Joe ran from the experimentals almost as fast as his legs could carry him. He needed the bears to know where he was, and he needed them to continue following him. The thought of them getting to his children was beyond his ability to comprehend. As he ran, he yelled at the top of his lungs, ”Hey, big dumb bears!” and, “Follow me, green abominations!” He burst out of the woods onto the rocky barrens.
He glanced over his shoulder as he ran, skipping from point to point of huge and jagged granite boulders. He counted eight bears in the pack chasing him and hoped that was all of them. Twenty minutes and four miles later, the bears were still following. Staying on the automobile-sized rocks was the only way he could stay ahead; on open ground, they would have caught him within the first mile.
Joe ran on for another hour, watching the sun rise in the sky. His feet were bleeding inside his hand-made leather boots. His boots were made for stealth, not protection; the soles were very thin and flexible to muffle sounds. The sharp, pointy edges of the boulders were shredding his feet through them. The temperature was rising, and Joe was sweating valuable water, but more importantly, he knew he was burning calories at an alarming rate.
Food was a precious commodity, and calories weren’t something to waste. In their town, the most strenuous jobs were only worked for two hours a day, then a new shift worked for two hours in an effort to save calories.
Food and water weren’t the worst of his concerns. In another hour, his skin would start to burn, and in two more hours, he’d be in serious risk of heat-stroke. The good news was the bears were in the same predicament. Although they were covered in fur to protect them from sunburn, the heat would still take its toll on them. He hoped they would have to stop before he did.
Joe angled towards the woods when he saw his lead was growing, but he wasn’t going to make it. The sun was rising too fast, and his skin was already hot. Joe slowed his pace long enough to pull his shirt sleeves over his hands and tie Marna’s scarf over his face, tucking the edges up under his glasses. The scarf never left his side; it was one of the last pieces he had of his wife. She’d been wearing it the night the Colcoa killed her.
The Colcoa had been very friendly when they first arrived. They put on an act that they were peaceful explorers, looking for advanced civilizations to help. They shared their technology and medicine, they showed mankind how their ships worked, and they even provided the humans with an unlimited energy source. That friendship lasted about a year while they secretly cataloged the planet. Then, one day, things got ugly.
The orbiting ships fired some sort of energy wave at the planet, killing every human it touched. Billions of people lost their lives that day, and over the next seventeen years, the Colcoa stripped the world of all of its metal. They took almost all of the fresh water, the fertile topsoil, and anything else they felt like they could use. During their stripping of the planet, they wiped out all of the cities, killing every human survivor. Joe had scavenged the cities after the Colcoa had been through; they’d demolished every building, pulled up all of the pipes in the ground, and even taken the steel bars in the concrete. Joe was pretty sure the amount of metal left on the planet would fit inside the living room of his childhood house.
One day about two years ago, the Calcoa all left. All of their ships and processing facilities, their power plants, and technology all disappeared overnight.
Joe stopped running for a second, to make sure that the bears had called off the chase. They were picking their way towards the trees, looking for some shade to wait out the heat of the day. Joe looked around for the largest rocks he could lift and started stacking them between two car-sized boulders.
He worked quickly, first building the frame, then filling in the gaps with smaller rocks. He piled stone after stone on top of his shelter, adding mass above him to help absorb the heat. The last thing Joe did was stack rocks up in the entrance of his man-made cave, sealing himself in. Once inside, he took his shirt off and lay down on the cool shaded clay and tried to go to sleep.
Sleep was a long time coming. He lay there thinking about Willa and Ez. It was remarkable how much Willa reminded him of Marna. Marna had been short and Willa was tall, but that’s where the differences stopped. Ez was, on the other hand, a perfect combination of the two of them. Joe’s nose and Marna’s blue eyes. He was Joe’s height with Marna’s build.
With a smile, Joe reflected on how fantastic his two children were together. Willa was a physical machine. She could outrun Joe in speed and distance, even with Joe’s twenty years as a forager. Ez was the best shot with a bow or a sling Joe had ever seen. Between the two of them, they’d be able to bring down most anything.
Joe fell asleep just before noon and had fitful dreams of being locked inside an oven. When he woke up, the clay underneath him was slimy from his sweat. Joe rolled around in it, coating himself in the softened mud, knowing it would offer some protection from the sun. His skin was already baked, and the cool moist clay was soothing.
When he poked a couple of rocks out of the doorway of his shelter, he was grateful to see the orange tinges of twilight. He worked for a few minutes to clear the opening and crawled out into the cooler air.
The lone figure stood up, stretched his legs, ate the handful of berries left in his pocket from the day before, and started off to find his children. It was a long run, but he could really stretch his strides out in the evening breeze. He covered ground quickly once he worked out the stiffness from a long, troubled night in the rocks.
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