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After the Colcoa stripped earth of all of her natural resources and left, the planet’s average temperature soared as the population dwindled down to the thousands. The few humans that survived the invasion are forced to live underground to escape the oppressive heat. Joe, his daughter Willa, and son Ezekiel are among the few brave enough to venture outside to gather food and supplies in the arid, rocky landscape. Their job is to bring enough food, water, and materials for their town to survive the summer in the cool caves of Red River Falls.
The world outside isn’t safe. Genetically altered animals, experimented on by the Colcoa, roam the surface. When a pack of experimental grizzly bears attack the family, Willa’s life is altered forever. What she learns on her journey will change the world.
Together with her new friend Xander, Willa will explore their world and uncover clues that lead her through a doorway into the unknown.
If you’d like to purchase Remnants: The Colcoa Wars Volume 1 it is available at all major ebook outlets
A mostly gray-haired man and a boy walked across a barren boulder-field. The boy’s long brown hair streamed to the side as the two of them skipped from rock to rock. They moved quickly and silently, their soft-soled greenish leather boots made no noise, and neither shifted a single pebble as they moved. The wind blew from the west, whipping their thin dust-infused shirts in the hot, dry air.
The man’s face was leathery from years in the sun. His eyes seemed permanently squinted behind the scratched aviator-style sunglasses held to his temples with a leather cord, the stems long-since broken. Despite decades of scraping a living off the land, the man had an easy look on his face, one that proclaimed more happiness than grief in this harsh world.
Thirty years before, the field had been lush, green Minnesota pasture. It had probably been littered with ponds and creeks. Or maybe this was an old lake bed; there was no real way to tell anymore. Anything that would have been an indicator had long since been scoured away. Today it was just part of a large rocky barren. It was already over a hundred degrees, and the sun was not up yet. In another hour or two, they would have to find shelter for the day.
“When I was a boy, this time of year would have been much cooler, and some years there would have still been snow on the ground,” said the man to the boy.
The pair reached the first of the scraggly old trees. “Do you see these trees, Ez? Do you see how the oval-shaped leaves crawl up the branches, lining up two by two? This is a walnut tree. Do you remember eating walnuts last fall?”
“Yea, Pop. I remember,” said Ez, clearly bored with the conversation. His father was certain the boy would much rather be talking about one of the two girls his age in their town. That was not a conversation he was looking forward to having, although he knew he was going to have to have it soon. At least these days there isn’t much need to talk about STD’s and using condoms, he thought.
“Good! This fall, after the summer heat, we need to come back here. This grove will keep us in nuts for most of the next summer while we’re underground. What do we say about nuts, Ez?”
“Where there are nuts, there are squirrels, Dad.” Ez sighed as he spoke, having had this exact same conversation with his father dozens of times.
“Right. Let’s hurry; we need to dig in soon.”
The two of them had been hunting and gathering food all night, and they were tired. The boy’s father had learned years before that hunting during the day was too dangerous. Even in what passed for winter in Minnesota these days, the UV radiation and heat from the sun was far too powerful to be exposed for more than a couple of hours, but that wasn’t the biggest danger. The experimental animals were out during the day.
In this part of the country, they mostly encountered experimental grizzly bears. They were slightly smaller than normal grizzly bears and had a greenish tint to their fur. By the time their prey realized the clever animals hunted in packs and communicated with each other, it was too late. Experimental grizzlies were the apex predators on the planes; that position was no longer occupied by humans.
Joe and his son walked through what passed for a forest in this time, although it was barely more than a handful of trees and some pathetic scrubby vines.
Most of the trees left standing were mature years ago when the ships first came. Many species of trees were dying off, their seeds finding only rock and hardened clay in which to make purchase. Joe’s hope was that one day the trees would rot and leave a strip of fertile dirt where they’d fallen. He collected and stored seeds on these gathering trips, just in case.
Joe had dozens of burrows ranging out from their town, places to stay when he was outside the walls gathering food, each of the burrows stuffed to the gills with supplies and each of them a secret storehouse of seeds, buried in the cool earth, far from the sun.
“When can I go by myself like Willa?” asked Ez, snapping Joe out of his thoughts.
“When you’re sixteen. Until then, you’re stuck with me, pal,” said Joe, tousling the boy’s hair. “Besides, I’d miss you too much!”
Joe broke into a trot, hopping from rock to rock, trying to leave as little scent as possible behind. The father and son moved along silently for the last mile, listening for some sign of game and looking for any wild edibles they may have missed on the way out. They found none and returned to their burrow with the day’s gatherings.
Willa was already there, sitting on the lip of the burrow beside a much larger pile of dirt than they’d left the day before; she’d been busy digging the burrow out to make room for the day’s gathering. Willa was very tall, nearly a foot taller than her father, and very lean. Everyone was lean these days from a life of hard labor. She had long sandy brown hair that she kept tied up on top of her head.
Willa had grown up spending the winters outside their town with her dad. They were foragers, tasked with finding food to feed the entire town. It was, without a doubt, the least desirable job in their society. There were kids in their underground village that had never seen the sun. They were born after the Colcoa came and never felt the need to get out and roam. Those people felt like it was a small price to pay for never having to face the experimental animals or the hard, burning planet above.
