The eyes which had watched him the previous night with such burning hatred were once again scrutinizing his location, noting the lack of activity from the nest in the cedars. There was not much to be seen as the branches did their job with green efficiency. Without tracking ability, they would have never found his location. The hide was just too well constructed.
The eyes belonged to a junior tracker from the house of the Owens family, of the Stehekin Free Peoples. His father had just had a kukri buried in his skull. At least the murderous scum who had killed him had given him the courtesy of a funeral pyre and not just left him to rot in the open, food for any passing beast or crawling thing. He was nervous to be in this place as it was too close to shunned areas.
The shunned areas were where the plague had ravaged the population to near extinction levels, and strange deadly beasts now found it a suitable abode with the absence of man. Some of the ForRangers roamed these areas, looking for spoils, hunting and foraging for the good of the Trybe. But they were mostly to the north, several hundred miles. The Trybe itself was approximately 300 miles northeast of where he lay in the fog.
He was Maddox Owens, nephew to Ted Owens, Patriarch of the House of that name. This was his first training mission, which was also to be revenge for the killing of his older brother, Jayms a few years before. Now he had his father to add to the list of names crying out in his mind for vengeance!
Blackstone was worried. He paced back and forth the length of the audience chamber. News of a possible incursion into his southern buffer zone was not well timed. The harvest was beginning and most available hands were busy with bringing it into the store houses and processing centers. He did not have enough free men to deal with this unless he pressed the younger children into service and pulled men from the northern outposts. He was loathe to employ the children so, taking them from their schooling and making them toil in the fields. But if the crops were lost, it could be a lean winter with starvation at the door.
A knock came at the door and his chief advisor entered at his beckoning.
"Sir! The new bio-diesel plant is up and running”
“That is good news indeed Strickland! Doubling our capacity will allow us to prepare the fields more quickly as well as give us more generating capacity this winter. Tell me, is there any more news from the south? This report has me a bit worried the La Raza may be planning a move north to seize more territory. Have we any word from our vultures yet? We need those munitions from Lewis-McChord if we are to stand against Jihad from the east and La Raza from the south. I also need a report from the Smithy on its efforts to create functional blades from the automotive springs we have acquired.”
“I have the reports here sir, if you wish to read them, or I can give you a quick synopsis.”
“The synopsis will be fine Charles”
“There is no new information on the possible southern incursion. As you are well aware, we have no spare man-power to send south. The scout who reported the incident has been tasked with returning to the area and getting a better look at what is happening there. He has not yet reported back.”
“Is this scout a reliable source?”
“Yes sir. His past history with us indicates his reliability.”
“See that he is rewarded well should he return with any news. Too often our scouts never return from their missions.”
“Yes sir. The news from our Vulture teams in the north indicate that they have had some attrition from the mutated beasts in the area; people snatched from sentry duty, some from their tents at night. They are near what they believe is the base, but things are getting overgrown so quickly it is hard to identify locations.”
“Also, the smithy has found their efforts to create serviceable blades to be successful! We will be able to arm all troops within the year and the civilian population shortly thereafter. The spear head project is promising and the archery program is having success also. We will be fully armed by this time next year and have implemented a training program at the 10th grade level for blades, 6th grade level for archery.”
“There does not seem to be any notable action occurring on the Jihad front since that clash last spring. Hussein Abdullah seems to be content with our borders for the time being. We are doing some deep recon but it is hard since we are not the proper race to infiltrate. We are trying to recruit at the border trading posts but have had no luck as of yet. That is all I have to report“
“Very well, Charles. I thank you. Now I must go and visit this new bio-diesel plant before nightfall as the harvest dinner is tonight and I must prepare my speech.”
He awoke with a start, plagued by fading dreams as rem-sleep transformed to waking world. He listened intently for several minutes before shrugging off his blanket and sitting up on his bed to embrace the morning cold. The birds were about their business and exhibited no alarm, so he believed it to be safe enough to start the carefully laid fire in the chimnea and cook a breakfast of wild oats, dried cranberries from last year and some of his stash of jerked meat.
He made some “Coffee”, or a hot beverage as you will. Coffee was non-existent as far as local supplies went. The “New” coffee was made from a blend of Chicory and roasted Soy Beans, ground to a consistency resembling coffee. It wasn’t the same though, and he missed the caffeine buzz.
He did not often cook in his tree camps, as the smell would travel far and the larger mutated carnivores hunted these areas. He had no desire to meet the saber-tooth that roamed these parts. Why the scientists had decided to bring them back from extinction was beyond him. While the secret labs were intact, their creations were safely locked away from interaction with the human population. Afterwards… well you took your chances the further from human habitation you traveled. Out here, you were just a meal for many of them.
As he ate his breakfast his eyes roamed over the landscape before him. Other than the birds and a few squirrels, nothing was moving. The morning fog had lifted slightly, giving up its possession of the forest floor, leaving only tendrils here and there to hold onto its claim, withering under the defiant sunlight lancing through the clouds.
