Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Stalker-Part 5

Ken and Tom took the men under their command east along the Great Wall, following the old highway that ran parallel to it, the next morning. Slowly, steadily, they marched across the vacant and crumbling remains of suburban settlements. All about them stood remnants of the world that died years ago: long-looted superstores, cleaned-out clothing stores, gutted garage, rusted-out restaurants, offices obliterated, cars and trucks crashed or trashed, and even the highways itself cracks and crumbles as the years of neglect allow wear and tear to inflict damage unthinkable before the fall. What once took hours to traverse, as all remembered, now took days but after about a week they arrived at the west bank of the river—the water that sliced through the ruined city—and again rested.

Tom spoke little to Ken, but thought often of his Sally; Ken, in turn, sensed that Sally often worried over and wished for her father’s safe return. The men, ever centered in their own desires, thought mostly of the day’s matters when not lusting over the women that Ken told them of weeks before. This the men spoke of often, and they did again as they made camp that night. Ken and Tom, despite the coolness between them, sat at the fire together.

“What now?” Tom asked.

“We go downstream from here, passing the Great Wall. Now I put a question to you: do we march, or do we make a raft and float towards your library and factory?”

Tom thought on it a moment.

“I say that you make a raft, and while you and the men do that I scout downstream. If you take the time to make a large raft and enough poles to ensure that you can either come back upstream, or convert to a cart and come out overland, then I can clear at least part of the way south into the city.”

Tom’s look seemed to Ken as if Tom thought Ken to be insane.

“Come now, Tom.” Ken said, “I merely gave you advice on how to proceed.”

Tom shook his head. “You really don’t see why I might be angry with you?”

“I do. You’d not be a man if you cared not for your daughter, but I remind you that it was you that sought me out. If you honestly thing that you can use me and toss me aside like you did to all of your workers in your old life-“

“I did no such thing!”

“You did so, Tom. I know you did; I dug up the files, hunted through the archives and tracked the victims of your indifference down so they could be interviewed.”
Tom’s face made plain the shock he felt.

“You were part of the team suing me?”

Ken nodded. “You can hide behind laws about shareholder value that no longer exist, but the fact is this simple: you got your wealth off the backs and brains of the men you brought into your service, and when they broke down you threw them away like so much trash.”

“So, this is all some ridiculous revenge?”

Ken laughed. He laughed loud and long at Tom.

“No, Tom. The irony of our destroyed world is that you have the chance, really and truly, to make good on all your past sins. Yet you still have old habits, and it is those habits that may yet see you to your own downfall.”

Tom again looked at Ken as if Ken were insane.

“Tom, you and I both know that you don’t want any of the other men to lay hands on your daughter.”

“That doesn’t mean that I’m keen on you doing that.”

“You won’t care once the pressure’s off. Right now, as we speak, Sally’s starting to see me as your best bet for getting out of this in one piece. She’s also starting to see me as her best chance to get out from under the same dark cloud that dominates you and your household.”

Tom almost protested, but then he remembered the ring that Ken placed in Sally’s care.

“She’s a woman. She can’t help what’s happening to her anymore than her mother could at that age. Fancy becomes fantasy, and that surge of desire does all sorts of things to girls her age. All I’m doing is making it work for me.”

A couple of the men approached them, handing Tom a stick with a fish skewered on it.

“Now back to the choice at hand, Tom: raft or no raft?”

Tom bit gingerly into the charred fish, but could not shake the nagging thought that this mutant—formerly some sort of investigator for the lawyers that sued him before the Cataclysm—is now the zed-devouring mutant running around the blasted wastelands like some mad beast of a man that stalks the walking dead, kills them and eats them as if they were deer or moose.

Just then, Tom got a flash in his mind, an idea as thoughts crossed in his mind and sparked like live wires short-circuiting: Ken isn’t thinking of this any differently than he does a common zed hunt; it’s all the same to him- and this is all just a hell of a ruse to get what he wants. Yet, Tom wasn’t sure that getting Sally really is what Ken wants; going to all of this trouble, antagonizing him while showing him
the way to the stuff he wants—even providing him with the solution to his morale problems—and other hot-and-cold stuff just boggles him.

Ken sensed Tom’s confusion. He called over one of the men, who handed Tom a bottle.

“Drink,” Ken said, “it’ll do you good right now.”

Without thinking, Tom took a long drought from that bottle.

“Now Tom, again, do we make a raft or not?”

Tom now realized that he took a heavy drink of the moonshine that the men often brew from the crops. He passed the bottle to Ken, again turned his eyes to the mutant and finally answered Ken’s question.

“We raft our way down.”

Just then, Tom stood up and he called the men together.

“Rest well tonight, men. Tomorrow we scour the banks for suitable trees or scrap to make a sturdy raft and a set of poles. Once done, we’ll float our way downriver to our targets.”

