Mount Freedom National Park
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” I say, my throat choked with horror and emotion. “The. Absolute. Worst.”
I’m crouched against one end of my tiny two-person tent. At the other end is my sleeping bag: shiny, red, and currently harbouring a mutant escapee from some barren hellscape. I can’t see it, not anymore, but I know it’s there.
“Demi?” I hear Tara’s voice through the fabric wall. “Aren’t you up yet?” A moment later my coworker’s head sticks through the unzipped entrance. Her short, bleached hair is tousled, but her eyes are bright behind her glasses. Unlike me, she’s clearly been up for a while. “We need to pack up the tent, or the others will leave without us.”
That would be bad. I’m here on this ‘fun’, team-building camping trip so I can show my boss that my awesomeness extends beyond a computer screen and a headset – same as most of the other dozen people here. So being the last one ready (yet again) isn’t ideal. But I can’t overcome my current challenge, so I just point mutely at my sleeping bag.
“It’s not another spider, is it?” Tara asks, sounding unimpressed. “Because I said yesterday that I wouldn’t get rid of another one for you.”
“It’s not a spider.” I pause. “It’s an eight-legged hairy abomination the size of my palm.”
And it’s in my bed. In my BED.
Tara sighs heavily. “How old are you, Demi? Twenty-six, twenty-seven? Get rid of your own hairy abomination, alright?” She glanced emphatically over her shoulder to where a fair-haired guy with glasses is rolling up his tent, studiously not looking in our direction. “Or shall I call Connor over to help you out?”
I’m twenty-eight, actually. But she’s said the magic words to get me moving, since I’d rather be bitten by the bloody thing than have my ex remove it for me. (Yes, we still work at the same office, and yes, it’s awkward.) “Wait!” I blurt out. “I can…get rid of it…myself?”
I sound uncertain even to my own ears, but Tara seems to accept my words at face value. She shrugs, then gives me a friendly nod. “Go on, then. I’ll grab a coffee while I wait, then we can put the tent down together.”
I give her a thumbs-up along with a grin that feels more like a pained grimace.
Tara moves away from the tent, and my smile falls away as I stare at my hidden nemesis. I’ve worked with these guys for a year now, and I dated Connor for most of that time. I think I’ve put on a pretty good act in the office, pretending that nothing fazes me. Even our recent breakup was handled in a mature, sensible fashion, at least on the surface. But if I don’t deal with this thing myself, I’m going to be teased about it until I leave my job – and I’ve been hoping that Connor will go so I can stay.
Grumbling under my breath, I shuffle my way backwards out of the tent. I’m already wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt over my thermals, having well underestimated how cold it can get up here in the mountains even in the summer, and I shove my fluffy-socked feet into my sturdy boots. My blisters pang at the contact, and I take a moment to silently curse the boots I bought especially for this trip. Not only are they ugly – hardly comparing to my usual sneakers or low heels – but they’re as tough as an old saddle. After two days of walking, my feet feel like they’re more blister than skin.
I grab the end of my sleeping bag and drag it slowly out of the tent, as carefully as I’d move around a ticking bomb or a poisonous snake. I drag it right through the emptying campsite, full of a dozen others all industriously taking down tents or not-so-industriously sitting in fold-out chairs, sipping at what smells like hot chocolate.
“You alright?” Connor calls across to me. Of course he’s already finished his tent, and he’s the sort of guy who’ll offer to help his ex-girlfriend, and mean it too. Jerk. “You need a hand rolling up your sleeping bag?”
I fake-smile at him too. No, Connor, I do not need your help for anything. Anything at all. “I’m fine,” I reply casually. I don’t mention that it’s a spider, because then he’ll insist on helping. Out of everyone here, he knows that I’m a city girl, and I don’t like things that crawl.
I focus on finding somewhere safe to dispose of it where it won’t run into someone else’s baggage. It seems like there are folded tents and packs everywhere, so I find myself moving further and further away from everyone else, until finally I’m well away from the campsite and back at the well-worn path we’ll be continuing on today.
It’s early in the morning, in spite of certain people’s peppiness, and the path is right up against the edge of a low, boulder-filled ravine. Beyond the ravine is another stretch of rock, then the ground falls away entirely, revealing a fantastic view of this mountainous region, lightly covered by a veil of mist. At this time of the morning it feels fresh and unpolluted, and for a moment I grasp why people would purposely leave their homes and force their bodies out into the wilderness like this.