Willa thought those people were crazy. After being in the dark underground town for the three hottest months of the year, it was all she could do to avoid running up to the surface to spend two minutes outside in the scorching heat. Surely the sunburn would be worth it. Down in the cool cavern they called home, a reminder of the sun and how good it felt for the hour or two she got to see it every day during the fall, winter, and spring.
“Get anything good?” Ezekiel asked his sister.
“Naw. Just these fish,” she said, grinning while she held up two trout. Each was as long as Ezekiel’s arm and still flopping on the end of the stringer.
“Fish? Where did you find fish? Where did you find enough water for fish that big?” exclaimed Joe, a look of amazement on his rugged face. He sat down on the hard earth and dangled his legs into the burrow, feeling the cool air inside.
“There’s a creek running out of the rocks about twenty miles south of us. You two just went the wrong way! There’s dirt there, Dad. Real dirt. With plants growing in it. I didn’t bring any, but Dad, there were flowers! They smelled so good! Once I got there, I didn’t ever want to leave.” Willa’s excitement was contagious. Ezekiel was grinning from ear to ear, watching his sister practically bouncing while she told of it.
“I also found these berries,” she said, pulling a pouch out of her backpack. “There were tons of them!” She opened the pouch to show off the beautiful red berries, grabbing one to toss it in her mouth.
“Willa, NO!” Joe was staring at the berries in her hand. “Those are poisonous. They are brindleberries. You would be dead within minutes of eating one of those.”
Willa looked sheepish as she dumped the contents of the pouch out on the ground. “No wonder the bushes were so loaded. I should have known. How could a bush right next to a water source have any berries left this late in the season unless they were poisonous? Sorry, Dad.”
“You covered forty miles today?” asked Joe. “What if something had attacked you? How would I ever have found you? I’d never be able to live with myself if I lost you. You know not to go more than five miles from camp.” It was hard for Joe to scold his daughter; he thought she was better able to take care of them than he was, but rules were rules. Out here in this place, not following the rules was what got people killed. It was exactly what got her mother killed.
Willa looked slightly abashed, and her cheeks and chest turned bright red. “Dad, I found moving water. And food. We could spend the next summer there.”
“Can we, Dad? Please? Please don’t make us go back to Red River Falls this winter. I can’t stand another year of being cooped up with nothing to do,” said Ezekiel.
Joe gathered his kids into a big group hug and said, “Let’s not get crazy. The water will probably dry up once the real heat sets in. Do you remember how hot Mrs. Aberfinch’s rooms get? And she’s, what, thirty feet below the surface? Willa, it gets over a hundred and thirty during the summer. The only surface water we’ll find during summer is up on top of the world.” Joe shared their hopes, but he wanted to hedge them, just in case. “Any plants growing there will almost undoubtedly be poisonous or else something would have eaten them. We’ll head out there as soon as it’s cool enough tomorrow and check it out. There may be some things we can take back to Red River Falls with us,” Joe said. “Willa, hand me the fish. I’ll show you how to clean them. I haven’t had trout since I was a kid; this is going to be good.”
Willa handed him the two trout, and Joe stood up. “Come on. We can’t clean these near where we sleep, and we’ll have to eat fast. The grizzlies will smell the fish from very far off.”
The three humans bounced nimbly from rock to rock, keeping up a fast pace for about a mile from their burrow. Willa started digging with her stone knife, and Ezekiel gouged into the rock hard clay with a sharp piece of flint. When they’d dug down about a foot, Joe lopped the heads off the fish, pulling a string of guts and organs from the body cavity.
“See how I cut that? Cut from this fin to here and then around the head. That lets all the guts stay intact. By cleaning them that way, we don’t spoil the fish with waste. Now in the old days, I would have used a really sharp knife to filet these, but since I don’t have a filet knife, I’m just going to scale them.” As he spoke, he scraped from tail to head with his flint knife, sending shiny fish scales into the hole at his feet.
When he was done, he handed the first fish to Willa. ”Be careful, there are sharp bones in there. The backbone runs the length of the fish, so pull the meat off with your teeth,” he said.
The next fish went to Ez, who devoured the raw fish in several huge bites. “So good!” he exclaimed between stuffing his mouth and chewing each bite at least two times.
Willa saved a half of her fish for her dad and handed it to him when he was done filling in the hole. “You take the rest. I’m full,” she said. “You were right. It was very delicious.”
Joe took a bite of the fish, savoring the taste of the meat. Fresh meat was one of the reasons he chose this profession. Even though the townspeople looked down on him and his family as outsiders, he got to spend most of the year with his children, teaching them everything he knew about plants and animals. It was dangerous, but he was good at it. His children were learning the things that would keep them alive when he wasn’t around to protect them anymore.
Suddenly, all three of them froze in place. Something changed in the air around them. Seconds later, the sound of a twig snapping somewhere behind Joe dropped them all flat on their bellies. They lay on the rocks, each facing one another, trying to present the smallest possible target for the bears. Without turning around, Joe said, “Stay very still. We have to figure out their plan. Willa, how many do you see?”