The men, noticing Tom’s demeanor, smiled and chortled approvingly.

“We’ll drift like the rest of the river junk that’s gone by since the Cataclysm into the city ruins, get what we came for and then make our way out before any of those monsters know we’re there.”

Then one of the men said, “Then we get our women!” and the others cheered.

“Yes, after that you get your women, like reaping wheat at harvest.” Ken said, “Those cold caves will seem as Hell itself once you men return them to proper living at your farmstead and return them to civilized living.”

Watches assigned, the men retired in good humor. Starting the following morning, Tom got the men organized into foraging and building teams while Ken headed out on his own to scout downriver. The mutant woodsman disappeared into the brush, moving swift as a wolf, knowing certainly that no zeds would be near the banks for miles. Once out of sight, Ken broke into a run; drawing on reserves no ordinary man possesses, he ran for hours at that wolf-like pace, easily passing under the Great Wall and entering the Necromancer’s domain.

It wasn’t a mere crossing a wall; the stench of death, of unnatural wrongness, quickly filled his senses- he knew that he passed an invisible, supernatural border as well as a physical one. However, Ken’s senses soon became overwhelmed; the power concentrating into the city’s heart seemed to Ken like walking into a recently-used charnel house: he couldn’t discern which scent came from where, as they all got swamped by the greater environment, and he had no time to adjust.

Still, Ken ran downriver until midday, where he found a suitable landing site for the group to beach and camp; he spent the afternoon retracing his steps after marking the spot so it could be seen from the river. He passed back under the Great Wall, and returned to the group a few hours before dusk as the group gathered for their evening meal of charred fish and what other stuff they found or hunted nearby- some squirrels, a feral cat and provisions brought from the farm.

Ken saw that the raft was no slipshod job. It was a handful of fallen tree trunks acted as pontoons; all in a grand example of lashing things together with twine- the Boy Scouts would be awed. Around the fire men careful charred ends of pole-sized trunks, easily two or three times the height of a man in length; Ken saw that at least one of the men knew what to do in this task, and in Tom’s face Ken saw that he wasn’t that man.

Tom, seeing that Ken didn’t press the issue, said “You go ahead and we’ll meet you.”

Agreed on a course of action, the pair and their company strike camp the next day; the men found neither complaint nor cheer in Ken’s going ahead- especially once they set off from shore, for that was when they glimpsed Ken’s ability to quickly cover ground. However, as they passed under the Great Wall, their attention turned away from the mutant and towards the sights—or lack of them—about them.

Only Tom and some of the older men had been here since the Cataclysm and none of them in the last decade. They expected more of the ruined houses, stores and businesses that litter the towns and suburbs that once ringed the city; they found about them naught but denuded shores and empty land, as if the urban development that once covered the space within the Great Wall had never been at all- all that is now are grass, rocks and trees.

The sole exception is in the south, downriver, where the skyscrapers once stood. There, rising like a hideous blasphemy of antiquity, they saw a massive ziggurat. Even from a distance they saw that it didn’t displace the skyscrapers of the pre-Cataclysmic world, for it gleamed as if made like one, but sickly so. Tom, using an old pair of binoculars, looked long at it; he saw in it concrete, rebar, tar, brick and other repurposed materials mixed in with that glass.

“My God!” Tom said, “It’s as if the old downtown were melted down and recast as that thing!”

Tom passed the binoculars around the company, and each in turn looked about them. Each in turn added their observations to Tom’s own.

“The old city’s gone!” one man said, “What makes you think now that either this library or that factory is still there?”

“What happened here?” another said, “This isn’t a ruin- it’s a city of the damned!”
Swiftly the men erupted into a clamor, but being confined to the raft they had to check their enthusiasm, which Tom thought wise to exploit.

“Ken awaits us downstream.” Tom said, “While I don’t trust him in all things, he’s still a zed-eater and thus no friend of whatever ripped up our old city and put this inhuman growth in its place. Let us meet with him, as I promised, and we can talk about it once we’re camped.”

The men quickly agreed to follow Tom’s lead, but the alien character of the world within the Great Wall kept them unsettled and on edge for the rest of their downriver travel. Tom spotted Ken’s signal fire from far off, ensuring that he and the men would make their rendezvous without incident; once they made landfall, Ken quickly got the men ashore and helped to drag the raft out of the water. Then he brought them near the fire.

“You now know that things are greatly changed here.” Ken said, “We are in the domain of the Necromancer, and must be cautious. From this point on, only I may go off alone; you men are but ordinary men and as such are vulnerable to the Necromancer’s deceptions and guile. His powers are weak against me, and he knows it. But, as yet, we have the advantage, for he does not yet know that we are here.”

Distantly, atop that very ziggurat, a cloaked figure said in answer “Yes, I do.”

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