The Hunter in the Ruins
by Richard B. Walsh
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
A rusted ladder climbed the inside south wall of the fermentation chamber, opening to the roof, but the top hatch had been rusted shut. He slipped once on the worn rungs trying to break the hinges off, but his safety line caught him, and he eventually pushed the hatch outward and open into the bright sun.
Holes gutted the roof, masonry fallen through and exposing webs of rebar. A solar array sat far across the patchwork: a panel one foot long by one foot wide perched atop the thick stone palisade on the south edge of the roof, shielded by a heavy poly cover and attached to the roof with three steel mounts. It hung over the side of the stonework, but by lying on his back he could lean out over the edge and peer underneath.
The circuitry underneath appeared undamaged, and a power cable ran through an insulated metal sheathing that disappeared into the building. A small red light flashed regularly; he imagined it communicating to its counterpart on the console in the command deck. He returned there.
The power switch on the computer was a raised red button. It glowed lightly when he clicked it on. A fan behind the monitor started, blowing a cloud of dust through a vented plastic cover and emitting a faint burning scent, probably electricity passing through the brittle wires.
A cursor appeared in the upper left hand corner of the monitor. Script sailed past, much too fast for him to read, then a screen that locked in place.
FarmFresh Food Systems, LYNX Security Facilities Management. Version TX 4.34. loading...”
The screen abruptly changed. The cursor returned, but larger this time; the characters thicker and rounder. The background had changed from black to light blue and the cursor began slowly moving left to right, leaving a trail of letters.
LYNX START-UP COMPLETE. COMMAND?
The manual had mentioned this prompt. He flipped to the page of commands and carefully keyed in the first.
SOLAR ARRAY FULLY OPERATIONAL.
He scanned for other commands.
ERROR CODE 402: CRITICAL INPUT UNAVAILABLE.
Section 3 of the manual was “LYNX Hardware Installation”: 118 pages of overwhelming technical jargon. He paged through to the chapter “Error codes” and located Error Code 402. According to the manual, LYNX used sensors located throughout the facility to “intelligently manage security.” Most of these sensors were wireless and battery operated. They synced with the system hub and fed updates to the central application. ERROR CODE 402: LYNX could not find the minimum number of sensors necessary to intelligently analyze the facility’s security.
NO SENSOR ONLINE. ALL SENSORS OFFLINE.
sensor (all, shortdesc)
The screen displayed a list of sensors and locations. Most corresponded to room names the man recognized from his exploration of the facility. All of the sensors were missing or inoperable.
* * *
As he finished reading he became aware of the soft hum of the console, the light wisp of the computer fan. The hair on his arms stood up: the birds, always loud at midday, had quieted.
He nudged open the command room door. Each footfall crunched the gravel of the gangplank. He leaned forward and peeked over the rail. A large, long animal padded casually away through the undergrowth, away from him and toward the tanks. It paused its saunter on the soft turf between FERM 1 and FERM 2 and looked up, as if to sniff. The man ducked and flattened himself to the concrete, lying motionless in the dirt and debris of the gangplank.
It was stocky and low to the ground, jet black with auburn red brindling. Its muscled back was packed thick around its haunches. He imagined the three-inch tooth he’d found in the den. He imagined the deep, sharp imprints of its claws.
It was a nameless beast, one of the mutants that hunted the ruins. Some scavengers called it man-eater or wendigo or tiger-bull, but he knew this one as Predator, the creature that haunted his darkest visions.
The Remington was leaning against the interior frame of the door, just out of view, if he could get to it. This was his chance. In the bright sunlight of the chamber its blood, not his, would feed the ecosystem here.
He took a deep breath. His vision had narrowed; he couldn’t hear anything through the pulsing of blood in his temples. He pushed himself to his knees and backward toward the room. The stock of the shotgun slipped from his hands when he reached for it and he dropped it.
He fumbled with it again when he stooped and attempted to pick it up from the ground. The beast would be on him in a moment; the thought causing him more panic yet, and he abandoned the shotgun, rushing to close the door behind him instead.
But all was quiet on the floor of the chamber when he surveyed it through the windows. Predator had fled.
* * *
7 SENSOR ONLINE
check sensor instal
SENSOR INSTALLATION IN WEST DOCK SUCCESSFUL.
REPLACE SENSOR, NORTH WALL, STORAGE ROOM 37.
For two weeks, Suresh had replaced security sensors one by one according to the computer’s instructions. LYNX had directed him to a sealed crate of replacement sensors in a maintenance room and provided him schematics to guide him there. Many original sensors were still in place, and most of those undamaged, which seemed odd, given the conditions elsewhere in the facility.
Nonetheless, he replaced them at LYNX’s command and then checked back in at the console for more instructions.
He used the computer’s schematics to pinpoint the Predator’s den and mark the corresponding room on his own map. As he replaced the sensors and recalibrated them to LYNX’s hub, he thought through the problem of the Predator. It was too wary to be hunted but too dangerous to permit free range in the factory.
Perhaps, the man mused, LYNX could help him hunt.
Unfortunately, the computer had become an unreliable partner.
* * *
door (37, status)
DOOR 37 CLOSED AND LOCKED.
