Personal log of Kowalski, Roger
The unpleasant heavy rain in the hills was changing to a cold sleet on our way up the slope after an hour. Everybody was just concentrating on the setting of their feet while we were walking in line, with Richard in front, the three consultants, followed by Thaniel, Babsie and me at the rear. “We have to make some clicks”, had Richard explained. His weather-beaten face had crow’s feet wrinkles around his dark brown eyes and I suspected some far inheritance of Native American bloodline in the color of his skin and the form of his cheekbones. But if there had been any, who could say for sure after a goblinisation? He had something archaic, caveman-like in his looking.
Our destination is a shelter in far into the cascades, “behind this crest over there, then we have to cross a valley, a river and after the slope after that we get into a kind of highland. That’s where the shelter is. It’s about three days of marching. Let’s go.”
More there wasn’t to say. My feet are already hurting in my new shoes but the old ones would have been rags already after the first few kilometers. The woods were thick around us with high dark logs reaching up into the sky until their tops were disappearing in the low hanging clouds above, the in between dark and full of shadows, moss, brushwood, broken wood and hanging vines from above. It’s like in a jungle. The voices of birds and animals I couldn’t identify were following us. As a warning for others or maybe it was just the sound of the woods.
The woods are not the same anymore, I have been told. Not after the Awakening. It’s wilder, it’s darker and as it had it’s impact on humankind in giving more diversity it had a much nastier effect on the wild flora and fauna. Even biologists were overwhelmed by the new diversity, most of it not discovered and categorized definitely uncatalogued. A world of wonder and maybe of fright for most city dwellers. Like from dreams or nightmares, depending on your perception of the new.
The first hours were under this spell, where everyone but our leader was so overwhelmed that nobody was talking until the first were starting to struggle, one of the slim and tall computer-guy with the bent back named Dan, which I considered a subordinate of their leader Mark, had most of the problems, like the goth-like Thaniel, who had no completely appropriate clothing for this trip. Style over substance, I smiled.
Richard was holding up his hand. “We rest for a while. Does everybody have some rations on him and water?” We sat down our backpacks and sat in a scattered circle on some weathered rugs that were crisscrossing on the ground. Our rations were the simple survival kind, chewy that solved with water and that tasted of meat, salt and fat. Richard himself was eating some stuff, that was looking kind of self-made survival stuff, while the other four of our company were having more or less ‘real’ food with them, sandwiches, self heating waffles or pizza for the geeks, something like ham, fruit and tomatoes for our goth. Something mothers might provide and definitely overdone.
“So who are you guys?”, Babsie asked, starting with the short dark-haired girl and the visual datajack on her temple. Something the street considered old-school. "We’re software developers, Mark, Dan and me. We worked on that stuff for two years and now we are on closing this big deal and it’s some well-deserved vacation. Stress relieve. " She laughed. “Man it’s already like I’m jacking in real life now after those two years.” The other two laughed. “And you?” Babs looked at me. I took over. “We are working for one of these insurance companies. Freelancer, so we have different clients, you know? We investigate if the companies suspects a fraud.” “Payment?” “Depends. It’s on provision. But it’s much more exciting than it sounds.” Babsie took over the ball because I was already running out of ideas. “We had this big hit. Good money. Company fraud, you know?” “You look very young.” “I’m an elf. We look younger. But I’m in training anyway.” With a look on my rifle Skylar laughed. “And you have to have a weapon as an insurance investigator, yes?”
She was definitely too smart for her good. But I smiled. “Of course not. But you know how you get a job like mine?” “No. I have no idea.” “You leave service in military, security or police somewhere. What is left is working as a freelancer like this or to open a bar.” We laughed. “And become your best client. I know the stereotype. I’ve seen the movies.” I smiled a bit sour. “It’s not a stereotype. It’s my life.” “It’s much more interesting than you would imagine”, Babsie nodded. One of the sentences people tell you that have mindbogglingly boring jobs and that are used to defend them. And which usually stops people asking too many questions.
