Diana watched the body floating in the ocean. Lifeless current lifted the limp body up one wave, then buried it under the next. Diana almost envied the body...(https://amazon.com/dp/B0BC2LLB1F)
Chapter 1 - Survival is not enough
Diana watched the body floating in the ocean. Lifeless current lifted the limp body up one wave, then buried it under the next. Diana almost envied the body. On her belly, under pine boughs and needles, atop a pine tree covered hill, she hadn’t moved in hours, had stayed motionless—except for her eyes—through the depths of night. Now, her eyes tracked the lifejacketed body as it surfaced from under the wave while the rest of her body solidified into stationary torment, muscles screaming for a stretch, joints—especially her ankle—shouting for a shake, her mind silencing them lest she reveal her location to the targets she tracked. If they found her before she found them, she’d share the fate of the body in cold water below.
Most nights, she could move, was moved by the beauty of her observation post. She moved around the forested hill, looking over a cliff from different vantage points under the pines, looking past the saturated greenness of spurge laurel, skunk cabbage, and stinging nettles, looked down a hundred sheer feet to the wide, sandy beach, and Pacific Ocean below. Most nights, she took in the view, until boredom overtook beauty and her thoughts drifted home.
What passes for home these days, Diana thought. Mother would be asleep. Russell would be bathing. She suddenly wished it was one of those boring nights.
Now, there was no boredom, but a body. Now, only her eyes moved. Motionlessness was a necessity in the new world, one practiced regularly when hiding from the myriad of things that could—and would—kill: people—the few that were left—cicadas, hornets, bats, and drones—aerial, remote-controlled drones that looked like cicadas. Staying still didn’t always work with drones. She wished she knew exactly how they tracked, wondered how many times she’d narrowly escaped them, and thought it was funny how often she had, since she was supposed to be tracking them, since she’d become a scout for NatureAid.
It’s only been two years, she thought, feeling older than twenty-two, feeling she’d lived two lifetimes: Before and after. I am twenty-two, right? Twenty-two if it’s March. Having been born on February 29th isn’t a big deal anymore, now the world has fallen apart.
Happy belated birthday. Diana decided it was March, 2038.
While it was happening, it felt like the world fell apart slowly. First, weather changed. Then, people changed.
Or, maybe they just went back to normal, to how they were before civilization. Maybe they didn’t change. Maybe they were just given an excuse.
The good news—if there was any—was there were a lot less people.
I wonder if there are still a million.
The lifejacket popped up behind a wave, taking Diana’s thoughts back to the same place as her eyes. Given it was early-March at the latest, the body—a man she guessed—would not have survived a night in the water.
Looking back, it felt like the world fell apart quickly, like the changes, the horrors, the death could be merged into one catastrophic line demarcating Before and after. Being born on February 29th now seemed appropriate. Diana had been born into a time and place that no longer existed. Birthdays didn’t matter now. Dates didn’t matter. Only survival mattered.
As things fell apart, people said the Pacific was warming—due to changing ocean currents—along the part of the Oregon coast Diana was watching. But, she’d had her feet in the surf the previous night and the water was frigid—too cold to consider swimming. Even if the water had been warmer, swimming—or sticking around the beach for more than a few minutes—would have been dangerous. The beach was where drones—and their human operators—were dropped off from the Island. The best she could tell from following drones and operators, they did six-week tours hunting on the mainland. What they were still hunting—given the lack of people—she wasn’t sure.
Guess they are hunting me. Or, someone like me, someone they could interrogate about the colonies.
The drones had looked for the body during the night after getting dropped off by the Island speedboat. The speedboat had even stayed a while, crisscrossing the water a few hundred yards out. Once the boat left, Diana had watched blinking drone eyes and listened to their whirring wings. She’d pulled pine boughs tighter to hide her heat signature—in case the creepy, cicada-like drones had thermal sensors. From her pine nest, she watched drones venture over the water, but only briefly, which supported the theory drones didn’t do well with salt water, or salt in general, which—she guessed—was why they normally moved inland quickly. She had wondered why they were sticking to the beach. Now, in the orange gloom of morning—with the drones and their two operators having moved inland an hour ago—she could see why. The body.
The body was far enough into the water that Diana guessed the operators hadn’t seen it—in the dark—behind the breakers. But, the body wasn’t as far out as the speedboat had searched. From her perch, a hundred feet up at the southern end of the beach, Diana saw what the boat, operators, and drones had missed. Even if the drones had thermal imaging, it wouldn’t have helped find the body in cold water. Was there any chance the… man, gotta be a man—no woman would be dumb enough to get herself in that position—was still alive? Did she want him to be alive? Encountering new people was rare, interesting, and risky.
