Day 3 without recharge.
Sark sat on a makeshift bridge, dangling his legs inches above the flow of a small creek deep in the forest of Pennsylvania’s Wilds. The cabin he’d found and decided to make his own loomed behind him, nestled in a plunging, compact valley as far from civilization as Sark could manage. The pines helped further shelter it from view. The oaks and maples were nearly bare.
Green paint peeled from the cabin’s exterior and the whole place looked as weathered as the valley. The flat patches of earth in front of the deck looked hectic–a junkyard of rust and withered leaves that wove through paling green grass decorated with metallic gray fallen branches. Each afternoon, before resting along the creek, Sark would venture out into the depths of the forest to gather wood for the fire. The hunters had left tools, at least, and the saw blade, though duller than he would like, did its job.
Soon he would have to rise and end his reverie. The day waned and the pangs of hunger grew from a dull ache to a near-stinging throb. The batteries installed in his lower back and fused into his nervous system at the base of his spine tingled when drained too low. They’d been tingling mildly all day, and it would only get worse without the means to recharge out here. He could switch off the mechanism that warned him, but feeling hunger, feeling something normal, was as good as it was painful.
A wind rose and Sark shivered. The large white propane tank attached to the cabin was empty, but he didn’t need the heat, despite the autumn cold. He was able to start campfires or sear any food he caught with his electrical extrusion attachments at the base of his palms. Each use further drained his batteries and that was fine with him. Food helped recharge slightly, but it wouldn’t last forever and eventually his neural prosthetics wouldn’t get the energy they needed to function and he would shut down.
Ahead, the creek wound back and forth among the pines until it disappeared from view. A small island of sorts sat a few feet ahead of Sark. The creek split and the right of the fork formed a slow moving, nearly stagnant pool where dead leaves mingled with a layer of scum. Before the fork, along the bank, Sark had placed a few bottles of beer to cool. He’d found them in the refrigerator but without any electricity working out here, they were warm and likely skunked. Still, a chance to relax near the fire later and have a few beers sat well with him.
He knew he should get a move on. Using the heat sensors in his eyes, he’d gotten a squirrel earlier in the day and so dinner was taken care of. Hunting drained his batteries deeply.
He’d charred the animal when he caught it and a weakness he hadn’t ever felt before sunk into his flesh and bones — a consequence of not having recharged since the City. And so he lingered on the bridge. The megalopolis dragged from Philadelphia to New York City and was the center of the world. Every opportunity to live, thrive, succeed, and make a mark went through there. Nearly everybody was augmented: brain chips for faster thought processing, muscular implants for speed and strength, specialized weaponry… the list was eternal. Early on in the days of mods, Sark had been ahead of the curve, one of the first adopters. It gave him an edge. And then… it was everybody. Without mods, no jobs, no status, no money. Even with mods, every week there was something newer, better, and necessary. It had been years since he’d seen his own eyes stare back at him in the mirror. They’d been blue.
Just reflecting reinforced the ache of total exhaustion. And so he lingered on the bridge.
He’d skinned the squirrel on a butcher’s block in the kitchen and brought it out with him before he sat on the bridge. It awaited him on a cleared stump next to the firepit. A leaf landed on Sark’s arm, one of the few that had, until recently, remained on the trees. Maybe it was the last of them. He took it as a signal to get to work gathering wood for the fire.
Sark had stacked the wood he gathered next to the cabin. He stood and began the process of building a fire. He preferred to arrange the wood as a teepee rather than a log cabin, even though the teepee burned taller and was more conspicuous. The area was secluded enough that the light wouldn’t be seen. The most practical advantage was that after the fire died down, the teepee would have coals piled in the center, keeping warmth longer. The coals of the log cabin would be spread out and the heat would dissipate.
He placed one stick in the center, like a Maypole, and carefully arranged kindling around its base in a circle, slowly adding bigger and bigger pieces in a layered circle around that. There was enough paper and small, flammable objects around the property that he opted to use those and a lighter he’d found rather than his attachments. It would’ve been easier to use his body, but the more natural way — if a lighter could be called natural — appealed to him.
After the initial spark, the refuse caught quickly and the fire rose like a beacon before him. He sat down on a metallic fold-out chair he’d brought out here the first day after scavenging in the cabin. It wasn’t comfortable, but that didn’t matter. Watching the flames engulf the cone of sticks and logs brought a calm to Sark not unlike the calm brought on by the sound of the creek nearby.
Dusk waned in the secluded valley and the last fingers of light reached through the trees ahead of him. Nestled between two of the trees a few feet from the campfire was a makeshift cross. Whoever or whatever was buried there had died a long time ago. The mound was not fresh and moss grew from the base of first tree, over the grave, and to the second tree.