Babsie turned to Thaniel. “What’s with you.” “I don’t want to talk about.” “Why’s that?” “Because it’s not my decision to be here.” Skylar started to get curious. “Not your decision? What do you mean by that?” “I really would like to eat. Fuck off. This is stupid shit this survival thing. As if that’s real. It’s just another lie, isn’t it? I just do it and that’s it for me. Back to normal after that. It’s shit.” “Why then you are here anyway?” “Because I was told to. Can you pretty please now fuck yourself and leave me alone?” She shrugged.
“So you are software developers? What kind of?”, I asked Skylar. She glanced to Mark, who was talking with Richard and Dan. “I think I can’t tell you. Mark is the genius who came up with the idea. And before the deal is done, I should not tell anyone what’s it about. It’s some kind of new social network. Just put some security in it, then you have it.” “I don’t understand.” “Just imagine you can combine it with everything you do on the net. Dynamic clustering, hive mind operation, it’s mind-bending. Kind of revolutionary.” Mark had stopped talking and glancing to Skylar. “Are you talking about our project?” “No”, she defended herself. “Just…” “Just stop it, Skylar? We’re not here to talk about fucking computers.” He laughed. “This is our first break for two years work. I really don’t want to hear anything from you but about nature, animals, fire making and things like that.” He smiled with a kind of charisma which you only would find on lunatics, geniuses or spiritual leaders. “Okay”, she laughed. “No geek talk.”
Everyone of them had old fashioned datajacks. Mark had three of them and I got an idea what it was about: some weird tech shit. Our whole group wasn’t looking very fit for wilderness survival and my own time as a boy scout was so long ago that it already lacked some reality, like you would try to remember an almost forgotten dream. About cutting wood, starting fire, sitting in a circle and singing songs to a badly tuned guitar.
At least I would not have done what our elf-poser did. I heard him screaming and started to run. We found him trying to get rid off some plants he got himself into. Richard said: “Hairy vine, no friend of mine…” “Shit,” I said. “What do we do?” “Get me my backpack”, he ordered Dan who went off. Thaniel was almost screaming and the vine was fastening their grip on his leg. “It’s the awaken kind”, Richard said. “Everyone cover their eyes.” And while the vine tried to pull Thaniel deeper into their brush, Richard took out his bush-knife and cut the thing. With the sharp drum of a tightly pulled rope the vine was cut and some dust was in the air.
“Pull him out!”, Babs and I pulled him on out of the bushes. “It burns!”, he screamed. Dan came back with the backpack and Richard fetched a bottle of alcohol of of it, washing Thaniels ankle and lower leg. "That was poison ivy ", he explained calmly. The skin had already turned red and some blisters were showing up.
“You have to wash it out with water or better with alcohol. It’s painful.” The whimpering of Thaniel made clear how painful. “I hate it! I hate it here!”, he managed to get out. Richard showed us the plant. “This is one of the awakened ones. Why did you leave camp for anyway?” “I needed a piss”, Thaniel said. Something felt wrong but it was most likely the painful stress on his voice, that distorted what he said.
“I hate it! I hate it!” Babsie just stood there and watched him. “Shut the fuck up”, she said with some kind of harshness I wouldn’t had suspected of her. “We were told not to leave camp. It’s just fucking pain. You are not hurt.” She turned and went back without turning around again.
We looked after her. “Well”, Richard said after that, “someone help him up. Can you walk?” Sniffing Thaniel nodded. “Think so.” And turning to me he asked: “Who is she? Some kind of elven warrior princess shit from Japanese comic strip or what?” “She’s tough”, I said. “Tougher than she looks. Because there was a lot of shit in her life, I suspect.” He wiped the tears from his face and limped a bit. “I’m scared”, he said. “So, why are you here?” “I was sent here by court. Some juvi anti drug program shit”, he sniffed. “And my parents paid for it. They said it helps. It just fucking hurts! I want to be home.”