“Three, close together behind you,” she replied.
“Ez, can you see any? There are never just three. They’re going to be all around us.”
“I think I see one,” whispered Ezekiel. Fear was apparent on his face.
“Stay calm. Remember to breathe. I think the three behind me are going to charge and drive us into the group behind Willa. We can’t fall for their plan. Willa, take Ez and run straight back to the burrow. Block the entrance and hunker down for the day. I’m going to lead them off.”
“Dad! No! I can outrun a Griz. You take Ez back,” said Willa, and Joe knew she was right.
“Willa, I need you to keep you both safe. If I’m not back by night fall, come look for me. I’ll be at the river you spoke of.”
“Dad…” Willa protested.
“Do as I say, Wil. I don’t have time to argue. When I have their attention, you and Ez go straight to the burrow.”
Joe leapt up from his prone position and yelled, charging the three green-tinted bears. All three stood up on their hind legs, fully two feet taller than the human. The middle bear growled, and the two on either side dropped down and charged at Joe, and two more broke from either side. He’s the pack leader, thought Joe.
Joe stopped running and started singing as loud as he could.
“Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?”
The bears all stopped charging, looking at him. The lead bear tilted his head, as if it was questioning the sanity of this human.
The pack leader growled softly, and all five bears started advancing. Joe sang the song again, as loudly as he could, charging the bears himself, hoping to break up their plan. He ran straight for the pack leader, arms outstretched. He had a rock in one fist and his flint knife in the other.
The bear reared up as it closed with its opponent, but Joe was faster than the bear expected, bringing his jagged flint-knife down the bear’s face, opening a bright red cut from its ear, through its eye, to the underside of its greenish-brown muzzle. The bear dropped to all fours and let out a loud, low rumbling roar.
Joe wasted no time. He vaulted over the grizzly’s back and ran for all he was worth, away from the safety of their hole, dragging the danger away from his children. He ran north with energy he hadn’t felt in years, out into the barren rocky plain.
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.
As soon as Willa saw her father was safely ahead of the bears, she was up on her feet. She drew her bow and fired an arrow at one of the bears that chased him. She nocked another, but by the time she was ready to fire, it was out of range. From her left, two of the green monstrosities crashed out of the woods. She turned and fired, impaling one of them in the mouth as it roared. The arrow penetrated up through the grizzly’s palette and into its brain. Its roar was abruptly cut off, and it collapsed head first into the ground, rolling over one time before coming to rest on its side.
The second grizzly was closing too fast for her to get another shot. ”Ez, RUN!” she yelled, grabbing his hand and dragging him off the rocks. “Faster,” she yelled a couple of steps later as she slung her bow across her back. “He’s going to catch us!”
The brother and sister ran for all they were worth. Willa was fast and knew she could easily outpace the bears. She’d been running in this terrain her whole life. Her long legs allowed for her to take one stride for every one and a half of Ezekiel’s, and her abnormally long toes allowed her to grip and maintain her balance on the rocks.
Her brother, on the other hand, was not made for speed. He was a distance runner. He could run all day and all night without stopping, and he could move almost as silently as their father at his top speed, but it wasn’t enough.
They ran into a group of trees. Weaving in and out of the trees, Willa grabbed her brother and set him on her shoulders. “When you can, grab a branch and swing up into the tree. We’re not going to get away,” she said as she lifted him. She looked for just the right tree. It had to be small enough that Ez could climb quickly but big enough that the bear couldn’t push it down.
The bear chasing them was about forty feet behind her when she found the right tree and pointed it out to her brother. Ezekiel grabbed the branch and swung himself up, and within a few paces Willa was back at her full stride. “If he follows me, count to three hundred and run to the burrow!” she yelled as she sped off.
The bear showed no interest in Ezekiel, instead following Willa out towards the river she’d found earlier that day. She was young enough not to think about the fact that she’d run forty miles already that day and only had half a fish to eat but smart enough to know that she couldn’t go that far from her brother.
Her hope was use the scent of her tracks from earlier that day to lead him off that way, and she knew the only way she’d be able to do that is if it lost sight of her. She opened up her stride and sprinted as hard as she could towards the trail she’d left. She wiped sweat from her brow with her hand and slung it down onto the dirt as she turned and followed her own trail out of the woods into the rock field that made up most of Minnesota.
She ran for another three or four minutes, well ahead of the bear. When he was fully out of sight, she pulled out her water skin and sprayed a rock to the left before hopping on to it. The clever girl bounded from rock to rock on the balls of her feet. Before each step, she sprayed a little water on the rock before she put her foot down.
Most of her scent would evaporate with the water on the hot rocks. She only hoped it was enough that the bear would keep going. She hopped like this with the wind at her back as long as she felt she could; if it got within sight of her, the ruse wouldn’t work.
Finally, when she was about a hundred paces off her trail, she ducked down behind a large piece of bedrock and waited, the hot morning wind blowing in her face. She knew she was miles from where she was supposed to be and even more miles from wherever her father was.
