Danny is explaining to Mark and a restless Brian about the pole shift, relaying what he can remember from Professor Isaac's rambling dissertation.
It happens ever few thousand years, and what's left of mankind starts over again. I guess we're lucky to be alive.
Brian is moving continuously but in a slow manner, pausing after each move for a moment, first raising partially up and then sitting down again, crossing one leg and then uncrossing and crossing the other leg, putting his hands on his knees and then crossing his arms, swatting behind his neck and looking at his hand for a bug that isn't there, moving his head from side to side as though looking in every direction - restless and a bit paranoid. Mark is in denial about what has happened, the pole shift, even though he has experienced it.
Yeah, well, I don't believe any of it. If something like that was going to happen the government would have told us. I think is was just an earthquake.
A look of relief crosses Mark's face as he sees Big Tom and the women approaching.
Hey, there they are.
Mark starts to rise from his seat to greet the group coming back from the creek. Danny turns also, a smile on his face, but the smile slowly disappears as he sees missing members. Brian has bolted into the tents at the sight of the military men. Big Tom sets the tone and takes charge of the big lie.
They're waiting for us and we have to pack up and join them.
Happy to hear this news, Danny starts nodding his head and muttering.
Cool, we're out'a here.
Daisy comes up to him, immediately starting her whining mode again as she thinks things are back to normal again.
I'll need to see the hair stylist right away, my hair's a mess!
She is tugging at her pants and blouse, trying to straighten up and adjust back into appearance expectations she had put aside. Big Tom crawls into the tent where a sleepy Frank is just waking up from a nap.
Come on, guy, time to move out.
Frank blinks and says,
You're back? Where's Jane?
Big Tom keeps up the big lie, speaking calmly.
We're going to meet them. Hurry up, grab your things.
Martha is sorting items to take, putting most aside after a moment's hesitation on some items, as though she has regrets about leaving them, selecting only a few. She signs, sits back from being on her knees in the tent to sitting on her butt with her legs tucked under her. She looks up from the items she has been sorting. A Zeta has come to sit across from her, long thin legs folded Yoga style and elbows on each knee, hands held out in the center as though a dialog were going on. Martha says,
I'm going to miss you. ..
Suddenly smiling and brightening, even laughing a bit in relief as she realizes how foolish was her thought that contact was somehow tied to the ranch, where she has lived all her life.
Rolling back onto her knees and continuing to sort, now with more fervor and energy, getting back to the urgent task at hand. Martha is smiling to herself.
The group is leaving the farm, carrying only pillowcases stuffed with personal items. Martha stops briefly, turning slightly to glance back at the ranch with a long lingering sad look at the home and lifestyle she knows she will never see again. Tammy is at her side. Tammy says,
Do you think they'll have a doll house?
Martha, wanting to encourage her daughter's recent return to normalcy, chatters back brightly.
Wouldn't be surprised. I'll bet they'll even be some other little girls your age.
In the background, Netty is letting her big bay run free, removing its harness and giving it a slap as it canters out into the open field. On the run, the horse could not be concealed. Colonel Cage is walking with Frank, who has just been told of his wife's death. He is talking this stoically, and they are walking at the side of the others who have spread out and are not in a line any longer. Frank is pale and barely moving.
At least she didn't suffer.
The Colonel is still enraged at what had occurred.
No, but I made sure they did!
Big Tom and Danny are taking the lead. Big Tom is explaining the situation to Danny.
.. Don't know where we're going, but we had to leave, and soon. They were sent to kill us.
His face is grim, and he glances repeatedly at Danny's face as he says this, checking out the terrain ahead of them in between these glances. The pace is not slow, and the field is rough so one has to watch their step. Danny looks confused and troubled, keeps looking like he wants to say something but stops when the words don't come together. Finally he manages.
So they're all dead, Len and Herman?
Big Tom pauses, faced with a question he himself does not want to face.
I don't know, but we have to assume that, I guess. Just don't say anything to the women.
Mark and Brian have lagged behind, Brian repeatedly sitting down and crying, curling up into a ball and wailing softly. Mark looks consternated, as the others are ahead of him already. He glances at the retreating line of people ahead of him, debating whether to call for help, and decides not. Mark sits down beside Brian, putting his arms around him, rubbing his back, cradling his head against his shoulder. Brian is almost imperceptibly.
