in new and interesting ways, although Stan was having a worse time and I have noticed him wincing every time he has to get on or off his faithful steed.
Two days after leaving the settlement, we realised that we were being followed. As soon as the sun had gone down, Irene sent two scouts to track back and see if they could see who was following us. Our worse fears were realised when we heard that it was a group of around twenty soldiers, we were vastly out-numbered, and the horses were starting to flag after two days constant riding.
We sat around the fire that evening, careful to make sure that the smoke wouldn't act as a beacon and give away our position, arguing over whether or not we should push on or turn back. I knew where I stood on the issue.
"It would be stupid to fight them, we are outnumbered almost two to one and they probably have better weapons. We would be picked off before we were even in range."
Sadly I was outnumbered. The general consensus was that we wouldn't be able to outrun them either. It would be best to lay in wait, while we still had energy and plenty of supplies and pick them off. Nobody said what we were all thinking, that no matter how well we hid, the chances of us succeeding were slim at best. Our only advantage was that Irene had been raised in Pioneer's Point and knew the canyon better then anyone. So we plotted and planned.
We chose a suitable out cropping that overlooked the river bed below and set up a decoy camp with a burning fire. We also left our horses there, and our spare clothes and blankets stuffed with dirt to make it look like we were sleeping. Then we hid ourselves amongst the over hanging rock and laid in wait. We had been sure to make sure that our tracks were clear leading down to the camp, but carefully disguised them leading to our posts.
We waited there for hours, every noise had my finger tightening on the trigger of my crossbow. Beside me I has a rifle, for when I ran out of bolts, but I knew that I would stand little chance of hitting the broadside of a barn from this distance with an unfamiliar weapon.
After the first hour I had forgotten what it felt like to feel anything but anxiety. After the second I was willing to save the Establishment some money and put myself out of my misery. It was the whinnying of horses that alerted us to the arrival of our prey.
When you spend the best part of a year on the run, there is a heady sense of power when the roles are reversed and you become the hunter. We waited until they had dismounted and begun to sneak up on us, if it hadn't been for our vantage point then they probably would have succeeded. The moment they were within range some one off to the left of me fired, I took that to be the signal to start shooting and a fire fight began.
I'm not sure how long it lasted for, my heart was hammering in my head, and I soon lost the feeling in my fingers from the vibrations, and my shoulder hurt. I was right about the rifle, I almost dropped it when I let the first shot off. I'm not sure how many people I killed, if any. Stan said one guy looked like a pin cushion, he said it with a big grin on his face as if I should be proud of that. I wasn't I felt a bit sick.
We lost two people, and Stan has a nasty hole in his shoulder and the soldiers who managed to get away will simply regroup elsewhere, contact the local barracks and come after us again with more guns and less patience.
We are now pushing the horses as hard as we can, we have to reach the border within the next 9 days or our journey will end prematurely. We are on the move constantly, stopping only when we can no longer go on. The horses are exhausted, we are exhausted, but with out the constant stops to set up camp we are hoping our journey will be dramatically reduced.
We are five days away from the border, and we have yet to spot any more troops, but that doesn't mean we have slowed. Irene has taken us by a shorter route, we will be easier to spot from a distance, but that doesn't seem to matter now.
Stan's arm has become infected, and when I changed the bandages this morning I could smell the disease coming from it. I had to swallow down bile as I tried to wash out the worst of the muck. Without clean water and rest I am worried that it will only get worse. He is still telling jokes, but he is becoming feverish and having trouble staying on the horse on his own. I have doubled up in the saddle with him, sitting behind him so that he can lean back and sleep occasionally. My front is soaked with his sweat and he has been shivering since this morning.
We are only a day away.
This morning we spotted smoke on the horizon, we are unsure whether or not it is friends or foes, but Irene and a man call Mark have gone to find out.
Stan is no better, and now he barely spends any time awake. I haven't left his side and fear the worst.
Thank-you to everyone who has stuck with this story to it's completion. Sorry it took so long, but here we are. I am still unsure whether or not to give you all the closer that you no doubt deserve. I do have an alternate ending, and if you want to see it then I can upload it, maybe on my birthday (lol)
Until then, thanks again to my lovely Beta Lianoid and all who helped me finish the longest story I have ever completed. Looks like I have to get back to writing the Avalon series now lol.