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  • 10 Years Later

    Reid Thomas

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    Bare feet thumping against the dirt. Legs pumping hard to carry him forward. Trees racing by. The conspicuous void in the chorus of noises that usually filled the forest, a void that followed him on four legs, closing the distance faster than he could open it.

    A fallen tree blocked his way, but the downward slope of the land made it so that he could scramble up over the side of the trunk, whose diameter was three meters across. He did so, then leapt off without risking a backward glance. It was still in pursuit.

    Ahead the trees were sparser and dwarfed by the forest behind him. Their size and distribution resembled the trees on Earth, and he had a momentary pang of helplessness. Why run? Why not just stop? Turn and face the beast. Let it take you, Reid, because then this nightmare will be over. Surviving here is pointless, because you are alone and there is no end goal other than to die. It would all be over with so quickly.

    But he did not seriously entertain that voice. The hopelessness of his plight often threatened to overwhelm him, but he was singularly focused on the problem in front of him. The reason for his continued existence was a far off dilemma that he could only untangle if he survived today. Just like every other day.

    He slid and ran down the hill, weaving between trees faster now. There was more undergrowth however, a symptom of the increased light penetrating the canopy overhead. It was late afternoon and a cloudless sky looked down on him. And on the void of sound pursuing him. His breath was ragged now but he dare not stop.

    In the distance a creature roared.  Except that this was not the mighty roar of one of the forest's many predators, but a cry of frustration.  Like the sound of . . . a man.  The realisation almost stopped him dead in his tracks, but his momentum carried him downhill long enough for him to regain his senses. He wheeled around towards the noise and kept running. If the trees had been thicker, he might not have seen them, but here he spotted the source of the gunshot from a distance - two men, one of whom held a large hunting rifle. Reid sprinted straight for them.

    “RUN!” He shouted. The men looked up in surprise, the shooter raising his rifle to take aim at Reid. His eyes widened at the sight, but then his jaw dropped when he saw what came in pursuit. He adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger, nothing happened. Reid kept running.

    “RUN!” He cried again. The unarmed man obeyed and sprinted away, while the shooter, brave but foolish, fumbled to clear the chamber and fire a shot. Reid raced past him. In a few moments the man’s scream filled the air. The void of sound disappeared, replaced by a triumphant roar and the sounds of feasting.

    The surviving man ran ahead of Reid but was slow, and Reid had to pull him along. When they finally stopped some minutes later, their breath came in ragged gasps. Neither talked for a moment while they sucked in air as fast as their lungs could manage. Eventually the man spoke.

    “Who - who are you?” He managed between breaths.

    Reid paused, taking a moment to remember his own name. 

    “Reid.” he said. He had so many questions. Where to start? The other man took the lead, though.

    “I’m Dr. Harry McGill. Were you part of the expeditionary force?” Reid didn’t know what he meant. He ignored the question.

    “How did you get here?” He asked.

    “We have a ship in Pointe Noire. We drove east to forward point Charlie then ditched the jeep for horses. We set up camp at the ruins of Kinshasa and have been making forays into the trees for a couple of weeks now.”

    All of this came to Reid too quickly to process. He wasn’t expecting an answer like that, and it hit him all at once. Kinshasa. He was still in Africa.

    “Ruins?” He asked haltingly, confused.

    “Of Kinshasa. Didn’t you come that way?”

    “Yes.” He answered. But Kinshasa hadn’t been in ruins when he came that way. What the hell had happened?

    Dr. McGill looked puzzled, but Reid took his arm. The creature would hunt again soon, and he didn’t intend to be here.

    “We should go.” He said. And so they did.

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    Three days later he was in Kinshasa, or what was left of it. The base of operations, such as it was, occupied a small faculty building at the University of Kinshasa.  The city, Dr. McGill had explained, was mostly deserted now.  The few who remained made their living by scavenging the ruins for valuable supplies - mostly electronics.  Further west, near the coast, they were in constant need of replacements.


