“When you ask someone ‘why,’ their answer is always ‘life’ in some way or another.”
-Clemen Dour, Paper Metal Board of Directors
Pain has a taste. That taste sits at the bottom of the beds of your fingernails, and in the small of the back where you can’t reach without a stick, and directly in front of the spot between your eyes just past the limit of your downy invisible body hair. It’s a taste you never forget, and it’s a taste that helps you know when something’s gone wrong. That can be discomfort, or destroying-the-body gastric malfunction. It’s an alert that you need to pay attention.
The only problem is that it is equated with “misery” in the normal human psyche.
The second only problem is that it has a way of reaching the front of the priority queue completely without cause or justification.
The last only problem is that when you know precisely what is causing it, and know without a doubt that the cause cannot be fixed, you have a state of awareness which is by its definition a dilute species of torment.
And yet pain is a multipartite construction, playing a part where it can get relegated to a dark corner of its stage. A stubbed toe is not just a picture of the Ideal Toe subject to an ouch-colored lens filter. It is the distinct heterogeneity of muscle compacted between bone and dermis, and the minor epidermal harm from jarringly arrested movement, and the unwanted distension of connective tissues passing through or blooming in the afflicted region. It is not a conceptual monolith; it is a collection of separable facts.
To the mind, a fact is something which can vanish into an underground vault, even when the vault’s hard shell begins pounding from within.
Jeanine gripped the arm where it throbbed, blunt needles up and down the span running wrist to elbow. It wasn’t turning a foul or irritated color, it didn’t have any sort of evidence of infection, its components and base and decoration had nothing abnormal or grossly out of place. It just protested that it was no longer entirely itself.
It protested, and right now she could hide the protesting in a vault.
The woods in the whispery eastern edge of what had long ago been eastern Massachusetts didn’t go out of their way to trip her up, but they still demanded her attention. Her drill companion had parted company back at the entrance to the newly exposed shaft. With it still attached, she would have tripped and stumbled and constantly fought for focus. Now, she walked with her shadow, and her supplies, and the sounds and fauna of the forest… and her pain.
“I swear to everything good and holy in the world that I will never complain again about eating something gross, or getting assigned extra schedule coordination work, or having to attend pointless meetings, or…”
She cut off not because of the arm pain, but the other pain. The thought that she never had to worry about pointless meetings again - or at least not until something like civilization sprang fully formed from the cracked skull of humanity’s skeletal cadaver. The thought that her skills at coordination weren’t going to be turned toward getting the schedules of eight different (and sometimes pugilistically fractious) people or their representatives to agree, but rather the sorts of things that were extremely simple and could easily make someone die if she didn’t do her duty effectively.
The thought that her standards of “gross” were going to radically change if she managed to not die.
Even while her arm-sun burned behind its vault door, though, she found it in her to appreciate the place all around.
Her old home outside extinct Montreal was not terribly unlike this section of the once-United-States, in terms of climate. At least, not hugely so; colder and (obviously) more urbanized. The enclave that Paper Metal established had been laid and dug in the vicinity of Malden after numerous attempts to put down roots in other neighborhoods. She told herself she couldn’t smell the sea from so far inland, but she couldn’t quite convince her brain. Come to think of it, thousands of years of ecological change could mean the ocean surf was just over the next hill. She couldn’t be sure, though.
She took a moment to rest, and looked back over her supplies. A slightly comical-looking gun like a derringer with a shoulder stock, meant to shoot either nine-millimeter bullets or ten-gauge shells. A good deal of ammunition for the same. One hundred days’ worth of food. Rope, and a lot of it. A multitool rendered mostly pointless by her augmentation, but a good fallback just in case. Tent for tent purposes, with an attachment point where she could rig up her water filtration kit and gather rain or less potable water. Water filtration kit, rendering said tent feature useful. Medical package. Orienteering device, which had been born from a compass with a sextant as the proud father. A special pair of mechanical climbing hooks that could be given radio signal to hinge back, allowing recovery with a rope-tug even at the bottom of a cliff. A sampling tool that would tell her about environmental and chemical factors which impacted human lives either directly or indirectly. Three more small packages she hadn’t opened but which evidently didn’t contain anything vital. And…
Her eyes glittered as she grabbed the thing with which she’d fallen in love at first sight. A paracord-wrapped telescope, divided into seven segments. It had a very striking blue shade that transferred slowly to black at its far end. Depending on how she might screw or unscrew the sections, it let her go from slightly-better-than-usual-detail to that’s-a-mighty-big-seagull-coming-over-the-horizon.