She thought differently than he did. He always played it safe. Willa wondered if he’d always been that way or if it was more-so as he aged. Willa, on the other hand, never underestimated herself.
She knew she could handle one bear. She’d killed one already with a lucky arrow and wounded another. She was thinking that maybe she should just kill this one when she spotted it running down her trail. It passed the spot where she’d lept off her trail without pausing, nose to the rocks, raised its head, and galloped off towards the river she’d found that morning.
Willa waited for five minutes before springing towards the burrow, desperate to make it back before the sun was fully out. She slowed as she approached their underground home. Silently, the huntress crept towards the opening with the wind in her face, sniffing and listening for any sign of the experimental bears.
The burrow door was firmly closed, and there was no sign of them. She knocked twice, paused, and knocked twice more. That was her knock, the signal that it was Willa, but the door didn’t move. She gingerly opened the door to their hole and called inside. “Ez? Are you in there?” But there was no answer.
They’d been in the area for weeks now. The territory was very familiar. The sun was almost up, but she paid no attention to the growing heat as she closed the door to their home and ran off looking for Ezekiel. She knew she only had a small window of time left; the sun was now fully over the horizon, and she could already feel its heat in her skin as she ran.
She made wider and wider circles, looping around the burrow. Her panic was growing with each circuit. It took nearly an hour before she found Ezekiel, unconscious and leaned against a tree. Beside him, the corpse of a grizzly lay still, covered in blood.
It was almost eleven in the morning. Her skin was red and burning. She didn’t stop to even look him over. Willa picked up her little brother and ran as fast as her weary legs would take her towards the safety and shade of the burrow. Once she was safely inside, she laid Ezekiel down on the floor and went to the water bucket.
As she washed the blood from her little brother, she was once again grateful for this burrow. Her father had built a network of underground houses, each about half a day’s journey from the next. Each year, at the beginning of the season, before they’d gathered anything, the three of them spent a week working on the next burrow. Each evening, a little before sunset, they would take off for the next site, covered head to toe. They would run for four hours to the next location and dig. All three of them dug, using whatever they could find, for three hours, and then they started the run back. They had to do it early in the season while the days were shortest and the nights were longest.
The family had completed this burrow last year. It was small, compared to some of the first ones, when both her mother and father had worked on them, plus the first one outside of town was almost as old as Ezekiel. Each year, Joe improved on each of the burrows as they passed through. The first burrow was three rooms plus a large storage room. It was Willa’s favorite; she kept a few of her most prized possessions in her bedroom there, and she always looked forward to the one week per year they got to stay there.
This last one, which Ezekiel had ironically named Rock Mountain, was only one room plus the storage room. The three of them each had their own raised platform to lay out their bedrolls. Joe had started work on the first bedroom, but it was only a few square feet. There was no dead wood here, so they had to use rocks to shore up the burrow, and that made digging rooms more difficult. They had to haul the rocks in and store them inside for when her father needed them.
After several minutes of washing and inspecting her brother, Willa peeled his tunic up and found a cut across his belly. It wasn’t large or bleeding profusely, but it had ugly brown streaks at the edges. She washed the wound and noticed some dried greenish puss at the bottom. Ezekiel was burning up, and his legs were shaking. She had no idea what to do.
Willa applied a poultice of crushed cabalage root and honey to the cut. The cabalage root was to draw out any poison that might be in the wound, and she added honey because it killed germs, and germs caused infection.
There wasn’t anything to do but wait. She tried to get comfortable beside him and plan her next move. Her dad would be back as soon as it was safe for him to move, she had no doubt. If Ezekiel was better, she would wait for him, but if he worsened over the day, she would leave him a message and take off with him.
It was about eighty miles west to Red River Falls. She’d have to stop at least once for the day. That’s not the closest town, she thought to herself. Duluth is closer. It’s probably only forty miles from here.
Her father would kill her if she took him to Duluth. She could just hear his voice. “Duluth is full of snakes and grizzlies. They just look like people. They’ll kill you for your boots.”
Ezekiel stirred, groaning. She re-wet the compress on his head and laid it back on his forehead. “Shhh, Ez. Everything’s going to be okay. I got you.” He seemed to calm back down after a few seconds. His fever seemed about the same, which was a bad sign. About an hour later, she washed the honey off, added more, and flipped the cabalage root pad over. She tossed the part that had been in contact with the wound and re-tied the bandage. The cut was less angry looking but was showing some grey flesh along the edge. Come on, Dad. I need you, she thought.
It was hot in the burrow that day. Normally, they sealed off the door and hung a blanket over the entrance, but today Willa needed some light, so she left the door to the burrow cracked just a hair. The heat in the entry way was intense, so she kept Ez back against the far wall, where some coolness remained in the earth.
She tried to sleep. She knew she had a long run ahead of her. If she was going to get Ezekiel to Duluth, she could make it in one long night. If she went to Red River Falls, she would take two. If her father was here, he’d never let her go to Duluth, but if he was there, he’d slow her down. Even if she had to carry Ezekiel the whole way by herself, it would take half of a third night. Her father just didn’t have the stamina he used to, although he wouldn’t admit it. Willa knew she was in the best shape of her life. Her feet were a little sore, but her legs were still strong. She guessed she’d run fifty miles that day.