I just want to go home.
Mark has a calm, thoughtful look on his face, and then pushes Brian back so he can look into his face.
Well, maybe we can do just that!
Mark is almost surprised to find the plane wreck looking as they had left it, the plane nosed into trees at the edge of a creek, the propellers twisted and one wing bent at a right angle. Mark and Brian are walking toward the plane, hurriedly, while Mark is talking excitedly.
Remember that air balloon jet I was taking to the club? I'll bet we can rig something up! We've got the parachutes, and heck, if we can just get out of this earthquake zone ..
Night is falling, and the group leaving the farm is making camp. Straw beds have been made from straw gathered from a wheat field. No campfire has been lit, for safety, so they are eating cold food scraps they have brought - boiled potatoes and water from a nearby creek. Daisy is making a face after taking a swig, and Colonel Cage explains.
It's chlorine, so you don't get the runs.
Clara makes a nervous aside to Martha, in a quiet voice.
Why won't they let us start a fire? I don't like the feel of this, something's wrong!
Big Tom, overhearing this, senses that he needs to calm the group. He addresses the group, speaking in a loud voice so all can hear.
We're being careful not to alert anyone that we're traveling though. We don't want any trouble. Just taking precautions.
Billy is helping Red spread some straw they've brought in from the nearby field, and complains to his grandpa.
It's all itchy. Why did we have to move?
Red, who has apparently been briefed by his son earlier, replies.
We couldn't stay at the ranch forever, son, running out of food and all like we were.
The group eases down onto the straw as the last of the daylight fades, too exhausted to object any more.
The next morning the group is stirring at dawn. The Sun not yet up but the early dawn provides enough light that we can see the outline of trees in the distance and here and there a member of the group rising to stand and stretch. When it is clear that they are all awake, Martha has an announcement.
I've nothing for breakfast. I'm sorry. Here's what I suggest we do. Each of us keep our eyes out for something edible during our walk today. Maybe by nightfall we can have a feast.
Frank pats his shirt pocket and smiles when he feels a familiar friend there. He draws out a pocket sized guide and holds it aloft.
I've got a book, a book on edible weeds and mushrooms. Take it camping every time just in case I get lost in the woods or something.
Then, under his breath to himself as he realizes for once he, Frank, is the hero. A slight smile touches his face. Alive again, with a role to play after the loss of his wife Jane.
How about that.
The group is limping along with less energy than the day before. Clara, who is middle aged, is frankly dragging, and Netty comes up to her to take her sack. The group is strung out in a line. Big Tom and Colonel Cage are at the front of the line, approaching some low rolling hills. Frank is walking side by side with Billy, who is leaning close now and then to look at a picture in Frank's small pocket sized handbook on wild edibles. Frank is gesturing, and Billy glances up now and then to look at Frank in the face, to be polite, but clearly would rather just have the book.
. . These are safe, but there's some others in here that we don't want . .
Martha and Tammy are scouting as they go, only stepping off the trail for a moment to pluck a likely weed, then sampling a leave or flower as they pick up the pace to return to their place in line. Martha has grabbed a purple flower off a thistle, takes a nibble and hands a bite down to Tammy for her to taste test too. They smile at each other.
A large black rat snake has been startled from its nap in the sun and has started to wriggle into the protection of some tall grass. A military boot suddenly stomps down on the snake toward its tail, nailing it to the ground. One of the soldiers drops a rock on the snake's head and the snake stops wriggling.
A creek, gurgling through the woods, is under both sunlight and shade as it winds it way past tall trees and dense woods. Red has stepped into the water on one side, scooping up a lacy light green plant growing in the water along the bank. Red loads his left arm with the harvest while grabbing handfuls with his right hand, oblivious to the fact that his left side is getting muddy and wet. He has a smile on his face. Water cress is a find on a day when even a plain salad will be appreciated.
Netty and Danny are walking together, Netty almost on top of Danny who is in the lead. She is earnestly explaining something to Danny, who has a worried look on his face, not wanting to hear, and seems to almost be trying to put distance between the two of them to avoid it. Netty keeps closing the gap, though, talking nonstop.