She’d named it Terence, and would perhaps beat someone unconscious with a rock if they tried to take it away.
Letting Terence swing back to her side, she returned to her feet. Her arm’s complaints resumed, a whiny child she’d managed to tune out with the distraction of running inventory. Maybe it was her imagination but it seemed ever so slightly reduced.
Well, she double-checked her manual tally against her sleeve’s accounting of her bag’s sundries, got back to walking, and started watching the scenery for a place which she and her associates might call home.
It was an enormously complicated undertaking, setting up a new human habitation. As someone whose name she couldn’t currently remember but whose words she firmly emulated once said: “Players learn strategy; masters learn logistics.”
Alright, in paraphrase at least.
The point was that she needed to start with finding a parcel of land. It had to have enough space for laying building foundations, proper terrain sublayers for supporting those foundations without sinking and capsizing what was built, the right combination of conditions and organizational concessions so that utilities and (eventually) less-necessary things could be incorporated. That was the start.
She also needed to make sure that it wasn’t too far from a site for harvesting timber, and another for gathering or quarrying stone and the materials for some kind of mortar, and still another for doing agricultural things - the last of which could conceivably take up half the total settlement’s area on its own. Then she had to make sure such a wonderful area had access to alternate food sources, fishing and hunting and foraging and the like. None of that addressed matters like whether the local meteorology might decide to strike down the works of newly-revived Man with yearly hurricanes, or if the people long deceased had left some nuclear materials in startlingly inconvenient spots for her operations. It also ignored how, and how easily, the project could access and theoretically salvage old world detritus. In short, establishment of socioeconomic principal followed by an income stream, and then arrangements to ensure the whole edifice stood up with the help of metaphorical interest.
To be honest, she would have considered that to be sufficient work for a solid month at her old job, and that was with far fewer constraints and far greater institutional support. This time her interns and coworkers were named Left Hand and Right Hand and Left Foot and Right Foot.
After she took care of that first order of business, then the REAL planning work would begin. At least she only had to worry about herself for purposes of getting the concept trial out of the way, and a population of one was so very much easier to support than a population of more-than-one.
Tired? She was tired. She needed to get used to being tired on a permanent basis.
It would take a lot of beforehand work to get a village or town or city up and on its feet. Latrines and sewage management, water supply, heat supply, street layout, electrical grid development, healthcare concerns, POLICING concerns (and was that an unpleasant thing to have to contemplate), meat and veg provisioning - she couldn’t claim any experience with any of it except the faintest familiarity with the big building blocks of the human body.
Nevertheless, she had a duty to chase down these matters and sketch their rough outlines. She needed to at least come up with sufficient means for herself, and that would probably turn her eventually into some Greek goddess of fitness.
She did her best to not think about the “starvation diet” prospect.
Lots of watching the land had taught her interesting things. The trees weren’t quite the sort she recalled seeing earlier in life. Granted that recognition didn’t extend much beyond birches and pines and maples in her lacking tree-encyclopedia (encyclotreedia, if you will), but she could tell she was looking at plants no person had ever grown in an orchard or garden. The most prevalent were big swooping things with needles obviously like most pine trees, but sort of mushrooming up farther than a quarter of their height before their branches began. Each bough caught the light and let it sift over fingers of saturated dark green. They had cones as well, but devilish, burned-looking rounded shapes with pointy teeth on their scales.
