The Hunter in the Ruins
by Richard B. Walsh
The hunter discovered the factory on the trail of a doe and fawn. His name was Suresh. He had tracked the pair through the ruined streets of the city’s ancient riverside district to the utility entrance of an abandoned industrial campus. Its rusted signage read FARMFRESH FOODS.
A factory sat intact at the center of the campus, buffered from weather by neighboring buildings. The deer had entered through a crack on the eastern side of the building. The man settled down in the shade of an overturned tanker, rusted and eroded to skeletal remains.
He watched the entrance and waited. Three days’ provisions remained, and then he would be forced to return to the Fridley Freehold to trade the pelts he had taken on this trip. He felt claustrophobic within the Freehold’s walls and was deep in debt to several merchants in town besides.
After an hour the deer had not emerged. The improvised entrance they had used was wide but low; points of rebar hung down from the top. He ducked through the gap. The smell of the interior struck him immediately: fetid and ripe, thick and humid; the smell of a swamp in the heat of summer.
Suresh swung his Remington shotgun from its holster, loaded three shells, and fingered off the safety. The trail inside wound through a dilapidated administrative wing: dim hallways, metal remains of office furniture and brush and detritus dragged in by resident critters. He stopped following the deer and pursued the smell instead, turning toward it at forks and reversing course when it weakened.
By this method he eventually made his way to a wide metal sign still legible beneath a century of grime: FERMENTATION CHAMBER. Beyond it was a cavernous room, sunlit and lush.
Three colossal tanks, labeled FERM ONE, FERM TWO, and FERM THREE, sat along the chamber’s center axis. ONE and THREE were ruptured and cracked, empty and rusted, covered with a patina of bird droppings.
TWO appeared to be intact except for what the hunter divined to be a long hairline fracture along its south face. Where the crack would have been visible, however, was a crust, farther across than the length of his forearm and as tall as he was. Bubbling atop the crust was a field of soft tissue: pustules of maggots and egg sacks and other appenda. Suresh guessed that the trickle beneath, some nutritious substance, was nourishing it.
Dirt had accumulated on the floor of the chamber, and small plants were in abundance, like in many large abandoned rooms he had found when scavenging. What was different about this place was the other life that flourished: the fecundity of it, the pulse of living animals, the food chain. Maggots from the crust of FERM TWO fed small birds that lived on the building floor, and clouds of insects hovered over several pools of thick, green water. The birds and insects in turn fed small mammals, which fed the larger birds nesting in the rafters.
And now the hunter concluded that another predator must hunt here as well, for the large birds would nest so high only for their own protection.
* * *
A gangplank ran along the chamber’s second level, but the access staircase had been demolished by falling masonry. Suresh uncoiled his rope from its harness and attached a heavy trailer hitch bulb to one end. It took four attempts to throw the bulb through one of the metal posts above, and another two to throw it through a second.
He ascended and moved around the gangplank, where he found a command deck sealed in with heavy poly windows and a metal door. There was an audible hiss as the door swung open, the pressure within still slightly higher than in the outside chamber.
From within, he had a wide view of the chamber floor and the approaches to the command room from both sides. This would be a fine position to take overnight. He shrugged off his pack and then glanced down at the desk before him. He froze.
A red light had flashed.
Suresh blinked and stared for a second, ten seconds, thirty seconds, thinking the whole time that it was impossible, that no power source could exist; that it must have been a mistake, a hallucination, a figment of his imagination; some pollen in the air, the excitement of this building and this chamber. Impossible that there was a light flashing on the console. And then, again, after a minute of staring: a blink. A red light.
* * *
Heavy rain came that night. Sheets of it broke atop the gap in the ceiling, scattering the downpour into streams that mixed the algae of the small ponds and filled new pools in depressions in the floor. The rain washed dirt clear of a handle. The next morning he dug out the remaining mud to expose a hatch to a room below the fermentation chamber.
Suresh attached his rope to a steel pipe and dropped into an antechamber. Dirt and debris fell in from above. The interior door before him was labeled CLEAN ROOM and marked with a green biohazard symbol. He peered through its window into absolute blackness beyond.
That empty space awakened within him a primordial fear of night and abyss. His pulse quickened as prey’s does in the presence of predator. He backed up and quickly climbed up the rope back into the full light of the chamber. He slammed the hatch closed.
The red light flashed as he settled into the command deck at midday. It was connected to a small console computer. He had seen computers occasionally in his travels but never one in working condition. The years in this sealed room had protected it from the heaviest conditions outside; nonetheless, its exterior was rusted and the keyboard mounted beneath stuck when he tapped keys at random.
That afternoon he searched the command room thoroughly. He had just one day of rations remaining and wanted to scavenge something of value before returning to the Fridley Freehold.