But there’ll be time for admiring the scenery later – now, it’s time to dispose of the mutant arachnid.
At the side of the path there’s a low fence, the sort that’s only an ancient piece of wood two feet higher than the ground. It’s more of a suggestion rather than an actual barrier, since the ravine doesn’t look at all dangerous. I ignore the sign reading, ‘CAUTION! DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER!’ and drag my sleeping bag right to the edge. I carefully lift it over the low fence, then gently shake it, trying to dislodge its occupant.
Nothing happens, and I wonder if I’ve already lost the spider. But just in case, I shake the sleeping bag harder, giving it a good jerk. It makes a sound like a sail catching the wind, and then a leggy black form comes skidding out of the opening and tumbles down into the ravine.
Success! I begin to cheer…just as the backlash from shaking the sleeping bag too hard pulls it right out of my hands and into the ravine.
I bite back the scream that nearly spills out, then slowly check behind me to see if any of the others spotted my colossal mishap. No one’s in sight, but there’s no time for relief. No one must know what I’ve done – this is worse than simply letting Connor deal with the spider in the first place.
My body is tense with determination as I lean over the low barrier. From here I can easily see my sleeping bag, its red shape outstretched over the massive boulders that fill the bottom of the ravine about fifteen feet below. The same boulders create an easy but awkward pathway to the bottom. Itt wouldn’t pay to fall in, but even rule-following Connor wouldn’t leave the sleeping bag down there.
“That would be littering,” I tell myself righteously. Also, I’d have no bedding, and that would really suck.
So I step right over the ‘DO NOT CROSS’ sign and begin the climb downwards.
Several minutes later I reach my sleeping bag. I grab it with a huff of satisfaction – step one in being a new, more capable Demi – then begin to quickly shove it into the attached carry-bag. It’ll be much easier to climb up again if I’m not dragging a six-foot-long pile of fabric with me.
But I’ve only just pulled the drawstring tight when I hear voices above me.
“Where’s Demi? I saw her come this way,” I hear Tara say.
“Probably gone to use the bathroom,” someone else replies. “It’s the last proper one till we finish the trail.”
I don’t recognize the second voice, but I lean against the side of the ravine, determined to stay out of sight. But the comment about the toilet situation makes me scowl. If scenic beauty (and impressing one’s coworkers) is a good reason to come, then the lack of facilities is a better reason to leave quickly. Even the ‘proper bathroom’ reeks.
Tara laughs. “City girl. If she hates the compostable toilet, then wait till she has to dig a hole in the ground.”
I stand still and indignant until I hear them move away. Tara’s probably the friendliest of all my coworkers, but she’s not exactly Bear Grylls herself. I don’t need her making fun of my struggles. I’m not that soft. I’m just civilized.
As their footsteps fade, I awkwardly try to climb back up the ravine. But I quickly realise that it’s a lot harder to climb out than it was to climb in. The boulders seem a lot slipperier from this angle, and I can’t get a foothold.
After several attempts I’m starting to panic, wondering if I’ll have to swallow my pride and call for help. Before we left for this trip my dad made me read about all of Mount Freedom’s known risks, including the fact that in the last thirty years, at least seven people have gone missing here.
The latest was a number of years ago; some college guy who went mountain-biking and was never seen again. They found the bike, but not a sign of him. I figured he’d been an idiot and wandered off the path, because how else do you go missing when everything’s so clearly signposted? But now…well, case in point. I desperately don’t want to become one of those missing idiots.
So I try moving a little way down the ravine to where some of the rock has formed an indented natural shelf. If I push myself up here, and crawl in here, I can get past the worst of the ditch.
I sit at the edge of the shelf to take a breather, my head on an angle so I don’t knock myself out, and with my precious sleeping bag’s drawstring cord looped over one wrist. I’m still very much hidden from sight, and very much not where I want to be. But it’s something.
In fact, from here this space almost looks like a partial cave. Someone could live down here, if they were really desperate for shelter and didn’t mind the climb. I even notice how inside the cave-ish section, the rock’s texture almost looks like writing.
Just then I feel a slight tickle on my hand. I look down to see a big, dark, hairy shape crawling across my fingers where they rest on top of the bundled sleeping bag.
I fling out my hand and the sleeping bag – and mutant spider – go flying away to land in the deepest section of the rocky shelf I’m sitting on. I let out a growl of frustration, since I know there’s no way my scream went unheard. I’m just going to have to explain what happened, try to make it sound like a joke, and practice having no dignity.