In growing light, Diana saw the lifejacket was gold, which meant the man was from the Island, so it’d be good if he was dead. She’d only heard bad things about Islanders. But, drones had been looking for him. Not searching—in a grid—like a rescue team. And, he probably could have called out if he’d fallen overboard. They’d been tracking, sweeping the beach, and slightly over the water, in seemingly random arcs. During her NatureAid scout training, Diana had been told the arcs were driven by artificial intelligence; arcs optimized the drones’ ability to cover the most ground in the least time, rather than thoroughly sweeping a grid. Tracking meant they didn’t know where the man was, like maybe he jumped from the boat and was swimming, trying to get away. If he was fleeing drones, and the operators wanted him enough to search almost all night—even though he was almost certainly dead—he might be an enemy of the Islanders, or at least someone she could use as a bargaining chip, if captured. That’d be good.
She’d have to go in the water for him, which was bad. The drones were gone, which was good. The operators—and drones—could come back, which would be bad. But, they never had before, which was good. Just because they never have before, doesn’t mean they won’t today. That would be bad. The sun was coming up, which meant Diana could see—and check—the length of the beach for trouble before going down: good. But, there were plenty of other things—cicadas, hornets, people—that could appear before she got down to the beach: all bad. He might have food: good. Diana was always hungry and sick of rice, raisins, and bone broth. But, he couldn’t have much food on him: bad. And, it would have to be waterproofed: unlikely = bad.
If she was going, she might as well get going. Her body was close to demanding she stand. But, she hesitated, not wanting to leave the safety of the trees. Her mind compromised with her motionless body and she let her hand drift into her pocket, then to her lips with chapstick. The small movements felt good. She’d been on the ground since she’d seen the lights of the Island’s speedboat blink into existence over black ocean. Diana had been surprised to see lights; six weeks hadn’t passed since another NatureAid scout had reported the last exchange of operators. Diana would normally still be at home—rather than forcing an aching hand to moisturize her lips—except, the other NA scout hadn’t made contact since the exchange, forcing Diana to trek to the coast early. When the operators didn’t leave the beach during the night, she worried they were searching for her—that she’d left some trace on the beach and they’d found it. She had walked the beach the night before, at low-tide, right at the water line, after rappelling down the cliff—on the northern side of the hill—certain that even if drones used biometrics, high-tide would wash everything away. She’d looked for signs of the missing scout and enjoyed cold water between her toes, salt on her skin, wind in her hair. There weren’t many moments in life—especially the life of a scout—without fear. She’d paid for those calm moments overnight, fear rising when the drones stayed on the beach, wondering what had happened to the other scout, worrying what might happen if the drones found a trace of her, worrying what the other scout—if caught and tortured by the operators—might have revealed about her, and her hiding spot, about NA, and their tactics. She’d huddled on the ground, thankful it was a dark night, thinking if the drones started toward her she’d run south for the lighthouse—that was home-away-from-home—grab what supplies she could, then head east, inland, try to lose them in more pines on the other side of highway 101.
She wasn’t in a hurry to stop hiding after the night’s scare. But, she did stop the good/bad debate. It was procrastination. Good/bad didn’t matter anymore. Since the world had fallen apart, there was only survival. And, survival was finite. Everything ended. It ended poorly.
It ended poorly for him—whether he was good or bad. He died cold and alone. It’ll end poorly for me too.
In moments like this, survival did not seem enough reason to keep going. Diana was tempted to walk to the cliff, take the initiative, and end it all.
At least it would be on my terms. She pursed her lips.
But, she would keep going, because this was an opportunity, perhaps THE opportunity that would lead to the one thing that kept her going when survival wasn’t enough.
Maybe this—this man—is the first step in getting to the Island?
She still didn’t get up. She needed a plan. Going out into the open—hell, going anywhere—without a plan could get her killed, fast.
She allowed more movement, repocketing chapstick and reaching to rub her sore ankle while she thought. Then, she hopped up, pine needles flying like water from a shaking dog. Diana reached into her backpack, took out coiled rope, and slid it over a shoulder and across her chest—like a bandolier. She’d rappel down the cliff from her crank—like she had the previous evening when she walked the beach looking for signs of the NA scout. The crank was handmade, something she’d worked on nights she couldn’t sleep—under a tarp in the lighthouse—carving and cutting until she had a wooden wheel with teeth she could align with notches she’d cut into a pine tree. Not any pine, if the forest had an alpha tree, it was one next to her. It was huge, two trees shooting out of one trunk. The trunk was the size of a compact car. Ten feet up, the trunk forked and two slender, sturdy trees shot skyward. There was a flat space in the trunk between the trees where she set the crank, fastening a wooden pole that ran through the center of the wheel to the trees on either side. She carved notches into the flat part of the trunk so—if she sat a rock atop the crank—the teeth of the wheel sank and stuck in the trunk. She could set the crank when she wanted to rappel down the cliff to the beach. Or, she could take the rock off, and haul something up from the beach. She never figured on hauling anything up, just rappelling down to walk in the water and having a rope to climb if she needed to flee.