He took in the rest of the valley as the natural light retreated. The long slope across the bridge, away from the cabin, was littered with debris. The shells near the campfire meant it was a shooting range for whoever used to come here. Sark had discovered a gun shed behind the cabin. It had long ago been broken into and emptied of weapons. They would’ve made hunting easier, but he was content spearing fish from the bridge or zapping squirrels. He was getting by on little and much of his day was spent gathering food, which was a welcome distraction from the encroachment of thought that idling brought upon him.
The last light of day was visible directly overhead, only slightly obstructed by empty branches. The sky was always gray here, typical of a Pennsylvania autumn. It rained often. He didn’t need to collect rainwater, as the creek seemed unpolluted and fresh. This deep in the Wild, the likelihood of the creek being tainted was slim. The water was always crisp and cool and like nothing he’d ever tasted in the cities, where everybody ate and drank only because their bodies demanded it. Although he supposed he was doing the same thing.
Sark went to the creek, where he had placed the beer to cool. He averted his gaze so he wouldn’t see his reflection in the ripples. He let his hands linger in the water and felt its ephemeral fingers intertwine with his own. The loud rush enticed him and for a moment he contemplated going in. His attachments couldn’t sustained prolonged immersion in water, though, so he thought better of it, fished out two bottles, and returned to the fire.
He sat and reached to the nearby stump and grabbed the squirrel he’d caught earlier. It had been lean even before he charred it, and so he knew it wouldn’t satiate his hunger. He picked the meat from the bones and tried to ignore the taste. It had the texture of chicken, but tasted like gamey coal, if that were a flavor. Just as powerplants used coal, he used this squirrel, so the comparison worked for him. A distant memory told him that the meat of squirrel was supposed to be dark, but he couldn’t tell because he’d burned it black when he’d caught it.
After he finished, the dull ache of hunger subsided slightly and the tingling with it. He cracked open a beer and relaxed and slid back in the chair. Flames danced higher and higher as he stared into them. In his youth, his father taught him how to build fires, how to hunt, and how to live in the way that few, if any, city-folk knew how. He remembered a trick his father always played with the flames: he would put copper in the center of the teepee, or log cabin, and when it blazed its brightest, he would subtly throw in a piece of rubber hose. The fire would turn blue and green and purple and a bright orange that made Sark think of the flames of the Sun. His father said it was magic, and despite his age, Sark still felt it was magic. It stood apart from the sorcery that the modern world imposed on everybody. The science and chemistry of such a small thing meant little to him in the face of all of the augmentation he and everybody else had gotten in the years since his childhood.
He stared at the campfire and the rush of the nearby water lulled him to sleep. It seemed as though one thousand soft voices whispered into his ear. “Sleep,” they said over and over in a rush of breath carried by a rising wind.
He rose and went into the cabin. The place looked as though it had been ransacked when he’d arrived. He’d done some cursory cleaning only so that a path existed from the front door to the bunkroom and the kitchen. Whether or not the hunters had left the place in a hurry or others had come to scavenge, he didn’t know. The unagumented people of the Wilds likely scavenged to survive. They hunted for certain. Yesterday, he thought he’d heard a gunshot in the distance. The locals wouldn’t be a threat, unless he drained too low. The people out here rejected the new world — the augmentations to body and brain that pushed humanity through a new kind of guided evolution. He respected them for it. They lived and died the way his father had — normally. Not only did he respect them, he envied them. And so here he was, on their turf, living closer to their way.
As he crawled into a bunk, Sark disregarded the thought of leaving behind a note. It had occurred to him often to begin composing something over the past three days, but there was really nothing to say and nobody to say it to. The world he left behind deserved to remain so and it would not encroach here. One day somebody would stumble across his body, maybe after getting sick of civilization and augmentations and all that it meant to be post-human these days. But any Aug coming here would know why his body was here. The wires and batteries and tubes and generators mixed among the skeleton would give it away.
The bunks were uncomfortable and he had trouble finding sleep, as he had each night previous. The sheets felt cool against his skin, not unlike the creekwater. The tingling in his spine waxed and waned as he tossed and turned.
The muted roar of the creek called to him and after staring idly at the ceiling for what felt like hours he returned to the fire. Rather than the chair, he sat and leaned against the large tree next to the mound and the cross. The coals burned low and cast a dull light on the stones surrounding them. It didn’t take long for him to feel sleep coming on. He regarded the mound between the great trees and wondered if, over time, a mound would come to cover him. He concentrated on the red and orange glow in front of him. The soft sound of water sliding over stones lulled him — he knew it was time and as he slipped into sleep, he hoped that when he woke, he could lean over the creek and see the reflection of his own, blue eyes staring back at him.
Tom is an English teacher, adjunct professor, and MFA graduate of Wilkes University, where his mentor was author Kaylie Jones. He is currently shopping a novel, entitled The Optimism Bias, and lives in Scranton, PA, USA. His work has previously appeared in Raven’s Light Journal, Bewildering Stories, and most recently alongside Hugo and Nebula Award-winning authors in the cyberpunk anthology, Altered States.
Image by Anthony DeLorenzo