    “It’s not my area of expertise,” Harry had said as they trekked back to Kinshasa, “but it’s got something to do with the electronics.  The further inland you get, the less it works.  But once you reach the coast it starts right back up again.  Anything that’s in use breaks down sooner or later, though.  I can’t tell if it’s part of the same phenomenon or just old equipment, but we got through electronics like nobody’s business.”


    Reid offered no reply.  After a short pause, Harry continued, a little breathless.


    “I heard someone tried to get a jeep working further inland.  But he had to crank the damn thing to start it, and in this heat he had to stop every hour to let the engine cool off.  Personally I don’t believe it.  If they had vehicles working inland we wouldn’t be taking Shanks’ pony.”


    They continued on in silence.  Reid had wanted to talk, but had lost the art of conversation.  By the time they reached Kinshasa, he had regained some of it.  Dr. McGill had been trying to pry bits of Reid’s story out of him during the march.  Each night when they set up camp, the doctor had quizzed him on what he’d seen deeper in the forest.  But Reid had been sparse on details, sometimes just ignoring the question.  Harry didn’t seem to mind too much.


    When they reached the University, they saw a young man, dark skinned and smiling.


    “Hello Dr. McGill, how are you today?”  The thick accent identified him as a local.


    “I’m fine, Jonathan.  Heading back to Pointe-Noire.  How are you.”


    “Very good sir.  Who is this gentleman?”


    “This is Reid.”  Answered Harry.  Reid did not acknowledge the boy.


    “No Kurt today, sir?”  He asked, walking alongside them.


    Harry was silent for a moment.  “I’m afraid not.  The forest took him.”


    Jonathan looked concerned, although it seemed like the mock concern a parent would show to a toddler, a mask.  “Oh dear.  That is a great shame.”  After a short pause, he continued.  “Maybe later you come and see me.  I have some things you might like.”


    “I will, Jonathan.”


    And with that the boy ran off, shouting his goodbye as he left.  Reid watched him go, running ahead on the empty street.  Dr. McGill explained.


    “Jonathan is one of the local lads.  He’s only seventeen - old enough to remember before the event but young enough to have grown up in its aftermath.  He’s one of the combers I told you about - fetching tech from the city to be taken back to Pointe Noir.  Most of it is fried and useless except for raw materials, but he finds the occasional gem.”


    “Kurt’s rifle…”  Reid managed.  It was a question of sorts, and Harry recognised it as such.


    “The gunpowder lost its spark before we even reached Kinshasa, but Kurt still carried his rifle.  He wanted to find out if there were dead spots where he could still fire it.  Cleaned the damn thing every morning: stripped it apart and put it back together, trying to make it work.  Just before you arrived, he was trying to hit some kind of dog-sized reptile that kept following us.  When it wouldn’t fire he started shouting at the thing.  It ran off, sure enough, and then you arrived.”


    This was about as emotional as Reid had seen the doctor.  He wanted to offer his condolences, but all he managed was a grunt of acknowledgment.


    That evening, they went to see Jonathan, who had a rucksack filled with small electronics - mobile phones, mp3 players and the like.  After the requisite amount of haggling over price, they left.  The next morning, they left Kinshasa behind, starting on the long hike back to Forward Point Charlie.

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    They crossed into the Republic of the Congo the next day.  It was 220 miles back to Forward Point Charlie, on the western edge of the Dimonika Biosphere Reserve.  From there they would be able to take a jeep back to Pointe-Noire.


    During the twelve day hike, they lived on a mix of trail rations and whatever they could trade for.  Various trading posts had sprung up on the route to Kinshasa.  Harry did most of the talking on the journey, and alternated between trying to pry more of Reid’s story from his lips and telling him about what had happened here since the Event.


    Kinshasa was about as far inland as you could get in relative safety, and only because so many trading posts had been set up en route.  Between Pointe-Noire and Kinshasa there were more than a dozen camps, some no more than a large hut and a campfire.  Sat around those fires at night, Reid felt the tension of years shrink away.  The comforting light was a luxury he could rarely afford in the heart of the forest.  He kept staring into the blackness around them, expecting to see teeth and claws waiting for them.  Harry became used to these lapses, but would keep chattering away.  It was comforting to hear the sound of another human voice, and Reid was grateful for the company.