She hoped she wouldn’t have to flee the beach this time. She wasn’t worried about the man in the water. If, by chance, he was alive, he’d be in no shape to harm her. But, if the drone crew came back, she’d have to try to get back to her rope—while staying undetected in the water—and climb up before the drones got her. That would be risky. Scouts spread rumors that drones could be used as small missiles. She’d have to climb up before they got close if that was true. Or, she’d have to wait them out in the water, beyond the breakers with the floating man.
Diana started to get up, then froze. She heard a buzz, an insect buzz.
Cicada? No. Hornet? No.
She slid her hand into her pack and slowly pulled out a racquet. It looked like a tennis racquet, but strings had been replaced by copper wires. The racquet had a red button on its handle. Pushing the button ran a charge from a battery through the wires, a charge strong enough to electrocute any insect that caught Diana’s forehand.
The buzz was too faint to be a swarm of cicadas or hornets. Diana looked around and came face-to-face with a fly. The fly never saw the racquet coming. There was a flash of orange—as wire contacted exoskeleton—a pop, and the fly was gone.
Diana put the racquet back, climbed onto the trunk of the alpha pine, shifted the rock stashed there—to lock the wheel’s teeth—then tossed the crank’s rope over the cliff. She hopped down, walked to, and looked over the edge, taking a minute to get her bearings, watching the rope swing in the wind. Then, she put on gloves, turned her back to the beach, looking back at the alpha pine as she wrapped her hands around the rope, and anchored her feet at the edge of the cliff.
She didn’t like this part. The first jump was scary, but the moment before the jump was worse.
Mother may have been right, maybe I should have stayed in the colony. If I’d taken an office job, I wouldn’t be standing at a cliff, ready to…
That first moment in air, when she experienced weightlessness, when everything inside her—including a lump in her throat and a pit in her belly—was moving up while her body was falling, she was sure she would die. But, then she’d feel her trajectory arcing toward the cliff, remind herself to brace with her feet—keeping knees bent for impact. And, just before she hit the cliff’s face, the same thought always went through her head—I hope I don’t reinjure my ankle. Faced with possible death, she was worried about her ankle. And, she kept worrying about it until she was down the cliff, on the beach. She took off her boots, stuffed them in a crack in the rocky cliff face, and felt cold waves wash over bare feet.
Nope. Not warm, at all. Damn world fell apart and the one good thing that supposedly happened was a lie!
She bit her lip and waded into the water, leaning forward into breakers, starting to think the man in the lifejacket deserved to be dead for making her go into water which turned her lower body to ice as it crept over her waist.
Wouldn’t have bothered us when we were kids. Pilar would have dived under by now…
She stopped that line of thinking. No good could come of it. She suddenly welcomed the frigid distraction, dove under, and swam as far out as she could—feeling the salty sting of the water sneak through closed eyelids—before coming up for breath.
She tread water, oriented herself, and saw the man in the lifejacket fifty yards away, floating on his back, eyes closed.
She decided to backstroke to him.
She’d been a basketball player in college, but once she injured her ankle—the first time—she’d taken up swimming to stay in shape. She’d watched videos on the internet—man, I miss the internet—to learn strokes. Pros backstroked with their arms moving in circles, popping in and out of the water, like the wheel on a paddleboat. But, the first time she’d tried backstroking like that, she felt herself tipping—head down—into the water and ended up doing something like an upside-down butterfly to stay afloat. At the time, she’d joked with Zoel—man, I miss her too—that it was a better workout if you swam inefficiently, but now she wished she knew the backstroke. Especially since her rope bandolier was saturated and felt not only like an anchor, but a stupid idea.
She flipped over for modified breaststroke—half dog-paddle—when she guessed she was close to the man.
He would have been cute if not for the ultra-pale, never been in the sun AND died of hypothermia look, she thought as she reached out to grab the lifejacket. She patted the man down and sighed at the lack of bulges that might have been waterproof food containers. Then, as a courtesy, she put fingers to his neck.
Damn! Damn! Damn, damn, damn. He’s alive. Barely.
As if to confirm her diagnosis, the man’s eyes flickered, before drooping shut again as he muttered, “the next... next generation… ends everything.”