All day long, Willa argued with herself over her course of action. Late in the afternoon, she peeled Ezekiel’s eyes back. They looked yellow. His fever broke soon after. Willa checked the wound; there were red streaks running in every direction from the cut. Blood poisoning, she thought. That answers that. I’m going without Dad.
It was about an hour until she could go; she made the decision to go to Red River Falls. Her dad could catch her at the first burrow and see if there was anything he could do. She only had enough cabalage root for one more change here, but she knew her dad left some at every burrow.
The sun was still streaming in the crack in the door when she started packing her backpack. She refilled her water skin and then added some fresh bandages and a few pieces of dried meat. She put it on backwards, so the pack was on her chest, and slung Ezekiel over her back, tying his arms and legs together so he’d stay. She threw her sheet over her head, draping it over Ezekiel, and climbed up the stairs.
The heat hit her when she shoved the door open; it was still over a hundred degrees. She affixed her smoked glass goggles and made sure all of Ez’s skin was covered. She climbed out, slid the door back in place, and picked up a stick and wrote “Ezekiel hurt. Headed to”. She paused for just a second before scratching “Duluth.” Underneath that, she drew a circle with a bowed line through the middle and an arrow pointing in the direction she would be travelling. It was a sigil she and her father had worked out long before. It was quick, easily recognizable, and informative.
South was the worst direction to run at night, and she’d never actually been to Duluth, but while the sun was up, she knew she could just keep it on her right shoulder. Once the sun was down, she’d have to work harder to ensure she was headed south.
She ran rather than think about her decision. It was made, and that was that. She maintained a punishing pace. Willa bounded from rock to rock, each step causing Ezekiel to bounce mercilessly on her back. After a few miles, she hit the gravel south of the boulder field, and she was able to lengthen her stride and set into an easy lope.
She estimated four miles an hour across the boulders and then six miles in the hour she ran across the gravel before stopping for the first time under a scrubby pine tree. She ate some venison jerky, drank some water, and tried to get some water into Ezekiel. She sat for ten minutes, stretching her legs. Just before she took off, she scratched another bow and arrow sigil pointing south. Under it she wrote “8:30pm.” She was making good time.
When Willa and Joe used to run together, he always pointed out how fast she was. She had huge feet with toes that were almost as long as her fingers. Joe said that’s why she was so fast on the rocky terrain; her toes could grip the rocks.
Ezekiel called her Bigfoot, but for Willa, it was just the way she was made. It was nice to be able to pick things up with her feet around their burrow, and her toes helped with tree climbing.
She suspected her father was at least two hours behind her, and now that she was in the flats and her legs warmed up, she’d start expanding that lead.
She’d been travelling by herself for a long time. It was almost second nature to keep track of the miles as they ticked by. She knew her paces. Her father had worked with her for years to drive the importance of knowing where she was into her brain. “When the Colcoa came, I couldn’t even drive home without my GPS,” he’d said so many times. “Now we don’t even have a paper map.You have to keep the map in your head. Getting lost out here will get you killed.”
She kept up the twelve miles per hour for another three hours, before she started seeing signs of an old city. The Colcoa hadn’t had much interest in concrete, but they did want all of the metal pipes that humans laid under most roads. They had a machine that drove along ripping up the road to get the iron water and sewer pipes up and to get the steel bars out of the concrete. Her father called those piles of concrete ‘tailings,’ the parts left behind after a mine had extracted everything useful out of the soil. The whole world was tailings.
As Willa climbed over the pile of concrete, Ezekiel stirred and moaned in her ear. She set him down and checked the wound. The red streaks were getting worse. His face was clammy, and his eyes rolled back in his head. She sat on the ground next to him, breathing hard, and tried to get some water into him. He coughed the water up but managed to get the second gulp down his throat, then took two long pulls herself. She was down to about two cups left and found herself fantasizing about the cool, crisp water in the river she’d found.
The first thing she’d done when she found it was jump in and suck down as much of the water she could hold. Then, just before she left, she drank at least two more skins’ worth. That was the first time she’d ever been underwater, because it was the first time she’d ever seen enough water in one place to cover her.
There were tracks all along the road bed, most of them heading east. Not knowing where Duluth was, she decided that most of the people would be walking towards the city this time of year and followed the tracks.
She ran along, her legs screaming at her to stop, but she ignored their protestation; she was so close to saving Ez. A cramp developed in her calf from where she’d altered her stride to keep Ezekiel from bouncing so much on her back. There wasn’t much she could do, so she ignored it as well and tried to adjust her step back to a more normal motion, shifting more of the work to her abused thigh muscles. More and more tracks added to the set she was following, confirming to Willa that she was heading in the right direction.
She passed a tree, then another. Ahead, the lane she was following entered what could only be described as a forest. Willa studied the trees to keep her mind off the pain in her body, pushing herself well past what she thought was her breaking point.