Other titans seemed happy to grow shorter and stockier, fanning out with thick blankets of leaf to catch low-hanging sun fruit. They wore skin with webbing patterns in the uneven gray bark, knurled all over. Theirs was cousin to an arboreal form she’d climbed as a girl, but couldn’t place with a name. Each specimen almost filled the role of a large bush. Fat trunks meant for sheltering animals, and maybe an older Jeanine if she could figure out how to ascend and stay ascended while sleeping. Other second-class citizens bumbled through the canopy; tall and thin, angular, smooth-trunked, chocolate, graphite black, fruitful with pretty and maybe poisonous seeds.
Farther down she thought the forest floor looked… well, to say it looked different would be silly. Remarking that anything looked different was silly. All told, though, she liked the viney ferny stuff around her shoes. It had a healthy mix of red and yellow in the green, blossoms or leaf pigmentation sticking out between branches and fronds of unharmonious ivy, striplings, bushes, or grass tufts turning patches of dirt moldy. No, she hadn’t gotten a good look at the coastal flora when she’d shipped down from Canada, but this seemed more homey. Whether that was her brain’s aesthetic judgment or a motivated attempt to see the good down here where gravity kept her, she couldn’t say. It was fresh scented and a good playground for the animals.
Had she lacked reason for urgency, she’d have spent whole seconds taking each step. The unwritten rules of gardening - along with a stupid-kid incident that still ran hot feet up her spine and which had ended with her using a steak knife to do something unwise - cautioned her to remain vigilant for ticks, or equivalent pests. The light colored clothing set her at ease, a bit, but it wouldn’t reach up and remove vagrants of its own accord. Similarly, she reserved a small table in the mental database for spotting rocks, and snakes, and other hazards meant for the careless of foot.
She knew that her stress over the whole bootstrapping society thing would gradually fade to a dull low ache. That strong-gripped horror of the survivalist, though… that was staying for the long term. A single dire disadvantage could so easily seal her fate. Just a handful of ordinarily inconvenient ones could do the same, though. A short parasite-borne illness, a rolled ankle, a kinked back, a brief period of insufficient nutrition.
If Paper Metal’s schemes had insisted on waking up a partner for her, she could have at least had a slightly comforting helpmeet. Proportionately, though, it was more efficient and safer to spring the bunker’s prisoners in singles. Her sleeve meant she could at least gather the basics of skills she didn’t intrinsically possess, at least enough to hobble along. Two or three or five people would mean more bodies to expedite more tasks, but disproportionately expand the places where the recolonization project could be injured. More than that would constitute an unacceptable level of risk in case a team foundered entirely.
It was the way of things now. No utilities and services. No emergency rescue. Nobody to save her if she dented her head. If she took ill, she wouldn’t have to worry about dangerously weighing down a small group and risking their welfare; she’d just die.
Once, a squirrel or something similar caught her eye up high. The whatever-it-was looked like it had long aye-aye hands, digging into some kind of seed cone for delectables, then scurried off when it noticed her noticing it. The gait had a more spiderlike quality than she would have expected. Perhaps that was an indictment of her standard expectations. Perhaps that was her mind twisting (or failing to twist) the world into something a bit less usual on first sight.
“Maybe that’s an adaptation for relatively new needs, like the area’s seed cones growing thicker armoring,” she said aloud.
A few minutes later she was stuck glued to her footprints when she suddenly noticed a bird in a tree taking off. She stared after it, half convinced she’d seen it wearing a thin sling-like sari. It flapped away as though all the powers of perdition snatched at its pinions, out of sight too quickly to be anything besides a wind-fletched arrow, but she had a small sense that its wingspan was… a bit broader than it ought to be.
“That’s a weird plumage pattern,” she said aloud.
Then she shook her head.
“But what do I know about birds?”
She slowly started walking again. The stern day was nice and warm.
It was as she ascended a craggy section of hill that she got her first true taste of the new world’s character.
The world opened up, everything peeling back from the sky. A couple trees hunched away from a dirt cliff face on the left, the woodline just barely revealed the far horizon of the kilometers-distant Atlantic on the right, below her were strewn a thousand tiny weeds with a dozen flower types between them, and above-
There was a rustle.