    He slept lightly, a habit he had developed long before Africa.  One night they took shelter in the Madingou soccer stadium.  Reid slept on a makeshift bed that was unnaturally soft to his senses, but fatigue dragged him into a deep sleep in which he dreamt vividly.  He was walking on a road with the forest at his back, but behind him he knew he was being followed, stalked.  He began to walk faster, willing himself toward safety, but with every step he knew that the thing behind him was getting closer.  Soon he broke into a run and his pursuer did likewise.  He turned to fire his pistol, but remembered that he had abandoned it years ago.  His hands were empty.  He began to run again, but knew it would not be enough.  He cast about for a place to hide, but the light of a fire blinded him.  He turned to face whatever was coming for him and then woke with a start.


    In that moment between being asleep and awake, when the mind still inhabits both worlds, he saw the black interior of the room and thought he had been swallowed whole.  He sat up, flailing at the darkness for a moment to fight his way free.  Then he remembered, and felt ludicrous.  Somewhere nearby, Harry snored peacefully.  Reid climbed out of bed carefully and crept to the door.  Picking his way along the short corridor, he found his way outside, where the overgrown pitch of the stadium was clearly lit by the moon and stars.  He released a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding and sat down on one of the hard plastic seats.  As he pulled it down, the sprung hinge creaked and scraped, the only noise in the night air save for the insects.


    He sat there, breathing in the calm around him.  Time passed by until the sun lit up the eastern horizon.  They were days away from the forest now, but when he looked that way, he imagined for a moment that it was watching him hungrily.  He wondered briefly if he would ever go back there.  Not if he could help it, he decided.  A man only had so much luck.


    Soon after, Harry stirred from sleep and they were on their way, leaving Madingou behind them.

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    • 1 month later...

    When they reached Dolisie, it was almost exactly like Reid remembered.  The rainforest that stood to the west of the city had crept closer, buoyed by the change in weather patterns since the event and the collapse of the logging industry.  Harry enjoyed talking about this stuff, and Reid was happy to listen.


    The checkpoints that had littered the road on his way into Africa had long since vanished.  Back then, armed police were on hand to ask for juice, which of course was just another word for a bribe.  Reid had fobbed them off, volunteering to buy one on the way back.  The one bright side to this whole ordeal was that he wouldn't have to make good on that promise.  He chuckled, and Harry turned to look at him.  It was probably the first laugh the doctor had heard pass Reid's lips.


    The roads inside the city were better build than the dirt tracks outside its limits, but a decade of neglect had seen cracks appear, through which sprouted the vanguard of the rainforest.  In another decade this place would be more green than grey.  Red taxis littered the roads, although on the bigger roads, they had been cleared aside by hand.  They encountered a local moving in the opposite direction, pulling a cart behind him.  He eyed them both curiously, unashamedly turning his head to watch them as they passed each other.


    Not much further on, a market had been set up in a square.  Locals were haggling over the price of fruit, veg, clothing, and the occasional piece of salvage.  Most of the salvage was still useless here, but Harry cast his eyes over what there was, deciding whether to take anything else back west.  He seemed oblivious to the stares from the locals, but Reid met their eyes with his own hard stare.  A polite westerner might be tempted to look away.  Eye contact with a stranger was to be avoided in polite society.  Reid, however, was a practical man who knew when to keep his eyes open.  It was this vigilance that meant he saw the trouble coming before it arrived.  Three young men with swagger in their step were walking past every other stall and coming straight towards the only two white men at the market.  Harry was engrossed in what he was doing, poring over circuit boards and gadgets laid out on a sheet on the ground.


    Reid folded his arms and stepped between the advancing men and his travelling companion.  The trio looked right at him as they closed the distance, and Reid noted that the locals were pointedly ignoring them whilst moving aside to let them through.  This would be a delicate situation - he didn't want anything he did now to come back on the locals later.  Too late to leave the market though.


    "Hey boss, you didn't buy a ticket." one said in his heavy accent.  All three men were armed with assault rifles, although Reid guessed that they were just for show.  One of the men stood at the speaker's shoulder, looking as mean as he could, which didn't impress Reid much.  The other walked around Reid, openly examining Harry, who by this point had noted the men and stood up.  Reid kept his eyes on the two in front of him.