He no longer felt safe here. He felt as though he were being watched by unseen eyes, creating a foreboding that could not be assuaged. He would wait until nightfall and then take his possessions on to his next camp, deeper into the shunned area. Anyone who ventured into this area was either desperate or foolish, or like himself, confident with a base of operations already established.
He prepared his bedroll, placing inside various items as he rolled it up. He put on the wool hunting shirt vultured from the Stehekin warrior, adding the best possibles bag with all his smaller items, personal and procured. From under the bed he withdrew a US Marine MARPAT ILBE pack he had traded some vultured items for. It was worn, but serviceable. He filled it with his meager belongings and his stash of food in preparation for the journey into the Shunned Zone. He strapped the captured weapons to the sides and added their magazine to the contents of the pack.
His lodgings within the Zone had been discovered accidentally when he had been treed by a horrible beast that had been a feral pig. It was now a thousand pounds of thundering and squealing pork, very fast and very terrible. It would take many rounds from a larger caliber rifle than he possessed to bring it down. It had driven him up a towering, what he assumed was, a Maple tree. Halfway up the tree had split into three forks. There in the middle was a small lawn shed, perhaps an 8’ by 10’ that amazingly was intact. How it got there remained a mystery.
He had needed to level it which took an incredible amount of effort, but had succeeded at last in getting it somewhat close. Inside the shed was a treasure trove of garden tools that some urban yuppie had collected but seldom used. He removed the engine from the lawn mower he found therein and coupled it to an automobile alternator to have power. Finding fuel was very problematic, but with some careful tinkering, he was able to run it on refined alcohol fuel.
After the porcine beast had departed, he began to explore the devastated yuppieland and was rewarded many times over. This area had not been vultured, and he found canned food, dried food, clothing and best of all, solar panels. Many of them were broken but he was able to gather enough whole ones to illuminate his camp in the trees with LED Christmas light strings. He had not yet found any batteries that would hold a charge, but this area was largely unexplored by him and he had hopes of finding a battery dealership which would possibly have some stored dry.
One wall of his tree house was converted into a library with the addition of shelves and the books he found that were still in good condition. Books were a valuable commodity for trading, as with no television or broadcast radio, entertainment was sparse. So reading books had become back in vogue. He had a set of Britannica and many textbooks: Chemistry, Biology, Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, Nursing, Nutrition and so on. Many of these he had found in duplicate. Hesitant to let them go, he moved the extras to his best winter shelter where he would read them during the snowbound months.
He had found stacks of old magazines in the shed, mostly men’s reading material such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science along with some Popular Electronics. The magazines were almost as valuable as the books and he traded a few at a time to get the supplies he needed such as the coffee substitute which he had neither the time nor the resources to make himself.
One item which was much sought after was plastic containers of any type or size. The healers wanted pill bottles, the brewers wanted beverage bottles, and the troops wanted Gatorade or Powerade bottles for canteens. The plastic containers made good storage for dehydrated foodstuffs and grains. The farmers wanted them to store their grains in, as insects were a problem. The old garbage dumps and recycling centers had been picked clean and everyone was eager to procure some when they became available.
He installed gutters and a rain barrel for water, using a 12 volt RV water pump to deliver it to his shed. He had found the remains of a store that had prefilled propane tanks stored in a cage. This had protected the tanks from damage during the upheaval and it was a simple matter to pick the padlock giving him access to this nearly unheard of and unobtainable resource. He distributed them amongst his winter camps along with the stoves he found within damaged RV’s.
He also found a 3-way 12v/120v/Propane refrigerator that he coaxed into functioning. He had setup a Zeer Pot cooler but with the addition of solar panels powering the refer, he used it for the less perishable foods he gathered. He slowly made improvements to this base, such as adding a deck around the shed and an outhouse of sorts to keep the smell down. He still used the bucket and ashes method, but now he didn’t have to share his living space with the smell of body waste. It was almost a luxury suite for him when he found the recliner that was in good enough shape to make the effort to bring it to his base. He had to run from several dangerous creatures for which he had no name, but within a couple of days he had it on his deck, under the awning he had created to keep the rain off.
Sometimes he felt almost guilty at what he had found, so many had so much less. But he knew that if he were to share with others, before long he would be tracked to where his base and findings were, and soon he would have nothing. The vulturer’s would clean him out and Blackstone would possess all he had. And he would probably be strung up for his trouble.
He was not sure what the name of the development was where he found most of his stuff. It wasn’t a town per se; it had no government offices that he could discover, but it did have a small strip mall and a hardware store. It was there he discovered the polycarbonate sheets he used to place 2 walls on the deck, to help protect from the blowing rain, but not limit vision too much. He gave this base camp the nickname of Hilton.
It was this location to which he planned to move his gear and spoils of war. And then he needed to get on with Blackstone’s business so that he could claim that RPK and its 8 magazines. He would move out at shortly after sundown, let the night hide his movements from any that may be watching.
And someone was.