ADDITIONAL SENSOR REPLACEMENT NECESSARY.
In Fridley, the traders ran gambling parlors to take back the copper they’d traded to scavengers and hunters in the market. The man knew enough to hate the game rooms; he knew they were rigged, that a player only won when being strung along to lose even bigger in the end. Nonetheless he played them. He enjoyed catching up with the other scavengers and drinking the watered-down beer
LYNX had locked the door to STORAGE ROOM 37 after the man had installed a sensor there, as if it knew about the value of the cans within.
i can turn you off
STORAGE ROOM 37. CRITICAL INVENTORY.
what is in the Clean Room
LYNX COMMANDS NOW.
* * *
Suresh had not been back to the Clean Room since that second day in the factory. He entered the same way he had before: through the overhead hatch to the waiting room. The exits on both ends were still closed and locked.
The Clean Room door opened easily.
He tossed two lit torches into either side of the room and entered, shotgun ready. It was in pristine condition; very little rust, no moisture, the slightest buzz of airflow. The walls were lined with narrow shelves filled with lab equipment. High tables to the left and right, stacked with unused solar panels and installation tools, formed a middle aisle.
Beneath the left table, a pile of clothing. He approached carefully and prodded the heap with the point of his shotgun: shredded jacket, leather gear, and a desiccated skeleton. The dark stain of blood on the concrete beneath.
He turned to the right table. Some of equipment had been knocked down off the top, and among the debris on the floor lay a black leather military-issue boot: the match to the one he’d found in the den weeks before.
On the back wall a red light flashed intermittently. He walked forward and stooped before of it. A LYNX security sensor, still operational. He absently touched the replacement sensor in his pocket and looked back at the skeleton beneath the table.
Then at last he realized his error. That red light; the computer watching him. Calculating. Commanding.
Far distant, doors in the facility were unlocking and clanging open, and a high pitched noise, a siren, echoed off the walls, rising in volume, growing louder as it approached. Driving Predator toward him.
He’d stood up and steadied the shotgun when the sensor behind him emitted a squeal. He staggered forward between the tables, deafened and disoriented, and the Predator came into view around the corner.
The siren stopped then, and suddenly the Predator was on him, snapping at him, a claw in his chest, another on his shoulder. Its sweet, rotting breath choked him; its full weight bulled into him, knocking him down; he managed to hold on to the gun and pulled the trigger as jaws closed on his shoulder. The shotgun boomed and kicked out of his hands. The beast fell backwards, a wide flap of skin shorn from its side.
The man rolled to his right, under a table, on top of the gun, and then on to his back again, in time to see Predator charging. He didn’t have time to brace when he fired; the shotgun bucked into his gut, the heavy stock knocked the wind out of him as it dug in beneath the ribcage.
But the beast lay before him, dead, its face blistered by a tight circle of buckshot, blood draining to the center of the room.
He sat up, cradling his bruised midsection in his right arm. His left arm hung useless at his side. His hands were slick with blood from both shoulders and a smear of it trailed off him as he slid backward along the floor to the sensor. He pulled it from the wall, smashed it to pieces with his fist, and leaned back to rest.
Time slowed. He’d broken ribs, and the wound on his left shoulder burned. He imagined the rot of the beast’s breath on his face, knew that he would have to treat the wound soon before infection set in.
* * *
He pulled himself standing and limped back into the waiting room, retrieved his pack and fashioned a sling with a leather strap, then set to work figuring a means to get back to the chamber one-handed.
By the time he managed to pulley himself up, the sun had set, and the chamber was dark. His ribs ached and the bite burned inside the muscle of his shoulder. A cloud of phosphorescent insects hovered around the crust of FERM TWO.
Suresh laid down on the bed of turf between the tanks and fell into a restless sleep. He dreamt of blackness and fire and the flashing green cursor of the computer monitor. COMMAND, it typed.
The sky was slate gray when he awoke. The shoulder was sore and swollen and sensitive to the touch. He made his way to the rope ladder leading to the gangplank and the command room and climbed it slowly, painstakingly.
LYNX sat idle in the room. Its red light flashed. Even if it wanted to help him now, it could not. It could not summon an antibiotic or build him a fire. It could not boil water or open a new can of the paste or help him clean the beast’s carcass before the scavengers got to it. And of this he was sure as well: it could not repent.
* * *
The man lost track of the days he spent convalescing. He had stored sufficient water in the bridge to remain hydrated and applied all seven of the anti-infection derms he’d accumulated over the years. But there was still an ache in the shoulder, a dull reminder of the bite and the worry that something lurked there.
It would be best to see a doc in Fridley. A can of the paste could do for payment, and he would recruit a partner when he was there to help him transport the remainder of hoard back to the Freehold. The days resting gave Suresh time to meditate on the cycle of life and death in the ruins. Man hunting beast, beast hunting bird, bird hunting insect. And so on.
How did LYNX fit into this cycle? Perhaps there was nothing to contemplate, only a moment for regrets. It had been an opportunity lost, a partnership unfulfilled. The computer’s betrayal had revealed the folly of scavenging alone, but smashing it had yielded no catharsis and no liberation.
Copyright © 2015 by Richard B. Walsh