The Fallout—Pt. 1

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In the absence of God our world revolves around us. But what if we in turn disappeared from the reality we constructed to fill the void caused by His dismissal? Such is the premise for this short story I'm working on.

A hatchet was tucked into the young man's waistband, hidden from view by a long woollen cloak. He wore his hood up against the early morning chill, watching the river flow past as his breath condensed into clouds swept up by the wind. The man was also carrying a pocket knife, which he currently employed to whittle a piece of drift wood into the figure of a rabbit, standing and ready to move, its ears up and alert. This man was the rabbit he meditated upon. This man was the river which flowed before him. This man was the sun spilling over the horizon, casting its orange glow across the white-blue sky of dawn.

“I am.” he said, as he reflected upon all that he was. “I am.” he repeated, slowly, his voice coming from somewhere deep within, rumbling upward and out. And then, “I must,” said he, looking onward to the day ahead. He sighed and stood up, and took a moment to stretch, beginning with his arms and upper torso and working his way down, each movement a movement toward a synthesis between mind and body, his attention focused on his breathing, which was deep and rhythmic, as well as on the sensations imbued by the world waking up around him, which held back no secrets to those who listen.

Finished, he was ready to begin the day's journey. But rabbits travel in pairs, and so did he. Where was his partner, his other half? He had watched her wander off into the grassland beyond the trees about an hour ago while it was still dark, and, as he did not now see her, he imagined she must have settled herself down somewhere, so that her form was hidden by the wheat, golden and swaying in the early morning sun.

He called to her, and soon heard her reply. He went over to their belongings placed at the base of an ash tree. Their tent was already packed away and they were nearly ready to move, and he needed only to gather together the few remaining objects strewn about: a pot, just washed in the river and set out to dry, in which they had cooked some fresh grain from the field for breakfast; an accompanying ladle and two spoons; a richly pigmented quilt, blue and gold, embroidered with the moon and the sun, respectively asleep and awake—it was the only thing they had kept with them upon abandoning their home, and Elokin was particularly attached to it, but she had left it behind as she set out on her walk. He took up the book they were both reading, noting the two bookmarks tucked inside: by the small, flickering light of their morning's fire, she had overtaken him by a chapter; when they set out for the day he planned to ask her about it.

By noon they had made their way into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and they took a short break for lunch. The sky had become slightly overcast as they left behind the drier climate of the midsummer prairies to pass through valleys winding underneath snow-capped peaks. They were on their way to the Pacific Ocean before travelling south, and what the man wanted before they travelled much farther was another weapon, of a sort which offered a longer range, and was more to be relied on for killing than his hatchet. But he was wary of a gun, for this was a tool whose only aid was toward murder, and he had so far obtained protection from things which served also for other purposes, so that he could pretend that such was all he needed them for.

“What advice does Sun-Tzu, Master Sun, offer us today?” he asked. Elokin was a few steps ahead of him, and she hadn't spoken much since they had left their resting grounds earlier that morning.

“I'm doubting whether we can hear him so well, as he spoke so far away, and so long ago.” she said.

“Not so far away, I don't think. But a blink of an eye in the history of the world; the breath of the soldiers of war he led can still be felt upon the wind.”

“He tells us,” Elokin said, “that as we do not have much, we must be well aware of what it is we do have, and how to use it.”

“And what do we have?” Sanjay asked.

“Our eyes and ears; our bodies; our minds,” was her reply. Sanjay nodded, still walking behind her.

They were walking ahead of the sun, and their progress was swift, their limbs well used to the labour of the journey under the weight of their supplies. As evening fell they began to scout for an area to set up camp when a sound they were anxious to hear suddenly drifted toward them: it was the syncopated and undulating note of voices resonating through the trees. They ducked down at the first word, and looked around to establish any sign of movement. Finding none, they rushed at a crouch to the base of the nearest tree. As day was longer on the western side of the mountain range where they now were, the rising peaks, rather than setting upon them early shadows, were catching the sun and holding its light and its warmth in place, within the valley, and the limpid rays it cast across the ocean did not offer the two rabbits any favours in their effort to remain unseen. They strained to listen but once more heard nothing. At a glance they agreed upon a course of action, and Elokin and Sanjay began to move forward through the silent wood, running at a half-crouch from one form of cover to another. They passed over fallen trees, and were careful to tread upon the softer paths couched by moss and dirt.

For a half kilometre they covered ground at this cautious pace before picking up on the crackling and popping sounds of a fire. They stopped at once and listened intently, and they could make out three, maybe four, distinct voices. They did not utter a sound between themselves, and paid careful attention to the tone and to the cadence of the group, wanting to discern the nature of these souls they had stumbled upon: it was their one hope that these were a friendly few, for they hadn't made contact with anybody in nine days—if there was any news to be had about the country's present condition, they were eager to obtain it.

They continued their approach, cautious and optimistic, and were soon able to identify silhouettes, and then faces, through the trees: there were two women and two men, and they were sitting around a fire, gazing silently into the flames but animating readily at a word from the others. They had the same alert postures and quiet air which Elokin and Sanjay recognized in each other: the one they had naturally assumed after spending weeks at a time in the country, uncertain as to what was going on elsewhere in the world, and wary of what they might next stumble upon. By all appearances the group around the flame were of the same kin as they, but still they held back, as yet undetected among the trees surrounding the clearing. They withdrew to a safer distance.

“Should we make contact?” Elokin asked. In her strained tone Sanjay didn't detect much of a question. He nodded. He took a pad of paper from out of his knapsack, and a pen which, with a muted click at its other end, doubled as a flashlight. He wrote this:

“Friends, we mean no harm. We wish to obtain any news from the cities.”

Elokin took the note and made her way back to the clearing, and Sanjay followed behind her at a distance of twenty paces, keeping watch. She moved against the wind, around the clearing, and when she felt she was in a suitable position she launched her paper kite upward into the draft: it caught a high arc, and then came down at a sharp angle directly between, and behind, two of the campers, and directly in front of the other two, who sat on the opposite side of the fire. They noticed the paper plane landing and jumped from their seats. In the commotion which followed Elokin withdrew to Sanjay's position, and together they waited.

“It came from over there.” one of the girls said, pointing to the spot from which Elokin's form had just receded. As a group they came to a decision rather quickly; one man went to the rifle which was leaning against his chair, but he did not pick it up, and the other spoke out loud in the direction the girl had pointed.

“We cannot offer you the information you wish—we haven't been in a city for weeks. But we have been scouting this valley, and I'll tell you there is an army installation about five kilometres south of here which remains active: helicopters fly in and out regularly, unloading supplies and transporting personnel. There might be thirty or forty regular troops based there, soldiers and officers. We made contact three days ago with a sergeant, and he told us to sit tight where we were. He said we were in a safe zone, but that he couldn't say the same if we were to travel even ten kilometres in any other direction. He recommended especially not to travel south beyond the border. Come out from the trees if you wish, we too mean no harm.”

Sanjay and Elokin withdrew, hearing all they needed to, and set off in the direction they had been travelling thus far, toward the ocean. When night fell they decided to keep moving. The moon, three-quarters full, provided good light.

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