The trees were lined up like soldiers, row after row, well tended and apparently disease free. There wasn’t any scrub or brush under them or around the trunks; instead, the ground was covered in dead leaves, spread evenly throughout. Whoever was in charge of this land was doing their best to make it fertile, returning nutrients to the soil.
She saw oaks and maples mostly, with some walnuts and pecans. She had to be getting close to town. These trees were new, planted after the Colcoa wiped out the population of this area, less than ten years old.
Duluth must be rich to have this much dirt, she thought as she ran. Just a few steps later, she felt a sting in her thigh and looked down to see a feathery dart sticking in her leg. She had just enough time to swat it out before she collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
Joe ran as hard as he could for their burrow. He flew into the section of woods where their home was, darting and zig-zagging through the trees. As his heart felt like it was going to explode in his chest, his only thought was to get to his children. He skidded to a halt in front of the burrow door. His heart sank when he saw the words, “Ezekiel hurt” and “Duluth” scratched into the dirt at the entrance.
“Oh no, Willa, no!” he cried, putting his hands on his knees, huffing. He had no idea if Franklin was still alive, but no good could come of his two children meeting his former best friend.
Joe took a minute to head down into the burrow to refill his water skin. Hidden deep in the back of the burrow behind all the provisions, Joe pulled out a small piece of canvas and unrolled it. Inside was a steel tomahawk, enough metal to buy his way out of this mess.
He slipped the tomahawk into his belt and ran, propelled by his love for his children. He ran as a man with nothing to lose.
Marna had hated that tomahawk. One morning in the earliest days of Duluth, Joe was getting ready for work in his apartment and having a briefing with Franklin. Marna came into the bedroom as he was slipping the hatchet-like weapon onto his belt. “It’s a weapon for killing people,” she’d said.
“Sometimes, people need to be killed,” was his response back then. To Joe’s left, Franklin stood, nodding, looking back and forth between Marna and Joe.
Joe had always loved to run. He let his mind roam and put his body on autopilot, ticking the miles off towards his children. His pace was fast. He needed to catch Willa before she got within the perimeter of Duluth. She was quicker than he but was heavily burdened. He was confident he could catch her in time if he could sustain the pace he’d set.
His mind wandered back to when he and Marna had just arrived in Minnesota, after months of walking north, desperate for cooler temperatures. Joe grew up in South Carolina. In high school, he’d been a cross-country track star, winning a scholarship to Clemson University, where he’d met Marna. The two of them fell in love in college. They were both majoring in agricultural studies; Marna’s specialty was horticulture, while Joe was majoring in farm management, with a focus on the cattle business.
When the Colcoa came, they’d been in their final year of study. The world changed so much in that year; people rioted in the streets, the stock market crashed, and money became virtually useless. The stores emptied out. The Colcoa were handing out food rations. The rations were a useless, tasteless gel that kept people alive but did nothing to satisfy their hunger or their spirit. With free food and free energy, people stopped going to work, and infrastructure broke down. People barricaded themselves in their homes. There was chaos and anarchy.
Joe and Marna went to Montana in the middle of their final year of college. It had the lowest population of any state other than Alaska and was the farthest away from any trouble. They sold everything they owned and bought a little cabin and a thousand acres of land.
When the Colcoa turned on mankind, neither of them was surprised. They wiped out the highest population centers in one morning. Both coasts went dark. The last news Joe ever saw said the same thing happened all over the world.
Joe and Marna lived quietly, working their land and hoping the Colcoa would leave them alone. They hadn’t had much; Joe scrounged junk yards and odd jobs for their tools. They bought a pair of horses, and Joe traded their truck for an old plow and a wooden cart. They ate well, lived in solitude, just the two of them, and were more in love than any two people had ever been.
When the Colcoa rolled through the town outside their house, Joe was there trading his rifle for their winter provisions. After the aliens arrived, the price of firearms skyrocketed. Ammunition was in short supply; the manufacturers were unable to keep up with demand. His rifle and one hundred bullets would buy him years’ worth of provisions. There just wasn’t a year’s worth of food to be had. He was currently negotiating for the last fifty-pound bag of flour and all the salt Wayne, the store owner, had.
Wayne and Joe watched in horror as the gigantic Colcoa machines rolled over the houses and buildings of the small town, spitting out a row of splintered wood and concrete in their wake.
The pair realized the machine would crush them in a second. Joe grabbed Wayne’s hand in an attempt to drag him out. Wayne snatched his hand free and darted into the back room. “I gotta get Baxter!” he yelled.
“No time, Wayne! Come on!” Joe called, planting one hand on the counter as he vaulted over it heading for the side door. The machine was just feet from the back of the building when Joe leaped out the door, over the five steps, and rolled onto the ground. He heard Wayne scream in pain as Joe barrel-rolled to his feet and sprinted across the dirt road.
He hid in a ditch as the hundred foot tall machine rolled past. Armored Colcoa walked on either side of the machine, a hundred yards in front of him. Their battle suits made a low, rumbling hum. That sound invaded Joe’s nightmares. Just the faded memory was enough to bring him near to panic; at the time, it was all he could do to sit still. There was something primal about the fear it instilled, like the sound of a rattlesnake. He was certain the sound was specifically designed to invoke a panic response in humans, and it worked.