    "I don't need a ticket."  Reid replied.  No point in playing a game here.


    "Boss, you do.  You got to buy a ticket to come to our market."  The man stepped closer, a little taller than Reid.  He unshouldered his rifle, holding it with both hands.  There was no ambiguity in his intentions.


    The locals were avoiding them, but were now watching intently.  Reid looked around, ignoring the man for a moment.  There were women, kids.  He was caught by a moment of indecision.  These could be just a few thugs looking to exploit a pair of strangers, or they could be part of some larger gang.  The latter would almost certainly mean consequences for the locals once Reid had dealt with these men and moved on.  On the other hand, standing up to them might show them as toothless.  Problem was, he didn't know how it would play out.  He'd only been in the city half an hour.


    So he fell back on his instinct, and in a blur of motion, disarmed the man in front of him.  As if in slow motion, Reid saw the comprehension register on the man's face.  Reid was already slamming the butt of the weapon into his opponent's stomach.  As he doubled over, Reid brought a knee up into his face.  This all happened so fast that the other two were only now shouldering their own rifles.  Reid thought for a moment he had misjudged the situation.  Perhaps the rifles were functional.  He fired a shot into the air.  The rifle clicked.  The man in front of him finally hit the floor, falling on his ass and tumbling back further.  The second man had almost finished pointing his rifle at Reid, who now dropped the rifle and ducked under the anticipated blow from behind, spinning as he did so.  He kicked out his leg, sweeping away the feet of the man behind.


    There had still been no shot fired.  The man with the rifle wasn't even pulling the trigger.  Instead he was shouting a language Reid couldn't understand.  He was trying to be as loud and fearsome as possible.  Still not impressed.  Reid stood and took two swift steps toward him.  The man backed up but didn't fire.  Reid grabbed the barrel of the rifle with both hands, pulling it back as he slammed his boot into the man's knee.  The ill fitting boots he had bartered for back in Kinshasa were hard enough to crack bone with enough force.  They did so.  As the third man climbed back to his feet, Reid swung the new rifle into his face, knocking him down again.


    This had all taken a matter of seconds.  The first man was coughing, sucking in air in gasps as he climbed back to his feet.


    "I don't need a ticket," he said, throwing the rifle at the man's feet.  They left Dolisie soon after.

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    • 2 months later...

    The Atlantic ocean stretched on forever in every direction.  More than anything he'd seen in the last couple of weeks, this made him feel like he'd woken up from a nightmare.  It was so alien to see nothing but water that he felt convinced the last decade had been a lie.


    But he had the scars, both physical and mental.  It was real.  And it was behind him.


    He still didn't know what was ahead.  Eris?  Who knew if she'd survived.  When he'd left for Africa, she had her own battles ahead of her.  Her cancer had made him feel impotent, hollowed out.  In secret, he had felt some relief at leaving, knowing that he would face an enemy he could fight.  


    But almost as soon as he'd stepped onto the plane he felt he'd made the wrong choice.  What if he never saw her again?  In ten years he had gone through a kaleidoscope of emotions, imagining what she might to him if they ever met again.  She'd insisted that he go, but what had she really felt about his leaving?  Scorn? Sorrow?  In his heart he didn't believe that he would ever truly know.  She was gone.


    He shut his emotions out, well practised, and put his hands on the side of the ship.  In a week he would be on American soil.  He'd considered Australia, but there were no ships heading that way from Pointe-Noire.  And there had been nobody back in Oz he cared about.  Not like Eris.


    He slammed his open palm onto the rail.  Nobody noticed.  The deck of the cargo ship was devoid of crew.


    "Stop it,"  he told himself.


    The waves rocked him back to a point where he could clear his head of unwanted thoughts.  He had practised the technique many times - how to focus on the task at hand and put other concerns aside.  But there was no task at hand.  He was drifting.  Aimless.  Until they reached shore, he would remain that way.  Until he reached Eris.


    He swore and left the rail behind.

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