. . All over the world. We're about the only culture that doesn't do it. Lots of fat and protein. . . Well what else are we going to bring to the pot tonight? Got any better ideas?
They round a large tree and find a fallen tree trunk at the side of the path, moldered halfway into the ground, the bark falling off. Netty points and strides over to the trunk.
There! Lets check this for grubs.
Danny has a horrified look on his face, but stops to watch as Netty kicks at the trunk, pushing it over and dropping to her knees in the soft wood chips, digging with a piece of bark. She pulls another, larger piece of bark toward her and is putting white grubs on this, working quickly so the grubs don't escape into the soft ground. She looks over her shoulder at the reluctant Danny, tossing him a smile.
Oh for heaven's sake! Get over yourself, city boy!
Big Tom and Colonel Cage are at the head of the line. Big Tom looks over his shoulder as they walk along a tree line and sees that many in the group are not keeping up as they are taking time out to hunt and gather. The group is stretched out at least a half mile long, with a gap between those following and the two leaders. Big Tom says,
I know there's trout in these streams, and I've been trying to think of how to catch them. No time for a hook and line, that's for sure.
Big Tom is shucking off his jacket and hands it to Colonel Cage while he shucks off his long sleeved shirt. He ties a knot in each sleeve and buttons the neck as high as it will go. Not missing a stride as he does this, he veers toward the stream that they have been following as it runs along the tree bank and steps into a pool.
You go upstream a bit and chase them toward me. Lets see if this works.
Big Tom straddles the stream at a narrow point at the end of the pool, holding his shirt bottom like a net between his two hands. His fingers are splayed open, holding the shirt open, and his feet are braced on either side, blocking the way. Colonel Cage can be seen in the background, stepping gingerly into the stream and turning to move toward Big Tom.
The group has taken shelter for the night against a rock outcropping, in part for shelter against a threatening rain storm and in part to hide a small cooking fire they plan to light. Hungry and weary, they ease themselves into the soft dirt, looking discouraged and dusty. Big Tom has hung his wet shirt on a branch, and jacket open is laid back with eyes closed, a sleepy child in each armpit curled up against him.
One of the soldiers has arranged a fire pit - a circle of rocks with all litter cleared away for several feet. He is using a branch as a brush, sweeping the ground clear. Next he moves quickly through the woods nearby, grabbing at kindling. He kneels and starts twirling a sturdy branch against a flat piece of bark, and within a minute a spark forms, which is quickly fanned and fed with dried moss.
Martha is to the side, out of the shelter of the overhang, arranging the camping pots and plates the group has carried with them. She is digging through backpacks, and Clara and Red step forward into blowing mist to help. Martha will prepare what the group has gathered in the rain, if need be, because there isn't enough room under the overhang for all the activity. The fire and dry sleeping quarters are more important, in her mind. The three lay out what has been gathered and washed - water cress, grubs, mushrooms, thistle flowers, and fish and snake fillets. Red and Clara are arranging the cress, thistle flowers, and mushrooms on a plate and passing it to the group huddled under the overhang. Red says,
Here's your vitamins, eat hearty.
The platter is being passed down the line, each taking a pinch and stuffing it into their mouths. Danny brightens.
This is not bad! Wish I had some ranch dressing. .. Ah well.
Martha is at the fire, fish and snake meat in a pan with a little water. She puts a lit over the pan and nestles it into the fire. Martha has a bowl filled with the white grubs which are twisting from side to side. Martha takes a large spoon and starts mashing the grubs, then frothing them with a fork. She pulls the covered pan out of the fire and using her skirt as a hot pad lifts the lid, showing cooked fish and snake inside with only a little water left in the pan. Martha forks the meat onto the platter, which has now been returned free of salad, and serves up the next course with a smile. She passes the platter to Red, who can be seen turning to take it to the group huddled under the overhang.
And here's your protein - fish and, ahm . . chicken.
Martha pours the frothed grubs into the pan, and holds it over the fire, stirring feverishly. When the mess looks like cooked egg whites, she quickly turns and scoops it onto another platter, pulling a sprig of some herb she has collected during the day from her pocket as a garnish.
And for desert we have pudding.