From the opposite edge of the small settlement, several men stood from where they were hiding and opened fire. The retorts of their rifles had barely faded when the armored units decimated them. Streaks of blue light erupted from the cannons on the robotic arms, engulfing the entire group of men. Joe kept his head down and focused on surviving long enough to get back to Marna.
The next time he looked up, the giant steel wheel had crushed everything in its path. Inside the machine, something happened to the debris before it was ejected in long rows from the back. Once everything was over, Joe ran to the pile and kicked through it. He was sifting through the tailings when he realized there was no metal in it. No pipes, not even a single nail.
It dawned on him then, as it had to thousands of others around the world, that the Colcoa were mining. They were stripping the land of every piece of metal.
He ran to his horse and galloped home to Marna.
“Marna! Marna! he yelled, approaching the house. She came out the door of their tiny ramshackle dwelling to see what he was screaming about.
“The Colcoa are in town. They decimated it. They’re harvesting the metal. We have to go, and we have to go primitive. They killed Wayne, Marna! They rolled right over the store with him inside. We have to go, and we have to take as little metal as possible.”
They packed light, cutting everything metal from their saddle bags. Joe used twine to tie the bags together. They threw their pack blankets over their horses’ backs and climbed on bareback. They decided to take one piece of metal each. Joe chose his tomahawk while Marna picked a knife.
The couple headed out into the bush, where they lived for the next two years. They never stayed in one place, running north every time the Colcoa got close.
Coming out of his reverie, Joe shook his head as he ran after his son and daughter. He was struck by how naive he’d been, thinking they were just after the metal on the surface.
He thought about a frigid morning years before. The pair of survivors was near the Canadian border and hadn’t seen another living person for months. “Do you think we could get through their line? If we could head south and get through, we could set up where they’ve already been, and we wouldn’t have to run.”
“Do you think they’ll leave when they have all the metal?” Marna asked.
“That’s what they came here for,” Joe said firmly. “Once they have it all, there’s no reason or them not to head to the next planet. We can’t keep heading north. It’s almost winter time, and it’s only going to get worse the farther we go.”
“I think we have to try,” Marna said, and the two of them planned their escape. The next day, they rode south towards the Colcoa. From miles away, they watched the lines of the huge alien mining machines, sucking up everything in their path and spitting it out in straight rows behind them. These were much larger than the one Joe had seen in town the day they’d left their home. Each machine covered several acres. Dozens of them were staggered in a series of V shapes, one overlapping path of the next. Occasionally, the machines would veer around a group of trees or a small hill, leaving tiny spots of green.
“If we can figure out why they leave certain spots, maybe we can hide out in one of those,” Joe said thoughtfully.
Marna replied, “I think we need to go higher up into the mountains. We need to go where their machines can’t go and wait for them to pass, then we come down.”
As he ran towards Duluth, Joe said aloud, “Marna always was the smart one,” grinning to himself.
Marna’s plan worked, and the pair crossed the country. Once they were below the Colcoa machines, they headed east, across the Great Plains. Day after day they walked, across South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, until they came to what had been Chicago. Massive mountains of concrete, asphalt, and glass rubble were all that was left of one of the biggest cities on earth. From Chicago, they turned and headed south, scrounging food and supplies as they went. The two of them began to think they were the only people on earth. Despite that, they both felt an intense drive to find their family, knowing, but never admitting to themselves, that they would never see anyone they loved ever again.
Willa was born in the first summer spent in South Carolina and did much to bring Marna and Joe closer. They’d both been so hopeful that they would find some evidence of their family, or at least some humans, but there was nothing left.
For the first two years of Willa’s life, the three of them lived pretty well. They had a small garden of a few vegetable plants Marna found and brought back. Joe often remembered those years when he was lonely or missed his wife. Many nights when one of the kids was sick, he’d sit up all night holding them close, thinking about those happy days.
In order to feed their small family, one or the other of them would often leave for a few days, Joe to hunt, fish, trap, and gather things and Marna to look for plants they could use. When one was gone, the other stayed home with Willa.
Joe learned to eat tomatoes, something he couldn’t stomach as a child. Marna constantly teased him about that. Every time Joe ate a tomato, he said, “Desperate times call for desperate actions,” and the two of them would laugh, which would set Willa off, her sweet peals of laughter lighting up their small shack and chasing away their fear.
Marna taught Joe how to identify plants and their uses. She taught him medicinal plants as well as edibles. Joe taught her how to track, kill, skin, and clean an animal and how to preserve the meat.
Willa was two when the Colcoa changed the weather. A huge earthquake woke the little family in the middle of the night. Marna grabbed Willa, and the three of them escaped to the garden as their shack crashed down.
Over the next week, the temperature rose drastically. Although it was early fall, it was hotter than Joe ever remembered, and every day the sun baked the earth even more.
On the fifth day of well over one hundred degrees, Marna begged Joe to go north. “Who knows what they’ve done this time, but I think that earthquake was the Colcoa screwing with the planet. I think they’re raising the temperature. We have to go. I think it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. We need to travel at night, and we need to go now.”