I crawl across the low rocky area, my bare palms pressing against the textured rock floor as I do so. By the time I reach my sleeping bag (again) I’ve realized that the rock isn’t naturally textured at all. The deep clefts and lines are precise enough that someone must have carved them here on purpose. It’s not writing of any kind I recognize; more like the kind of symbols aliens supposedly leave in cornfields.
I go to grab my sleeping bag, but as I move to get it, my other palm grazes across one of the carved symbols. There’s a sharp pain and my palm starts to bleed. I stare at it for only a moment, one hand on the sleeping bag, the other on the rock. Then a weight seems to press in on my head, the world swaying around me, and-
The room’s quiet when I wake up. Faint grey light streams through the high, narrow windows that we haven’t yet blocked in, telling me it’s morning. I can see two other small shapes huddled together nearby under the piles of patchwork cloth we call blankets. Jesse’s little face is exposed to the chill, so I gently tug the top layer up until it half-covers his dark curls.
The fire pit in the centre of the room has burned down to embers, so I take a moment to gently blow on it until they spark brighter. I place a single dry stick on the embers but don’t wait for it to catch.
Then I go about getting dressed in silent efficiency. I grab my makeshift armour and a hunk of breadish from the mostly empty bowl, and check once over my shoulder before heading out. I’ll put my armour on before I leave home base. I can’t risk Bianca waking up before I go – Jerrold’s disappearance is hard enough without having to deal with her tears on top of it. She’ll know where I am.
I make my way down winding tunnels irregularly lit by orange tubes along the ceilings and walls. There are piles of hoarded goods stacked all the way along, some of which I collected myself. Others could have been here for a hundred years but never found a use. That’s the trouble with living in the remains of a destroyed alien civilisation. Half the time we can’t even identify the things we find.
When I finally reach the compound’s northern exit, I take the time to methodically put on my armour from shins right up to helmet. I tighten each piece almost to discomfort, since I can’t risk them falling loose at a critical moment. Then I take my spear and lean against the door, listening for the telltale sounds of scavs on the other side.
I hear nothing but the wind, so finally I let myself out, setting a slab of wood against the door to avoid unwanted intruders. Scavs will make their way into any small space, but they aren’t very strong, so shouldn’t be able to force their way in.
The northern exit is closest to the Gate. That’s my first destination, since Jerrold had headed there yesterday when we last saw him. I quietly trudge along the rocky ridgeline in the same journey I’ve made a thousand times, watching out for any sign of movement on the steep hill below. Any shape or colour that will show what I’m looking for – an old man wearing Mad Max-style gear and with a Santa-sized beard – or what I’m avoiding, which is the plague-ridden creatures that inhabit this area.
Why did Jerrold have to insist on checking the Gate alone?
Why did I let him?
My mood is low, bordering on desolate as I scan every last cluster of rocks, every faint shadow that might hint at where he’s gone. Maybe he fell and twisted his ankle, and he’s hiding out till he feels strong enough to head back. That’d be the best-case scenario.
But I know the truth. This world is brutal even for those who are prepared, and it’s unlikely I’ll be bringing Jerrold home in one piece. The real best-case scenario is that I find him alive, if I can find him at all. But chances are he’s gone missing, just like Dominic did last year. Just like Sigge did the year after I arrived.
Well. We found Sigge eventually, not that it did him any good. Better to find a body, I think. Not knowing is the worst thing.
I huff out a soft, humourless laugh. No, the worst thing is watching our little group of survivors grow smaller year by year. No one’s come through the Gate since I arrived, and I’d love some company – preferably young and female – but that would be damning another poor soul to this same desperate existence.
And when has what I wanted ever made a difference, anyway?
I come up over the ridgeline to the open area where the Gate stands. Its tall, blocky pillars reach high into the air; the only noticeable sign of intelligent habitation in this area. It’s grey. The rock around it is grey too, as is the mist that fills the steep chasms on either side of the ridge.
A blob of red arrests my gaze. It’s right under the base of the Gate, between the two pillars, and I come to a halt. Surely it’s just a male scav with its colourful feathers, since there’s a horde of the dangerous animals living around here. But then I see it’s far too big to be a scav, and for a dismayed moment I think I’m staring at a battered human body.
But then it moves, and I realise in amazement that I’m looking at something quite different.