Billy's face as he pulls a grub's brown leg out from between his teeth, his eyes widening at the sight.
Big Tom and Colonel Cage are out ahead of the others. They round a bend and stop short. We can't see what they're seeing, but gauge it to be horrific from the look on their faces. Big Tom glances quickly at Colonel Cage, understanding passing between them without words, and turns on his heel quickly to stop the others from rounding the bend. He jogs up to Danny and Frank who are next in line.
Keep the others back, but send Netty forward.
Danny nods in understanding while Frank stands stock still, pale and worried, the continuous trauma and events beyond his ability to cope. He has given up, essentially.
The scene before Colonel Cage is horrific, even for one with military training. Some clothing is strewn about, a child's shoe. A man's shoe and pant leg, covered in blood. A woman thrown into the bushes, her head bloodied as though bludgeoned. Danny, Big Tom, Colonel Cage, and Netty stand next to the fire taking this scene in, their faces grim. Colonel Cage finally breaks the silence.
I've heard this was going on. Cannibalism. We got some reports, places where they had the radio up, and they were under attack like this.
Big Tom is staring at him with an alarmed look on his face, the obvious thought that they are walking into danger, danger that he hadn't been told about, on this mind.
What the fuck did you bring us here for! What were you thinking!
Colonel Cage glances at him briefly, then back at the scene.
We got other reports too, some groups were doing OK, and I figured out their general location.
His face darkens as he realizes this might not be a local affair.
I hope to God my wife and kids are OK. The general didn't let any personal calls go through.
We can't let them see this!
Her comment brings them all back to the immediate situation.
We'll tell them there's a washout.
Mark and Brian are floating through a low-lying cloud. The day is continuously overcast, gray with blowing clouds almost at ground level,
and drizzling continuously. All is gray, and they both are being powdered with a fine volcanic soot which has turned the pair and their clothing
light gray and streaked. Brian is hanging down below Mark, in a parachute seat, looking around with wide frightened eyes.
Mark is holding the hot air jet gingerly in his arms, pointed up into a double parachute arrangement above him. He rarely puffs the jet, as the wind catches them and propels them with rapid bursts now and then. Mark is using the jet sparingly, only when the wind dies down between bursts and they begin to drift toward the ground.
Below them are flooded farmlands and a town, a church steeple and silo sticking up above the water, and occasional rooftops with people huddled in the center. One waves frantically at the floating pair, hoping to be rescued. Off to the side, in the distance, is a new cliff where the land has been sheered upward by a couple hundred feet. Shreds of city housing are clinging to the top of the new cliff, as well as crumpled along the bottom, with wreckage clinging to the cliff itself.
The group traveling overland has arrived to find the highway bridge they hoped to use to cross the river in shambles. The middle section of the reinforced concrete bridge is completely displaced, sticking up from the river, 100 feet away from where the bridge is, having moved. The day is overcast, as usual, but as the group is standing on the river bank there is a slight breeze, which all appreciate. There is no evidence of activity. No boats, no people on shore, nothing but the expanse of water and the breeze ruffling the calm surface and the soiled and tattered clothing hanging from the tired bodies of the group as they arrive, one by one, to look. Clara raises her skirts and wades into the water up to her hips, a look of relief on her face. Seeing this, Billy looks up into his mother's face and begs.
Mom, can we go swimming?
Big Tom, looking over the torn bridge, is trying to come to grips with the forces that would have rearranged this familiar landscape.
I wouldn't do that until we learn what might be under the water, and there might be an undertow.
A fog horn blares softly. The group sees a large boat being rowed from the opposite side toward them. The boat is a raft, cobbled together from various boards,
with half a dozen men rowing, three on each side. The fog horn has been to signal their approach. Martha glances nervously at Colonel Cage, whose face is calm as
they would not be announcing themselves if the approach was malicious. Big Tom's face relaxes, and he walks over to his wife, putting an arm around her shoulder
as they watch and wait.
As the boat approaches they see that the men are thin but energetic, many with bare very tan arms sticking out from their tattered shirts. They look over their shoulders as they row, for aim, as there appears to be no leader in the group. As the boat approaches, Big Tom and Danny step into the water to help guide it to shore. The men in the boat are obviously unarmed, and dismount the boat by clinging to the sides and sticking a leg into the water. These are not boatmen, but landsmen who have learned how to cross the river. Ian, the first man to step out of the boat, approaches with a broad smile on his face, his hand extended.