Once again, Joe recognized the wisdom of his wife’s words. They picked their garden, packed up whatever supplies they could, and headed north. Joe strapped his tomahawk to his waist, and Marna hung her worn knife from her belt.
The Colcoa were headed south this time. The machines were different, much bigger this second time. They were bigger than any machine Joe had ever seen made by man, bigger than most buildings. Each covered ten or more acres, and they were hundreds of feet tall. They were like high rises flattening the landscape. That was when Joe realized the line they’d seen years before was just preliminary work, taking the easy metal. These left nothing behind, taking virtually everything, including the soil. Once again, a few trees were left standing here or there.
Joe later decided that in the first wave, the Colcoa pilots drove the machines, and subsequent machines followed the lines the first ones made automatically. He was never sure if that was the case, but it was the only explanation anyone had ever come up with for why a few trees were left.
Between each machine, two armored Colcoa walked, several hundred yards apart. This time, there were no mountains to hide in.
“We’re going to have to try to hide right at the edge of the lead machine. When it passes, we pop up and try to get into its wake to let the next pass,” Joe suggested. “Unless you have a better option.”
“I don’t, Joe. And I’m afraid,” Marna replied. “Maybe we shouldn’t try this.”
“We’ll burn up. It’s already getting too hot to be out in the sun. It’s gotten hotter every single day. We have to try.”
They dug a hole, about fifty yards to the west of the first machine, and waited for it to pass.
Tears fell down his cheeks as he ran towards Duluth, thinking back on that day. “I promised, Willa. I promised, and I’m coming, baby,” he said, running even faster towards his son and daughter.
In their fox-hole, fifteen years before, Joe held Willa to his chest. When the machine passed, the earth shook. “Whatever happens, Joe,” said Marna, “I love you. I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything in the world. I am the luckiest woman on the planet, besides maybe Willa there. Always take care of her, Joe. Promise me that,” said Marna.
Joe promised and kissed his wife. “I love you too, Marna. We’re going to be fine. We’ll head north until it’s cool. We’ve survived this long; we’re not giving up yet.”
Joe stuck his head out of the hole, handed Willa to Marna, and said, “Go now. I’m right behind you.” Marna and Willa took off, staying low to the ground. A forty-foot drop down to massive bedrock boulders was behind the machine. A huge field of car-sized boulders stretched out to the south. Marna sat on the edge and slid down, a small avalanche of gravel and dirt following her.
Joe looked to his right as he ran for the drop off. The armored Colcoa turned, heading straight for the three of them.
“Run and hide!” Joe yelled down, turning towards the alien. He drew his tomahawk and charged the creature. It raised its arm and fired blue bolts of energy at Joe, but the man was too fast. He closed the distance and leapt at the steel-encased Colcoa. He could see the creature’s terrible face through the glass, some thick gooey liquid running down channels in its cheeks. Joe brought his tomahawk up and down while the thing battered him with its robotic arms, trying to dislodge the human from its metallic shell.
Joe reversed the tomahawk, driving the spike into the glass over and over again, prying and chipping his way into the armor. The second Colcoa headed for Joe as he pried the glass away from his target. Inside the cockpit of the armored carrier, the Colcoa operated a number of levers. Joe reached in and pushed its hand, trying to get his tomahawk into the tiny cockpit. As Joe pushed, the suit spun, slowly revolving as the second armored unit closed on them.
In one final heave, Joe leaned in, grabbed the Colcoa inside, and pulled, ripping the Colcoa from the cockpit. The armor fell over sideways, and the man rolled over and over, tangled with the alien. Joe was pinned down. He felt around in the dirt beside him as the green monster pushed down his throat. Joe’s hand closed on a rock, and with the last of his strength he smashed the rock into the Colcoa’s head. It went limp, collapsing to the side. Joe wearily climbed to his feet, gathered his tomahawk, and ran towards the second armored Colcoa.
There wasn’t much time before more Colcoa would be there. He sprinted to close the distance, hoping Willa and Marna were far away. He didn’t hold much hope of surviving; he just wanted to buy them time.
He heard the armored suit behind him stand up, and then he heard Marna’s voice. “Joe! Get down!” she yelled as the armored unit fired. Joe dove to the dirt and watched the Colcoa he was heading for crash over onto its side, engulfed in blue light.
Marna hopped down out of the cockpit and grabbed her dumbfounded husband.
“How did you do that?” he asked as they ran. “And where’s Willa?”
“She’s in the rocks below. I couldn’t let them kill you, Joe.”
They scooped Willa up as the giant machines came to a halt. The two tiny humans ran as hard as they could, but it appeared the Colcoa didn’t chase them. They ran all night long, Marna struggling to keep up with Joe. They slept in cave that night, far underground. They went back into the cave until they found a crevice Joe could barely squeeze through and slept safely in the cavern behind it.
That was the start of becoming nocturnal and living underground, Joe thought as he neared the outskirts of Duluth. He stopped in some brush to gather his thoughts and catch his breath. He couldn’t be that far behind Willa.
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