“Come on”, I offered my arm as support, “I help you walking.” “No. I manage that myself. It just fucking hurts.” Dan was shaking his head, “I didn’t know these vines try to pull someone in. It was as if they were alive. Like in a horror movie. Ghastly.” Skylar let out a nervous giggle. “Like in that one where the girl got raped by trees you mean?” Dan laughed nervously. “I don’t think they would do that. Would they?”
Richard just laughed. “It was a cheap lesson not to mess with local fauna or flora. Just keep together, keep your eyes open. Follow my path. It could have been worse, lot worse. Everybody make himself ready. We start in five. Before sunset we have to reach a place for camp with water. And I know a good place up there”, and he vaguely showed up the slope. “So we have to speed a bit up.”
Babsie was adapting fast to the new environment. Her step was light and elastic and I had the pleasure to walk behind her. Thaniel wasn’t keeping up so Babsie had to revive his spirits with casual nudges. The three engineers were jolly but the only one that was leaving the impression do some actual sports was Mark. His two companions were more or less couch potatoes, the typical average geek.
So different as the group was their outfit. The worst was Thaniel with his black coat and his peaked boots with straps and a black cotton sling bag, that was already leaking water on the bottom side. He cursed every time his boots slipped on the muddy and slippery ground and he was fighting for balance often, sometimes slipping and falling into the mud. His legs were shaky and he was slowing down the whole column but he wasn’t giving up, maybe because Babsie was behind him and he didn’t want to look too bad.
I noticed the way he was watching her, when he thought he was unregarded. From the front of the line casual jokes about horror movies or computer games were carrying over. But most of the geek talk of the three were insiders that nobody else would have understood. Richard sometimes stopped to point on the one or other plant, explained that this was eatable or poisonous or had some funny story about it.
He noticed also some animals that might otherwise would have gone unnoticed, like lizards, a small snake that was trying to get away or a toad, that tried to hide under a stone below the fern that was growing on both sides of our path. Thaniel who had gotten wet to the bone started to shake, so we finally have to stop for an other rest, where he simply slipped down and fell to the floor, muddy and exhausted. He sneezed and Richard started to give him some vitamins as prophylaxis. He used local plants and we listened, everyone happy to have a rest for himself.
The steady walk uphill on slippery ground and the cold rain and sleet had taken it’s toll. The only one that wasn’t exhausted at all was Richard. “How long do we have to go?”, Mark asked with an eye to his comrades, who had stopped talking a few kilometers ago. “Not far. Maybe an hour. But we have to be there before darkness or we won’t be able to set up a camp”, Richard explained. “A camp without water is nothing that you want to have. And we need a fire, because Thaniel is getting sick, if we don’t.” He handed him a small pocket oven that he should put under his coat and that was filled with some gasoline and was lit and burning flameless.
The rest was much too short, when we had to walk again. Nobody talked and Skylar slipped and fell, took Dan with her when she tried to hold herself upright on him. She screamed and then tumbled down a few meters. “I think I hurt my ankle”, I heard her say. Richard checked her, but it was nothing serious. The boot had prevented the worst. But she wasn’t as cheerful as she had been before. The funny thing was, that her fall had activated some energy in Thaniel, who had been cheered up a bit since the last rest, when everybody was caring about Skylar. He was somehow starting to enjoy the trip was the impression I had, looking around and not on his feet.
But just Babsie and me had him in sight, the rest was concentrated on the path. He even laughed the next time he slipped, which kind of cheered up the whole group, who was going into some frenzy just before total exhaustion. “Work flash!”, Thaniel shoutet and the geeks cheered in, “Walk flash!” One of them started to sing some stupid song about dwarfs and orcs that sounded like a thing from a childish fantasy movie for me.
In the end we were all more or less singing the song. Just Richard was keeping an eye to the surroundings. But the flash went by and left us tumbling from one side of the path to the other. Everyone just fighting to keep himself upright. I had to catch Babsie two times and when I slipped nobody was there to help. So we needed longer than Richard had guessed until we reached the clearing that was leveled at the side of a creek, under an old oak tree or I really didn’t give a shit about which tree it was.