Welcome, we're the group that survived at Bridgewater, and we've set up a camp on the bluff over there. Where are you from?
The last boat is arriving at Bridgewater. Big Tom and Martha are with their children, gathering their things, obviously having arrived on an earlier boat. Several crossings having taken place. Colonel Cage and Danny are among the last group to cross, having stayed behind to guard the rear while Big Tom went across with his wife and children, whom everyone agreed should be first. Colonel Cage is feeling a bit of relief, and feels he can talk to those on the boat openly, now that the women and children are not present. With a backdrop of steady sloshing as the oars dip and pull, he queries Ian.
How many groups like yours are you aware of?
We're the only one, though for awhile there seemed to be a group in the foothills, but their fires stopped after a few weeks and we feel sure they're dead.
Colonel Cage gets right to the point, his jaw firm and face relaxed as he has been trained to look danger straight in the face without flinching.
Have you had any run-ins with gangs, cannibalism?
Ian takes a moment to respond.
We've got a good position here, the river on one side and the mountains on the other. Not many can get to us unless we bring them over, like we did you. So I guess we've not been the best target, thank God.
Colonel Cage and Ian are walking up the hill toward the camp from the river bank. A group of women at the side of the trail are stirring something in a pot over an open fire. Colonel Cage and Ian pass a woman pouring water into a V shaped trough while another woman removes a drainage tray from under the trough, replacing it with an empty tray. The trough is filled with gray ashes with some chunks of blackened wood here and there, clearly ashes from a fire.
Phew . . Is that for supper?
They're making soap. Fat and lye. Works well enough but it'll take the hair off your chest.
Ian has flashed a smile at Colonel Cage as they continue walking up the trail, past a low table where a metal rack of soap forms is sitting inside a square cake pan, a crisscross of metal sides where a dozen or more soap bars can harden. The pot from the fire is brought over and a thick, beige colored, steaming mixture is poured across the rack.
It is evening at the River Camp, where the women are having their first hot tub bath in weeks. There is relaxed laughter from the steamy bathing hut. A stocky town's woman approaches from the hut with several clean towels over her arm. Inside the bathing hut Daisy is scrubbing her hair vigorously. She sinks back into the tub to rinse her hair off, going under the water totally and emerging with an ecstatic look on her face. She's home, once again, to where she can expect the pampering she thinks is her due. Martha is toweling off Tammy, who is chattering brightly about some friends she's met.
.. and they're making a doll house too, but right now they only have the mice to run through it. So maybe we should call it the mouse house!
Tammy giggles, putting her hand to her mouth and looking up at her mother. Her mother is visibly relieved, a calm contented look on her face. Clara is soaking in a tub, submersed up to her chin and not moving.
I think I'll be here forever.
Netty is not among them.
Outside along the river bluff Colonel Cage and Big Tom and Netty are watching the Sun go down, with Ian. They stand quietly, watching the brilliant display. Ian says,
Compliments of the volcanic dust.
Breaking out of his thoughtful mood, Ian explains.
Oh, I mean we wouldn't have such a sunset if it weren't for the volcanic dust. That's what I've heard. When the Philippines went up we'd have these kind of sunsets for awhile, but these are more brilliant than anything I've ever seen. Guess that's why we have such gloomy days, too.
The group turns their faces back to the sunset and falls silent, all in thought.
It's dawn, and birds are starting to chirp and sing irrepressibly. The river water is placid. Big Tom and Red, who have arisen, used to farm hours where everyone gets up at dawn or earlier. Big Tom is reaching into the back of his shirt collar, pulling out a piece of straw. Their clothes have not been washed as yet, nor have the men had a bath, having giving the women folk the first opportunity.
I hear there was an old timer living here. Had a garden and all.
I talked to the guy last night. Trying to make the tractor run on wood chips. Dangest thing I ever heard of, but he claims it's done.
Then pondering the mechanical challenge, Red voices his decision in a soft voice with a hint of determination. This old man doesn't back away from a challenge.