Above and to the left, atop the sheer dirt cliff, a few trunks had the gumption to brave the drop-off. Looking at it, she saw how the drop-off rose sharply to either side of the hill, but right here was only about eight or nine meters. The fact the cliff didn’t slide down to meet the hill and surrounding forest’s altitude anywhere that she could see was the only reason she didn’t turn into a puddle.
Up there, something was staring at her.
Thinning cover both aided and hindered her in seeing anything of substance. Between two wobbly bushes hunched a hairy brown-tan creature, one she thought was slim and high-backed and lengthy and thick-legged. The hairy creature’s head was partly hidden and low to the ground. She saw a thicker ridge of fur running over its center, and a big crooked doglike nose, and a black pearl of an eye beneath a cupped ear, and big jowly drooping lips. The lips barely admitted a long incisor or canine, oddly shaped, reminiscent of a cemented-together deer hoof.
Since childhood, Jeanine had known that deer often fought using their hooves, and if roused to violence could do decisive damage to an insufficiently prepared human body.
The thing, unblinking, might have been a statue except for a gentle up and down of its body. Breathing or posturing, or maybe something else.
Without looking away, the thing backed from the precipice, brush fluttering into place once more. Even knowing that it was there, Jeanine’s eyes completely lost the outline. No army fatigues in history did such a good job of misdirecting.
There was a heavy stony silence.
There was a falsetto yodeling howl.
There was a heavy stony silence.
The bushes rustled, moving fast and at some unidentifiable angle.
Nothing and nothing and more nothing.
The sight of the thing’s very real absence sent a jagged warm unkindness switchbacking over her spine. It reminded her of her youth, days where she’d been losing her teeth. That wiggly give, and how it eventually started bending almost perpendicular to her gum line, and how that marked a turning point; a time where she’d pry that tooth out sooner than later because that wobbling in her jaw meant she couldn’t sleep until it got yanked. A special sort of sudden doom, creeping up beside her and whispering, “Ready or not, what happens now is up to you!”
She wanted to let that spine ripple keep going and pull her back’s skin out then around, and have it wrap her in a nice soft hibernating cocoon.
She slowly, ever so slowly, drew her gun. If the thing had suddenly popped up in front of her it would have had a fearsome sight of an unexpectedly baptized warrior preparing for defending the country of her skin and flesh, right until she absently tried to shoulder the weird stock as she flicked off the safety. She moved just a bit too quickly.
Her motion caused her to flex her forearm in precisely the wrong way, at precisely the wrong time, and her integrated mallet’s head sprang from its housing. It smacked the gun’s side, leaving a depthless circular mark on the composite, narrowly missing her other hand, causing her to jump, causing her to pull the trigger, causing her to fire a spray of pellets and do the whole equal-and-opposite-action that Newton guy had warned people away from.
On the whole, her first attempt to actually discharge her firearm was… well, if something had been standing in the threat zone then it would have gotten a very nice present in the form of rather spicy gravel, and she’d have been on her back. Perhaps call it a tie in the grand scheme of hypothetical things.
Falling on her back, hammer trying to occupy the same space as a gun, breath knocked out of her and a bit sore and a lot embarrassed and indeterminately hard of hearing in the right eardrum, she didn’t have to worry about anybody laughing at her, but she had to live with the criticism of the toughest audience of all: herself.
Rising before the crack of the cartridge’s explosion totally faded away, she found herself looking around with more than a hint of panic. No lurking shadows stood at the edges of her perception. No sets of teeth prepared to do what teeth were meant to do.
She said something under her breath that even she didn’t understand, and lowered the gun without putting it away. For the moment, she studied the side until she found the switch that flipped the receiver around, and set it to using solid rounds instead. Then she kept it at her side, slowly stepping in a circle, half backing out of the hill’s openness opposite where she’d entered, half trotting as fast as safely practical.
A vault which held pain slowly received another deposit, this one of fear.