On a side shelf stood a row of technical manuals, including one with a model number that matched the imprint on the console. He was literate but barely, and it took the remainder of the day for him to work through the introductory section.
The computer was part of an “artificial intelligence facilities security system,” but the manual’s complexity strained his limited reading ability. He closed the book and chewed at a piece of tough jerky as the last of the natural light waned from the command booth. He would return to the manual in the morning, glean from it what he could, then take it to Fridley to sell it to someone more technical than he was.
* * *
At daylight the third day, the aviary in the chamber’s rafters filled with a chorus of birds. The weather outside had warmed. Suresh had set a few small traps the first afternoon, and they quickly filled. He cleaned and roasted the small birds on a slender split he set up on the pad of turf between tanks ONE and TWO.
The traps refilled. These birds he smoked and left in the room to dry as jerky.
As quickly as he could set the traps, he could fill his brace with a half-dozen more birds. By the end of the day’s harvest, the worries of Fridley were far from his mind; his plan to sell the manual was put aside. He feasted that night, gorging himself full on his small quarry.
Suresh split his time the next week deciphering the console manual and exploring the facility. On the seventh day he discovered STORAGE ROOM 37, intact and filled with rows of stacked two-liter cans. Their labels had disintegrated so he pried one open and dipped his knife into the brown substance within. It clung to the blade in chunks and smelled like pine.
Years of scavenging had taught Suresh caution but also omnivorism. He tasted a speck of the stuff and rested for ten minutes to observe any physical response. Feeling none, he sampled a full bite. The thickness of it was pleasant and just a couple of bites began to satiate him. The taste was incomparable: sweet, but unlike fruit. He ate several more bites, replaced the cap, and set the can aside.
Assuming he did not die overnight from the substance, he had found a fortune here; a hoard of nutrition that would support him the rest of his life. He thought of his competitors in Fridley. He had never worked with a partner. Never trusted one. But the factory was too vast, and this find too valuable, for him to guard alone.
Perhaps the security computer could help him keep it secure. But how to operate it?
He had located the console’s primary power switch, but he still did not know what was providing the power to the red light. He combed through the procedure manuals stored in the command center and dismissed most in frustration.
He continued eating the canned paste and suffered no ill effects. He inventoried 1,249 sealed cans in the warehouse: a lifetime’s supply, should he choose never to leave the factory; or a fortune in trade goods, should he figure a way to transport some to Fridley without alerting other scavengers.
Despite the respite, and the relief of having all he could eat, and the intellectual stimulation of reading the console’s manual, and the comfort of his sealed command room, a worry remained lodged in the back of his mind; he would return to it when he saw the nests high above the fermentation chamber or at night when he awoke in the pitch black of his room or recalled the abyss of the clean room.
He remembered the predator.
* * *
Suresh found its lair in the second level underground the second week, beneath a grate in a dusty utility room. Sunlight filtered in through the stairwell, which left the lair nearly black except at midday. He knelt over the wide slats, peering into the dim room. Broad strips of sun spread across the floor, which should have assured him, but his hands shook as he pulled the grate away. He attached the end of a line to the leg of a heavy dilapidated boiler and the other to his belt buckle carabiner and lowered himself in.
The floor was illuminated from the light above, but he had dropped down a torch as a precaution as well, end alight with a few drops of precious fuel. Wide concrete pipes exited the room, running east-west beneath the facility, draining to he-didn’t-know-where. They were old, but even in the muted light of the chamber he could see tracks pressed into the dried mud: thick, wide pads and the points of long claws.
The nest was piled loosely in a corner. Picking through he found bones from birds and small mammals, one large, worn tooth, and a variety of nesting materials: upholstery pulled from automobiles or furniture; clumps of thick fur; a few large branches; and the remains of a large canvas backpack. The pack was torn to shreds, but its contents were spilled out at the bottom of the pile: a flashlight with batteries, a small pocketknife, and a matte black pistol. He ejected the clip and tapped three rounds out into his hand.
He also found the remains of the pack’s owner: several bones, including a femur, which he recognized as human; and one heavy, black leather military-issue boot. He had begun to hunt for the match when he realized that he had forgotten his own pack and shotgun in the room above.
Then he heard a noise from down the east pipe. A shuffling. A scraping. It had only lasted a moment; too short for him to focus on it or even confirm he had actually heard it. In a panic he pulled the bullets from the pouch and tried to reload the pistol. He dropped one but loaded the other two.
He stared into the black of the tunnel, gun leveled. He stood for several minutes, perhaps a quarter-hour, staring into the darkness, never seeing anything. Finally, a sound from the room above broke him from the reverie. The rope was still secure, and he scaled it easily, slamming the grate closed behind him.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Richard B. Walsh