I'm going to give him a hand.
Red and the old timer, who is scrawny and dressed in a very dirty cover-all, are in the old barn of the original homestead at Bridgewater. The barn is tilting badly to one side, but has fallen against some trees so did not topple entirely. The old barn has lifted off its foundation, on the opposite side, so the light of day is giving the barn workroom plenty of light. Red is inspecting tools laid on the workbench and casting his eyes along the rack of tools hung on the wall, taking an inventory.
A gas, you say? Never heard of it.
The old timer is now seated on a low stool at the front of a small tractor. The tractor is almost antique, many decades old with the paint almost entirely worm off or covered in grime, rusty in places. The tilling blades in the rig drawn behind the tractor are held in the raised position, some dried grass stuck to them here and there. The tractor engine cover is lifted up. Red grabs a pail and turns it upside down to use as a stool, squatting next to the old timer. Both their heads are almost pushed into the engine, side by side, along with the old timer's right hand, pointing, his elbow stuck out into the air at a right angle. He says,
Put the fire bin here, and just kinda heat the wood slow, that's the ticket. It's a gas! We need a coil here, and a cutoff . .
Big Tom is standing in the doorway of the tilted old barn, leaning against the raised side of the door with his arms folded over his chest. He now looks as though he's had a bath, and is wearing some fresh clothes, borrowed from others at the camp. The borrowed shirt is too tight, too small, and the pants too short.
Need a hand?
Red looks up from his work, an almost ecstatic look on his face.
I believe we got it!
Red gestures back toward the work bench where a square metal container has had a door cut into the top for loading wood chips. A hose is looping out from one side to collect the wood gas, with a collection jar below the loop to collect the distilled wood gas. Wood gas is dripping into the collection jar. There are slits cut into the side of the firing chamber, toward the bottom, for air intake. There is another drain on the other side where steam has condensed into water and is dripping out. The old timer rises to dismantle the apparatus, eager to bring the firing chamber over to Red. He pulls his hand back quickly, realizing it is still hot.
Billy appears in the doorway, alongside his father. He quickly brightens into an ecstatic look that mirror's Red attitude.
The camp folks have their backs to some woods with a fallow field in front of them. The faces
reflect skepticism. A chugging motor is starting up very haltingly. Finally, the motor is doing a
steady chug-chug. The faces of the camp folk reflect astonishment, some blinking, one a bit teary
eye'd, some just gap jawed.
The antique tractor is slowly plowing a row in the fallow field, the camp folk to the side along the woods. The wood gas apparatus can be seen stuck to the side of the tractor engine on one side. A couple camp folks, men, have come forward to talk to Billy and Big Tom who are squatting on the stool and upturned pail from the barn, energetically chopping some branches gathered from the nearby wood into chips with an ax.
Mark and Brian have floated rapidly from the Rockies to an approach to New York City. The strong wind is obviously dragging them along at a fairly rapid clip, the parachutes ahead of them and filled out like a sail. They have been traveling for days, are dirty with smeared faces where they have wiped the dust off but not bathed, when landing for some sleep. A week has passed since they left, and they appear thinner than when they left. Brian has pulled his legs up and appears to be pulling himself up into a fetal position, his arms around his knees. We see his long hair floating out in the wind. Mark is excited.
Brian, there it is, there's the city! We're home, home! Lets find a good place to bring this down.
Mark is looking up while he positions his hands on the ropes. When he glances down, to mentally prepare his descent path, a grim look comes over this face. The Statue of Liberty is seen tilted at a 45 degree angle, with the remnants of a sailboat caught in and dangling from the flame, seaweed shreds up to her chin. No high rises remain standing, but the city skyline looks like a rubble instead, black in outline against the gray skies. Bridges are disconnected with most sections down. No boats are seen on the water, but a couple large ocean going vessels can be see floating, bottom up. Mark's eyes have filled with tears, and he glances upward, not wanting to look down. Finally he glances down to check on Brian, talking to himself.
At least you're not there to see all this. Time to say goodby. Nothing left to live for.
Mark points the hot air jet directly at the parachute lines, melting them one by one. The rig begin to tip to the side, suddenly plunging into the ocean below.