It seemed to take forever for Haojing’s eyes to readjust to the light outside the condenser. As she clambered down from the structure and onto the uneven hill it was perched on, she took a moment to collect herself.
Though the hill was not tall, she could see for miles. The valley below her, overgrown and lush, had been reclaimed by the vegetation early on, a quirk of geography and economics. Many similar spaces were still dotted with holdouts, those too stubborn or stupid to leave for the villages and encampments that sprung up near potable water, fertile fishing grounds, or the kind of chemical spills that could be reappropriated into fuel. But this valley was free from the tell-tale smoke haze that indicated human dwellings. Alone and unarmed, she was not apt to complain.
Not for the first time, her gaze was drawn in the opposite direction from home. Even now, consumed with a sense of purpose, she felt the tug. Once her father had raised her to see only possibility over the next hill rise, but that was many years gone. Then she had been too young to explore too far alone, and then Long Fei was sick, her father was gone, and her mother needed her. She could not share her desires with anyone – not Long Fei, who who would feel guilty no matter what her intentions, and certainly not her mother. Her family had become inhospitable to wanderers. In any event, this was no place to loiter.
For a moment she studied the landscape and planned her route home. She took time to stare at a distant contrail, rapidly disappearing; her mother had taught her to identify them, to sort them out from ordinary clouds. Aircraft above were quite rare, but not unheard of, and their intermittent appearance fueled the most durable rumor of all: the rumor of great cities, powered by the wind or the sun or fusion, depending on the telling, great gleaming places where everything and everyone still worked. Her mother called these fantasies, but there was just enough proof – the odd jet overhead, the occasional credible sighting of robotic resource harvesters combing the plains, strange patterns of light emerging unexplained from off on the horizon. But wherever these perfect cities might be, it was very very far from here.
She had been close to a plane once, an old crop duster owned by a mostly-crazy resident of the next village over. He had spent years gathering the fuel necessary to get if off the ground. She had gone with her father to see it, one old crank leading his daughter to meet another. He had grasped her hand too tightly on the walk, and had forgotten to bring along her lunch, but to be pulled out alone by her father for a journey made it all worthwhile. The pilot had let her sit in the cockpit, and she marveled at the old instruments, touching them all, feeling the scuffed glass of the gauges beneath her fingertips. When they returned home, her mother bandaged her badly chafed feet and taught her how a propeller worked while she did so. Her father wandered off not long after, as he often did, and would not be seen again for days. She later heard the pilot had died in his sleep a week after his flight.
She made a brisk pace, though she was exhausted from days of travel; her thoughts of Long Fei animated every step. She hung close to tall vegetation, vine-draped cypress trees and scraggly bushes that stood body-tall in vast thickets. Here and there, remains of old construction popped through the underbrush, half-collapsed brick structures, mossy concrete foundations, rotting drywall. At one point she came across a cluster of scattered desks and thought that it must have once been a classroom. She took a moment to sit down on one, gingerly, checking its capacity to bear her weight. Satisfied, she pulled her dented metal water bottle out of her bag, and spared a moment, for the hundredth time, to feel the shape of the case which held her USB drive and her brother’s chance at survival. For a minute she traced the outline of the fallen walls of the schoolhouse in her mind, idly, then strapped her bag onto her back and set off again.
She heard them before she could see them. Their language seemed vaguely eastern European, though she spared a second to wonder how she knew such a thing. More distinct than any remnants of old regional lines was the sound of menace, the universal prosodic qualities of men who intend to do harm. Interspersed with their cackling shouts were words barked in English, and it was then she knew that someone was in trouble.
She climbed slowly up over a ridge, hugging a row of shrubs that thicketed the rise. Pinning her body low to the ground, she crept forward at what felt like a glacial pace, until she saw them. There were three of them, dressed in grimy old T-shirts and filthy jeans, about a hundred yards ahead. The big one in the back wore an old motorcycle helmet, adorned with decals, and they were armed with makeshift weapons of rusting metal. Each had a crude image of a big cat stenciled in spray paint on the backs of their shirts, but their clothes were otherwise unremarkable. There were rumors of giant gangs, well-organized and armed, who wore elaborate uniforms and wreaked havoc with military precision. But this, too, Haojing chalked up to a perverse form of wishful thinking; all one ever really saw were men like these, desperate scavengers, uncoordinated and pathetic. Even the bandits these days seemed to barely cling to life.
They moved deliberately ahead, picking through the twisting vegetation with purpose but without hurry. She dared to creep closer to scan further ahead. At last she made out their target: a solitary man, limping strangely some ways ahead of them. He was approaching a giant cement sewer pipe, at least 8 feet in diameter, that lay in vine-covered sections above ground, never having been installed. They were closing in on him. They called after him in accented English, mockingly telling him to stop and talk. Their intent was clear. Haojing knew that if she did nothing, he would soon be dead.
Once again, she felt herself reaching back to feel the outline of the precious USB drive in her pack. She told herself she could not help him. She had no weapon; they would be outnumbered; the wounded man could easily be another monster himself. And if she died saving him, her brother died with her.
Yet she found herself circling around towards them all the same. A part of her brain, animal and indistinct, powered her steps. She ran quickly to cover, maneuvering to gain higher altitude on a steep ridge as she edged closer. In a few moments she was only a few dozen yards away, and crouched looking down at the scene from above. The man they were chasing had reached the first section of sewer pipe, leaning for a moment against it in obvious exhaustion. In his hands he clutched a section of green metal, a stretch of old street sign post repurposed into a crude weapon. As she crept closer, she saw why he dragged his leg so oddly; some sort of lance or harpoon was sticking gruesomely from his thigh, and behind it dragged a long length of old synthetic rope. It seem impossibly tangled as it stretched behind him, clearly impeding his progress. No wonder his pursuers were in such little hurry.
From her position above, she watched him drag his way into the sewer pipe, the rope straining and tugging behind him. His pursuers slowed. The big one in the motorcycle helmet gestured to his friends, one of whom started walking a wide circle. His intent was clearly to reach the other side of the pipe and approach from the other side. The second walked up to the opening, following the same path as their quarry, banging the old wrench he carried against the wall of the sewer as he entered. The leader trudged for a bit up the rise she looked down from, and she held her breath in fear. After only a moment, though, the helmeted man turned back towards the pipe, and took a short jump onto the side of the pipe, awkwardly dragging his body up and onto the cylinder. He unstrapped an old lawnmower blade from his back, clutching a length of leather that was wrapped around its end, then teetered slowly forward.
From inside the sectioned pipe she could hear the sound of clattering metal. The helmeted one moved forward on top of the pipe, stepping carefully over the gap between the sections. His plan, she figured, was to swing down on their prey and open him up to attack from the others. The third bandit must have been quickly coming up behind him. If she was going to help him, it would have to be now. She gave one last thought to bolting, then ran forward and leapt on top of the pipe. Not as encumbered as the man she targeted, she moved lightly over the curved concrete. He was intent on the combat below. As she accelerated towards him, he crouched down at the lip of the pipe section, then raised the lawnmower blade over his head. As she hurdled forward, she considered for a panicked second that she had no plan, then threw her entire weight into his body.
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