We just collapsed and Skylar didn’t open her eyes again. She instantly fell asleep, her backback still shouldered. Just Thaniel and Mark were in an oddly good mood but were not responding anymore to any commands to do something. The rain that had stopped to bug us was restarting with some vehemence, so just Dan, Babsie and me were respondent to what we had to do to build our camp.
Babsie volunteered to get some dry wood, while Richard explained to her where to find it. “The wood under firs is still dry, even if it’s raining. You can rip off the peeling from a birch, if you find one up here, or try to get small dry branchlets as a firestarter and dry moss like this”, and he showed it to her. “Your elven eyes will make you able to find it even in this bad light. Just keep an eye to the rest of your surroundings. And don’t move out of shouting range.”
Dan tried to put up his tent, unlike the survival blankets that I had found in Babsies and my backpack they had overloaded their luggage with a whole tent, that was looking somehow expensive and expedition like, every one of them carrying a part of it.
I had to look for some plants and roots for ‘a hot soup’ while Richard helped Dan to prepare the camp and the fireplace. “If you find some animal like rabbit or squirrel or something, you can try to shoot it”, he laughed. “Just don’t try anything as large as a bear.” But I didn’t think I ever had a chance to do so anyway.
It had become dark already when we sat around the small fire, Richard had set up under the leaf canopy of a large tree, where it was considerably dry, just a few drops were falling through. We huddled together around the warming fire, which one side was reflecting by some logs that were stacked up between twigs. Thaniel’s clothes had been put up to dry in the hot air of the fire, protected against the rain by one of the blankets, while Babsie had slipped under my blanket to keep us both warm. It was not a question about sex. It was just this: warm. And I started to understand her a bit better. Why she didn’t like to sleep alone. The winters in the city must have been horrible for her.
The words of our conversation were dripping like the cold water from above found their way through the canopy of leaves above while the blackness of the night was sucking everything around and leaving just this small warm spot in this unfriendly and cold surroundings. “You know, I have seen one of those squirrels you asked for”, she said vaguely in the direction of Richard while we all just waited for the fire to warm up our soup. He laughed. “Not likely. You might have seen a marten or something. The squirrels should be in hibernation. As the bears are, which is good for us, I guess.” “Bears? You’re kidding.” “No. Bears, wolves even mountain lions. Ah, the last ones are not likely. But there are a lot of hunters around, birds of prey, snakes and animals you wouldn’t believe if you see them. Awakened critters that are scary, sometimes dangerous. But normally they stay away from humans”, he smiled, “and little elves like you. You have to be careful, but you should not be fearful. It’s just strange for you city-dwellers. Most critters don’t hunt humans. Anyway it was a mild winter and it was enough around to eat. Seen worse.” “Mild? We have near freezing temperatures.” “Near, yes. Mild in this heights. Normally this is all under snow. When we cross the ridge tomorrow we will have to pass a snow field. But in the woods it’s normally a bit warmer anyway.”
We shared the soup and everybody was just greedy slurping from his camping cutlery. Tyrell had given us one very basic set. Like minimum. The three geeks had this glamping sets, Mark said: “That’s not a word, glamping.” “It is”, Richard disagreed. “See, all this technical bric-a-brac will just break at a point. And that stuff can’t be repaired. It will be useless then. The stuff from Dirk and Terry is looking basic, but it’s the kind I prefer myself. It’s sturdy, it won’t break and leave you alone in the moment of need.” “It’s self heating and isolated. Your stuff is just cheap”, Dan said. Skylar had gotten up for a soup. “Not state of the art. We’re not living in cages anymore. It’s survival 2.0! Technology helps.”
“It’s wonderful here”, Thaniel said out of context. “Everything is alive. It’s different .” That killed the conversation and soon after everybody went to sleep. Everybody but the guard for the fire and the camp, which we changed every three hours.
During the night, when I had shift, the sky was clearing up and it was getting cold. I stared into the stars, which were so clear and sharp, even if you couldn’t see much of them through the leaf canopy of the woods.